David Runciman (Should we put the experts in charge?, The long read, 1 May) is right to say that our democracy is fatally flawed and that handing over to experts is a bad idea. However, we do have to come up with an answer.
What is the democratic alternative to the current failed elitism or seductive populism? Democracy simply must put its own house in order, shed the democratic model built 100 years ago and consciously design an upgraded system appropriate for the next 100 years. Our crude definition of democracy as just voting denies us the sophistication necessary to run modern society. Everything is reduced to a yes or no, black or white reaction.
James S Fishkin has identified 108 examples internationally of deliberative democracy, where the soundbite and headline have been banished by establishing careful, sustained and informed consideration of issues by citizens’ institutions established for that specific purpose, with the outcome of such patient and self-educated discussion often leading to legislative and social change.
From energy policy in Texas to pension provision in Japan and democratic renewal in Canada, assorted varieties of citizen engagement that complement not threaten representative democracy are enjoying success. It is in this development of an advanced adult democratic model – tooling up, not dumbing down – that our antidote to the threats of complacency, entitlement and populism lies.
Chair of the parliamentary select committee on political and constitutional reform, 2010-15
• An expert on politics writes that democratic politics is better than experts. Surely democracy is better when it doesn’t work, or we’d have the most hostile of environments, with capital punishment, torture, persecution of all that is intellectual or “different”, massive benefit cuts and Brexit squared. Democracy tends to the condition of 1984, where everyone has a voice and sings Big Brother’s songs of ignorance and hatred masquerading as common sense and patriotism.
• David Runciman could be considering other options than “epistocracy” or “technocracy” to address the flaws in our democracies. Why can’t we improve what we’ve got, shifting towards participation? We could use technology to include electors in debate, teaching critical thinking skills in the process; we could run citizens’ assemblies; we could produce a person specification of desirable competencies for MPs (even if we must eschew “essentials”); we could combat short-termism by insisting that new policy proposals include a review of the previous 20 years and a forecast (with budget) for the next 20; and, in terms of expertise, we could reposition secretaries of state as commissioners and “critical friends” who develop policy in partnership with those in the sector who actually know how it works. Such things might restore faith in our leaders and could even engage the wider population in addressing some rather pressing issues such as the environmental crisis.
Sheffield, South Yorkshire
• It is correct that changing from representative democracy as we know it to an epistocracy could lead to a “nightmare of oppression and violence”. Nevertheless, there have to be ways to improve the present system that will encourage more informed and responsible popular participation while preventing technical experts from sowing confusion and obfuscation. While experts are not necessarily politically neutral, it is absurd, and dangerous, how often expertise is denigrated when it is at odds with ideology.
One fundamental reform would be to make it a legal requirement for governments to commission and publish independent expert reviews into all proposed legislation before it is placed before parliament, with a further legal obligation placed on the media to publish it in full. This would provide the electorate with the tools needed to evaluate the degree to which, for better or worse, policies reflect ideology.
Such analysis would obviously be challenged on social media, which allows quite rightly for the expression of all opinions whether or not they are well informed. However, to ensure that the free expression of opinion is not subverted by cyber-attacks or demented trolling, there should be an absolute requirement that comments posted online carry an identifiable identity.
Finally, despite the rejection of the idea in 2011, the only serious way to bring voters closer to the consequences of their actions is to put proportional representation back on to the political agenda.
• The flaw with any form of government in the west is the dichotomy within the electorate. We have the successful on one hand, and the unsuccessful on the other. We have members of society who vote in their own best interests, and those who vote for the good of the country and in the interests of future generations. We have people who think before they vote, and those who vote with their emotions. The current imbalance within society precludes the appointment of any government that might represent all sections of society.
A failing state will continue to fail until it has a government that can offer the country a viable programme for the future. Experts v politicians? Do we mean that we think our politicians have little expertise?
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