Rousseau’s Mistake

A recent article by Hélène Landemore:

Rousseau’s Mistake: Representation and the Myth of Direct Democracy

Abstract: For Rousseau, democracy was direct or it wasn’t. As he famously put it, “the moment a people allows itself to be represented, it is no longer free: it no longer exists. The day you elect representatives is the day you lose your freedom” (Social Contract, III, 15). In other words, representative democracy is no democracy at all. Rousseau isn’t alone in this belief, and today the disappointed of representative government have turned to celebrating anew the virtues of direct democracy as more true to the ideal of popular sovereignty, self-rule, and genuine political equality. This paper defends the thesis that Rousseau was, in fact, mistaken and that there is no salvation to be found in the ideal of direct democracy. If democracy as a political regime is always, in fact, representative, then the interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we aim for? The paper argues that beyond the familiar electoral model there are at least two other models of representation that present attractive features: the first is based on sortition and the other on self-selection.

From the body of the article:

If democracy as a political regime is always, in fact, representative (in the sense just defined of involving some form of authority delegation), then the interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we favor? The real opposition is thus not between ‘direct’ and ‘representative’ democracy but between more or less democratic forms of representative rule. At the most democratic extreme, one finds a representative system in which ordinary people actually get to rule, though in turn and never all at once (as in Ancient Athens); at the other extreme the representative system is only accessible to an elite few. Our contemporary “democracies” fall somewhere on this continuum and, arguably, rather close to the elitist side (see Gilens and Page 2014).

And later:

What are other ways for “making legitimate claims” besides being elected? The Athenian example immediately suggests an obvious alternative: being randomly selected to be a part of a Council. Lotteries are arguably the ultimate democratic selection mechanism (Plato, Republic Bk 8, 557a ; Aristotle, Politics IV.9, 1294b8; Hansen 1999; Manin 1997) and, as a result of this historical fact being recently re-advertised, are now enjoying a bit of a conceptual revival among various so-called “kleiroterians,” sortitionists, or “lottocrats” (e.g. Burnheim 1985, Bouricius 2013, Carson and Martin 1999, Dowlen REF, Guerrero 2014, Landemore 2012, Leib 2005, McCormick 2011, O’Leary 2006, Saunders 2008, Stone 2011, Sutherland, Warren and Pearse 2008).

It is worth noting that Landemore makes heavy use of Terry Bouricius’s “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day,” Journal of Public Deliberation, 2013.

5 Responses

  1. URL doesn’t work.


  2. I wonder if Helene has taken it down (not for citation) — it worked this morning but not this afternoon.


  3. Yes – looks like the paper was just taken down. For now, it can still be found on Google’s web cache. The abstract can be found here.


  4. Yoram >article

    Unfortunately, I haven’t succeeded in retrieving the whole of this article, but I agree with its arguments as far as they go.
    I’m intrigued and puzzled by the suggestion that self-selection is an alternative to sortition. I don’t understand what it is.
    I part company from the democratic tradition in two respects:

    The first is in putting the question: how can we get good decisions about public goods? as the basic question. This has the virtue of not excluding a priori that other measures than strict representation might in some connections be more effective and equitable. It also has the desirable consequence of not writing off many past and present regimes as illegitimate, where clearly the people at the time believed that they were in fact superior to democracy. I believe we should seriously consider the possibility that in different matters different decision procedures may be appropriate, as indeed we already do recognise in the case of the judicial system.
    My inclination is to think that when it comes to compulsion strict representation is in order, but not necessarily where compulsion is not involved. The aim must be to minimise compulsion.

    The second is that debates about representation invariably assume that the only ultimate political decider in all matters is the nation-state. Once one recognises the need for supra-national authorities in some specific connections, the sort of representativity that has obsessed democratic theorists becomes practically impossible. Much the same applies to many infra-national authorities.


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