It is pleasure to be invited to blog at the V.C. Thanks to Eugene and Ilya for thinking of me. I would like to talk about political deliberation. According to an influential literature that cuts across philosophy, political science, and law, the moral legitimacy of laws is enhanced when it is preceded by robust public deliberation. Of course, deliberation is not a sufficient condition of legitimacy (you need right process as well) but, in a democracy, those who lose in the political process have less reason to complain if the majority’s decision was preceded by robust deliberation. Proponents of this view, deliberative democrats (DDs, for short) claim that the more the public deliberates, the better the chances are of getting things right. Deliberation, for them, has epistemic virtues.
I think this view is mistaken, and so my co-author and I argue in our recent book. Public deliberation takes us further away from the truth. The reason is that the public is ignorant about social theory. Becoming properly informed is a necessary condition for deliberation having any epistemic value, yet becoming informed is costly (this is why the public is rationally ignorant.) Take tax cuts. As readers of this blog know, tax policy is highly complex: tax cuts often stimulate the economy, but this is not always so. Knowing the exact effect of tax cuts requires knowledge of complex economic propositions which the public cannot be expected to learn. So on one end, the public is rationally ignorant. But on the other end, politicians, knowing this, feed into that ignorance for electoral purposes. That’s why the “debate” over Bush’s tax cuts was never about economics. It was a debate about whether he was trying to help his rich friends. The democrats tried to convince the voter that this was the case, because the voter understands this dynamic of zero-sum interaction: here they go again, the rich taking from the poor. But the government did not make a serious economic argument for the tax cuts either: it tried to convince the voter that he (and not the bureaucrat in Washington) could make a better spending decision. So: the public holds theories by default that are vivid (and often mistaken). Reliable social science, instead, provides opaque explanations that are harder to apprehend. This perverse dynamics produces a phenomenon that we call discourse failure. In public deliberation, people will say things that are traceable to truth-insensitive cognitive processes. Predictably, people will mostly say false things in public. It follows that, contrary to the claim by DDs, public deliberation will not bring us closer to the truth.