In May, John Burnside wrote a letter to Manuel Arriga as part of the Artangel Longplayer Letters series. The series is a relay-style correspondence: The first letter was written by Brian Eno to Nassim Taleb. Nassim Taleb then wrote to Stewart Brand, and Stewart wrote to Esther Dyson, who wrote to Carne Ross, who wrote to John Burnside, who wrote to Manuel Arriaga. Manuel’s response is now addressed to Giles Fraser, a priest, professor, and journalist who studies contemporary ethics, who will respond with a letter to a recipient of his choosing.
The discussion thus far has focused on the extent and ways government and technology can foster long-term thinking. You can find the previous correspondences here.
From: Manuel Arriaga, New York
To: Giles Fraser, London
16 November 2015
Reading the earlier letters in this exchange, it strikes me that the issue of long-term thinking is twofold. Its challenges make themselves felt at two very different levels: the individual and the collective.
As individuals we are notoriously prone to myopic decision-making. The work of cognitive psychologists such as Tversky and Kahneman, whom Stewart Brand quoted in his letter, abundantly documents the biases that plague each of us as we try to act “rationally”. When the temporal horizon expands and making a good decision today depends on properly weighing benefits and costs that are far into the future, we do a particularly poor job. It doesn’t help that, when we look into the more distant future, such consequences are probabilistic rather than certain.
A second, distinct problem has to do with collective decision making. How can we, as a society, adequately handle issues that have long-term consequences? Obviously, different people will list different concerns, but there is a widespread perception that our political life is too caught up in the ephemeral, all the while neglecting to pay proper attention to a number of looming structural challenges.
Why does this distinction between the individual and the collective matter? Because the pathologies that afflict us as a society are not simply the sum – nor the inevitable consequence – of our limitations as individuals. Instead, we have put in place specific procedures and collective decision-making mechanisms that ensure that our individual-level myopia will be amplified when we collectively make decisions. (It is in this sense that, as Esther Dyson wrote, “long-term thinking and collective action are two sides of the same coin.”) Our political system(s) almost seems designed to take our innate biases and ensure that, as a society, we act in a way that would make the most foolhardy and impulsive teenager seem wise by comparison.
Consider elections, perhaps one of the most celebrated institutions of modern times – the only widely-accepted way for the public to delegate power into the hands of a small number of politicians. This provides a way to hold those we elect accountable and gives (some measure of) protection against authoritarian abuses of power.
However, as is painfully evident in 2015, elections also foster shortsightedness in a myriad of ways. Politicians are immersed in the media and electoral cycles, unable to extend their vision beyond the dual horizons of the day’s media coverage and the forthcoming election. Citizens are invited to pick representatives (and occasionally to vote on ballot measures) with little to no serious reflection and on the basis of a wholly inadequate information diet. Finally, journalists find themselves working in an ever-accelerating environment, where they often feel that careful, in-depth coverage of policy issues no longer has a place and must be sacrificed at the altar of sensationalism, high ratings and social media buzz. To borrow Brian Eno’s phrase, the whole system seems geared towards “increasingly short nows”.
Needless to say, we should be doing the opposite. We should be devising collective governance mechanisms that bring out the best in our thinking, creating ways to make decisions that will help us, as a society, overcome our innate myopia and the biases that plague our reasoning. The good news is that I sincerely believe that we have at our disposal a concrete, albeit little known, way to do just that. Its wider adoption promises to make the collective more, rather than less, intelligent than the individual – in short, the kind of change of method that would, as Carne Ross put it, be “tantamount to changing the outcome” in matters of policy that require deep long-term political thinking.
One way to achieve this is through a practice known as citizen deliberation: the use of large panels of randomly selected people to carefully reflect and decide on complex policy matters. Unlike professional politicians, such a representative sample of ordinary citizens has all the incentives – and close to none of the disincentives – to properly think through the long-term consequences of different policy choices. Furthermore, if the deliberation process were rigorously conducted, these citizen panels would be able to see through the “ideology and ghost stories,” as Stewart Brand puts it, that typically plague such decisions.
Greater use of citizen deliberation in policy making could be a powerful antidote to many of the ills we have been identifying. However, in my short book Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, a specific concern over our difficulty in making reasoned long-term choices prompted me to suggest a blueprint for a particular kind of institution. A “Long Now Citizens’ Assembly” (the name was meant as a not-so-subtle nod to the inspiring work of the Long Now Foundation) would be a large citizen panel that would convene every ten years. These citizens would be tasked with defining a collective political vision, thereby setting out some key choices in terms of the direction their nation, region or city should take, subject to approval in a referendum. The decade between meetings would make it unambiguously clear that the panel existed in a different temporal plane from that of electoral party politics.
Although citizen deliberation dates back to ancient Greece, the idea of involving ordinary citizens in real-world policy making invariably comes as a shock to many. However, skepticism dissipates as people come to understand how citizen deliberation works in practice. The citizen panel carries out an in-depth study and analysis of the issue(s) at hand, including consultations with policy makers, interest groups, scientific experts and others. They deliberate, at length and with the assistance of skilled facilitators, about the available policy choices and their possible impact. The process has nothing in common with the rowdy scenes and uninformed shouting matches that characterized, for example, the town hall meetings on healthcare reform in the United States back in 2009.
A commonly-voiced concern is whether ordinary citizens have what it takes – are they intelligent enough to address complex policy issues? Here, too, doubts prove unfounded. Stanford Professor James Fishkin, one of the world’s foremost experts on citizen deliberation, writes that “the public is very smart if you give them a chance. If people think their voice actually matters, they’ll do the hard work, really study, … ask the experts smart questions and then make tough decisions. When they hear the experts disagreeing, they’re forced to think for themselves. About 70% change their minds in the process.” He assures us that “citizens can become better informed and master the most complex issues of state government if they are given the chance.”
The promise of citizen deliberation is that it could free policy making from the well-known biases that plague professional politicians. Ordinary citizens, chosen at random and for a single, non-renewable term, can act – just like a jury in court – in what they perceive to be the true long-term public interest, free from the pressures of facing reelection. They don’t have to worry about how necessary-but-unpopular measures will adversely impact their popularity ratings.
But perhaps the most exciting aspect is that none of this is idle, academic speculation. Recent experiences show how well citizen deliberation works in practice. In 2004, a randomly-chosen panel of 160 citizens was tasked by the government of the Canadian province of British Columbia with reforming the province’s electoral system. After drawing on the input of a wide variety of experts, consulting the public, and deliberating at length, the British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform ended up suggesting a type of electoral system that, in the words of Professor David Farrell, a renowned expert on electoral systems, “politicians, given a choice, would probably least like to see introduced but which voters, given a choice, should choose.” The assembly’s proposal was later approved by 58% of the popular vote in a referendum, yet regrettably failed to meet the strict requirements imposed by the provincial government for its results to be considered binding, and therefore has yet to be implemented.
Similarly encouraging results are reported from the U.S. state of Oregon. Since 2010, citizen deliberation has been used to assist Oregon voters in state-wide ballot initiatives. In a process known as the “Citizen Initiative Review,” a panel of about twenty-five randomly chosen Oregonians is tasked with carefully researching and deliberating on the ballot measure up for a vote. At the end of this process, an accessible and highly informative set of “key findings”, as well as an indication of how many panelists ultimately supported and opposed the proposed measure, are presented as a “citizens’ statement” in the pamphlet that voters receive in the mail before a ballot. Research confirms that this citizens’ statement not only makes voters better informed, but also has a substantial influence on the voting behavior of those who read it.
In his letter, John Burnside rightly wonders if – in light of the substantial social change that would be required just to bring rampant environmental destruction under control – it might be too optimistic to place that much faith in the abilities of our fellow citizens. When one pauses to consider what is at stake and how far we are from attaining that goal, it is impossible not to share his concern. Yet, I can think of no other collective decision making system better equipped to handle such a challenge. After all, the kind of major lifestyle changes that seem necessary are utterly indefensible by professional politicians seeking (re)election. We can also hope for the success of NGOs and other groups in civil society trying to promote greater environmental awareness, yet their odds of effecting major changes seem awfully limited as long as our so-called democracies remain deaf to voices other than those stemming from powerful economic interests (or, perhaps just as depressingly, focus groups). Our best hope perhaps lies in the abilities of ordinary citizens to collectively engage with these difficult issues and then share their findings with the broader public.
Giles, in this letter I deliberately adopted an “engineering” perspective – that of a self-confessed geek who asks himself how we might reform a system so that it can generate what I consider to be better outcomes. I did so aware of the violent oversimplification entailed in this process, any hopes of true change ultimately depending on our values and how they come to evolve over time.
As argued above, I believe that citizen deliberation offers us a powerful way to cut through the everyday froth, to reflect on and articulate what our values truly are and which reforms are needed so that, together, we can build a future that is true to those values. Yet, this is at best a tiny piece of the puzzle. I very much look forward to seeing where you will choose to take this conversation next.
All my best,
Manuel Arriaga is a visiting research professor at New York University and a fellow at the University of Cambridge. In 2014, he published Rebooting Democracy: A Citizen’s Guide to Reinventing Politics, which, by the end of the same year, had become the #1 best-selling book on democracy on Amazon UK. He is currently working on a film project on democratic innovations. More information about his work can be found at http://www.rebootdemocracy.org.
Giles Fraser is a priest of the Church of England and a journalist. He is currently the parish priest at St Mary’s, Newington, near the Elephant and Castle, London, and writes a weekly Saturday column Loose Canon for The Guardian, as well as appearing frequently on BBC Radio 4. He is a regular contributor on Thought for the Day and a panellist on The Moral Maze. He is visiting professor in the anthropology department at the London School of Economics. He was previously Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and director of the St Paul’s Institute from 2009 until his resignation in October 2011. As Canon Chancellor, Fraser was a residentiary canon with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre.