Thu, May 25, 2000 - Page 8 News List

The Public has the right to decide

By Wu Jieh-min

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 (林俊義) recently said, "I used to oppose nuclear power in Taiwan because I opposed the political dictatorship. Government policy was drafted in a `black box,' alienating a lot of people."

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.

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