Local Democracy Notepad

Democratic perfectionism as a political method

The lust for certainty – a sin?

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Bless me Father, I've been certain about something...

Bless me Father, I've been a bit certain about something...

In a very good edition of BBC Radio 4′s ‘Analysis’ programme towards the end of last year, the columnist David Aaronovich recounted a programme that he produced in the 1980s featuring the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood.

The Archbishop, as far as I can see, had the kind of views that would appeal to a Guardian reader rather that an Anglican traditionalist.

Jonathan Dimbleby asked him if it wasn’t the case that people needed a bit of certainty about big issues in order to live their lives. the response that the Archbishop gave stunned Dimbleby and Aaronovich. He said…

Has it occurred to you that the lust for certainty may be a sin?

The whole programme is really worth listening to – I think that podcast subscribers get the option to download all of the archives and the transcript is here.

One of my favourite political bloggers, Chris Dillow of Stumbling and Mumbling has written a great deal about the curse that the apparent need for certainty places upon democratic politics.

Just for reference, all of these posts are worth reading, but Chris’s strapline – ‘an extremist, not a fanatic’ is probably traceable to his previous career as a stockbroker – and the advice that every trader receives during their career – that not being sentimental about stock is a good thing – and that fanaticism always clouds judgments.

Chris often promotes a Rortean irony as a way of viewing the world, and seems very stuck by James Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds thesis – an attractive one, particularly to those who are more open to ideas of direct democracy than I would be.

And what does this distrust for certainty mean for advocates of local democracy? I’d say that it tells us that a great many consultations throw up the most useless information, as opposed to the most useful. If the general public are widely seen as being too apathetic to turn up to a polling station every few years, the idea that the bulk of people with lightly-held preferences will participate readily on a subject that they are not too bothered about, is a bit outlandish.

So we have, instead, the usual suspect problem. Where people with views that they hold fanatically are very keen to participate, and keen to be heard over the noise of the general public. People who have a vested interest are also likely to be much in evidence. But the eavesdroppable conversation – the one where ordinary people who hold their views fairly lightly meet – is one that is never fostered by most consultations.

As a result, we end up with the kind of balance that pervades so much of public life – one where balance is equated as being the mid-point between two poles of groupthink – rather than the balance that emerges from a wide range of views.

Which brings us back to the parliamentarian argument – the need for the distributed moral wisdom of the elected.

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  1. [...] The lust for certainty – a sin? [...]

  2. [...] She’d agree with the Archbishop of York that the lust for certainty is a sin, and she’s not particularly fanatical about any subject that she discusses, preferring thoughtful equivocation and a conversational desire to hear what evidence others have to offer. She has a mild distrust for newspaper editorials, politicians and political hucksters of all kinds. [...]

  3. [...] consultative personality and a recasting of the notion of ‘leadership’. It would need the lust for certainty to be understood as a sin [...]

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