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October 06, 2016


Hilary Richards

One thing your blog ignores is the role of the media (note that Johnson and Gove had secondary careers as journalists). Democracy specifically doesn't work if the public are shamelessly misled by the people whose job it is to inform others. The people have asked for rotting fish because they were told it was good nourishing fish.


Well this is all very well and noble, but shouting racism to drown people's concerns was the argument used to turn a blind eye to 1400 cases of child sexual exploitation in Rotherham, so you need to ensure your responses don't replicate that outcome.

British politics makes perfect sense once you realise that the Tories fear the white working class and the Labour Party hates them. So its okay for people to call on racial quotas for black faces on TV, but calling for representation of working class white people is racist. Publishing the number of women in management and the racial mix of the workforce is progressive but the calling for the proportion of foreigners working in firms is reheated Mein Kampf.

In all this is the complete failure of the "experts" to recognise their own agency in their pronouncements. It is clearly in the interests of the middle-class intelligensia to keep the mass of the population under-educated and under-performing so the plum jobs can be kept for them, their families and associates. It is clearly in the interests of a London-based commentariat to have enormous amounts of money spent on London whilst the regions get nothing. Is that what you mean by "good government"?


Traditionally, representative democracy has maintained a mainly Burkean ethos, and respecting 'the will of the people' has largely been done only when it represents the desires of (some set of) elites. Brexit is largely falling into this camp -- May et al are claiming clear mandates for specific policies from a vote which offered, at best, a murky amalgamation of possible motives (as well as very likely the problems of misinformation/ignorance).

There has for the last half-century or so been a push toward removing this layer of Burkean restraint -- not institutionally, but culturally, in rhetoric if not in practice. The current Tory policy move to the hard right on immigration makes canny use of this, but the anti-Burkean left seems very happy to let this happen in its respect for methodology over outcomes.

Respect for the trappings of democracy (voting, the will of the people) without the accompanying information & deliberation seems a shallow form of democracy. I too would like to see the left-intelligentsia's critique of Burke struggle against these challenges of voter understanding, and to propose a new model for achieving Burke's desired ends, but I'm not sure that epistocracy moves us any closer to a fair society than the system of having a powerful class of elites act as a check on the will of the people. The key question for Burkeans is: to what degree do these elites look out for the interests of the people as a whole, instead of their own interests?

Dave Timoney

The democracy problem that has been brewing for 40 years has been the practical curtailment of representative democracy in the West. The chief driver of this has been the institutional encroachment of the market, from supranational bodies down to local authorities. The decline in respect for the political class is due more to a belief that our elected representatives are powerless than that they are corrupt.

The EU vote was influenced not only by the belief that "Europe" was symbolic of this decline, but by the realisation that a referendum was a rare opportunity for direct democracy (it's worth wondering to what extent the "excitement" around the Scottish independence vote fed into this). Michael Gove may be an idiot, but his jibe at "experts" resonated.

Any theory of politics that doesn't address this encroachment by the market is just rearranging the deckchairs.


I suppose immigration is particularly sensitive because the newcomers will likely settle and become British citizens, thus giving them the vote and a say in how the country is run. If the newcomers fail to assimilate then they may vote in ways that the "native" population object to and bring about changes that would not otherwise have occurred. Imagine for example a referendum on the monarchy that is won by republicans based on the votes from first generation immigrants who, understandably, are less likely to have attachment to the institution. I suppose another way to put it is: do the original inhabitants of a territory have a right to prevent social/cultural/political/economic change brought about by newcomers?


Which "original inhabitants" do you mean?The welsh, Anglo-saxons,Norman French, Romans...


@AndrewD what is your point? That there are no such people as British people? That those who live here have no more rights than those who don't?

Brexit in a nutshell: decades of treating the population of the UK as if they are nobodies: ask them "are you happy to continue being treated as if you are worthless nobodies?" Answer "no".


My point is that the concept of "original inhabitents" for any part of the world(save possibly a small part of East Africa) is meaningless in historical terms.Historically, immigrants came with "fire and slaughter".
Justify your statement about the rights of those here over other immigrants to come in any way other than a claim we were here first.


The problem with an epistocracy is that it doesn't solve the problem of people voting their self-interest instead of what is good for a nation.

Intelligence is a good first step but you need more than that.


The difference between Daniel Kahnemann and Jason Brennan is that Kahnemann talks about the biases we all (including him) have and Brennan talks about the biases that "they" have. Which is why I take Kahnemann seriously and not Brennan. What's more, Dan Kahan's work on motivated reasoning suggests that it affects Type 2 (slow) thinking as well and that the bias is greatest among the most educated. In other words, we're all prone to cognitive biases and there's no justification from that to restrict the franchise.

Any argument that democracy can't work because of mass ignorance also has to answer the question: what evidence is there that people are worse informed/more actively mislead than in the twentieth century? Yellow journalism, for example, is nothing new historically.


The Left get a bloody nose from the electorate over a major shift in the course society is going to take for the first time in 30 years and suddenly democracy isn't a satisfactory way of deciding things.

How convenient. I've always said the Left don't really give a sh*t about the people they purport to represent, its all just a facade to gain power. I think the response to the Brexit vote pretty much settles it.


AndrewD - "Justify your statement about the rights of those here over other immigrants to come in any way other than a claim we were here first."

well that's just about the whole of human history. If everyone has rights to be everywhere then no-one gets to influence what happens in "their" area. I like my neighbours but they live in their house and I live in mine.

More specifically and recently, the switch of who "we" are from the UK to Europe has created a bonanza for some people and left others on the scrap heap.

gastro george

"If everyone has rights to be everywhere then no-one gets to influence what happens in "their" area."

You might want to think about how this scales, or are you about to erect some barricades?


gastro george - it scales into countries with borders and has done for centuries. Not sure what your point is.

gastro george

For example, you're relying on the idea of an in group and an out group. What about the Scots, who are pro-immigration ATM? Are they part of your in group or not? What about people in your street that like immigration? Where are your borders? Then think about Europe where, to put it mildly, there has been a recent history of "fluid" boundaries.


So much for Democracy


Not to mention the European elite.

Tribalism is natural

Most people don't share your views on immigration.

In fact the public have experienced free movement/immigration from Europe, the result Brexit.

Of course you don't have limited rationality, knowledge and attention.

You support free markets but not the wisdom of crowds?


@aragon Ah good, I wondered how long it would be before the Appeal to Nature fallacy reared its head. Social Darwinism anybody?
How do you reconcile the fact that the areas of the UK that saw the most EU immigration were the areas that were the most tolerant of it, and vice versa?
Lastly your wisdom of crowds reference is a bit silly. What we saw in the referendum was crowd psychology rather than diverse collections of independently deciding individuals, because the media drip fed them their views over 20 years or more.Crowds can be made to behave stupidly too.


@ gastro-george

"What about the Scots, who are pro-immigration ATM? Are they part of your in group or not?" this is a critical question that recent referenda have thrown up, even more so than left/right and class. The scots are part of my group but I suspect increasingly I am not part of theirs.

"What about people in your street that like immigration?" well once out of the EU we can all vote for parties that reflect our views on immigration. While in the EU over 450 million people have the right of residence and our various opinions matter not a jot.


@ Tonybirte. so people who disagree with you have been drop fed views over 20 years and are too stupid to see the truth.

Are you sure its not you who has been drip-fed views over the past 20 years? Are you absolutely sure you are not the one behaving stupidly? Have you done your due diligence?

a random eman

Gastro George, the Scots are not pro-immigration. Opinion polling suggests they are less opposed to it than the UK as a whole, but still opposed overall.

I think direct democracy is untenable. It would bring forth every economically bankrupt and socially disastrous policy under the sun. Don't be under any illusions about that.


I think if the Australian system of compulsory was introduced it would help - by making zealots a smaller proportion of the electorate and by (hopefully) making it clear that voting is not a right to get what you want, but a responsibility to vote in the public interest.


"If a man asks for a lot of rotting fish, should we blame the fishmonger for giving it him?"

This is the problem with the state of our politics. There is a group of people who think they have some kind of right to sit in judgement on the others and decide what is right for them. They have unilaterally split the world into sensible rational people like us and stupid people not like us. They have decided that people who seek out rotten fish are clearly stupid, when they might have decided that"One’s man’s trash is another man’s treasure"



Not Social Darwinism but Psychology, backed by experimental evidence. But people aren't killing each other in the Middle East in a spasm of tribalism?

And when they come here they will be enlightened by your views and not keep their culture, attitudes to women and prejudices, as the Swedes about that one, and social cohesion.

Rather than voting from experience it was mob mentality? Half the country in a civilised exercise in democracy over several months.
No they have experienced immigration and rejected free movement.

Boston in Lincolnshire is one of the areas most impacted by European immigration and voted Brexit.

The areas that voted remain are the areas doing best from the status quo e.g London and the South East, who don't want to rock the boat.


Aragon, you have just vindicated TonyBrite's point.

You start with stating that there are people in the middle east who have different values.

You then connect that to the EU. This is a deliberate conflation I have seen time and time again with immigration especially in our awful media.

As Dave Hansell said a few posts ago, you will find that save for one year immigration has primarily came from outside the EU.

This is exactly why the complex decision of brexit should not have been left to the media in this country and a simple vote, as it just brought out base prejudices and ill-informed opinions.

For example, how many people knew that when outside the EU it would be unlawful to subsidise the farming industry? (WTO rules) or how many people believed the propaganda that the original EC treaty voted on in 1975 was really just a trade treaty (a look at that treaty, article 46, "social policy" would have ended that argument)?

The polititians are the ones who are informed and they have a difficult job. Sometimes they have to decide to do things which are unpopular but which will benefit society at large.

I agree with you, Chris, that it is difficult to do, but what I would say is that we could make a better fist of it than we currently do. One of the ways of doing this would be to increase representation at governing level and force more negotiation/compromise. Our FPTP system ensures that only a minority of an elite make these decisions, and sadly the rest of the tories fall into line like willing sheep. Ultimately the question for the people is whether they can trust the decision-makers to decide on their behalf. Over the last few decades that trust has been eroded.


Really? People in London doing "best"? Let's ask the young teachers or nurses who can't afford housing there but who are overwhelmingly in favour of immigration.
And a big "Nope" to the rest of your piece.

gastro george

"well once out of the EU we can all vote for parties that reflect our views on immigration."

@Dipper - to extend on what I started saying about in groups and out groups, and also on what AndrewD was talking about above.

You speak as though the definition of borders is fixed, and that the definition of an immigrant is fixed. Neither is true. For example, we are still only decades from armed conflict in Ireland which dates back to the 17th century and before, which is essentially about whether the Scots who migrated to Norther Ireland are immigrants or not. If you look at the Balkans, you can trace recent armed conflict to similar disputes that date back to the 14th century and before. I hesitate to start talking about the Middle East.

If you don't realise that these issues are relevant in the current xenophobic climate, then you should.

Robert Nelson

There is, I believe, a political consequence of our modern "knowledge explosion" that has yet to be widely recognized. That lack of recognition may have very grave consequences.

The founders of our "Modern Occidental World" -- France's philosophes, Great Britain's Royal Academy, America's Founding Fathers -- were men (and a very few particularly enterprising women) who "knew everything". If you google "the last man who knew everything" you'll find several candidates... but none are modern. Even such wide-ranging intellects as Hawking and Sagan never pretended to "know everything".

Human knowledge has vastly outstripped the capacity of any single human mind.

That seems like an obvious statement... but it is in fact quite a recent situation. The men who wrote the Constitution of the United States of America "knew everything". As a group, they held all human knowledge: economics, physics, medicine, geology, ... everything!

When those men decided policy, they could -- BY THEMSELVES -- take account of ALL human knowledge.

Back then, any (fairly intelligent) person who was determined enough, could collect all the knowledge needed to competently understand the policy decisions that the Founding Fathers were making.

(Not incidentally, human population and human technology were still such that the Earth could digest any negative consequences of erroneous decisions.)

Democracy was possible, because demos could in fact be competent.

This is no longer true. Demos has absolutely no chance of being competent on the complex and interlocking topics of today's world. If an incompetent demos tries to run the world, the inevitable result is erratic, erroneous policy with no basis in fact: Tea Party America.

We are not competent to decide policy; but no political organization has yet had the courage to say, "We propose to choose the experts who MUST decide and manage policies on such-and-such criteria"... which would be the best that demos could hope to decide with any degree of competence.

I fear that democracy is a zombie. Walking dead.

And we have yet to even begin to discuss its replacement.

Dave Timoney

The "last man who knew everything" trope is not a reflection of human mental capacity or the sum of human knowledge but the technology of publishing, i.e. the relatively small number of books available up to the late-18th century. Eurocentrism and censorship played a part in this, but the chief cause was simply the cost of printing, which led Enlightenment thinkers like Diderot to believe that the sum of knowledge could be contained in a mere 28 volumes (the original Encyclopedie).

The key change was the invention of lithography in 1796, which enabled higher-volume (and therefore cheaper) printing. Subsequent 19th century refinements - the adoption of metal plates, steam-power and rotary drums - further increased print volumes (so more books were in circulation) and reduced the cost of a print-run (so more works were published).

The growth of adult literacy over the course of the 19th century was partly a result of demand (i.e. more jobs needed an ability to read and write) but also partly a product of opportunity, most famously in the growth of the popular press. This in turn provided a key justification for democracy: people were better-informed and so capable of exercising judgement.

When we denigrate the media today, we are often echoing anti-democratic arguments from the late Victorian era. When we claim that the demos lacks the competence to govern, we are echoing the anti-democratic arguments of Plato. In reality, the sum of knowledge needed for a democracy to function is no different today than it was in 1900, 1776 or the 5th century BC.

Churm Rincewind

Tonybirte asks: “How do you reconcile the fact that the areas of the UK that saw the most EU immigration were the areas that were the most tolerant of it, and vice versa?”

That’s easily answered. If a key problem of immigration is the derangement of previously held social norms, it stands to reason that those areas of the UK that have seen most immigration have already had to accommodate themselves to the consequences, while those who haven’t are naturally more concerned to prevent the impacts they’ve seen elsewhere.


«how can we reconcile democracy with good government?»

My usual argument is that is a profoundly wrong aim because one of the two purposes of democracy is to ensure that voters who make bad choices suffer the consequences of their choices.

That is very important indeed, in part so that voters learn to invest more effort in making better choices, in part so that they cannot honestly blame someone else for the consequences.


Would we have had Ronald Reagan if the American voter had heeded what the (i) Dem and GOP establishments and (ii) press wanted?

I imagine that in 1980 we saw many columns/editorials questioning the wisdom of democracy when "extremists" like Reagan were running for office.

Of course, even today, many believe that Reagan's ascension to 1600 was a mistake. I'm a liberal Dem who doesn't believe that.


Dipper, I emphatically agree with you.

But this is not new.

Read about the 1980 presidential campaign. Dems were convinced that very few would support the "radical" Ronald Reagan. And the GOP establishment feared that Reagan would precipitate WW3 against the USSR


@Blissex - Yes. Surely the point of democracy is not to make good decisions - the point of democracy is to prevent tyranny – in particular the tyranny of those who are completely sure that they are right.

Democracy solves the unsolvable problem of 'who should be in charge' by ensuring that no one is in charge – or at least not in charge for very long. Mud sticks – we get bored, we take any good you've done for granted and only remember your failings – and when we've had enough of you you *have* to go, no matter how clever or well qualified you are.

I've always assumed that it is a substantial but unavoidable *cost* of democracy - that it can lead to sub-optimal or even fairly bad outcomes, even for those who thought they were voting in self-interest.

As you imply - ultimately time and Nature are the only true arbiters of what is and is not good policy.

Democracy is a mechanism (a kind of meta-governance) to allow us all to take a kind of rotating responsibility for zig-zaging sub-optimally towards and then away from potential precipices of bad policy. The hope is that, over time, our average trajectory (over decades or centuries even) will, in retrospect, represent some sort of mutually-agreeable progress. The payback for all of this sub-optimality is a degree of robustness with respect to tyranny, because even a fairly short spell of unremovable tyranny can lead rapidly to ruin and untold horrors.

Robert Barbera

H. L. Mencken:
'The problem with democracy is that when two men take to the stump, one telling the truth, the other a liar, the mob always elects the liar'

Bob Barbera


If you espouse that a small elite should override the will of the people for whatever goody-goodying purpose you feel they should, then fine. But you don't get to do that and also pretend to be favouring democracy at the same time.

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