« Drinking Brotherhood | Main | New journal on "Catholic Legal Studies" »

Monday, July 10, 2006

Is Deliberation Good?

Hi all, and greetings from Buenos Aires (where I had to endure seeing my beloved national team fall to the Germans in the World Cup). I thank my friend and colleague Dan Markel for inviting me to return to this excellent forum.

I'd like to talk about political deliberation. Whatever their political views, almost every liberal agrees that political deliberation is a good thing. Resting on John Stuart Mill's shoulders, most people think that the more public debate and deliberation, the better. The idea is that political deliberation increases our chances of getting things right (even if we fallible creatures cannot possibly reach the ultimate truth of political perfection.) 

I think this is wrong, and so I argue in my upcoming book, RATIONAL CHOICE AND POLITICAL DELIBERATION: A THEORY OF DISCOURSE FAILURE (Cambridge U. P. , August 2006) [with Guido Pincione]. The public will not deliberate in accordance with truth-sensitive principles; on the contrary, the public will err in accordance with definite patterns. The idea is that acquiring reliable knowledge about social theory (economics, pol sci, etc)  is very costly to the average citizen, so he will rely on theories by default that are mostly false (for example: "we need to protect our industry against foreign competition", "higher crime results from lenient courts", etc, etc). The public, in short, is rationally ignorant. Reliable social science is hard because it is opaque and complex. Folk knowledge is easy to apprehend because it is vivid. Knowing this, politicians and others use, for electoral purposes, a rhetoric that feeds into these false theories. As a result, public deliberation does not bring us closer to the truth. On the contrary, deliberation increases error. We call this phenomenon discourse failure.

In the book we discuss and reject many moves that deliberativists make. I look forward to sharing aspects of the book with readers in the next two weeks, and, of course, welcome criticisms, comments, and sugestions.

Posted by fteson on July 10, 2006 at 03:46 PM in Fernando Teson | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Is Deliberation Good?:

» The Truth Hurts from The Debate Link
Fernando Teson blogs on his new book, RATIONAL CHOICE AND POLITICAL DELIBERATION: A THEORY OF DISCOURSE FAILURE (Cambridge U.P., August 2006). It's one of those things that makes me sick--not because I think it's wrong, but because I fear it's right.... [Read More]

Tracked on Jul 10, 2006 7:41:11 PM


Just to press you further, Fernando. I wonder whether you'd acknowledge that there are some policy questions where the values trump any need to deeply internalize facts or social theory. Are people also incompetent when it comes to understanding and deliberating about their own value orientations? If people can so engage in a class of policy questions, why shouldn't we welcome deliberation on just those matters? Perhaps the answer is that people are very bad at changing their minds when some core value is at stake: who is really going to change their mind on abortion after a small deliberation? Still, I do think Fishkin's work bears out the claim that people change their preferences in many of these areas -- and in unpredicable ways (so heuristics are no help).

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 13, 2006 1:47:36 AM

I have read with great interest all the comments (Unfortunately here in the Pampas I don't have a home computer, so I'm writing from a charming Internet Café, enveloped in thick cigarrete smoke.)
Just a brief remark on some of the points made. Ethan is right that the view that the public is ignorant is as old as Plato. But we are not elitist democrats (and those who know me know, res horribilis, that I am not a "non-democrat"). Our view, following Anthony Downs, is that the public is rationally ignorant, not just about facts (as Ethan says, this is old hat) but about SOCIAL THEORY. Our argument is about DISCURSIVE pathologies in politics. Moreover, far from beleiving that the public is stupid, we commend the average citizen who does not get involved in political deliberation, as she has more and better things to do than either (1) acquiring the readily available, vivid, mostly false, social theory needed to participate, or (2) learning the copmplex and voluminous amount of reliable social science she needs to debate properly. Given this, we claim that theories of deliberative democracy are UTOPIAN. Just notice this: how many of us have consulted the state-of-the art research on trade before giving an opinion about trade policy? Or take tax cuts. We all ike to posture blasting Bush's tax cuts. But have we made a dispassionate study of the Leffer curve and the economic intricacies of tax policy before "deliberating"? Of course not. And we are academics!
As to our recommendation, we feel it is more respectful of autonomy, equality, and liberty than theories of DD: we recommend reducing politis and enlarging markets. In short, the Churchillian dilemma, democracy-authoritarianism, on which DD rests, is false. There is also the libertarian solution.
More later on what we say in the book about Ethan's "institutional design" point later, but I think Rachel and others have responded convincingly.
The cigarette smoke is reaching the bottom of my lungs, I fear. More later.
P.S.: Ethan: I have ordered your book on Amazon.

Posted by: fteson | Jul 12, 2006 11:10:36 AM

I will have to read the book(s!) too, Ethan. But I still want to follow on Rachel's point re the preconditions for deliberation, if only because I'm a bit allergic to any proceduralist account of legitimacy.

When we talk about structuring of deliberation, I can see that projected both psychologically, and socially.

1) As a psychological matter, one must have some sense that individuals are actually reasoning in a constructive and grounded manner. Empirical social science on this topic is thin on the ground. I think Doris Graber's 1994 Processing the News is the best book by far on this topic (at least till 2000, when I stopped watching that literature). But as of the fin de siecle, the dominant mode of "judging" individual reasoning about politics was the Neuman/Just/Crigler "Common Knowledge" approach, which tended to dignify all manner of prejudiced reflexes as acceptable "heuristics" for processing information.

2) Socially, there have been some efforts to stucture deliberation that have succeeded, such as the Fishkin deliberaive polls and their English predecessors. But the civic journalists' effort to bring that sort of deliberation to campaigns failed. SEtting the agenda can be so politicized that "structuring deliberation" can turn out itself to be as contested as the very issues the deliberation was supposed to solve. For example, the deliberativist project in the 1996 North Carolina Senate race, which tried to focus voters' attention on education and health care, was roundly considered illegitimate because it kept Helms's trademark social issues "off the table." The deliberativist has to choose: should those issues get "on the table" simply because a large number of peopel, if asked, care about them? Or does the deliberativist have an archimedean point outside people's current preferences to judge their suitability for political contestation?

On the other hand, all I've read by Beth Noveck on the topic convinces me that new technologies may radically expand the range of useful contexts for deliberation. Her work is superb.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 11, 2006 7:55:22 PM

As I said, Rachel, I have a pretty idiosyncratic view about what is worthwhile in the deliberative democracy enterprise -- and how it can best help us structure our institutions. My book develops the idea.

I really don't think of deliberative democracy, per se, as the legitimating theory to get you Frank's 1, 2, 3, or 5, nor do I think they are necessarily required for good deliberation to take place. Liberalism without "deliberation" gets us many of those perqs (or perhaps just a theory of developing capacities or deep autonomy) -- and deliberation would seem manageable even among those without health insurance. Deliberation is only one contribution to a legitimate polity; there are many others as well. At least that's how I've been thinking about it recently.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 11, 2006 2:40:58 PM

A fascinating discussion thus far -- though I find it somewhat unsatisfying without knowing more about Teson's thesis. The argument that truly "rational" and informed discourse is hard to come by is impossible completely to refute. How often do those of us in Blue states decry the results of the deliberative democracy that led us to our current state of affairs? I would argue though that even those who spend their professional lives trying to engage in rational, informed discourse probably find themselves relying upon the very failures of discourse Teson describes in areas outside of their specialties. How many law professors engage in truly informed discussions about global warming? However, even conceding the truth of the criticisms, I can't quite imagine what the punchline will be. What alternatives are more attractive? I would also add -- having just come from Law & Society -- that the discussions we academics engage in are often so highly divorced from life on the ground that any policy prescriptions we would recommend may well be just as suspect as those that result from folk wisdom.

I am also struck by Ethan's choice of 4 for the only necessary precondition to a rational deliberation. Coercing participation seems a curious choice over education and sustenance.

Posted by: Rachel Godsil | Jul 11, 2006 2:00:53 PM

See also, "open-source politics": http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13006799/site/newsweek/

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 11, 2006 1:53:01 AM

I know next to nothing about deliberative democracy. But I do believe that the seemingly stupid public can do amazing things and exercise great shrewdness and sophistication when it feels empowered by active participation in the democratic process.

On a separate note to Professor Teson, I too had supported Argentina and had fully expected them to lift the Jules Rimet Cup in 2006. I was quite deflated after both Argentina and Brazil took their leave in the quarter finals. Just one question. Why didn't Messi play against Germany? What was he being saved for?

Posted by: Ruchira Paul | Jul 11, 2006 12:28:58 AM

Well, I think the smart money is against your thesis, given the enthusiasm for blogs, wiki, and the Yahoo and Google questions series http://answers.yahoo.com/question/?qid=20060704195516AAnrdOD and the internet generally. And I think communities generally do make the right choices. The problem is that they make the wrong choices initially. Look at Bush and the Iraq war. Both were considered good ideas in 2004 and 2003 respectively. Now both are considered abject, even horrifying failures. A case against democracy? No. A case for more democracy, perhaps parlimentary democracy along French or Israeli lines.

Given the power of distortion on rex publica's decision making process, there is also a case to be made for holding people accountable for their lies and distortions. Case in point: Ken Mehlmann, RNC chair, said in an interview that "what we know about [Jack Abramoff] we learn on the news." Turns out that he assigned a staffer to keep Abramoff up to date on what happened in the White House. He should never be able to do another interview without being reminded of his penchant for falsehood. As a public service to the viewers, of course.

The cure for bad information and bad decisions is better information and better decisions, not less information and less decisions.

Posted by: Bart Motes | Jul 10, 2006 11:45:53 PM

I make a little point about the info-evolutionary disadvantages of expensive books here:

Posted by: Frank | Jul 10, 2006 5:55:54 PM

Ah, Micah. I feel you. My next book (about the search for deliberative democracy in China) is an astonishing $75 for the hardcover. But I guess it is a cheap deal if it leads to any kind of democracy in China.

Where are you plying your trade these days, Micah?

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 10, 2006 5:49:09 PM

One shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but this looks very interesting. If only it didn't cost $80. The market price would seem to be an obstacle to deliberating about discourse failure.

Posted by: Micah | Jul 10, 2006 5:18:33 PM


I think my answer would really be only (4). But I acknowledge that that completely depends on my very idiosyncratic view of deliberative democracy. I see it as more of a policy program than anything else -- and most of what interests me in the movement is the way it instructs us to create sites where lay citizens can have political impact directly and deliberatively. Free floating deliberative democracy in "the public sphere" is also of interest (with all the media and the internet can contribute) -- but I don't think that focus can produce nearly as well the specific policy recommendations my more pragmatic and utlimately political orientation to the enterprise does.

The funny thing about Berkowitz is that he criticizes "deliberative democracy" (at this point, the term is somewhat unhelpful, I concede, because the family of views is so disparate) for endorsing "rule by the articulate." Most of the major critics of deliberative democracy these days (like Posner and other "minimalists") unload arguments like Teson's here: that the public is too stupid and unmotivated (rationally, of course) to be bothered with deliberation. Who is arguing for rule by the elite now? Not the deliberativists, I think.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 10, 2006 5:15:10 PM

To make my comment more concrete: Ethan, do you think that the "proper conditions for deliberation" include:

1) a right to an education? (what grade level would be required?)
2) a right to health care (particularly mental health care)?
3) some guaranteed minimum housing or food?
4) fines for those who don't deliberate or vote?
5) minimum funding for candidates to get their message out?

I think that there may be deep political divisions about any or all of these preconditions.

Posted by: Frank | Jul 10, 2006 4:56:16 PM

I wrote my masters thesis on deliberative democracy, focusing on civic journalists' efforts to structure deliberation in political campaigns. After a quite thankless effort to blend political theory and political science, I ultimately came out somewhere between Ethan and Fernando. I think that deliberation can develop several virtues in citizens. But I think that it's very hard to give an account of what constitutes good deliberation (as opposed to, say, Sunsteinian group polarization, or what Teson mentions above) without the very substantive theory of politics that a proceduralist approach like deliberativism is supposed to be able to avoid.

In short, I wish I'd taken this essay by Peter Berkowitz more seriously before I wrote my thesis!:

Here's a key quote:

"Habermas's conception of deliberative democracy appears to advance an emphatically formal or procedural ideal: legitimacy springs from how the law is formed and not from the substance of what the law proclaims. But the appearance is misleading. For Habermas holds that it is one of the tasks of government, in particular the task of the courts (the branch most distant from the people), to defend certain kinds of laws, in particular laws that protect the social and political preconditions of deliberation. And substance is entangled with procedure in an additional way in Habermas's account, since deliberative democracy prizes and promotes a particular form of life, one which gives pride of place to principled reasoning in the public sphere. Deliberative democracy a la Habermas, then, represents a particular moral interpretation of democracy; but the grounds of the principles that, in his view, legitimate democracy by making it moral are not at all obvious. "

Posted by: Frank | Jul 10, 2006 4:19:30 PM

Well, as the resident deliberativist, I'd be more than happy to be an interlocutor. I haven't read your book, but would be pleased to engage your ideas as you present them here.

The idea that citizens are too incompetent to deliberate is a very old one indeed. The trope that citizens are too stupid to govern themselves is, of course, very familiar among non-democrats and elitist democrats alike. One needn't, I think, dress this idea in fancy science; it is obvious to deliberativists too. I would say that sophisticated deliberativists have a unified response: people need the proper conditions under which to deliberate to make deliberation fruitful. That means structuring deliberation to avoid the "discourse failures" you identify. I always thought this "competence" issue was one that could be debated at the level of institutional design; the idea that we have to do away with all deliberation and democracy because the masses have certain cognitive failures strikes me as a too-quick conclusion.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Jul 10, 2006 4:08:33 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.