Chalmers: The nakedness of elections

Patrick Chalmers writes:

TOULOUSE, France — In the Danish fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it was a little boy who pointed out what no adult dared expose: The king was naked; his court, a cast of pompous fools beguiled by tricksters.

It’s time to do the same with our own reified system of government — representative democracy and its so-called free and fair elections.

Shocking? Of course it is. We’ve been taught to hold our voting rights as sacred — that despite our political system’s many flaws, representative democracy is, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, “the worst form of government, except for all the others.”

But what if there were, after all, a real alternative? What if there were something less corruptible than pure democracy by election? That something needn’t replace periodic elections, or at least not at once, but it could certainly guard us against their worst failings. Not least of those is the grossly outsized influence of narrow interests at the expense of everyone else’s.

8 Responses

  1. One of the comments on Patrick’s article says:

    So your response to dissatisfaction with politicians is to hand them more power, and to “guide” citizens juries to give the answer you want.

    What needs to happen is for politicians to listen and reconnect with voters, not for voters to listen more to politicians.

    I think this suspicion is well-justified. Much of the article seems to be heading toward replacing elections with sortition, but when things are phrased as “the idea that a group of randomly selected citizens could open more direct channels between politicians, activists and voters is certainly worth taking seriously”, it is hard not to become skeptical. Are we taking about dislodging the elected from power or about having “a more direct channel” to them? Those are two very different things.


  2. > open more direct channels between politicians, activists and voters

    The main beneficiary here would be activists, while the losers would be voters (i.e. the silent majority). Patrick echoes other climate-change activists with the claim:

    The short-term winners have been rich-country voters, encouraged by fossil-fuel firms and other companies that enable our growth addictions and mass-consumption lifestyles. The losers are poor countries, all people’s children and everything else living on the planet.

    If the problem is “rich-country voters”, then there is a strong probability that the deliberations of a quasi-mandatory random sample of the same population would have similar policy preferences. This problem has nothing to do with elections — the Chinese government is acutely aware of the problem of global warming, it’s principal constraint being that millions of jobs are tied up with the coal industry and heavy manufacturing. What Patrick is really advocating is epistocracy, not democracy, but the Chinese example shows how difficult that is to achieve. It would be interesting to see the results of a Zeguo-style DP on climate change policy — I would hazard a guess that a randomly-selected sample of Chinese citizens would prioritise jobs and development over carbon reduction. You would need to be very optimistic to assume that the inherent virtue of a random sample would predominate over their immediate interests.


  3. @Keith and @Yoram

    My intention in the piece is to expose more people to the idea that elections as “democracy” is not the only way and that other mechanisms, such as sortition, could also exist as “democracy”.

    As one of 7.5 billion or so people on the planet – I woudn’t pretend to know the answer to either of your questions still less presume that I could impose that position on either of you.

    I am interested to see the comments to the original article – pretty hostile in the main. It’s the tenor and nature of those comments that interest me – or rather the questions they raise about how is it that we foster dialogue about our common problems as humans in ways that are most likely to bring we humans to fair and “physics”-wise solutions for as many of us as possible, alive now and in the future?

    I can’t pretend to know the definitive answers to those questions but they interest me more than anything.

    That’s as far as I’ll go on this – I won’t have time for more on this any time soon.

    So – have a great festive season Keith and Yoram – my best wishes to you and your respective friends and families.



    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Patrick,

    > I am interested to see the comments to the original article – pretty hostile in the main.

    Right. Decades of bad faith “reforms” have generated, for good reason, a lot of suspicion. That is why I believe we need to be very clear about what it is we are proposing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. One more related thing: it is not only that being ambiguous about our proposals opens them to being misinterpreted and misconstrued. Following decades of manipulation and word-smithing by the elites, ambiguity, by itself, is seen as a sign of bad-faith.

    The attraction to (what is perceived as) straight-talk and clear-cut proposals is one of the reasons for the appeal of Trumpism and Brexitism.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Patrick:> how is it that we foster dialogue about our common problems as humans in ways that are most likely to bring we humans to fair and “physics”-wise solutions for as many of us as possible, alive now and in the future?

    Yes, I agree that is the challenge. But it’s a very difficult one to meet, as those who don’t get to participate in the deliberation have to accept the outcome, and this may not be prima facie in their best interests. I remember Tony Blair saying that the reason he didn’t tax aviation fuel is that this would lead to riots in the streets (I’m sure Macron would agree). This will be exacerbated by any proposal that seeks to enhance the power of activists and other self-appointed tribunes of the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This article about vegetarianism and veganism raises similar challenges in terms of fostering dialogue between people of different opinions. I’m vegetarian by the way.



  8. It’s clear that, despite the weight of academic evidence, people have a strong gut reaction when told eating less meat would be a good thing.

    Patrick, I think what you really mean by “fostering dialogue” is educating us ignorant peasants so that we change our behaviour. I don’t think this has any connection with democracy — either electoral or aleatory — as your concerns are purely epistemic.

    PS shoot me down if you like for raising irrelevant issues, but I’m curious to know if the calculations on the global-warming impact of meat production take into account the regular carbon cycle (when grass grows it absorbs CO2). I appreciate that methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas, I just wondered whether the calculations take into account the CO2 that is absorbed by photosynthesis, and this offset would be undermined if there were less ruminants. As a printer I’m constantly aware of propaganda from anti-paper crusaders, who ignore the fact that the paper industry is constantly planting trees (which absorb CO2) and I wonder if there is anything similar going on with the anti-meat crusade. This is irrelevant to the topic of this forum, so feel free to ignore my question, I’m just curious.


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