The second political delegation


in M.Phil thesis, Politics, Science, The environment

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?

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

B October 3, 2006 at 9:31 pm

Stephen Colbert addressed this issue tonight.

R.K. October 3, 2006 at 4:41 pm

Democratic participation may be the last thing we want in environmental policy.

Most people are scientifically illiterate, because they are disinterested and poorly educated on it. 18% of Canadians apparently consider astrology to be ‘very scientific’ while a majority of Americans disbelieve in evolution.

Ben October 3, 2006 at 11:39 pm

‘The founding myth of democracy’?

The Rawlsian ‘how would hypothetical people like to run a society’ is all very well – indeed, I believe Madison appealed to some similar veil of ignorance type set up – but I don’t think it and utilitarianism are the only justifications going.

I think the Athenian founding myths (or at least some of them) traced the origins of their ancestral constitution back to the gods. (And, incidentally, you’re right that they did elect generals – but elections were typically regarded as aristocratic because they favoured the best men; the democratic device was selection by lot)

It does sound like you’re exploring very interesting questions, albeit a bit ‘downstream’ of where I’d be happier.

Milan October 3, 2006 at 11:51 pm

albeit a bit ‘downstream’ of where I’d be happier.

What do you mean by that?

Milan October 4, 2006 at 1:30 pm


What justifications for democratic authority can you think of, aside from utilitarian ones and those based on consent?

Lee October 4, 2006 at 2:25 pm

“Democratic participation may be the last thing we want in environmental policy.”

That’s the typical, sneering, anti-people attitude that produces bad democratic politics and the exact shift away from democratic accountability and government to technocracy that Milan is talking about.

Rule by technocrats is a result of a specific historical conjuncture. Back in the ’50s, the idea that you would devolve control of your monetary policy to a bunch of non-elected gimps who would prioritise the smooth functioning of the market over, say, job creation and demand stimulation, would have been laughable. Today, the political circumstances are very different. Gordon Brown is such a democrat that the first act of the Treasury was to make the Bank of England independent and give it control of interest rates. Demands to subject appointments to the Bank’s board to Parliamentary approval have been consistently rejected.

The view that this is a good idea, an improvement, rests on certain reactionary assumptions about the world and about the citizenry. About the world, it assumes things operate “just so”, and the best we can do is trim our sails to the wind and become part of a bigger machine — the answers are “obvious” and the solutions “apolitical”. Rarely, if ever, true. Most of the systems we find ourselves in are man-made structures and we have a choice to make over how things work or whether to junk whole systems. Ultimately that choice is a political one.

This includes the environment. Scientific dissent over the causes and course of global warming aside, it is not at all obvious what we should do about it. The major answer right now seems to be to “tax polluters”, which is often translated into a regressive attack on people who can least afford it, e.g. taxes on cheap flights meaning poor people won’t be able to take foreign holidays, rising energy prices that hit the poor and vulnerable the hardest. The environmentalist lobby pushes a consistent line of austerity: cut consumption, sustainable living within existing known resources, etc. I can imagine nothing more miserable than living in the ideal world of the Green Party, where we all live in caves and aren’t allowed to have central heating (if you think this is extreme then read the ‘Environmental Manifesto’ written for the Oxford Magazine at the end of Trinity 06).

The idea of massive investment in technology to produce more sustainable energy sources, increase the efficiency of industrial processes, recycle more resources, turn useless materials into useful ones, or the idea of massive investment in nuclear power, hardly makes it onto the radar. These are possible alternatives to the imposition of austerity, and they will only gain proper consideration if environmental policy is opened up to democratic debate, scrutiny and involvement. People are sick of elites decreeing policies designed to force them to change their behaviour that creates more cost and inconvenience and strips people of opportunities. The Tory Party conference got at least one thing right by voting against higher taxes on cheap flights. The people of Bournemouth got it right by sabotaging “pay as you throw” rubbish schemes where councils “bug” rubbish bins then bill you for disposing of your garbage. As if individuals themselves generate waste, rather than industries that produce overly-packaged products, for instance.

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