Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The California Coastal Commission v. Millian democracy, or, so much for the coextensive virtues and values of deliberative and representative democracy....

“If you’ve got a clothespin handy, you should clip it to your nose. I’m now going to tell you about the 12-hour California Coastal Commission meeting I sat through Wednesday in Morro Bay. When the spectacle was over, members of one of the most powerful regulatory agencies in the country had racked up a number of accomplishments.

They fired their staff’s executive director, Charles Lester, who knows more about the 40-year-old voter-approved Coastal Act that protects our 1,100-mile shoreline than anyone in the world. They devastated and demoralized the agency staff, so much so that some employees wept when the firing was announced.

They infuriated a who’s who of California’s longest-serving stewards of coastal preservation and access, along with hordes of public officials, current and former Coastal Commission staff, and former commissioners and citizens who had traveled from up and down the coast to speak glowingly of Lester’s integrity and diligence. 

They accused the media of building a bogus narrative about why Lester’s job was in jeopardy, falsely insisting they were not at liberty to discuss their complaints about his performance in public. And they spoke of their commitment to accountability and transparency, then refused to conduct their business in public, retreated into privacy, papered over the window and dropped the guillotine on Lester in a 7-5 vote.

‘Disgraceful,’ Susan Jordan of the California Coastal Protection Network told me, even as staffers sobbed and embraced a stricken Lester.” [….]  Please read the remainder of the article by the smart and indefatigable Steve Lopez for the LA Times here

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What follows is intended to help us see precisely why the recent California Coastal Commission meeting made a complete mockery and mess of representative democracy, at least in the Millian sense.

As Nadia Urbinati[1] well explains, J.S. Mill (leaving aside the ‘other’ Mill of the East India Co. or the Irish Famine[2]) argued that “the key feature of representative government is that it evaluates all governmental proposals and decisions and ensures that both the people’s decisions and political decisions, get public visibility” [emphasis added]. Indeed, opinion and consent formation, “not decision,” is the “defining feature of representative government, the former exemplified “in the mode of deliberation and the circular relation between institutions and citizens.”

Mill in fact had a keen appreciation of the necessity of democratic deliberation “because it is relevant to both the moral legitimacy of democratic decisions and the character of political action.” Concerning the former, its value is owing to its encouragement of citizens and representatives alike “to think of policymaking in terms of what can be publicly justified” [emphasis added]. And representative government generally in a democratic polity, referring both to those who are empowered to act in the public interest or for the common good in judicial, administrative and regulatory bodies and capacities, and legislative bodies, must adhere to the imperatives of “open government,” that is, the principle and practices of visibility and transparency, thereby ensuring at least the indirect participation of citizens in the political order. Such participation allows citizens to make meaningful the notions of consent and dissent, as well as enable them, as individuals (and ‘standing’ participants), to make informed political judgments: “the activity of standing participants (the electors) in a representative democracy is wholly mediated—not only in terms of speech—but along dimensions of time and space as well.” And the vote of standing citizens is both future-oriented: regarding promises and proposals of candidates, and retrospective: assessing the outcome of those they’ve elected to represent them.

Transparency and various rights and freedoms, like free speech and a free press are essential to the what Urbinati terms the deferred democratic dimension of the public realm (in contrast to the  simultaneous character of decision making by actual representatives), a dimension that “makes it necessary to develop an articulated public sphere that can create symbolic simultaneity; citizens must feel as if they are standing, deliberating, and deciding simultaneously in the assembly.” This deferred assembly, as it were, is wholly reliant on various forms of civic participation by way of supplementing and monitoring the organs of government, including its bureaucratic and regulatory agencies. On this model, representation is on a continuum with participation, one in which the “space for political discussion beyond governmental institutions” is ever expanding, as “the people” are learning and honing the skills necessary to properly scrutinize political decisions. Civic participation and “monitoring,” in turn, are dependent on an “open government” in the Millian sense, such “visibility” serving “to impede the potential misuse of politics.” 

[1] Nadia Urbinati, Mill on Democracy: From the Athenian Polis to Representative Government (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2002): 69-75.
[2] Mill of course worked as a senior civil servant—colonial administrator—for the East India Company from 1823 until 1858 (when the Company was abolished in favor of direct rule by the British crown over India). For a somewhat sympathetic discussion of his tenure with the East Indian Company, see chapters 16, “Utilitarianism and Bureaucracy: The Views of J.S. Mill,” and 18, “Bureaucracy, Democracy, Liberty: Some Unanswered Question in Mill’s Politics,” in Alan Ryan’s marvelous volume, The Making of Modern Liberalism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). On the historical and ideological context and character of Mill’s work as “the most sophisticated advocate of the ideology of empire,” please see, in no particular order, Raghavan Iyer’s Utilitarianism and All That: The Political Theory of British Imperialism (London: Chatto & Windus, 1960; reprint: Santa Barbara, CA: Institute of World Culture & Concord Grove Press, 1983); Thomas R. Metcalf, Ideologies of the Raj (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Edward R. Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993); Nick Robins, The Corporation that Changed the World (London: Pluto Press, 2nd ed., 2012); and Partha Chatterjee’s The Black Hole of Empire: History of a Global Practice of Power (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012). 

On Mill’s response to the Irish Famine, see Henry Farrell’s recent post at Crooked Timber, “Millian Liberalism and the Irish Famine.”


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