Deliberative democracy?

Fascinating piece on deliberation vs argumentation in democracy.

Advocates of political deliberation usually defend it as a collaborative activity motivated by the possibility of agreement. Even when agreement proves elusive, deliberation helps people come to grips with one another’s views, draw on their different experiences and expertise, and better understand the contours of their enduring disagreements. People’s views will be better informed, and the decisions they make will be of higher quality than if they had not deliberated. When study after study reveals most people to be appallingly ill-informed about much public policy, deliberation’s appeal seems obvious. Two minds are better than one, three better than two, and so on. Democracy will be improved if its decision-making can incorporate, and build on, the benefits of deliberation. Or so it is frequently claimed.1

Deliberation should not be confused with argument. When people argue, there is an expectation that one of them will, or at least should, win. Even when we speak of one person making an argument, we see this as something that stands until it is contradicted, or challenged and beaten by a better argument. Like the deliberationists, proponents of argument believe it will enhance understanding and improve the quality of decisions. This was the essence of John Stuart Mill’s defense of the robust clash of opinions in On Liberty: it would lead people to hold better-informed and more accurate views. Mill even went so far as to worry – needlessly, it turned out – that as advancing science expanded the realm of settled knowledge, people would be deprived of argument’s benefits. No longer forced to sharpen their wits by defending their views in the marketplace of ideas, they would become mediocre dullards; less able to think for themselves and more easily manipulated by others.2

My claim here is that the argumentative and deliberative ideals should be more clearly distinguished than they usually are. They support different and incompatible institutional arrangements. I also maintain that the argumentative ideal is superior because, when appropriately institutionalized, it helps hold governments accountable for their actions. By contrast, the deliberative ideal cannot easily be institutionalized – and perhaps cannot be institutionalized at all – because people who prefer to bargain can easily abuse rules designed to promote deliberation. But deliberation’s difficulties run deeper. Its defenders fail to appreciate that, in politics, deliberation and the search for agreement are – to borrow an antitrust analogy – unhealthy forms of collusion in restraint of democracy. They should worry less about voter ignorance, which, as Anthony Downs noted long ago, might well reflect sensible budgeting of scarce time, and worry more when office-seekers fail to engage in robust public debates over the policies that, if elected, they will enact.3

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