The benevolent dictator

The concept of the “benevolent dictator” occasionally plays a role in political discussion of democracy. The general thrust of the “benevolent dictator” argument is that democracy cannot be defined in terms of its outcomes because “a benevolent dictatorship” can produce any given outcomes, while still, by assumption, being anti-democratic.

Ober (2006), for example, says this:

Democracy is shown to be a non-instrumental good-in-itself (as well as an instrument in securing other goods) by extrapolation from the Aristotelian premise that humans are political animals. Because humans are by nature language-using, as well as sociable and common-end-seeking beings, the capacity to associate in public decisions is constitutive of the human being-kind. Association in decision is necessary (although insufficient) for happiness in the sense of eudaimonia. A benevolent dictator who satisfied all other conditions of justice, harms her subjects by denying them opportunity to associate in the decisions by which their community is governed.

This line of argument – the participative conception of democracy, or Schumpeter’s “classical doctrine” – sounds very high minded. Beyond the policy objective, political participation enriches the participators and ennobles them. As an argument against sortition, or against an outcomes-based conception of democracy it is, however, less than convincing.

First, when it comes to large-scale decisions in a large society, participation is a hoax. There is no way for an equal all-to-all deliberation in a large society (more than, say, 1,000 members). For decisions to be made at all, information needs to be circulated to large audiences. But since not everybody can hear or read everybody, some people will be heard or read much, much more than others. The notion that the selection process of the few who get heard widely can be done substantively is an oligarchical canard.

Secondly, the most superficial objection to the participative democracy ideal – which is that it is not an ideal at all – is itself rather formidable despite often being dismissed by advocates as reactionary or elitist. It is highly dubious that people wish to be routinely actively involved in decision making. This is not because people are too stupid to carry out those decisions, nor because they are too apathetic. It is to a large extent the opposite. People realize that those decisions cannot be taken based on a mass discussion which purports to be informed and considered by is really ineffective sloganeering, a theater of policy making. A division of labor in decision making is the only reasonable way to go and people realize that and are not willing to waste their time on charades.

Thirdly, if it is participation in decision-making that people want, the benevolent dictator can certainly give them the illusion of such participation (and, in fact, as just argued, no system can give them anything better). Some mechanism can be created by which people are deceived into thinking that it is their active choices that guide the dictator. Interestingly, it seems that it is roughly this situation that existed during the 30 glorious years after WWII which are often thought of as “the golden age of the democracy” (but which should at best be thought of as “the benevolent oligarchy era”). During that time, a sham mechanism of participation – mass elections – gave the people a false notion of direct impact on decision-making while the decisions that were made by the ruling elite provided – for a certain period – outcomes that people considered satisfactory.

Finally, while participation in large-scale decision-making is impossible, that does not mean that all forms of participation are impossible. In fact, since the “benevolence” of the “dictator” is presumably determined by the people, the very notion of a “benevolent dictator” assumes some sort of participation. For “benevolence” to be a meaningful term, the people must be assumed to participate in the system by forming their opinion about government policy – and quite possibly sharing those opinions with others, either through informal discussions and various media or through more formal mechanisms such as referenda or opinion polls. Whether the “benevolent dictator” is a mind-reading genius who can always anticipate what the citizens want, is a super-computer which can analyze all the citizens, understand their preferences and combine them in an optimal way, is a mysteriously functional electoral mechanism where “political entrepreneurs” create policy which the citizens are satisfied with, or a sortition-based system (possibly employing a whole set of citizen input and citizen media mechanisms), is a detail of implementation. (Obviously, some implementations are more realistic than others.) It is the fact that policy matches citizen preferences that matters.

In fact, since ruling “for” the people is a claim made by all governments and since “rule by the people” is a meaningless platitude, it is this characteristic – that policy is consistently judged as “benevolent” by the people themselves – that separates democracy from other forms of government.

69 Responses

  1. A society governed by a super-computer that could assess citizens’ wants and needs and generate binding optimal policies without human involvement (the premise of an early Star Trek episode titled “Return of the Archons”), whether desirable or not, cannot be described with the term “democracy.” Yoram’s focus on popular outcomes requires a different word, since the word “democracy” already has a meaning.

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  2. > the word “democracy” already has a meaning.

    And that meaning is…? (To repeat my 4 year old question.)

    “People power”? “rule by the people”? These are slogans that could mean anything and that in fact have been and are being interpreted arbitrarily. (It may be hard to believe but some people even claim that elections-based systems are “democratic”!)

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  3. The idea of the benevolent dictator is a very strange one, because the animal in question is vanishingly rare. The best reason to demand certain procedural qualifications for a system to count as ‘democratic’ is that different kinds of power structure heavily incentivise different uses of that power. Dictatorship incentivises the dictator to suppress opposition; polyarchy incentivises the parties to constantly chase good headlines and pander to donors; sortitional government has the best claim to being ‘democratic’ because it is best at eliminating perverse incentives among the allotted legislators and preventing them from forming an elite class with class interests distinct from those of the public at large.

    The other reason it doesn’t make sense to talk about policy matching citizens’ preferences is that it presupposes that citizens have preferences about policy, which is for the most part false. I’m sure if you asked me about some policy area or other I could come up with an opinion, if I wasn’t feeling particularly intellectually humble that at the time, but it most likely wouldn’t be ‘my preference’.

    This is really an internal contradiction in your post. In the fifth paragraph you claim (extremely plausibly) that many if not most people don’t really want to have to make political decisions, and would much rather hand off the problem to someone else – this being the function of government. Towards the end, meanwhile, you claim that the measure of democracy should be the public’s stated approval of the government’s performance. But the assessment of the government’s performance, on all but the crudest or most local level, is a paradigm case of an onerous political decision-making task, for which most people have neither the time nor the inclination. As a result, public opinion of the government is largely a function of the ‘good headlines’ electoral politicians spend their time chasing, or the propaganda authoritarian systems issue. So the features of political life you yourself highlight imply that ‘democracy’ as you define it is not worth much.

    Popularity is cheap, and guarantees nothing of value – the PRC can claim it, and they’re committing genocide against the Uyghurs as we speak. If ‘democracy’ is to carry the cachet we typically give it, it needs to mean more than just ‘popularity’. And since it already carries that cachet, more or less ineliminably, for most people on Earth, it must be used to denote something more worth having.

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  4. Oliver,

    > But the assessment of the government’s performance, on all but the crudest or most local level, is a paradigm case of an onerous political decision-making task, for which most people have neither the time nor the inclination.

    The assessment I am talking about is not regarding any particular act of government or even on a particular policy area. It is rather about a general sense of trust and approval. It is an overall judgement of whether government as a whole and as a rule is functioning in “a proper way” (however that term is defined by each citizen).

    Such a judgement does not require the citizen to be informed in anything that they do not find interesting or worthwhile. For some it may be based on the experience of their own personal lives alone, while for others it may involve detailed knowledge of particular issues that they consider of great importance. Others may base their judgement on what they hear from friends or figures of moral authority. Presumably we can agree that any citizen is capable of forming such an assessment?

    > Popularity is cheap

    This is very far from true. Popularity is the lifeblood of any government and if it were easy to manufacture, all governments would be popular.

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  5. Yoram:> a general sense of trust and approval. It is an overall judgement of whether government as a whole and as a rule is functioning in “a proper way”.

    That is certainly a definition that would resonate with advocates of theocracy in traditional societies, and also the leaders of the PRC (your paradigm example of democracy in practice). I would agree with Ober, Bouricius and Milne that democracy must be defined structurally, and Lincoln’s sound bite is about as good as it gets (although putting it into practice is another matter). I would also point out that few people on this blog are advocates of mass participation. How to define “benign” is a tricky question, but epistocrats like David Estlund have a reasonable handle on how to establish minimum standards without recourse to public opinion.

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  6. Yoram,

    > “The assessment I am talking about is not regarding any particular act of government or even on a particular policy area. It is rather about a general sense of trust and approval. It is an overall judgement of whether government as a whole and as a rule is functioning in “a proper way” (however that term is defined by each citizen).”

    The point I am making, with this and ‘Popularity is cheap’, is that this assessment is noisy, often (though not always) easily manipulated, and thus not a good measure of what the citizens want it to measure. It fails in its aim of assessing how well the government’s doing, because the citizens themselves are bad at assessing how well, *by their own standards*, the government is doing. For example, Trump’s voters want him to root out corruption in Washington. He is doing the exact opposite, but they don’t think that, because they are epistemically very badly placed to assess it. Why should anybody care whether a government is popular in this sense, except as a normatively neutral, empirical measure of its prospects of survival?

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  7. This is a bit of a tangent, though related, and is an issue that has puzzled me for some time. The conclusion of a well-informed public (whether a mini-public, or a hypothetical all-inclusive population compelled to study an issue), might be diametrically opposed to the “preference” of the uninformed public. Perhaps one policy is epistemically better for society and one policy is superficially more “popular” in the short term to the ill-informed populace. Which is the “democratic” policy? Does it depend on the method (whether a “democratic” one) by which the policy was arrived at, the epistemic quality of the policy impact, or the immediate popularity of the policy? What if a series of well-run mini-publics all came to the same “unpopular” policy conclusion… one informing themselves however they chose, one with a sortition managed expert panel developing “balanced” information, one where opposing interest groups took turns presenting information and debating in front of the assembly, etc. And they ALL came to the same conclusion, but the general public believed this was a bad decision. Any answers to this democratic conundrum?

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  8. Yoram> “People power”? “rule by the people”? These are slogans that could mean anything and that in fact have been and are being interpreted arbitrarily. (It may be hard to believe but some people even claim that elections-based systems are “democratic”!)

    It is indeed remarkable that many people think rule by popularly elected politicians is democratic. Hopefully our humble efforts will help disabuse them of that notion.

    Just because something is alleged to be a democracy does not mean it is, any more than Orwell’s Ministry of Truth is about telling the truth just because of its name.

    Just because a term is “being interpreted arbitrarily” does not mean that the arbitrary definition is valid. In fact, by definition, arbitrary interpretations, like arbitrary arrests, are not valid.

    It is perfectly reasonable and meaningful to say that rule by popularly elected politicians is contrary to rule by the people and people power.

    A defender of the system of rule by elected politicians can argue against this, just as Big Brother could argue that the Ministry of Truth tells the truth. However, that does not mean that “people power,” “rule by the people” and “truth” are just “slogans that could mean anything” nor that we should accept arbitrary interpretations of these terms as valid.

    Rule by the people and people power do not mean that the people generally approve of the government. Maybe Medieval peasants sometimes had “a general sense of trust and approval” regarding the king, or Russian serfs regarding the Tsar, but that does mean they lived in a system of rule by the people and people power during such times.

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  9. By the way, the answer I lean toward is a sort of meta-one-step-removed analysis…. The general population would need to agree with the METHOD that the decision was made (trusting that the decision makers were impartial people like themselves who had carefully studied the matter). As has been pointed out by others above, most people do not HAVE preferences on most policies (so my whole dilemma presented above is sort of a false contradiction). I come to this conclusion based on my OWN real-world feeling… I don’t want to spend the time to become well-informed on a bunch of issues, I want to trust that competent people like me (and many people different from me) are studying the matter and deciding impartially, with no evil intent.

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  10. Terry,

    People accept the outcome of an election as fair irrespective of whether they bothered to vote; in the case of decision by allotted bodies the same principle would need to apply (the outcome would be the same irrespective of whether or not they were included in the sample).

    >I want to trust that competent people like me (and many people different from me) are studying the matter and deciding impartially

    I don’t think that competence and impartiality have any obvious connection with democracy.

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  11. Oliver,

    > this assessment is noisy, often (though not always) easily manipulated, and thus not a good measure of what the citizens want it to measure.

    AFAICT, this measure is exactly what we want to measure. What else would you want to measure?

    Rejecting popular approval as the basis for setting up government is to assert that people are better off being told by others what’s good for them. What could be more obviously anti-democratic?

    > For example, Trump’s voters…

    And indeed this goes directly down that anti-democratic line of thinking… You (or I) supposedly are going to tell Trump voters that we know what is good for them better than they do?

    > Why should anybody care whether a government is popular in this sense, except as a normatively neutral, empirical measure of its prospects of survival?

    Again, “popularity” – popular approval of the way the system works – is in fact the only legitimate mechanism for determining which system of government is to be used. (This mechanism is routinely referred to as “democracy”.)

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  12. Terry,

    > The conclusion of a well-informed public (whether a mini-public, or a hypothetical all-inclusive population compelled to study an issue), might be diametrically opposed to the “preference” of the uninformed public.

    In a well functioning democratic system, people are quite aware that they are often uninformed on specific subjects and that their uninformed opinions should not be considered a good basis for forming policy. If they generally trust the system they will tend to accept the decisions made by a well-formed allotted body. It is only when people are suspicious of government – as they are in most 21st century electoralist systems – that they rely on their own uninformed opinions. They simply have no real alternative.

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  13. Simon,

    > It is perfectly reasonable and meaningful to say that rule by popularly elected politicians is contrary to rule by the people and people power.

    It would be perfectly reasonable and meaningful if we could agree on some criterion for what “rule by the people” or “people power” are. I offered a criterion that I believe is sensible and matches common usage. Are you offering an alternative criterion? If not, how could you or anyone else ever argue that elections are not democratic? Or that sortition is?

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  14. Terry,

    > The general population would need to agree with the METHOD that the decision was made

    Careful! This comes dangerously close to the criterion I am offering. “Agreeing with the method of decision making” seems awfully like “approving of the system”, and like “judging that government as a whole and as a rule is functioning in ‘a proper way'”.

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  15. Yoram

    > It would be perfectly reasonable and meaningful if we could agree on some criterion for what “rule by the people” or “people power” are.

    With regard to lawmaking, informed rule by highly representative portions of the people seems a pretty good definition to me. There may be more to the definition than that, but that is a necessary part of it, it seems to me.

    If the portion of the public deciding laws is unrepresentative of the public, that is not rule by the people, but rather rule by some unrepresentative portion of the people.

    If they are poorly informed that is not democracy either, because rule needs to be informed because informed views are a much better basis for public policy than poorly informed and uniformed views. If it is insisted that poorly informed and ill-informed rule by the people is democratic, then a reasonable reply is that this an undesirable version of democracy.

    It is not possible for all of the people to become well-informed about a wide range of things. There’s just not enough time in the day. Rule by the people in the sense of informed rule by all of the people in lawmaking is not possible. Division of labour through juries solves this problem, as we all know.

    Also, as both you and Terry suggest, and as I think all of us agree, it not desirable for people to need to devote all of our spare time to becoming informed about proposed laws. Most people have other things they prefer to do.

    That leaves the definition of democratic lawmaking, of a kind that can exist in the real world, as informed rule of the people through juries.

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  16. I mean, informed rule by the people through juries (not of).

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  17. Again, slightly tangential, but another thing I ponder related to this discussion…
    Simon wrote:
    >”If the portion of the public deciding laws is unrepresentative of the public, that is not rule by the people, but rather rule by some unrepresentative portion of the people.”
    The goal of representative samples can only be an overwhelming tendency, and not absolute (even a massive sample will on rare occasions be unrepresentative). What if sample sizes are smallish so that significantly unrepresentative samples are merely uncommon rather than vanishingly rare? It seems to me that this is acceptable for all decisions except irrevocable ones. As long as there is not a consistent bias in the mini-publics, repeated juries constitute a self-correcting democratic tool. A bad decision (whether because the sample was unrepresentative, or new information has come to light since the decision, etc.) can be changed by a subsequent jury. This “reversion to the mean” brings society steadily closer to the democratic ideal policy. Thus, Simon’s concern about an “unrepresentative portion of the people” is not a concern so long as that portion is not a consistent portion (whether the same individuals werving long terms, or a bias in the sampling process.)

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  18. Simon,

    > With regard to lawmaking, informed rule by highly representative portions of the people seems a pretty good definition to me

    This cannot be a good definition because it begs the question (assumes the conclusion). If someone challenges you by saying that they think that “direct democracy” (rule by plebiscite) or an elections-based system are “more democratic”, then you would have no way to refute their position other than simply insisting that “these forms of government are by definition non-democratic”.

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  19. Yoram:> you would have no way to refute their position

    Elections are deemed democratic iff anyone can (in principle stand for office), everyone can vote, and all votes are counted equally. Note that this has nothing to do with “outcomes” or any other epistemic considerations, the principle is that all citizens get to choose who represents them — even if this means they are all going to hell in a handcart.

    Sortition is based on a different representative principle (stochastic affinity between the sample and the target population). On this principle decision making by allotted body would be deemed democratic iff:

    1. Everyone has an equal probability of being selected.

    2. The sample is large enough to ensure that it is a portrait in miniature of the target population.

    3. Participation is quasi mandatory.

    4. Advocacy, information provision and other speech acts are well balanced according to the prevailing views in the target population (see Alex’s posts for how to achieve this goal).

    5. Each sample returns the same result to within the margin of error required for the the decision threshold in place.

    If these five criteria were fulfilled then final decision by allotted body would be democratic according to the same principles used for judging direct or electoral democracy.

    I’m not aware of a single political theorist who judges whether a system is democratic or not by the epistemic criteria Yoram raises in this post. So if we don’t want to be guilty of an abuse of language on this forum we should use some other term than “democratic” to describe this outcome-oriented approach.

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  20. I’d like to make an effort to bridge the gap between the proceduralist and outcome perspectives on democracy and I think J-J Rousseau might come to our rescue. Rousseau was famously relaxed about the structure of delegated government — democratic, aristocratic, monarchic or whatever — so long as the people’s assembly exercised sovereignty. So if the assembly was satisfied with the governance of (say) CCP functionaries then that would indeed be democratic, so long as the people’s assembly had the power to remove (or veto) them. Rousseau also felt that deliberative exchange in the assembly was undesirable as he claimed that the people knew what was in their interest (the general good) without the need for formal debate.

    Yoram, this is a genuine attempt to understand your position, so you might even consider responding in kind.

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  21. Yoram,

    > This cannot be a good definition because it begs the question (assumes the conclusion). If someone challenges you by saying that they think that “direct democracy” (rule by plebiscite) or an elections-based system are “more democratic”, then you would have no way to refute their position other than simply insisting that “these forms of government are by definition non-democratic”.

    It does not assume the conclusion (informed rule in lawmaking by highly informed portions of the public), but rather this conclusion or definition embodies or follows from non-controversial or easily defended premises.

    Given that democracy means rule by the people, that that rule needs to be exercised in an informed manner, and that it is not possible for all of the public to become well-informed about a large number of things, it follows inexorably that the deciding of laws by juries is what democracy in lawmaking is.

    If someone wishes to argue that democracy is not rule by the people, or it is fine for such rule to be ill-informed, or that all of the public do or will become well-informed about a great many matters in their spare time, I am happy to do my best to disabuse them of those foolish notions.

    Now, if we are going to be more nuanced, one thing to note is that democracy (informed rule by the people) is a matter of degree. Some things are more democratic and some less. Rule by popularly elected politicians is more democratic than a military dictatorship, for example.

    Plebiscites and referenda, though perhaps more democratic than the divine right of kings, are not democratic, or are lacking in democracy, because they are not suitable for reaching informed decisions, (all of the people are not going to become well-informed about a large number of things in their spare time). There are also other ways in which they are undemocratic or lacking in democracy. They are not suitable for providing a level playing field, and those who vote in them are not representative of the public. A level playing field is essential to informed rule by the people (to the extent the people only hear from those who support a proposal, or only from those who oppose it, the nexus of decision-making shifts from the people to those who dominate or monopolize what the people hear).

    Rule by popularly elected politicians in lawmaking is obviously not rule by the people, but rather excludes the people from deciding laws. Choosing politicians by popular election is also undemocratic, or lacking in democracy, for the same said reasons that plebiscites are not democratic, or not all that democratic.

    New topic. I also think that the deciding of laws by jury follows from the political equality of citizens (which like rule by the people is, it seems to me, a fundamental tenet of democracy). The deciding of laws by politicians is obviously at odds with the political equality of citizens (for example the US Congress is about 75% men, and includes about zero members of the 90%, and close to zero of the plurality of Americans who do not belong to the two main parties; also, for example, the high cost of conducting election campaigns means that election results and how politicians behave in office skews towards the preferences of concentrated wealth and the more affluent portions of society). By contrast, juries embody the political equality of citizens as miniatures of the people, and because of their suitability for putting options on a level playing field.

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  22. Simon,

    > Given that democracy means rule by the people, that that rule needs to be exercised in an informed manner, and that it is not possible for all of the public to become well-informed about a large number of things, it follows inexorably that the deciding of laws by juries is what democracy in lawmaking is.

    Presenting sortition as being a conclusion is certainly more useful than asserting that it is the definition of democracy.

    Much as I agree with your thinking about sortition, I think, however, that your claim that it follows “inexorably” from a definition as generic as “rule by the people”, is not convincing. It would certainly be rejected by advocates of “participative democracy” who would say that “representative” or not, a statistical sample is not “the people”. Where would you stand then? You would be arguing back and forth with no way to move forward, because both sides would be supposedly arguing from first principles.

    And if this is the case regarding the very fundamental issue of sortition-vs-mass decision making, how would the more specific, but crucial, parameters of the system be decided? How would we decide if “informed” means 1 year terms or 4 year terms? Mandatory service or voluntary? Etc., etc.

    Say that there are several countries, each with its own sortition-based government, but with very different parameters. How would we know which ones among them are democratic? Or which ones are more democratic than others? Would we again be arguing from first principles on each one of the parameters and any observer would have to decide which parameter setting follows “inexorably” from “rule by the people”?

    It seems to me that we must have an empirical criterion, or set of criteria, that are widely accepted as being at least necessary (if not definitional) for democracy. Theory, then, would be about devising systems that can be expected to meet the empirical criterion. Any “theoretical” disputes could be (at least in principle) settled based on observations.

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  23. Simon,

    Oddly, I think Keith, Yoram and I all agree that your definition is not good. While we agree sortition is possibly NECESSARY for a democracy in a large society, it is not just because it allows informed decision making by a subset of people. The definition of democracy needs to also fit small societies. Imagine a club of 20 people (or stranded shipwreck survivors). If they want to govern themselves democratically …MUST they use random samples? No. (also, the sample size, even if more than 50% of the population, would be so small it would rarely be representative). Sortition is a good tool (possibly a necessary one) for achieving democracy in larger societies, but it is not the definition of it. The 20-member society can be said to operate democratically or not, even without sortition, can’t it?

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  24. Terry,

    I agree that sortition is not necessary for democracy on Gilligan’s Island. Nor a slightly more populous version of it.

    Above I am only talking about democracy in large societies. I did not consider democracy in small clubs and such.

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  25. Yoram,

    > It would certainly be rejected by advocates of “participative democracy” who would say that “representative” or not, a statistical sample is not “the people”. Where would you stand then? You would be arguing back and forth with no way to move forward, because both sides would be supposedly arguing from first principles.

    Well, there are several things we can say to “participative democrats” about what does and does not follow from rule by the people and the need for that rule to be well informed.

    One is that sortition provides public participation, and it is participation of a high quality because it is informed participation, and it is also of high quality in that it is participation on a basis of political equality with everyone having an equal chance to participate.

    It also makes participation in advocacy groups more meaningful, because it gives those who wish to propose laws the ability to get their ideas implemented if they can win the support of a highly representative portion of their fellow citizens (rather than being blocked by a political system that largely represents concentrated wealth and power).

    As many people serve on juries over time, a large portion of the public will participate, and will do so in an informed way.

    Another thing to say is that participation in referendums and elections is low quality participation because it is poorly informed, and because those who vote are unrepresentative of the people.

    Participation in the form of casting poorly informed votes on a dozen or a hundred or a thousand referendums each year is not meaningful participation. It is a vacuous participation ritual, to the extent that people even bother to vote. I would argue it is not rule by the people at all, because rule implies some reasonable degree of being informed. If they insist poorly informed and ill-informed casting of votes is rule by the people, then I would say it is “rule” of a low quality, vacuous and undesirable kind.

    If it is accepted that rule by the people needs to be informed, well the only way to achieve that, at least for more than a small number of high profile decisions each year, is through juries.

    Our imaginary “participative democrat” can as you suggest say that a jury is not the people. We have layers of answers to this, including the following: It is better than the people for making a decision because it is an informed miniature of the people, whereas the people as a whole are uninformed. As many juries serve over time they are the people, or a large portion of them. The people do not know who will be called to serve and all have an equal chance to serve, this in itself is participation, just like having lottery tickets is participating in a lottery. Those who vote in referendums and elections and who go to political meetings are not the people, but rather are unrepresentative portions of the people. Poorly informed voters do not exercise rule, but rather participate in a largely vacuous ritual, a pretense of rule without the substance. Elections and referenda run on money and resources, and are not level playing fields, making them largely forms of rule by those who have the money and resources, not rule by the people.

    Anyway, lots of room for meaningful debate, not just inconsistent first principles. And yes I think if it is accepted that the people have the right to rule, and that that rule needs to be informed, it leads to juries, not to for example having hundreds of referenda each year.

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  26. Yoram

    > Presenting sortition as being a conclusion is certainly more useful than asserting that it is the definition of democracy.

    Agreed I think.

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  27. Yoram,

    The more I think about your definition for democracy the weirder the consequences I find. For example, raising awareness of a regime’s misdeeds can, on your definition, destroy democracy! And it makes it impossible to label obvious enemies of democracy, such as Vladimir Putin, as such – after all, doesn’t he assiduously pursue high approval ratings for his regime? How dare that nasty Alexander Navalny attack Russian democracy by trying to lower them! You get the picture.

    As for a positive definition of democracy, how about ‘a state or organised social order without a ruling elite’? Obviously no state can completely adhere to this ideal, but it can be approximated to different degrees – states are democratic to the degree that their ruling elite is vestigial, undifferentiated, and porous relative to the rest of society. A sortitional form of government, on this measure, is plainly the most democratic. And it satisfies your criterion of being epistemically transparent to the public – the inhabitants of any given state generally have a good idea of the extent to which it has a ruling elite.

    On another note (and this is a complete tangent) have any of you considered contacting figures in the Belarussian opposition to suggest using sortition in the government they form should their revolution succeed? The history of electoral polyarchy in Eastern Europe is not hugely encouraging, and now would be the time to encourage the Belorussians not to fall into the same trap. An open letter with a bunch of academic signatures on it might have an impact on the course of events. I’d be willing to draft it in English (I speak no Belorussian) if anyone else would be up for it, but working out who to talk to to get it translated and publicised in the country is something I wouldn’t be sure how to begin.

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  28. Oliver,

    > As for a positive definition of democracy, how about ‘a state or organised social order without a ruling elite’?

    What is wrong with rule by the people and people power as the definition of democracy? That is what the word means.

    Among the things that rule by the people is not consistent with is rule by an elite that decides the laws and chooses public officials.

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  29. Simon,

    The main problem I have with ‘rule by the people and people power’ is that ‘the people’ can mean two different things. Either it is meant substantively, in a pseudo-volkisch way which lends itself to excluding not only elites but also minorities, immigrants, and other ‘undesirables’, or it is defined purely in opposition to a ruling elite or privileged class – the people as everybody else, ‘the part that has no part’ in power, as Jacques Rancière puts it. Your formulation can be read using either sense of ‘the people’, which makes it dangerously slippery and easily coopted by nationalists, Marxist-Leninists, and other similarly appealing characters. Mine, on the other hand, expresses very much what yours does on the second, non-volkisch, reading of ‘the people’ – and, in addition, makes it more obvious what is non-democratic about modern states.

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  30. Oliver,

    I guess the distinction is between demos (the people as a body politic) and plethos (the populace, unorganized multitude), but in practice the one concept elides into the other. Perhaps you’re right and we have to go for a negative definition (“a state or organised social order without a ruling elite”). Note that elites in the original demokratia played a key advisory role, but the sovereign body was the Assembly.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Oliver,
    On Belarus… I often wonder what might have happened in Egypt during the Arab Spring, if there had been wide awareness of sortition, rather than elections being assumed to be the ONLY democratic tool. But I doubt that the middle of a crisis is actually the optimal time to push an unfamiliar solution. If the citizens of Belarus had seen dozens of successful citizens’ assemblies tackling all kinds of social problems over the past few years, they might be able to imagine such a resolution to the current crisis. But without prior experience or even awareness of the sortition tool, it seems an unlikely thing for them to demand. However, it is also true that crises often generate unexpected opportunities where unheard of things happen… so I am not rejecting your idea, merely offering a reality check.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Oliver,

    > raising awareness of a regime’s misdeeds can, on your definition, destroy democracy!

    Not anymore than a thermometer brings on the winter. (Or testing creates coronavirus cases.)

    Yes – the approval criterion does assume that people know what they need to know in order to fashion their opinion about the society they live in (that the thermometer is not malfunctioning). Yes – this is not always the case. People can find out that they were mistaken.

    However, it is a basic democratic assumption that each person is the best judge of their own welfare. People may be mistaken about this matter, but as a rule they are not. In any case, as a rule (the democratic assumption asserts) there is certainly no better way to know someone’s welfare than to have them assess it. All this talk about Putin’s evil magic with which he is able to keep the Russian people under his spell (from which only the benevolent West and the blessed Navalny can help them break out) is anti-democratic and must be rejected.

    > ‘a state or organised social order without a ruling elite’

    This is probably much more specific than “rule by the people” but is still very vague. For example, people often claim that in an elections-based system there is no “ruling elite” but rather “competing elites”. Would that meet your criterion?

    As a theoretical definition, I would in fact go with “a society in a state of political equality”, which sounds to me much closer to the democratic ideal. But this definition as well is open for endless interpretation and misinterpretation. (E.g., “we all have one vote each, we are thus politically equal.”) One can argue endlessly whether one system or another leads to more political equality. Some empirical criterion is necessary to go beyond empty sloganeering-theorizing.

    > The history of electoral polyarchy in Eastern Europe is not hugely encouraging

    I think that “not hugely encouraging” is an understatement as a description of electoralism worldwide. I feel more comfortable working close to home – in the West – than trying to make my little contribution to the time-honored tradition of meddling in the East/Orient.

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  33. Oliver,

    There’s no reason to define “the people” in the racist way you suggest it can be defined.

    “We the people” in the US means all Americans, not just white people. “The Canadian people” means all Canadians, not just white Canadians.

    Our not using the terms “the people,” “people power,” “We the people” “government of by and for the people,” and “power to the people” is not going to help end racism or white nationalism or such, nor would leaving these terms to racists be helpful.

    The response to racists is to say that the people includes all of the people, including people of colour, and those who have become citizens after immigrating here.

    The abolitionists (abolition of slavery) and suffragettes did not argue that “We the people” should be removed from the US Constitution or should stop being said. They argued that the people included or should include Black people and women, who are of course just as much people as white men are.

    Your suggested definition which is ‘a state or organised social order without a ruling elite’ is quite an uninspiring and rather obscure mouthful. I fail to see how substituting this for “We the people,” “rule by the people,” “government of, by and for the people,” and “power to the people” is helpful.

    Nor is there a need for “the people” to be “defined purely in opposition to a ruling elite or privileged class,” and it looks like your suggested negative definition (‘a state or organised social order without a ruling elite’) is closer than “rule by the people” to something “defined purely in opposition to a ruling elite or privileged class.”

    I don’t think a negative definition, defining something in terms of what it is not, is helpful here, nor do I see how it is any kind of bulwark against white nationalism or Leninism.

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  34. Yoram:> it is a basic democratic assumption that each person is the best judge of their own welfare.

    At root this is a normative assessment of democracy (and deliberative democracy is also a normative proposal — how to create the ideal speech situation). Political scientists tend to be more interested in empirical assessments of democracy, hence the focus on structural rather than epistemic considerations.

    Liked by 1 person

  35. Yoram,

    > “the approval criterion does assume that people know what they need to know in order to fashion their opinion about the society they live in”

    I think our assessments of the plausibility of this assumption is one of the key points on which we differ. You seem, here at least, to be taking an optimistic view of the epistemic position of the general public in all sorts of different states. But this is logically incompatible with one of the key malign dynamics of electoral ‘democracy’ – the common phenomenon of governments chasing good headlines rather than good long-term outcomes. The only reason politicians are incentivised to do that is that public opinion on the conduct of government in electoral ‘democracies’ is largely formed via newspaper headlines and the news breaks on music radio, as any good political analyst will tell you. This is a very poor epistemic method! It follows that, in such a system, public opinion on the conduct of government will *usually* be mistaken. And if that’s the case for relatively well-functioning electoralist states with a free press and flourishing civil society, how much more so for states that strenuously try to control their public’s access to information!

    > “as a rule (the democratic assumption asserts) there is certainly no better way to know someone’s welfare than to have them assess it”

    This is generally correct. What is not correct (and which does not follow from it) is the idea that people are always the best authorities on the *cause* of their good or bad welfare. In particular, it is easy for governments to pick out scapegoats to blame for their own failings. Witness, for example, pre-revolutionary Russia, in which the peasants loved the Tsar and blamed his ‘evil advisers’ for the ills afflicting them – or any Western country of the present day, in which (to put it very crudely) the public is split over whether to blame immigrants or capitalism for social problems. Regardless of who you believe to be correct, a large part of the public must be wildly off-base in their beliefs about the causes of their troubles.

    > “As a theoretical definition, I would in fact go with “a society in a state of political equality”, which sounds to me much closer to the democratic ideal.”

    I like this for theoretical purposes. The idea that a democracy ought not to have a ruling elite could then be included in an explication of what it means.

    > “people often claim that in an elections-based system there is no “ruling elite” but rather “competing elites”.”

    I doubt many people in any country today would find that claim convincing! ‘Competing elites’ is synonymous with ‘an elite divided into competing factions’. Such a society certainly doesn’t satisfy the criterion that a ‘democratic’ society should have no ruling elite.

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  36. Simon,

    My preference for phrases like ‘a society without a ruling elite’ is based on the idea that democracy is the answer to a problem, and the problem is rule by elites. Frame it that way and the test for democratic institutions becomes ‘do they prevent power elites from forming?’ This is an important step beyond ‘giving power to the people’ because many attempts at the latter have treated ‘appropriately-constituted’ elites as means to that end, with predictably bad results.

    More generally, I think it’s important to see society – including in utopia – as a diverse plurality of individuals and groups with divergent interests. Talk about ‘the people’ – ‘We the people [collectively will such-and-such]’ – is in tension with this pluralism. It treats ‘the people’ as a unified agent – if not in practice, then at least ideally. That’s the root of its exclusionary tendencies. If ‘the people’ are or should be united in one will, then dissenters start to look like a problem to be solved. It’s a slippery piece of wording that different members of your audience might hear in alarmingly different ways.

    That’s not to say there’s nothing to be said for the motivating power of ‘Power to the people!’ and similar phrases. But the organisation and mobilisation those slogans suggest are means to political ends, not the democratic ideal in itself. If in some circumstance the people unite to overthrow the elite, well and good, but in the aftermath they must *shed* that unity and transform from the people into the public in order to achieve democracy.

    Liked by 1 person

  37. Yoram

    > “As a theoretical definition, I would in fact go with “a society in a state of political equality”, which sounds to me much closer to the democratic ideal.”

    I agree with you and Oliver that political equality is central to democracy (and I assume we all agree on this), and is even a pretty good short definition of democracy. It is also, I think, a good criterion for assessing whether or not democracy exists in a particular political system, and to what extent it exists.

    I think the political equality of citizens is implied by rule by the people. I think the implication also goes the other way (though I can see some arguments that could be made against that).

    As Yoram suggests, what constitutes “political equality” can be debated and people could for example claim “we all have one vote each, we are thus politically equal.” However, this claim is not plausible, for reasons that are obvious and not hard to show.

    I think “political equality” is a pretty clear and resilient concept, and that the fact people can make daft claims about what comprises it (such at the one in the previous paragraph) does not change that.

    Liked by 2 people

  38. Oliver, Simon,

    We can agree on this or that phrasing of what democracy means, but without a solid operationalization, the concept remains “essentially contested” – which simply means that powerful interests can manipulate it.

    Currently, standard operationalizations of democracy rely on “expert judgement”. The result is of course no more than a reflection of elite prejudice. (Western governments, poor as they may be, always get relatively good scores when judged by Western experts. Non-Western governments get judged largely based on their relations with the West.)

    A survey based operationalization would make “democracy” a concrete and a much more useful political concept.

    Like

  39. What is wrong with the operational definition that I suggested earlier in this thread https://equalitybylot.com/2020/08/21/the-benevolent-dictator/#comment-33442

    Liked by 1 person

  40. If an operational definition is what we’re after, we have to look at them realistically. Yoram, yours would be worse than useless, allowing corrosively anti-democratic regimes such as the Russian and Chinese states to parade their ‘democratic’ credentials.

    Keith, your first four conditions I can agree with, but your fifth – demanding that multiple ‘samples’ of the population return the same results – seems to presume that on most issues there is one ‘right answer’ which the public would always come to. This may be the case in your favoured models of sortitional government, in which passive juries consider proposals made by others, but in systems where allotted legislatures play more active problem-solving and system-shaping roles, this condition would not be much use. It would also return odd results on ‘noisy’ issues where reasoning could fall in multiple directions.

    The more significant issue with a narrow operationalisation like yours, though, is that it is silent on the relative democratic standing of non-sortitional regimes. Any operationalisation needs to be able to point out that Norway is more democratic than North Korea, and so forth. That’s why I would favour measures that look at the influence, longevity, and porosity of social elites. But that’s a goal for an operationalisation, not an operationalisation in itself. Measuring those factors would be a challenge that would require looking at many different metrics.

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  41. Oliver: in systems where allotted legislatures play more active problem-solving and system-shaping roles, this condition would not be much use.

    True. The hybrid model that Alex and myself propose has only a partial role for sortition (making the final decision). In our model, elites have a key proposal and advisory role to play (as was the case in the original demokratia).

    >a narrow operationalisation like yours, though, is that it is silent on the relative democratic standing of non-sortitional regimes.

    All I’m doing is adopting the democratic criteria that would be applied to electoral systems (Norway: yes; North Korea: no) and adjusting them for sortition, where a different form of representation is involved.

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  42. Keith,

    Re your above “operational definition,” as usual I find you are too forgiving about electoral democracy’s claim to be democratic.

    > Elections are deemed democratic iff anyone can (in principle stand for office), everyone can vote, and all votes are counted equally.

    I don’t think this claim is plausible at all, for reasons I have given in past articles. These are only among the minimal requirements for democracy within the context of popular election. They are far from sufficient for providing democratic elections. More than that, I think that democratic popular elections are not possible in practice, or that the degree of democracy they provide is inherently quite limited.

    We agree that final decisions on laws should be made by legislative juries. I think we agree also that the deciding of laws by elected politicians is undemocratic, or at least a lot less democratic than legislative juries deciding them.

    Regarding the five democratic criteria you set for legislative juries (you do not specify this is only for legislative juries, but I will only look at it in that context as the criteria for other juries could be quite different):

    Yes to 1 (equal probability of being selected).

    Yes to 2 (portrait in miniature) though I think I’m at least in some cases more lenient than you on how exact or high resolution it needs to be.

    3 (quasi-mandatory participation) is I think desirable but not essential, and was not part of sortition in Greece (or at least only in the sense of public pressure to participate).

    Voluntary participation in legislative juries is less problematic than voluntary participation in popular vote because random sampling can be stratified to match the population.

    Voluntary participation in popular vote does not discredit the results in the eyes of most people, so it may not do so re legislative juries either where the problem can be mitigated by stratification. Decent pay and other enticements should be provided to jurors whether service is quasi-mandatory or voluntary, including to help increase representivity. Juries should decide the extent to which participation in legislative juries is mandatory. The trial jury provides a good precedent for quasi-mandatory participation.

    No to 4 (“information provision and other speech acts are well balanced according to the prevailing views in the target population”). Proposed laws need to be decided on a level playing field, not a playing field skewed in favour of the position preferred by majority public opinion, nor against positions only preferred by a minority of the public.

    No to 5 (each sample returns the same result within a certain margin of error). I agree with Oliver’s point and with Terry’s point. (I also think this is a case of applying a utopian standard to legislative juries, while not applying a similar utopian standard to popular elections. A popular election is not said to be invalid because opinion polls a few weeks before or after the election day indicate that had the election been then the result would have been different.)

    If I have misunderstood you re 4 or 5 please of course tell me.

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  43. Oliver,

    > Keith, … in systems where allotted legislatures play more active problem-solving and system-shaping roles, this condition would not be much use. It would also return odd results on ‘noisy’ issues where reasoning could fall in multiple directions.

    I agree with Keith re legislative juries having the final say about whether proposed laws are enacted.

    The idea of “allotted legislatures” is at its most basic that we will have the same parliaments, legislatures and Congress that we have now, except that the members will be chosen by lottery instead of by popular election. I have always thought this an extremely bad idea, and have therefore never proposed it.

    (In such an allotted legislature jurors serve for years, make many decisions, form committees, agenda set, formulate laws, propose laws, debate laws and public policy with the debates being televised, decide laws, perhaps choose a PM or a speaker (of the Nancy Pelosi kind) and maybe other officials, form parties, factions and caucuses, give news conferences, meet lobbyists …)

    Some who support “allotted legislatures” are bicameralists who support one sortition legislature, and one popularly elected legislature.

    This bicameralism is not democratic in my view, because it means a considerable amount of rule by popularly elected politicians in lawmaking, which is not democratic. (This is in addition to the lack of democracy I see in the kind of allotted legislature I describe above.)

    I think the final say in lawmaking should reside with legislative juries, not with, nor shared with, popularly elected politicians.

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  44. So are we narrowing in on:

    Democracy means a government based on genuine political equality among the entire adult population without a class of political elites.

    While a mini-public might be framed as a temporary political elite… they are not a class (which suggests persistence over a significant time, if not a lifetime.)

    Here is a hypothetical test scenario. What if a large mini-public proposes to appoint a government of elites, who would be annually evaluated and could be removed and replaced at any time. This proposal was ratified overwhelmingly by a referendum. A subsequent large quasi-mandatory mini-public recruited and appointed a government (president and cabinet), who were authorized to make laws during their service. Would this be more or less democratic than elections? It would certainly be based more on informed decision making, but is that enough?

    Liked by 1 person

  45. Simon,

    My concern is to take existing standards as to what constitutes democratic legitimacy and apply them to sortition (allowing for the different representative principle). Political scientists are only too aware that existing practices fail to implement democratic ideals, but that doesn’t give us the right to move the goalposts. Given that sortition has not yet been accepted as a democratically-valid alternative or even supplement to elections, our principal task is to make proposals that would be considered valid by existing standards. Once that’s done, then by all means go for the ideal, but for the time being we need to play by the existing rules, however much one may feel they fall short of the ideal.

    >Voluntary participation in popular vote does not discredit the results in the eyes of most people, so it may not do so re legislative juries

    In elections everyone is free to participate, but in sortition-based systems the vast majority are disenfranchised. This being the case it’s necessary to ensure a very accurate level of stochastic representation. Given the premise that non-participation is a significant population parameter, this cannot be corrected by stratification.

    >Proposed laws need to be decided on a level playing field, not a playing field skewed in favour of the position preferred by majority public opinion, nor against positions only preferred by a minority of the public.

    Goodness me, who decides what constitutes a level playing field? As you know Alex’s electoral system does not exclusively privilege majority positions, but seeks to provide a range of proposals and advocacy, weighted according to public preferences. It’s hard to imagine a viable democratic alternative.

    >applying a similar utopian standard to popular elections.

    All I’m saying is that if two samples, drawn concurrently, returned different verdicts, which one would be the representative decision?

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  46. Terry,

    Your example raises an interesting question! I think it’s inevitable that a sortitional-democratic state would have some kind of jury-appointed executive, simply because of the demands of the executive role. The question is how much power lies with that executive versus the allotted legislature. In your hypothetical model, in which the jury is relegated to an annual scrutiny role, it’s hard to say whether this would be more or less ‘democratic’, in terms of the power and permanence of the elite, than an electoral system – it would likely vary according to the circumstances. I prefer models in which the allotted bodies retain lawmaking power and can appoint and dismiss their executives at will.

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  47. Simon,

    I would be interested to hear more on why you believe it would be a bad idea to have allotted juries serve a fuller legislative role. My preferred model at the moment has multiple issue-specific first chambers producing bills which may be vetoed by a generalist second chamber tasked with forming the first’s output into a coherent budget and policy program, which would address the question of competence on particular issues. In practice, in such a system, we might expect most bills to be written by outside parties – pressure groups, etc. – and introduced to the first chambers on their behalf by one or more of the members, so the task of writing legislation would in practice be largely delegated. But the specialist knowledge required to competently assess these bills would involve a considerable investment of time by the allotted legislators – several months, most likely – which would hardly be worth it if they were only going to serve for a couple of months. The crucial balance to be struck, I think, is between the need for frequent turnover to disrupt the formation of networks of corruption and malign institutional cultures, on the one hand, and the need for legislators to learn the ropes and be able to pursue projects and agendas to their end on the other. My guess is that the best compromise between these two involves terms of several years, at least for national legislatures.

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  48. Keith,

    > All I’m saying is that if two samples, drawn concurrently, returned different verdicts, which one would be the representative decision?

    I over-stated my disagreement with you on your criterion 5. I actually think there is a lot to it, though I failed to say so. (For example, arrangements need to be well-designed to ensure that the legislative jurors are a pretty accurate miniature or microcosm of the public, and the supporters of the proposed law need to be capable and placed on a level playing field and given equal time. It is important to ensure the defenders of the status quo are capable, so that any new law will be based on the informed judgement of the jurors, not the result of an incompetent presentation of the defense of the status quo. Part of the reason for these thing is to ensure fairly consistent decisions rather than decisions that are arbitrary or flukes.) To the extent I disagree with your criterion 5 it is I think just that I am a bit more forgiving or less religious about it than you may be.

    As to which one of the two decisions in your hypothetical is the representative decision, if they are fairly close just aggregate the vote and make that the decision. If they are far apart, then try to understand what has caused such a result.

    But we don’t need to meet a standard of perfection, we just need something that is as good as is reasonably possible, and better than the other reasonably possible options.

    > Goodness me, who decides what constitutes a level playing field?

    We are I think talking about two levels or categories of level playing field which is possibly confusing. One level (call it level 1) is a level playing field re which legislative proposals (bills) are formulated and presented to legislative juries, and the other (call it level 2) is that the hearing of each bill by a legislative jury happens on a level playing field.

    I think we understand a lot about what is and is not a level playing field. For example, the signature requirement for the ballot initiative and veto referendum in the US is a good example of a non-level playing of the level 1 type. For example, a trial in which one side gets more time to present their case is an example of a non-level playing field of the level 2 type.

    My preferred method of deciding the details for level 2 has always been the same. A jury-chosen law reform commission to work out and propose rules and options, and to keep improving on them over time, with legislative juries deciding which of the proposals and options they present go into effect, and with ensuring a level playing being one of the objectives. Proposals and options could also come from other sources than said law reform commission, but which ones do and not go into effect is decided by legislative jury. With regard to level 1 arrangements and details, same thing, and same as the ways I think jury lawmaking should work in general.

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  49. Terry,

    > Here is a hypothetical test scenario. What if a large mini-public proposes to appoint a government of elites, who would be annually evaluated and could be removed and replaced at any time. This proposal was ratified overwhelmingly by a referendum. A subsequent large quasi-mandatory mini-public recruited and appointed a government (president and cabinet), who were authorized to make laws during their service. Would this be more or less democratic than elections? It would certainly be based more on informed decision making, but is that enough?

    Selection of public officials by representative and informed minipublics is better and more democratic than choosing them by popular vote (assuming reasonably well-designed procedures for the selection of public officials by minipublics). As I have long argued.

    This hypothetical contains an important democratic principle which is violated in the “existing democracies,” namely that the rules governing the political system should be decided by We the people in an informed manner (which can only be done through juries), not by elected politicians. As long as We the people retained the power to change this constitution (through minipublics with the power to change it) it would I think be quite democratic. However, it would also be lacking in democracy as the public would have disenfranchised/excluded themselves from deciding laws. However, they would have done so in a highly democratic manner, and as long as they retain the power to re-enfranchise themselves to decide laws this would be I think quite democratic.

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  50. I agree with Oliver that it will be useful to have some officials chosen by minipublics by voting, including some kind of an executive.

    I am not in favour of an Athenian style allotted executive, and have not proposed it.

    Liked by 1 person

  51. Simon:> we just need something that is as good as is reasonably possible, and better than the other reasonably possible options.

    Unlike, I suspect, many of the activists on this forum, my concern is to persuade mainstream political scientists and commentators who are not necessarily sympathetic to sortition. Given that statistical representation is our justifying principle, then it’s not a matter of whether you or I are forgiving or religious (actually my understanding of Christianity is that it combines the two!)

    As regards the level 1 criteria, this is Alex’s domain in our double act, so I won’t comment on that.

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  52. Oliver,

    > Simon, I would be interested to hear more on why you believe it would be a bad idea to have allotted juries serve a fuller legislative role. My preferred model at the moment has multiple issue-specific first chambers producing bills which may be vetoed by a generalist second chamber

    A key thing is that minipublics, not elected politicians, have the final say in lawmaking. I take it you share that view, which is I think great (because anything less than that is I think a rejection of democracy in lawmaking, or of informed rule by the public, or by highly representative portions of the public, in lawmaking).

    The latest published statement of my position on democratic lawmaking is here, June 22, 2020: https://dissidentvoice.org/2020/06/let-legislative-juries-decide-laws/

    It is not that different from my first published article on democratic lawmaking in 1998.

    I am in favour of public officials chosen by jury playing a large role in the formulating and proposing of laws to legislative minipublics. That includes jury-chosen law reform commissions or law commissions, and it also includes the existing legislatures (or something like them) chosen by jury rather than by popular election. I also think juries (along the lines of for example the Irish Citizens’ Assembly) can play a useful role in proposing laws to juries.

    Re a generalist allotted legislature with jurors serving for years and performing a wide range of roles I generally agree with Terry’s objections and with David Owen and Graham Smith’s objections in Legislature by Lot, 2019, chapters 14 and 16, editors John Gastil and Erik Olin Wright. I have briefly set out some of my own objections here in “Section 9, Separation of powers in minipublic decision-making,” September 19, 2017, PDF: https://simonthrelkeldsite.files.wordpress.com/2018/07/threlkeld-lucardie-sept18-17-july25-18update.pdf

    I do not think that a “coherent policy program” is really what happens in legislatures. For example, the US Congress and president decide laws one at a time in piecemeal fashion, rather than working out some overall program of laws and then deciding them. Let law commissions, politicians, juries and citizen groups propose laws, and let legislative minipublics decide which of them go into effect.

    I think it important that public funding go into the working out of laws, rather than relying only on lobbyists, special interests and public interest groups to work out and propose laws. (This is needed for I think fairly obvious reasons about democracy, political equality and level playing fields.)

    Liked by 1 person

  53. Oliver,

    > Yoram, yours would be worse than useless, allowing corrosively anti-democratic regimes such as the Russian and Chinese states to parade their ‘democratic’ credentials.

    So without offering any operationalization of democracy, you are already convinced that you can tell which regimes are “corrosively anti-democratic” and which are not. It also just happens that our “home” regimes – the Western regimes – are the good guys while our political and ideological adversaries are baddies. To serve this view, you are even dismissing – in the name of democracy, no less! – the [presumed] popular opinions of whole nations.

    You don’t find all of that embarrassingly dogmatic and ethnocentric?

    Can you offer an operationalization of democracy (one that does not depend on the opinions of Western experts) that would put your pre-conceived notions about the world to an empirical test?

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  54. Yoram,

    You seem to be labouring under the odd assumption that everything east of the Oder is the Mysterious Orient, of which we cannot know anything much without the intervention of either nefarious Western Experts or polling organisations. The ethnocentrism of that assumption aside, it is simply not a realistic assessment of any informed person’s epistemic position in 2020. My opinion of the Russian and Chinese regimes is informed not by dogmatic reliance on some Western expert caste but on personal contacts and the myriad one-to-many communications between ordinary citizens of different countries enabled by social media. It is not credible to claim that a state that is actively conducting a genocide in East Turkestan and crushing popular dissent in Hong Kong – to pick just two examples of the CCP regime’s current crop of misdeeds – is in any meaningful sense ‘democratic’. Nor is it plausible to claim that Vladimir Putin’s critics’ habit of untimely death is the product of sheer bad luck, or that the wealth and power of his cronies, as compared to the shabby conditions in which ordinary Russians are forced to live, is anything but a symptom of the gross corruption widely acknowledged by the Russian public. No pedantic operationalisation of the concept of democracy is needed to assess these regimes’ democratic standing.

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  55. Oliver,

    It seems inconsistent that while you reject the experiences and opinions of the Russians as a group – as collected systematically and – crucially – weighted equally through polling, you attempt to lend authority to your own opinions by reference to “personal contacts and the myriad one-to-many communications between ordinary citizens of different countries enabled by social media”. Are you really asserting that such a haphazard, anecdotal, subjective, opaque method is valid while a scientific, systematic, objective, transparent one is not?

    > the wealth and power of [Putin’s] cronies, as compared to the shabby conditions in which ordinary Russians are forced to live, is […] a symptom of the gross corruption widely acknowledged by the Russian public

    If this is indeed the case (and I am in no way claiming that this is not the case) why are you so reluctant to let the Russian people “have their say” about whether the system works for them, works as it should?

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  56. I have been (loosely) following the conversation, and the turn toward the executive opens up a whole new field. I don’t think it’s sufficient to address this by merely discussing the manner of selection of executive officials. Instead, the executive must be redesigned to accommodate the greater democratic bandwidth that sortition affords. Maybe we can have a broader discussion of this; I am writing a few blog posts to that end, starting with the following:

    https://alexkovner.com/2020/08/27/the-coordination-hierarchy/

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  57. Yoram:> why are you so reluctant to let the Russian people “have their say” about whether the system works for them, works as it should?

    Rod Liddle, writing in this week’s Spectator, provides an endorsement of Yoram’s perspective (although I would be surprised if he were to describe it as “democratic”):

    It seems pretty evident that poor Mr Navalny was poisoned, probably on the orders of the Kremlin. He also seems a very decent chap. But would he win a free and fair election against Putin? Not a chance. Not the remotest chance. Putin is still very popular in Russia. The fact that we do not like him does not alter that fact, any more than the success of Viktor Orban in Hungary does, for example, or the appalling Erdogan in Turkey. Incidentally, the one Russian leader we in the West did admire was Mikhail Gorbachev — who in Russia is more despised than any Russian leader of the 20th century, including Stalin.

    It is a typical western liberal failing, one of both overweening arrogance and gullibility, to suppose that people in other countries think the same way that we do. That, at heart, everyone in the world is a kind of centre–left democrat and that if there were fairness in elections, their governments would reflect this. In extremis it leads us to conduct hugely ill-advised wars, such as the invasion of Iraq, for example.

    It was evident during the ‘Arab Spring’ when the western media and indeed governments made two horribly false assumptions — that because the (eventually overthrown) leaders of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and so on were to a greater or lesser extent despots, the people of those countries yearned to be rid of them, and that whoever followed would be a liberally minded democrat. This proved not to be the case. Thinking that every-one believes the same as we do is the ultimate failing of the liberal agenda — and an expression of uncontained narcissism.

    https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-west-doesn-t-know-best

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  58. Yoram,

    Our fundamental difference here is that I think most people under ordinary circumstances have ill-informed and ill-thought-through opinions about most things, including whether or not their government is as good as it could be. For one thing, the answer to that question depends on what the alternatives are, which is *not* a subject in most people’s wheelhouse. One of the notable advantages of sortition over election is that the decisions the public make at election time are *spectacularly bad*, because they are surrounded by misleading propaganda and, given the paltry impact of their vote, have no rational reason to invest the time and effort to reach a properly-researched and -reasoned decision. ‘Scientifically, systematically, objectively, and transparently’ polling the public’s opinions on things upon which they are largely not competent to comment is a much worse epistemic strategy than the ‘haphazard, anecdotal, subjective, opaque method’ of using one’s judgement as to who to listen to.

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  59. Oliver,

    Your position that people are generally untrustworthy in their judgement of their own situation is a classic aristocratic / elitarian / republican position asserting that people are not much better than senseless tools controlled by powers they do not understand.

    If this is the case, what chance do we, as sortition-advocates, have? We are trying to propose sortition to people based on an appeal to their reason. If people are so unreasonable, we have no hope of getting them to see that sortition is a good idea that should be supported.

    Indeed, if people’s judgement is so poor, what chance does a sortition-based system have even if it is ever instituted? Say that such a system does indeed produce good policy outcomes as we all hope and believe. The people would not be able to judge that this is indeed the case. They would be just as likely to be dissatisfied with that system as they are with the current oligarchical elections-based system (or as they were with the Soviet system). Any gifted propagandist with some resources would be able to convince them that their system is rotten and must be over-thrown.

    If fact, the whole notion of having a better society, people having better lives, is quite meaningless if people are considered as being unable to tell whether their lives are good. Is it meaningful to claim: “even though members of society are more dissatisfied, society has gotten better and people’s lives have gotten better?” Thus people’s judgement about their own lives is the ultimate objective function of politics, at least according to any democratic conception of politics.

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  60. Yoram,

    You’re caricaturing my position again. As I just said, in order to assess the performance of their government, people need to know a) what and b) how plausible the alternatives are. That’s quite a substantial body of specialised knowledge that most people don’t already have. That doesn’t mean they’re unreasoning drones to be manipulated by elites. People are the best judges of ‘their situation’ as it presents itself to them, both in its raw quality and as compared to others’ situations as they see them through their social life and the media they consume. This reveals certain aspects of it to them, but conceals others – in particular, the role that specific agents within the state play in improving or worsening matters for them. In short, everybody knows if their own lives are living up to their expectations, but only a minority have a good idea of *why*.

    This is demonstrated by the enormous partisan divides that occur over competing explanations for the partisans’ own dissatisfaction with their lives. Indeed, a poll of the kind you favour, measuring public support for a government, that returns a result of (say) 55% for, 45% against, would blow your contention that people are the best judges of their own government out of the water: if the majority were right, 45% of the public would be wrong, meaning the average person’s judgement of whether their governmental situation was good or not would yield a result little better than chance.

    > “Indeed, if people’s judgement is so poor, what chance does a sortition-based system have even if it is ever instituted? […] They would be just as likely to be dissatisfied with that system as they are with the current oligarchical elections-based system (or as they were with the Soviet system). Any gifted propagandist with some resources would be able to convince them that their system is rotten and must be over-thrown.”

    There are several countervailing factors to this. First off, if the system produces good outcomes, people will tend to be satisfied with how their lives are going, reducing the appeal of these propagandists. People start looking for someone to blame only when they feel insecure, threatened, or deprived. Secondly, and relatedly, the default position of most people on most subjects is status-quo bias. The small-c conservatism of the average citizen acts as a sea anchor keeping the polity in place. Third, the popular narrative of the revolution that establishes the sortitional system will tend to breed patriotism and trust towards the institutions.

    But this is not to say that there’s no need for deliberate structural measures to build public support for the system. Civic education should be standard – children should be taught that they have as much right as anyone else to be in charge, that the system respects that right by giving them an equal chance at it, that they should distrust people asking to be given extraordinary power as throwbacks to the corrupt old regime, etc. at the same time as they are taught the rhetorical, critical, and facilitating skills needed to deliberate competently. More broadly, the information environment must be structured to make it difficult to deceive the public: the constitution should ensure media independence, not just from government, but from capital, for example by placing media financing in the hands of one or more jury-overseen funds with transparent financing rules and strict codes of ethics.

    With all these measures, the social order will still not be entirely stable in the face of demagoguery, but it should be reasonably resilient.

    > “Is it meaningful to claim: “even though members of society are more dissatisfied, society has gotten better and people’s lives have gotten better?””

    Absolutely! Much better to be a modern member of the Western working class, with all the world’s knowledge and culture at her fingertips and an acute sense of the world’s failings, than a mediaeval peasant ignorantly satisfied with his lot. Flourishing is not measured by life satisfaction.

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  61. Incidentally, I’m reading the Wang article from your posts now, and some of the numbers are interesting: 81% of Mainland Chinese approve of their government, while 29% believe democracy means ‘the ability to control disparities between the rich and the poor’; given China’s Gini coefficient of 46.8, versus the US’s 43.4 and Denmark’s 24.9, clearly at least a third of the latter group must be wrong in their assessment of their government’s performance!

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  62. Oliver,

    Your willingness to offhandedly assert that a miserable member of the Western working class is in fact doing much better than a happy Middle Ages peasant because they have access to the internet is to me the height of Western elitist vanity. Presumably the 81% of the Chinese who are happy with their government are also just too ignorant to know that they would be better off – “flourish” – under a Western system (even if such “flourishing” would make them feel miserable).

    Unfortunately, we seem to have too little common ground on this issue to have a fruitful discussion…

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  63. Yoram [to Oliver]:> Unfortunately, we seem to have too little common ground on this issue to have a fruitful discussion…

    Welcome to the club Oliver! (although you will not be vouchsafed full membership until denounced by the EbL forum convenor as a charlatan, mountebank, inveterate liar and/or capitalist lipstickle).

    Liked by 1 person

  64. Yoram:> Your willingness to offhandedly assert that a miserable member of the Western working class is in fact doing much better than a happy Middle Ages peasant . . .

    Rousseau would certainly have opted with the happy medieval peasant, and this reinforces my claim that this is the ultimate origin of Gattism (for want of a better word). And the Incorruptible Yoram will defend his position until to the bitter end (being in a minority of one is a sure sign of virtue).

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  65. Yoram,

    Clearly we will not reach agreement, but one thing about your position is still confusing to me. You constantly elide people’s assessment of their government relative to the possible alternatives with their assessment of how their own lives are going relative to their expectations. Why is this?

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  66. Oliver,

    > You constantly elide people’s assessment of their government relative to the possible alternatives with their assessment of how their own lives are going relative to their expectations. Why is this?

    I don’t see these things as identical, but I also don’t think these things are as different as some may think. Modern societies are dominated by the government. Governments are largely all-powerful within their territories. Every aspect of our lives is determined by government decisions. “Promoting the general Welfare” is government’s responsibility. Saying that people can assess their own happiness but cannot assess the government’s performance is therefore to a large extent self-contradictory.

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  67. Yoram,

    I think your analysis is flawed for two reasons. Firstly, governments are not all-powerful within their territories – they have a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, but in practice they operate under very constraining arrangements of forces, in arenas in which they are very far from being the only agents. ‘Politics is the art of the possible’ was strong-state aficionado Bismarck’s dictum for a reason. The performance of the government is therefore only one factor among many affecting people’s life chances.

    The second reason is that people generally don’t attribute their good or bad fortune entirely or even mostly to the government. This is true regardless of whether or not my first objection holds any water. Conservatives, for instance, tend to believe it comes down to personal virtue and diligence. Given that, why should their assessment of the government reflect how they feel their lives are going? Suppose you’re right about the agential structure of society, and people’s assessment of their wellbeing just is a de facto assessment of the government’s performance – they would still have to be convinced of that fact to give that assessment in response to the question ‘What do you think of the government’s overall performance?’ And since they’re mostly not convinced of that, their responses to opinion polls reflect some other judgement – one that, according to the theory you’ve sketched here, is simply wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

  68. I don’t believe this “art of the possible” line for a second. This is just an excuse that is used to explain to the masses why things are going so badly for them. When the elites want something, it always turns out to be possible. There is always no money for welfare but there is always money for war and tax breaks and bailouts for the rich.

    As for people’s judgement – it appears to me to be well founded on the whole. (And even when it does not, that’s just my opinion. You have still to offer any operationalization of democracy that is not based on “people who are well-informed and who think straight agree with me that…”). When the Russians saw the disaster that Russia became in the 90’s they looked for an alternative and when Putin presented one, they clamored for it. It was certainly much better than the alternative. Something along those lines (but less dramatic and less abrupt) is happening now in the West. People are unhappy with how things are going in most Western systems and they quite rightly blame the regime for this state of things. Some are desperate enough to clutch at xenophobic ideas but most are – again quite rightly – cautious. Most people are not aware of any promising alternative to electoralism so they are sticking with that for now. Sortitionism aims to change that.

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  69. Yoram:> When the Russians saw the disaster that Russia became in the 90’s they looked for an alternative and when Putin presented one, they clamored for it.

    True, but what has this to do with democracy?

    Like

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