Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The limits of public participation in policy-making?

The purpose of this post is to make a somewhat obvious and trite point, which, however, seems to be worth reiterating in current times. Kaushik Basu has a recent column in the HT which articulates this very well:

"Democracy runs on participation, and we Indians are good at that — argumentative, demanding and, should the need be and, at times, even if the need should not be, disruptive. But surely there can also be something called over-participation. In many policy matters there is a fine balance between articulating preferences and taking decisions in hand. Take for instance the Indo-US nuclear agreement 123. This is a matter of great complexity and one has to commandeer a lot of information before one digs in one’s heels. It is clearly not a matter that should be decided by popular support.

This is a problem that economists have to contend with more often than other professionals, such as engineers. No one would suggest designing a plane by taking into account majority preferences. But when it comes to designing an industrial policy or setting a target exchange rate or adopting a currency convertibility system, everybody feels that he or she has an opinion that ought to count.

Drawing a line where mass participation should end and expertise take over is not an easy matter. To have everybody participate is to risk a policy hodge-podge. To leave it all to the expert is to risk policies being hijacked by small interest groups that the expert may, openly or covertly, be a part of. I do not know what the right solution is, but feel that we human beings would contribute to saner decision-making if we entertained a little bit of scepticism — an awareness of how little we know. We would have fewer fundamentalists if we could be modest enough to admit that the world is full of unknowns and wonders, and realistic enough to know that there is no book of the ultimate secrets of life.

... ... ... Of course, we have to express opinions (and I will in this column) and take decisions, but those opinions and decisions would be much better and more dependable, if underlying them was an awareness of the ultimate uncertainty of nature."

Clearly, this is a problem that lawyers, especially constitutional lawyers, also have to deal with. Basu's exhortation seems very relevant to the constituency of this blog as well.
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