Comment on democratic legitimation

I received an insightful comment on my video presentation about the nation-state, democracy, and transnationalism (2021-05-29), which inspired me to elaborate on my rationale for some of the issues raised therein. The comment’s author preferred to remain anonymous. The text of the exchange is reproduced verbatim and is shared with permission.


Hi Prot. Thanks for this video. I share your concerns with the current trends in governance. If I’m allowed to make one suggestion, then I would ask to please make these briefer if possible, otherwise the point is lost in the details.

Thank you! Yes, I will try to keep them short going forward. 1-hour long presentations are a bit tiring (and I record them in one go as with all my videos, which makes them difficult for me as well).

Before we proceed: may I publish this exchange on my website? I will simply quote what is available here and just link to the video’s post. A brief introductory note will describe the context. If you want, I can write your name as it appears here, or you can give me the expanded version. Here is an example of a recent case where the author wanted to be identified: https://protesilaos.com/politics/2021-04-26-comment-autonomy/. And here is another where they preferred to remain anonymous: https://protesilaos.com/codelog/2020-12-28-comment-unix-vs-emacs/.

(1) You are assuming that all civilians care and have opinions about every aspect of society. Unfortunately, this is not true as there is no time to study (and acquire detailed information about) everything [1]. In fact, some issues are so complex, with competing interests, that is impossible to have a compromise. Therefore, if a decision needs to be made, some members of the society will lose out, and many people don’t want to be in the position where they are forced to make a decision. Therefore, for practical reasons, civilians delegate the task of decision-making to a small number of individuals.

I think it is important we disaggregate the issues here. One is the problématique of people’s interest in the commons. The other is basically a division of labour.

With regard to the former, we need to account for the scale of operations. If you ask a Cypriot farmer in the mountains what is their opinion on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, they will likely have none whatsoever, or none that is informed and useful. An observer of this phenomenon could attribute this to indifference, where the farmer simply does not care about politics and just blithely accepts policy programmes that have a profound effect on their daily life qua farmer without questioning them. The same observer could alternatively surmise that the apparent indifference is nothing but the result—the epiphenomenon—of powerlessness, as the Common Agricultural Policy is a grand bargain between EU Member States (within the context of the Multi-annual Financial Framework) where not even all Cypriot farmers united on a single platform will ever have any meaningful effect on.

As for the division of labour, there are indeed lots of complex issues where specialisation is required. Complexity is not only because of the issues themselves. At least a part of it is due to structural constraints. Think, for example, about the EU architecture and how much knowledge it takes to figure out who does what, for which cases, and to what extent. Then extend that to the complexity inside individual countries (and Cyprus, despite the multifaceted challenges of the Cypriot dispute, the Treaty of Guarantee and Treaty of Alliance, is a “fairly straightforward” unitary state as of this writing). An observer could argue that this highly stratified system of decision-making is a necessary outcome of the magnitude of phenomena we are confronted with. While another interpretation could be that the complexity of some events is compounded by the intricate hierarchical structures that concentrate power in some centres, depending on the scope of the policy in question.

What I am suggesting is that there is room for interpretation and the established order conditions our way of thinking about it and the world at-large.

Coming back to the joint themes of indifference and complexity, let us take them at face value. Let us posit that, by and large, people do not care and that, in general, people cannot make an impact anyway because of how difficult those issues are. If we accept those points, then why should our world insist that it is democratic or, rather, insist on the pretence that it is democratic, as I argue in the video? If people are indifferent and/or ignorant, then what are the representatives actually representing? And here we should clarify that representation is across the board, not particular to one policy (e.g. all farmers having a common voice in the form of a delegate). To the effect that such representation is exposed both to indifference and complexity. Again, if those are inescapable or immanent, what is being represented? “Nothing meaningful”, I would add.

Hence my claim that the legitimation function that is performed with the existing means is inadequate, to say the least.

(2) Governments are not elected because of their specific policies, but on broader ideology. This guides our decision in evolving circumstances.

Sometimes this is true. Other times it is a matter of the personality that assumes the leadership role. What is the ideology of the grand coalitions of Germany? What is the ideology of Mario Draghi in Italy who is supposed to be there in a ‘technical’ capacity?

Regardless, we still have the fundamental problem of representation. If the means by which the present order is legitimised are not sufficient (per the previous point), then we cannot be certain that a clearly delineated ideology is being prioritised or preferred.

Now consider the point of governments being elected on matters of ideology rather than policy. Why does every party make programmatic commitments, promising all sorts of legislative initiatives? Suppose though that those are irrelevant and the substantive aspect of policy does not matter in the formation of governments. Is that not another indication that we have a non-representative group of delegates in charge of affairs? To continue with the example of the farmers, if their specific demands for sustenance on their land are not met by the government they voted for, then that government does not represent them for those particular issues. Which links to complexity or, more specifically, to the invocation of the general will of the people, national interest, etc. Basically, it is said that the government represents the people at-large, which is a dubious claim (not to repeat what I cover in the video).

(3) People are inherently biased and selfish. (I don’t know if the latter is a consequence or a cause of our political system.) What this means is that it is impossible to design a subjective system where well-run corporations succeed and badly-run fail. Unfortunately, relationships matter.

Biased yes. To be impartial is very hard. More so in political affairs (and I do not purport to be unopinionated here). Which is why we should be careful with those who appeal to impartiality (e.g. Mario Draghi).

For selfishness, it depends on what we are talking about. Don’t families (at least some of them) have solidarity between their members? Do they not help each other out? Have you ever given money to a friend without asking it back, or have known of such cases? Have you ever done work without asking for remuneration, such as to help paint the neighbour’s house or train their dog?

Selfishness is part of human nature. Though it is ameliorated by social relations where the altruistic spirit is made manifest. Perhaps then, what really matters is the structure of incentives that apply to each case and how that conditions people into behaving individualistically or collectively. Here, too, we have a case where the established order may be conditioning our thinking about it and the world in general.

To the point about success or failure in the market, I think we already have those mechanisms in place for small-scale businesses (as noted in the video). Where things stop being about a level-playing field is as we move upwards in the hierarchy, where we find variations of the excuse that certain entities are “too big to fail” (or are pillars of the national economy, integral to the national interest, etc.). Bail-out programmes shift taxpayer money into the coffers of privately-held entities, to the effect that they socialise private loses. In Cyprus, “we the people” paid for the mismanagement of Marfin Laiki Bank and for the incompetence of the Central Bank that channelled billions of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) into an insolvent corporation. The people were not asked about how their tax money should be used (again, non-representation) and they never got a share of the spoils, so to speak. When public money is used to pamper or rescue private gains, there is something fundamentally wrong.

Speaking of the ELA, this relates to what central banks are currently doing (and have been doing). No citizen ever elected a central banker or ever approved of any of those policies. Not even if we take the present means of legitimation as sufficient for the task (e.g. in the EU (and elsewhere) parliaments do not vote on the specifics of central bank policy, due to the institutional independence of the latter).

(4) You say “[Technocrats are] supposedly apolitical experts [who] are ideologues in their own right, [except that] their appeal to science is largely detached from the rigours of genuine science”. There is no denying that some technocrats are appointed by politicians because of their political beliefs to provide legitimacy to political decisions. However, the recent pandemic showed that, when faced with a genuine challenge, the appointment of true scientists is necessary.

Yes, the pandemic has shown that we need experts. We need specialists for practically everything in life. Though it is important we disambiguate expertise from technocracy in the literal sense of “rule by the experts”.

Let us put the pandemic aside as it is an ongoing issue which might still change how we think about it, and consider the previous crisis where governments appealed to expertise to fix the economy (or so the claim was). Those experts, economists in their training, were in agreement about reforms that would benefit creditors, such as in the form of bail-outs and then on the handling of non-performing loans.

The government which appointed those economists, was not impartial to begin with: governments being ideological, as you suggested, but also in practical terms because it had already picked sides by bailing out those “too big to fail” creditors (practically “too big to jail”), thus putting them in a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis those smaller entities who had taken on loans. Then the experts effectively confirmed what was a fait accompli: to continue to favour the creditors.

For the pandemic, I think we need to wait and see. One obvious constraint in terms of the management of the phenomena is that the years of austerity leading up to present day had rendered health services ineffective, underfunded, understaffed, and severely lacking in equipment.

This experience reminds us of the structural and/or intergenerational aspect of politics, where previous decisions determine the boundaries of the present horizon of possibilities. Those previous decisions were, in the immediate sense, about the 2008+ economic crisis, in which experts were not objective, strictly speaking (then we can ask how we were led to an economic order where exposure to financial risk was not properly accounted for, and so on).

In short, expertise is good to have and we should always take it into account, but we still have a lot of things to consider. The excuse that leads down the slippery slope of technocracy is that the experts are impartial and that their decisions should remain uncontested.

(5) One the point about the media’s role, I will offer one anecdote. The inquisitive journalist John Humphrys of BBC was interviewing someone from the English-speaking, Russia-backed, TV station Russia Today (RT) on the broadcasting of Russian propaganda by the station. Humphrys argued that because RT is owned by the government or Russia, it is biased. The response of the RT representative was that BBC is also government-owned, at which point Humphrys jubilantly stated that BBC is owned by the public who is paying the BBC licence fee.

It puts things in perspective.

[1] A trivial example for us Cypriots is the referendum on the Annan plan for Cyprus.

This relates to your first point about indifference and complexity. I left it last because that is how it appeared in your comment, but also because I want to tackle it on its own.

First off, I am not in favour of referenda over issues that cannot be answered with a simple Yes or No. The Annan Plan was such a case. The reason is that you are presented with a block vote, a choice of all or nothing. Does the “No” vote mean that citizens were against (i) a resolution per se, (ii) a resolution in the form of a federal system in general, (iii) a resolution in the form of the particular federal system, (iv) individual provisions of the plan, (v) other considerations and what would those be? We do not know from the result of the referendum itself. The vote is not reflective of opinions and, thus, non-representative.

Just to bring up the Brexit vote for a moment, Theresa May famously stated that “Brexit means Brexit”. That kind of meaningless statement shows us exactly how obscure the result of a referendum can be.

The internal complexity of the Annan Plan is not a justification for making the process of both its formation and eventual approval non-representative. For example, and without asking to reform the entire decision-making edifice, we could expect a new plan to be presented to parliamentarians with each provision being open to amendments/deliberation. Those drafts would then be brought together and reconsidered in light of the resulting consolidated text, and then taken back to parliamentarians for approval. Only afterwards would they put the proposal to a popular vote. The original draft and all the amendments would be available online, while the whole procedure would be live streamed and recorded for on-demand access by anyone. This is a more involved process for sure, but that is what popular participation entails. If we (not me and you, the general “we”) do not want all this seemingly inefficient back-and-forth, then why do we insist on having democracy or, as I noted earlier, why do we cling on to the appearance of democratic legitimacy?

[Prot note: This is a follow up to my reply]

As I said in my original reply, I agree with your overall thesis.

Regarding (1) I have a minor point, which doesn’t invalidate your conclusion. I agree with you that powerlessness leads to indifference (no power –> indifference). But this does not mean that we can fix indifference by giving people power (power -/> care).

Agreed! I cannot claim with confidence that giving people power or greater responsibility would necessarily make them care more, become competent, and the like. There would probably need to be complementary measures that would have to be adopted to essentially re-train people as citizens, but trying to enumerate them here or fathom their modalities is beside the point. We cannot know for sure unless we try or start thinking about trying. And even once we have had committed to a new course of action, our experience would not be immediately reproducible in other historical-cultural contexts. Life is messy and we tend to learn through trial and error, including when we try to be prescient and reasonable.