Wednesday, 24 March 2004

Deliberation Day returns

The idea of “Deliberation Day” is back in the press, and Steven Taylor—a former student of James Fishkin at UT-Austin—finds the whole idea rather wanting:

There is also the problem of what will be told to the citizens-for-hire during that 24 hour period. I know for a fact that both Ackerman and Fishkin are both rather focused on the issue of distrbutive justice (read: economic distribution) in the context of the liberal state (and not, specifically a classical liberal state but the liberal-welfare state that emerges as a strain of liberalism in the twentieth century). For example, Ackerman’s Social Justice in the Liberal State (1980) while well-written, highly readable, and fun to discuss in class, is a remarkably impractical (and, to me, utterly unpersuasive) attempt to justify economic egalitarianism (at least at the start of each generation).

As for civic competence in general:

Further, if we want better citizens, how about just providing better and more complete American Government classes in High School? How about having someone other than the basketball coach teach government and history? These seem more auspicious places to start.

You can read Brendan Conway’s critique of Ackerman and Fishkin at OpinionJournal (or, quite possibly, in the actual Wall Street Journal), which contains this rather devastating passage:

To test things out, Messrs. Ackerman and Fishkin conducted experimental “deliberative polls” to simulate DDay. To be sure, the weekend-long events seemed to make participants know more. But they also ended up as more vocal advocates of government activism. Perhaps this wasn’t a coincidence.

Foreign aid, energy-conservation schemes, the United Nations and revenue-sharing all became more popular over the course of the polls. Is this because smarter, more informed citizens arrive at activist, liberal positions? It is impossible to avoid the impression that the authors think so. “Participants entered the Deliberative Poll as citizens of the United States and left, to some measurable degree, as citizens of the world,” they write approvingly. Maybe the briefing materials had something to do with this transformation. They were “typically supervised for balance and accuracy by an advisory board of relevant experts and stakeholders.”

This claim raises an interesting question: Just who decides who it is who decides what is balanced and accurate? Maybe Messrs. Ackerman and Fishkin do, or experts they trust. But isn’t that in itself a problem? Indeed, the whole notion of DDay is, in its essence, nondeliberative. Its rules and forms and structures—not to mention those briefing materials and the advisers who supervise them—are handed down from on high rather than arrived at through democratic, um, deliberation. This is a rich irony of which the authors are seemingly unaware.

I previously took issue with Ackerman and Fishkin’s idea here and here.

Update: Robert Musil has more.