Sunday, March 7, 2010

Is democracy akin to a process of scientific experimentation?

In his book, ‘The Science of Liberty’ (2010), Timothy Ferris argues that liberal democracy and science are similar in important respects:

‘Both start with tentative ideas, go through agonies of experimentation, and arrive at merely probabilistic conclusions that remain vulnerable to disproof. Both are bottom-up systems, constructed more from individual actions ... than from a few allegedly impervious precepts. A liberal democracy in action is an endlessly changing mosaic of experiments, most of which partially or entirely fail’ (p 13).

Ferris acknowledges that these failed experiments make the democratic process frustratingly inefficient but he argues that the great strength of liberal democracy is its capacity to sustain the experimental process.

I think this view of liberal democracy as akin to a scientific process is a desirable ideal rather than a description of how democratic systems actually work. Before elaborating, however, I would like to praise this book for shedding light on the relationship between liberty and science. With the benefit of having read the book, I think it is valid to depict the relationships between liberty, economic progress and the advance of knowledge as shown below.

If I had drawn such a diagram before I read the book I doubt whether I would have thought to draw an arrow running directly from liberty to advance of knowledge. The author’s main achievement, to my mind, is in describing the historical relationship between liberty and the advance of knowledge. The book illustrates that, to use the authors words ‘science demanded liberty and demonstrated its social benefits, creating a symbiotic relationship in which the freer nations were better able to carry on the scientific enterprise, which in turn rewarded them with knowledge wealth and power’ (p 7).

Before reading the book I was aware of some of the relevant history, such as the Vatican’s attempts to suppress Galileo’s ideas and the negative influence of Lysenko and communist ideology on the biological sciences and agricultural production in the Soviet Union. At the same time, however, I tended to think of the advance of knowledge as something that occurs exogenously with the passage of time - as it is often modelled in the economic growth literature – rather than as a product of liberty.

One of the most interesting things I learned from the book is the extent to which scientifically-minded individuals have been at the forefront in promoting liberty. Isaac Newton was not only a scientist but also a strong proponent of liberty and a close friend of John Locke. Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who played large roles in inciting and carrying out the American revolution, were amateur scientists. Thomas Jefferson apparently ranked his service as first head of the U.S. Patent Office as comparable with having written the Declaration of Independence and been twice elected president.

In my view Ferris makes a strong case that the U.S. founding fathers deliberately adopted a structure of government that would sustain an ongoing series of policy experiments, rather than attempt to guide society towards a specific goal (p 102). By contrast, the French revolutionaries assumed that the point of the revolution was to implement a particular philosophy – stemming from Rousseau’s view that the power of the state should be used to impose equality (p 120). The American revolution resulted in an imperfect system of government but the French revolution resulted in a major disaster for the people of France.

As I see it the main problem in viewing liberal democracy as akin to a process of scientific experimentation is the weakness of democratic processes for ending policy experiments that partially fail. Elections seem to be a reasonably effective way for citizens to avoid being governed by despots, to get rid of politicians who are obviously corrupt and to experiment with new policies. However, even policy proposals that are viewed as radical reforms rarely involve more than a tweaking of the failing policy experiments that already exist.

The mosaic of policy experiments being conducted under liberal democracies at any time seems to me to be much more path dependent than scientific research. Unproductive avenues of research are replaced much more readily than government programs that are failing. The best we can hope for from policy reforms is that the tweaking of the existing policy experiment will set in train an evolutionary process that will eventually result in better outcomes.

The increasing involvement of the federal government in funding of hospitals in Australia illustrates the processes involved. The basic problem prior to federal intervention was ensuring appropriate access to hospital services for people who did not qualify for free access under the means tests applied by the hospitals and state governments. Some policy experimentation by the federal government was probably inevitable to attempt to solve the perceived problem – whenever the states experience a funding problem a substantial proportion of the Australian electorate expect the federal government to ‘do something’.

There were basically two kinds of policy experiment that might have been conducted. Under the first approach the federal government would offer to fund hospital care for those who claimed to be unable to pay for insurance, using the federal tax system to recover funds from those who were falsely claiming financial hardship. Under the second approach, the federal government would give funds to the states on condition that the state governments solved the means test and access problems. The second approach was adopted and we ended up with free access to basic hospital care for everyone who is still alive when they reach the top of the waiting list – as well as confusion of responsibility for service delivery, with state governments blaming inadequate federal funding for ongoing problems.

If the democratic process in Australia was akin to a process of scientific experimentation it seems reasonable to suppose that the current hospital funding experiment, that had its origins in the 1940s, would have long been abandoned in favour of a different kind of experiment more in tune with the market realities. Instead, what we have is a federal government proposal to tweak federal funding – to make it more closely related to services actually provided – being put forward as a major reform initiative. I think the most we can hope is that if it is implemented this proposal might possibly push the evolution of hospital funding in a more sensible direction.

Similar problems of path dependency are evident in the policy experiments in many different policy areas in Australia and in many policies adopted in other liberal democracies. The world would be a better place if democratic processes were more like the processes of scientific experimentation.

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