Robbins: Democracy: What Would It Be Like?

Arthur D. Robbins writes in the Sri Lanka Guardian:

What would it be like if we really lived in a democracy? These days just about everybody seems to be enjoying the benefits democratic government, that is if you believe government propaganda and you are one of the credulous many who are eager for a sense of well being at any price. But what is usually called democracy is in fact an oligarchy of elected representatives responsible to the business interests who bankrolled their campaign. If people were actually given the opportunity to choose democracy, they might do so, provided they understood what the word actually means. Our one uncontested example is ancient Athens.

Note the difference between “equal speech,” or “political speech,” the right to debate and legislate, and what today we call “free speech,” the prohibition against being denied the right to speak. We could be speaking on a street corner or marching in a protest. “Free speech” says we have the right to do that. It says the right cannot be taken away. “Free speech” has no particular context. We are granted the right to say what we want, provided, it turns out, we do not threaten the governing powers. “Free speech” is a civil right. It is not a political right. It does not give us the right to set national policy. “Equal speech” in ancient Athens did.

Haranguing some passerby to vote for a certain candidate is not political speech nor is voting in an election. “What about writing a letter to my congressman? Isn’t that political speech?” No. It is complaining or pleading. Most of the time it changes nothing. It has no real power. It is not constitutive. It does not have the power to bring something into existence. Only political speech does.

If we return to the concept of “equal speech,” “political speech” or isēgoría, and apply it to our current situation in the year 2015, we realize that, in the United States, political speech is reserved for the governing oligarchy. The 435 men and women who sit on the floor of the House of Representatives have the right to speak. They can debate and legislate, set policy. 623 of us sit in the gallery observing and listening to what takes place on the floor. We cannot speak. We can only listen and observe. We are politically powerless. We lack political speech. We are “speechless.”

Well just suppose that the 623 of us in the gallery decide to descend on to the House floor and enter the debate. We now have a political voice. We are no longer “speechless.” There are now 1058 of us on the floor, instead of 435. 623, the majority of us, are free spirits. We didn’t get to the floor by soliciting millions from corporate donors to whom we then owe our allegiance. We are “walk-ons,” “free agents” with a political voice. We simply speak our minds and vote what makes sense to us based on our various backgrounds and interests. Such an assemblage is a lot more likely to speak for the common good than Lockheed Martin.

32 Responses

  1. Arthur,

    In classical Athens only a tiny proportion of citizens chose to exercise their right of isēgoría — in a typical assembly session of c. 6,000 citizens it is estimated there were around 200 speeches. Most speeches were made by the usual suspects (the tiny group of rhetores). Bearing in mind that a single political speech could directly affect the vote that would determine the laws of the state and that most Athenian citizens were directly involved in the outcome (especially as they had to fight in the frequent wars that were caused by assembly decisions), still only a tiny number chose to exercise their democratic speech rights. In your modern proposal, with umpteen assemblies all debating at the same time, the chance of an individual speech affecting the final (aggregated) outcome at the national level are infinitesimally small, so why would any sane person bother to exercise her right of isēgoría unless she was in love with the sound of her own voice? The same thing applies to isonomia — why bother to turn up and vote, as your aggregated vote will be of no causal significance. Rational ignorance is the product of aggregate mathematics, and applies universally, even if you subdivide the national citizen body into small groups. As Wilde might have put it, direct democracy takes up far too many evenings, and most people would choose to watch TV or go to the pub. This is not a result of the breakdown of republican virtù, merely an indication that people are not stupid.

    I agree with you that (alongside isonomia), isēgoría is a sine qua non of democracy in all ages, but would argue that both norms require some kind of representative process in extended states with large populations. Exactly what form that representation should take is up for debate, but you can’t just scale up the political institutions of a small ancient polis to large modern states. Better to focus on the two norms (isonomia and isēgoría) and then debate what forms of representation are required to achieve them (needless to say I don’t limit “representation” to ticking a box in a polling booth). Most of us agree that sortition is the best way of instituting isonomia in a large state but there is heated disagreement about what form of representation is required for isēgoría (the Athenians treated it differently, and so should we). But of all of us on this forum, I think you are the only one who objects, in principle, to the use of representation in democratic politics.


  2. Perhaps a Sri Lankan newspaper article would have been better served by Sri Lankan examples in place of American ones?


  3. Yoram,

    Thank you for posting this piece. I haven’t the foggiest idea how it ended up in the Sri Lankan Guardian!

    Arthur D. Robbins


  4. Keith, Arthur makes a perfectly valid point: fundamentally, modern “representation” is NOT “democratic politics.” It is, in fact, OLIGARCHY. Any political scheme that puts the sovereign legislative power in the hands of a small subset of the society is necessarily and by definition oligarchic. Sortition does not transform modern legislative representation into a democratic process. Sortition is indeed a key to functioning democracy, but, as in Athens, it applies to the (strictly subordinate) EXECUTIVE body only, not to the sovereign legislative Assembly. Since everyone (in principle) attends assemblies, everyone is at all times a sovereign legislator along with everyone else (and periodically an executive as well). In other words, in democracy there is no question of LEGISLATIVE representation. Today we could indeed “just scale up” the two main institutions of the Athenian political system, the legislative and the executive, as I have described in “The Idea” at We would simply have many assemblies and many random-sample executive councils.

    The “rational ignorance” argument is bogus, as I recognized from the moment I first heard it in an undergraduate political science class long ago. If moving a boulder requires numerous shoulders working together, this does not make any one person’s effort (which alone would be insufficient) useless and foolhardy. The COLLECTIVE effort does the job, and each person’s contribution is equally vital. Ordinary people–unlike brilliant college professors–tend to understand this simple logic. Secondly, although many people have nothing more to contribute to the political process than their post-discussion vote on a given issue (this vote is the core of a person’s “political speech” whether they literally speak or not), the words of any person who takes the podium have the potential to be widely influential if they are particularly meritorious–and people know this also, which is why they value public speech no matter the number of persons who avail themselves of the opportunity.


  5. Oops–that was Ted Aranda above (


  6. Ted,

    What you and Arthur say is true for fifth century Athens, but mass democracy led to poorly-considered legislative judgment. As a result, the fourth century reforms transferred legislative sovereignty to large randomly selected legislative juries, which were deemed to represent the whole citizen body.

    Your analogy of moving a boulder is only relevant to a society off ants, bees or termites. Unfortunately human collective action is plagued by the free rider problem, that’s why we invented democratic politics (as the alternative to a man with a whip)

    The Athenians did not view voting as an example of equal speech, that’s why they had two very different concepts. In large societies there are simply too many voices for everyone to hear, that’s why we need a representative process. As the law of large numbers does not apply to the speech acts of individual members of a randomly selected sample, we need to look elsewhere for Isegoria.


  7. Ted,

    Rational ignorance is absolutely a real and limiting feature of mass participation. If I am to be a sole decision maker on a question (which is important to me), I am motivated to learn all about it before deciding. When I get one vote out of millions, I automatically relax my efforts, knowing my one vote will almost certainly not be decisive (breaking a tie). This proven fact (demonstrated in multiple experiments) simply combines math and human psychology. Virtually NO voter (even the most ardent League of Women Voters member) has thoroughly studied up on all aspects of all issues and candidates on the ballot. It simply isn’t worth anyone’s time to do that, when the effect is negligible. A few people do put in an unreasonable (irrational) amount of time studying issues before voting, but that has more to do with duty, a sense of civic responsibility, community solidarity, symbolism, or intellectual enjoyment… But MOST people will never do that in a MASS participation situation. Nor would we want all members of society spending most of their time studying issues (we want them to do other meaningful work as well).The ONLY way to get average citizens to fully engage in an issue and do the hard work of learning, is for their votes to genuinely matter, which can only happen when the numbers are relatively small… as in a representative sub-group of a large society. The key DEMOCRATIC element of sortition is to assure that the decision-makers are genuinely representative of the society as a whole, and that no specific subset (an oligarchy) keeps the role of decision-maker any longer than necessary in order to make an informed decision (rotation).


  8. Ted,

    At the risk of anachronism, it’s tempting to imagine that the reasoning behind the fourth-century reforms was an early recognition of the mechanisms that Terry has so well explained. The Athenians certainly did not view the nomothetic panels as oligarchic, as they were selected by the quintessentially democratic method of sortition. I’ve just finished reading Martin Ostwald’s book From Popular Sovereignty to the Sovereignty of Law which argues, with Aristotle, that the juries, not the assembly, were the primary institution of Athenian democracy and that the juries were seen as a representative sample of all citizens (that’s why they were so large). It’s true that the reforms marked a diminution in popular sovereignty — that’s because, after the post-Periclean turmoil and the rule of the demagogues led to two oligarchies, the Athenians were looking for a more stable form of democracy, where the sovereign body wouldn’t decide one thing one day and then go back on it on the next (the obvious example being the condemnation and execution, without trial, of the Arginusae generals). If trials were the only way to ensure the right outcomes for persons, then attempts to modify the laws should be subject to similar due process.

    Jury trials are the only element of Athenian democracy that have survived into modernity and this should be our template for modern reforms, not an attempt to scale up the more dysfunctional elements of Athenian democracy. This is the one thing that most of us agree on here, the only real bone of contention being how best to implement the other aspect of Athenian democracy (isegoria). To my mind speech acts, in large modern states, also require representation and sortition cannot achieve this, for reasons that can be demonstrated mathematically.


  9. Keith,

    You say, “mass democracy led to poorly-considered legislative judgment.” Can you supply five-ten of your favorite examples.



  10. Arthur

    I acknowledge that my understanding of Greek history is from secondary sources (I’m not a historian) and also that, during the fifth century, there was no distinction between laws (nomoi) and decrees (psephismata), so most of the examples of poorly-considered judgment concern decisions of military strategy that would normally fall in the latter category. The demos, in Aristotle’s sense of the poor, were the prime beneficiary of fifth-century imperialism, so many of the disastrous decisions regarding the Peloponnesian war (which almost emptied the Athenian coffers) were the consequence of assembly decisions. Bear in mind also that the assembly voted in both oligarchies, so Athenians at the time certainly did not hold the direct demokratia in particularly high esteem. I could scour the secondary literature if you like and come up with specific examples of poorly considered judgment but, given the above disclaimer, I’m not sure what the value would be.

    The key point is that decisions were sometimes taken one day and then reversed on the next (e.g. the Arginusae example), leaders who were one day lionised, were the next day subject to exile or execution, and assembly decisions were often preceded by only cursory deliberation (the assembly had to deal with many matters at a single sitting and there simply wasn’t enough time). Ostwald makes the point that the nomothetic panels can be viewed as delegated sub-committees of the assembly, as each allotted sample was a representation of the whole demos. The other value of the fourth century innovations was the introduction of time delays — the legislative process was complex, involving the proposer, the council, at least two sessions of the assembly, the legislative trial and the possibility of a challenge in the courts. So it introduced an element of moderation and stability to popular sovereignty, previously understood, in Xenophon’s words as “it is shocking not to let the people do whatever they wish” (Hell. 1.7.12)

    In sum, the claim that Terry and I (and most people on this blog) are making is only that democratic decision making can only be improved by leaving it in the hands of a deliberative microcosm of the whole citizen body (or at least its more mature members, who had sworn the Heliastic oath) and that this was also the view of the Greeks. None of the sources indicate in any way that the appointment of randomly-selected nomothetic panels was in any way oligarchical.


  11. Keith,

    My personal preference is that you not make sweeping, derogatory generalizations about 5th century Athenian democracy unless you are prepared to substantiate them with hard fact.



  12. About Terry Bouricius and rational ignorance.
    *** I agree, rationally, with all what Bouricius says. But I am afraid it could be counter-productive to stress the lack of motivation of citizens in studying political issues. We will find people asking for heroically virtuous citizens … The decisive argument is that in a modern, complex and dynamic, society, it is difficult for a human mind to have an understanding of some issues sufficient to ground a serious political choice, and it is, simply, impossible for a great number of issues. Impossible, even for an heroically virtuous citizen.
    *** A future modern democracy-through-sortition will ask the common citizen to study the issues of interest to him with sufficient care to be able to understand the choices of the citizen juries in charge – and even that will require quite an amount of civic virtue.


  13. Lisa,

    I will get back to you with a time proposal.



  14. “Hard facts”about antiquity are few and far between. But the claim that the Athenians themselves were dissatisfied with their own system of popular sovereignty is uncontroversial. All the changes that I catalogued were voted in by the assembly, and were motivated by the desire to limit the excesses of popular sovereignty. Does that count as a “hard fact”? Or do you consider that the judgment of modern observers (including amateur historians like you and me) on the concrete decisions of the assembly should privilege their own judgment?


  15. Andre,

    The political system that privileges the judgment of the few heroically virtuous citizens is called an aristocracy. Whilst we should encourage civic virtue in the citizen juries of an allotted assembly, it would be more prudent to trust Aristophanes’ observations in Wasps. As such a sortition democracy should require little more from its legislative decision makers than the Athenians required of their jurors. As for the legitimacy of their decisions in the eyes of everyone else, we need to ensure that the acts of isegoria and isonomia are truly representative, so that it would make no difference which citizens were involved.


  16. Andre,

    Do you believe that a political project that relies on appeals to civic virtue (heroic or otherwise) is viable in modern pluralistic societies, where citizens would be better described as consumers of state services? Sure, some citizens will make the effort, but legitimacy presupposes that everybody accepts decisions made by allotted bodies, and that’s quite a demanding requirement. That’s why I think that consistency and repeatability is the best we can hope for. How can I object to a decision made by proxies if it can be proved that it would have made no difference if I had participated in person? Needless to say that will require serious constraints on the deliberative mandate of allotted bodies.

    The fact that Athenians clearly consented to the decisions made on their behalf by allotted juries, without knowledge of the mathematics of proportionality is an interesting point. I would be inclined to attribute this to homonoia, a quality that is clearly lacking in modern multicultural societies. Legitimising decision-making by randomly-selected proxies in the eyes of those disenfranchised by the allotment process really is the elephant in the room that most commentators on this forum choose to ignore. If you take the two guys on Ahmed’s film, they clearly didn’t agree, so I can’t see how, absent some mechanism that ensures consistent and repeatable decisions, the decision of the allotted group would have any legitimacy at all, irrespective of the epistemic merits of the deliberative process.


  17. Keith et al.,

    (1) By definition democracy is the rule of the people, not that of ANY small subset of the people no matter how chosen. You can’t square that circle. Your result will always be an oligarchical square, not a democratic circle. Having a legislature chosen by sortition would leave practically the entire citizen population just as powerless as it is now. Someone else supposedly voting for me is not and will never be ME voting. The decisions of a sortition legislature would likely be more similar to those of the entire people (were the latter able to vote) than to the decisions of current elected legislatures, but this is not an adequate substitute, democratically speaking, for the real deal. Problems include: (a) being such a small body, your lot-chosen legislature would be subject to many of the same highly focused, corrupting, elite-driven influences at work today on our “representative” governmental bodies (these pressures are not limited to election campaign contributions), and (b) the members of this small body would inevitably start to act like the exalted oligarchs they in fact are, rather than as common citizens no more powerful than any others. By contrast, the Athenian Council of Five Hundred was an administrative/facilitating body, not a sovereign ruling one; the all-citizen Assembly was sovereign.

    (2) I have discussed in detail some of the more infamous decisions of the Athenians in my book, The Racket and the Answer (at and in print). These were in fact quintessentially democratic decisions. The bottom line is that democracy is premised on a subjectivist political philosophy as opposed to an objectivist one. Quite simply there is no such thing as “poorly considered judgments” in an absolute sense. Every individual and every group makes countless decisions all the time and on all kinds of things. Other people (such as future observers) judge those decisions as “good” or “bad.” But these are nothing more or less than concurring or differing views. Even later misgivings or reversals by the original voters are simply changed views; they prove nothing about the correctness of any particular vote. There is no logically tenable way to determine absolute right and wrong. Attempts to do so in the context of society and government lead to the erection of official elites–persons with greater powers and higher privileges based on putatively superior intellectual qualities: judges, dictators, and philosopher-kings of one sort or another. In democracy the people decide in their legislature. Period, end of story. This is essentially what happened in democratic Athens.

    (3) My study was, most specifically, of classical fifth-century Athens. It seems to me that there is a degree of exaggeration among some historians regarding the overall effect on the archetypal democracy of the reforms at the end of that century. In any event, they do not particularly interest me. Frankly, my enduring interest in Athens is limited to the relatively simple, elemental aspects of demokratia as manifested in the legislative Assembly and the executive Council of Five Hundred–especially their real-world functioning–rather than complicating constitutional details or later modifications (adulterations?). Those two institutions are fabulous models for a modern democracy. (This is what we need: basic democratic models, not antiquarian hairsplitting.) Indeed, I favor a severe demotion of the Athenian courts: although invaluable in and of themselves, i.e. as strictly judicial institutions within the executive/administrative branch, they have no place in a rigorous democracy IN THE FORM OF AN INDEPENDENT BRANCH OF GOVERNMENT. (Needless to say, modern democrats need not copy ancient Athens in every way.)

    (4) You make much of the supposed problem of communication in modern society. What exactly is the problem? You go to your community assembly and you speak there to hundreds of your fellow citizens. If you so desire you can post your speech on the internet for all to see/hear. If you are influential and you belong to an organization, your organization propagates your views, possibly to the entire country or world. There is in fact nothing especially problematic about “speech” in large, modern societies. In any event, democracy does not at all require that EVERY individual be heard by EVERY OTHER individual; it only requires that every citizen have the opportunity to vote and speak in a sovereign public forum unhindered. Some will be listened to far and wide, others will not. In the jumble of public discourse ideas and policy positions spread in many different ways and degrees.

    I’m sure these rebuttals will not satisfy you. We differ fundamentally. I am a radical democrat and will take the core concept of democracy–the literal rule of the people–to its logical conclusion, brooking no elitist compromises. I will respectfully read any responses but will probably cease arguing uselessly.



  18. > Someone else supposedly voting for me is not and will never be ME voting.

    Agreed. Even though the two may be functionally equivalent they aren’t psychologically equivalent. There is a world of difference between being *asked* for your opinion and being *told* what your opinion would actually be if you took the time to get better informed. This is one of the reasons why I am skeptical of idea of using statistical representation as the *sole* legitimizing principle. Having a formal proof and a list of papers as long as your arm demonstrating that every allotted sample will vote the same way is of academic interest only. Your average Joe Shmoe isn’t going to know or care about the underlying theoretical issues. People want the outcomes they want and will understand plainly that they get no say whatsoever.

    > I will respectfully read any responses but will probably cease arguing uselessly.

    Please don’t go. It’s nice to see someone else defend mass democracy. While these discussions may seem useless, I think they are actually quite helpful to readers. I certainly found Keith and Yoram’s sisyphean sparring sessions interesting back when I was a lurker.


  19. Hi Ted,

    > By definition democracy is the rule of the people

    That is far too vague to be of any real use. Who is to say that any arrangement is “the rule of the people”? Unless we have a definite enough criterion, the discussion is moot. I suggest the following criterion: a system is democratic if most people, upon examination of its working and its outcomes, would state that they feel that it serves the people.

    Regarding the prospects of mass political arrangements to actually serve the people, see here and here.


  20. Ted,

    What right have you to privilege your essentialist conception of democracy over the views of the people that invented it? Even if you take an etymological perspective on the word “democracy” (viewed by most historians as a “dangerous” methodological cul-de-sac [Ostwald, 1969]) you end up with the power of the people, not the rule of the people (that would be demarchy). Aristotle was adamant that the juries, even in the sixth and fifth centuries, were the institution that vested power with the people, and the Athenians themselves decided that legislation by a deliberative sub-set of the people produced a better form of democracy than the direct sovereignty of the assembly. This was not the verdict of “future observers” but the democratic will of the people, as instituted by a vote in the assembly (to abolish its own legislative sovereignty and transfer it to randomly-selected nomothetic panels). You have clearly invested a lot in your model of fifth century democracy, and it’s a shame that this leads you to ignore not just the perspective of most modern historians but also the Athenians themselves. I would be sorry if your prior intellectual investment leads you to drop out of a conversation that challenges your thesis.

    Your arguments regarding the ease with which small bodies may be corrupted are well taken. This is why the Athenians selected their legislative juries by lot on the day of the “trial” and limited their role to determining the outcome of the adversarial joust between advocates via a secret vote. Such a system is almost impossible to corrupt (if the jury is large enough) and who are unlikely to “go native” over the course of a few days.


    >Having a formal proof and a list of papers as long as your arm demonstrating that every allotted sample will vote the same way is of academic interest only.

    I’m not proposing a formal proof, just a set of simple experiments in which different jury samples judge the same issue concurrently. If they all come to the same conclusion then who could possibly argue that this was not their own verdict (assuming majoritarian norms)? Or do you think people are so stupid as to prefer their infinitesimally small chance to influence the outcome of a ballot in which people have no real idea what they are voting for? You once said that voting in elections was “so darned satisfying”, but the current widespread disillusion with representative democracy would suggest that makes you a member of a tiny minority.

    Note that I never argued for statistical representation as the sole legitimising principle. Sortition only works for isonomia; the principle of isegoria is equally important and this requires entirely different mechanisms (including election). Ted’s claim that scale and communication issues makes no difference to the instantiation of isegoria makes a mockery of Athenian practice in which every citizen who chose to advise the assembly could do so, without being drowned out in the babble of competing voices (anyone could be famous for five minutes). Re-establishing such a level playing field for modern-day isegoria is a non-trivial problem.


    >a system is democratic if most people, upon examination of its working and its outcomes, would state that they feel that it serves the people.

    I agree that we need a situated, functional definition (semantic, rather than etymological), but this one is so broad as to include monarchy, aristocratic paternalism, tyranny and oligarchy. Serving the people is not the same thing as the people having power, even if it is based on the subjective evaluation of the people (what they feel serves them). The people have power when they make their own decisions (either en masse or via a statistically-representative sample).


  21. “In the jumble of public discourse ideas and policy positions spread in many different ways and degrees.”

    This would be acceptable, if we could be confident that they did so randomly, or at least independent of anything but their “correctness”. But we know they don’t. Some people are better at getting their message out than others, and this class has best interests that diverge from the best interests of everyone else, especially if they can count on staying in that class.


  22. True, though the term “class” is a tad anachronistic (especially in the singular). For example, Russell Brand is pretty good at getting his message across, but what class is he a member of and whose interests are represented? Also the appeal to “correctness” is worrying, even when scare quotes are use. Democracy presupposes that views are dispersed proportionately rather than randomly (the latter would be aleatocracy), that’s why modern-day isegoria presupposes some kind of representational mechanism. How to achieve this and at the same time retain a level playing field is the challenge we should be addressing.


  23. Keith > Or do you think people are so stupid as to prefer their infinitesimally small chance to influence the outcome of a ballot in which people have no real idea what they are voting for?

    It’s not about stupidity. It’s about human nature not being a rational thing. The existence of communities large enough that a single individual’s voice is insignificant is a new thing, something that happened only yesterday on an evolutionary timescale. Perhaps in a hundred thousand years things will be different. I hope not. After all, much of what we consider to be moral behavior is every bit as irrational in a large population as becoming informed is in a mass democracy.

    How many people disagree with the results of a high-profile celebrity jury trial and think to themselves: “You know, it doesn’t make sense to me, but the jury is in a better position to understand and make a reasonable decision, so I’ll trust they got it right over my own judgment.” Some, no doubt, but it’s so much more satisfying to rage about someone being able to get away with murder because of their celebrity status. I suspect, if your allotted bodies decided on (and stuck to) a by-the-book Keynesian fiscal policy, you’d be first in line to call them wrong and call for reform. The people who lose out in any major decision will do the same. Take a look at the Ferguson decision. Even everyone here blamed the system. Is the system flawed? Of course. So is every system. It’s only a matter of degree. Any plan of government we come up with will be flawed and those who disagree with the decisions of that government can use those flaws to justify themselves and their anger. The simple fact that the system will get it “wrong” and have to reverse course from time to time is proof enough that it is perfectly justifiable to persist in one’s own views. All this will likely place terrible strain on the institutions themselves and I doubt they will just stand there and take it. Maybe at first… but over centuries? More likely the precedent will be established early on that controversial matters get tossed to referendum.


  24. Naomi,

    The evolutionary timescale is the wrong one for the analysis of democratic institutions. Speaking of UK politics, until only a few decades ago, citizens knew that if they voted Labour or Conservative they would get policies that approximated their own preferences. There was a closer match between economic and social policies and voting patterns were largely tribal and inherited. There was also a sense of deference towards professional politicians and the governing class. That has all gone now and most people are heavily disillusioned with the political process and realise that their vote is virtually worthless, so this is the right time to put forward an alternative model of representation, iff it can be demonstrated that it is more reliably representative than our current arrangements. This is the elephant in the room that most contributors to this blog continue to ignore, insisting that so long as it is “the people” that decide, that’s all that matters — even if different samples of the people come to different conclusions on the same topic. How, I ask (yet again) can that be considered a representative process? Which decision is the one that we should all be deemed to consent to?

    In the UK the verdicts of jury trials are generally viewed as legitimate — that’s why they are a useful template for the political decision-making process. I understand that US juries are easier to gerrymander by the attorney’s right of peremptory challenge. I can think of no UK analogue for the O.J. Simpson trial. As for the Ferguson decision, this is an excellent example of how flawed procedures (grand juries operating in camera and without adversarial exchange) will generate flawed outcomes. But if a democratic system can be demonstrated, empirically, to generate the same deliberative outcomes, irrespective of which citizens participate, then how could that possibly be seen as flawed? (unless the objection is to democracy per se).

    >I suspect, if your allotted bodies decided on (and stuck to) a by-the-book Keynesian fiscal policy, you’d be first in line to call them wrong and call for reform.

    That’s why I insist on the sovereignty of law, in the fourth-century sense that the demos (and the politicians) agreed to bind their own hands by accepting that certain nomoi (including the laws of arithmetic) take priority over statute designed by mere humans. The UK political parties are united over the need to operate balanced budgets, so the Micawber Principle would be a fundamental law that was not open to modification. I suppose the US analogy for this is constitutional amendments, which also appear to benefit from quasi-divine status.


  25. Ted,

    In a mass participation democracy each individual’s power is essentially nil unless backed by wealth and status that allows a wide following.

    Also there is a big difference between voting for candidates and voting on policy. When electing representatives, people often have a gut sense of whom to trust (even though that gut feeling has been manipulated and created by those with wealth and power over media)…so people may not happily give up their opportunity to vote for representatives. But when it comes to voting on policy matters, things are very different. On the vast majority of policy matters very few people have an opinion that they have any confidence in. Most people in my town would not vote in a referendum about a zoning decision for some particular parcel of land. So we either leave these “democratic” decisions to those special interests that bother to vote in the referendum (or local assembly), or we can assure that a representative sample is motivated and charged with figuring out the public interest.

    In short, here is the underlying dilemma of a mass participation policy-voting democracy. I do not have time or interest to inform myself on the plethora of issues facing society. I definitely do not want to waste time learning about the endless array of issues, and DON’T want my UNinformed opinion to warp the outcome (though of course, with only one vote out of millions I have no real power). What I WANT is to have someone like me spend the time to learn all about the issue and vote as I would IF I WERE WELL INFORMED. The only way this can occur is with short-duration juries. In other words I don’t want to have the job of learning about everything and having to vote…I want to do other things with my life, and then be called on at some point to take my turn making some decision for my community on a jury, and going back to my life.

    Mass participation democracy can only be a fig leaf for oligarchy of the powerful who can shape the opinions of the poorly informed.


  26. Ted,

    “Mass participation democracy can only be a fig leaf for oligarchy of the powerful who can shape the opinions of the poorly informed.”

    I don’t think this observation applies to democracy in 5th century Athens. And the reason we need democracy is not to resolve zoning issues but to resolve issues of war and peace, to decide whether we want to invest in health care and education or in building better air craft carrier and fighter jets.

    It is not the trivial decisions that we need to democratize. We need to democratize the major, critical decisions facing the nation and the world. The issue is not one of expertise but one of values. The world is in the shape its in because of the values of those in power. In a democracy there would a sampling of values that was less skewed and more likely to speak to the common good.



  27. Ted,

    My confusion. I was directing my response to tbouricius.



  28. Arthur (responding to Terry, not Ted),

    >The world is in the shape its in because of the values of those in power.

    My (amateur) understanding of fifth-century democracy was that the warlike and imperialistic policies of the Athenians were largely on account of Pericles’ appeal to the interests of the demos.


  29. > The evolutionary timescale is the wrong one for the analysis of democratic institutions.

    Human nature only changes on evolutionary timescales. Which was my point. We have to design our institutions around human nature and that nature is far from rational. We can safely say human nature is wired with the expectation of small-group interactions as until only a few thousand years ago those were the only type of interpersonal interactions that actually occurred. Why do people vote at all? Mountains have been written on that question. Logically, we understand it will make no difference, but in practice people place value in having a say even if that say is insignificant… even if they choose to not exercise their voice. It’s hard to write this off as a cultural thing as it’s seen around the world.

    > How, I ask (yet again) can that be considered a representative process?

    It can’t. There’s no denying that.

    > That’s why I insist on the sovereignty of law…

    And laws (including constitutional laws) must first be made. The things that should be law, including the things you value most, are purely matters of opinion. I would posit that there is no mechanism of making law that you would personally be willing to outsource your will to on this matter. If a referendum doesn’t give you an enshrined Micawber Principle then you’ll want go with an allotted body. If that doesn’t give it to you then you’ll opt for something else. I dont mean to say this in a critical way, I’m just pointing out that everyone is like this on the things they value the most. That was my point. If someone is opposed to EU membership then the decision made by an allotted body is not going to change their mind. They’ll demand the use of a different decision making method. Just as you have. You could certainly make the case that there should be a constitutional ban on something like the EU. Why enshrine Micawber’s Principle but not a guarantee on full sovereignty? It’s *purely* a matter of opinion.


  30. Naomi,

    >We can safely say human nature is wired with the expectation of small-group interactions

    That’s why it’s far easier for people to empathise with jury decisions than those of mass democracy. I use the word “empathise”, as it includes affective as well as cognitive factors. I’m not aware of any evidence that homo sapiens has a hard-wired preference for a form of balloting that goes back little more than 100 years. As usual you have difficulty in imagining anything that goes beyond existing democratic practice.

    Why enshrine Micawber’s Principle but not a guarantee on full sovereignty?

    Because the former is based on a law of nature (mathematics), whereas the latter is merely an Anglo-Saxon prejudice. But if you take the view that it’s all just a matter of opinion (which I don’t) then fundamental nomoi should take the form of US-style constitutional amendments — hard, but not impossible, to overturn. In the case of Micawber’s Law, it should take a long time to overturn, as it’s future generations who stand to be robbed (perhaps the franchise for repealing it should be limited to citizens of pre-school age).


  31. > As usual you have difficulty in imagining anything that goes beyond existing democratic practice.

    Pardon me for placing greater weight in the experience of hundreds of countries over the last two centuries over the experience of a homogenous and constitutionally fragile microstate that existed thousands of years ago. We have more actual data on the political and constitutional history of Paraguay than we do Ancient Athens. Athens is, of course, a fine example, but it’s only one data point. Every detail of its constitutional history could conceivably have been a fluke resulting from unique circumstances. We shouldn’t place too much faith in the idea that what worked there will still work in a massive heterogeneous society. It might. That has yet to be established. The behavior of conventional democratic institutions across an astounding range of conditions is very well established. Therefore, the prudent (and conservative) thing to do is to draw on them as much as possible, innovating only to the extent necessary to get the desired results. The more new principles and processes you introduce the greater the chances of things going horribly wrong in ways unpredictable.

    > Because the former is based on a law of nature (mathematics)

    I’m still waiting for your formal proof that anything other than a permanently deflationary fiscal policy constitutes robbing future generations. The simple fact that there are VASTLY more knowledgeable people than either of us who have spent their careers arguing over this is pretty strong evidence that both of us are arguing from ignorance. Yet you declare absolute certainty. If you are being intellectually honest here you have to admit it is *technically* possible for you to be wrong about this.

    Micawber’s Principle is not the law. In order for it to become law, there will need to be a process to decide if it should be adopted. Tell me this: what process would you trust enough to outsource your own will to on this matter? You have said that you favor *informed* judgment and there are many people with better informed judgment. I want you to lay out a process that could conceivably lead to Micawber’s Principle being shot down and you saying, “Oh, I guess I was wrong all this time.” I’m willing to bet there is no such process. Or, at least, no realistic one that would ever actually be considered for use in the real world. There are certainly ways of stacking the deck to get the results you want, but if things go against you you’ll blame the process. Just like everyone else who doesn’t get the results they want.


  32. Naomi,

    >The behavior of conventional democratic institutions across an astounding range of conditions is very well established. Therefore, the prudent (and conservative) thing to do is to draw on them as much as possible, innovating only to the extent necessary to get the desired results.

    Yes I agree (although mass democracy has only been with us for a very short time and has been demonstrated not to work absent some very demanding preconditions). As you know my proposal is for a hybrid, the role of allotted juries being to replace the most dysfunctional aspect of electoral representation (the conflation of advocacy and deliberative judgment). The fact that evolution has designed homo sapiens to function best in small groups is a point in its favour (and a point against mass democracy).

    >Micawber’s Principle is not the law. In order for it to become law, there will need to be a process to decide if it should be adopted. Tell me this: what process would you trust enough to outsource your own will to on this matter?

    The issue should be resolved by deliberative poll — to substitute judgment for will — and with a number of juries considering the proposal in parallel. In the UK there would be cross-party support for Micawber’s Law — all the political parties are competing with each other to be the most fiscally prudent — so there would be no shortage of advocates for the law. The outgoing Labour government proposed just such a law and the Con-Lib coalition introduced the Office for Budget Responsibility to impose a very similar set of shackles on the freedom of parliament to subsidise current expenditure by mortgaging the assets of future generations. Advocates might also be drawn from the Taxpayers Alliance, the OBR, IEA, IFS, CPS etc. Advocates for the defence would be drawn from the practitioners of the (voodoo) science of economics**, left-leaning think tanks, and scurrilous demagogues peddling bread and circuses. (I acknowledge that the list of the latter might be rather short, but unlike you Americans, we can’t use possession of the international reserve currency to underwrite fiscal irresponsibility.) But the outcome would be in the hands of a randomly-selected group of citizens and I would be glad to abide by the decision of my peers.

    ** It’s interesting to note that none of the leading universities in the UK consider an A-level qualification in economics as a suitable qualification for university entrance.


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