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.