Roslyn Fuller: Don’t be fooled by citizens’ assemblies

Highly recommended post by Roslyn Fuller on

I believe that the biggest threat to democracy is the belief among the current societal elite that what they want and what democracy is are the same thing – and that tweaking the rules of the game to get what you want is therefore right, just and somehow unto itself democratic.

This trend that sees democracy as a set of particular decisions, rather than just as a method for making decisions, has been well under way for some time and tends to divide the world between ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions, and ‘uninformed’ ‘incorrect’ decisions. ‘Correct’ decisions are automatically democratic; ‘incorrect’ ones are not.

One of the ways that is currently in vogue for ensuring ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions is to hold so-called citizens’ assemblies, a democratic ‘innovation’ that many leaders currently feel assured will bring them the results that they want.

This is followed by a nuanced (and sceptical) examination of the use and abuse of randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies, focusing on (wilful) misunderstandings of Irish CAs:

British politicians and intellectuals apparently feel themselves entitled to just blithely repeat these myths as a justification for holding such assemblies on all manner of decisions in Britain.

19 Responses

  1. Fuller’s criticism of the rhetoric around citizen assemblies is quite good. Her attack on sortition, on the other hand, is rather weak (“it’s identity politics”).

    But since Fuller discloses that to her mass-voting is the only legitimate way to make decisions, then that rules out sortition at the outset:

    [A]ny law depends a great deal on its real or perceived legitimacy and I’m at a loss to understand how that can be achieved without some process that allows each citizen a vote, whether that be directly (my preference) or through voting for elected representatives.

    It doesn’t matter if we are happy with the outcome or not, she says – vote we must.

    Democracies are intentionally constructed to only require a majority of votes cast. Thus, that one is unhappy with a result is no indicator of its democratic or undemocratic nature.

    This also completely ignores the crucial question of who decides what we vote on, but that question seems to be lost in the all-encompassing rush to vote.


  2. Oh for crying out loud, Keith, is it really so flipping hard for you or Roslyn to admit the bleeding obvious–that when it came to Brexit, nobody had a plan, and nobody had the vaguest idea what they were doing? Is that really not obvious NOW, with Britain ready to crash out of the EU? If there’s one thing the Athenian democrats did right, it was NOT treat the voice of the people like it was the voice of God–at their best, they were quite capable of recognizing when popular rule produced mistakes. It would be pretty sad and pathetic for sortition advocates to forget that. As for Brexit–if that isn’t a pure and simple democratic mistake, I don’t know what is.


  3. Peter,

    If you read Roslyn’s post in full you will see that although Brexit is featured in the introduction, her principal target is the Irish citizens’ assemblies, but I think your rather hysterical reaction nicely illustrates her general argument against epistemic “democracy”. Her new book In Defence of Democracy which includes a (partial) defence of sortition “in its proper place”, defends electoral democracy against referenda and other populist initiatives.

    >If there’s one thing the Athenian democrats did right, it was NOT treat the voice of the people like it was the voice of God–at their best, they were quite capable of recognizing when popular rule produced mistakes.

    Yes indeed. As the external examiner of my PhD thesis you will recall that I argued for a sortition-based alternative to the Brexit referendum that was closely modelled on 4th century nomothesia.


  4. I’ve just read the section “Sortition — The False Democrats” in In Defence of Democracy and it confirms my worst fears regarding how poorly-designed sortition proposals are already giving the whole field a bad name. Roslyn’s principal targets are citizens’ assemblies designed to correct “wrong” popular decisions (Nick Gruen’s and UCL’s proposals for (anti)-Brexit CAs, overseen by “a board of respected citizens”), “pure” sortition (Terry Bouricius and his derivatives), and epistemic and deliberative theorists who believe “every informed person would make the same decisions they themselves would” (p. 127). I also agree with her that agonism is an essential feature of democratic politics and any attempt to move to a rationalist consensual model is counterproductive (and unhistorical, from an Athenian perspective). Deliberative democrats are simply wrong in claiming classical Greek provenance.

    She believes (wrongly IMO) that sortitionists believe their proposals would increase levels of public participation (Carole Pateman told me that she believed participatory and deliberative democracy had nothing in common). But her section on representation rightly claims that the tiny bodies advocated by UCL, Sortition Foundation, newDemocracy etc cannot claim to accurately represent their target population. I would be curious to learn if my own Brexit proposal would suffer the same fate as Nick’s proposal.** My calculations would require a jury of around 6,000 to return a decision with the necessary confidence to match the referendum results. A body of this size would be equally representative of any size population (assuming true random selection and quasi-mandatory participation). As for the provision of “balanced” information, this would be entirely in the hands of the rhetors of the Brexit and Remain camps, constrained only by the modern version of the nomothetic water clock.) And of course this can be tested empirically — repeat the experiment several times and see if the decision is the same (within an agreed margin of error).

    It will be interesting to see how Roslyn’s book is received (it was only published yesterday).

    ** PS I voted for Brexit in the referendum (sorry Peter).


  5. PS to Nick Gruen and UCL we need to add Rory Stewart MP, Compass, The Archbishop of Canterbury, Gordon Brown and various superannuated Cool Britannia luvvies and pop stars.


  6. Let’s cut the crap, shall we? If the Brexit vote had narrowly gone the other way, you wouldn’t be saying any of this. And if you’re still looking at the Brexit situation, and think everything is fine, well, I’m not quite sure what to say about your own personal epistemic abilities. Your political house is a raging dumpster fire right now. And if your response when someone points that out is to call them “hysterical,” well, that’s just pathetic.


  7. Peter,

    My concerns are purely with the decision process not substantive issues and my advocacy for a sortition-based Brexit alternative was before the referendum. Those who are now belatedly calling for a CA are resolutely anti-Brexit.


  8. Te only thing I can say about your proposal is that we, when proposing sortition, are experiencing the same as when we defend referenda. Referenda at the initiative of governments are no democratic instrument, it is an instrument of dictators. Please don’t mix referenda at citizen’s initiative with plebiscites and are not allowed in Switserland and some other states with direct democracy. This way you are choosing the wrong enemy. And wrongly designed panels, sortition or not, are also not democratic instruments. I think we agree on that.


  9. Given that Rosyln lumps sortitionists in with arch-enemies of democracy like Brennan, Caplan, Somin, Rauch, Wittes and Bell, and is an advocate for electronic participative democracy I was amused by this paragraph in the section of her book that addresses some of the problems with mass deliberation:

    Indeed, various methods could be used to encourage the maximum amount of deliberation among participants. People could, for example, debate in smaller randomly assigned groups. These could be of any size (ten people, a hundred people), and could be composed completely randomly or on the basis of representing certain segments of society (e.g., age, gender, ethnicity). Fuller, In Defence of Democracy, p. 185

    Sounds familiar? In fairness, Rosyln is arguing that every citizen who wishes should be able to participate (rather than those selected by lot) but is unfazed that “many of these participants come from typically active, time-rich segments of society: retirees, students or people who were always particularly politically interested” (p. 167). The advantage of quasi-mandatory sortition with large samples is that it improves the vicarious participation of Joe Average rather than the usual suspects listed above. Roslyn, however, rejects the representative principle tout court, arguing that the difference is scale between ancient city states and large modern states is of no consequence, on account of the ability of modern electronic platforms to extend the boundary of the polis beyond those who are able to hear the herald’s cry “who wishes to speak?”


  10. I’ve just finished reading Roslyn’s new book In Defence of Democracy and recommend it to anyone on this forum. The first section The Terrible Truth: People Aren’t All That Stupid or Evil will appeal to Yoram as it confirms his view that there is no such thing as “rational ignorance” — voters only abstain from participation as there are no real choices available to them. The second part Fixing Politics the Anti-Democrat Way lumps sortitionists in with high-profile free-market and epistemic (anti)democrats largely on account of calls by Nick Gruen, David van Reybrouck and an assortment of superannuated celebrities to adopt small randomly-selected deliberative fora to undo Brexit, Trumpism and other populist evils (this is why I keep banging on about the danger to our whole movement of poorly-designed and unrepresentative voluntarist sortition proposals). The third section A World You Might Want to Actually Live In (Fuller Democracy [pun intended] is one of the most passionate defences of participatory democracy since Carole Pateman’s Participation and Democratic Theory (1970) and Benjamin Barber’s Strong Democracy (1984). As she dismisses Downsian rational ignorance she views electronic platforms as a viable way of recreating 5th century democracy in large modern states.

    The one thing that puzzles me is her unwillingness to accept that the 4th century reforms amounted to an improvement on 5th century mass democracy. While it’s true that the majority of Athenian politics had to do with decrees rather than laws, that doesn’t mean that 4th century nomothesia should not become a template for modern usage. I agree with her that all nomoi first had to run the gauntlet of the Assembly — that’s why Alex Kovner and myself are currently working on a modern analogue of the assembly stage and also an attempt to ensure that isegoria in large modern states is as representative as isonomia. But, as I mentioned in my previous comment, representation is not something Roslyn is interested in — so long as ho boulomenos then that’s OK. I think the vast majority of denizens of the basket of deplorables would not see that as an improvement on ousourcing their voice to the orange demagogue.


  11. Fuller starts of correctly – if incomplete – by defining democracy not as a set of particular decisions, rather than just as a method for making decisions. Already her next sentence leads her astray, she wrongly rejects the concept of a democratically “right” decision, due to her problematic definition that this would be the belief among the current societal elite that what they want.

    As so often, I maintain that we must define a “right” democratic decision on a completely different level. A right democratic decision is merely falsifiable by stating exactly the empirical outcomes which can falsify the democratic decision. No more but also no less. The opposite, a “wrong” decision, we could just as well call a “metaphysical” decision.

    Obviously, a “right” decision according the democratic demarcation criterion does not tell us anything whatsoever with the degree of being right or wrong on its various subject matter criteria which is a fuzzy value in the range between 0 and 1.

    So I restate the initial definition to something useful: “Democracy is a method for making the right societal decisions.”


  12. Hubertus,

    If so, then what makes the decision a democratic one, as opposed to one taken by an oligarchy, autocracy or whatever? Or are you saying that democracy is just more likely to take (espistemically) “right” decisions than other decision mechanisms?


  13. Thanks for asking. The second: As soon as we ensure “right” decisions, democratically, we will be on a path to “better” decisions, epistemically.


  14. Thanks for the confirmation Hubertus. Most democratic theorists would take the opposite view (democracy [should] operationalise the equal right to do the “wrong”** thing). Good that we clarify this, so that we don’t continue talking past each other.

    ** scare quotes as one man’s right is another man’s wrong.


  15. At the risk of confusing you:

    The right democratic method could producing the wrong subject matter decision. This is unavoidable at times, but will improve, due to the proper democratic method’s inbuilt falsifiability.

    Whereas, if you use a metaphysical democratic method (Fuller’s definition) you will be stuck at the same level of error, or worse, errors will accumulate over time as bad decisions pile on prior bad decisions. Such a metaphysical democracy must collapse.

    As they say: Most problems start with their solution.


  16. Hubertus,

    I’m sure that democracies (metaphysical and otherwise) will collapse on account of bad decisions (take a look at 5th century Athens), but that doesn’t render the decision process undemocratic.


  17. Like a rotten apple full of worms is still an apple?

    The term “democratic” per se is not helpful as it applies to many methods or systems of very different quality. The quest is to define a better variant of democracy than today’s.


  18. >The quest is to define a better variant of democracy than today’s

    Agreed. But the principal criterion is representative fidelity — epistemic considerations are the icing on the cake.


  19. Disagreed. The better democracy is the one which yields the best societal decision. This will survive against the others. (And for your next question, please refer to what I wrote above at 10:48.)

    You shovel mud and want a process to mix it representatively.
    I shovel mud and want a process to find the gold nugget in it.


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