The Architecture for Making Social Decisions: a pox upon both politicians and experts
Democratic societies make decisions that affect us all in two main ways. Some are made through politics; some are assigned to experts, mainly located in regulatory or specialized agencies. The two different environments for decision making reflect different kinds of behaviour that we count as ‘reasonable’.
We also lead our life in an environment where we do our own thing. In everyday life we operate to yet a different standard of what we count as reasonable.
The problems arise when these different worlds overlap. It is then that we start talking about ‘over-regulation’ or 'government intrusion'.. This blog discusses the importance of doing our own thing.
The rationality of experts & inconvenient truths
There are certain kinds of decisions in society that we want to compartmentalize, hive off and assign to experts. They are decisions that require specialized knowledge about what is the most up-to-date state of play in the social or natural sciences. The decisions may require considerable effort to gather relevant information. They may also require expert knowledge on how to process and evaluate the information, and to draw policy relevant inferences from it.
In this world the decisions reached are rational in the sense that, the relevant information is gathered and assessed by qualified professionals according to the accepted standards of the sciences. In addition, the eventual choices are made in terms of findings that measure pay-offs in terms of risks against the benefits, or costs against the benefits. Choices that do not pass a threshold are rejected. The choice that is ranked the ‘the best’, according to the standard of measurement, is selected.
When all the wheels have turned, we accept the judgement of experts for our own good. Thus, we accept, for example, expert judgement that banks should have more capital, a medicine can be released for general use, an airline is safe to fly on, and that a food product should be sold by a certain date.
We assign this world to experts and specialists because we know that we do not have the professional expertise or information ourselves. We also know that politicians are similarly ill-equipped. We would not want to let them anywhere too near.
We also accept that the ‘truths’ that emerge may be ‘inconvenient’. A medicine being trialled may not produce the hoped-for results for our own condition, our diesel car may be more polluting than is now permissible, and our favourite restaurant may be closed down because of rodent infested kitchens.
Nevertheless, in our technically complicated world we recognize that democratic societies need to be able to mobilize and make use of the best expertise available to them. We adjust to the inconveniences.
The rationality of democratic politics: engaging with the least bad
Democratic politics provides an environment for a different kind of rationality. It is not about hiving off. It is about engagement.
Democratic politics provides an environment for making decisions where our social affiliations can come into the equation. In this environment it is reasonable, in the language of economists, to ‘augment’ our sense of ‘utility’ by adding the emotive and the normative to a simple self-interest.
What this means is that when we engage with democratic politics we may try to calculate carefully what is in our own, or in our group’s best interest and try to achieve the best pay-off in these terms. However, we also take into account our broader sense of affiliation.
Thus, we may also want to signal our emotional attachments, for example to the kind of social setting we are used to, or to a more general sense of togetherness. We may also have a normative view that we want to express, for example that greater public investment should be made into the education system, or to defend values that we deem important.
The pay-offs from our engagement in democratic politics are not necessarily measured in terms of what is ‘best’ in terms of the most cost effective outputs. Very often, in order to respect the character of democratic engagement, we have to adjust our own aspirations to what is feasible. In socially diverse societies we may also have to adjust our own values, or even set them aside.
We accept these adjustments because alternatives to democratic engagement are worse.
Doing our own thing
There is another environment in which most of us live, most of the time. In this environment we put politics and politicians aside, we leave experts to get on in their worlds, and we concentrate on our daily living.
It this everyday world we do not make fully calculated choices of what is best for us along some scale of risks and benefits, nor do we pay much attention to the broader social ramifications of our decisions. Instead, we do our own thing, make short cut choices and settle for the ‘good enough’.
In this environment of daily living we make short cut choices simply on the basis of convenience and on information that is readily at hand. For example, in selecting a hotel for a holiday we may go to a comparison website that assembles a lot of comparative information about hotels rather than going into a detailed search, from one hotel website to another, for ourselves. We may not end up with the ‘best’ according to our criteria, but we hope to end up with what we count as good and acceptable.
In this world of the ‘good enough’ we do not spend time to go over whether or not we have made fully considered and consistent choices. At any one time our normative views about what is good and right may not be fully consistent across the board. Our emotional attachments may not be fully consistent either. Our short cut calculations about the costs and risks of a particular course of action for ourselves may also be faulty as we opt for what is most convenient and for information readily at hand.
These different ways of taking decisions can each be considered ‘reasonable’ in their own different contexts. Nevertheless there are tensions between these environments. The difficulty for democratic societies arises when the different environments overlap and the different types of rationality compete.
Politics v experts
One familiar kind of overlap occurs between the world of experts and the world of politics. For example, if there is some kind of public health emergency, political opinion may want experts to make a different judgement about what are acceptable risks in getting an unproven medicine into use quickly. Similarly, if unemployment levels are perceived to be doing long term lasting damage to social structures, then politicians may want central bankers to take a different view in weighing the costs of austerity against the benefits.
The inconsistencies of politics
Another kind of overlap occurs between the judgments of everyday life and political engagement. In this case the overlap occurs because in both worlds we use short cut decision making methods.
For example, when we take decisions about who to vote for we may take the view that if something is good enough for our friends and associates and gets their ‘likes’, it is going to be good enough for us as well.
In their turn, politicians also make use of short cut communication. They ‘tweet’, or pay for a TV image, rather than present a fully worked out argument.
What this means is that the character of democratic engagement suffers from the same lack of consistency and faulty calculations as our everyday decision making. Policy is riddled with ‘blind spots’. If we inhabit the world inside Washington’s Beltway we blame populism. If we live beyond the Beltway we blame ‘elites’.
Remedial architecture: connections and corrections
The main response to overlaps between the different worlds is though some form of remedial architecture. For example, the expert world may be connected to the everyday world through consultative bodies and with the political world though task forces.
The blind spots in the political environment also call for correcting measures – both procedural and institutional. Probably new types of correcting bodies are called for today - for example those needed to correct for intergenerational blind spots.
We also need to pay attention to the everyday world of the good enough.
The justification for doing our own thing
Because the world of the everyday ‘good enough’ decision making is easy to criticise, it is tempting for other actors to want to encroach on it and impose their own style of rationality.
Regulators forget that compartmentalizing expertise is a social convenience. They continue to want to apply refined estimates of costs and risks in areas where refined calculations are not needed. They over-regulate.
Similarly, politicians forget that they are themselves the product of short cut reasoning. They claim to act for some higher, more consistent notion of the general good and forget their own blind spots. They think they know better.
The most important feature of the world of the good enough is that we learn by doing. We make costly mistakes. Next time we may be more careful in getting information and about the reliability of our sources. From our everyday interactions with others we also may be led to revise our perspective on social ties, or to update our ethical judgments.
We can learn from political engagement; we can learn from experts. We should not devalue what we can learn for ourselves. The Victorian era political economist John Stewart Mill asserted that to be prevented from acting according to one’s own judgment starves the development of some portion of our mental faculties.
It is our ability to revise that is our most important social survival skill. For the sake of our own survival we need to keep both politicians and experts in their place.
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