Economics and Deliberation

I have been doing some initial work around epistemic networks – conceptual networks which model the way an individual reasons. Considered in this way, deliberation is more than a dyadic exchange between individuals, it is a networked exchange of ideas. The core idea here is that the structure of such networks could have implications for deliberation – potentially affecting whether someone makes a good deliberator or whether two or more people are able to deliberate at all.

I’ve found a lot of interesting overlaps between this work and concepts I am learning in my Network Economics course. To be clear, ‘economics’ is about a lot more than money – some of us would even argue that it isn’t about money at all.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines economics as dealing with “the production, distribution, consumption, and transfer of wealth,” but – critically – the word ‘wealth’ is left undefined here. At it’s broadest, then, economics is fundamentally about how people create and share things which they value.

Hayek argues that the brilliance of the free market is that a market’s equilibrium price is a simple, one-dimensional heuristic which elegantly captures complex interactions between different people’s resources and desires. While one may disagree with his argument on a number of grounds – meeting this market ideal, for example, relies on all participants having perfect knowledge – the very basis of his argument highlights that people have different needs and values. Price, or more generally money, is simply a convenient stand-in for more complex dynamics.

A key problem here is that not all values are remotely comparable. Perhaps price serves as a reasonable moderator for the supply and demand of products, but then how does one leverage this heuristic for things which are ‘priceless;’ for things which ‘money can’t buy?’ Clearly there are other levers of value which aren’t captured in this simple heuristic.

Perhaps, then, to consider deliberation in economics terms, it is worth first asking what worth is produced, distributed, consumed, or transferred through the process of deliberation.

In considering deliberation, one could consider the value individual participants might derive: you learn new things, you meet new people, you obtain pleasure from participating in the democratic process. All of these examples are real products of value which deliberators receive, yet it all sounds a little hand-ravingly optimistic. “People will be good citizens because they’ll enjoy being good citizens” doesn’t strike me as a particularly compelling argument.

One can also argue that a person derives more concretely utilitarian benefits from participating in public deliberation. If you have an opinion on what the community should do about your neighborhood park, there is a direct value in stating that view and rallying others to agreement. This, again, is a real value which deliberation can provide, but it starts to feel a little grimly utilitarian: deliberation as a pathway for manipulation isn’t exactly what I’m going for either.

I could also appeal to the collective benefit of deliberation. Indeed, one the most striking things about deliberation is that it creates a value which was not there before and which could not have come into existence otherwise. Deliberation is a space for “co-creation” for working together in ways which lead to emergent solutions. This is perhaps the highest benefit of deliberation – as diverse perspectives and experiences allow a group to develop better solutions to collective problems than the could have otherwise devised.

Yet, this too, is perhaps not enough value to indicate why a person should participate in deliberation. Given solely this collective framework, it is arguable best to free ride and let others undertake the hard work of find solutions.

Ultimately, I think, the true value of deliberation comes from some combination of the above. It leads to better solutions and outcomes, creating a public good, but it also leads to individual value. And that value isn’t simply the joy of meeting someone new or the utility derived from getting your way.

Deliberation fundamentally changes you.

It changes the way you think and the way you reason in subtle but powerful ways. I sometimes think of learning as a process of sand accumulating on a beach – each new wave brings something with it, but not everything really sticks; some just washes back out to sea. Each new wave also changes the detailed contours of the beach; in ways that are effected by past contours and with repercussions that will last through future contours.

Living is a process of becoming; a processes of continually becoming who you are. Deliberation helps us solve problems and has the potential for tremendous public good; but ultimately the true value derived from deliberation is that we co-create ourselves. We learn who were are in an emergent, evolving way; and that learning isn’t an individualistic, solely-guided experience – it is a process that is fundamentally shaped by the people and context around you.

Without deliberation, without the process of learning, growing and co-creating with others, we would be nothing – just hollow shells, emptily fulfilling utilitarian functions. The value in deliberation is that we truly come to be.

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