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After many attempts I have “penetrated” The Age letter columns, albeit with substantial editing. The letter responds to an article by Paul Monk, who is a serious thinker about the problems in modern society and whose article is also set out below. On this occasion, while I doubt the practicality of Monk’s thesis, it is important that he is reflecting seriously on the problems we face - and that The Age is involving itself.

Des Moore

Upper-class welfare
letter published in The Age, 14 May 2012
[square bracketed sections omitted by editor]

Paul Monk has useful suggestions for saving democracy [without moving down the extremist paths on the right or left, such as occurred in Nazi Germany or revolutionary France. But while the need for reform is clear, it is difficult to achieve without leadership that understands the problem and is capable of persuading the community of possible changes.]

The heart of the problem is that political parties [(and their leaders)] on both sides have the ability to “buy” votes and do so. Thus the size of government expands and[, until time catches up,] more and more borrowing occurs.

By contrast with Europe and the US Australia has not gone far down this path. Further, the Treasurer’s [welcome] promise to budget over the next four years for a surplus and to limit real spending growth to 2 per cent [pa] (on average), [and the Coalition’s promise to also budget for surpluses,] means that government spending should now fall slightly relative to the rest of the economy [under either of the major parties.]

There is thus an opportunity for political leaders to persuade the community [of restrictions on borrowings by governments] and of the benefits of moving to a smaller proportion of GDP allocated to government spending.

Such persuasion might include reference to the increase in average real incomes per head of about 90 per cent since the mid 1970s, the resultant increased capacity of citizens to look after themselves, and the desirability of providing less assistance to upper income groups, which now receive around 30 per cent of government transfers. [C’est impossible?]

Des Moore, South Yarra Vic

How we can save democracy
article by Paul Monk published in The Age, 11 May 2012

Democracies are in trouble around the world as voters become disengaged and irresponsible. So what are we going to do about it?

LIBERAL democracy is floundering and needs to be reinvented. The European Union is in all sorts of trouble and voters are lurching around trying to avoid facing fiscal reality.

The US is suffering a kind of political gridlock and is not addressing the profound challenges it faces to its power and prosperity. Japan is becalmed.

Here in Australia, we have a government precariously clinging to power and staring at possible electoral annihilation next year, but an opposition that doesn't appear to have anything much positive to offer in its place.

Our problems are disconcerting when, less than 20 years ago, it seemed that liberal democracy had 'won' and was set to spread around the world.

Looking at the electoral mess in Greece, or the victory of Francois Hollande in the French presidential election on a 'denialist' platform, one might wonder about the future of democratic politics.

The fundamental question is, can democratic leaders develop and 'sell' to the mass of voters policies of deleveraging and productive investment, as against borrowing, taxing and spending? So far, the evidence is not encouraging and we are beginning to see the consequences.

Right across OECD countries, democratic political systems are failing to generate the policies needed to steer their societies away from fiscal perils and towards sustainable prosperity, while more and more voters appear irresponsible or disengaged.

There are variations on this theme, of course, and Australia on the whole has been doing better than many other debt-laden welfare states. But we are not doing well, and unless the democracies in general can lift their game, the future does not look encouraging.

That is not to say, of course, that there are non-democratic political alternatives that look more promising. Do we just muddle through or are we in need of some more fundamental adjustment?

In a thoughtful essay in The American Interest, Russian intellectual Vladimir Inozemstev asks whether liberal democracy still works, in the sense of providing 'at least minimally competent public policy decision-making'. Is it time, he asks, to consider the possibility that it is self-destructing, because it is - like in ancient Athens and Rome - degenerating into ochlocracy? 'Ochlos' means mob, as against 'demos', which means the people or the citizenry.

The ochlocracy, he argues, expects entitlements without responsibilities. It is easily misled by propaganda and infotainment, is unable to vote rationally or responsibly and splinters into multicultural and self-obsessed 'tribes', as against independent-minded citizens.

He wonders whether 100 years of extending the franchise have actually caused the constitution of liberty to hit the wall. Perhaps, he suggests, 'the franchise should be pared back' in the interests of halting the drift into ochlocracy. This is a disturbing thought.

Who would do the paring back, and what guarantee would the 'pared' have that the 'guardians' would govern well? If, in fact, the liberal democracies falter, we are all too likely to see extremist parties come to the fore and pare back the franchise in arbitrary ways that will exacerbate rather than improve the problems. We saw this happen in dark ways, left and right, in the 1930s. So what is to be done?

What Inozemstev overlooks is the possibility that the existing mechanisms for operating liberal democracy, rather than the practices themselves, are what may need reform. After all, democracy has always had its deficiencies.

It was, broadly speaking, a descent from democracy into ochlocracy that brought about the downfall of ancient Athens, and concern about such prospects lay behind the constitutions of all the modern democracies until the second half of the 20th century.

Now, such constitutions are failing to do their job adequately. Perhaps what we need, however, is less a paring back of the franchise than a reinvention of how we consult, sift and register the understanding and thinking of the public.

The original promise of democratic politics, in Athens, was making it possible for citizens to participate freely and effectively in public policy debates. Our modern arrangements - parties, elections and public opinion polls - are struggling. To do better in the 21st century, we need better mechanisms for encouraging participation, informed and responsible voting and the discernment of the public mind.

The 'new media' have been acclaimed by some as 'liberation technologies', but they can clutter the system or polarise debate as readily as clarify it. What we actually need are de-liberation technologies.

If we want better democratic government, surely we need it to be guided and constrained by a kind of considered collective view. Such a view is best ascertained through a well-designed process in which representative groups of ordinary citizens - 'mini-publics' - convene and engage in extended, informed debate. In principle, this can be extended to mass publics. What we need are experiments to improve on what has already been done.

Carefully designed web-based tools for informing, sifting and aggregating the thoughts of the citizenry would be the deliberation technologies I'm talking about. Algorithms could be used to rate and aggregate the individual opinions of participants on any given issue. Such innovative tools might enable democracy to recover and improve upon its original Athenian promise.

That's what we need: deliberative democracy on public policy in place of parties, personalities and spin. Tim van Gelder and I have helped to create the OurView Foundation with this end in view. Others around the world are also experimenting. Join in and revitalise democracy.

Paul Monk is a founding director of the OurView Foundation, a not-for-profit body dedicated to devising new online mechanisms for public deliberation.

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