I spoke with professor Mark Pennington of the University of London recently on the application of Hayekian thought to deliberative democratic theory, in particular that of Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson (hereafter “G&T”), elaborated in their book Why Deliberative Democracy? The interview is available here. I will claim at the outset that I am receiving my understanding of G&T’s arguments from Pennington, relying only on his reading of their work (with the exception of a synopsis of her thought which I’ve read but can no longer find the link to). I say this now to avoid prefacing the following with “According to Pennington, G&T…” ad nauseam.

The interview is fairly brief for a topic that could be the basis of a days long conference, but brevity has its benefits, and in this case the interview is 30 minutes, or the amount of time it takes me to drive to work.

Pennington dissects G&T’s arguments against the market and in favor of deliberative democratic methods, both (a) pointing out how markets are superior to their alternative in cases where substituting one for the other is a theoretical possibility , and (b) criticizing some of their other ideas as being undesirable altogether.

For an example of (a),  G&T claim that markets take consumer preference as a given, giving little thought to the formation of new tastes and challenges to the status quo, and in this way a conservative phenomenon in contrast to their deliberative democratic alternative, which would allow for the articulation of idiosyncratic perspectives and thus dynamic and superior democratic problem solving. Pennington points out that in fact markets are far more fluid and flexible than their political counterpart, which necessarily (though inaccurately) aggregates the views of the small number of politically engaged citizens to form public policy that is then “locked in” until the next election cycle.

As for (b), G&T support Identity Politics as a way of giving voice (and power) to minority perspectives and concerns, which from a Hayekian perspective is insufficient to account for individualized notions of what it even means to be any given category of minority, and from a broader liberal point of view unhealthy as a way of highlighting and politically sanctioning group differences. Of course, if you notice a contradiction between G&T’s criticism of the market and their support for identity politics, you’re in the same befuddled camp as Pennington.

Another point mentioned is the inherent bias of deliberative democratic theory in favor of the chattering and educated class, with its emphasis on explicit and highly public discussion, as opposed to the happenstance and chaotic interaction of real people in their day-to-day lives and their myriad ways of problem solving. As Pennington has it, to believe that deliberative democracy can know the solution to such problems and recreate, or better yet, improve upon civil society’s mechanisms for doing the same is to suffer from the “synoptic delusion.”

The conversation hints at a potentially much larger one on the frustration public intellectuals feel with the market’s resistance to justification at a normative level. It is an “amoral elephant,” a mass of discrete individuals operating with partial knowledge to achieve goals more humble than what the political class would prefer, and with no collective end in mind.

Pennington’s recently written a book, Robust Political Economy, and contributes to the blog Pileus, so check it out.

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