Wednesday, November 19, 2003

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Elites, conspiracies, and the tinfoil brigade

In response to this post that mocked conspiracy theories regarding the British-American Project (see here as well), Daniel Davies posted a defense of such theories:

[T]here are legitimate critiques to be made of the way that the BAP and the various groups associated with it (Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations, and indeed yes, the Bilderberg Group) go about their business.

The issue is that of the “democratic deficit”. The ideal of a democracy is (arguably) to allow as much and as equal opportunity as possible for any citizen to participate in the political process. This ideal is always going to be beset by compromises for all manner of reasons (not least, the need for someone to actually go out and work for a living), but a not inconsiderable obstacle to widespread participation is that the political class inevitably ends up becoming something of a clique. If the people in charge of industry, government, education, media and the military all know each other (and they do), then there is a lot of scope for them to trade off favours between each other, and to have their discussions and debates in private. There is nothing necessarily wrong with this, and it does not necessarily lead to corruption or even inefficiency - that’s where the conspiracy theorists go wrong. But it is, by definition, a political process in which it is impossible for the public at large to take part. It also means that the public debate on an issue is not necessarily the debate which matters, to the detriment both of the quality of policy decisions and general trust in institutions.

It’s a genuine problem of governance in a democracy, and laughing at it doesn’t make it go away....

I simply don’t like the idea of important isssues being decided... out of sight of the public, in an unaccountable institution. And the British American Project is an institution dedicated to making it worse. It’s an organisation that throws promising young people together (the full title was “British American Project For The Successor Generation”), encourages them to keep in touch, prints a private newsletter detailing their career achievements, and generally promotes networking among them. It’s in many ways the political elite’s equivalent of my old business school alumni network, except that the business world doesn’t claim to be part of the democratic process.

Embedded in Davies' post are a specific objection against BAP, and then a larger objection about elite institutions in general.

To deal with the BAP objection first. Having attended my first conference, I can reveal the following: the only policy position members of BAP would ever agree upon would be the full subsidization of hotel pubs/bars at conference venues. For me, the appeal of the conference was meeting a bunch of dynamic people who politely disagree with each other on matters of policy, philosophy, and culture. BAP issues no policy papers, publishes no books, and has no institutional voice in public discourse. It has no endowment fund. It holds an annual conference organized around a few big-think issues, and that's it. There's a vague sense among BAP participants that Anglo-American comity is a good thing, but everyone has that sense before becoming involved in the project. There is no conspiracy.

That said, BAP is also very secretive about its membership and activities. Its official web site is not exactly a font of information. This is probably the biggest explanation for the rise of conspiracy theories surrounding it. On this, I agree with Davies that BAP's lack of transparency means the organization probably brings some of this on itself (a point I failed to stress enough in my TNR article on conspiracies). However, these theories usually have no plausible evidence to back up their assertions either, and I see no reason to attach any a priori credence to them.

On the larger issue of elitist institutions, Davies' contention is that they contribute to a democratic deficit by encouraging "a political process in which it is impossible for the public at large to take part," and therefore, "the public debate on an issue is not necessarily the debate which matters." The only way iin which this holds is if the public debates that are part of the policymaking process are compromised by a prior debate in such private bodies.

Does this ever happen? I tend to doubt it. The composition of BAP is probably similar to the composition of most of these groups -- a thoroughly heterogeneous elite. The notion that these individuals will reach agreements based either on backroom favor-trading or Habermasian discourse because of membership in these associations does not seem terribly plausible. I say this as someone who's observed how these meetings operate. No doubt, they tend to promote more comity in public debates through prior association. They also creating weak ties among individuals -- which may contribute to career advancement.

However, that's a far cry from conspiracy theory.

posted by Dan on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM


We must not ignore the evidence that Daniel Davies has a very cavalier attitude towards the truth. This is what he said earlier concerning the disgraceful Jason Blair affair:

“I vaguely point out that the crimes which set off this whole episode of breast-beating would most likely not even have warranted an internal reprimand here in the Greatest Newspaper Market On Earth [tm]. You read about far worse lifting and quote-polishing in Private Eye every couple of weeks (Robert Fisk detractors, buy the current issue; it's got an absolute pearl in it).

I try not to conclude from Sulzberger's disgusting grovelling that the American public has got exactly the self-righteous, prissy, cowardly press it wants, but it gets harder every day. Why doesn't somebody prevail on Rupert Murdoch to give you folks a proper newspaper?

Posted by dsquared at May 15, 2003 08:10 AM” - 29k

Do I really need to add anything else? I don't think so.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Don't Democrats and Republicans hold closed door meetings that are not open to the other party and the public to discuss positions and strategy? I have no more control of the positions of either party than I do on the positions of the individual members of the BAP. But maybe both parties are involved in their own conspiracies too. Hmm...

posted by: Hei Lun Chan on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

We also need to take a chill pill regarding some of this transparency rhetoric. A balance must be found between calls for exaggerated transparency---and letting an organization work behind closed doors in order to achieve results. How would you like to earn a living in a totally transparent work environment? The atmosphere would be too inhibiting. Closed doors are almost always mandatory to get anything done. However, we do need to develop viable checks and balances to keep everybody on the up and up.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I assume that Davies is opposed to the EU, which is running a democratic deficit so massive that Brussels needs to print its own fiat citizenry. If not, his critique is entirely disingenuous.

posted by: Crank on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I think policy is always made by elites, largely as a result of debate among elites. Very rare is the instance where mass opinion has a seismic impact (mainly because mass opinion tends to be divided more-or-less the same way on most issues as elite opinion, because splits in mass opinion is normally a reflection of elite debates); Page argues that the whole "Nannygate" situation in the early 1990s was an exception, and I'd add the House banking scandal.

I think the real risk of a democratic deficit isn't that elites decide these things, but that they decide these things in secret (i.e. hide the debate from the public). I can't think of a single modern instance of this actually happening in the United States, though.

But that may be because I'm not elite enough to be aware of all these secret consensuses. Maybe they'll let me in on it after my defense next month... ;-)

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

True conspiracies are generally pretty rare. One of the reasons, is that they aren't really necessary. In the real world, relationships and reading people and between the lines counts for allot. Nod. Nod. Wink. Wink. This is how the old-boys club used to work. Sometimes it was literally incarnated in the form of gentlemen's clubs, secret societies, or just golf associations where women and minorities were banned - but for the most part it was simply an mutual understanding, general shared world view, and sympathetic indirect cooperation.

So the BAP may not be a cabal in the formal sense, the sense that the neo-con's have more or less openly aspired to, but it is still a distributed network of like-minded individuals capable of indirect coordination. One of the new old-boys clubs in other words, and all the defenses in the world against formal conspiracy are so much straw man distractions from that truth. Not to say you shouldn't be part of it Dan. The Founding Fathers were one very famous informal association that became quite illustrious because of their historical acievements. Just keep your eyes open and know what you're getting into.

posted by: Oldman on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I suppose that societies like the BAP could facilitate already existing conspiracies by merely providing a convenient place to meet. If so, though, surely the conspiracies could also choose to be more silent about their work.

posted by: John thacker on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

“I think policy is always made by elites...”

Do you really want it any other way? One should always prefer experts to make these sort of decisions for the rest of us on a day to day basis. We have elections to check and balance these elites.

“I think the real risk of a democratic deficit isn't that elites decide these things, but that they decide these things in secret (i.e. hide the debate from the public). “

Do you, for example, prefer that the elite senators and other government officials decide matters of national security in the open? Of course not! Once again, this is why we have a government premised upon checks and balances.

posted by: David Thomson on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I don't have a problem with elite organizations meeting and formulating policy ideas and chatting. Generally, you learn from your colleagues, exchange ideas, develop better ideas. (I am sure our proprietor learned some nifty Welsh drinking songs.)

The problem comes when policies with the force of law are formulated without transparency or much in the way of democratic restraint. This my essential problem with those who want to sacrifice national sovreignty at the altar of international law. I can vote against George Bush. I can't do anything about Kofi Annan.

posted by: appalled moderate on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

I think policy is always made by elites...”

Do you really want it any other way? One should always prefer experts to make these sort of decisions for the rest of us on a day to day basis. We have elections to check and balance these elites.

Yes, I really do want it another way. I want those who do the electing (that's us, all of us) of those folk to be the experts. And that has two prerequisites, and educated public and an informed public.

And on the other hand, there are always going to be experts who we trust to represent us. I simply think that the requisite knowledgeable public, common folk, aren't trusted to make decisions. Elites don't test their ideas in a public arena because they don't trust the folk to understand.

I'll grant that the internet and blogging world are beginning to invalidate my point. So, we get back to education. Us common folk must demand that our educational system provide an analytical ability to understand the ideas that the elites discuss, so that we can choose our representatives with some degree of understanding. IMO, that is not happening, and I'm cynical enough to believe that the poor education system isn't an accident. NCLB ... I'm sorry, I'm getting way off topic. I just see that so many problems are connected, and addressing them individually is not working.

posted by: JimP on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]


Do you really think that's possible? I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's explanation of why he did not believe in socialism, "It would take up too many evenings."

posted by: Roger Sweeny on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

JimP, I think you can have a marginal impact on the level of political knowledge of the public, but I'm not sure you can turn more than about a quarter of the public into walking James Madisons, even if you told every TV station it had to show C-SPAN 24/7. Most people would have the good sense to find something better to do with their time. The investment in worrying about politics is so large relative to any expected benefit that it makes no sense for Joe and Jane Doe to care much about politics, particularly in a pluralist society like the United States. (Arguably there's more expected benefit to political action under continental European corporatism, but since corporatism is a closed system few average joes can expect to influence decisions anyway; in those societies, elites control decision-making even more than they do under pluralism.)

And, as a normative question, I'm not sure we'd want to. To echo Roger, a society in which most people are spending their time worrying about the allocation of resources via politics is a society that isn't accomplishing much otherwise. I suspect the lack of productivity of regimes like the Soviet Union was at least partially a function of all the political angling people were doing instead of their nominal jobs, in addition to the economic inefficiencies inherent in centralized allocation of resources.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

As to David's point, we do debate broad points of national security in the open. Only a few policies, like espionage activities (think Echelon or black ops), are completely divorced from public discourse. But the broad contours of national security policy are debated openly, otherwise we wouldn't be having these flare-ups over Valerie Plame, Gitmo, Jose Padilla, and the Saddam-al-Qaeda connection.

posted by: Chris Lawrence on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

Were there any babes there?

posted by: Robert Schwartz on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

If Davies' ideas were incorporated into your forum, you would have found it less useful as an exchange of ideas with other informed participants, but there might have been some really cool giant puppets. Life is a series of tradeoffs.

posted by: Dave Sheridan on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

It holds an annual conference organized around a few big-think issues, and that's it

Have a word with the subscription people, Dan; they appear to have forgotten to send you the newsletter which the BAP publishes (and which it is, apparently, needlessly snotty about providing copies of to outsiders).

And I suppose that the difference between "more comity in democratic debates" and "democratic deficit" pretty much depends on who's picking up the bar bill. Like I say, it's the equivalent of my business school alumni society.

(btw, I think that the ellipsis in your final paragraph has the effect of distorting my meaning, making it look as if I think important issues are decided at the BAP specifically, when that particular clause was directed at the European Central Bank).

posted by: dsquared on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

From the FAQ;

"The newsletter is written for members of the project; what is perfectly acceptable as an internal publication would seem very odd if published on the worldwide web. "

Now I'm really interested ...

posted by: dsquared on 11.19.03 at 06:45 PM [permalink]

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