Vigdor Schreibman

Adversarial Efforts[edit | edit source]

The adversarial process is not a very productive way to promote a consensus, one gets there in a more creative process when everyone starts out with an understanding that its the group idea they are after, not one view jammed down everyone's throat by tricks and emotional manipulation. There is another side to the process, however, which "Twelve Angry Men" shows quite well. That crew understood that they must discover the one idea that all would agree to, the group idea about guilty or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt. The wonderful conflict that they each agreed to undertake in pursuit of that group idea brought them all to fantastic heights of creative understanding about each other and the accused. Its the constructive conflict that brings out really creative ideas, when everyone in the group, or community, is pulling for the best that they can do together, laying open their differences to careful examination, rather than the most that one can get for himself at everyone else's expense by domination of raw power.

A consensus that is no more than acquiescence is garbage, but a consensus that is discovered by coherent direction and deep spiritual purpose to integrate differences -- like the action in "Twelve Angry Men" -- that's golden!

Academic Mention of Consensus: can be "elitist"[edit | edit source]

A volume in the Sage Human Services series published for Social Work students by a professor Steve Burghardt (sp?) called _Organizing for Collective Action_. A chapter there discusses how arriving at "consensus" can be an "elitist activity."

The difference between consent and consensus[edit | edit source]

Don't equate consensus with truth. Don't equate this consensus as a viable barometer of opinion viable for larger forums.

Open Society[edit | edit source]

An open society must have institutions which protect the freedom to criticize. Eplore the connections between criticism and democratic theory. The freedom to criticize should be compared and contrasted with the freedom of expression. The latter principle is central to what is known as liberal democracy. The former principle is central to what I will call consensual democracy or government by consent.

Don't confuse "consensual democracy or government by consent" with government by consensus. Draw a political distinction between consent and consensus.

I believe consent is a conditional agreement implying the freedom to criticize the order which is being followed. Consensus only implies that the order is at one moment in time agreeable to everyone concerned. It does not incorporate or make allowance for future criticism of the order. As a result, if the goal of consensus building becomes over emphasized, it can lead to dogmatism and the exclusion of critical debate.

Harry Veeder[edit | edit source]

When the "goal of consensus building becomes over emphasized" the result is a tendency to favor dogmatic entrenchment of theories, while ironically calling for their immediate and perpetual compromise. How else can consensus be accomplished in a context of persons holding deeply disparate views? It would most easily involve the unanimous willingness to compromise on values other than consensus. Alternatively, the goal could be reached through conversion of all dissenters to ideologies which are compatible with some resolution which is close to being within reach.

But I can't agree that consensus stands as a "principle [which] is central to what is known as liberal democracy." It is given a great deal of starry-eyed attention among the more idealistic apologists for modern democratic theory, but these attentions have precious little to do with actual political resolutions within political institutions. Not only do the established decision-making structures of government not require achieving consensus, even the loudest proponents of consensus quickly turn to less demanding standards when it comes to taking advantage of actual political opportunities which come their way.

If consensus is, as I assert, irrelevant beyond its status as a utopian goal among certain radical democratic visionaries, how can it rank as the principle which characterizes mainstream establishment democratic ideology? I say that it cannot. The major ideal in regard to cooperation which guides that democratic vision (which, I agree, is not adequate to the Open Society) must be something else, not identified here as yet.

Tracy Bruce Harms Boulder, Colorado

The Open Society The South Side Planning Forum does NOT purport to be an "open society." The Coalition is.[edit | edit source]

(to use Sir Karl R. Popper's phrase, more meaningful than "democracy").

The touchstone of on OPEN Society is that it operates for the benefit of its citizens, not for its elites or governors.

Three critical problems in open societies are: How does the group select its governors and functionaries? How does the society choose between alternative policies and procedures? How does the society create a political structure that promotes in reality the ideals of openness? The usual method is voting in elections and referenda. Yet the popular cynicism about such political processes, the belief that sub rosa games make a mockery of the formal rules, testifies to the demoralization of politics. Can we revise the formal rules in a way that will diminish this cynicism, not merely in perception but in reality?

The Objective Problem.[edit | edit source]

It is important to understand that there is an objective basis, quite apart from corruption, for the failure of election procedures to produce results that people find acceptable. Some 40 years ago, Kenneth J. Arrow (since become a Nobel laureate) published an article in Economics outlining the impossibility of creating a voting system that will satisfy reasonable notions of fairness for all conditions of choice. Arrow elaborated his work in Social Choice and Individual Values, Wiley, 1963, and an article by Blair and Pollak in Scientific American, Aug. '83 provides a concise, if highly mathematical, summary.

The kind of anomaly that inspires cynicism can be illustrated by three examples. Some election procedures are the equivalent of running separate races between pairs of candidates. In some real cases, the context of the choices leads to logically inconsistent results. In pairwise elections, A may be preferred to B, B preferred to C, but C preferred to A! What then? In serial elections with runoffs you can get a three-way situation in which there is unstable polarization. If candidates A and C are on opposite poles of the political spectrum (extremists with large followings) and candidate B is a moderate who is everyone's second choice and a good compromise, B will be defeated on the first round and one of the extremists will win. What a way to choose! Or, consider proportional representation, benignly intended to provide an effective voice for minorities. Under conventional majoritarian rules, parties (or individuals) have to form coalitions and enforce voting discipline regardless of the merits of particular issues. Thus, single-issue parties may find themselves at the fulcrum of the power balance and be able to force legislation not favored by the community. Ironically, it was under such well-intended rules of the Weimar Republic that the Nazis achieved power in 1933 and, under similar rules, a small orthodox minority wields disproportionate power in the Israeli government. Yet it would be offensive to deprive minorities of a proportionate effect on public policies.

What I suggest is that we now have the analytical and technical tools to overcome these anomalies. Within this century, we have acquired new understandings of the nature of the world that is inconsistent with the deterministic assumptions of the Newtonian age. If we give up determinism, we can actually do better than if we retain certain myths and preconceptions. It is interesting that Popper (1902-94), whose The Open Society and its Enemies defined the ideological basis for a society that respects its members, in one of his late works, a thin book entitled A World of Propensities (1990), drew a similar conclusion. We need to start with an examination of some peculiar psychological and doctrinal assumptions.

The Psychological Problem.[edit | edit source]

Here are the questionable assumptions:

Laws and rules change reality: Rather, rules describe reality, but only when they are well-formulated on the basis of empirical observation. Alternatively, rules may state intentions but do not bring those intentions about; only people's actions do. A series of binary decisions will produce the result desired by the group: Rather, binary decisions are the basis of parliamentary procedure. The result obtained, in fact, will depend upon the nature and order of the choices presented. An insider who controls the wording and order of the choices can (and often does) engineer a result that is offensive to those who should be the deciding parties. Real choices usually involve trade-offs, compromises, and conflicting preferences even within a single individual. There are alternatives to binary choices that would have been difficult to realize in an earlier era but are easily accomplished now. Decisions are permanent: Elections and referenda are often conducted as though the result established an eternal precedent. Although it is true that sometimes the result of a choice has long-term or far-reaching effects, it is also possible to craft choices that are limited by self-consciousness of our state of ignorance or respect for the rights of others to make different choices in the future. (Popper wrote approvingly of such policies, calling them "piecemeal social engineering"; the pejorative connotation of social engineering, acquired in a factional political context, should not prevent us from considering its merits objectively.) Sunset provisions in laws are a simple example.

"The majority rules" is a fundamental principle of "democracy": But every totalitarian government in this century has, one way or another, been able formally to muster a majority. The touchstone of the open society is protection of the rights of minorities, not the rule of the majority. This is not a novel concept but explicitly the basis of our American Bill of Rights.

If we give up the illusions that have guided us and take a fresh look at the opportunities for change, the problem is reduced to proposing a practical mechanism for making better social choices. I propose that the key to such a mechanism is the introduction of an element of chance into the process of choosing. While chance may appear to diminish our control over our choices, I submit that the way in which laws (and candidates) play out in practice after the choice is made under our present procedures -- counter-intuitively and perversely -- we do not have such control now, and nothing is really being given up. Indeed, there appears to be an unwritten but operational rule that whatever a candidate promises in an election will be unfulfilled or reversed by him or her when elected, a major cause of cynicism. Similarly, how often have the unintended consequences of a law resulted in voters' regret within a few years? Suppose we recognize explicitly the chanciness of choices rather than fool ourselves into a false belief in our control over events.

How to Recognize Chance[edit | edit source]

Here I shall lay out the first-order mechanism for improved social choice. There are further second-order adjustments, to be discussed later, that will overcome objections that may arise in special cases. For clarity and definiteness, the example will be based upon a model of policy-adoption, but, with suitable changes, a model of election of governors can use similar principles. Assume that the electoral body is a legislature or a committee.

Instead of laying out policy alternatives as a series of up-or-down binary choices, let all alternatives be laid out for consideration at the same time. In the debate on the issues, each member of the body can weigh the trade-offs among the alternatives and develop, internally, an ordering of preferences. It is not necessary, or even desirable, for the member to make absolute decisions between any pairing of the alternatives or even among the set of alternatives. All that is required is that some kind of "fuzzy" apportioning of preference be assigned by each member of the body. Some of the alternatives may be unacceptable to a member, some may be acceptable but not preferred, some may be strongly preferred. Instead of a "one man, one vote" rule, give each member, say, 100 votes to be distributed among all alternatives, more to the preferred alternatives, less to the merely acceptable, and none to the unacceptable. The distribution is entirely up to the individual on whatever subjective basis he or she may use. Each member has equal voting weight in the aggregate. Once all votes have been cast, they can be tallied among the alternatives.

For example, if there are 12 members of the body (a small committee) and five alternatives (including "none of the above") there would be 1200 votes to be distributed in the following fashion.

Alternatives A B C D NOTA

Votes 436 321 204 139 100

"A" does not win this race. It would not even win if it tallied to a majority of the 1200 votes. Majorities, with an exception to be noted later, don't count for anything in this method. All that A gets is a weight of 436/1200 or 0.3633, and similarly each alternative acquires a respective weight to yield a table like this:

Alternatives A B C D NOTA

Weights 0.3633 0.2675 0.1700 0.1158 0.0833

Cum Wghts 0.3633 0.6308 0.8008 0.9166 0.9999

At this point one does the equivalent of spin a roulette wheel or hold a lottery. That is, one generates a random number between 0.0000 and 0.9999. If the number falls between 0.0000 and 0.3633, A is the winner; if between 0.3634 and 0.6308, B wins, and so forth. In effect, the chance of winning is proportional to the preference weights; even a relatively unpopular alternative has a chance, albeit a diminished one, of winning. The "none of the above " (NOTA) option may be interpreted either as a rejection of all the other choices and a continuation of the status quo or as a rejection of the act of choosing and a desire to continue the debate to be followed by another ballot. The definition of NOTA and rules for proceeding after such an outcome must be established in advance, of course. It is possible to have both interpretations on the ballot as distinct options: Status quo and continue. In a further variation of this voting scheme, voters may express the strength of their convictions, the degree of certainty in their choices, by not casting their full quota of votes. A voter who does not feel strongly about an issue might cast, say, only half the votes s/he is entitled to and thus register a partial abstention. Such modulation in the process would add to our knowledge of the will of the voters. When applied to a legislative process, such a rule would give valuable information about the convictions of a representative, useful to his constituents at reÎlection time.

Avoiding Disasters[edit | edit source]

What is the incentive for a member to distribute his or her votes rather than put them all on a preferred choice? Assuming that the member can live with some subordinate choices and taking into account the risk that chance will favor an unacceptable choice, one wants not only to vote for one's preference but also against the unacceptable choice. This is where the majority enters the picture again.

Consider the chance, even a small one, of committing to an outrageous policy, starting a nuclear holocaust, for example. There are, in fact, people who favor outrageous actions, and they cannot be denied their place in an open society. But the policies they advocate cannot be allowed to prevail even by a remote chance. The principle to apply here is not majority rule but "the majority must not be offended." Along these lines, the method called "approval voting" has been employed by such organizations as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Members vote for all acceptable candidates, not just one candidate. In the example we have been using, we add a provision that tallies the number of members that give any vote at all to each alternative, even a small number. By not voting at all for some of the alternatives, the member signals unacceptability. The incentive for giving any (even small) vote to acceptable alternatives is to deliver this signal. Then (and this is the modification mentioned earlier) before distributing the weights, any alternative that does not have at least some vote from a majority of the 12 members (not a majority of the 1200 votes) is excluded from the distribution.

What Advantages May We Expect?[edit | edit source]

Will this scheme make a difference? How? Here's what we might expect.

Shorter debates: Since a member may distribute votes among several alternatives and need not make a binary (yes/no) decision, some of the decision criteria can be vague. Uncertainty in the members' minds can be reflected in this distribution, and the arguments become less critical. Fewer side deals and log-rolling: Since the final decision rests on chance and not the "drop dead" attainment of a numerical goal, no one can exercise swing-vote power. The stakes in any voting bargain are greatly diminished for any individual; all have equal stakes. Special-interest, single-issue blocs will have power proportionate to their numbers but cannot "blackmail" or hold up the whole body. Such minority groups can bargain for token votes to assure that they have a chance at the turn of the wheel, but they cannot get extreme programs adopted whole-hog.

Fewer extreme, unrealistic proposals: There are demagogues and ideologues who are prepared to destroy society for the sake of some pet principle, but most people (and legislators) are reasonable, cautious, and well-intentioned. The knowledge that a far-out, extreme proposal has a definite chance of being adopted under this scheme will probably inspire the sensible majority to apply pressure to the extremists to move more slowly and moderately. The fact that reckless proposals are perceived as non-starters by the majority actually encourages recklessness as a means to attract attention; given a chance for such proposals to become enacted, the majority is likely to give them earlier attention and quash them before they reach the decision point. Proposals that do rise to the final round of decision are likely to be more modest and contingent.

Consonance with the way the world really works: As Popper wrote, this is "a world of propensities." We make real progress by taking small steps, piecemeal actions, and backing away if they go awry, not by grand plans or extreme actions. Non-linearities and uncertainties make the prediction of consequences a vain enterprise; the "law of unintended consequences" is not meaningless. We take chances in the hope of a reward but limit our risks. The conventional binary-choice procedures are inconsistent with a world that works in this way. Such procedures require far more certainty and knowledge than we actually have if they are not to lead us into dangerous waters. The leverage that "majority rule, binary-choice" processes give to the individual or bloc strategically placed at the fulcrum of power is much too risky to be tolerable. Whether the scheme I have outlined here will work out as well as I have indicated is not something that need be debated abstractly. Political theory, in the end, rests on existential experience. There is no reason why we should not experiment with variations on this scheme using chance in making social decisions. We have nothing to lose but our illusions of control in an uncertain world.

Supplementary Comments & References[edit | edit source]

A 1998 book that sets out the philosophical basis for this work is Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits, by British cosmologist John D. Barrow. This book was reviewed in The Toronto Globe and Mail by Richard Lubbock, and the review is an excellent explanation of the motivations behind the plan I have outlined. It confirms the modern scientific and logical findings of indeterminacy and uncertainty deeply imbedded in the nature of the universe and of language, referring to the works of Einstein, Planck, Heisenberg, Wittgenstein, Gˆdel, and Arrow. The review makes explicit reference to the problems of "democracy" in such a universe.

If you have difficulty in seeing where this proposal fits into the "Big Picture", read the original review at the Globe & Mail website, or if it is no longer available there see a copy I have provided.

Click here to read a discussion of this paper on the Karl R Popper list server archive under the thread title When "democracy" fails? and other comments by e-mail.

To Directory Page[edit | edit source]

Pericles' Ideal of Democracy

Our political system does not compete with institutions which are elsewhere in force. We do not copy our neighbors, but try to be an example. Our administration favors the many instead of the few: this is why it is called a democracy. The laws afford equal justice to all alike in their private disputes, but we do not ignore the claims of excellence. When a citizen distinguishes himself, then he will be called to serve the state, in preference to others, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit; and poverty is no bar. ... The freedom we enjoy extends also to ordinary life; we are not suspicious of one another, and we do not nag our neighbor if he chooses to go his own way. ... But this freedom does not make us lawless. We are taught to respect the magistrates and the laws, and never to forget that we must protect the injured. And we are also taught to observe those unwritten laws whose sanction lies only in the universal feeling of what is right....

Our city is thrown open to the world; we never expel a foreigner.... We are free to live exactly as we please, and yet, we are always ready to face any danger.... We love beauty without indulging in fancies, and although we try to improve our intellect. this does not weaken our will.... To admit one's poverty is no disgrace with us; but we consider it disgraceful not to make an effort to avoid it. An Athenian citizen does not neglect public affairs when attending to his private business.... We consider a man who takes no interest in the state not as harmless, but as useless; and although only a few may originate a policy, we are all able to judge it. [Emphasis in Popper.] We do not look upon discussion as a stumbling block in the way of political action, but as an indispensable preliminary to acting wisely....

more[edit | edit source]

Vigdor Schreibman On Mon, 1 Mar 1999, Jack Hirschfeld wrote: The whole idea behind consensus is the commitment to hear every objection, and to bring people with differences together through mutual persuasion. Any process which dismisses "nay-saying" is not consensual. It doesn't matter whether the nay is dismissed by overriding it (majority rules), ignoring it, or "preventing" it through careful selection of the discussants.

Lawyers try to get their point of view represented on the jury before the case is presented, but the opposition also gets a shot at this. One of the best portrayals of arriving at consensus is Sidney Lumet's film, "Twelve Angry Men."

If I wanted to "expose" the planning forum, I'd show that film and lead a post-screening discussion with clear reference to > how things are done in town. The adversarial process is not a very productive way to promote a consensus, one gets there in a more creative process when everyone starts out with an understanding that its the group idea they are after, not one man's view jammed down everyone's throat by tricks and emotional manipulation. There is another side to the process, however, which "Twelve Angry Men" shows quite well, as Jack has pointed out. That crew understood that they must discover the one idea that all would agree to, the group idea about guilty or innocence beyond a reasonable doubt.

The wonderful conflict that they each agreed to undertake in pursuit of that group idea brought them all to fantastic heights of creative understanding about each other and the accused. Its the constructive conflict that brings out really creative ideas, when everyone in the group, or community, is pulling for the best that they can do together, laying open their differences to careful examination, rather than the most that one can get for himself at everyone else's expense by domination of raw power.

Vigdor Schreibman -- FINS Communicating the emerging philosophy of the Global Information Age. Phone: (202)547-8715; Email:; Browse Fins Information Age Library at URL:

A consensus that is no more than acquiescence is garbage, but a consensus that is discovered by coherent direction and deep spiritual purpose to integrate differences -- like the action in "Twelve Angry Men" -- that's golden! Date: Tue, 2 Mar 1999 12:07:42 -0800 (PST) From: Richard Layman To: Subject: Re: Roundtable isn't consensus, RIGHT? Message-ID: Mime-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: TEXT/PLAIN; charset=US-ASCII There is also an old volume in the Sage Human Services series (I think) published for Social Work students by a professor named Steve Burghardt (or some variation of it -- Burghart, etc.) called something like _Organizing for Collective Action_. I distinctly remember a chapter discussing how arriving at "consensus" can be an "elitist activity." I'll try and dig up a cite. I read the stuff more than 15 years ago so it's not fresh in my memory. Richard Layman, 825 6th St. NE, Washington, DC 20002-4325 202/544-5722 voice -- 202/429-3976 fax -- WATCH this space! --

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