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Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.


* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

25 Responses to “Democratic Service and Repair”

  1. Eddie Clark on September 14th, 2009 at 18:44

    First – Yay, Calexico reference. Very much like that song.

    Second – this is why I think Government consultations are important. And, if you don’t mind, Lew, I’ll bung my rant about consultation in here, cos it fits. (In the context of submissions, active involvement etc)

    Consultations are inter-election opportunities for the populace to engage with policy makers. Whether its Select Committee hearings, submissions to review panels, or the far more common consultations on changes to regulations and administrative rules, its a chance to have a say. And the law enforces that chance – it is a judicially reviewable error of law to conduct an improper consultation (when consultation is required by law, and in a limited set of other circumstances). In short, the law compels decision makers to maintain a genuinely open mind, consider all submissions, and not reach a final decision until after such genuine consideration. Obviously there are problems proving this, but decisions have been overturned on this basis in the past (for example Pharmac was forced to reconsult on its Herceptin decisions, before J Key et al absurdly took the decision out of their hands).

    This consultation has both instrumental and non-instrumental advantages. From an instrumental perspective, you can see consultation as an extension of process rights – the theory being that people will be more willing to accept laws if they’ve had a fair chance to comment, even if they disagree with the substance. Further, the people who are most likely to submit on law/rule changes are those seriously affected by them and also those most likely to have the specialist knowledge that government might not have. Submissions from those people can therefore help improve the quality of regulation.

    This, though, doesn’t tell the whole story. The instrumental benefits can be gained through engagement only with a narrow group of industry participants and various representative NGOs. Submissions from the wider public – the ‘third circle’, if you will, aren’t usually particularly useful, because they often don’t know what they’re talking about on many policy issues. However, from a non-instrumental perspective, wide consultation improves the legitimacy of regulations and administrative rules. Those rules can affect more people than most primary legislation, and yet most are obscure and there’s no real electoral recourse in relation to executive rules. So genuine civic engagement with the process can help address these democratic concerns.

    I agree that the problem is getting more than a narrow sector of society to engage here. Obviously, the principled justification for consultation (which I think is important) holds more water if you have a wider group of people providing submissions. There are plenty of NGOs who play intermediary roles here, but they don’t really do a very good job. Sure, they make (usually) coherent submissions ‘on behalf of’ the interests they represent, but a lot of NGOs purport to represent a far greater sector of society than their actual membership, including people who’ve never heard of them. When they go beyond this, its usually trite, unhelpful crap like postcard campaigns on things like animal welfare and other emotive issues. I would love it if there was more effort to publicise these things, by both Govt itself and NGOs, and say “hey, here’s a simple explanation of what’s being proposed, here are some questions to focus your response – what do you think and why?” Then you might get more, and more useful, engagement from the third circle.

    The ‘second circle’ shouldn’t purport to carry out the general populace’s engagement for them. Instead, it should try to empower people to take advantage of the many, many opportunities our government provides (they’re far from perfect, but pretty good from an international perspective).

    Gah. That’s a long ramble. If you want more (and more coherently constructed) rambling, Lew, I can email you my LLM thesis :P.

  2. Jack on September 14th, 2009 at 19:42

    I’m hearing Johnsonville. No, wait; Tawa.

  3. Phil Sage (sagenz) on September 14th, 2009 at 20:00

    for example Pharmac was forced to reconsult on its Herceptin decisions, before J Key et al absurdly took the decision out of their hands).

    Eddie – You seem to be suggesting that civil servants should follow popular will rather than government policy and elected politicians should hide behind unelected civil servants in making unpopular/popular decisions.

  4. Eddie Clark on September 14th, 2009 at 22:09


    Not at all. To go even further into the case law on consultation, it is very clear that consultation is merely that – not negotiation. The final decision right remains with the executive decision-maker, but they are required to genuinely listen before they decide. If what you say makes them reconsider, then they ought to change their minds. This, to me, is only proper – governments are there to govern, but they govern for us so we should at least be listened to.

    As for the specific point you raise, the reason that the Nats’ antics on Herceptin are objectionable are because they refused to make clear the budget tradeoff that they made. They effectively cut funding for other health services in order to fund herceptin, without considering the net health benefits. Pharmac was unable to do that – it took the best expert advice, listened to public comment, and made a decision based on that feedback, within the statutory framework they operate in. The courts found that their first consultation was inadequate, so they solicited more comment, wrote a response paper to it, and reached another decision.

    So yes, undermining public confidence in Pharmac, a system which gives NZ some of the cheapest essential drugs in the western world (e.g. in Canada going to the Dr is free, unlike NZ, but there is virtually no drug subsidisation), is ridiculous. But it doesn’t actually bear more than peripherally on the point you raise.

  5. Hugh on September 15th, 2009 at 00:02

    Not at all. To go even further into the case law on consultation, it is very clear that consultation is merely that – not negotiation. The final decision right remains with the executive decision-maker, but they are required to genuinely listen before they decide.

    So you would prefer a government that realised that what it wanted to do was repugnant to the vast majority of its citizens but went ahead and did it anyway than a government that pushed such a policy through due to genuine lack of awareness of how it would be recieved?

  6. Eddie Clark on September 15th, 2009 at 07:22

    So you would prefer a government that realised that what it wanted to do was repugnant to the vast majority of its citizens but went ahead and did it anyway than a government that pushed such a policy through due to genuine lack of awareness of how it would be recieved?

    Short answer – yes.

    Longer answer, that’s the way process rights work. And its the way politics works. Sometimes people who pass policy you disagree with are in power. Are you really suggesting that (a) ignorant government is preferable or (b) every administrative decision should be subjected to a california-style, bankruptcy inducing popular referendum? At least with an open process you have a chance to convince them they wrong or, more likely, make some suggestions to do what you think will blunt the worst edges of it.

  7. What would Hayek say on September 15th, 2009 at 10:03

    Big ups to Lew for the original posting and then Eddie for his rant. Eddie is largely right the only quibble I have is that a better example than hercepton funding on judical review and consultation is the case of the Whangamata Marina. Whether you agree or disagree on the project the legal action taken by the Marina society (with Chen and Palmer as counsel) to review the decision making process by the then Minister for Conservation Chris Carter is one of the best examples I’ve come across of nailing a Minister for basic incompetence.

    With herception the story is more that Pharmac was gently asked to reconsider it analysis process in light of a strong campaign by a lobby group but with the then government unwilling to take a stand and either back the pharmac process or admit that lobby groups can be effective rent seekers and sway decision makers.

    Back to the main article after the diversion, I would be careful to say that the public is apathetic or unengaged (and I note Lew is saying that they are not). It would be interesting to check any historical sources of evidence that says a larger (% of popn) was previously engaged in politics. Im left with the sneaking suspicion that most people often are busy getting on with there lives, and looking at the aggregate picture when making electoral decision, with specific issues providing litmus points to indicate wider socities broader perspective. The reason for this as Lew and Eddie point out is that for many day to day actions of government there is a lot technical discussion (which does have important implications for people) which is not well communicated in a way that allows a busy mum or dad to make an informed decision. And some things also aren’t worth the time for example aircraft regulation changes that amend the nut sizes required on light planes (seriously aside from pilots do we really care about that much detail? – yes safety matters but there is more to do in life).

    Lew – On the comment second circle elites frequently blaming the electorate – you wouldn’t be making a dig at a number of commentators (and blog writers) on various left and right wing blogs by any chance.

    So again good work to Lew and Eddie.

    PS Lew – any thoughts on the road to redemption for the All Blacks?

  8. Lew on September 15th, 2009 at 10:15

    Eddie, thanks. Still think you should consider a guest post, though :)

    Submissions from the wider public – the ‘third circle’, if you will, aren’t usually particularly useful, because they often don’t know what they’re talking about on many policy issues.

    This is at least partly a consequence of the engagement-frustrating democratic model under which we operate – non-elites tend to exclude themselves from the process precisely because the model puts them at a disadvantage and because they are given to believe that their contribution will be worthless. As a consequence, bills get passed with gaping idiotic flaws because sufficient public attention isn’t paid to them. The EFA is probably the case in point. This was a battle between (largely self-serving) elites on both sides, in which the favour of the electorate was the prize — but neither side really tried to actively engage the third circle, and as a consequence people don’t really know what was wrong with the EFA, they just know they don’t like it (because the Free Speech Coalition and its allies won the propaganda battle). This means that the polity is vulnerable to similar exploitation in the future.

    Or, at the other extreme, people become temporarily aroused by a particular issue (or propaganda around an issue) and submit on it without first understanding the issue, or without having any background in it – Keisha Castle-Hughes on climate change would fall into this category for me. A stronger culture of political engagement which permitted her to be more immersed in environmental policy discourse would have made her less of a rent-a-star. I’m not advocating for common sense and uncommon nonsense to be given the same standing in public discourse; I’m advocating for a system which simultaneously doesn’t dismiss uncommon nonsense out of hand, and encourages people to back their common sense with understanding and learning and context.

    The ’second circle’ shouldn’t purport to carry out the general populace’s engagement for them. Instead, it should try to empower people to take advantage of the many, many opportunities our government provides (they’re far from perfect, but pretty good from an international perspective).

    I entirely agree, and I don’t think I made this at all clear enough in the OP. One of the sticking points here is that second-circle elites believe that this sort of cultural change will render them redundant, or rob them of control over the process, and to an extent it will. But that is no sound reason to retain their white-knuckled grip.

    Short answer – yes.

    I’m thrilled you said this, and I agree entirely.


    Neither J’ville nor Tawa qualify as exurbs – they’re both within the Wellington City Council boundary!

    I wrote the bones of this post on one train ride from said exurb into the city. You do the maths.


  9. Lew on September 15th, 2009 at 10:33


    I would be careful to say that the public is apathetic or unengaged (and I note Lew is saying that they are not).

    I’m not saying they’re not apathetic and unengaged; I’m saying that things could be worse. The embers smoulder yet, all that’s needed is fuel and oxygen.

    Lew – On the comment second circle elites frequently blaming the electorate – you wouldn’t be making a dig at a number of commentators (and blog writers) on various left and right wing blogs by any chance.

    Yes; here, in Australia, the USA and (to an extent, though it’s yet to really break through the surface) in the UK. But in a sense, it’s part of what self-serving second-circle elites do – justify their existence and shift blame in the hope of surviving the inevitable cycle of purges, schisms and rationalisation which follows a drastic political realignment. This isn’t a bad thing in itself – it’s important that institutional knowledge be retained and that good people are not scapegoated, and also important that political movements not lose themselves in cringing apologia. But there is a lack of critical distance, and that’s a problem.


  10. Tom Semmens on September 15th, 2009 at 12:02

    I don’t have a problem with the elites – or leadership class I suppose – leading. After all, isn’t that the point of an expensive education, relative affluence and intelligence? All the fake egalitarianism in the world won’t change the nature of the elites, or the fact they have an important role in society. But the thing is that leadership class has to come from somewhere and be grounded in something.

    The first point is that outside of the junkies and professional political elites even the non-political elites nowadays need to work 60 hours a week to stay afloat. It is a practical reality that a forty-something upper-middle class couple with three school-age children and working two jobs simply won’t have the time for any real political engagement beyond maybe their local school. Debt also cripples political engagement. Go to a stop work meeting of workers in the 60-70K PA bracket. Mention a strike – or any sort of action that will raise their profile with management – and you can see them all mentally calculating how many mortgage payments, the credit card payment, the HP’s, they could afford before the money runs out or what would happen when, funnily enough, the next round of redundancies sees all the union men gone. We need to allow people the time and give them the money to engage politically, because they would if they could.

    I would propose making the day of general & local body elections a public holiday like Xmas day – everything must stop for democracy. Make it a celebration of our right to vote with street parties and concerts. Keep voting voluntary, but issue everyone who votes with an official “I voted card” which they have to present to their employer to claim the day’s pay. Sure – have the day off – TO VOTE! The potential to losing a days pay would do wonders for voter turnout IMHO.

    Secondly, I would make working for non-profit organisations (everything from Boy Scouts to the National Party, the Catholic Church to school working bee’s, from working the bar at a squash club to coaching rugby at the local primary school) grounds for a tax rebate. Simply register the organisation with the IRD and upon the completion of, say, 210 hours per annum of voluntary work and get the paperwork and bingo – you can claim back at the minimum wage rate of $12.50. Max it out at, say, $3,000.

    The second point is the problem of elite cadre parties which eschew democratic involvement, of groups which are not grounded in anything. True leadership in a democracy involves taking people on the journey with you. Otherwise you end up with what I call the “Bradford” model of leadership – a lazy lecturing of anyone who disagrees with them from an assumed position of considerable moral hubris. This type of imposed leadership is particularly endemic in the Green Movement/Party (tellingly, a middle class phenomenon with no grounding in a traditional mass movement of any kind). This sort of imposed leadership simply makes people resentful to the point where they would rather cut their noses off to spite their face than agree with you, and they disengage even further. It is what I think most New Zealanders mean when they talk about the “nanny state”. Proper leadership from people who come from somewhere and belong to something will lead to greater engagement by everyone.

  11. Brent on September 15th, 2009 at 12:41

    I am a part of the third circle. I used to take my civic responsibility seriously, for example, always sending in a submission on the Auckland City Council plans.

    The ACC (under John Banks) planned to sell the Auckland Airport shares, and only a tiny fraction of submissions supported it (1.2% from memory), but they went ahead and tried to sell them anyway. There was no legal ramifications to this blatant ignoring of consultation. It showed that the “consultation process” is merely a sop to the public, and they can do whatever they want to anyway, with no repercussions.

    So, I have not bothered to waste my time on submissions since then. At least that saves the council some money by not having to process it.

  12. Eddie Clark on September 15th, 2009 at 13:12


    Quick quibbler with your quibble. I know the original decision was overturned on the basis of inadequate consultation – I’ve read the high court decision!

    The wishy washy government response happened after they made their second decision following the court mandated additional consultation. As it happened, they didn’t materially change their minds as a result of the extra submissions but as I said, hey, that’s a process right for you.

  13. What would Hayek say on September 15th, 2009 at 13:19

    Eddie – Sorry then for the small quibble, I missed the points about the next steps. As said otherwise enjoyed your comments.

  14. Ag on September 16th, 2009 at 17:59

    Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics.

    Have you ever considered that this is what democracy looks like? There is a fantasy common to both the left and right that free citizens with the ability to vote will spontaneously form large politically aware voting coalitions. They won’t. One of the reasons that left wing policies were more popular is that unionism was widespread and compulsory, so that many working class people were compelled to partake in political discussions (at my father’s old job there were many more or less compulsory meetings where union officials would converse with the membership). Alas, those days are gone.

    By causing voting to occur the context of a a private, individual choice, much like one’s choice of coffee brand, each person’s vote is lessened in power. It is only as part of organized interest coalitions that people maximize the power of their vote. The first season of Survivor is a good case in point. The guy who won was the one who was best at forming a coalition, and the organized coalition voted everyone else out.

    But most people won’t do this on their own. They need to be compelled to join such organizations, because it is in each person’s interest to skive off and hope someone else will do it. Hence, everyone loses. Unions used to serve this function, and I guess compulsory community associations might work, but I can’t see those ever being popular, because people are lazy.

    In the end, this is what a democracy of free voters, where political participation is optional, looks like. All that is to say that democracy doesn’t really work that well unless there is a fair degree of top down compulsion for people to get involved in political organizations. But nobody wants to do that, and instead argue that the freedom to withhold oneself from the political process is sacrosanct because freedom is sacrosanct.

    People defending democracy are strangely like those who defended communism. When it is pointed out that the reality bears little relation to common sense beliefs about how the political system is working, they just don’t want to listen.

    What we call democracy doesn’t really work. Personal freedom and democracy are incompatible. There, I said it.

  15. Lew on September 16th, 2009 at 20:20

    Ag, I really don’t agree with it, but what a good comment nonetheless.

    Have you ever considered that this is what democracy looks like?

    I have, at very great length and I think reports of democracy’s death are generally greatly exaggerated. I also reject the notion of a golden age of engagement to which you refer. But there is a value judgement built into my post, as there is in yours, that there is an optimal level of engagement and literacy which is greater than that which currently exists, and I think I make the case quite clearly for it. Coercion doesn’t come into it at all — while I think it’s capricious to say that freedom and democracy are incompatible, I agree that coerced democracy is neither properly free nor properly democratic. But my argument is that political engagement and literacy is an end itself, not just a means, because it results in a higher standard of policy — policy which, in principle, meets the needs of the polity better. If people don’t want that, then fine; but indications are that they do, they just don’t know how to go about getting it, or don’t feel as if they are able to influence the process. To an extent this is true — they can’t. Because engagement and literacy is also good for political movements which want widespread support better policy, it behooves their agents to facilitate and promote this engagement, for their own sake as well as for that of the polity.

    I accept that this is idealistic, but it is a theoretical rather than a practical treatment of the topic. I’m not pretending that pixies can just make democracy function by promoting engagement and literacy, but I’m arguing that these are necessary if not sufficient conditions, and conditions which advantage political movements as well.


  16. What would Hayek say on September 17th, 2009 at 11:53

    Ag – I fundamentally disagree with you.

    What we call democracy doesn’t really work. Personal freedom and democracy are incompatible. There, I said it.

    I’m quite aghast at your statement which is essentially an argument for rule by philosopher kings (and a very dismal view of humanity). I’d rather not give up on people but seek ways that help to connect with people better – its intellectually lazy to just give up.

    I’ll leave it at that and say that Lew more eloquently expresses my view.

  17. Pascal's bookie on September 17th, 2009 at 13:12

    WwHs, I didn’t read it that way at all. Rather I thought Ag was suggesting that for real democracy to work, involvement needs to be compelled in some way or another. Without such invovlement what you get is a democracy of the uninvovled which will always be ruled by the elites.

    In any case, aren’t you just regecting his argument because you don’t like the cosequences of his conclusions?

  18. Bruce Hamilton on September 17th, 2009 at 16:34

    As a member of the third circle, I’d wonder at some characterizations. Perhaps local politicians are treated more sympathetically by local media, so I’m not polarized by them as much as national politicians.

    Politicians and political parties aren’t high my esteem list, right down their with drug-pushing gangs – which they seem to mimic in structure ( prospects, novices, associates ) and style ( either friend or foe ).

    Politicians have minders who appear every bit as ruthless as gang enforcers to criticism. Reading some of the political blogs also assures me that I don’t want to be a fellow traveller in the bullseye or next circle.

    Consultation is a political honey trap for most citizens, once you participate, you’re compromised by the decision – ” we listened carefully, and this is the optimal solution”. Any further intervention would be in lawyers’ playgrounds. It’s easy for factions to denigrate the skills/knowledge/relevance of casual citizens.

    I don’t blindly trust the media, but my political information comes via that media. Home and workplace mealtime discussions, if still held, are sanitised because causing offence is severely punished.

    Individual media outlets no longer attempt to offer impartial balance, they have mutated to the opinions of their overseas owners. They assume their readers/listeners know their political position – eg Newstalk ZB appears to be a euphemism for Fox radio. The perceived Internet anonymity prevents rational assessment of posters’ credentials and agendas.

    Should I have an opinion on something, speaking out publically doesn’t win friends ( John Key’s response to Keisha Castle-Hughes ), and carries significant risk. It’s virtually impossible for a typical employee to dissociate their own opinions from the interests of their employer, as modern employment contracts often cover non-work public behaviour.

    I’m unlikely to find a political entity that matches my needs for 3 years, so I choose the least worst option, but that’s democracy. If I was able to enforce a policy change, another voter with an opposing stance who also supported that entity may justifiably feel deceived.

  19. What would Hayek say on September 17th, 2009 at 17:41

    PB – unless AG provides a clarification of the statement

    What we call democracy doesn’t really work. Personal freedom and democracy are incompatible. There, I said it.

    it is pretty hard to read anything else into it other than Ag considers that personal freedom and democracy as incompatible – if its about involvement being compelled e.g a fine for not voting that maybe slightly different. But that is not the statement. In fact if you want to add context to it the following words “there, I said.” is very confessional and only makes the statement seem more ominous.

    A different statement could be – I support personal freedom but can see that this could cause problems for democracy due to apathy etc, or I support democracy but see this has problems for personal freedom through potential for oppression of minorities. None of this is provide by AG.

    I await clarification. But till then, I can concerned by the statement from AG. And yes I reject AG’ sargument because the conclusion (that either personal freedom or democracy have to be curtailed) leads to a potentially very unhappy place.

  20. Pascal's bookie on September 17th, 2009 at 21:57


    I get the context for my reading of it from the second, third, and fourth para’s.

    It seems to me that Ag is saying that what we call democracy (ie the democracy that actually exists), doesn’t really live up to the idea of democracy that we talk about. And that in order to live up to that idea, ( if we wanted to) we would need to curtail people’s freedom to be apathetic, complacent and lazy. Because you can’t have both.

    Ag’s fifth para predicts your response as I see it.

    Ag is not (I think) proposing that we should be ruled by philosopher kings, but arguing that we don’t actually have the democracy we like to think we have, and that when that gets pointed out to people, they um, become aghast.

    And yes I reject AG’ sargument because the conclusion (that either personal freedom or democracy have to be curtailed) leads to a potentially very unhappy place.

    I think s/he is arguing that we are in one of those states already, but pretending that we are not. In saying that, I think the ‘curtailed’ phrasing doesn’t work in my reading, in that curtailing implies the state or someone actively stopping something.

    Rather, I read the argument as concluding that we live in a state where we have the freedom to not become involved, and this means that democracy, (in the engaged active citizenry sense) won’t happen.

  21. Ag on September 18th, 2009 at 05:44

    I was going to post a long reply, but PB basically has it. I’ll just add a couple of things.

    1. Politics in a democracy has to be a civic duty, not a civic option. Like jury duty, you cannot give people the freedom not to participate and expect good results. People will tend to free ride for a start.

    2. The notion that we could educate people to be better citizens or “change the culture” is so hackneyed and old I’m surprised anyone believes it.

    3. Fining people for not voting is not good enough. It isn’t that people don’t vote, but how they vote that is the problem. If people vote as individuals the power of their vote is lessened. If they vote as part of coalitions, they become more powerful. That is one reason interest groups tend to capture political debates. For example, compulsory unionism used to serve the function of compelling working class people to participate in politics and it amplified the power of their vote.

    4. Some sort of compulsory community associations would be the only thing I could think of to fix it. Otherwise, we’ll just get the same old crap and it isn’t worth voting.

    I’d add that unless people are prepared to unsparingly criticize democracy, belief in it is just an act of faith.

  22. What would Hayek say on September 18th, 2009 at 07:49

    Ag – thanks for the response, there is some of your comment to agree with or think about.

    My comment is that on point 3 there is considerable public choice theory (and regulatory economics) literature on collective voting/lobbying by interest groups. Whilst there maybe some advantages it can be too easy for collective groups to sway decision making rather than provide good societal decisions.

  23. Ag on September 18th, 2009 at 21:16

    Whilst there maybe some advantages it can be too easy for collective groups to sway decision making rather than provide good societal decisions.

    They will no matter what because it works. That means everyone has to be a member of some interest group to make sure that they maximize the power of their vote, or from the other point of view, that the power of everyone’s vote is maximized. There is no alternative in a society that allows people the option of forming interest groups.

    Mass membership political parties used to serve this function, but New Zealand’s political parties are now more like brands looking for customers than civic interest groups, and voters are more like customers than citizens.

    The problem is that the functions of government are supposed to be a fix for market failure, and having a democracy that is a market for votes is like pouring gasoline on the fire.

  24. […] article, too, by British Labour MP James Purnell, which touches on a few things I’ve been thinking about recently. Purnell identifies three initial steps toward fulfilling Lincoln’s “of […]

  25. […] narrative which saw Clark Labour ejected from office in 2008 was ‘out of touch’, and I wrote in September 2009 that the way forward was for the party to start listening to the electorate again. John disagreed. […]

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