Thursday, June 16, 2011

Power Versus Truth - The Role Of Argument In Deliberative Democracy

We argue that one of the functions of reasoning is to produce epistemic improvement through deliberation.
Hugo Mercier and Helene Landemore, "Reasoning is for arguing: Understanding the successes and failures of deliberation", in press
The journal article about which I wrote yesterday has a kind of companion piece. One of the co-authors, Hugo Mercier, has teamed up with another co-author to investigate the fruitfulness of the argumentative theory of reason for explaining certain findings in political science. Like the explanation of the theory in the prior piece, the results are intriguing, although certain questions are begged that, I believe, would be more clearly addressed if we altered our view of the goal of politics.

The theory used in the paper in question (a .pdf document available for download and print) is the theory of "deliberative democracy", set forth by a variety of theorists, including Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls (cited in text). Mercier and Landemore write of this theory:
The questions that political scientists are trying to answer are, for example: Does deliberation have the transformative properties deliberative democrats claim it has on citizens' preferences? If a transformation is observed, can it be said to promote the betterment of citizens' preferences, whether this betterment is understood in terms of civic-mindedness, coherence, information, or some other sense?
The elephant in the room, as it were, the question begged - to me, at any rate - is whether or not these are the actual goals of politics in general, and political deliberation in particular. The authors use examples from recent American history of certain controversial policy decisions - the Iraq invasion and the economic bailout in the fall of 2008 - as real-world examples that push the boundaries of deliberative democratic theory, precisely because the epistemic standards often differ from case to case.
Epistemic standards allow us to judge whether a given deliberative process produces better or worse outcomes from a substantive rather than purely procedural point of view. Epistemic standards are routinely used unproblematically in psychology experiments, whether they measure the validity of logical arguments or the factual accuracy of answers to empirical questions. In political science, the question of what is an epistemically correct, right, or superior outcome often remains hidden behind the veil of the future, what Rawls called the "burden of judgment," or, more radically, is rendered inaccessible by the structure of much of politics as a situation of imperfect procedural justice. It is for example doubtful that we can ever answer with certainty the questions of, say, whether going to war in Iraq was the right political decision or whether the bailout of banks was the most appropriate answer the the impeding [sic] economic crisis of November 2008, yet we are still aiming for such answers when we deliberate and reason about these issues. . . .

The fact that we cannot know for sure whether the deliberative process yielded the right answer does not mean that we can evade the question of epistemic validity in politics.
These are intriguing examples not only because they continue to be subject to intense scrutiny by both commentators and policy-makers; they are intriguing because what the authors refer to here, quoting Rawls, as "the 'burdens of judgment'" do not, in fact, exist. Indeed, I would push the matter even further and insist that this notion that the outcomes of particular policy choices are routinely scrutinized as to possible outcomes, given the conditions under which they are offered, and in both cases - the Iraq War and the bailout - the outcomes were correctly predicted, yet not by those who implemented the policies. Rather, the critics of both these policies were far more accurate in their predictions.

Which, then, begs several questions. Not the least of them being, for our purposes in this post, was actual deliberation done in either case, or were a small group of like-minded individuals setting up policies based on sets of assumptions without inputs from critics (according to the argumentative theory, a necessary part of getting closer and closer to the point of successfully achieving some kind of positive epistemic outcome). As in both instances this is the case, with the added reality of a mass of disinformation that muddied the deliberative waters regarding the question of invading Iraq in 2003, we are left asking all sorts of questions, including whether or not these are, in actual fact, examples that give themselves over to the idea that "we cannot know for sure".

At the heart of this entire discussion, for me, is a simple misunderstanding of the real goal of political action, including policy deliberations. If the real goal of deliberative democracy was some kind of epistemic positive - arguing through various facts, weighing their relative importance and merit in order to arrive at a "best fit" between desired ends and the means through which we achieve them - then these are not examples of "we can never know" so much as examples of the breakdown of deliberative democracy as such. Which is much what critics of both policies allege.

If, however, we recognize that the end of politics (and here, we can speak of politics in a teleological fashion because it is a human construct, not a natural phenomenon, thus it is goal-oriented) is not the arrival at consensus that also has the best epistemic fit, but rather achieving and maintaining power for its own sake, then the whole set of rules regarding deliberative democracy, including those used in this article, are inapplicable.

For that reason, while relatively uncontroversial matters can lend themselves to some model that utilizes both deliberative democracy and the argumentative theory of reason to explain various factual findings, for matters that strike at the heart of the questions, "Who has power?", and "How do those in power maintain that position?", both must be tossed aside for a far different approach to understanding decision-making.

The example of global warming, and designing policies to address the potential environmental, economic, and political impact fit well. The theory of global warming, combining various sciences from climate history through chemistry and physics, asserts that industrial production in the western world (and increasingly in the non-western world, as well) has released various effluvia in to the atmosphere that over time and with an accumulative effect drastically alter the global climate, including weather patterns, sea-level, species viability, agriculture, and the like. The theory is well-tested, and continues to be so, fruitful both of explaining disparate data as well as further research. Its acceptance by the scientific community is not a matter either of political preference (as alleged by some critics) or controversy (again, as alleged by some critics). Rather, it is accepted because, like the best theories, it not only explains an abundance of seemingly diverse, even contradictory data, it offers fruitful avenues for research, as well as explanatory power for ongoing phenomena.

There are, however, powerful interests both domestically and internationally, that have the potential for severe financial and economic distress should policies be implemented to address the impact of global warming. In particular, various fossil-fuel industries and their subsidiaries - coal and oil, plastics production and power-generation - could be faced with costs too high to continue their current business models. In order to address this direct threat to their very survival, these same interests engage in a variety of practices, including using in-house scientists and technicians to raise questions regarding the soundness of the theory of global warming; these questions lead these same groups to insist in public that the theory is "controversial", or perhaps even incorrect precisely because there are those who question it. They then insist that, since we do not - or perhaps even cannot - know how strongly correlated the theory is to the various events and phenomena it addresses, they insist that policy-makers do nothing. Because of the potential for financial and economic dislocation - the threat of potential job loss is usually the simplest and most direct claim made in this regard - they insist the cost of addressing what is alleged to be a controversial scientific theory is far higher than any long-term benefit that might accrue from addressing a problem they insist may not even exist (while they occasionally slip and admit the existence of global warming, usually their public statements are filled with denial of all sorts of evidence, or citing counter-factuals as a way of sowing public doubt).

Were this truly a "deliberative process", an instance of deliberative democracy in action, using arguments and public reason to reach an optimum goal, including optimizing an arbitrary set of epistemic standards, the forgoing discussion would be offset by an equally vigorous, equally well-financed and well-connected public campaign setting forth the myriad errors of fact, of science, and the potential disastrous consequences of following a policy of inertia regarding global climate change. Yet, precisely because there is an imbalance of power, signified not only by the amount of money involved in the two sides, but the perceived self-interest of the parties involved, we have the situation we are in currently. Scientists promoting global warming and its effects, policy analysts who offer possible solutions, even some politicians and public interest groups who favor action over inertia in these matters, not only do not have the same amount of political power; they also do not have the same interest, and therefore the salience of the issue is less strong than with those parties who very existence might be threatened by possible policies to address matters of global warming.

Deliberative democracy, it seems, works ideally in settings where there is a rough equivalence of power, of interest, and where questions of "Qui bono?" do not impact the outcomes of deliberation. As a working model of a society with vast differences in power and influence, as well as recognizing the relative interest and salience of various issues among various groups, creates a situation where matters not least of reaching some kind of epistemic standard, are irrelevant. Who is right and who is wrong is not nearly as important as who wins and who pays because they lose.

Virtual Tin Cup

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