Your complimentary articles
You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.
You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please
Paul Gregory on How to End Packages and Bundling.
A major practical problem with democracy is how opinion can be organised and measured so that something resembling a general will, or a majority, or a consensus, can be identified. How can one possibly establish all the relevant opinions and values people hold? How can we find out how seriously and how consistently they hold them? The failure to recognise that this is by no means a straightforward matter gives rise to widespread confusion about what democracy is, or should be, and this confusion flows over into cynicism and discontent with democracy.
There is also a lack of clarity about the nature of political representation, and there are indeed ways in which the representative function essential to modern democracy can be – and regularly is – subverted. Hence, in practice, voters elect representatives on the strength of standardised packages of policies covering everything from abortion through to taxation passing through such widely divergent and controversial fields as education, health, transport, social security, the constitution, law & order, defence and foreign policy.
How realistic is it to suppose that most voters, or even a bare majority, are going to find that their diverse views, assuming that they do have views that they have thought through independently, are adequately reflected in one of a very few such wide-ranging packages? One might go on to ask how often there is likely to be an individual candidate, let alone several hundred, whose scope of knowledge and sense of judgement is such that they are worthy of trust on all of these issues. It would also have to be a person who had had the perseverance and personal qualities necessary to climbing the political ladder.
The policy areas that decide how people cast their vote vary enormously. Many will vote for one party rather than another on the strength of its economic policy, others on the basis of its education, or environmental, or foreign, or whatever policy. Hence even a very successful party cannot incontrovertibly claim a mandate for its policy on any one issue.
In this article I elaborate on these general problems, and close with a proposal on how they can be made manageable.
The mechanics of organising and measuring opinion
The number of issues on which relevant opinions may be held is indeterminately large. The number of people who might hold opinions is determinate, but still very large, and in the light of emerging considerations, people constantly change their opinions. In terms of sheer complexity this is akin to the seemingly intractable economic problem (now standardly handled by markets) of coordinating myriad consumer wishes, big and small, with the production and distribution of goods and services.
The solution is to use a system of representation. Instead of trying to directly reconcile the opinions of millions, a relatively small number of representatives discusses and votes on the issues. Generally speaking, representatives are elected, although other forms of selection are possible, for instance by drawing lots or by appointment. But a second-order problem arises of selecting a small number of candidates who are to stand for election as representatives.
The more candidates there are, the more likely it is that the persons eventually elected won’t be particularly representative of the wishes of the electorate. This is due to the conflict between voters’ preferred and compromise candidates. Elaborate systems can be used to refine the voting process, but these too come at a cost, not least of immediacy and simplicity. There is also the problem of second guessing, when the way people cast their vote is determined by their beliefs about how others will vote. (“Don’t waste your vote on X – he hasn’t a chance!”)
Candidates are selected by political parties and, if elected, are thought to owe a debt to those parties. Therefore an elected candidate is rarely entirely his own man (her own woman). But the hub of the difficulty lies elsewhere. Through the party, the candidate must undertake to represent a package of policies, rather than supporting some policies while distancing himself from others. This apparent conflict of conscience is bound to restrict the number of discriminating individuals who would wish to subject themselves to selection by a party.
Meanwhile, the heart of the problem for the rest of us is the package. Because there is party discipline, this aspect must be more crucial for the electorate than the personal qualities and opinions of the candidates. We are constrained to choose one of two or three or four packages. Some of us find ourselves regularly in a dilemma, and others can easily imagine the situation, where each package contains numerous and even mostly policies one finds objectionable.
The avenue open to persons who take affront at such bogus choice is to join a political party and seek to change the composition of the package. With much perseverance and time, it may occasionally be possible, in coalition necessarily with others, to bring about some changes. Usually this will involve some horse-trading, along the lines of offering to support someone else’s hobby horse if they support one’s own.
This is the kind of situation in which we find ourselves, more or less acutely, in the western democracies. Later I shall make a constructive suggestion of how we might move out of this impasse. But let us first look at the problem of how a representative democracy can get off the ground. What happens if there are no established political parties? Or when there is radical dissatisfaction with all the political parties?
Such a situation arises when a state must begin anew, from scratch as it were. Stark examples in the headlines are Iraq and Afghanistan, but western Germany in the late nineteen-forties and the emerging democracies of eastern Europe in the nineties faced problems of the same nature if not the same severity.
In these situations, there is arguably indeed no way in which a genuinely democratic process of representation can get off the ground from the start. What happens is that some form of representation does get started, but that this process cannot at the outset be democratic. Representatives may be appointed, for instance, by an outside power, or powerful groups can seek representation and form an oligarchy. At some later time, these individuals or parties can seek confirmation from the people, and their relative strengths may change. It is then possible, over a relatively long period of time, for democratic representation to emerge. But this is a historical process. An outside power may instigate and watch over such a process, but it is not possible even in principle to set up a genuinely representative democracy overnight, and this applies even if all the people concerned genuinely want such a democracy and the participants are broadly of good will.
This is not the counsel of despair it may seem. It is simply to distinguish between a system of representation and representative democracy. Representation is possible without the representative body being particularly representative of the wishes of the community as a whole, and such representation is no doubt better than autocracy. It is also a starting point from which democracy may, in the fullness of time, develop. (Similarly, democracy is possible without representation, as occurred in the city states of Ancient Greece, although there it excluded women, slaves and foreigners. Such direct democracy had its own problems, which need not concern us here, although we might consider the limitations and problems inherent in a system of referendums such as exists in Switzerland. But for purposes of modern government, there seems to be no democratic alternative to a system of representation, at least for most of the matters which an executive must decide.)
We are apt to confuse or conflate various other ideals which are related but nonetheless importantly distinct. Hence freedom of expression and freedom of the press are no doubt necessary for a functioning democracy, but their prevalence doesn’t necessarily mean that there is such a functioning democracy. The freedom to speak out does not mean the right to be heard. Nor is the existence of relatively free internal markets a guarantee of democracy, although it no doubt helps, with some observers arguing that in point of fact democracy requires economic liberty if it is to function properly in the long run. A thriving civil society, in the sense of people being able to organise themselves freely for a variety of cultural, economic and social purposes, is also no doubt a force for democracy, but again a civil society might exist in the absence of democratic government. Majority decision-taking is an appropriate procedure in many contexts, and is an essential ingredient in a democracy, but a democracy also involves the rule of law, respect for personal property and hence upholding the interests of minorities in defiance of majority wishes. ‘Democratic’ is not synonymous with the ‘right of the majority,’ and, notwithstanding the prestige the word enjoys, ‘democratic’ is not the same as ‘good,’ any more than ‘egalitarian’ is.
Let us return to the key issue in this survey of the nature of representative democracy, the fact that we are called on to vote for packages of policies. Those who are satisfied with the status quo will contend that what we vote on are general principles or philosophies, from which the specific policies are derived. At times in the past this may have been broadly so, and in some circumstances it may still hold true. But as parties align themselves ever more closely on the muddled middle ground, the defence is unconvincing. Besides, legislation and government today are concerned with a much wider scope of issues than was the case, say, seventy years ago.
It might alternatively be argued that we vote for individuals; again, there was a time when this was true, and technically it often still is. In sociological terms, too, many people doubtless do vote for a person they can put a face to rather than the package of policies found in the manifesto, although they may well vote for a proxy who is expected to support the national leader of their choice. As party discipline restrains what most politicians say, one may be sceptical about the substance of the claim that we vote for individuals. And in any case, we might doubt whether it is desirable for politics to be dominated by personalities and media impact rather than debate about the policies in hand.
Packages are not universally to be decried, but there are some packages which are an imposition. It is a situation we encounter increasingly in the marketplace: often one is constrained to buy a package of services or goods where it has artificially been made impractical or too costly or time-consuming to select exactly what one wants. ‘Bundling’ is a standard sales promotion tool. Some of us sometimes feel cheated, and we might speak of a distortion of the market or outright market manipulation.
In politics, bundling or packaging works at a number of levels. At the level of grand electoral strategy, the major political parties often attempt to capture the centre ground. They water their principled policies down, secure in the knowledge that most of their loyal adherents will have no choice but to vote for them anyway. Hence a manifesto may be finely tuned to win just enough support from the waverers in the electorate (the floating vote) to win a majority. In practice, a small minority of voters decide the outcome, and it is to this minority that the major political parties address their appeal. Depending on the details, it may seem that this is not objectionable: politics is after all about constructing majorities, making compromises and securing a measure of consensus. It might also be seen as the mechanics whereby the democratic process can give voice to – and protect – minorities.
However, bundling or packaging also works at the level of winning the support of special interest groups. Whereas most people may cast their vote on the strength of how the parties have handled or promised to handle the economy, or exceptionally on some other issue of universal concern, there are minorities for whom, on the basis of conscience or a specific special interest, it is peripheral policies that count. Examples would be abortion, animal rights, private schooling, support for the arts, and so on. Individual candidates or the party as a whole may seek to canvass these special interest votes.
These are cases of bundling, or packaging, that we are generally familiar with. But the focus of my constructive criticism is that, because our various elected assemblies and parliaments each cover the whole range of political concerns, it is impossible for voters to choose representation separately for the major spheres of concern such as defence, education, foreign affairs, development aid, health, transport, energy policy and the environment, or for that matter intensely personal ethical issues such as abortion and euthanasia. It is true that these topics are handled by parliamentary committees made up, presumably, of experts, but the point is that the committees are chosen by the representatives via their parties and not directly by the electorate. It is against this background that people resort to demonstrations and other public relations exercises, which are an inefficient and – dare I say it? – often uncivil and dubiously democratic means of bringing pressure to bear.
Separately elected, specialist assemblies
The obvious solution is to directly elect separate assemblies to decide on clearly defined and separable policy areas. These would be different in different countries, because some issues are controversial and problematic in one nation but not in another. For instance, in the United Kingdom housing is a hot topic which over decades politicians have failed to address effectively, but in many other countries it is not a problem of the same magnitude. It might make sense to have housing and transport covered by a single assembly, since the transport people require is connected with where they live and where they work. Energy policy and environmental policy would also naturally fit together. Of course, there would sometimes be demarcation disputes between the assemblies. Possibly some issues, such as when and where to build roads or new rail links, would have to be decided jointly by two assemblies, or subject to review by a second assembly.
A special case would be the handling of finance and taxation. But this overriding policy area would need to be left in the hands of the main assembly, whose tasks would include approving the allocation of funds to specific ministries. One could moreover envisage the main assembly being empowered to overrule decisions of the sub-assemblies where these affected substantially the application of funds. For instance, if the education assembly voted to halve university funding in order to spend the money on primary schools, the main assembly might be empowered to overrule this, but would not be competent to speak on matters of the syllabus or teaching qualifications.
I should like to briefly address two minor objections. One is the expense that these extra chambers would cause. The short answer here is that one should consider rather the costs incurred, often over decades, by policy failures which have arguably come about through a lack of proper democratic control.
Elected chambers for specific jurisdictions would, moreover, produce a counter-weight to the influence of bureaucrats and other vested interests: these could be called to account far more effectively than they can at present by an often short-lived minister or a part-time, unelected committee. Here, too, the potential savings would far exceed any costs of running the assembly.
There is of course no guarantee that such chambers would make the right decisions or the best decisions. But neither is there any reason to suppose that their decisions would be in any way inferior to those that at present are taken more autocratically. The present system, a mixture of horse-trading and high-handedness, practically guarantees poor decisions being ridden rough-shod over those who are disenfranchised.
There is also the consideration that, with elected, focussed chambers, citizens as a whole would understand precisely that they themselves bear responsibility for how things go.
A second objection to separate specialist assemblies is that voter turnout might well fall below an already low level. This objection rests on a misconception of the nature of the obligation to participate in the democratic process. The short answer, here, is that only those interested and concerned by the matters in hand should vote. It is likely that an education assembly would be elected by a disproportionate number of teachers, parents and students, while elections to a transport assembly would attract a disproportionately high turnout of commuters. This would be no bad thing. It is not particularly desirable that persons who are uninterested and relatively unaffected by the area of concern should vote. A low turnout might merely speak for the quality of the opinions registered. Society is necessarily made up of people who are different, and whereas some individuals, by dint of their nature and capabilities, may have a moral obligation to engage in politics, others may contribute to society in completely different ways. People who are extrovert (by nature) have a duty to be outgoing (in practice), and such people are needed, but this does not mean that introverts are likewise under an obligation to be good mixers.
In one sense, we already have something like the system I am proposing. Local and, sometimes, regional affairs have historically been decided by separately elected assemblies. But the complexity of society and of government has increased exponentially, so that the relative scope and impact of the decisions made by local assemblies has declined, while many responsibilities have passed, normally with good reason, to more central authorities. In the early part of the twentieth century, education, health, welfare and transport came under the auspices of private charities, local government or private corporations. In the course of the century, jurisdiction for these matters passed increasingly to central government and its bureaucracy. There was a corresponding increase in taxation, but no refinement of the democratic process.
If as a society we claim to be democratic, we should at least set an example by seeking to be seriously democratic. At present it is difficult, in the face of bogus alternatives, for a conscientious elector to cast any vote at all. The electorate as a whole has no way of obtaining effective representation on numerous broad policy areas; it has little more than a say in the ideological weighting of the government, on a one-dimensional scale of right and left. Systems of representation that were set up decades or even centuries ago, and even then were flawed, have steadily been subverted by party organisations and their inevitable recourse to packaging. The solution of separate specialist assemblies would enable the electorate, through their representatives, to express focussed opinions on the topics of the day. It would also eventually produce a different party landscape. Separate political parties would arise dedicated to specific policy areas. The informal and strictly undemocratic influence of pressure groups would give way to formal representation. Indeed, pressure groups might see a way ahead in campaigning for the establishment of just such assemblies.
© PAUL GREGORY 2004
Paul Gregory is a financial translator living in Berlin.