Smith and Dumienski: Citizens’ juries could reduce Auckland’s democratic deficit

Nicholas Ross Smith and Zbigniew Dumienski of the Politics and International Relations Department at the University of Auckland write at the New Zealand Herald, New Zealand’s largest circulation newspaper, arguing that using randomly selected juries to make some council-level policy suggestions may be a good starting point for organically growing a more democratic governance system:

A report by Bernard Orsman published in the New Zealand Herald on the state of Auckland City Council found that 88 of the 99 positions in the council’s boardrooms and executive teams were filled by “white men from wealthy suburbs.”

The reported demographic composition of the decision-making bodies in Auckland Council suggests that we are facing a potentially harmful democratic deficit. Yet, before anyone suggests quotas or other bureaucratic mechanisms aimed at diversifying the Council’s management structure, it would be good to consider a very different and far more democratic approach currently tried by our friends across the ditch: citizens’ juries as bodies that could breathe new, more democratic and vibrant spirit into our city’s old structures.

The democratic deficit evident in Auckland City Council is part of a broader trend in democracies worldwide, both at the local and national levels, which are increasingly seen as departing from the core democratic principles that they are supposed to uphold. Meaningful deliberations and political equality are the soul of democracy.

Increasingly, our electoral system is virtually devoid of the former and its outcomes suggest the erosion of the latter. Interestingly, such an outcome would have perhaps been predicted by the founders of democracy in classical Athens who were concerned that elections and campaigning contains in themselves anti-democratic and oligarchic seeds.
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Linker: An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot

Damon Linker’s argument against compulsory voting weaves in Plato and the Socratic argument for aristocracy. His reasoning is an interesting modernization of the classical aristocratic mindset. His point about the contestability of excellence is good, and he makes use of it as a justification of electoralism.

A democracy gives every adult citizen a very small say in who rules. An individual doesn’t have to prove that he’s thoughtful or informed to exercise that right. As Plato argued 2,300 years ago, this makes democratic politics exceedingly peculiar. We don’t take a vote to determine the medical treatments that doctors prescribe, and neither do we ask for a show of hands about how to construct a bridge or a building. And yet we think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for everyone’s opinion about what policies our country should pursue at home and abroad.

That’s because in politics, unlike in medicine and engineering, the act of determining who does and does not possess knowledge and wisdom is exceedingly contentious. (One might say it’s a political act in itself.) So we solve — or rather, we sidestep — the problem by letting everyone have a say.
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That persuasive juror may just be the one who is in no hurry to go home

The persuasive juror who manages to sway the majority through his passion, eloquence and irresistible logic is part of Western cultural lore. It appears that one commenter on this blog even perceives himself as having played that very role.

The following exchange raises the possibility that the ability of a single juror to sway a whole jury is attributable to much more mundane dynamics – dynamics that are put in place by the unanimity rule. The key paragraph is the last one.
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Israel’s gas wealth should be managed by a citizens’ jury

An English version of an op-ed piece I wrote recently. I am still looking for an Israeli mass media venue that would publish it.

Another round in the long struggle over the way Israel’s gas fields are to be exploited is upon us. Like most of Israel’s citizens, my understanding of the technical and economic details associated with this matter is sketchy. It is clear to me that a very lucrative resource is involved and that there are various proposals about how to deal with it – proposals which will see the value of this resource divided in different ways among different groups. Beyond that things are rather murky as far as I know. It seems that politically powerful people are exerting political pressure to obtain parts of the value of the gas wealth and that at least some of these people have personal, business or political connections to government officials. Like a large majority in the Israeli public I suspect that the balance of powers in the government serves primarily narrow interests (“the tycoons”) rather than serving the general public. Having said that, I have not followed the details and I cannot confidently say who is associated with whom and whose interests are served by each proposal.
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An artist’s conception of the business-electoral complex