The professional era of democratic politics has changed the purpose from representing the public, to making decisions for them.
In bureaucratic parlance this new purpose is known as “evidence-based policy making”. It’s attractive because it infers a science-like approach to making conclusions based on evidence. The public is viewed as emotive, unstable and irrational people who need to be directed (or ‘nudged’) into or out of behaviors.
To professional politicians, the art of democracy is to win votes from the irrational public in order to govern rationally over them.
The idea of a philosopher-king or ‘government of experts’ is attractive. Experts appear to be better at answering technical questions than the man-on-the-street.
The skills required are seen by the professional political class as more respectable and important than representing the wishes of the masses. In the latter your ‘boss’ is the untutored public. In the former you are the boss, and your skills are possibly a match or superior to your peers in business, bureaucracy or NGOs.
The supremacy of evidence-based politics has been described by Ben Pile as turning the voter into “the object of social and behavioural sciences employed to elicit his obedience”. This had led politics into “a radical transformation”.
Pile’s beef is that academia is deliberately undermining trust in the wisdom of the public.
these [academics] paint a picture, from the psychology of the individual, through to the functioning of the planet’s natural processes, in which humanity simply cannot help but steer a course for catastrophe without their intervention.
Neuro-science is being put to the same purpose. Lessons about the emotively driven plasticity of human thought have led to governments governed by judgements of how to modify the behaviour of those that vote for it (or against it, more ominously). The UK Government even has a “behavoural insight team”, which produced a handbook on how to persuade the public to do what Government thinks is right for them. It’s completely the opposite starting point to democracy, where what the public wants, rules.
I’m not so naive to think that democracy has always been about doing what the public wants. Leaders make things happen, make decisions on behalf of the public, and lead the public to their particular vision. But the starting point has always been primacy of the public will.
Evidence-based policy, for all its attractions, starts with the assumption that public sentiment on a subject is wrong, or at least secondary. That’s not democracy.
Worse, evidence-based policy is an illusion. Sure, it makes an effort to identify, understand and resolve a problem rationally. That is a critical task, especially for bureaucracy. But the reality is that the evidence and science is usually chosen to fit an existing hypothesis and frame of mind. Rarely do politicians have the discipline, and time, to take a truly scientific approach to problems.
Unfortunately, evidence-based policy ends up being a tool of people in positions of power – to serve their political ends.
That is why societies across the world and throughout history have previously chosen, and fought and died for, democracy. That is why the will of the people must have primacy over evidence-based policy.