The Fourth Nuclear Power Plant is a test of the new administration's stance toward both environmental and commercial issues. Right now public and expert opinion appear diametrically opposed, but room exists for compromise. A plebiscite would be a suitable solution.
The standard arguement against a plebiscite runs as follows: "Experts complain that their professional opinion has been belittled and politics is now the sole driving force behind the government's public policy."
This argument suggests, however, that professionals are a closed group, independent from the rest of society and immune to ideological and political influences. It is true that public policy would become skewed if professional opinion were drowned out by ideologies, but public policy is itself a political issue and should be politicized.
Democratic participation does not exclude professional participation. It merely implies that professional opinions and debate should help the public to make informed choices. A plebiscite could further help resolve the legitimacy crisis the government faces when no particular policy choice is clearly supported by the public.
Blind faith in expert opinion is a carryover from Taiwan's authoritarian period. Experts are prone to error just like anyone else and their vision of the future is not necessarily any more far-sighted. For example, the wastewater and public facilities constructed for the Hsinchu Science-Based Industrial Park -- designed by experts -- are nowhere near what is required for its present scale of development, a situation which has infuriated nearby residents.
More care is needed when discussing the construction of nuclear reactors, because if something goes wrong, the results could be catastrophic. The risk posed by nuclear power plants and the fact that even the experts can't guarantee that they are foolproof, means that their construction is a political issue.
In the past, the government only asked for an expert opinion after it had already reached a decision behind closed doors. The failed petrochemical project on the coastline of Changhua County is a good example of the government's policy mistakes and shows how political forces and corporate interests "use" experts to fool the public.
The superiority of expertise is often used to defend the non-democratic mentality of the ruling elite. It prevents debates between different groups and stymies a sense of civic responsibility in the public.
Rapid economic development has been a policy focus of the government for several decades. It has brought prosperity while creating huge untold environmental damage and complaints. The elite can hardly be blameless. No wonder people have termed development in Taiwan "dictatorial development."
Environmental Protection Administration administrator Lin Jun-yi
It is of course a good thing the policy "black box" is about to be opened to the light of day, but we are concerned that only "experts" will be allowed to participate in policy decisions, not the general public.
Public opinion is naturally subject to manipulation, but so are experts, politicians and the media. Distrust of public opinion suggests an underlying belief in the public's irrationality. Using images derived from mass psychology, public participation is distorted into little more than sloganeering, by ambitious politicians and symbolic politics.
Perhaps the fear is related to the lack of issues in Taiwan's elections and the carnival atmosphere surrounding them. But a plebiscite has been proposed precisely because elections, at present, do not permit an open, public debate on the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant.
For a plebiscite to work, political parties and social groups must encourage experts with different opinions to submit alternative plans so that the public can make an informed choice. Nuclear experts, environmentalists and social movement groups should first undertake a long debate -- lasting perhaps one to two years -- before the plebiscite is held. This would help the people to consider the social and environmental price that Taiwan has paid for rapid development.
Launching a plebiscite would increase the legitimacy of public projects, something that was nonexistent in the past. It would also be an opportunity for experts and the public reach a new "social reconciliation."
We should not view plebiscites with suspicion, as KMT Secretary General Lin Fong-cheng
Experts, driven by a belief in their professional knowledge, often cover up their own shortcomings. Moreover, they can also be influenced by "special interest groups" and are not without ideology. More than a century ago, just as democracy was sweeping through Europe, the conservative French scholar Gustave Le Bon conveyed the doctrine of the "benighted crowd" to the extreme. He scornfully suggested that "the vote of 40 French Academicians is no better than that of 40 water carriers."
Democracy is about popular political participation. Experts need not fear the power of the public. As long as the public is able to understand the views of experts, they should be allowed to partake in a decision that will affect Taiwan for hundreds of years. Why let a handful of experts bear the unbearable weight of public policy in this democratic era? Why should a minority of experts be given the heavy responsibility for setting Taiwan's civil engineering policy?
Wu Jieh-min is an assistant professor of sociology at National Tsing Hua University.
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