The people are smart. Why can’t they be trusted to make decisions?

The Anglo trial showed ordinary people can make intelligent decisions, yet they have no real say in the political sphere

Seán FitzPatrick, after being  acquitted last week. Under intense pressure, jurors heard complex evidence from a number of witnesses and came up with verdicts that seem nuanced, sophisticated, coherent and fair. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

Seán FitzPatrick, after being acquitted last week. Under intense pressure, jurors heard complex evidence from a number of witnesses and came up with verdicts that seem nuanced, sophisticated, coherent and fair. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times


In spite of appearances, people are smart. Give so-called ordinary people enough information, a calm context in which to interpret it and a sense of responsibility, and they generally make intelligent decisions. If you don’t believe this, look at the outcome of the Anglo Irish Bank trial. A jury of typical citizens – including a sales rep, a nurse, a bus driver, a personal assistant, an unemployed man, a hospital procurement professional and a trade union employee – listened to 54 witnesses over 43 days. They considered 42 charges against three different defendants, all of them relating to complex financial transactions. They did all of this in relation to events whose dire consequences stir high emotions. And they came up with verdicts that seem nuanced, sophisticated, coherent and fair.

But we couldn’t ever dream of letting such people decide on the running of their local primary school or whether to have a playground in the park or how much of a budget should be spent on fixing potholes. There’s an utterly weird disjunction between two arms of government. In the legal system, it is assumed that citizens can be smart and serious and that they are willing and able to take responsibility. In the political arena, it is increasingly axiomatic that “ordinary people” don’t know what’s good for them. Their only role is to elect professional politicians who in turn appoint technocratic experts answerable to no one.

Immediate communities
Citizens can be trusted, apparently, to send someone to prison for life, to deal intelligently and dispassionately with the most emotional of events; murder, rape, child abuse, a catastrophic banking collapse. But they can’t be trusted to make decisions even about their own immediate communities.

You can see this contradiction at work in the one experiment we’ve had in deliberative democracy – the creation of what is essentially an extension of the jury system into politics. Pretty much everyone agrees that the 66 citizens who were randomly selected to be members of the Constitutional Convention performed really well, taking their responsibilities very seriously, working diligently and approaching questions with open minds. But they were allowed no actual power. They couldn’t possibly be trusted enough to have their recommendations put directly to their fellow citizens in a referendum. All of their decisions go back to the Government and hence to the lavishly paid handlers, advisers, experts and consultants who will figure out why most of them are just not on.

We know empirically that this closed, centralised way of doing things is a failure. We know to our immense and continuing cost that it leads to groupthink, cronyism, mutual back-scratching, waste of money and corruption. We know that we have to reinvent our democracy.

But all of this knowledge has been entirely useless. It is not just that the old system has not been reformed – it has become measurably worse, even within the arena of professional politics. Supervision of economic and fiscal decisions by unaccountable EU technocrats has been fully institutionalised. The Cabinet has been usurped by the economic management council – a body that has no constitutional status. The Dáil has been even more thoroughly sidelined by the increased use of the guillotine. The ascendancy of the unaccountable adviser has reached the point where, at the formal dinner for President Higgins’s state visit to Britain, most of the Cabinet were not invited but three unelected handlers were.

All of this makes it even more important that we find ways of involving citizens in making decisions about things that affect their lives. There’s nothing mysterious about this: you start at the bottom by giving people direct control over local decision-making. It’s being done all over the world. In California, the process of drawing up electoral boundaries – long marred by gerrymandering by the party is power – has been handed over to a citizens’ commission. Cities in Latin America and elsewhere have developed “participatory budgeting” – allowing citizens to make choices about how their own local taxes are spent. (Some borough councils in England have been experimenting with similar ideas.) Estonia has been using online crowd-sourcing to generate and refine ideas on how to deal with the influence of money in politics.

More centralisation
And in magical, mystical Ireland? Not a chance. The Government’s “reform” of local government consists most radically in the abolition of the layer of democracy that was closest to communities – the town councils. They could have been genuinely reformed to make them into forums for deliberative and participative democracy in every community. Instead, they were simply scrapped. Meanwhile, the introduction of local property taxes, which ought to have been the occasion for giving citizens more involvement in how those taxes are spent, has led simply to more centralisation. The taxes were immediately seized and sent to the consultant-laden Irish Water.

Democracy isn’t a system – it’s an activity. It’s a thing that citizens do and, by doing it, learn to do better. But in our increasingly technocratic, top-down system, citizens can’t be trusted not to do the wrong thing – wrong, that is, for the system. Except, of course, in the inconsequential matter of criminal justice.

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