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Deliberation and Self-Interest

Anne-Katrin Arnold's picture

A reader of this blog recently pointed out that "deliberation is infused with issues of power, self-interest, bargaining ... it seems that the position now endorsed by the hard core of deliberative theorists presumes levels of equality and so forth that presuppose many hard development issues already are surmounted or (minimally) addressed." We thank this reader for pointing to an interesting article in the Journal of Political Philosophy by Jane Mansbridge and colleagues, which addresses issues of self-interest and power in deliberative democracy and calls for accepting (constrained) self-interest as integral part of democratic deliberation.

To that latter point I say: Oh yeah! Deliberative democracy is a democracy, not a form of society where individual interests have to be given up for "the greater good." What sets deliberative democracy apart from other political forms is that individual interests need to be negotiated and justified. As Mansfield and her colleagues explain, deliberative democracy is often seen in opposition to self-interest, the use of power, and even voting. They call "for a complementary rather than antagonistic relation of deliberation to many democratic mechanisms that are not themselves deliberative." The complimentary mode makes deliberation, possibly, a realistic force in governance, especially in development. A purely deliberative model is unlikely to be practical, in the Global South or in the Global North. Incorporating deliberative elements into other forms of democracy, however, can strengthen those forms by, as we argue in a recent policy brief on deliberation, leveling the playing field. That does not mean that individual interests are negated, it means that they are integrated into a broader picture and can become part of a solution for a larger group.

Imagine a village meeting about the allocation of resources to local infrastructure. A local merchant has an interest in funds being devoted to improving a road that runs by his business. That's his self-interest. In the meeting, he makes the argument that the village elderly will be better able to reach his store and get their supplies without the danger of slipping and falling on the currently uneven road. That's a communal interest. The villagers decide that the road passing the shop will be improved, but that the merchant needs to engage in a new system of food delivery to remote homes that are not served by the road. The possibilities for negotiating individual and communal interests is what gives deliberation such a powerful potential in democracy, and as democratic tool complementary to others.

Picture: Flickr user Austin Yoder

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