Openclosed - RSA

Democracy: open or closed?

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  • Economic democracy
  • Institutional reform

So here I was writing a blog on how the politics of ‘open v closed’ was a dividing line that leads to more conflict than resolution and up popped an article by none other than Tony Blair. In it he articulates the modern ‘open’ case. Politics too often works in a binary fashion and, in fairness to Mr Blair, he does caveat the initial stark choice he lays out. Nonetheless, the open v closed framing is itself becoming part of the problem.

Much of the commentary on the Dutch elections this week focused on the underwhelming performance of Geert Wilders’s PVV. Before we celebrate too hard, it is important to note that an aggressively racist party just increased its vote share from 10% to 13% in the election and finished second.

What was of greater note, however, was the fragmented nature of the outcome. Thirteen parties will now sit in the Dutch parliament representing an array of perspectives. I do sometimes wonder whether the binary nature of US and UK discourse comes from our ‘win or lose’ electoral structures. In the Netherlands, there is a democratic array.

Nothing is more win or lose in nature than a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ referendum of course. And now the UK’s politics is structured around ‘in’ or ‘out’ and then ‘union’ or ‘independence’. There are binary options in politics, of course. And yet, there is a world of difference between making decisions at critical junctures and structuring the entirety of public discourse in that fashion.

Binary platforms cut away at the far more substantial space in between polarities. As Blair acknowledges in his piece:

“Neither position is as stark as it seems. Those who accept globalisation have got to accept that the insecurity it causes is profound and for some damaging. Those on the closed side don't seriously dispute at least some benefit from globalisation.”

Despite this important qualification a once-and-for-all decision is insisted upon is his piece. There is a need to push harder to challenge entrenched assumptions. For example, the economist David Autor has focused on the actual impacts of free trade deals on employment. As a free trade advocate, he has reassessed his thinking on how free trade is handled given previous impacts of opening up US markets to Chinese imports. He doesn’t now think that free trade is a bad thing, just that there are impacts and transitions that have to be carefully managed.

There is a good argument for opening up trade from the perspective of national income, consumer welfare and wealth. There are particular and negative impacts that can hit individuals and whole communities hard. So the point is not ‘open v closed’ at all. The challenge is rather to think about how open and closed can be blended in a way that is inclusive and democratic. Like parties of the Netherlands there are an array of perspectives – most of which are between the poles of open and closed.

In the next couple of weeks, I will be chairing two talks that touch on these themes in different ways. David Goodhart contrasts the worlds of the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’ which are the groups which correspond to ‘open’ and closed’. It will be interesting to see how he sees the space between these two ideal types – ie the space where most of us are either anywhere-somewheres or somewhere-anywheres. And Anne-Marie Slaughter will be discussing the ‘chessboard’ (national strategic interest) and the ‘web’ (networked flows of people, data, trade). Although this is a foreign policy take, there is the same question of the capacious space where networks and the chessboard overlap or exist in tension and opposition.

The test for the coming era of heightened tension between economy, technology, geo-politics, and how they intersect the public good and the particular goods is not, ultimately, about how we choose between open and closed. Current public discourse is hoodwinking us into thinking this way. The more sophisticated question to ask is what degree of openness can be consistent with national identity and democratic choices? This is neither a fixed position nor is it stark choice.

This territory is explored magnificently by Amartya Sen in his reprint of Social Choice and Social Welfare. The point he makes is that there are a number of different options that correlate with better outcomes than the current social equilibrium and open democracy can help us find those choices better than stark decisive events such as referendums. We could read this across as meaning that there is no transcendent ‘open or closed’ option. There is instead a need for a richer dialogue between these poles. For example, on the question of Brexit we have to do better than saying ‘the people have spoken, you are an anti-democrat or ‘remoaner’ if you dissent.’ The conversation goes on. Brexit may be the outcome but it is perfectly legitimate for it not to be as well. Democracy is a continuum and in flux.

So instead of boxing ourselves in with binary choices, there is more to be gained by encouraging discourse to flourish. Our democratic mechanisms should be treated with more suspicion than sanctity as they are manufacturing a stark and sub-optimal politics. If you prefer win or lose politics then it might be worth reflecting that today’s winner is tomorrow’s loser. And that is no way to run a decent society.

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