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The Philosophical and Democratic Case for a Citizens’ Super-Jury to Represent and Defend Future People

Rupert Read
University of East Anglia


“[Society is] a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” – Edmund Burke

“We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.” – World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987

“We may come to think that vox populi is vox dei, but not until it is the group voice, not until it is found by some more intimate process than listening to the shout of the crowd or counting the votes in the ballot-box.” – Mary Parker Follett

“The irony of the matter is that the future generations do not have a vote. In effect, we hold their proxy.” – Charles J. Hitch, Regarding the environment

“Strange as it may seem…how to decide who legitimately make up ‘the people’ and hence are entitled to govern themselves…is a problem almost totally neglected by all the great political philosophers who write about democracy.” – Robert Dahl, After the revolution

“Only connect.” – M. Forster

I: Introduction: The Challenge We Face 

The world is at a ‘tipping point’. If we go one way – the way we are currently going – then our climate and our ecosystems more generally will continue to tip, and more radically: in a way that future generations will almost certainly be unable to control. If we go another, if we manage to find a ‘Gladwellian’ way to change our society in time, then those fateful climate (etc.) tipping points might yet be avoided.

How might philosophy, international relations theory and jurisprudence assist, in this epic task? How can we find a way of thinking (and acting) globally, of thinking long-term, and of thinking about major environmental problems (which of course know no frontiers), that will be enough for us and for those who come after us? For it is of course environmental problems above all that, among the decisions we make and the results of those that we bring about, stand to hurt our descendants.

My suggestion in this paper is that the great applied work for philosophers et al at this time is to think a change to our socio-political institutions that might enable us to rise to the challenge we face: that might enable us collectively to think the future. To think and will and bring about a sustainable/survivable future. This way will have, I argue, to be and to be perceived to be democratic; in the era of the Arab Spring, authoritarian ‘solutions’ are simply no longer viable, even if they were to be desirable (which they are not). It will also have to have enough teeth, enough force, to do what is necessary to turn around this supertanker, this carbon-driven society that we live in. A society in which the economic interests of rich individuals and corporations (and countries) is tending to tyrannise over the needs of the bulk of humanity – present and future.

This is the challenge we face. I answer it here by offering a radical vision: of a ‘super-jury’ of strong guardians for the future, powerfully inserted at the apex of each and every parliamentary democracy, and into our system of international governance (such as it is – and, hopefully, to be strengthened in the process).

In response to this challenge, I will begin by (in the remainder of the present section) laying out briefly in an informal manner how I arrived at my argument to follow (and thus summarise my proposal). I will then detail that argument, in sections 1 thru 7 of the paper. This, I have tended to find, is the most effective way of introducing and making comprehensible the radical proposal that I am making.

The simplest way of making plausible the challenge that we face is to point out that we have to find some way of addressing chronic short-termism in our culture and institutions. [1]  The electoral cycle, let alone the news cycle, quarterly reports: these all incline us to incredibly short time-horizons. The idea in the present paper is proposed to counterbalance those pressures for short-termism.

This problem of short-termism is particularly harsh so far as it applies to electoral democracy. Only people who are alive vote. Even markets do, at least in a rudimentary way, include a reckoning for future people: for example, the desire of future people for oil is already being registered, today, in (somewhat!) ‘rational expectations’ about future oil prices. Thus economic decisions being taken right now make at least some basic inclusion of the needs of future people. But votes don’t, unless future people are fortunate enough that voters explicitly choose for them to, in a way that makes the effort to foresee those needs.

And that begins to lead into another way in which one can think about the basis for the proposal that I will make, that’s equally important: and that’s in the concept of democracy itself (See section 1, below). One of the main things I want to do is to get philosophers and IR theorists and citizens to reflect on what we mean by democracy.  What is democracy?  For me, the obvious place to start with that question is etymology; and ‘democracy’ means, or is supposed to mean, ‘the rule of the people’.

So: the question we ought to ask ourselves is, “Do the people rule in Britain [or the U.S., or wherever, reader, you are living] today?” And to ask that question is to answer it— of course they don’t.  In Britain, where I live, and allegedly the ‘mother’ of all modern parliamentary democracies, we need a reformed electoral system, a thoroughly reformed Upper House, economic democracy, localisation, participatory democracy; these are the kind of changes that would be needed to make a country like Britain worthy of the name ‘democratic’.  But there’s a problem that remains, even after all of those reforms have perhaps been made in some wonderful future that we could just possibly imagine.  There would be some very substantial constituencies left out of it: because, I want to say, we ought to think about what it means to have a people governing.  Who are the people who govern?  If we’re thinking of the people as consisting only of people who are alive today, then, once again, we’re thinking in a chronically short-termist way. We ought to think of ‘the people’ as something stretched over a long temporal period, beginning in the past and going on indefinitely into the future.

Now, it might be suggested (at this point) that this point can be phrased in broadly-Kantian terms, i.e. by saying that political decisions in any case presuppose the postulate of an indefinitely progressing human species. My response is this: I wish this were so. If it were truly and univocally so, then the need for me to be writing the paper I have written would not be so pressing. As it is, we face a serious danger that humanity is going to stop progressing and start regressing, because of chronic political etc short-termism. The ‘broadly-Kantian’ thought offered above appears insufficient; roughly, it’s been tried, and failed  (So: We need to find some way of more explicitly and deliberately involving future people in our political deliberations). One of the reasons that it has failed is that the ways we have tended to think of politics and of representation, including in political and legal philosophy and in international relations theory, have tacitly excluded or downgraded future people  (I shall return to this point).

For it’s the future people who (among the three ‘classes’ of people mentioned by Burke in the epigraph which opens this paper) matter the most because, of course, there isn’t a lot that we can do to harm past people.  They’ve had their time and, while we should respect their memory, we can’t make their lives terribly unpleasant or kill them before they’re born.  But, roughly, we can do those things to future people—and the great danger is that we are already doing those things to some future people right now.  So what I am wanting to suggest is that we ought and need to find some way of including future people in our democratic system.

How to do that?  You’ve got to think about how you would have some kind of proxy equivalent of a vote, for future people.

And moreover: as long as we don’t do completely the wrong thing by future people and prevent them from existing at all, there will over time be a very great many more of them than there are of us.  They would if needs be out-vote us every time.  So this equivalent of a proxy vote ought to be put in the form of a proxy veto (as discussed in sections 2, 3 and 5, below).

How to instantiate that?  Well, you could do what has already been tried elsewhere (see section 2, below); or you could go for some existing political/philosophical proposal (reviewed in section 6, below). But my submission in the present paper is that neither the actually-existing precedents nor even the actually-existing proposals do what I have called for here. Instead, I suggest that you need to have some group able to represent the needs of future people, and empower them to a degree that has never previously been countenanced: they ought to exercise a proxy veto over what our current governmental institutions do.

How are you going to select those people?  My suggestion is that the only sane way to pick those people, the representers of the future, is by random selection—the same principle that animates the jury system (I justify this suggestion in section 4, below).  The jury system is, of course, an intimate part of our democracy as we have it at the present time (insofar as we do have it), and has been so, roughly, in Britain, since Magna Carta.

So, that’s the essence of my proposal: a super-jury, faithfully sworn to uphold the basic needs of future people; with access to the very best expert advice (including from philosophers, legal theorists, international relations experts…); able to exercise a proxy veto on the future’s behalf over legislation.  And these people should be selected like a jury, by ‘sortition’…which was exactly the main democratic mechanism in Athens, which is well-known as the ‘birthplace of democracy’.  There’s no particular reason why ‘democracy’ has to mean election; democracy can mean random selection, sortition.  It did in Athens; it could do again here and now; it still animates our democratic system through the jury system.

You could call these new guardians ‘philosopher-kings’… But the philosophical inspiration for my proposal is actually less Plato than Habermas (as I detail in section 3, below). The super-jurors wouldn’t of course have to be philosophers; they would form a non-elite, democratic institution. Giving a powerful voice to the voiceless (unborn future generations). Actually bringing us a step nearer to a more ideal situation in which the speech of all can as it were be heard, and matter, at last…

I will now seek to make good and fill out the summary-overview just offered.

II: Demo-cracy – What Does It mean?

Democracy means: the people rule… Do the people rule at present? To ask the question is to answer it: No…

So, for example, to change this, one might have a polity such as Britain’s, [2] that has a House of Commons (which should be elected by proportional representation (PR)), and an Upper House (that should probably be elected by PR if the Commons is not or alternatively selected Athenian-style by a Goodwin- style lot, [3] and served by experts to assist in its deliberation). Such electoral reform, together with campaign finance reform (public funding of elections), massively-egalitarian redistributive legislation, and serious media reform to break the power of media oligarchs, should be enough to take us some way in the direction of democracy. Furthermore, serious decentralisation is essential – what Colin Hines calls ‘localisation’ – and this can and should result in far more participatory democracy.

But: there is a problem that still remains, even in the much-improved reformed democracy that would eventuate. The problem is this: The people who would rule, even in this improved democratically-reformed future, are only the people (in fact, the adult, registered-to-vote, not extremely-infirm etc. people) who are alive now. But surely ‘the people’ [4] ought to be thought of in a far more temporally extended manner. Does a people only exist as a momentary ‘time-slice’; or even one generation at a time? Surely not. A people, a nation-state, a society, a continent such as Europe, the global citizenry: each of these is something extended over time. Extending into (or rather from) the past, and extends indefinitely into the future. (Of course, over time a people changes, radically: the Romans of the fourth century C.E. don’t have a great deal in common with the ‘Romans’ of today. But this point too will turn out to my eventual advantage: for over time, a people tends gradually to become more and more dispersed into the entire future of the human race. A people, to protect its descendants, needs to protect the entire human future; needs, that is, to protect the ecosystems etc of the Earth…)

To some extent this is an intractable problem that we simply have to come to terms with: our power over the future. We cannot wish this away. We cannot wish away the asymmetry between us and them. That is why John Foster is right that the question of futurity is always a question for us, and why he is right that our lives risk becoming meaningless if we give up on giving our all for that future. [5]

But to some extent ours may be a problem that is tractable. This paper aims to explore that tractability. To propose a solution, a way in which we can enable the people considered as ‘distributed’ over time (crucially: into the future) as well as over space, to rule. We, the people who are alive right now, are suffering from a democratic deficit, for sure. But ‘we’ (‘they’) the people who are yet to come, are suffering from a far more severe democratic deficit – which must be acted on. We must work to include future people in the demos, and that is what I propose to do.

Burke, in a famous passage (see my epigraph, above) clearly forgotten by most supposed c/Conservatives in UK and (especially) the USA for a generation, says that society is a contract between the dead, [6] the living and those unborn (with no limit specified on the generations ahead)…

What does all this mean? I believe it means that we have to find a way of bringing the voices of those beings vulnerable to hurt and presently without a voice – most strikingly, future generations; [7] also (although I won’t argue this here), non-human animals [8]– into the political and juridical structures of our society, of our state, of our world.

I am suggesting that this is essential for basic justice, for proper and truly democratic procedure. But again, the essentiality of doing so, obviously, is underlined by factors such as the extent to which voting nowadays is taken by some to be an exercise in selfishness (such that we cannot rely on voters’ altruism to take care of the voiceless[9]), the rampant short-termism and short-sightedness of our political and economic systems, and above all the continuing rapid degradation of our ecosystem (which is the life-support system of us all, and a precondition for the existence and wellbeing of our descendants). Mutual constraint, mutually-agreed upon, needs to include the kind of constraint it would be reasonable for our descendants to require of us. They need somehow to be party to the agreement that is demo-cracy: the rule, the government, the will of the people.

So: it seems pretty clear that we need a significant change to our democratic system, to make it potentially worthy of the name. There needs to be a mechanism for voicing — and protecting — the needs and even perhaps the wishes of future people. [10] To put this for a moment in Rousseauian terms: the general will, and the common interest, must be theirs too, and not just ours. They are part of the demos: and our institutions need to change to reflect this.

III: Actually-Existing Precedents [11]

I will not attempt a complete summary of actually-existing precedents for the kind of change that I am here envisaging. A very good survey can be found in Peter Roderick’s report, “Taking the Longer View: UK Governance Options for a Finite Planet.” [12] I will merely comment briefly on a couple of the most important and currently-influential precedents, internationally.

A number of NGOs with whom I am currently working are (understandably) excited by the example offered by Hungary. Hungary instituted a ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations’ a few years ago. [13] Without doubt, this ombudsman has given some voice to the basic needs of future people. The issue is whether that voice carries very much weight. What has the ombdusman actually managed to achieve? What concrete changes has his appointment made, in the cases in which he has sought to intervene? I cannot argue this here, but my assessment, having read reports etc. on the first few years of the ombudsman is: very little. To those who would wish to counter this negative assessment, I would issue this challenge: Please point me to one actual legal or parliamentary matter of any great substance where the ombudsman’s intervention has actually won the day. I cannot find evidence of a single one.

Reluctantly, despite the promise of the ‘Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations’ in Hungary, and while eagerly agreeing that his role has had good consciousness-raising effects and deserves to be recognised as at least giving some voice to the needs of future people, I am driven to the conclusion that even Hungary’s constitutional innovation doesn’t really take seriously the inclusion of future people in the people. And this is the most promising extant example in the world. If the best case is simply not good enough, then that strongly suggests that something novel (and stronger) is required. (In section 6 below, I will argue in fact that it is not merely that there are no adequate existing precedents. It is that no truly adequate proposal has previously even been imagined. But I will reserve my argument to this effect until after I have laid out my own proposal, with which other also-non-actualised proposals can be compared. The most promising historical antecedent in fact is arguably the famous ‘7th generation rule’ of the Iroquois. Something modelled on this could constitute an alternative to the proposal that I shall make. I think it a somewhat promising one, but I shall explain (in section 6) below why I think it less promising in itself than the novel proposal that I am actually going to make.)

What future people actually need is not just a proxy voice: they need, roughly speaking, to have a vote, in a fair and genuinely democratic system of governance. But this won’t work, for extremely obvious reasons. So we need instead to find a way of protecting them through some standing in the political system (and in the legal system) that will be akin to this.

If we include future people in the people, the demos; and if we recognise that (unless we commit the gravest crime of all, by pre-emptively wiping them out) there will be far more of them than there are of us; then their ‘proxy vote’ should be expressed as a proxy veto on any actions by us that would be devastating for them.

I propose then that there be guardians for future generations, standing proxy for them with very strong institutional, political and legal powers (I set out what exactly those powers should be in Section 5, below), stronger than any yet instituted, and even than any yet envisaged or proposed. Only that will be enough, for democracy, and for the protection of the future people. In sum: I propose that we give them en masse the nearest possible equivalent or analogue to the vote: a proxy veto.

IV: Philosophical Underpinnings 

Does my proposal mean in effect an eco-dictatorship? Am I proposing something straight out of Plato’s Republic, albeit decisively oriented toward the future?

No. Once again: I am talking about an integral part of our democracy, something that makes it worth calling democracy. But this change that I am proposing needs to be brought forth, manifested, in a way that makes that plausible and clear.

We need then to think about the legitimation of a democratic principle for how to represent, voice and empower future generations (whether by means of ‘guardianship’ or in any other way). First, then, let me move to introduce into this conversation the leading living philosopher of legitimation and of democracy, Jurgen Habermas.

One’s starting-point here, in thinking about legitimation, ought to be the fundamental principle of every democratic government: all power is based upon the people. This is a simple, clear concept of how a state is legitimate. Every citizen of a nation is to be treated as a citizen and thus able to have their own voice. This form of government ensures a ground for a just procedure of governing, entailing the (re-)distribution of power and authority. The justice of the procedure is based upon the fact that every member, in the exercise of her own will, is in a position to equally-contribute towards the decision process which involves her fate. In the United Kingdom this contribution is (allegedly) ensured via representatives on different levels of government who are voted in in a just way.

So far the situation is set and clear, but there are implications that are hidden and must be revealed. The legitimate representative authority of an official decision is ensured by basing the power on the people (and, where appropriate, by deciding via justly appointed representatives). Again we need to ask: What does ‘the people’ mean? (And here we are rehearsing in a more ‘abstract’ way the considerations that occupied us at the very opening of the paper, in Sections 0 & 1.)  In a democratic system the concept of ‘the people’ is used for the group of citizens that are substantively concerned with the outcome of a decision. (That becomes obvious if one looks for instance at the difference between local and national decisions.)

This implication leads to the next. If a democratic decision is just, then all positions involved must have been heard, and taken seriously. Voice and a way of empowering (taking seriously) that voice (such as the vote), is thus needful. As aforementioned, all that can be in principle secured via the representatives that form a government, etc., so it is not essential to have a direct democracy. One can proceed via the legitimated process of voting representatives chosen to serve as agents for all involved persons and parties. This means that the state is fully legitimated if and only if all parties that are implicated in decisions are represented.

But now we can already see that at least one ‘party’ is excluded from the decision process. There is no representative of the fundamental needs of future generations — generations which will, to a great extent, be affected by the decisions we make today.

Given this short line of thought the question arises if it is not required — to ensure a legitimate democratic state — to introduce a representative(s) of future generations.

Now let’s focus in on how Habermas makes his specific contribution. Habermas proceeds onward from his basic principle of legitimation (alluded to above) to establish his main aim in his political thought: that is, to establish a way to derive just policies including just procedures for a just polity. He does so by introducing as an aspiration, a target to aim towards, the idea of the ‘perfect discourse’ or ‘ideal speech situation’ [14] in which all members affected by an action are to agree unanimously to a decision. There is much to be said about (and perhaps against) the how and why and what of Habermas’s establishing of this ‘perfect discourse’, and various familiar potential problems with it, but for its relevance to our discussion on (guardians of) future [generations only two points are vital, at least at first. Briefly then:

  • Habermas’s requirements for political discourse:

“A [moral/political norm] is valid just in case the foreseeable consequences and side-effects of its general observance for the interests and value-orientations of each individual could be jointly accepted by all concerned without coercion.” [15]

This principle is useful as an initial foundation for the claim I’m making. By talking about ‘each individual’ and ‘all concerned’ it is obvious that (‘also’) the so-called ‘non-voice parties’ – the parties to the ‘perfect discourse’ who lack an actual voice in our society; most crucially, future people — need somehow to participate in the discourse. For a ‘perfect discourse’ situation to be in place, all relevant non-voice parties have to be allowed a voice and in a certain crucial sense an equal voice, which means in practice (in the case that interests us focally here) that they need to be represented by an agent that accomplishes this, that speaks solely from their position. The question is, how Habermas might facilitate this?

  • Habermas’s account of a justified claim:

In my own view, the so-called ‘perfect discourse’ is ultimately valid and deeply valuable – truly worthy, potentially, of being called ‘perfect’/‘ideal’ — only if seen in the light of its outcome. (In other words, in the present context: only if an innovation such as that that I shall propose, guardians for future people, actually succeeds, actually turns out to make a great difference, will it have proven worthwhile.)  But be that as it may, for it is self-evidently impossible right now to say whether or not that will prove to be the case: Habermas’s account of the perfect discourse enables the participants to derive procedurally valid statements that therefore count as normative (for the group in which the decision is made). This normative claim is found first in Habermas’s ethical theory but in his later works he holds the same view also for political discourse.

The fundamental question about guardians for the future becomes clearer, once one takes in these two points. If we can derive normatively right justified claims (II) then a democracy must accept them; if it does not, the democracy acts on unjustified terms: it is not really a democracy. If these claims can be derived only via a discourse in which all concerned are included, then something like a guardian(s) for future generations, and in fact guardians for all who cannot properly – in propria persona — participate in the discourse, need to be included. For, in other words: for those parties, those persons, without a voice, someone needs genuinely to speak for them, and to have the power to prevent decisions which would cut against them, if we are to have democracy, the rule of the people in both senses of the word ‘of’ (or more simply, in the classic U.S formulation: ‘government of the people by the people’ – the “by” is another meaning of “of”). As genuinely as is possible. My proposal will be a way in which this could plausibly be said to happen.

For (genuinely just) rule, as already implied, more than just voice is needed. Power is needed too. The voice of the future needs to be brought to the table, and agreement sought with it. But: If such agreement (recall Habermas’s requirement for unanimity) cannot be achieved, then we (we who are here now) cannot proceed. [16] (This then would be the underpinning of the veto power I propose. It is inappropriate to think of ourselves as negotiating with the future. ‘Negotiation’ is only an appropriate frame for a meeting of those who are in some way equals, and we cannot gainsay the power imbalance between us and future people. A veto, thankfully, is not a negotiation.)

My guardians for future generations would be that institutionally-powerful voice. They need to be empowered to prevent wrongdoing by the present against the future.

Before moving on, we ought to consider a widespread objection to Habermas’s approach, and to somewhat-similar approaches in (e.g.) Rawls. The objection is that these idealisations can’t be realised – there just is no such thing as an ‘unconstrained speech situation’ given that there are ‘always already’ differences of power, skill and capability in a forum. A related worry is that, even if we agree on Habermasian principles of process, these procedural steps don’t in themselves generate consensus on norms that are about the content of lives rather than about decision-making processes. Power, prejudice and preference come straight back in the moment a decision is at stake that challenges interests, regardless of whether those interested parties have agreed to one’s Habermasian process at the start. These kinds of objections might be summed up in the concern that there is something ‘fake’ and indeed undesirable about seeking to get people to cast themselves for political purposes as reasoners abstracted from their actual selves.

I think that these objections [17] are powerful, and they make me extremely hesitant in relation to the general case for a Habermasian approach. But I think that ‘bringing future people in’ to Habermas’s set-up is actually, ironically, less troubling than the general set-up itself: for there simply is an unavoidable sense in which future people’s identities simply ARE relatively ‘unconstrained’. The guardians are there to deliberate, with (I will suggest) the best expert help possible to get them on track to deliberating well, relatively ‘purely’, ‘ideally’, on behalf of others (from the future), who they are enjoined to re-present; this should take them out of themselves and out of their narrow interests and prejudices just as much as is possible for humans. Those (future) others are to some extent ‘unconstrained’ / ‘ideal’: for they (future people) do not exist yet. Thus the famous difficulty with Habermas’s procedure that the objection I am considering instantiates becomes in this case instead simply a reflection of the (challenging) nature of the discursive deliberation/reflection that the guardians have to accomplish.

One can put this equally in terms of Rawls’s parallel approach to Habermas’s, via his famous concept of the ‘veil of ignorance’. In terms of ‘standard’ political philosophy, when we are talking about decisions made by us about the present, then there is something unsatisfactory, artificial, troubling, about placing ourselves in what Phil Hutchinson calls “an artificially induced state of temporary epistemic blindness.” [18] Following Sandel and other ‘communitarian’ critics of Rawls, I wouldn’t accept a ‘veil of ignorance’-based political philosophy for the present. But, when it comes to the future, we are necessarily behind a ‘veil’ of ignorance. This is not artificially-induced; it is, once again, simply an inevitable epistemic constraint that reflects the nature of the situation the guardians find themselves in.

So, roughly: a ‘liberal’ decision-theoretic approach, I am suggesting, is significantly  less problematic with regard to seeking to represent the future than it is with regard to seeking to represent the present. The abstract liberal individual (in effect, there is only one individual in Rawls’s ‘original position’), notoriously, causes all sorts of problems in present-centric political theory. But future people are necessarily somewhat abstract (strive as we should to concretise them), and (so far as we can yet say) more alike to one another.

Turning to the point about the procedure not necessarily generating consensus: well, achieving consensus is what the guardians would aim to do, by hook or by crook, among themselves (as for instance the Supreme Court does, but, hopefully, much more so). I am suggesting that power and prejudice would be reduced greatly, in the case of the guardians. We might have a genuine approximation to the case that Habermas wanted to imagine and describe, that usually seems a hopeless and even dangerous over-idealisation. (And then, hopefully, this would gradually ‘contaminate’ the populace at large, in the best possible way…)

V: Democratic Legitimacy of the Guardians

How can the Habermasian-ish democratic legitimacy of the guardians be made visible, a felt reality? How can a guardian(s) for future generations be introduced in such a way that they are clearly seen to be democratically legitimate, as I suggested earlier is crucial? How can they be picked, and operate, in a way that includes and underscores such legitimacy, and is not experienced by the current electorate as undemocratic?

One possibility of course would be election: but this would be insufficiently different from our existing democratic mechanisms, and would thus run the risks of being (1) not sufficiently future-focussed, and/or (2) undermining of our existing democratic institutions’ legitimacy [19].

A far better option, in my view, is the Athenian option: sortition. Representation by lottery. The same principle, of course, that supports the jury system, which is an integral part of our democratic system at large.

Why sortition? Because the guardians are not intended to represent us: election most naturally establishes who we want to represent us. Sortition would (rightly) imply that they’re empowered to be some of ‘us’ focused on representing ‘them’ (the future ones). They have to be representative enough of us to not just embody the pre-formed idea that some subset of us already have of who can best ‘represent’ them. They have to be recognizably us, to be legitimate. Not just experts, greens, etc. . Randomness is the best possible way to achieve this. Rather than us choosing who is to represent them and their needs to us, then, that should be done ‘randomly’. Sortitionally.

What the discussion above has in effect done is to distinguish two senses of “represent”: The guardians need to be representative of us (the present people) in the sense of standing in for us more generally. But they don’t need to represent us in the sense in which MPs represent to the Commons the needs and concerns of their constituents (and of large corporations, etc. …). On the contrary: they need to make representations exclusively on the part of future generations.

That’s why I believe that the creation of the guardians would be particularly likely to be itself perceived as an effective democratic move if the guardians were selected by lot: because they would then patently be representative of we the people, just as juries are. They could then go on to represent (the basic needs of / justice for) future people (much as juries can perhaps be said to represent justice, and in particular justice for potential or actual victims). [20]

Their role then would be to represent the needs of the voiceless, the future ones, to guard them against the depredations that the present might make – is making – against them. Again, this makes selection by lot peculiarly appropriate: Because random selection would emphasise that we all share this responsibility for future people, and that none of us and all of us are well-/ideally-placed to do this vital job.

In fact, my suggestion would be that an ideal number of guardians might well be : 12… [21] To underline the inheritance of the legitimacy of the jury system, in thus helping legitimise the guardians. There is a strong case then for selecting the guardians simply randomly from the entirety of the population, as with jury service. [22]

Each guardian, each member of this ‘intergenerational super-jury’, the guardians, might be selected for (say) a term of a few years, probably non-renewable. They would be selected up to perhaps a year in advance, to give those picked two things: (I) a decent interval to decide whether or not they were really willing to do this (One should make it somewhat easier to get out of guardianship for those who really need to do so than it is to get out of jury service; though doing so should still be the exception, rather than the rule); and (II) almost a year in which to ‘train up’ for the role. They would also during this time get to know each other – for their effective mutual deliberation would be an important part of their functionality as a body of guardians. They would be given training perhaps for example by Quaker-influenced trainers in how to seek to reach a decision by a genuine consensus, in a group with a common purpose. They would spend time in nature ‘team-building’ and learning about the needs of and preconditions for the future. They would be helped to develop the kind of intelligence, including emotional intelligence, that all of us except sociopaths are capable of, and that needs developing as widely as possible if we are to listen enough to the ‘non-voice parties’. They would be more likely to develop a more realistic and manifested sense of care for the future ones than the vast majority of us do  (And that is a crucial aspect of what I see the guardians as being: a purpose-designed vehicle through which we can and will care about the future, enough). They would (over time) start gradually to tip the rest of society more in that direction, and this too is an advantage of my proposal.

They would then formally be sworn in with (a) great public ceremony, taking an oath that swore them to represent and defend to the very best of their abilities the basic needs of future people.

The guardians would be supported by an elite and diverse ‘civil service’ of facilitators and experts [23], including of course legal experts. I use the scare-quotes here advisedly: it would be very important to stop any actual civil servants serving the guardians from becoming too powerful. Primarily, those serving the guardians closely should consist literally of assistants and secretaries and administrative managers and facilitators, plus a substantial cohort of top academic etc. advisors on retainers. The guardians would have strong rights – including if necessary supoena-style-rights -, to call any and all further actors and experts that they wished to hear from, to help them in their deliberations. They would have access to the cream of the country’s and indeed much of the world’s expertise, in every sense of the word ‘expertise’. (They would however need to be immunised from lobbying; they would not to open to influence in the way that politicians are. They would be immunised from such ‘tampering’ by rules prohibiting lobbying of them.)  The guardians would thus become and be recognised as a vital part of our democratic structures, and would as I say provide a stage for quality-deliberation that Parliament at present relatively rarely offers. And their legitimacy would be underscored by the thought — which would be far less likely to be widespread if the guardians were instead some kind of elite body appointed by the government or elected – that, given that the guardians (like any jury) are representative of (the) ordinary people, one would likely make the same decision as them, if one had the chance to hear all the evidence they had heard, etc. . Their deliberations would certainly not always win rapid popular acclaim; but open-minded people would be able to think, “If I were one of them, and knew all that they now know, I suppose that I probably would know why they decided to do what they have decided to do.”

With the creation of the guardians for the future, what James Fishkin, Jurgen Habermas, and others have called for under the heading of ‘deliberative democracy’ would come a big stage closer. [24] A true ‘discursive democracy’ (John Dryzek’s term), where the discussion starts genuinely to include the future portion of the demos. The super-jury that I am proposing could at last start to create the kind of conditions that would enable future democracy to exist, and to flourish. [25] It would itself, one might reasonably hope, be helpfully deliberative and ‘inquisitorial’, much more than adversarial (in the way that parliamentary democracy at present is overly adversarial).

To sum up the point of the present section: My proposal for ‘Guardians for future generations’ is sometimes criticised as an allegedly ‘undemocratic’ proposal. But such critics evidently fail to understand that ‘sortition’, the principle that would be used for selecting the guardians, and the same principle that selects juries, IS a democratic principle. Indeed, it was THE leading principle of the first ever democracy, Athens. We need to think beyond the crude equation of democracy with elections. Democracy means the people ruling. In some connections, there are better ways of ensuring that this happens than by voting. Indeed, in cases such as the portion of the demos that is future people, they cannot of course vote.

My proposal seeks, in other words, to stop us collectively fixating on the modern meaning of democracy, of one present-person one vote. Moreover: Even if a critic were to insist that democracy, necessarily, really means ‘one person, one vote’, I could still consent – provided that they conceded that one person means one (present-or-future-)person [26]. Selecting guardians by lottery, just like juries are selected, is simply my way of getting around the fact that future people, who aren’t here yet, can’t cast votes for themselves [27].

VI: The Guardians’ Powers 

Now to focus in more on probably the most crucial issue: just what would be the super-jury’s powers? Such that they would not be merely a feel-good paper exercise, a sop to our consciences, but would really make a big difference. The change we need, so as collectively to hear the voice of the future and to act on it.

Obviously, there is some room for different proposals and nuances here (as throughout). But my proposal for strong guardians draws on the argument I have made above, especially in section 3. What I propose here follows from that. Crucially: it is centred around a power of veto.

Roughly, the super-jury’s most fundamental powers would be, on my proposal, twofold:

  1. To veto in whole or in part new legislation that potentially threatened [28] the fundamental needs of future people. [29] (This power, the most crucial of all, I have already outlined. It follows directly from my argument toward the close of section (3) above.)
  2. To force a review, on petitioning, if appropriate and merited, of any existing legislation or of administrative decisions that threaten the fundamental needs of future people. [30]

Points (a) and (b) would only apply to matters within the purview of the guardians – i.e. that were reasonably judged to affect the basic needs of future people. Other matters should of course be dealt with by the Supreme Court, and the Supreme Court would additionally be able to rule on any narrowly procedural violations by the guardians and on any exceeding by them of their authority or of their remit (in terms of the basic needs of future people). However, there would I suggest be no general power of appeal [31]  against a decision by the guardians, except in cases of procedural error (which could include failure to deliberate adequately) or violation of remit. This is crucial: they have the power to judge the matter they have been asked to judge on. They are the representatives of the powerless voiceless future ones. In Habermasian terms: if they are validly constituted and they proceed validly, then their decision represents a valid decision that shall count as normative for the 

A key question from an IR point of view now arises: Should there be a right of appeal to the European Court of Human Rights, against the guardians’ decisions? This is an important question, and not an easy one. It seems to me that the answer should again be no – requiring therefore a constitutional change – unless and until the ECHR were itself to take on board a far more meaningful responsibility to the future (i.e. unless the ‘human rights’ in question started to include in a serious fashion the rights of the unborn future people) [32], as it ought to do. There needs to be a serious rebalancing in all our institutions, including our very highest courts, away from individual rights for present people and toward individual/collective rights for the voiceless, most notably future people. Until that rebalancing occurs, we cannot trust the ECHR not to hamstring unacceptably the guardians. In which case, at least until such a date as that occurred, state-level (and moreover EU-level [33]) guardians’ decisions should be exempted from review by the ECHR, except again in the case of narrowly procedural etc. issues, such as say a lack of due process vis a vis witnesses etc..

If there is essentially no substantive right of ‘appeal’ against the guardians’ decisions, for broadly Habermasian reasons, then what do you do if you don’t agree with their decision? But let’s turn that question around: What can future people do, if they don’t agree with a decision that we have made? …..The answer, obviously, is: nothing at all, except rail against it retrospectively. So perhaps it isn’t so outrageous to give the guardians ultimate authority…  (What would in practice happen would be (for instance) that the government would try to reintroduce similar legislation etc. to that which had been struck down or had had a review forced of it, removing only the part which had drawn the guardians’ worst ire. They might well try to alter what they had done / what legislation they had enacted as little as possible, and a to-and-fro might ensue. Rules could be devised for that kind of eventuality (perhaps modeled loosely on the ways in which the separation of powers gets worked out and legislation still gets made in the US, including even within the Legislature between the House and Senate). Though of course it would be essential in all of this to preserve the principle that there should be no way for the representatives of the present to railroad and ride roughshod over the (representatives of the) future.)

Clearly, these two powers that I have proposed would together effect a revolution in our system of government. They might just be enough to secure our civilization a future.

There is room for discussion of further powers, of course. One might propose that the guardians should have a right of initial legislative initiative, or a right to commission research, for example. On this point as on many points in the present paper, there is room for reasonable discussion and reasonable difference in views on detail. But the fundamentals need to be at least roughly in line with the two main powers I have laid out. For the guardians need to be empowered to do enough to safeguard the future adequately. [34]

These two powers would in practice require the executive and legislature to take into account (at the stage at which they were formulating any significant action) the needs of the future. For instance, the opinion of the super-jury (or of some subset of it) would perhaps be sought advisorily at the green-paper stage of all new legislation, to avoid wasting everyone’s time passing law that was only going to be vetoed. The creation of the guardians would guarantee that the future entered into the deliberations of politicians, parties, civil servants, voters, etc. to a much greater extent than is at present the case. To avoid gridlock, the kinds of values that would be acted upon by the guardians would need to be internalized increasingly by all players in the political process. This would have a powerful effect; it would progressively yield the very consciousness-shift that has been so elusive for so long, among voters, agents of governance, everyone except the future- and sustainability- minded. It could, that is, itself facilitate the very kind of consciousness-tipping-point that will likely be needed if we are to avoid descending out of control on the wrong side of the climate-tipping-points facing us…

VII: Leading Alternative Proposals, and Why They Aren’t as Good

I will not seek to review comprehensively alternative proposals. Again, Roderick’s report does this to useful effect. And the fairly comprehensive Harvard guardianship project reviews extant leading contenders here: http://guardiansofthefuture.org/lawbook/SEHN-HarvardReport [35]

All I seek to do in this section is to consider succinctly what I think are the four most prominent or promising proposals apart from my own:

  • The Iroquois 7th generation rule: As mentioned earlier, this is promising, giving a (problematically controversial – surely too limited, in cases such as nuclear power, where one needs to think to about the 7777th generation [36]) concretion to the demand to look at the needs of future people. But: who would implement it? Who would instantiate it? The best option for implementation is, in my view: the guardians. I think the 7th generation rule inadequate, for the reason I have just given parenthetically; but, even if it isn’t, then either I think the ‘Iroquois’ proposal lacking in champions, or it becomes simply a version of my proposal.
  • Imply a general responsibility of the upper house (e.g. making the revising chamber into one with special responsibility to look out for the needs of future people): This proposal is less promising. Such a responsibility would I believe get lost among the various responsibilities of the upper house. It would mostly become a tick-box exercise. An oath that members of the upper house took to swear them to uphold the basic interests/needs of future people would I predict become swamped by their other tasks and leanings. (Whereas such an oath taken by the Guardians would not.)
  • Kavka and Warren in their classic 1983 paper [37] recommend the presidential appointment of an environmental guardian. This is perhaps one of the closest extant proposals to my own. It still crucially differs, in that it has comparatively little democratic legitimacy, and (perhaps as a consequence) the actual powers proposed for the guardian by Kavka and Warren are comparatively weak. (And this is true in fact of all extant guardians proposals, prior to mine.)
  • Eckersley proposes constitutional entrenchment of the precautionary principle. [38] This is a promising proposal. A major motivation of the (that is, of my) guardians proposal is to find a way of ‘embedding’ precautionary thinking in our polity. [39] The Precautionary Principle would undoubtedly loom fairly large in the briefings given to the guardians during their training year, and in the academic advice they were given by their cohort of expert advisers and by expert witnesses. I strongly support the thought that the guardians’ own deliberations should (and, I hope, would) be thus based on and around the Precautionary Principle, which holds (roughly) that one needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt that something new introduced to the system will not cause grave harm. Operating under the Precautionary Principle, the guardians could escape the criticism that they were seeking to play God without sufficient information: that point can be turned around, into an advantage latent in precautionary reasoning, in situations where we are strongly epistemically-constrained. But: The key advantages of my proposal over Eckersley’s are first that it would be hard to introduce a constitutional entrenchment of the Precautionary Principle without effecting the kind of change of consciousness in society (toward genuinely willing the means to take care of the future) that the guardians might bring; and second that the guardians (once they become extant) would more generally raise consciousness better, foster deliberation better. (The guardians proposal is one that achieves many desiderata of being an intelligent piece of joined-up ‘cognitive-policy-making’ in Tom Crompton’s sense: see http://www.identitycampaigning.org/identity-campaigning-and-cognitive-policy/ and http://www.wwf.org.uk/wwf_articles.cfm?unewsid=4224 .)  Eckersley writes that “A procedural norm such as the precautionary principle would appear to be a more parsimonious means of representing nature than providing proxy representation of non-human nature in legislative chambers.” [40] I believe that (non-human animals and) future people demonstrably have needs and need champions to champion them. I think that Eckersley’s proposal would lack champions to introduce or apply it. And her proposal wouldn’t empower, wouldn’t inspire.

The precise reasons why my proposal is superior, I believe, even to Eckersley’s, are then terribly important, and bear further emphasis: For we badly need a proposal that can be brought in without appearing to beg the question about what exactly care for the future would be (i.e. a proposal is useless if it just looks like – or, indeed, is — an attempt to bypass democracy and impose a ‘green’ solution), and (because campaigning resources are so precious, and because we need to think in joined-up ways about how what we propose will change our society in unintended as well as intended ways) we need a proposal that works with the grain of a broader transformation – a happy tipping — toward a society than can be sustained, empowering people and enhancing democracy, rather than merely amounting to technocratic tinkering. My proposal for how to start to take proper account of future people, uniquely, achieves both these desiderata.

One might still ask whether the guardians proposal, even given its advantages over its rivals, is really strong enough to stand up to global capitalism, which has emptied out so much even of the power of legitimate democratically-elected governments/Parliaments? [41] The guardians are arguably less ‘legitimate’, possibly less committed, and certainly less accountable. How can they hope to do the job that even our current polities are struggling with, on behalf of future people who can give them no support?

The honest answer is: I don’t know whether this proposal is strong enough to stand up to the huge pressures global neoliberalism places on political institutions. It is a gamble; just like democracy itself is always a gamble [42]. Mine is a bold proposal, aiming both to manifest and to fuel (in a virtuous circle) a growing sense of care for all our children. So: I think that the guardians will be committed, because they will (as a result of the process described in section (3) really internalise/represent the (basic needs of the) future ones. They will be legitimate insofar as acting on this sense of care as a constraint comes increasingly to be seen as legitimate and insofar as the jury principle is highly legitimate. They will moreover be less susceptible to short-termist pressure than elected governments, for obvious reasons. It is true that they will be (for the same reason) less accountable than our current balance of governing institutions: at least, less accountable to us, now. Their true accountability, arguably, is to the future people whose basic needs they aim to represent. Their real accountability will only come out in the course of the unfolding of history yet to be made/written…

So the guardians proposal is self-consciously a ‘gamble’: but one with some solid reasoning standing behind it. The real question one has to ask is: Is it more of a dangerous gamble to make the experiment of leading the world by being the first modern nation to attempt something similar to the Iroquois and give it teeth, or not to? Given the way we are at present recklessly gambling away the future itself, through our extraordinary lack of precaution, isn’t it arguably a lot safer to at least try something like this, than not even to try? For, if we don’t try, and we continue with business-as-usual, the chances of future people inheriting an unravaged planet seem slim in the extreme. Perhaps the guardians are our best bet at seeking to outflank global capital and short-termist electorates/politicians alike, and giving us demo-cracy — mutual constraint, agreed by us or by those standing in for all of us — that could actually secure us against climate-disaster and ecocide.

VIII: Conclusions

When radical human rights advocates were framing the Genocide Convention, they were not persuaded by those who told them that it was an ‘unrealistic’ aim, that they should settle for something more modest. They would not have settled for an ombudsman for victims of genocide, nor even for an ombudsman for the prevention of genocide. They framed and then campaigned for their maximum goal – and they got it. By analogy: However desperately bold and improbable our ideas on saving future people from climate-catastrophe / ecocide might seem, we should not settle just for (campaigning for) an ombudsman for them. We need to frame and to campaign for our maximum goal. Something that could actually work, could actually be enough.

This, I suggest, is my guardians proposal. This, I hope to have shown, is the best way in which we could re-present the future (and the past). Represent it (them), as representative democracy should. [43]

We have utterly to care for the future, because it cannot protect or represent itself. And yet, future people are not like severely brain-damaged infants or senile elders. Future people have concrete potentiality (unlike again the abstract potentiality of, say, GM-centaurs); they will eventually be our equals – provided, literally, that we let them be. Perhaps we can even hear them, if we work hard enough at it; the gift of voice that the institution of the guardians would be to the future, if it works, does not need to go all one way. Perhaps if we work at it hard enough, we can hear what the future needs from us. . .

In conclusion and in overall summing up, then: Plato said that, if we are to have a just society, we should be ruled by guardians. Habermas and other deliberative-democratic philosophers of course rightly abhor such autocracy. …But what if the guardians were selected from the demos by sortition? And what if their deliberations became in turn a high-profile model of what deliberation in a democratic society could be?

Still, there seems little case for substituting guardians for normal elected representatives, for decisions which can be made about us, by us ourselves or by people who represent us. …But what about cases where the people who ought to be heard in or even making the decisions have no voice — even over life-or-death matters? [44]

Future people are the most obvious case of such people. I have presented here a broadly Habermasian case for powerful guardians for future people, so as to give future people political/democratic standing. This would be likely to produce outcomes a lot closer to perfect, or at least a lot further from impending climate-apocalypse, than those provided by our current institutions. For it would give future people not just a proxy voice, but the closest approximation we can give them to a majority vote, that where necessary comprehensively outvotes us, the people alive today. And after all, this is surely appropriate; for, so long as we bequeath to future people a decent and survivable inheritance, rather than tipping them into a climate-chaotic inferno, there will, over time, be a lot more of them than there are of us…

And this is why international relations research needs to think seriously through the arguments presented in this paper. Not just because climate wars and other environmentally-mediated conflicts are increasingly determining the nature of – the reality of – international relations and internationally-ramifying domestic political change (See e.g. http://www.rtcc.org/living/did-global-warming-trigger-the-arab-spring/ for a provocative account of the likely role that dangerous climate change had in fomenting the Arab Spring). Not just because we are at present lacking good models of environmentally-sound governance, and the ‘guardians for future generations’ idea is just such a model. And not just because without some such radical proposal as I offer here, that could modulate the activity of sovereign states, the EU, the UN, etc., in the direction of sustainability the future looks grim. But because, if we are serious about being democrats, it is not enough to democratise our own countries (as the Arab nations are currently seeking to do) for now. We have to democratise them over the dimension of time, too. [45]



[1] A further problem tied up into many of the deep challenges facing us vis a vis the future is of course the ‘free-rider’ problem, as manifested for example in the asymmetry between who bears the cost of acting to prevent dangerous climate change (each individual, corporation etc.) and who gets the benefit (the public at large, not except infinitesimally the individual actor). But since this problem is a problem equally for anyone seeking to engage in environmental international relations work, and does not apply uniquely to the problem of caring for future generations with which I am specifically concerned in this piece, I won’t seek to deal with this problem in the present piece. I have enough on my plate here, without having to argue for world government too…

[2] I have taken Britain as my initial focus in this paper, purely because I have sought to develop a case that makes sense in detail for one particular context (my own), and the case would have to be slightly different in some particulars for every context. But clearly, the same general argument could (and should) apply to every country in the world. And, as I argue below, and crucially, also to international institutions. (Cf. n.1, above.)

Moreover, as I detail below, decisions made for and by and concerning (say) ‘the British people’ need to be decisions made concerning the world as a whole, the longer one’s time-line stretches. I.e. ‘The British people’ will in the future very gradually merge (through inter-breeding, migration, etc.) with the people of the whole globe; global threats will thus eventually be most relevant to them; and in any case, as explored in section (3) below, what we can know about the basic needs of future people and how about to protect them is mostly relatively ‘generic’ (not country-specific). The first point here is of particularly fundamental import and has a remarkable consequence: If you are serious about caring for your children, then you will be serious about caring for their children; and so on ad infinitum. Eventually, because of migration etc. (because the British people comes to include people who come from abroad, and because British people emigrate too), this means you end up caring for the whole globe.

[3] Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by lottery (London: Imprint, 2005) is the most worked-out version of this conception. In essence, the proposal that I make below (in Section 4) for how to implement the ‘super-jury for the future’ proposal that I am making in the present paper is Goodwinian selection by lot for the representatives not of the present but of the future. I suggest below why this is even more appropriate for how to select representatives of future people than of present people (And, of course, for present people, there is always the option of them voting, an option that future people lack…). Cf. also James Fishkin’s important work and experimentation in this general area.

[4] Some philosophers, notably liberals, are scared of there being a ‘people’. They heard the word “people”, and it rhymes with ‘volk’, to them. But this is about as sensible as thinking that there is something wrong with vegetarianism just because Hitler was allegedly a vegetarian (In fact, incidentally, it appears that Hitler did eat meat: http://michaelbluejay.com/veg/hitler.html). My belief is that we desperately need to be a people, and that liberal, consumerist etc. pressures in the opposite direction to this are desperately problematic. But it all depends what a people values. I want to be part of a people – that values gifting its children with a decent future.

[5] See his The sustainability mirage (London: Earthscan, 2008).

[6] Tom Paine of course famously criticised Burke because of his (Burke’s) conservative predilection for “The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave [which] is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies” [See http://www.ushistory.org/paine/rights/c1-010.htm ]. But note of course that my proposal is not for the representation or protection of the dead (who have had their time) but of the as-yet-unborn. And it is of course hardly tyrannical to seek to plant orchards, to worry about the dumping of nuclear waste, etc.: i.e. To take actions expressly designed to help unborn future generations. If that be “governing beyond the grave”, then so be it, and I welcome it full-heartedly. (G.K. Chesterton, in “The ethics of elfland” in his great work Orthodoxy (New York: Image, 1959; p.48), referred to tradition as “the democracy of the dead”. I’m offering the more crucial ‘counterpart’ of this: democracy for the yet to be alive. Now of course, Burke himself wrote largely in order to stress the continuity of tradition, i.e. to ‘anchor’ the future in the past. Having some sympathy with broadly-Oakeshottian thought, I don’t believe that this is all wrong; but the point in the present context is in any case to point up that connecting ourselves to the future, and taking the future seriously, as part of who we are, is probably more necessary now than ever.)

[7] What if we were to think it was O.K. that there will be no future generations? Two points about this: (1) The process of bringing about this kind of result would of course involve vast suffering, for the dying human race, for the ageing human race. (2) Far more importantly: isn’t this just the most cowardly, bloodless idea? That we should be ‘O.K.’ with the giving up of the whole human adventure? That we should think it ‘O.K.’ to deny countless future generations the chance, the ‘right’ even to exist? (That we allow abortion in some cases is completely irrelevant to this point: that it is fine for some individuals to choose not to have children does not mean that it would be fine for us as a species to decide to try to bring ourselves to an end. And: allowing ecocide to proceed is making such a decision… (cf. n.32, below))

[8] Nor will I argue here for the other of the trinity of famously democratically-unrepresented interests: those of electors from other countries affected by the outcome of an election in a powerful country. See on this for instance Andy Dobson’s and Robert Goodin’s relevant work. However, one reason why I won’t argue for this here is that over time this third point gradually becomes less and less salient, as explained in n.2 above.

[9] Though see Rupert Read’s Review Essay, “Economist-kings? A Critical Notice

on Caplan, The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies” in the European Review (2011), 19: 119-129 (http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A79vSAq9 ). One of the few things that Caplan’s book gets right is that actually voters generally aim to vote far more altruistically than economists, psephologists etc. give them credit for.

[10] Who do I mean by ‘future people’? Clearly, this could be debated, and there is quite a strong case for counting only unborn future generations under this head. But I would rather count as future people EVERYONE who doesn’t die in the next instant. It is just that some (e.g. the very old) are not going to be future people for very long… Whereas children are going to be future people for a long time (hopefully / in most cases). SO: existing children will (on my take on things) be included strongly among the remit of the ‘guardians’. (e.g. If the guardians are thinking about what condition our planetary home will be in in 2100, then some of the future people who they will be thinking are people who are already alive. And this seems right: it would be bizarre to disallow the super-jury from considering possible conditions on Earth in 2100, just because some people alive today will still be alive then.)

See in this connection also n.32, below.

[11] See Section 6, below, for my arguments against possible alternative (non-actualised) proposals to my own proposal in this paper. I suggest there that even the ideas and precedents collected in the Harvard Future Generation Guardianship project don’t go far enough.

[12] http://www.fdsd.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/Taking-the-longer-view-December-2010.pdf . Roderick also provides considerable material relevant to section 6, below, in terms of considering possible proposals for remedying the situation of the future-oriented democratic-deficit and the looming ecological crisis. (See also the useful survey at http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com/node/821 ).

[13] http://www.jno.hu/en/?&menu=intro I shall suggest in Section 4 f. that a powerful institution to take care of future people must be perceived as democratic, as somehow representative of us (which an ombudsman might well not be), while seeking to represent future people and their needs. One reason why the Hungarian ombudman and other similar worthy and somewhat-encouraging experiments around the world cannot be powerful enough to take care of future generations is that he is not, in this sense, democratic. See http://ajbh.hu/allam/eng/index.htm for the Hungarian Ombudsman’s own positive evaluation of my proposal, relative to his own situation.

[14] See e.g. http://www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Ideal_speech_situation

[15] The inclusion of the Other: Studies in Political Theory. Jürgen Habermas. MIT Press, 1998. P.42; translation amended.

[16] Though note that, similarly, we might require agreement among the guardians too, especially in relation to particularly weighty decisions (As a comparator: Think of the requirement, albeit one sometimes downgraded or weakened, for unanimity among jurors). I leave this kind of (not unimportant!) detail for a later stage in the process of determining how exactly to implement the proposal I am making in the present paper.

[17] For such major criticisms of Habermas, see for instance John Ely, Democracy and Distrust, (Harvard University press, 1980); Joshua Cohen “Deliberation and Democratic Legitimacyin Alan Hamlin and Philip Pettit (eds.), The Good Polity (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1989); Michel Rosenfeld and Andrew Arato (eds), Habermas on Law and Democracy: Critical Exchanges (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[18] This is from his unpublished ‘samizdat’ manuscript, “Liberalism and climate change”.

[19] This is of course the worry about having ‘bicameral’ legislatures in which the upper house too is elected; and the guardians can be viewed as in effect a small, specialised ‘3rd’ legislative chamber.

[20] This distinction between being who one represents or acts for (in this case, future people), and who one is representative of or stands for (in this case, the population at large) family-resembles the distinction famously made by Pitkin in her The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1967). (See also her Wittgenstein and justice (Berkeley: U. Cal. Press, 1973) for some philosophical development of such thought.)  As Saward has argued, in “The representative claim” (Contemporary Political Theory 5 (2006), pp.297-318 (see especially p.312 & p.301), any claim on either front (but especially the first) is inherently controversial. It is not a unique feature of the guardians that their claim to represent future people could be contested; it is a standing feature of politics.

[21] Or alternatively perhaps: 144, from which 12 would be chosen for each particular issue or question. (Again these matters of detail can be decided later, after detailed consideration; there is clearly legitimate room for different opinions on questions such as this, of how many guardians there should be.)

[23] For more discussion on how to seek to stop such experts from draining the guardians of their radical potential, turning this back into one more piece of window-dressing for oligarchic decision-making by elites, see for instance Aviezer Tucker’s important paper at http://ideas.repec.org/a/bla/polstu/v56y2008ip127-147.html. Tucker particularly highlights (at p.129) the risk of the instituting of the guardians turning the whole of society into a kind of school, and specifically critiques both Plato and Habermas on this point. My belief is that awareness of this risk, an awareness present in my schema (influenced as it is for example by Ivan Illich’s work) as it is absent in Habermas’s and Plato’s own, can go a long way toward diminishing it. Furthermore, Tucker is especially concerned, in his piece, about deliberative democracy being diminished by tendencies toward self-selection. Thus Tucker writes (on p.144): “Avoiding the self-selection of the deliberators may require the introduction of a compulsory jury duty-like system”. And of course, what I am proposing is exactly intended to address that worry: my guardians would be a ‘super-jury’.

[24] Cf. here Dennis Thompson’s important remark, at p.123 of his “Democratic theory and global society” (Journal of Political Philosophy 7:2 (1999), pp.111-125), that rights which resist majorities in current electorates (cf. in the present context the rights of future people) “…are more likely to be sustained if not only courts but also citizens and their representatives have the opportunity to deliberate about them”. The deliberative democracy modelled by the guardians should be a crucial part of this picture.

[25] Thus we might take ourselves here to be delivering on the promise of the great philosopher of the future Hans Jonas, when he remarked, modifying Kant: “Act so that the effects of your action are compatible with the permanence of genuine human life.” (In The Imperative of Responsibility (Chicago: Chicago U. Press, 1984, p.11)). Though it has always seemed to me that Jonas’s formulations hereabouts are not nearly adequate. “Compatible with” should be replaced with a phrase such as “whenever feasible and appropriate, directed towards”.

[26] Of course, future people can’t literally be counted. That is why, rather than as it were adding up their votes, we provide them en masse with veto power.

[27] Putting the point a little cutely: I propose that the super-jury of guardians should be given a kind of casting vote, on behalf of those who can’t cast votes for themselves… It’s not literally a casting vote, but it has the same effect, of being able to say no to something in a way that is decisive.

[28] See the discussion in section 6, to follow, about the precautionary nature of the guardians’ remit.

[29] There is no precedent for this proposal (nor for proposal (b)). The closest I have come to finding anything like a precedent for it is Iris Marion Young’s intriguing suggestion that oppressed social groups should have “group veto power regarding specific policies that affect a group directly, such as reproductive rights policy for women, or land use policy for Indian reservations.” (P.184, Justice and the politics of difference (Princeton: Princeton U. Press, 1990)). For broadly republican and ‘communitarian’ reasons, I don’t find this line of argument 100% compelling for the cases Young discusses. It is perhaps likely to be better to seek to extend our society’s democracy adequately to such groups, and to seek to remedy their oppression, than to do as Young suggests, which would be very difficult. But I think the line of argument is fully compelling for the case that I am considering (and that Young ignores): the case of future people. For in their case, there is no possibility of ensuring that their voice gets heard and acted upon in its propria persona, nor of overcoming their vulnerability to oppression. Both of which considerations suggest that it makes deep sense to give them – or rather, of course, the proxies for them that I am arguing for in the present paper – just such veto power.

[30] This power too follows pretty directly from my argument in section 3, above.

[31] N.B. I am using the word “appeal” here in a loose/colloquial sense, simply for ease of exposition. Technically, an ‘appeal’ is a construct of the hierarchical judicial system, involving a judicial decision that can be subjected to a further and over-riding judicial decision. If the guardians are legislators (as, basically, they are in my proposal) their decisions are not in the judicial realm. So, for example: human rights trump legislation, but that’s not of course, technically, an appeal.

[32] Readers worried that ‘rights’-talk cannot possibly be appropriate to future people should be reassured by the following quotation from the great Edith Brown Weiss (from p.24 of her “In fairness to future generations and sustainable development”, in Am. U. International Law Review 8:1 (1992), at p.24): “Some argue that rights can only exist when there are identifiable interests to protect, and that future generations, therefore, cannot have rights. This view requires that we identify individuals who have interests to protect. Since we cannot know who the individuals will be until they are born, nor how many will exist, those future generations cannot, according to this argument, have rights. That is the famous Parfit’s paradox. However, the rights of future generations are not individual rights. Rather, they are generational rights in which the interests protected do not depend upon knowing the kinds of individuals that may exist or the numbers in any given future generation.” (Italics added. See also my somewhat-similar argument against Parfit on this point in my http://journals.cambridge.org/repo_A83AqV93. I suggest there that future people, whoever exactly they turn out to be, require to be treated as our equals.)

This mention of rights need not either bog us down in an argument about abortion rights, either for or against. For abortion concerns the specific non-existence (or existence) of a potential life tied to a specific individual. Whereas we are concerned with future people in general, our descendants, our children and their children whosever they may be. We are concerned, in other words, with the future inhabitants of Britain (and of the world). (My stance here is supported by Galen Pletcher’s argument, in his 1981 piece on “The rights of future generations”, in E. Partridge (ed.) Responsibilities to future generations (New York: Prometheus), to the effect that we have obligations to others who are not in many cases particular others; see especially p.168 of his piece.)

In some cases, abortion is called for because the life or physical health or psychological health of the mother is directly threatened by the burgeoning foetus within her. Because of the temporal asymmetry between us and future people, there are vanishingly few cases, probably none whatsoever, in which future people in general pose any threat whatsoever to present people. So: while their basic needs badly need to be considered by us, they will never need to be weighed directly in the balance against ours (they do not threaten us).

Does the concern for unborn future generations imply Parfit’s ‘repugnant conclusion’, that we ought to pursue policies which will accelerate population growth to the maximum tenable level, rather than the reverse? Again, I don’t think so. Furthermore, there is some reason to believe that further population growth is literally not sustainable. And the crucial point here is that guardians would to a large extent necessarily consider future people ‘en masse’. Seeking to represent their basic needs, whoever exactly ‘they’ turn out to be, the guardians would consider for instance whether it is more or less precautionary to foster a Britain with 50 million or 100 million people. And whether the former scenario or the latter results in a greater likelihood of a happy and healthy people with their basic needs meetable. Thus there is no good reason to think that the guardians would opt, in the name of future people, for there to be as many of them as possible.

Does this concern for unborn future generations imply that the Guardians need to have regard to those who are very very temporally distant from them? That would seem an unduly exacting requirement: for it is hard to vision many of the needs of people living (say) in the year 20011 — though one can surmise, for example, that the Guardians might be more likely than our existing political institutions to have grave doubts about the justifiability of nuclear power programmes, because of the very-long-term highly-toxic wastes that such programmes create. I think rather that the Guardians’ concern will ‘peak’ with those imaginable future people who are not adequately catered for in our existing democratic institutions, and will gradually decline away in tandem with great temporal distance into the future, which brings with it ignorance of the needs of those very distant ones. Those living (say) in the year 2000011 will mostly have to look after themselves… (See n.36, below.)

[33] My suggestion would be that there should be guardians locally, and internationally (including crucially at the U.N. level – encouragingly the Rio-plus-20 conference in 2012 considered what should I think be considered a step in this direction, a powerful ‘High Commissioner’ for Future Generations; http://rio20.net/en/iniciativas/zero-draft-and-sustainable-development-goals ; and Ban Ki-Moon is on record at Rio as having said words that seemed to support the idea (See http://www.adelphi.de/en/news/in_focus/dok/43511.php?ifid=13)), as well as nationally. (For more detail on the U.N. level, see pp.28-31 of Halina Ward’s “Beyond the short term: Legal and institutional space for future generations in global governance”, Yearbook of international environmental law (2012), pp.1-34.)

It is worth noting in this connection that in the 1980s UNESCO had a project with an identical name to mine. It was led by Prof Salvino Busattil. After a few years UNESCO ended it for political reasons – too many people thought the problems of helping maintain the rights of the present generation, especially in third world countries, was already difficult enough.

I disagree with UNESCO’s rationale for closing the project. I understand it completely; that is just the problem: that again and again we tend to be so preoccupied with the (huge) problems facing current people that we prioritise them over the problems facing future people. But this risks unleashing a slow holocaust against future people, through neglect (Much as non-human-animals suffer just such a slow atrocious torture through being ALWAYS a lower priority than humans.).

[34] And many further details of course remain to be discussed, let alone determined: e.g. how would the guardians’ involvement in a given case be triggered? Would they look automatically at every law? At every major administrative decision? Would they pro-actively have to express a concern, in order to have a matter come before them? There are other possibilities: for instance, there could be a trigger for them to review legislation that was already on the books based on a petition from the general public. Or there could be a requirement that a (small) number of Parliamentarians registered official concern at the impact of a proposed law on future people, before the guardians were allowed to look at it. My purpose here, as ever, is not to make a detailed proposal. My purpose is to make a general jurisprudential/democratic case, the details of which can be worked out later, once the general case has been accepted.

[35] As already suggested, I don’t regard the SEHN / Harvard proposals as meeting the requirement of being strong enough to actually do the job of protecting the future. It should however be noted that there is one moment of great strength in the SEHN proposals that can be found here www.sehn.org/gfgdocs/job%20description.doc , namely this definition of theirs of what a ‘legal guardian for future generations’ would be/do: “A “legal guardian for future generations” (Legal Guardian) is a person representing a community who has the duty to ensure that a proposed government action will provide ecologically healthy land, water and air for the benefit of future generations of members of the community.” (Italics added)  Such ensuring is what my proposal is designed to achieve, which the remainder of the SEHN document in question does not do.

[36] If anyone doubts the long-term global seriousness of the nuclear waste issue, I would suggest they read David Fleming’s http://www.theleaneconomyconnection.net/nuclear/  . See especially Fleming’s discussion of what will happen to the many nuclear cooling ponds if they are not carefully managed for hundred of years (namely: they will boil dry, and then burn radioactive fire for hundreds of years more).

Do we need to go further? Must we consider for instance the very final generations of human beings that there will ever be? I think that this kind of worry can be resolved very pragmatically (as broadly recommended already in n.32, above). My proposal is that we need to consider as far as we actually can, and as far as our consideration can actually be seen to make a difference. We ought to consider any and all future people that we can actually help. So, for instance, we should worry about the effects of our long-run nuclear wastes; but we needn’t pay much mind to the plight of our unimaginably distant descendants who may be faced with the Sun becoming a red giant, etc..

[37] Kavka, G. G. and Warren, V. 1983. “Political representation for future generations”. In Environmental Philosophy, R. Elliot and A. Gare, eds. Milton Keynes: Open University Press. Cf. also Goodin’s http://people.su.se/~guarr/PFPKurs/Goodin.pdf, and  Torbjörn Tännsjö, “Future People and the All Affected Principle,” in Democracy Unbound, ed. Tersman, pp. 186–89. Goodin’s idea that we have to think more deeply about how we constitute the demos chimes of course profoundly with my approach in the present paper; though I don’t think that Goodin takes nearly seriously enough the claims of future people to inclusion in that demos.

[38] See p.110f. of Graham Smith’s Deliberative democracy and the environment (London: Routledge, 2003).

[39] Some would object to this that the ‘precautionary principle’, to be something we can act on, requires that we can see the future. On the contrary: it is precisely because of uncertainty, because we cannot compute everything in terms of cost-benefit analysis and calculable risk, that the case for the Precautionary Principle is so strong (on which, see Nassim N. Taleb’s work, including http://www.fooledbyrandomness.com/precautionary.pdf). So: in response to the frequent objection to proposals such as mine, that it was once thought that London could end up knee-deep in horse-shit, that this was proved risibly wrong, and that the upshot is that we should give up seeking to protect the future: There is a difference between sound planning for the future, on the one hand, including planning to minimise unnecessary uncertainties and to guard (so far as we can) against potential disasters; and silly and short-sighted projection of current trends, on the other. The latter is mostly what those who cite the ‘horse-shit’ objection are thinking of. In short: the famous ‘horse-shit’ objection is itself little more than horse-shit.

The guardians by contrast would have access to the absolute best expertise and intelligence about the future. On the basis of that, they would (I would expect – though I can’t of course know this) aim to exercise sound precautionary judgement, to protect those within their care, those who they would be sworn to seek to provide some kind of basic safeguard for (which at present is lacking). Furthermore, decisions which are hard to turn around – decisions with truly long-term consequences, decisions which commit the future – should and surely would be high on the list of those decisions within the purview of the ‘super-jury’.

The alternative is to make no serious effort to take care of the future at all. That is roughly what is being done at present. It is a disgrace, and that disgraceful situation is what my proposal seeks to (begin a debate, so as to) remedy. It is a debate which, it seems to me, philosophers and international relations theorists have a big responsibility to play a leading and responsible part in. Things we do which are good for the present, hard to turn around, and bad for the future: we should contribute to ensuring that it is no longer acceptable for humans to act such that these things happen.

(Finally on this point, we should add that the relevance of precautionary reasoning and the insufficiency of ‘calculative’ reasoning with regard to the task given the guardians is another reason for why it is appropriate for them to have veto-style powers. For precautionary reasoning is necessarily a lot about saying No to things, rather than about exactly what one should say Yes to.)

[40] Eckersley, Robyn (1999), ‘The Discourse Ethic and the Problem of Representing Nature’, Environmental Politics, Vol.8, No.2, pp.24–49, p.46. (As is obvious from this quote, Eckersley is concerned explicitly with the representation of non-human nature. But the issues arising are entirely parallel to those I am addressing. In fact, more than parallel. Part of the reason why I focus on future people is that I believe that protecting them, which will necessarily be to a large extent a matter of protecting the environment, is likely to prove a more effective way of protecting the environment than efforts directly to protect the environment… A more effective frame.)

[41] For a superb account of this, see Colin Leys’s Market-driven politics (London:Verso, 2001).

[42] At this juncture, it is worth pointing out that most arguments against creating the strong guardians I have outlined here are in fact arguments against democracy. They are arguments against trusting (the / ordinary) people with power and responsibility. For my detailed arguments against such distrust, see again Read’s “Economist-Kings?”, in the European Review (19:1; pp.119-129).

Democracy is in itself a gigantic gamble, but we take it to be a gamble worth taking. And, furthermore, the alternative is hard to see: for it is increasingly obvious (cf., as mentioned at the opening of the paper, above) the democratic Arab revolts of 2011) that democratic legitimacy is a practical requirement of governance. There is no alternative. My paper offers a radical updating of Burke and of Plato for our time – a thoroughly and rightly democratic time. This updating is particularly salient for questions arising in international governance. Take for instance the debate around Robert Dahl’s consideration of what he calls ‘guardianship’ and (what he calls) democracy, in the control of nuclear weapons: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/39973/john-c-campbell/controlling-nuclear-weapons-democracy-versus-guardianship . That whole debate could be cut through, if we moved as a solution to a decision-method around nuclear weapons that used the sortitional-democratic guardianship principles laid out in the present paper. Neither electoralist democracy nor elitist/Platonic guardianship.

[43] In this sense, what I am making is, in political-theory terms, precisely a representative claim for the guardians. As Michael Saward puts it in his key article on this, “The representative claim” (op.cit.), at p.298: “We need to move away from the idea that representation is first and foremost a given, factual product of elections, rather than a precarious and curious sort of claim about a dynamic relationship”. Such movement-away is of course exactly what I have sought to undertake here, in order to make room for the idea that true democracy requires a representative claim on behalf of future generations by an appropriately constituted body – i.e., I have suggested, a ‘super-jury’ of guardians.

[44] In other words: the Platonic case for guardians is weak, where electoral or similar forms of democracy are possible. But it becomes strong vis a vis those who lack the possibility of representing or speaking for themselves (For a real-life British legal-governmental partial-precedent for this, see http://www.justice.gov.uk/about/opg ). Among these are non-human animals (the case for guardians for whom I present in my A covenant with all beings, forthcoming) – and future people.

[45] [Acknowledgements removed to facilitate blind review.] 

[Originally published in Journal for International Relations Research, Issue 3, ed. R. Read. See: http://www.journalofinternationalrelationsresearch.com/#/archive/4570829675%5D
[feature image by ‘jenny downing’]


Rupert Read
University of East Anglia


Spring 2007: the high-water mark of self-confidence for economic neo-liberalism. In March, both Henry Paulson and Ben Bernanke publicly stated that they saw no danger of recession, and that the subprime fiasco had been ‘contained’. As late as mid-May, with the sub-prime crisis in full throe, still Bernanke felt able to say this: ‘Importantly, we see no serious broader spillover to banks or thrift institutions from the problems in the subprime market.’ In July, Paulson claimed: ‘This is far and away the strongest global economy I’ve seen in my business lifetime’; and on August 1st, ‘I see the underlying economy as being very healthy.’ Neo-liberalism remained a movement triumphal around the world. No bunch of poverty-stricken mortgage-defaulters – who could conveniently be blamed for the little local difficulty – were going to derail this ideology.

Sure, occasionally the masters of the universe would admit that all was not entirely rosy: thus for example, again in 2007, Nick Stern announced that manmade climate change is the biggest market failure in history. Then again, some see manmade climate change as the greatest market success in history – for what are markets for, if not to externalise costs as much as humanly possible, in order to stay as competitive as possible? One person’s externality is another person’s (or rather: firm’s) profit-margin.

Spring 2007: Bryan Caplan’s ‘The myth of the rational voter: Why democracies choose bad policies’ is published, to vast acclaim. According to the New York Times it’s ‘The best political book this year.’  Barron’s Magazine for instance finds it ‘Scintillating, outstanding.’ Gregory Mankiw of Harvard University, former chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers and author of the best-selling economics textbook ever, remarks that ‘Caplan offers readers a delightful mixture of economics, political science, psychology, philosophy, and history to resolve a puzzle that, at one time or another, has intrigued every student of public policy.’ And so on (and on).

So, what is this idea that is proving so popular? What is ‘The myth of the rational voter’? It should be noted immediately that the title of Caplan’s book is somewhat misleading. Caplan believe that voters are reasonably rational in one very important sense – in the sense of self-interested instrumental rationality, the sense central to the ‘Public Choice Theory’ school of thought, of which Caplan is now a very prominent (if iconoclastic) member. Core to his case, in this book, are well-known truths of political science in an age of consumerist individualism, such as that voters are self-interestedly rational not to spend too much time trying to decide what the most rational way to vote is (because they are very unlikely decisively to influence the outcome). Voters are ‘rationally ignorant’.

To justify his title, Caplan clearly needs to go further than this. He first does so by suggesting that it is a myth that voters try their best coldly to work out what is rational for everyone and then vote accordingly.

So far, so obvious. Indeed, if this were merely meant to mean that voters vote in part according to their emotions, their passions, their general way of seeing and feeling the world, then it should certainly be admitted: though it is still not entirely clear that such an admission should really be taken to show that voters are not rational. For instance: according to the arguments made by Drew Westen in his hugely-influential ‘The Political Brain’ (Obama himself has read it, so we are told), if we mean by ‘rational’ what the word really means, and not a rationalistic caricature thereof, then voters voting with passion generally are voting rationally. For voters generally vote their political values, which are what they want to see society uphold. What could make more sense – what could be more truly rational – than that?

Caplan allows that voters decisions are partly ‘expressive’ / ‘symbolic’ (pp.137-9), but he doesn’t seem much interested in values or passion. What Caplan actually has in mind in speaking of pervasive voter irrationality – what he most consequentially adds to the ‘rational ignorance’ hypothesis – can be seen most clearly in a central chapter in the book, entitled ‘Evidence from the survey of Americans and economists on the economy’ (Interesting to note that economists are apparently exempt from belonging to a nation). Caplan’s method in this chapter is basically as follows: He contrasts the views of the public with the views of the enlightened (i.e. mainstream economists), and suggests that this shows that the public are irrational. In the particular sense that (according to Caplan) the public tend to have false beliefs about the economy and about other crucial matters of state.

This would perhaps be a convincing method if one were convinced by what economists believe to be true. Those beliefs include that top executives are not over-paid (p.64) and also (Caplan claims) that the minimum wage is inefficient and economically harmful (p.96). In a Caplanian economically-‘rational’ world, evidently, income differentials – and bankers’ bonuses – would be even more obscene than they are today. Moreover, Caplan’s central example, with which he opens the book (‘Protectionism is a classic example. Economists across the political spectrum have pointed out its folly for centuries, but almost every democracy restricts imports’; p.1) and which he dwells on over and over including at length in this key chapter, inspires no confidence, at least not in my part of ‘the political spectrum’. ‘Free trade’ is a nostrum beloved of neoliberal economists; but it was not practised by most powerful economies on their rise, is rightly feared by countries concerned about the take-over of their economy by other more powerful economies, and is part of the problem rather than of the solution in relation to vast ‘market-failures’ such as dangerous climate change. Caplan trots out ‘the law of comparative advantage’ (p.38, p.66), but omits to consider whether it still applies in a globalised world of free movement of capital, or whether such a world (our world) is instead a world in which ‘absolute advantage’ is all that counts. For under-performing countries cannot count on retaining their capital at all in order to do even what they are second-best at. (In fact, Caplan proposes an alternative ‘explanation’ for why poor countries stay poor – that their voters are, allegedly,  even less ‘economically literate’ than rich countries’ voters (p.158).) Protecting the local, protecting labour, protecting our environment, protecting economies from foreign dominance, protecting the global economy from an excess of inter-dependence and a lack of resilience – in a world subject to the dominance of globalised capital, very many people plausibly argue that these protections are good things, not bugbears. The jury is still out, in the case of Protectionism vs. Free Trade. But Caplan disagrees: it is for him a strictly ‘empirical’ finding (p.147) that ‘voters underestimate the benefit of foreign trade’ across the board. It tells one a lot about Caplan’s standpoint and method that he is really not interested in the jury’s verdict, if it disagrees with that of the judges (i.e. of economists). The jury metaphor is in fact Caplan’s, not mine. He writes that ‘the jury is in’ (p.10) and that it has ruled that ordinary people do not understand the unrivalled benefits offered them by unregulated privatised markets, free trade, etc. . But he seems in the process to have forgotten what a jury is. It is the verdict of one’s citizen-peers – not of one’s own privileged workmates or one’s friendly ‘experts’.

If Caplan didn’t believe in markets so much, then one surmises that he would turn to the next best thing, as an alternative to democracy: rule by economist-kings. For Caplan, the basic test of rationality – which the people fail – is the following: they don’t agree with neo-liberal economists about political economy.

In order to demonstrate pervasive voter irrationality in the sense of voters having pervasively false beliefs, Caplan would need to actually show that those beliefs were false. But he simply doesn’t do this; he just presupposes that mainstream economists are nearly always right. Caplan is quite correct that the truth often hurts, and that people often tend to avoid it – but he fails to begin to prove that this truth is truer of ordinary voters than it is of neoclassical economists.

To support the thought that voters don’t have any ‘rational’ motive to become politically-literate, and thus tend rather to use their vote to indulge their (alleged) prejudices – that they are ‘rationally irrational’ -, Caplan impresses upon us how unlikely we are to influence the outcome of elections. (He patently overplays his hand in this regard at more than one point, as when he claims that the price of political irrationality is ‘zero’, and that voting has ‘no practical efficacy’ (p.132, emphasis added). There is a crucial and obvious difference between low probability and no probability. Ordinary people (voters) understand the difference: see below.)

In the literature, this is known as the ‘rational voter paradox’: it is allegedly so unlikely that one will swing an election that it is irrational to vote at all. But perhaps professional political scientists should get out more: If they did so, into the real world of elections, they would find some telling counter-examples to this alleged paradox…

I was closely involved in one myself, in the local elections of Spring 2007. In Norwich, England, where I live, the Green Party failed to gain a seat from the Liberal Democrats by one vote. That made the difference between the Greens (who had 10 seats) becoming the official Opposition on the Council, and the LibDems (who had 11) remaining the Opposition. Norwich being one of very few strongholds of Green support in the country at that time, this narrow-as-can-be result made national news. For a little while at least, it held back the Green advance in Norwich, and probably nationally too.

Note this: if, as in this case, an election gets decided by one vote, then every single voter (and non-voter) decisively influenced the outcome. Anyone in the entire ward or constituency in question could have swung – did swing – that election.

But what about larger-scale elections? Caplan says this (p.131): ‘[I]n elections with millions of voters, the probability that your erroneous policy beliefs cause unwanted policies is approximately zero. The infamous Florida recounts of 2000 do not undermine this analysis. Losing by a few hundred votes is a far cry from losing by one vote.’ Well, not that far a cry. For Bush of course lost the election on every single measure except the one that the Supreme Court chose to stick with. There must surely have been a point, short of coming down to the very last vote, at which it would have been impossible for them to have sustained the fiction that Bush won. Maybe we were very close indeed to that point. Possibly if as few as 10 or 20 people less had voted Republican in Florida, and had swung Democrat instead, then the Supreme Court would have found it impossible to hold their thin red line against Gore.

While indeed it isn’t true to say that any single individual swung that election – that entire national Presidential election in 2000 – by their vote alone, there will surely be extended families that did so, or certainly small villages, or single activists in terms of the votes they swung. Think it through for a minute: an election which decisively influenced the course of the most powerful nation on Earth, an election that (for instance) decided life or death for hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, and which helped decide the very shape of the entire world’s economy in the noughties, actually was decided by every single township in Florida. If you were a Floridian on that day, then your vote together with that of your workmates or your neighbours literally made history.

So: it’s true that one’s chances of being the decisive influence upon an election outcome are very small. But it’s also true that it happens (and that when it happens as it did in my city, in Spring 2007, every last individual was crucial to the outcome). And that, when it happens, the effect can be very large. IF your vote makes the difference, then you can make quite probably the biggest difference anything that you ever did in your whole life makes.

So it is extremely unclear whether the ‘rational voter paradox’ really is a paradox, at all. Perhaps those pesky voters aren’t so irrational in bothering to turn out…

As it happens, if Caplan’s policy recommendations were acted on then one result would be that there would be more elections decided by just one vote than there already are. For Caplan is keen to keep the number of people voting down, on the grounds that those least likely to vote in elections are also on average the least literate and the least likely to agree with economists.  On these grounds, he bluntly opposes ‘get-out-the-vote’ initiatives (p.157). He also notes (p.154) that men are more likely to agree with economists than women. Disappointingly, on this occasion he doesn’t  draw the ‘logical’ conclusion – he fails to recommend the abolition of women’s suffrage…

Of course, the ‘rational voter paradox’ would remain a paradox after all, if the difference between one candidate winning and another doing so were of little or no consequence. And of course the alarming consequence of Market-Driven Politics  is that it tends to have just that effect. When both candidates that one is choosing between are card-carrying members of the American Neo-Liberal Union, then why bother voting? Caplan’s attempt to entrench neoliberal economics as each nation’s basic wisdom and to allot elected politicians even less power than they already have is calculated precisely to reduce the voter’s incentive to bother educating themselves about politics, to vote rationally, and so forth. It appears that Caplanian thinking (and ‘Rational-Choice’ thinking in general) may be, as Karl Kraus might have put it, the very disease of which it takes itself to be the cure…

Spring 2007: the high plateau before the storm. If a week is a long time in politics, then 100 weeks plus must be some kind of eternity. For so much has changed since then. Everything from Gordon Brown being forced to ‘save the world’ by nationalising the banks, and the demise of all the independent U.S. investment banks and all the demutualised former building societies in this country, to the end of Iceland’s dream, and the beginning of Greece’s nightmare, and Cameron and Clegg’s ‘savage cuts’ here in Britain, and perhaps more imminent sovereign debt and commercial debt crises – and on we go.

When Caplan’s book first appeared on the shelves, his thesis of the superiority of markets to democracy must have seemed so natural, to many. For what is the essence of neo-liberalism? Perhaps this: an endless presumption in favour of markets.

In the final chapter of his book, Caplan attempts to rebut the charge that he rightly anticipates his readers are most likely to make against him: that of market fundamentalism. But his rebuttal isn’t likely to convince, given his willingness still to say things like this: ‘In the 1970s, the Chicago school became notorious for its ‘markets good, governments bad’ outlook. One could interpret my work as an attempt to revive that tradition. …Placed on a foundation of rational irrationality, perhaps the Chicago research program that Friedman inspired can live again.’ (p.197). It is rather unclear what would count as ‘market fundamentalism’, if a revived full-blown ‘markets good, governments bad’ Chicagoism doesn’t qualify.

Caplan says that his fundamental presumption – markets good, democracy bad – can in theory be overcome; but the burden of proof is heavy in the extreme. Moreover; writing as I am doing in mid-2010, surely one can’t any longer presume in favour of markets. In fact, looking at Obama’s America for instance, it rather looks as if big government, and even democracy, is back. And in that context, a book like Caplan’s that quotes Ayn Rand and Ludwig von Mises as authorities deserving of uncritical approval, while treating Islamic banking as a joke (p.33) and wheeling out Marxian exploitation theory in passing as an example of an ‘obviously false’ theory (p.118), runs the clear risk of already being past its sell-by. It is perhaps worth adding that the new Preface to the Paperback edition of this book, which appeared in August 2008, fully a year after the financial crisis ‘debtonated’, dwells a great deal on the favourable reviews that the book had already received, and also on the main lines of objection that had to date been offered to it, but contains not a word on whether the events of that past year might have cast some little doubt on economists’ faith in markets. It certainly doesn’t contain words which might seem appropriate in relation to that faith, words such as ‘hubris’.

Returning then to the titular claim of Caplan’s book: that voters don’t vote in a way that will be rational for the collective. Here is how he puts it near the start of the book: ‘In my view, democracy fails because it does what voters want. In economic jargon, democracy has a built-in externality.’ (p.3)  As Caplan sums up the argument of his entire book in his Conclusion (p.206), ‘Democracy is a commons, not a market’. It is a truth universally acknowledged by neoliberal economists that any commons is in want of a market, or of being substituted for by a market. …But again, what a difference a couple of years makes.

In October of 2009, Elinor Ostrom won the so-called Economics Nobel Prize for her important work…thoroughly debunking the tragedy of the commons myth. This is by no means the first such thorough debunking – in fact, Polanyi (in ‘The Great Transformation’) did a fine job at debunking ‘the tragedy of the commons’ well before Garrett Hardin even invented it. But it must be galling for neoclassicals to see their own beloved quasi-Nobel won by explicitly commons-tragedy-debunking work.

Caplan is quite right to see that politics/democracy is not a market, and in that respect he decisively advances upon the economic-theorists-of-democracy. But we can now see that the conclusion that he draws from this observation, the conclusion that democracy should be largely substituted for by markets, is simply unwarranted, as well as being repugnant and potentially-disastrous. Let us see in more detail why.

Under what circumstances does a commons work well, and not suffer from the ‘tragedy’ that Hardin taught us to fear and expect and that Caplan expands upon? Polanyi, Ostrom et al tell us that the answer is: when people have established practices of working complementarily or together that either accidentally or (best of all) deliberately foster the common good. Democracy is supposed to mean: rule by the people. So: we need to build a people, not just a sea of individuals. The problem then with Caplan’s book is that it recommends moving in precisely the opposite direction. It sees democracy as a hopelessly-flawed attempt at summing individuals’ preferences, and proposes instead an allegedly better vehicle for summing individual rationalities: (more) markets. It would make us more thoroughgoingly consumers than we already are, and strip out the remaining elements of civic identity that ordinary people have.

How can one build a people, a demos? It’s not going to happen overnight; but it is already happening in some places. One powerful example is participatory budgeting, an experiment begun in Porto Alegre in Brazil, which is gradually spreading around the world (I know, because we are just now starting it on a small scale in Norwich). In this version of ‘deliberative democracy’, politicians gradually grant their constituents the right to determine how a progressively larger portion of their budget is spent. To the surprise, presumably, of the Caplans of this world: it works. Other versions of deliberative democracy such as citizens’ juries are also frequently proving successful.

So, rather than conclude from the people’s alleged foibles and failings that we should favour markets over democracy, perhaps we ought to actually try bringing about democracy (the rule of the people) instead. The point could be put thus: perhaps ‘democracies’ would be less likely to choose bad policies if they actually were democracies.

And here, one very hopeful point that emerges from Caplan’s book is that voters are generally altruistic (p.151). The ‘self-interested voter hypothesis’ is largely false; economists and public-choice-theorists have wrongly assumed that voters don’t vote for what they see as the good of the people. Caplan fears that this makes things even worse – for systematically misinformed altruistic voters will impose a worse societal outcome even than misinformed selfish voters (whose false beliefs will tend to cancel each other out more). But this fear can be turned around: to the extent that voters are not systematically misinformed (and I have argued that Caplan grossly over-estimates the extent to which they are, at least when compared to mainstream economists), and to the extent to which such misinformation as there is can be overcome (and that ought to be our task, in building better educational institutions, alternative media, etc), we have every reason to believe that democracy could not only exist, but could work very well indeed.

A key obstacle that needs overcoming if there is to be demo-cracy is the systematic misinformational bias of the media in favour of the interests of their main customers. Namely: of their advertisers. But while Caplan sees media-bias as a factor in the failure of actually-existing democracy, he not only sees it as a relatively small factor, but misidentifies its nature. The main thing he actually says, in this connection, is: ‘Journalism is a business. If consumers prefer news that fits their prejudices, journalists have an incentive to cater to them.’ (p.179)  True – but it is a worrying mark of economic illiteracy not to be aware that the key product of commercial media is: audiences. Audiences – that is, vast and segmented groups of consumers – who can be sold to advertisers. And what most advertisers care about is reaching audiences with plenty of purchasing power. (They also quite like to avoid those audiences being alerted to any faults in the behaviour of the firms being advertised; that is, of themselves.) Thus the commercial media systematically distorts politics and economics to maintain the interest – and to favour the interests – of its relatively rich readers. Whereas it doesn’t much matter to them whether poorer readers exist or not. Commercial imperatives in the business that is media are such that the consumer-preferences of the poor are of little significance. In not seeing any of this, Caplan fails badly at his own test of empirical economics adequacy. One suspects that, ironically, he fails for the very reason that he promotes in his own pages. He fails to think clearly about the economics of the mass media, which reveals the truth of corporate power and its inegalitarian and harmful effects on citizens and on the democratic polity. Thinking clearly about that economics and politics would strike against his (Caplan’s) own political prejudices.

And yet, and yet: the rave reviews of Caplan continue. His star just won’t stop rising. Late last year (Dec. 8 2009), for instance, an article appeared prominently in the Guardian newspaper entitled: ‘How voters’ whims could scupper Copenhagen: ‘Rationally irrational’ voters could stall any deal on the environment’. It was basically a puff piece for Caplan. To be fair to Caplan’s thesis, it is of course perfectly true that democracy has a dire difficulty dealing with long-term issues such as management of our climate. But then again, so do markets. The problem is fundamentally one of a short-termism which is just humanly very difficult to escape. Future generations don’t vote – but neither do they play the markets. There is a real issue as to whether publics in so-called ‘mature’ democracies can/could ever be got to accept the kind of policies that are needed now to keep the planet liveable. Getting people to really care about the future after they are gone is hard; but there is absolutely no sign that Caplan’s preferred alternative will change that state of affairs. In fact, all indications are to the contrary. Carbon-trading will not keep the coal in the ground the burning of which would seal the fate of the Maldives, and Tuvalu, and, further down the line, of all our children.

So one has to ask: why, apart from the enduring attractions of feeling cleverer than the mass of dumb voters, is Caplan becoming so beloved of his public? The answer, presumably, is that his readers, existing in and in a good number of cases profiting from a world still awash with neoliberal ideology, mostly still think that untrammelled capitalism is the only game in town. They have not realised that this vast market-failure that is the financial-cum-economic crisis changes the rules of the game.

Similarly with the climate crisis: tragically, all the solutions on offer at Copenhagen that had any ‘legs’ with the developed world and with the new China-India axis were based around carbon trading, just as Kyoto has been – and just as Caplan recommends (p.33). Sub-prime carbon, anyone? The world’s financial markets are desperately trying to go on living as if it were still Spring 2007… Whereas: If the lessons of the financial meltdown had really been learnt, then we wouldn’t be rushing to sell off banks that are still TBTF.

But the lessons apparently haven’t been learnt. And so it’s worth thinking through for a minute what the Caplanian prescription – of less democracy, and more markets -, would really mean. It would mean that commercial imperatives prevailed virtually everywhere. Thus it would mean, for instance, faster progress than countries like Britain have already seen toward the dismantling of a public health service. The NHS was set up with the votes of soldiers, labourers, and so forth. When the voters that count are only pounds or dollars, then full privatisation is on the way. For everything. (Indeed, Caplan goes so far to insist that even ‘property rights and contracts are possible without government approval.’ (p.194)  His example for this, apparently offered without irony, is rather telling. It is that ‘That is why one drug dealer can meaningfully tell another, ‘You stole my crack’ or ‘We had a deal’.’ More truly laissez-faire – i.e. lawless – economics is apparently what we can look forward to, in Bryan Caplan’s brave new world.)

Caplan’s Minervan owl surely flew out of sight already, in 2008 at the latest. The myth of the rational market is dead as a derivative. It looks like, if we are going to have a future worth having, then we have no alternative but to find a way of restoring and building this worst of all possible systems except for all the other systems: democracy. The longer-term background against which it is probably most useful to see Caplan is as the latest incarnation of an idea that is endlessly popular with elites: the idea that the biggest danger for a ‘democracy’ is the people. It goes back to the debates in France over how far the Revolution ought to extend political rights, and in England and the USA about what it means to extend the suffrage to people who are ‘uneducated’ and presumptively not capable of putting the general interest before their own. Famous previous versions of this idea have been presented by Samuel Huntington, the Trilateral Commission, Leo Strauss, Joseph Schumpeter, Walter Lippman, and earlier by Edmund Burke and by some of the Girondins and indeed by most of the founders of the United States of America. These thinkers have argued that ‘democracies’ work to the extent that the great unwashed do not act on the rights they have in a democracy, such as voting, free speech, protesting, and so forth, and to the extent that an elite rules instead. The twists that Caplan adds are primarily these two: first, that the uneducated don’t vote selfishly, but the reason that they are not capable of putting the general interest forward effectively is simply that they (allegedly) have systematically wrong ideas about what is in ‘the general interest’ of the country; and second, that the best way to stop them from messing everything up is to deprive their votes of effectiveness by suborning them to as unfettered a market as is feasible. It is because of this second point that Caplan is a true neo-liberal ideologue, a very model of the kind of writer who bestrode the intellectual universe – in Spring 2007.

NOTE – this is a reprint:




By Bryan Caplan

[Princeton, 276pp., £12.50, 2007 (new paperback edition, 2008), 978 0 691 13873 2]

– Review Essay of Caplan, The European Review