Politics is about collective decision making.  It’s hard not just because people disagree about the answers to particular questions, but even more so because they disagree about how those questions relate to one another.  The answer you get depends on the question you ask, and politics is about trying to find agreement on the questions as much as it as about trying to find answers to the questions agreed on. It’s why ‘taking the politics out’ of a question is never possible (though taking a question out of one political process and putting it into another is entirely possible and frequently done, often with the assertion that the second process is not political)

I had a go at putting that into words a couple of years ago, starting with the question of the shape of the humps in my road, and going all the way through to world peace (not quite, but nearly).  I had another go yesterday, this time starting with the apparently more straightforward question of how to open a door. Neither, I fear, quite gets to the heart of why decision making in political environments can be more than a bit tricky.  Then, thanks to a couple of fortuitous tweets, I came across this presentation by Anthony Zacharzewski of the Democratic Society, which with great economy includes at slide 20 the thought that:

Representative democracy is about mass compromise, not mass personalisation

That’s a really powerful idea.  How we do we best compromise with a nation full of mainly strangers?  With a city, a village, a street – or a world? Politics is the art of finding ways to answer that question.

It’s well worth looking through the whole presentation – there are a lot of slides, but they are all very pithy, and some real gems scattered among them (including a superbly tasteless image of the ineffectiveness of flogging a dead horse). Whether or not you end up being persuaded by their solution, the analysis of the problem is beautifully done.


  1. We like to play board games at family get togethers but find it hard to decide on what to play to keep everyone happy. My favourites are Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan but my father-in-law doesn’t like those very much; he prefers cards. My wife and her mother both favour Game of Life, but I don’t like that one very much. So we list the options, rank them in our order of preference and play the one that scores best. Nobody really loves Rummikub, but nobody dislikes it either. So while we each cancel the other options out it quietly comes out on top every time. And it always feels like a mass compromise.

    Eventually we get bored of democracy and go for rotational dictatorship.

    1. In which case you could argue that rotational dictatorship is the compromise.

      You can see ‘taking turns’ as the sophisticated public choice methodology in other areas. Some people like parks because of the peace and quiet they offer, some people like them because they can be good venues for festivals and circuses. Having very quiet festivals or very small circuses satisfies nobody and is not a useful compromise. The solution is often to allow the festivals and circuses, but to ration their number, so that the peace and quiet is lost for some of the time but protected for the rest.

      And of course some might argue that ‘rotational dictatorship’ is as a good a description of parliamentary democracy as any.

  2. The issue, whether about which board game to play or how to reduce the deficit or bring peace to the middle east, is always the same. Who gets to be heard and whose ideas and insights are weighed? And who does the weighing and how? All of which are much more complex and interesting with the advent of the ‘connected republic’ in which distributed networks of people and ideas can influence in new ways. When we can be both more ‘expert’ and democratic at the same time (as Beth Noveck puts it) the game changes (or at least it should)

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