Beyond the principle of distinction

The primary negative effect of the electoral system is the obverse of its ostensible function. This effect is what Bernard Manin called “the principle of distinction” – the delegation of political power to people whose situation and outlook is significantly different from those of the population at large. As a result of this difference, the political elite serves interests that are different from, and often antithetical to, those of the average voter.

However, the electoral system is often presented by academic advocates and by electoral activists and politicians as providing a value to society above and beyond its function for selecting government officials. It supposedly encourages meaningful popular participation in government through voting, informed discussion, organized activism in electoral campaigns and awareness of the importance of compromise and coalition building. In fact, the electoral system encourages none of those patterns – on the contrary: it is antithetical to them. This is due to several characteristics of the electoral system that are not consequences of the principle of distinction.

  1. Politics as competition The electoral system is a mechanism in which groups compete for power. Allocation of power through competition has several related effects:
    • When political power is gained through competition, its attainment comes to be seen, primarily by the winners themselves but by others as well, as a reward. Corruption – use of the hard won political power to further the interests of the winners and their associates – then becomes a natural consequence of the achievement.
    • Winning the electoral competition is also seen as an indication of competence. The winners come to be seen as possessing of some admirable qualities that are required for governing. In an electoral contest, for example, where fame, ambition, lack of scruples, and a knack for manipulation are important traits for a candidate to become successful, such traits come to be seen as being essential for effective government.
    • Treatment of politics as a competition tends to become, over time, part of an ideology that treats many other aspects of life as a competition such as inter-personal relationships, workplace relationships, business relationships, relationships between social groups, international relationships, etc. All those interactions come to be seen primarily and reflexively as situations where one has to gain an advantage over others and where co-operation is less natural than antagonism.
  2. Secrecy and manipulation A sitting government can increase its re-election prospects by controlling the information available to the public. Governments therefore have an incentive to increase government secrecy, obfuscate legislation and mount misleading propaganda campaigns. The considerable power of the government apparatus and its privileged position as the originator of policy allow the government to respond to those incentives with highly effective systematic action.
  3. Degradation of the public discourse and critical faculties Due to the low mental effort invested in voting and lack of relevant data required for making informed decisions, elections are decided based on sub-rational decisions. Therefore, substantive arguments carry very limited weight in winning elections. At the same time, sub-rationality opens the door for influence by employing slogans and manipulation. Anti-rational discourse thus becomes an effective electoral tool and is widely applied. Being widely applied it becomes the norm. Rational discourse becomes an abnormality that is viewed, by the force of habit, with suspicion. Thus many members of society become habituated to irrational thought in all matters that are beyond their immediate surroundings.
  4. Siphoning of political energy into electoral campaigns In an electoral system electoral campaigning is seen as the primary channel of political organization. Therefore, grass root political energy is not channeled into sustained activity but into short-term high-concentration propaganda frenzies. Politics becomes the realm of a professional elite for whom it is a means for self-promotion rather than a participatory activity that is aimed at improving society.

As important as the principle of distinction and its results are, and as detrimental as they are to the public welfare, there are additional effects of the electoral mechanism that have significant negative impact on the political culture and ideology (and consequentially on public policy and public welfare). A political system which would promote the values of participation, discussion and coalition building would need to be designed carefully and may rely on various devices. It is clear, however, that an important step toward promoting such patterns would be moving away from electoralism.

45 Responses

  1. >the political elite serves interests that are different from, and often antithetical to, those of the average voter.

    Manin defines the principle of distinction differently, in terms of social superiority (p.94), natural leadership (p.96), financial self-sufficiency as a protection from corruption by the executive (p.97), ‘the best informed men’ (p.131), the [religiously] elect: ‘the chosen few’ (p.117), ’eminent characters’ (p.122). This is justified by the etymology of the word “aristocracy” (the best). Similarly the word “talent” is derived from the unit of currency that the Greeks associated with the political class (talents) as opposed to the everyday coinage of drachmas and obols.

    Your assumption that the principle of distinction automatically leads to the elite pursuing interests that are different from the average voter requires further supportive argumentation — ie why the representatives chosen by the people should not be ‘those who possess most wisdom to discern, and most virtue to pursue, the common good of the society’ (p.116). Only those who believe in some kind of economic determinism would claim that those chosen by the principle of distinction will automatically pursue interests that are not in the common good.

    One further function of election that you don’t mention is as a mechanism to introduce policy proposals. If this were left to the vocal and opinionated minority of a small random sample there is no particular reason to believe that they would be the same priorities as the general population. To discover these priorities requires some kind of competition for popular support.


  2. Yoram,

    I agree with Keith’s first point…that the principle of distinction does not assume (though it may in effect result in) selection of representatives whose “outlook is significantly different from those of the population at large.” Even the Anti-federalists of the 18th century, who advocated that legislatures should include mechanics and laborers (descriptively representative), still argued that these mechanics and laborers would elect the best and most capable among their class to represent them.

    In short, your short-hand description here leaves out the step showing how the purported “best” are likely (or inevitably) going to have different interests than the population that elects them.

    Keith’s second point, essentially arguing for popular voting (“votation”) to set an agenda, is old ground that I hope we can side step rather than re-hash.


  3. Agreed, let’s just focus on the first issue.


  4. That the “best” will have quite different characteristics and interests than people on average, I don’t think anyone should bother contesting, after taking a look at the background of real-world politicians (or even spending some time with those who make a lifestyle out of party activism).

    One thing I feel is important, though, is that conscious furthering of their own interest is not necessarily what happens. A good elected politician may well be conscious that he isn’t like everyman, and, out of a sense of civic duty, strive to further the interests of people less like himself and more like everyman. There are plenty of examples of people, politicians too, who have sided with people different from themselves.

    But this is actually a very small part of Yoram’s argument here, and the only part I have any quibble with. When and how much a government acts according to some class’ interest (I’m talking class in a very wide sense here, not just Marx’s socioeconomic classes), is not a simple function of representation.


  5. Congratulations, Yoram, on raising the whole question of interests.
    However I agree with Keith that the interests that motivate politicians are not necessarily sinister. I know a lot of politicians who are in politics to serve interests that deserve to be served and hope to gain recognition for doing so.
    Unfortunately, getting the votes necessary to get elected and the numbers in the legislature to get what they favour enacted force undesirable compromises on them. Crudely, it is generally a matter of trading support. Do this for me and I’ll support you on what you want.
    That means that the people who wield most power are often the most unscrupulous, those who do deals just to accumulate indebtedness to them. Political parties are essentially organisations devoted to concentrating power.
    This situation is not primarily a result of elections, but of the fact that decision on the whole range of public goods is centralised in such a way that completely irrelevant considerations are intruded into every issue, political posturing, the interest of compact groups of voters over diffused interests, financially powerful interests over the interests of poor people, short term interests over longer term interests, the professional strategies of party hacks over more statesmanly ones, money considerations over public benefits, and so on.
    My view is that we will get better decisions on public goods when we restructure things to disentangle distinct issues and put the power of decision on a specific range of issues in the hands of a group of people who are substantially and directly affected by those decisions. We need to recognise (1) that in resolving conflicts of interest is important, what people trade incoming to a compromise is something for which they have to bear the consequences. (2) that in most matters that affect us there are conflicts of interest in which we feel pulled in both of the opposite direction to a significant extent, and that we have to recognise that the optimal solution is always going to be a compromise between them, and that is unlikely to be just the particular balance that most suits me or any other individual or group.But in the long run my overriding interest is in having a set of public goods that serve the need that they are supposed to serve in as soundly based a way as possible. (3) that this involves chipping awayat state power both at the national and the international level, not in the interest of other totalising authorities at either level, but in the interest of specific functions that require planned decisions in some public interest. There are lots of networks of interest in which we all participate more or less directly or indirectly. The point of public decision-making is that good decisions are made about them.
    The most important public goods are provided, not by the market or by insitutions, but by cultural practices that are accepted as normative. As Yoram points out, in spite of the fact that in many contexts we honour cooperation, the ruling practices dictated by the market and our political practices often reduce this to mere moralism because of the way our choices are constructed in practice.The result is a destructive cynicism.


  6. Mill puts the problem of the representation of interests well:

    “On the question of strikes, for instance, it is doubtful if there is so much as one among the leading members of the House who is not firmly convinced that the reason of the matter is unqualifiedly on the side of the masters, and that the men’s view of it is simply absurd. Those who have studied the question know well how far this is from being the case; and in how different, and how infinitely less superficial a manner the point would have to be argued, if the classes who strike were able to make themselves heard in Parliament” (Mill, 1991, pp. 246-247).

    This would suggest that “the men” (or “those who have studied the question”) can be the only reliable judge of what is in their own interests. Note that this is orthogonal to the principle of distinction, it would be perfectly possible to elect people of distinction from amongst “the men”, rather than “the masters”; to Mill it was merely a question of extending the franchise. However it was unlikely that there would have been sufficient candidates who had the necessary education, free time etc. to provide for the “aristocratic” qualities required for political leadership and parliamentary advocacy. This would suggest a division of labour, with “distinction” being the selection principle for policy makers and advocates, leaving judgment in the hands of the hoi polloi. This happens to correspond very closely to 4th century Athenian practice, which provides, IMHO, a suitable template for a modern constitutional settlement.


  7. Yes, well done, Yoram. I think you describe the cumulative effects of electoral oligarchy very well. You may not have fully explored the exceptions that prove the rule but that doesn’t substantially detract from the veracity of your conclusion.


  8. As Harald writes, the principle of distinction was not my main topic here. I also agree that it may happen, and occasionally does happen, that people with distinction act in the interests of the average person.

    In general, however, democracy works on the principle that people are the best judges of their own interests (under suitable conditions). Thus, in general, being represented by people with distinction is detrimental to the interests of most people. Whether the people of distinction are consciously acting against the interests of the majority or simply adopting a self-serving point of view, according to which their own interests are the true interests of society, is unimportant.


  9. John,

    As we discussed in the past, I don’t think that the existence of state power is a problem any more than it is a solution. I do agree that the way things are currently arranged, state power, being aligned with other forms of power, is corrosive to society through its elitist nature. Even so, it is indispensable and must reformed, not destroyed.


  10. >Whether the people of distinction are consciously acting against the interests of the majority or simply adopting a self-serving point of view

    Do you rule out in principle the possibility that elected politicians may seek to act for the general good (within the constraints of the need to secure office) and, if so, why?


  11. Having served as a legislator, I can confirm John B.’s assessment of the power of the unscrupulous “swing” voter in a legislature, and the role of the party. And thus I also favor his goal of disentangling issues to avoid vote swapping.

    Where I differ is the notion that decision authority should be placed “in the hands of a group of people who are substantially and directly affected by those decisions.” Often this is the group that society specifically should NOT allow to make the decision. The public choice pathologies, such as rent seeking by special interest groups are often the result of those with substantial interests in an issue outweighing the general population, each member of which has hardly any interest in the issue. For example, the Disney Corporation had a substantial and direct interest (many millions of dollars) in the copyright term extension act, while the public interest was so diffuse, it would be hard to say any of them had a substantial interest.


  12. Yoram,

    While I hesitate to give Keith this opening, your point that “democracy works on the principle that people are the best judges of their own interests (under suitable conditions),” fits with Keith’s separation between advocacy and judging. While people may be the best JUDGES of their own interests, that doesn’t make them necessarily the best ADVOCATES for their own interests… which is exactly why Anti-federalists and others supported the principle of distinction.


  13. > Do you rule out in principle the possibility that elected politicians may seek to act for the general good (within the constraints of the need to secure office) and, if so, why?

    Please refer to my comment above for the obvious answer to this trite question.


  14. Terry,

    Being able to judge one’s interest, one is able to judge whether one wants to advocate for one’s position in person or seek the help of others. I have no problem with people seeking help in whatever function they see fit (advocacy, or whatever other function). What is not acceptable is granting privileged status to certain opinions (those of the “advocates”) or certain proposals (those drafted by “experts” or other elite players).


  15. If I understood the comment then I wouldn’t need to ask the question. What you appear to be saying is that interests determine behaviour, and the only variable is whether or not the agent is conscious of the process.


  16. That is not what I wrote, and I am afraid I am unable to put things any more plainly than I already did.


  17. I was chuffed to see Terry confirm my claim about the way in which power-trading among politicians distorts decisions, but I think he has misunderstood my proposed remedy, like pretty well everybody else.
    Perhaps I can explain by refernce toKeith’s distinction between judgement and advocacy.
    The first step to a good decision is to get really good alternatives onthe table . You can ionly make a decision between what is available. Evolving the best alternatives is a matter of negotiation. In any complex matter that usually involves in the first instance experts who are not advocates, but are supposed to produce information about the ramifications of various line of action in likely scenarios, thus enabling those who take the nest step of negotiating compromises between conflicting considerations, which are not just the interests of various groups, but usually affect all concerned in some degree. Some of this negotiation may need to be entrusted to skilled negotiators. That stage should enable all those involved to have a sound understanding of the distribution of costs and benefits likely to attach to a small number of different alternatives. The final decision will be a judgement between those alternatives, hopefully in a spirit of concern to get a compromise acceptable to all concerned.
    Of course, that won’t happen if each decision in a given area is taken simply on the basis of the short term interests that are most salient.
    What I have in mind are bodies that need to establish over the long term that they are competent and trustworthy.
    So, in the area of intellectual property rights, people all over the world are at present forced to accept the decisions of a corrupt US decision-procedure, without having any say in the process of decision. In these days where all sorts of such rights affect people everywhere, only a genuinely international authority could be effective in producing sound decisions.
    Similarly, any fair and effective policy on the appropriation and use of fossil fuels can only work if it is not in thrall to the chauvinistic and myopic interests favoured by our present politics.
    Of course, such bodies can only grow over time out of less ambitious bodies. There are many international authorities regulating such things as postal services, access to radio bands, disease control, and so on, which are accepted because their decisions are needed and are generally prove acceptable. They are mainly run by experts, and most assessment of what they do is by informal scrutiny. The task of developing soundly democratic bodies in more conflicted matters seems to involve conjoining a recognition of the need for detachment from irrelevant issues and sensitivity to the interests involved.


  18. Yoram: “I have no problem with people seeking help in whatever function they see fit (advocacy, or whatever other function).”

    Everyone is free to take bad and/or partisan advice — that’s the price we pay for living in a free society. But different principles apply to representative bodies — if the selection of information and advice is in the hands of (a vocal subset of) a random sample then the choice of advocates will be equally random, leading to poorly-informed and inconsistent decisions. Such a process cannot claim to represent the informed judgment of the whole citizen body as the judgment will vary wildly between samples, depending on the arbitrary policy/advocacy choices of (the dominant subset of) each group. Whatever this is, it cannot possible be described as a variant of democracy.

    Yoram’s sole motivation appears to be to curtail the power of the rich and powerful. However it is a paradox that if you don’t allow a formal role for elites they will enter by the back door and commandeer the whole process. Fourth-century Athenian politics was dominated by a tiny group of elite politicians (rhetores), whereas the fifth century was in the hands of the semi-elected group of rhetores kai strategoi. The notion that political elites can simply be banished is fanciful, hence the need to provide a strictly delimited role for them, which Terry has described with his characteristic clarity. Given that he is the only one amongst us with hands-on experience of practical politics I’m glad to defer to him in this matter.


  19. Yoram: “That is not what I wrote, and I am afraid I am unable to put things any more plainly than I already did.”

    I’ve read the comment several times and you outline three possibilities for people of distinction:

    1. It may happen, and occasionally does happen, that people with distinction act in the interests of the average person.

    2. Consciously acting against the interests of the majority.

    3. Adopting a self-serving point of view, according to which their own interests are the true interests of society.

    With the exception of the “occasional” (exceptional?) case, where no motivational analysis is given (accidental? epiphenomenal? class treason? false consciousness?), all behaviour is explained in terms of anti-majoritarian interests either “consciously” (2) or “self-serving” (3). It’s not clear whether (3) is Machiavellian or merely deluded. What you don’t mention is the possibility of people with distinction making a conscious choice to further the interests of the majority, hence my claim that in your model material interests are the prime determinant of human behaviour.


  20. John, I’m glad we all agree on the functional distinction between advocacy and judgment, the disagreement is mostly regarding how best to operationalise the distinction. I tend to use advocacy as a catch-all to include information expertise and policy advocacy but agree with you that these are separate qualities. In my first book I attributed both functions to political officers appointed on merit but was persuaded that this was undemocratic, hence the need to reintroduce the “popular will” as you put it, either electorally or via direct-democratic initiative. This is problematic, for all the reasons that Terry and yourself have demonstrated, but my hope is that any mistakes introduced at this stage will be countermanded by expert advocacy and informed deliberation (as was the case with 4th-century Athenian legislative practice).

    The prime area that divides us still is the mechanism for the appointment of the allotted body — your preference is for an allotment pool of volunteers who are substantially and directly affected by the decisions. Terry claims that these are the last people who should be involved, whereas I would argue that most people are affected by most things in an increasingly globalised world.

    On the issue of legitimacy I agree that bodies will need to establish over the long term that they are competent and trustworthy. Moses Finley puts this well:

    “At least in the stable states, acceptance of the institutions and of the system as a whole was existential: their legitimacy rested on their continual and successful existence” (Politics in the Ancient World, p.24).

    Of course this is something of a chicken and egg problem, but the examples that you provide of successful rule by competent international authorities is valuable. The challenge is how to democratise such a system (whether or not to base it on the volunteering principle) and to demonstrate that ordinary citizens are equally capable of participation. To my mind the advocacy/judgment distinction is the most fruitful way to achieve this.


  21. > the possibility of people with distinction making a conscious choice to further the interests of the majority

    Seems to me this falls easily within your option (1). It is an atypical outcome, but can and does happen occasionally. (BTW, I presume you mean “the interests of the majority as the majority would perceive them” otherwise this would be covered by (3).)


  22. My concerns are primarily to do with motivation — that political agents very often seek to pursue goals that they would characterise as in the general good, and are not in their personal and/or class interest. The resultant problems are twofold:

    1. How to judge what is in the general good. I think we both agree that a randomly-selected microcosm is the best way of doing this, both from an epistemic and a democratic perspective. Where we differ is the best way of generating the initial policy proposals — you argue that my scheme will be dominated by elites (and will therefore not reflect the interests of the masses) whereas I argue that your proposal will arbitrarily reflect the wishes of a small subset of a random body (and will therefore not reflect the interests of the masses). Over this we must agree to differ.

    2. The partisan political process distorts the volitions of political agents on account of the need to gain and retain power. We certainly agree on this, but differ on the way to resolve it — your proposal is to abolish it whereas, to my mind, the best we can hope for is to quarantine it. You (along with John Burnheim) think the political process engenders competition, whereas I see this as an intrinsic part of human nature that will always find some form of expression. If so then the task of constitution builders is to harness this in as benign a way as possible.


  23. No, I also think competition is inevitable and can be salutary. What is crucial is how the winners are decided. In the bad old days it was always by force of arms, which normally resulted in a worse outcome for all concerned (Prisoners Dilemma) than could be obtained by cooperation. For the most part we now do better than that, especially by trade.
    IN Australia we used to fear that the orientals would want to take us over to get the resources they need, but now we sell them what they want , and it costs them less than a military takeover would.But it is basically a competitive game.
    Our present electoral systems for centralised power produce ystematically inferior decisions to other that might be achieved if the forms of competition in public matters wer changed.


  24. Fascinating discussion, fast and furious.

    Should we expect the inevitable competition within a sortitioned legislature to be any different than within an elected legislature?

    I would argue that, yes, it would be different since cooperative negotiation is the overwhelming norm for the general populace.


  25. Hard to say, the only historical example we have is classical Greece, where competition between the rhetores (the small group of elite politicians who initiated and argued for/against most of the proposals in the assembly) was intense. There are no historical examples of the purely sortive system that Yoram proposes so we can only speculate. My guess is that, in addition to the lack of democratic legitimacy, it would soon fall apart as a result of the inherently competitive nature of human volition.

    What is the evidence for your claim that cooperative negotiation is the overwhelming norm for the general populace? The long bloody history of the human race would indicate otherwise. Cooperation is a thin and artificial veneer of civilised behaviour that needs extremely careful nurturing, hence my proposal for the competitive element to be quarantined, as opposed to drawing the inspiration for our institutional design on John Lennon’s “Imagine”.


  26. There is a tiny bit of evidence that cooperation is more likely in an allotted body than an elected one. The limited experience with the BC Citizens’ Assembly, and countless trial juries, suggests competition isn’t an automatic feature of allotted groups. Obviously it also depends on how important each member views the importance of prevailing in terms of the outcome verses the civility of the group, etc. But the point is that elective bodies have an inherent magnetic pull towards adversarial fighting that is not present in an allotted body.


  27. Interesting paper, but I disagree with the point 1. In the « representative democracies » people and groups compete for power . Ok . But the moral consequences are not so different from other systems where people and groups compete for influence on the supreme power. For instance in an absolute monarchy courtiers compete for influence on the monarch.
    The sortition is a way of adjudicating power. The competition for influence can be very strong ; it will be competition, even if it is not electoral competition. In the Athenian democracy in the age of Demosthenes, there was little electoral competition (the elected offices were at this time quite technical), but much competition between the orators – Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Demades, and their friends. When Demosthenes spoke Against the Law of Leptines, he was trying to have a law voted by a legislative jury to be canceled by a judicial jury. Each of the juries were selected by lot, the political process was in a sortition world. But it is sure that there was a big amount of competition between Demosthenes and his opponents, about this specific case and more generally about influence on the sovereign people of Athens.


  28. Hi Andre,

    First, I agree that competition for power is to a certain extent inevitable. My point here was that elections legitimate this competition and make it a central, inherent part of the political structure. Sortition has an opposite effect.

    Your example of the political struggles between Athenian rhetors is certainly a valid point of reference with relevance to modern society. I can easily imagine modern analogues of such struggles occurring in the arena of mass media, through lobbying and in the courts.

    To the extent that society will view such activity as dangerous or anti-democratic, I would expect that measures would be implemented that would be aimed at diminishing the power that elites can exert on the democratic institutions. Creation of democratic media channels and regulation of lobbying are likely candidates for such measures.


  29. Very well written Yoram! I agree with the first few comments on refining “distinction,” but I dont see it as the main point.
    I can’t help but think that the fledgling democracies in the Middle East could have been well served to know some of this, especially point #1. Pains me to see winners in elections take it as mandate to do whatever they darn please.


  30. Nicely put Andre. Headlam on the rhetors:

    “Power belonged to that man who in perfectly free and open competition could win and keep for himself the most influence.” (p.173)

    Yoram’s preferred way of controlling the influence of demagogues is regulation of lobbying and the media; an alternative might be the ancient view that politicians were personally responsible for any failed initiatives. Successful political leaders were well rewarded but the sword of Damocles was ever present.

    Would greatly appreciate it if you could bring your knowledge of Greek history to bear on a parallel dispute on the role of the boule:


  31. About the idea of Yoram Gat
    « Creation of democratic media channels and regulation of lobbying »
    1- I agree, and actually I think that would be absolutely necessary for a modern democracy (taking democracy in the old sense of the word). But it is difficult to conceive a gradual transition to such a system, given the predictable resistance of the major lobbies.
    2- Lobbies are the problem, much more than politicians seeking personal influence – something which will exist in any political system, and must be accepted.

    About the idea of Keith Sutherland
    « an alternative might be the ancient view that politicians were personally responsible for any failed initiatives. Successful political leaders were well rewarded but the sword of Damocles was ever present. »
    *** It was always possible for a politician to use a strawman.
    *** The idea of some kind of responsability for politicians, of some kind of political responsability, looks a good one. But it is dangerous to go too far, up to a strong penal responsability as in Athens. The inavoidable result is to heighten the stakes and to generate a strongly emotional debate, and a personal one, instead of a rational debate which, ideally, should consider only the issues.
    *** In Athens, where a small elite could easily « crystallise » into an aristocratic body, the highly personnal competition between politicians coming usually from the elite was very useful to protect the sovereignty of the people. The situation would be somewhat different in modern societies, and I think that very high personalization would have more drawbacks than advantages.


  32. That’s an interesting point that competition between elites is necessary in order to protect popular sovereignty (otherwise they will inevitably entrench their position). Your argument against personalization is also convincing, so I suppose the best one can hope for is that politicians who deliver failed policies will fail to be re-elected. Unfortunately this is a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted and voters have short memories.


  33. Following the debate initiated by Yoram Gat about distinction and competition, I think interesting to consider a somewhat older theorician, Demosthenes. For him, there are two kinds of distinction. In Sparta, which Demosthenes call « oligarchy » but which was actually a republic with oligarchic leanings, electoral distinction justified a delegation of sovereignty to an elected body. In Athens, where the people was sovereign (through the Assembly, or through sortition of judicial and legislative juries), honorific distinction was useful to assure competition between politicians coming mainly from the socio-intellectual elite.
    But let’s quote Demosthenes (Against Leptines, 107-108, transl. by C. A. Vince & J. H. Vince) :
    « [In Sparta] whenever a man for his good conduct is elected to the Senate, or Gerusia, as they call it, he is absolute master of the mass of citizens. For at Sparta the prize of merit is to share with one’s peers the supremacy in the State; but with us the people is supreme, and any other form of supremacy is forbidden by imprecations and laws and other safeguards, but we have crowns of honor and immunities and [invitations to honorific official dinners] and similar rewards, which anyone may win, if he is a good citizen. And both these customs are right enough, the one at Sparta and the other here. Why? Because in an oligarchy harmony is attained by the equality of those who control the State, but the freedom of a democracy is guarded by the rivalry with which good citizens compete for the rewards offered by the people.»


  34. Nicely put. Anticipating Yoram’s response, he normally refers to “elite” in the singular in order to contrast the interests of the elite and the masses. Demosthenes (who clearly hadn’t read Marx!) takes an individualistic and pluralistic perspective, whereby freedom is preserved by competition between different elite politicians. If allotment were re-introduced in the modern age, it’s likely that the latter form of distinction would re-appear, as I’m not aware of any successful attempts to abolish elite influence and it’s unclear how policy initiatives would gain a democratic mandate without some form of competition, which would inevitably result in the principle of distinction.


  35. Andre,

    I think that honoring delegates (and people in general) who do a good job is a good idea. But I don’t think this really has much to do with competition for power, or indeed with competition at all.

    First, competing for honors is not the same as competing for power. Rewarding people with power causes the problematic phenomena I discussed above. Competition for honors doesn’t have to work this way. Various honorifics are regularly awarded in our own society and these usually have little detrimental effect on politics.

    Secondly, rewarding the delegates for a job well done doesn’t mean that a competition for rewards exists or that the rewards themselves are the main motivator for doing a good job. On the contrary, the good job itself and its beneficial effects should be, in a well functioning society, the real motivators. The rewards are simply a way for society to indicate its appreciation and support. It is a way to reinforce the values of society rather than some sort of a tit-for-tat exchange. So, in this sense I think Demosthenes was wrong – competition for public honors is not an important part of a democratic system. If anything, it is an indication of a problem.


  36. Many philosophers and psychologists agree that the desire to be held in high public esteem is a rather basic human drive. But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum competition. Society can offer this in win-win situations. Elections, on the other hand, are inherently zero-sum, where winning power means denying it to one’s competitor.


  37. > But this doesn’t necessarily have to be a zero-sum competition.

    Yes. In fact, it doesn’t need to be a competition at all.


  38. If competition is not inevitable then why was it so prominent in Athens during the fourth century? Elections were restricted to a small number of magistracies, there was no formal category of “political leader” (rhetores kai strategoi was a 5th century phenomenon) and no political parties. There was also no mass media and you also like to claim that the allotted council was a deliberative forum that generated policy and ran the city. And yet competition was widespread. In the fifth century this could be attributed to the dominant role of the assembly, but then we should expect to see a marked decline during the age of Demosthenes, when law making was the role of allotted juries. If competition was rampant in the ancient world, then why do you think there would be no competition in a modern allotted democracy? Much better to acknowledge this as a fundamental of human nature and quarantine it to its appropriate place.


  39. > If competition is not inevitable then why was it so prominent in Athens during the fourth century?

    This is a bit like asking why, if court-addiction among the old is not inevitable, was it so prominent in Athens.

    First, we don’t know that competition was “so prominent”. In the passage Andre quoted above we have one testimony, which is clearly biased, being part of a piece of advocacy for allowing a certain person to keep certain financial privileges that his family was granted by the Athenians. (BTW, if Wikipedia is to be believed, the Athenians rejected Demosthenes’s arguments in this case.)

    Moreover, even if competition was an important part of the Athenian political culture, this is very far from proving that this phenomenon is “inevitable”. It could easily be the result of certain aspects of the system or the culture – aspects that could be avoided. Most obviously, the reliance of the Athenians on mass political instruments such as the Assembly allowed rhetors to have much more influence than they would have in a system that is based more thoroughly on sortition.


  40. OK, whilst we need to remain agnostic we need to be cautious regarding wishful thinking. I’m not sure that there is any robust evidence for the natural cooperative politics that you are seeking to achieve. I apologise for using this particular example, but it’s a little like those who claim that the failure of historical attempts to implement communism tell us nothing about its unworkability in principle. It all boils down in the end to the dispute between sociobiologists and constructivists.


  41. It’s important to recall Demosthenes’ principal concern:

    “the freedom of a democracy is guarded by the rivalry with which good citizens compete for the rewards offered by the people.”

    In the absence of competition, how would this freedom be maintained? Eleutheria (freedom) was a universal Greek ideal, not specifically Athenian or democratic (Rhodes, Ancient Democracy and Modern Ideology, p.85)


  42. *** Yoram is right, : the piece of democratic theory by Demosthenes was included in an specific advocacy, and a one which seems to have failed, as it seems that the law of Leptines survived the attack by Demosthenes, and that the financial exemptions were canceled (at least we have no evidence of such exemptions later)
    But the other honorific prizes were maintened, including some which were expensive (the golden crowns were made from real gold !) Honorific decrees was an important task of the Assembly. The honorific distinction was a part of the Athenian democratic system until the end. And the theoretical piece by Demosthenes (maybe expanded when he wrote his speech) was most probably intended by its author to have a permanent value.
    *** Yoram is right : some aspects of the political system of Athens could be avoided in a modern democracy ; and the Greek culture was specifically agonistic, intensely agonistic. A modern democracy (I mean a direct democracy) may avoid some institutions of the ancient democracies. But it is useful to consider these institutions, and the pieces of democratic theory which have succeeded to come to us. And it is reasonable that there will always competition in any form of political system.
    *** Yoram wrote : « the reliance of the Athenians on mass political instruments such as the Assembly allowed rhetors to have much more influence than they would have in a system that is based more thoroughly on sortition ». Actually, and following the importance of sortition in fourth century democracy, some of the most famous pieces of the Athenian oratory were delivered in courts, popular courts made through sortitition – for instance « On the Crown » by Demosthenes, one of the most famous masterpieces of rhetorical art.
    These courts were not small juries, as in the English tradition. They were made of 201, 501 citizens, eventually more.
    Many modern theoricians of democracy through sortition are thinking about relatively small deliberating bodies – which would have to be interconnected into a large body if we want to have a « representative sample » without a big « random sampling error », an unbearable risk for critical matters.
    We could have the idea of protecting as strongly as possible the small deliberative sub-bodies from « national orators », from modern times Demosthenes and Aeschines. But going too far in this direction has a very strong drawback. In a small jury an interesting idea could have no champion, or no well-speaking champion, and the deliberation would be distorted. And, as a statistical result of these distortions, globally the deliberation would be strongly biased against the ideas impopular with the well-speaking classes of the society. Actually « deliberation protected from national orators » could lead to a domination by the learned middle classes. National orators are therefore an absolute necessity for democracy ; and competition between these orators cannot be avoided.


  43. Yoram’s model of a deliberative assembly makes no distinction between advocates and jurors, as the speakers would be none other than the randomly-selected members, and this is the sense (I imagine) that he would seek to reduce the influence of rhetors. My concern (and I think this mirrors Andre’s comments) is that this would privilege a small subset of eloquent or high-status individuals within the assembly — the “learned middle classes” — and that this would distort the deliberation. My other concern is the further distortion arising from the arbitrary nature of policy proposals arising from the internal deliberations of the assembly. This certainly was alien to Athenian jury practice (and was not characteristic of the boule) so appeals to antiquity fail on these grounds.


  44. Andre,

    I don’t see anything wrong with rewarding people for promoting the public good. Of course, like anything else, such practice can be taken too far. Also, like most other issues, the right way to judge who should be rewarded is by having the issue examined by a small body, not by mass vote. Finally, such rewards should have nothing to do with competition for power, or, indeed, with competition of any kind.

    BTW, when I refer to small bodies, I mean any body which allows an all-to-all communication pattern. The absolute upper limit for such a body is a few hundred people, and indeed when it comes to most powerful decision-making bodies in society, they should be a few hundred people strong.

    The modern day analogue of the rhetors are not some unusually eloquent individuals. It is rather the established authorities who manage to win, by various devices, a privileged status in public discourse. Again, these are not individuals, but organizations and power structures (which may have some high-profile individual representatives). It is against undue influence by such entities that a democratic society must guard. This is not an easy task, but it is essential in order to maintain political equality in society.


  45. >It is against undue influence by [rhetors] that a democratic society must guard. This is not an easy task, but it is essential in order to maintain political equality in society.

    Agreed, but the question is how best to do this — by encouraging plurality and competition within a constrained domain, or by attempting to exclude elite influence. The latter would lead to covert influence, unless you are proposing banning assembly members from watching TV and reading newspapers. And an allotted assembly with powers of policy initiation and advocacy would be a magnet for lobbying and corruption.

    Andre’s original concern was how to maintain freedom, not equality. This requires ho boulomenos for all citizens, not just the allotted oligarchs. Given that active speech acts are inevitably connected with the principle of distinction, elite competition plays a vital role in the preservation of freedom.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: