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The fraying fabric of liberal democracy

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-04-2017 Arun Maira

Liberal, secular democracies are besieged. Their ideals are being challenged among Hindus in India, among Republicans in America and among political parties in France. They are besieged in Russia, Turkey and other countries. Alarms were heard around the world with the unexpected election of Donald Trump as president of the US—though there were many earlier warnings of dissatisfaction with institutions of liberal democracy, with the rise of authoritarian leaders and populist movements on all continents. Like global warming, which has come into collective human awareness lately, the causes of discontent with liberal democracy have been brewing outside the gatherings in which “people like us” from around the world were celebrating globalization’s benefits. They weren’t listening.

A democracy or an econocracy?

An expanding movement called “Rethinking economics”, of over 40 groups of economics students in 13 countries, is expressing dissatisfaction with the ideas of economics they are being taught. They also point to a root cause of the global discontent with democracies. In their view, the large influence of economists on governments and in multilateral organizations, as well as the dominant ideas of economics that are being translated into public policy, have converted democracies into “econocracies”. They present their arguments in a very readable book, The Econocracy: The Perils Of Leaving Economics To The Experts.

“The economy”, they say, has become a parallel universe to human society. It has its own models of the world founded on over-simplified premises such as: Human beings are rational, self-interested agents; transactions between them can be modelled as mathematical formulas; and whatever cannot be quantified cannot have a role in their models. In this over-simplified view of human society, politics—the cut and thrust of human aspirations and power—is an interference in the growth of a disembodied “economy”, the maximization of whose growth must be the ultimate goal of good economic policies.

The authors give the example of how a famous children’s charity justified a campaign to encourage fathers to read to their children on the basis that improving literacy would increase GDP (gross domestic product) by 1.5% by 2020. With the dominance of economists in public policy, people are being led to think that something is worth doing only if it will contribute to the growth of GDP.

Rather than society being manipulated to feed the growth of a disembodied economy, the economy must be changeable to serve society. In his introduction to The Econocracy, J.B.S. Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, writes, “Public interest in institutions has been dented. Repairing that dent... will require new and wider means of listening to, and learning from societal stakeholders.” The student authors say, “We believe that at its core, economics should be a public discussion about how to organize society. To be able to do that, economics must be transformed from a technical discipline into a public dialogue”.

EVMs and deliberative democracy

US Justice Louis Brandeis said: “The greatest menace to freedom is an inert people. Public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be the fundamental principle of the American government.” The popular vision of democracy is a society in which every citizen has a right to vote for her representative in government. In this vision, the core of democracy is free, fair and frequent elections. According to this concept, India is a hugely successful democracy. Using technology, such as electronic voting machines (EVMs), it conducts elections on a scale no other country does. EVMs are transported even to remote mountain hamlets so that every citizen can exercise her right to vote.

This vision sees only the vertical threads of democracy’s fabric—the constitutional relationship between the people and those who govern them. It misses the horizontal threads that make the fabric of democracy strong. The horizontal threads are processes for deliberation among citizens, who may have diverse opinions about the qualities of their society and differences about what public policy should be. As Brandeis said, public discussion is the duty of citizens; only to vote in elections is not enough.

Technology is making it easier for consumers to exercise their choices in the marketplace. With a touch on their smartphones, they can select from a dazzling array of products and services sellers offer them. They can also electronically select a candidate from those offered to them at elections. Social media and marketing companies are deploying increasingly better algorithms to understand every individual’s preferences and give her what she wants. They know what we like and give us more of what we like. Thus, social media, with its vast reach, is creating large echo chambers of people with the same preferences, within which they can hear more about what they like, from people they want to follow. However, it is deepening divides between people with different views. They do not hear each other.

“For a healthy democracy, shared public spaces, online or not, are a lot better than echo chambers”, writes Cass Sunstein in his book, #Republic: Divided Democracy In The Age Of Social Media. Digital technologies and social media are making life easier for consumers. But they are making life more difficult for citizens. Two centuries before social media, framers of the US Constitution were deeply worried that without the horizontal weft of democratic deliberations, democracy’s fabric would be weak. Social media facilitates populism. It is making people passive consumers and passionate supporters of products—including political leaders.

Democracy’s vertical links between people and their governments have become weak, with experts making policies which they are convinced are good for the economy, without listening to the people. Democracy’s horizontal threads are fraying, with “people like us” listening only to people we like, a tendency that social media strengthens. Deficiencies in listening are root causes for the weakening of democracy’s fabric.

Arun Maira served in the erstwhile Planning Commission.

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