July 20, 2005 · Cass Sunstein
In his treatment of democracy, Jurgen Habermas emphasizes the importance and internal morality of deliberation. He thinks that under ideal conditions, “the forceless force of the better argument” will prevail. His account of deliberative democracy lies at the heart of his treatment of constitutional theory. Of course democracy can be seen as a mechanism for aggregating diverse views about both facts and values; and Habermas offers a distinctive account of democracy.
But here’s a serious problem. Even under ideal conditions, the better argument may not prevail. Careful experiments have shown that groups often amplify, and do not merely propagate, individual errors. Group polarization, as discussed previously, brings about extremism, even if extremism is unjustified. Information held by a few people, or just by one, often plays little or no role in a group’s ultimate decision. Informational cascades can lead deliberation in unfortunate directions. And because people care about their reputations, they may silence themselves even if they know something that is both important and true.
True, Habermas’ conditions include a principle of equality and a ban on strategic behavior. But even if these conditions are fulfilled, every one of these problems may infect deliberation.
Hayek, of course, stressed the qualities of the price system, which in his view serves as an excellent method of aggregating dispersed information. If we underline Hayek’s emphasis on economic incentives, we have the core of a challenge to Habermas: In deliberation, those incentives might well be absent, and hence people sometimes fail to say what they know.
We’ve also seen some reasons why the price system might fall victim to the same problems that beset deliberation. (Cf. the Clement cascade, affecting prediction markets.) And it wouldn’t be too hard to sketch a Habermasian critique of Hayek. But at least it can be said that group deliberation often goes badly wrong, and for identifiable reasons, even under ideal conditions.