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Problems with 'participatory democracy'

Dear Ash,

You have pointed out some of the major problems the concept of
participatory democracy as considered in the literature. In fact there are
many who feel that this is not feasible and should be discarded outright.

I do not see a major contradiction between representative and
participatory democracy. To me it appears that participatory democracy (of
the kind we have on IP where no person represents anybody else or any
organization: i.e., the purest form of participatory democracy) has been
constrained primarily by technology, and then, at the second level, by
economics (e.g., not everyone can afford an internet connnection, to be
able to participate in policy discussion on IP, for example). 

The reason why we had purely (or largely) representative democracy in the
past was because participatory democracy was simply too costly, and that
argument still remains; hence representative democracy cannot be replaced
outright; perhaps never.

At the same time, forums like this can help enrich the discourse. The
quality of discourse in the media is one way of enhancing the policy
debates each society must carry out; the addition of multiple citizens
groups like IP can help even more.

Take for example, the points made by you. You were basically talking about
the well known "user pays principle." In other words, you would like the
actual users to pay for the services received rather than the entire
community. Clearly that can be defined - through participative discussions
such as this - as a basic economic policy to be encouraged. To that
extent, participatory democracy helps enrich and enhance the consensus. 

At the same time, when the final time comes to vote for various things, it
is impossible for thousands of people to vote on everything. Referenda can
be encouraged - in principle - for issues of great public importance;
these are truly participative instruments. However, one cannot have these
kinds of instruments for every decision: we then leave it to the judgment
of the representatives, who are expected to abide by or try to enforce the
basic principles (like the manifesto we are defining) created out of
participative processes.

You will notice that I have constrained participative democracy by two
things: economic and technological feasibility. These constraints are ever
being eased and so one can and should expect greater and yet greater
participation by people directly, in decision making. 

If you like, one add

a) the "user pays principle" under the manifesto under economic policy
[user to pay to the extent possible]

b) the issue of encouraging refernda on major policy issues.


On Mon, 24 Aug 1998, Ash Mahesh wrote:

> Hi Sanjeev:
> I've thought of participatory democracy in the past, and your definition 
> presents a different angle from what I've normally considered to be 
> participatory. I haven't reached any conclusion, but I think it would be 
> good to throw this out there and see what others have to say.
> >From your post, 
> > I thought we must get a good definition of "participatory democracy"
> > since we have used this word in the manifesto.
> .... and a little later in the same post,
> > "The citizen must have the opportunity to participate directly in
> > the decision making process - wherever possible, technologically,
> > and economically. 
> I wonder if you are distinguishing representative democracy from 
> participatory democracy. Let's say we have some issue under debate, and 
> I will use the example that I have used in my own reasoning in the past. 
> The City Council is considering funding for a new sports stadium for a 
> professional team in town. As you can probably guess, this is something 
> that actually happened around here, twice! How does Citizen Jane 
> participate in the process?
> She can go to the various town meetings and lay out her point of view, 
> (which is that the team can go hang itself for all she cares). She sees 
> no benefit from professional sports and has some documentation and 
> research material to back it up. So she goes to these meetings, and 
> gives it her all. Others, with opposite points of view, also show up and 
> give their all. The town meetings themselves have been called by the 
> council as a way of "providing the public with the opportunity to 
> participate in the decision" (I put that in quotes because it 
> approximates some parts of your earlier definition, pasted above).
> At the end of all the town meetings, and after deliberating all the 
> evidence gathered by the many sides, the council votes. The resolution 
> to fund the stadium is passed. The actual decision is incidental to my 
> point, it only matters that the decision is necessarily in line with the 
> preferences of some and against those of others. Jane, in some sense, 
> has lost, since her point of view did not carry the day. Still, as a 
> good citizen, she will abide by the council's decision inasmuch as it 
> remains legal. 
> The next time she goes out to eat, she can't help but notice that the 
> restaurant tax has gone up by 0.1%. The fact that this is a small amount 
> is irrelevant, she nevertheless pays more. And she knows that the money 
> is used to fund the stadium. Now, Jane has never been to a baseball game 
> in her life, and she does not intend to in the future. As far as she can 
> tell, there has been no convincing evidence that the stadium is an 
> economic plus to the community, and the matter of building it is merely 
> a preference of the individual conuncilors who currently hold office. 
> Still, Jane is paying for it!
> To my way of thinking, that is not particularly participatory. That sort 
> of democracy remains "representative", not "participatory". When all the 
> opinions are heard, the councilors, representing the community, made a 
> particular choice which, almost by definition, excluded some opinions. 
> So what might be an alternative? A simple matter that comes to mind is 
> that the stadium ought to be funded by raising ticket prices, hot dog 
> prices in the stadium, parking prices at lots serving the stadium, etc. 
> Usually, fans revolt against these. The council has simply given them an 
> easy way out by charging the entire city for the recreational habits of 
> a subgroup! Representation, in this example, is not fully enabling to 
> participatory democracy.
> Other examples are easy to find, if one does not like the analogy I just 
> made. The apartment complex one lives in costs $50 a month more because 
> it provides abundant parking. But even those who opt not to have a car 
> must pay, they are provided a slot for the car they do not have! A union 
> strikes against a company and the few who wish to remain on the job have 
> no job to go to because they cannot do all of it themselves.
> I am not saying that any of these are perfect examples for my point of 
> view, lest one finds flaws in the particular arguments I have put 
> forward. Instead I wonder if democracy might be better achieved if we 
> try to go after economic democracy, in the sense that the choices we 
> make include a cost in them, and we are always free to minimize our 
> costs by electing not to indulge in those choices. I.e, don't go to the 
> ballpark, don't pay for any of the costs associated with the new 
> stadium. 
> Some of this is isolationist and may not be ideal, I recognize that. I 
> am merely throwing this out there as a way of debating what it means to 
> "participate". Is participating in the decision-making process to be 
> considered equivalent to bearing the costs and benefits of those 
> choices? What if the choices do not represent one's preferences, does 
> one bear the costs and benefits anyway, or is there a better way?
> Ash
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