Wednesday, January 28, 2009

On the Side of Angels symposium
16. Andrew Rehfeld: Institutional responses

Rosenblum’s defense of parties and partisanship leads us to figure out how representatives can be both advocates and deliberators at the same time. What really emerges is an endorsement of a juridical system applied to politics in which advocacy and deliberative judgment are separated in different locations rather than collapsed. The question then becomes what institutional structures can create a robust deliberative sphere that gives rise to many points of view, but that allows each member also to be independent enough to listen and change their mind. I think this is in the spirit of Rosenblum’s suggestions, but it is not clear to me that stronger partisanship alone is the solution. Instead, I think the solution is to separate the advocacy from the decision making itself in different kinds of ways.

In my last posting I mentioned one way to do this: create a professional legislature that was not based on parties, and let political parties be really big collections of interest groups that stay out of government. This is not a fully worked out view but it hints at what’s needed. Interestingly, both Mill and in our own day, Thomas Christiano have institutional fixes generally along these lines. Indeed, they point to what I would say was the biggest disappointment to me about Rosenblum’s work: it oversimplifies the role of institutional design.

Mill envisioned that in close votes in Parliament there would be enough members with sufficient judgment and independence who could decide the merits of the issue absent prior partisan commitments. Relying on the Hare system also meant that candidates would run on personal platforms rather than be mired in partisan politics. As Rosenblum well explains in more length in the book, Mill did not foresee the kind of robust partisanship that Rosenblum is promoting and what she properly terms “proto-Millian”. Rather, the electoral system would permit non-partisans running on the strength of their character, or intellect (or any other feature) to enter politics and temper the whole.

But I think by relying primarily on the logic of Liberty rather than the institutionalism of Considerations on Representative Government, Rosenblum missed Mill’s important solution to the problems of parties and partisanship within a legislature: representatives, in Mill’s view, would not be the authors of legislation. Instead, representatives were to debate on the issues, set agendas and vote up and down on legislation written by professionals serving on a “commission on legislation.” This commission, filled by experts, would craft the best solution to the problems that the members of parliament identified. There are all sorts of reasons to question whether such a solution would actually remain independent. But the point is, Mill had envisioned a far more robust institutional response to the problems of parties, by separating the battle of principles from the business of legislation.

Tom Christiano, in his terrific Rule of the Many, institutionally separates the set of general principles from actual policy. Parties would take fixed positions on general principles, what he calls “the aims of society” that citizens would debate and express their preferences for. Once elected, legislators would not be expected to compromise or deliberate about these aims, but rather deliberate and are flexible about the means by which they are achieved. In such a case they might have to give up their first best way of achieving the aims for which their parties stand, but as advocates for those aims (rather than particular policies) they would be in the best position to do that. They are thus “mandated” to follow their principles for which they are advocates, but fully independent (as proper deliberators must be) to decide what is the best way to achieve them given the constraints of other partisans with different, non-flexible aims in the legislature as well.

Whether or not either of these or some other institutional fix is practicable, they are ways of providing “voice without earplugs” because they involve separating out the advocacy from the deliberative and decision-making function. Without such a separation, I don’t see how a defense of partisanship can stand, except as a defense of a principle that participants themselves cannot endorse.

Andrew Rehfeld

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