Is deliberative democracy a good idea?

Richard Posner says no. The deliberative democracy idea is pushed by such scholars as Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin. They call for the following:

In our soon-to-be-released book, we offer a new way of thinking about democratic reform, proposing a new national holiday–Deliberation Day. It would replace Presidents’ Day, which does no service to the memories of Washington and Lincoln, and would be held two weeks before major national elections. Registered voters would be called together in neighborhood meeting places, in small groups of 15 and larger groups of 500, to discuss the central issues raised by the campaign. Each deliberator would be paid $150 for the day’s work of citizenship. To allow the business of the world to carry on and as many as possible to participate, the holiday would be a two-day affair. If Deliberation Day succeeded, everything else would change: the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fundraisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties. All would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public. When the election arrived, the people would speak with a better chance of knowing what they wanted and which candidates were more likely to pursue the popular mandate.

Posner responds with his usual aplomb:

Reform does not well out of deliberation, but reflects passions and interests. Abolitionism, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the rise of free-market ideology, welfare reform, and the gay-rights movement were not the product of discussion among voters debating on the model of the academic seminar (the implicit model, naturally, of academic reflection on the political process by the proponents of deliberative democracy, academics all). They were the product of moral and political entrepreneurs tapping into wells of discontent among minorities and eventually getting the attention of the politicians…

I have difficulty suppressing the uncharitable thought that there may be an element of bad faith in the deliberative-democracy movement generally (I do not mean in Ackerman and Fishkin particularly). I think that what motivates many deliberative democrats is not a love of democracy or a faith in the people, but a desire to change specific political outcomes, which they believe they could do through argument, if only anyone could be persuaded to listen, because they are masters of argumentation. I infer this secret agenda from the fact that most proponents of deliberative democracy advocate aggressive judicial review, which removes many issues from democratic control; are coy about indicating what policies they dislike but would accept; and are uncommonly fond of subjecting U.S. citizens to control by international organizations of questionable, and often of no, democratic pedigree. I sense a power grab by the articulate class whose comparative advantage is–deliberation.

My take: I would expect deliberative democracy to lead to greater conformity and a less efficient aggregation of information. Crowds can talk themselves into bad ideas very readily. The main purpose of democracy is to prevent very bad ideas and very bad leaders. We are more likely to resist such dangers in private, and through periodic and gradual evaluations, rather than in open public forums. I award the debate to Posner.

Thanks to for the link.


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