Monday, 18 August 2008

More bone-headed nonsense from Johan Hari

I don’t usually read The Independent, and Johann Hari is one of the reasons why (though he is more a sympton than the cause). However, Free Think Blog has drawn my attention to today’s typically bone-headed article.

Mr. Hari thinks that democracy is not working properly in the UK, and makes three suggestions for how to improve and reform the system. Each is paternailstic, expensive and illiberal, and at least one is self-serving. Lets look at them in turn.

Proposal 1: Deliberation Day, would “Declare every general election a national holiday, and offer every citizen £150 to take part… in a day of debate”. Assuming an adult population of c.40 million, this could cost up to £6 billion per election not including the cost of administration. In addition, the extra day’s holiday would reduce GDP, so dealing a double-whammy in that the extra taxes would be taken from a smaller pot. Of course, not everybody would attend, so the cost would not be as high. But it is likely that those attending would be the politically active middle classes, while those not attending would be the politically inactive underclass. So one can see which way the tax pounds are flowing there!

Mr. Hari may think this worthwhile because “The national political debate would then no longer consist of10-second soundbites… We could … to a more rational discussion of the evidence. To Independent readers, this might seem unnecessary, but two-thirds of British people tell pollsters they have not had a single conversation about politics in the past two years.” Pomposity about the readers of his employer’s paper aside, it is at least as likely that the groups would be dominated by the loudest voices and the pushiest opinions, and that many would not discuss politics at all but just claim to have done so for the cheque. Nobody could check up on you, after all, unless millions of moderators were employed to report on the content of the break-out sessions (approximately 2.6 million) to be precise.

Proposal 2: Banning opinion polls during elections, is an assault upon freedom of speech. Mr. Hari may believe opinion polls undermine the political process but he cannot prove it, and in the meantime he would be limiting people's freedom to ask other people how they will vote and then publicise the results. I would prefer a Freedom Bill to his Democracy Bill: one that makes attacks on freedom of speech illegal.

Proposal 3: "a law requiring universities to add a small amount to their students' tuition fees, to pay for a daily newspaper subscription of the student's choice", is an idea so absurd that it is hard to know where to begin. Increased tuition fees would undoubtedly discourage some pupils from studying, though this may be no bad thing as it would be those who value their education least and so probably those that are going to get the least out of it. It would be a colossal waste of money, of course, as many of these compulsory papers would not get read: there are, one might note, plenty of text books and course papers that don’t get read, and these at least contribute to one’s final grade. It is also incredibly patronising and paternalistic: young adults being forced to buy newspapers by Mr. Hari and his peers, who believe that they are not well enough informed. Why not just lock them in a room with a copy of Das Kapital and have done with?

However, the ill-informed nature of today’s youth is not Mr. Hari’s real concern. This he reveals in two statements. Firstly, he notes that “being a newspaper journalist can feel like being a coal-miner in 1985.” His suggestion, therefore, in parallel to his analogues of 23 years ago, is a massive state-enforced subsidy for journalists.

But mere rent-seeking is not the limit of Mr. Hari’s concern. He also wishes to use state power to shape public discourse. If students were forced to buy newspapers, he suggests, "papers would be pressured to be more progressive, since this new student market tilts left." So he is deliberately trying to use the law and taxation (which this effectively is) to influence the media and so shape, rather than merely deepen, political debate in this country. A Ministry of Truth would not be far off.

The sad truth is that Hari is right that our democracy does not work as the idealists would hope. Some people infuriatingly refuse to take any interest; some cannot find a political party that represents their views; some are too busy with other things.

What Hari fails to realise is that the problem here is that democracy fails because it tries to achieve too much. The alienation of people from politics is in part the result of an inevitable convergence between the major political parties. But it is more to do with the fact that people are no longer enamoured of collectivist solutions to problems. They would prefer to earn money and solve problems in a market where they can find solutions tailored to their particular needs, rather than vote once every four years for a one-size-fits-all answer to their problems. Hari recognises this implicitly when he bases his first proposal on bribing people to vote, but he misses the main lesson.

I have discussed the problems with democracy before, and also discussed some proposed solutions. But the solution is to focus on a Government that does less, better, and leave as much control over their lives as possible to people. Then we don’t need Deliberation Day; we just need to make our minds up.


Julian H said...

In fairness to Hari, proposal 1 is not that stupid.

Proposal 2 is mildly stupid.

Proposal 3 is on par with his usual form.

A couple of weeks ago he decided to educate the world by explaining how wealth is created by government subsidies and tariffs. Chang's work, which he cites, has, of course, been entirely discredited.

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

Take proposal 1, limit it to a few dozen randomly selected people at a time and instead of have them deliberate on which politicians they like best (which will inevitably lead to precisely the sort of soundbite popularity contest that Hari condemns), give them a specific piece of draft legislation to mull over a period of days. Make it a requirement that the Public Bill Committee formally considers their conclusions.

What Hari misses is the fact that you simply can't do industrial scale deliberation in the way that he envisages - too many people will simply game the system and use it as an excuse to have a picnic with their mates. But small groups, properly supervised, are capable of being more reflective. What's more, by giving individuals a mini-political education in this way the experience in Canada and Northern Ireland is that you create activists that go on to promote political engagement within their communities. And it might just lead to better legislation.

I have rather more sympathy for idea 2 than you do. There's no question that polls influence voting behaviour - why do you think those famous focus leaflets of your's have bar charts on them?

The problem is, under the current electoral system, stopping people from creating hype in this way simply helps incumbants and the political establishment. It kills momentum. And if we reformed the electoral system the impact of such polls is greatly reduced. So the answer must surely be to make elections freer rather than wasting time criminalising pollsters.

Idea 3 is simply beneath contempt. Don't students have free internet access anyway? And if Hari cares so much about newspapers, why doesn't he go and work for one instead of the self-defined "viewspaper" which kickstarted the tabloidisation movement and in turn reduced the relevance of the dead tree press.

dreamingspire said...

Your discussion before and proposed solutions took place 13 months ago, and you were kind enough to let my long polemic through. Nothing has changed, and indeed I have been thinking back over 9 years of nothing changed (my involvement in govt's view of technology started then). The Commons Public Admin Committee have been thinking the same over a longer period, and Ms Jenkins laid some of it (35 years of it) out for them in a June witness session.
So I have looked at a couple of Lib Dem policy papers, and find nothing to propose a useful change - if there is such material, please let us have the links to it.

Tom Papworth said...


I agree that “industrial scale deliberation” doesn’t work but I remain sceptical about Citizens’ Juries and other forms of direct democracy. James undoubtedly knows more about this than I do, to be fair, but there is evidence from the much-vaunted Town Hall politics of New England and other small communities (including the odd parish council, no doubt) that these small groups become dominated by loud voices and special interests. This may be mitigated by decent facilitating, but there remains the risk that the facilitator biases the outcome (I’ve seen it happen) or that the drafter deliberately shapes the question and the evidence provided (ditto).

That being said, Citizen’s Juries are far superior to the mass-produced activism that Hari proposes. Mrs. Polemic certainly thinks the idea has merit. I suspect, however, that they always have a tendency to activism: as with all political debate, the “Something must be done” tendency dominates in each issue, including ironically the “Taxes must be reduced” and “Regulation must be eased” debates. Politics takes place in the round, however.

Quickly on polls, I’m sure they do influence behaviour and I agree that that is no reason to ban them. Banning things that affect election results is rather a perverse suggestion!


Surely you’ve been reading this blog long enough to know that it bears little relation to Liberal Democrat policy :oD

That being said, Nick Clegg’s proposal to reduce the number of MPs by almost a quarter would reduce the activism that results from legislators with nothing to do but legislate, while his Freedom Bill would roll back some of the excessive (in both quantity and invasiveness) legislation of the last decade. Meanwhile, I keep waging the good fight against state funding of political parties.

Shuggy said...

The compulsory paper thing strikes me as a particularly potty idea. It conjured up a vision of a dystopian totalitarian future where students who failed their daily newspaper-reading duties would be forced to read the Independent at gun-point or something. I couldn't be bothered reading the Hari piece - does he say what would happen if the student's newspaper of choice was the Daily Sport?

Tom Papworth said...


No he doesn’t. But he probably wouldn’t mind half as much as if the subscribed to The Economist!

Isn't every reader of the Independent forced to do so at gun-point? I can't believe anybody chooses it!