peteg's blog - noise - books - 2007 05 01 HamiltonMaddison SilencingDissent

Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison: Silencing Dissent: How the Australian government is controlling public opinion and stifling debate.

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I finally finished reading this book, so long after the book launch. In many ways I found it unsurprising and somewhat pointless; it catalogues and sometimes adds to the vast piles of evidence that the current government is a mendacious, insecure mob of control freaks. I can't imagine anyone who doesn't already suspect that will read this text, and so I have to wonder what the target audience was imagined to be. The only things I found novel were the instances of modern-day heroism in the public service, and even those couldn't keep me awake. (I mostly read it after midnight.)

One thing that struck me as less than helpful was the stridently bare ideology in this potted take on public choice (p32, Dissent in Australia, Clive Hamilton and Sarah Maddison):

At a deeper level, the revisionist view of democracy advanced by the Howard Government rests upon a particular belief about human nature. This view considers that it is normal and natural for people to be the self-interested 'rational maximisers' known as homo economicus in the economics textbooks. In this view human beings are understood to be 'fundamentally acquisitive creatures' for whom 'consumption and acquisition are the means to happiness'. The purpose of society, then, is 'to provide the secure space in which these naturally self-interested individuals are left free to discover and pursue their own (basically material) happiness'. This is hardly a modern view; the idea of government as being structured around the self-interested individual dates back to Hobbes and Locke. In the modern variation — known as rational choice theory, and its offspring, public choice theory — citizens are regarded as having little concern with democratic participation unless it is in their own material interests. In turn the model of government designed to support the activities of the 'instrumentally rational egoist' is a 'minimal democracy' that can at best provide 'few safeguards against tyranny'.

Offered up to support the quotes are Australian Politics (Emy and Hughes) and Deliberative Democracy and Beyond (Dryzek, what a great name). Me, all I've got is Wikipedia and a smattering of Amartya Sen's work. While I agree that taking any of these theories to be normative might lead one to think their conclusions are profoundly distasteful, the mostly negative mathematical results are enough to convince me that they're still working on the foundations. Rationality here is just the set of extra assumptions needed to make the model tractable, and it clearly is a poor approximation of human behaviour. No surprise that the hot new trend has a strongly psychological flavour.

Still, this paragraph does make a good point (by example) in conflating the limitations of the models with their supposed support for a highly artificial set of desiderata, something I'm sure the political public choice theorists encourage. Take, for example, Jane S. Shaw's overview of this discipline for The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics:

One of the chief underpinnings of public choice theory is the lack of incentives for voters to monitor government effectively. Anthony Downs, in one of the earliest public choice books, An Economic Theory of Democracy, pointed out that the voter is largely ignorant of political issues and that this ignorance is rational. Even though the result of an election may be very important, an individual's vote rarely decides an election. Thus, the direct impact of casting a well-informed vote is almost nil; the voter has virtually no chance to determine the outcome of the election. So spending time following the issues is not personally worthwhile for the voter. Evidence for this claim is found in the fact that public opinion polls consistently find that less than half of all voting-age Americans can name their own congressional representative.

Public choice economists point out that this incentive to be ignorant is rare in the private sector. Someone who buys a car typically wants to be well informed about the car he or she selects. That is because the car buyer's choice is decisive — he or she pays only for the one chosen. If the choice is wise, the buyer will benefit; if it is unwise, the buyer will suffer directly. Voting lacks that kind of direct result. Therefore, most voters are largely ignorant about the positions of the people for whom they vote. Except for a few highly publicized issues, they do not pay a lot of attention to what legislative bodies do, and even when they do pay attention, they have little incentive to gain the background knowledge and analytic skill needed to understand the issues.

Public choice economists also examine the actions of legislators. Although legislators are expected to pursue the "public interest," they make decisions on how to use other people's resources, not their own. Furthermore, these resources must be provided by taxpayers and by those hurt by regulations whether they want to provide them or not. Politicians may intend to spend taxpayer money wisely. Efficient decisions, however, will neither save their own money nor give them any proportion of the wealth they save for citizens. There is no direct reward for fighting powerful interest groups in order to confer benefits on a public that is not even aware of the benefits or of who conferred them. Thus, the incentives for good management in the public interest are weak. In contrast, interest groups are organized by people with very strong gains to be made from governmental action. They provide politicians with campaign funds and campaign workers. In return they receive at least the "ear" of the politician and often gain support for their goals.

I guess you can see where that is going. I find the use of rationality here persausive, even if the portrayal of private enterprise is overly narrow and rose-tinted; my experience of corporate Australia is that the meat is not lean, and most are awestruck by the Enron fiasco. And yet there is an alternative to the right-wing minimalist (or absent) government: a more participatory democracy, a path that the Swiss have taken without apparent catastrophe. As Australia's infrastructure crumbles (specifically universities and urban transport, at least in Sydney), the populace will have no choice but to turn away from the high-def plasma for long enough to make their opinions felt.

None of this is to say the book shouldn't be read, indignation raised, action taken, but when the revolution comes I doubt anyone will say this is what got them off their arse. David Marr wrote an upbeat review for the Smage, though his closing observations are similar to mine:

The trouble is, the nation seems to care little about the successes or the failures in Canberra's long war against information. "While Australia has been transformed," Manne writes, "large parts of the nation have seemed to be asleep."

I have to say, bleakly, that these days this is only rational.