Policy is more than a product of process; policy is process itself

The London School of Economics and Political Science blog site carries an evocative – if not provocative – post from a Senior Researcher at the Centre for European Studies, at the University of Oslo.  The post is nine months old, and hasn’t drawn much response – however, the commentary does beg for an audience.  Plato indeed may have set the Western tradition innocently in search of philosopher kings, and technocracy may have now quite fully co-opted Plato’s intentions for inquiry with proclamations from elite-led multilateral economic institutions.  It may be time to begin again.

In the LSE blog post, the scholar argues against democratic process in deference to expert managed social systems, with the tacit assumption that the two are incompatible.  It is a sentiment that the Scandinavian scholar Jorgan Randers has voiced repeatedly in his lament over the global apathy toward the findings of the Club of Rome study on The Limits to Growth, which Randers co-authored.  At the core of Rander’s lament is the view that Western Society’s main institutions of “democracy and [capitalistic] economy are based on short-termism, resulting in a slow societal response to challenges, which need long-term solutions and investments.”  Capitalism and democracy are, in fact, distinct frameworks for seeing and interacting in the world, and linking them monolithically could lead us to “discard the baby with the bathwater.”  Catherine Holst challenges the need and efficacy of democracy itself from a policy perspective.

In responding to blog post of Holst’s argument, policy is more than a product of process; policy is the process itself.

Philosophical arguments and practical experience indeed can illustrate that “expertise without the people” and “people without the expertise” are both, in their extreme forms, fatal paths into the future. So it is easy to agree with the author when she asserts “The question is whether we must also include a basic fact of expertise alongside “the basic fact of pluralism” and other basic facts normative political theory must recognize.” The author, however, appears unaware of any method for achieving this end and therefore postulates “To deal with the new risks and hazards, the best available expertise must be mobilized and given the decision-making power needed, even if by doing so we are challenging familiar ideas of democracy and legitimacy.” This is a push to the extreme. And it is not necessary where a mechanism does exist to insert – and also to challenge — expert testimony within local deliberation.

Why stick to traditional ideas of “rule of the people” that may be irrelevant and even dangerous in a world that is in urgent need of decisions based on our best knowledge?”

This is not a rhetorical question. It is, however, contrived. Ideas and ideals of “rule of the people” are far from Western traditions. The modern notion that local acts have global impact shifts the focus from the fact that global systems of interaction and exchange have — and are today having — their decimating consequences at the local levels. It was not local decision making by the people that led to the construction of wobbly and self-serving global fiscal policies. The mega systems were devised by the experts, while the local economies have been colonized and enslaved into the global systems.

The author continues with “My contention is that ambitious democrats criticizing technocracy, juridification and elitism, in the EU and elsewhere, tend to underestimate what they are up against.” It is not clear that the underestimation is one-sided, though. The author asserts that the version that she presents is a “realistic argument” revealing the judgmental bias that counter arguments are unrealistic, and she tacitly enshrouds her claim to realism in the writings that accrue to institutional scholars. In doing this, she mistakes “thoughts” with “thinking” _ “institutions” with “process.” In a fanciful conjecture, the author wonders, “What if elite discussions among the informed and knowledgeable more often produce decisions that are in the enlightened, long-term interest of everyone, than democratic deliberation?” One might equally wonder what if the perspectives of the elite could be melded with the perspectives of the disenfranchised to present a balanced view of a preferred future. The challenge in finding a sustainable future points in the direction of a methodology for collectively envisioning a preferred future. This type of thinking must rely on more than the habits of the past practiced by experts gathered in the rarified halls.

The author calls upon one school of tradition to assert “ … the realist argument touches upon the classical debate on how to understand the relationship between “is” and “ought” (what does a de facto expertise-dependence imply for how we conceptualize political ideals?).” Herein rests a central point. If “is” is taken as essentially “right”, then it does imply “ought.” However, Hasan Ozbekhan asserted almost a half century ago that in planning preferred futures “can” implies “ought.” Extrapolations of the present into the future have limited, short-term relevance in a changing world – or in a world within which change is broadly accepted to be necessary.

To take the author’s side in the proposition, reliance on democracy as democracy has been practice in the past holds little promise for melding the hearts of the people with the minds of their wisest citizens. Democracy, itself, has become corrupt in many ways, and one of the underlying reasons for this is that the freedom to practice democracy has not been matched with the responsibility to practice democracy. The author will perhaps concede that within the expert community, where the circles have been drawn to distinguish anointed experts from non-experts, decision-making is, on balance, democratic. The real issue is who gets to sit at this table. If it is “the case that expertise interaction is more rational and deliberative than interaction among “most people” …” why is this so and what might be done about it? Focus groups, design charrettes, and community surveys all seek to harvest information that is subsequently interpreted by – and forced through the lens of – expert groups. The meaning and the sense of importance of such deliberations are the meanings and the senses that the experts carry with them from their experiences in life – experiences that they have accumulated as they have walked down pathways that have differentiated themselves from the non-experts in the community. This is why community decisions are too important to be left to the tender mercies of experts alone. History is witness to this finding.

When policy begins to focus on the way that all people can collectively make democratic decisions, we might next begin to focus on a policy that assures that all essential stakeholders are fully and transparently represented in civic sector design and decision-making discussions. To do this, policy scholars must see beyond what “is” to discover what “ought” to be. There are harbingers of the future struggling to emerge in the wake of current crisis.

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