After a whole summer without Claire’s sterling conversation, I was glad to see her for a few hours. While energetically complaining about the grading of my research design essay, I had a thesis relevant idea. Perhaps, it could even be a way to introduce the topic. The idea is that science based policy making is a kind of second political delegation.
The founding myth of democracy tells of a participant democracy where citizens (with lots of wisdom and plenty of time on their hands), sit around and decide how the state should operate. Since citizens aren’t all slaveholders anymore, and have other things to do with their time, the myth goes that we delegated political authority to elected representatives. Now, the myth may be faulty and lacking in historical truth, but it is the essence of the argument for the legitimacy of democratic governments – at least, for those who believe in a hypothetical notion of consent, rather than using utilitarian justification.
All kinds of governments delegate areas of responsibility to experts, but the process is most interesting from a democratic perspective. Ancient examples are warfare and diplomacy. Each is critically concerned with information: both about tactics and about the world. Each is not particularly subject to outside scrutiny, both for reasons of secrecy and because expertise in the discipline is required to even understand it. More recently, there has been expert delegation in the economic realm; most notably, central banks have been made independent. Again, information control is important. Again, scrutiny comes from within structures developed and operated by the experts themselves.
When we come to science based environmental policy making, however, things get even more complex. Scientists are often envisioned as being like bridge designing engineers. Policy makers say: we want a bridge here, figure out how to build it and what it will cost. What happens in environmental policy, however, is a far broader delegation: a charge to identify which problems are important, how they work, what their severity will be, how they could be stopped or managed, and how they will interact with each other. Mixed into those calculations are all manner of issues that are not fundamentally technical, but rather ethical, political, or economic.
If the first delegation is defended on the one hand hand in terms of expediency and on the other hand in terms of electoral oversight, what is the equivalent for science based policy? Policy makers of all stripes have two claims to their power: a legitimacy derived from popular consent, and an expertise in governing. Without the first, and without a real ability to scrutinize the second (look at disagreements among economists about whether monetary policy under Alan Greenspan was well managed or not), what is left of the democratic basis of government?