While public institutions depend on popular support for legitimacy, citizens also need to know when to delegate expertise.
I want to do something that is, by definition, unpopular: I want to argue that, sometimes, participation is bad. More precisely, even though democracies are only legitimate because constituents make them so, and even though online systems can help restructure elitist institutions, citizens need to be strategic about how and when they get involved in managing public goods. Citizens should know when to delegate expertise, a kind of expertise in itself.
A recent article on The Mark reminded me of the need to be precise when talking about the internet and its populist potentials. In it, David Eaves appeals for an open review of MPs’ expenses, envisioning a kind of crowd-sourced audit in which “we can collectively do our own analysis.” Eaves repeatedly and, I think, rightly imagines that many Canadians would be “interested” in the expense claims. But by assuming an abstract “we,” Eaves mistakes interest for accountability. His proposal would make Canadians more vulnerable in a weaker kind of democracy in which a populist, self-selected crowd with the power to shame becomes a substitute for expert, institutional oversight with the responsibility to punish.
Should we trust such crowds to do public audits? I want an auditor general savvy enough to distinguish between true fraud and sloppy bookkeeping, between habits of deception and patterns of incompetence. This is expertise that I and many other Canadians – even those who are “interested” – don’t have. To be sure, Eaves allows that the auditor general can “do [her audit] as well,” but by putting a crowd-generated audit on the equal footing with an AG’s investigation, Canadians run the risk of mistaking spectacle with oversight, confusing visible activity that makes us feel good with critical inquiry that helps us know more. Seeing information doesn’t mean appreciating its significance.
This debate gets to the heart of an uncomfortable truth about democracies. In his 1821 “Essay on Political Tactics,” philosopher Jeremy Bentham describes three kinds of citizens: those who have no time for public affairs, those who believe through the judgments of others, and a small few who make quality judgments for themselves based on available information. Bentham reminds us that the idea of a perfectly knowledgeable public is a myth: most of us, on most issues, knowingly or not, delegate responsibility for forming our beliefs to others. It’s okay that we do this. But in the kind of crowd-sourced audit Eaves describes, who are the “others” that we trust to discover on our behalf and teach us what they learn? At least we know who the auditor general is and how – cumbersome as it might be – she and the government can be replaced.
We trick ourselves into a comfortable but illusionary security when we delegate public responsibilities to self-interested, seemingly transparent groups that claim to act on our behalf but who we can’t understand or hold accountable. What kind of accountability will Canadians get from online crowds? Citizens can’t and shouldn’t always participate in the details of managing public goods – I don’t want to crowd-source management of the Chalk River nuclear reactor – but we can and should always demand quality oversight, even when quality practically means limited public participation.
Online participation and crowd-sourced activities are, to be sure, a boon to democracy if for no other reason than they make us question what we want to do with our civic energies. But we need to be wary of creating newer, more dangerous public cultures in which secrets are even less visible than they are today because those who benefit from corruption know that they only need to hide their misbehaviours from interested participants, not expert professionals. My uninformed hunch is that seasoned, honest forensic accountants know how to spot equally seasoned, dishonest politicians by following paper trails that you and I couldn’t see, even if we did have the data. (And we run the risk of creating a public service “chilling effect” if crowd-sourced audits produce too many false positives that accuse honest politicians of misdeeds they never committed.)
I know we don’t have to choose between crowds or experts – I want both – but if it’s a question of emphasis, I’d much rather be the constituent of an AG who can be legally reprimanded and dramatically fired than an unwilling patron of a crowd that may or may not know what it’s doing.
A more responsible proposal would create ways for the AG’s office to help citizens learn how to do audits. It would mobilize interested, self-motivated citizens into creating a different kind of quality audit not possible with the AG’s limited resources but still in-line with her expert aims. And if we’re going to crowd-source audits, can we put experienced, non-partisan forensic accountants towards the front of the crowd?
Of course, eventually, someone will call for an audit of these accountants but this is exactly my point: sometimes we have to trust experts. Our democracy is just too big and too complex to do otherwise. The leaders of our online crowd should earn their positions through more sophisticated systems than we currently have: reputations shouldn’t be measured through thumbs up/down votes or by the number of times someone participates in a forum.
This is a chance for Canadians to learn and debate what a good audit is. We can do this not by making crowds that we assume to be wise, but by creating what educators call “communities of practice” that work because they know how to value both experts and newcomers.
More broadly, I’m asking for some humility and nuance as we figure out internet-styled populism. I’d like advocates to distinguish among what’s technologically possible, culturally plausible, and democratically desirable. Democracy is not populism, institutions are not always bad, expertise is not elitism, professionalism is not only about exclusion, and crowds can be so powerfully and expansively wrong that it’s hard and costly for them and us to see their errors.
It’s easy to make information public, get a crowd together, and slice data, but it’s much, much harder to create institutions we can trust, with oversight, to know the things that we know we can’t know.