Democracy, Consequences, and Social Knowledge
DEMOCRACY SERVES MANY FUNCTIONS. It helps capture the preferences of citizens, making the government responsive to what the public wants. Over time responsiveness has become a crucial source of legitimacy for government. It is not enough for a government to reflect the preferences of citizens, however; it has to be perceived as doing so. Thus, on Election Day the public display of the results of changing preferences is as important as the election results themselves. But there is a third, just as important but often neglected function of democracy: its capacity to assess and predict the consequences of social policies. It is this function of democracy—consequentialist democracy—that the tools of the information age can most easily improve.
While modern political theorists rarely emphasize the consequentialist aspect of democracy, this function has been important since its early days. In his famous Funeral Oration, Pericles, the Athenian statesman, defended democratic deliberation by pointing to its capacity for assessing the probable consequences of governmental decisions in advance: “We Athenians, in our own persons, take our decisions on policy and submit them to proper discussions: for we do not think there is incompatibility between words and deeds; the worst thing is to rush into action before the consequences have been properly debated.”1 Democracy empowers citizens to evaluate the debates about consequences by giving them a vote.
It is true that many important details of policies are left to leaders and experts to determine and to implement. But the essential roles of leaders and experts in a democracy do not lessen the need for richer information. The execution of policy by leaders and experts will also improve with social knowledge. Indeed, in many modern conceptions of democracy the functions of experts and leaders are the essence of the democratic system: ordinary people merely choose among different elites and leave them to