Thursday, December 18, 2003


Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman is a well-respected constitutional theorist. He also has written several books promoting a series of impractical ideas that all involve the federal government paying people a considerable amount of money. His most extravagant idea is presented in The Stakeholder Society (written with Anne Alstott), where he argues that every United States citizen should be given a federal grant of $80,000 on turning 21. I'm sure I would have loved that idea about 8 years ago, but I'm considerably more dubious now that I'm in the group of people who would be paying for it. Then, in Voting With Dollars, Ackerman (joined by Ian Ayres) argues that campaigns should be funded by what he calls the "Patriot Dollar" system, in which all citizens would be given 50 "Patriot Dollars" (again by the federal government) that they would then allocate in secrecy to the federal campaign of their choice. Interesting idea; not going to happen.

In his latest book, co-authored with James Fishkin, Ackerman has yet another unrealistic idea to promote: A national holiday called Deliberation Day. He and Fishkin explain their new idea in this Legal Affairs article:
In our soon-to-be-released book, we offer a new way of thinking about democratic reform, proposing a new national holiday—Deliberation Day. It would replace Presidents' Day, which does no service to the memories of Washington and Lincoln, and would be held two weeks before major national elections.

Registered voters would be called together in neighborhood meeting places, in small groups of 15 and larger groups of 500, to discuss the central issues raised by the campaign. Each deliberator would be paid $150 for the day's work of citizenship. To allow the business of the world to carry on and as many as possible to participate, the holiday would be a two-day affair.
Hmmm. Sounds awfully officious and meddlesome to me. Richard Posner's review is scathing:
I do not believe that private concerns are petty and that people are fully human only when they are deliberating about the “common good.” I do not even think such deliberations are productive of much except sound and fury. Widespread deliberation by citizens at large on issues of politics would mainly just reduce the civility of our politics by raising the temperature of public debate, making our politics more ideological and therefore more divisive.

* * *

I will be called cynical for doubting the value of political debate among ordinary citizens, for casting them in the role of passive onlookers of a struggle among ambitious politicians, and for questioning the possibility of meaningful reform of policy. I am merely being realistic. Reform does not well out of deliberation, but reflects passions and interests. Abolitionism, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, the opposition to the war in Vietnam, the rise of free-market ideology, welfare reform, and the gay-rights movement were not the product of discussion among voters debating on the model of the academic seminar (the implicit model, naturally, of academic reflection on the political process by the proponents of deliberative democracy, academics all). They were the product of moral and political entrepreneurs tapping into wells of discontent among minorities and eventually getting the attention of the politicians.

* * *

I have difficulty suppressing the uncharitable thought that there may be an element of bad faith in the deliberative-democracy movement generally (I do not mean in Ackerman and Fishkin particularly). I think that what motivates many deliberative democrats is not a love of democracy or a faith in the people, but a desire to change specific political outcomes, which they believe they could do through argument, if only anyone could be persuaded to listen, because they are masters of argumentation. I infer this secret agenda from the fact that most proponents of deliberative democracy advocate aggressive judicial review, which removes many issues from democratic control; are coy about indicating what policies they dislike but would accept; and are uncommonly fond of subjecting U.S. citizens to control by international organizations of questionable, and often of no, democratic pedigree. I sense a power grab by the articulate class whose comparative advantage is—deliberation.


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