Friday, June 5, 2015

From Wicksell to Slovic

I have been re-reading the critique of social psychologist Paul Slovic and legal scholar Kahan to the ideas of Cass Sunstein on the need to delegate substantial policy authority into insulated expert agencies. The view of Slovic and Kahan is that both the public and experts have bounded rationality that can be explained by prior cultural world views. A fraction of these cultural world views cannot however be imposed on the rest of the population. It is better then to promote a deliberative democracy where experts can have an input and a large degree of unanimity is achieved. These are the same ideas that Sweedish economist Knut Wicksell promoted in the first half of the XXth century. He argued that most policy issues are multidimensional and that for these issues majority rule alone was unfair and unstable. Although his ideal of unanimity is hard to achieve, qualified majorities are perfectly possible for many issues and are actually employed in the European institutions. This is contrast with the downsian idea of democracy, where issues are seen as unidimensional and the focus is on majority rule. The arguments of Slovic and Kahan and the way they present them are admirable, but they are not free from weaknesses. For example, they treat cultural world views as immutable and almost exogenous, whereas it is easy to find examples of people who change their world views during their life times (although they do not often change the style they use to defend any world view). And the solution they propose is much more appropriate for small rather than large communities. It is hard to visualize how the ideal of a deliberative democracy reaching a high level of consensus can be achieved in mass democracies. More work will be needed.

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