The slave’s suggestion box


Democracy Talk, Episode 2

In this episode Patrick Chalmers and Yoram Gat talk about Patrick’s inside view of establishment journalism. Patrick presents his analysis of the roots of the problems with journalism and their connection to the problems of our systems of government.

Patrick’s book – Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports Our Bogus Democracies – can be found online here:

Citizens’ assemblies are open to manipulation

Naomi has just flagged up an interesting article from Village Magazine on the Irish experiments with constitutional conventions in 2011 and 2016 by Eoin O’Malley, one of the participants. The article adds to my concerns that ‘full mandate’ allotted bodies are open to manipulation:

Some research shows that the act of deliberating with others has an impact beyond exposure to arguments or evidence. That is people given the evidence and arguments don’t move as much as those who are asked to discuss that evidence and arguments with others. This sounds like something positive for deliberative mini-publics. But it might not be.

The reason for this is because (as Condorcet demonstrated), independence is the key to getting the ‘right’ answer and this suggests that communication between jurors should not be encouraged — all that is needed is exposure to balanced arguments and evidence (as Goodin and Niemeyer discovered in their study of the Bloomfield Track citizens’ jury). This is distorted by the need to come to collaborative conclusions:

Because they are not independent the same flawed thinking or arguments can be magnified. For instance we could see the citizens in the mini-publics engage in groupthink. Some opinions might be aired, but can be effectively suppressed by the atmosphere in the room. There is significant evidence in social psychology that groups can push opinion to extremes and silence minority opinion. To prevent this great care has to be taken that all views are respected.

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Literature-related question

Hi everyone,

I’m wondering whether any readers have insights about books and/or articles which build on/critique John Burheim’s path-breaking and overarching model of demarchy, and/or apply demarchy to non-government organizations such as corporations or unions. I’m conducting some research in this space and haven’t been able to find too much work specifically on demarchy in published work (but have found a lot about specific uses of random selection). Any and all suggestions would be much appreciated. Thanks!

Frijters: Against sortition

Paul Frijters is a Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland and an Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences.

Frijters has written a post titled “Would sortition help against corruption?” in which he lays out his thinking about “what is likely to happen to the problem of special interests in Australia in two different scenarios: if we’d select our MPs randomly, or if we’d decide on mayor policies via citizen juries.”

Frijters’s concluding paragraphs:

I used to be quite charmed of the idea of citizen juries for policies and even for deciding on who would be in parliament. It sounded so democratic, such an elegant solution to the problem of special interest groups worming their way into our democratic institutions. It seemed like a magic solution for hard problems.

On reflection though, I find myself on the side of Edmund Burke and Socrates, who both denounced the idea as silly and unworkable. I agree with them: it is hard to see what use small random groups of citizens would be for policy-making in modern Western institutions.

An interesting discussion follows the post, with several discussants who seem to be aware of the idea and who seem to have given it some thought.

What is a G1000? (Cambridge and London events)

The Sortition Foundation is organising two free events (in London and Cambridge): What is a G1000?

Our aim is to hold one G1000 in London and one in Cambridge in late 2016 or early 2017. As such we are organising these two information sessions “What is a G1000?” with the founders of the Dutch G1000, Harm van Dijk and Jerphaas Donner.

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Sortition is good for investor confidence

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports:

SA Nuclear dump debate to go before citizens’ juries

South Australia will randomly select 400 people to sit on citizens’ juries to consider the state’s approach to its nuclear future.

The juries are part of a public relations exercise Premier Jay Weatherill said would cost less than $1 million this financial year and there would be additional spending after that.

The announcement came a day after the Nuclear Fuel Cycle Royal Commission report said plans for a high-to-intermediate-level waste dump should be actively pursued, if the public wants it.

Mr Weatherill said it was important to have “the fullest and most mature debate that we can possibly organise”.
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Teaching students government skills

Adam Cronkright, co-founder of the Bolivian organisation Democracy in Practice, gives a Democracy Talk audio overview of the group’s findings so far with experiments in student government.

Democracy in Practice has been helping run student councils in a few different Cochabamba secondary schools since 2013, using lottery selection rather than elections to choose candidates.

Doing away with elections allows for a more representative body of students on council, making room for less charismatic or popular pupils to have a chance at government.

Changing selection methods is one thing, governing differently is another – with all the usual challenges of having representatives turn up on time, or at all, learning how to take collective decisions, not dominating proceedings and following through with promised actions.

An encouraging finding, Adam says, is that students can, and do, learn the necessary skills to govern. That raises hopeful prospects for better government in societies who manage to improve their citizens’ governance skills more generally.

An intriguing curiosity, albeit an anecdotal one according to Adam, is how students who appear to stand out as natural leaders, those who might usually get chosen in elections, are often not the best suited to actual government.

Catch the full audio interview below.

Book Review: Democracy: A Life

I seem to be reviewing a lot of books lately, including this review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the idea of ‘people power’ has been treated over the centuries that have elapsed since Athenian democracy. As such, I feel that he (intentionally or unintentionally) made an important contribution to challenging the negative perception that we have of citizen participation by explaining how this view developed over time. Another one to order for the library!

Cartledge goes to some effort to show how later [post-Athens] historians and statesmen were anxious to portray Greek democracy as a horrible mistake, the unworkable aspiration of starry-eyed dreamers that was preprogrammed to end in chaos. Under the onslaught of these propagandists, the vast majority of whom never experienced Athenian democracy — and indeed were often born several hundred years after it ceased to exist — the idea of political equality came to be regarded as a myth, the notion of the collective people holding power a danger to be shunned, suppressed, and preferably forgotten.

The truth was that democracy was a dangerous idea — to the kings, emperors, and high clergy who controlled information in the centuries after it ceased to be a living form of government. As the author puts it, while these autocrats held sway throughout the Middle Ages, the very idea of democracy was “on life-support.” And while things may have improved since, modern democracy is, in Cartledge’s view, not in much better shape — off the machine perhaps, but still staggering around the hospital ward, clutching at bits of furniture, and trying to remember what had happened to bring it there in the first place.