Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
 
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Europe
Economy and society
Science and culture
Reviews

Democracy: decision making for the intelligent society

The essence of human intelligence is the ability to adapt and survive. Rosamund Stock sees that markets render us collectively stupid and argues that only pluralist, participative decision-making processes can enable us to survive and prosper as a society.

Democracy is both a way of making collective decisions and a form of participation in society. The way we participate affects the decisions we make and our role in the decision process affects our membership of society. If a society can draw upon the expertise and knowledge of all its citizens, then it is more likely to be able to make adaptive decisions in a changing environment. If the decision making process involves the citizens of a society then they will see themselves as part of that society and take on a responsibility for their actions within it.

Those of us who value democracy do so for a number of reasons, but perhaps the commonest are that: (a) the people who are affected by a decision have a say in it, and (b) it allows us to change governments without a war or revolution. The first is important because participation in decisions means that people feel they own them, and thus will take some responsibility for their implementation. Having a voice in decision processes is one of the biggest factors in their appearing fair. The second is concerned with correcting mistakes. If one lot make a hash of it, then we vote them out and give someone else a turn. In the last two decades we have had trouble on both these fronts and these problems pose a serious risk to the survival of our society.

We have problems with the legitimacy of the political system. People are contemptuous of politicians and are totally uninterested in the political process itself. People cannot be bothered to take part, believing that even if they do it will make no difference and the type of participation offered them does not attract support. This is related to the second problem: the strength of a pluralist democracy is that there should always be more than one set of ideas on offer, more than one model of society, more than one set of policy prescriptions, more than one approach to problems. Thus if one set of ideas fails to solve problems there is always the chance that another set will be more successful. At present there is no realistic alternative to the market-based ideas of both this and the previous government. Thus people are deterred from political participation by the perceptions that there is no point voting for anyone because they are all the same.

It is hardly necessary to make a case for the failings of the market ideology. Writing off a sizeable proportion of your adult population is hardly a mark of success. Shoe-horning young and disabled people into mind-numbing McJobs is not a particularly noble goal. Allowing huge disparities in income, prospects and quality of life does not promote a healthy or cooperative society. Emphasizing individual aspiration, taking selfishness as the most basic motive of human action, and rewarding greed, lack of scruple and disdain for others will not produce social cohesion, coordination and increased contribution to the common weal. And capitalism's record on the environment is a matter of shame. Yet our society must survive, we cannot live apart from it.

That society has to survive within its physical environment, and on current evidence we aren't doing all that well. A recent Channel 4 documentary tried to explore the reasons for the abandonment of Viking settlements in Greenland: a little ice age was seen to be a primary cause yet the Inuit people, who had been there less time than the Vikings, survived quite well. The Inuit developed techniques for living in that terrain which were not adopted by the Vikings and importantly, the fact that Inuit culture was not Christian, may have been a major factor in the lack of communication between the two peoples. The church, a social institution, and its powerful ideology which proscribed the ideas and practices of non-Christians, may have prevented people from learning to cope with changed climatic conditions. This is beginning to sound rather familiar.

A society needs to make the right decisions in order to survive. Climate is changing in our own day, yet the dominant set of ideas is quite incapable of coping with this and is preventing us from adapting our practices to the new conditions. An ideology and its attendant power structure are causing maladaptive decisions to be made.

To rush headlong upon one's doom is not, by and large, considered to be intelligent behaviour. To understand what an intelligent society would look like, we need to understand the nature of human intelligence. Is not the very essence of human intelligence the ability to adapt and survive? Intelligence is not about IQ scores, the number of A-levels you have, or how many certificates are gathering dust in some cupboard. It is about being able to reflect upon one's actions, review one's decisions and change them if necessary. This means that we have to have criteria for evaluating those decisions, those outcomes, and for deciding upon new courses of action. But what makes the human being as a decision system so highly adaptable, is the ability to review not just the decision processes, but the decision criteria themselves. We can change our minds about the values we hold.

Markets render us collectively stupid because there is no place in them where decisions can be reviewed and evaluated. Any decision system, de facto or otherwise, which relies upon individual action will depend heavily upon the characteristics of the actors within it. Human beings are notoriously short term creatures. It is easier to go to the out of town store than the local high street; you know that selective education is divisive but your immediate concern is the welfare of your own child. Thus where the collective decision is simply an aggregate of individual decisions, it will produce results which no one wants. You vote for a particular candidate, not because you support her, but to give the other side a bloody nose. Unfortunately a lot of other people decide to do the same and you end up with an MP who is detested by the majority.

Human societies can develop ways of counteracting this, of ensuring that most people do what they, and society, need in the long run, because human societies have cultural rules and norms to which people adhere, and institutions which structure the range of possible actions. Democracy is one such mechanism but we need to think further about the characteristics that such a decision system must have. It must be able to deliver practicable decisions, and within a limited timespan: producing a perfectly researched decision is no use if the situation to which a response was needed has already changed. It must be able to change decisions in response to events, it must be able to review collective decisions and ask whether they are acceptable. It must have a wide range of expertise on which to draw, it must have a realistic and sufficiently complex model of its own environment. And above all, any decision system that wants to survive must have a sophisticated value structure. Decision systems based on crude value structures do not produce intelligent behaviour. They produce the sort of behaviour which humans look at and think "how stupid, couldn't it see that allocating children to schools on the basis of the school's reputation would lead to sink schools and increased school journeys?" Of course it couldn't - the system had not been told to give weight to children being educated locally.

We need a highly developed structure of values, anchored in more than one primary value (the values which are accepted as good, in and of themselves) because only such systems produce adaptive behaviour. We need a value for what happens at the collective level, a value for society in and of itself, as well as a value for people. And we need a model of society which fits the bill. Experience has taught us that experts are just as fallible as the rest of us, and often have a rather narrow idea of the public interest to boot. Essentially such people are making decisions upon too limited a set of criteria. Hence we end up thinking: why didn't they spot things that we could have told them would go wrong? The point is that the people on the ground bring a whole lot of values and knowledge to bear upon their decisions and evaluations which those outside the situation do not perceive.

Economists essentially see society as a self correcting homeostatic mechanism such as those which maintain body heat or blood sugar levels in the human body. The human body is probably our most appropriate analogy, since it, too, is immensely complex and has a variety of decision making mechanisms in addition to the conscious ones. But human society is not characterised by the negative feedback of homeostasis, but by positive feedback. You send your child to the "best" school which: (a) increases the average ability of the intake and hence exam results, and (b) creates the impression that it is a good school because everyone wants to go there. This results in yet more people trying to send their children there.

These are non-linear processes characterised not by steady states, but by attractors (states around which the current status of the system will recur) and also by runaway processes that can come out of the blue. These kind of processes cause clumping of different bits of the system around divergent states: with respect to education we are increasingly seeing a divergence between two steady states coexisting side by side, the world of the successful selective school and that of the poor relation comprehensive. Society is also a probabilistic rather than a deterministic system. It is an increase in the probability of certain actions for which we try, not a totally determined outcome. Many political and social theorists haven't even made it into this century let alone the next.

Intelligent decision making in our society needs mechanisms which produce adaptive decisions and which is capable of further change. We need decision making systems which make full use of the detailed knowledge (and hence values) of those actually in the relevant situation. We need structures capable of rapid response, we need opportunities to review outcomes, procedures and even decision criteria themselves. There is no ready made blueprint, but we need a sensible model of our situation in order to address that lack. The ideas outlined above are offered as part of the toolkit that will enable us to do so.