Democracy: 'Government by amateurs'

I went to an all-candidates meeting recently in the race to replace our Toronto city councillor, Joe Pantalone, who's running for mayor. The candidates were mostly lawyer or city-planner types. But one differed: Derek Chadbourne, a bike courier for 16 years who runs The Bike Joint, a local repair shop. A neighbour, who works on Bay Street, said he knows Derek, he's a great guy, too bad he can't win. I asked why. He seemed to think it was obvious. He doesn't have credentials or expertise, like the rest. But, but -- I sputtered -- Democracy is government by amateurs. I must have read it somewhere.

In Daniel Boorstin, actually, who called democracy "a way of confessing the limits of our knowledge" and getting on with decision-making anyway. Expertise can be comforting: You hire or elect someone to solve things. The downside is, it's often mythical, aside from specific areas like medicine or bike repair. Take a mess like the Gulf oil spill and computer models of where it will go. That sounds expert. But the Christian Science Monitor says that, years ago, scientists dropped hundreds of drifters to track currents there and in 90 days they went everywhere. So computer modelling sounds better than it is, which may have contributed to skepticism over global warming, a real enough problem. Or take the euro. It seemed like a good idea by bright boys but it didn't work out as it "should" have, they now say. Stephen Harper likes to call himself an economist. The way things have gone the past two years, he might prefer to hush that up. It's not that economists are stupid but their expertise and, especially, their predictive powers, are overrated.

This bears on recent, exasperating attempts at electoral change and democratic renewal, from the U.K., to our own, to the Tea Party in the U.S. It all still comes down to having representatives, who get to make the decisions because they have, or can call on, the obligatory expertise. When reps or candidates consult voters, it's usually to ask what's bothering them. But then the "leaders" provide the solutions or, at most, tell "the people" what they want. I'd say that even proportional representation, which I support, has an expert aura hovering. It comes with stats and studies by experts proving its superiority.

Is there an alternative? Would the bike guy be different? Well, one question at the meeting was about controlling heavy traffic flows in local streets. The planner and lawyer types spoke about discovering the "causes," while of course "consulting the community" -- since you can't pretend you don't care what people think. Derek just said he'd do "whatever the community wants," full stop. "What a concept, eh?" said a neighbour who's been having trouble getting action on a wayward landlord.

What's the concept? It's not that there are no answers so what the hell, the majority gets its way. It's that solutions are elusive and more likely to emerge through collective wisdom and "common" sense than expertise. And if you say: That's fine for traffic flows, which people see rolling by their houses, but what of complex matters like the economy or foreign policy? Well, I'd say that ordinary Greeks have worked out that it's unjust to expect them to pay for bailing out banks, and then pay more to bail out their own governments for bailing out banks. That's economics, you know. And I've seen ordinary Canadians wade through intricate constitutional proposals (for the Charlottetown referendum), once they were given real responsibility for the decision. What we may need is more democracy and less representation.

Yes, it could lead to what Oscar Wilde called the reason socialism won't ever happen: It would take up too many evenings. But what a nice, different, political problem to have.

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