Democracy Should Just Work

In my new post, I argue that parliamentary procedures can be eliminated with the adoption of the superminority method. The advantages of this are enormous, since legislatures are widely ridiculed for the way rules can be manipulated to advantage. Instead, the superminority rule reinforces two main principles:

  1. Procedural inevitability – Agenda items are guaranteed to reach a conclusion.
  2. Substantive uncertainty – The outcome of all agenda items is genuinely unknown when proposals are written.

Once these principles are followed, legislative politics becomes painless to the general public. Democracy just works.

25 Responses

  1. It’s important to note that this doesn’t eliminate rules of procedure. Instead, it shifts them across to the jury’s decisions process. The question of who gets to address the jury, for how long, on what, is not a trivial one.

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  2. Agreed. The rules of procedure I was talking about are all on the proposing side.

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  3. While this design would be a clear improvement over the status quo, there are possible dramatic improvements to public policy making that it fails to even seek. In your design the policy jury chooses from among the proposals on offer (majority and super-minority options). We can easily imagine that a jury might love and hate parts of several proposals, but they are not empowered to mix and match (amend). There is a good reason for this, since this fact gives the proposing parties a strong incentive to develop the best PASSABLE option, rather than there special interest (extremist?) dream proposal.

    However, this design provides no real likelihood for any deliberation to craft an optimal proposal. To be clear, there is also no deliberation in existing elected legislatures. Without going deeply into the arcane philosophy of “argumentation theory,” I need to define some terms, and explain how existing legislatures function. “Deliberation” requires participants to have open minds while engaging in a common project to craft an optimal proposal. (The concept of “optimal” is fluid… including the utilitarian concept of the greatest good for the greatest number, or the compromise that nobody vetoes, etc.). In an elected legislative chamber there is never any deliberation, because on the big choices, members already have made up their minds, so they at BEST engage in negotiation, rather than deliberation. “Negotiation” means shaping proposals essentially by discovering the balance point of relative power positions. The only place deliberation occurs in an electoral system is among lobbyists and partisan staff, not between opposing members. But even in these limited deliberation scenarios, the deliberation is fundamentally about policy as it relates to special interests’ desires and fears, and public relations needs of politicians facing a future election… not fundamentally about seeking optimal public policy itself.

    Thankfully, Alex’s design gets rid of this inter-party negotiation (sham debate), allowing each party to draft a policy as they wish, since the jury will be making the final decision. This is where his design shines brighter than existing systems. However, it does not open the door for any meaningful deliberation (open-minded mixing, amending and finding new optimal solutions to public policy dilemmas). The best way to achieve this is to make use of diversity and open-mindedness of non-partisans, such as can be achieved by random selection. Allowing such a review panel to deeply investigate all of the proposals, engage in genuine deliberation to mix and amend to prepare an optimal proposal would generate vastly superior final proposals to send to the final jury than simply referring the raw proposals from each party. (Of course, I don’t like the idea of privileging electoral parties at all, as Alex does, but that is a separate topic). The parties narrowly restrict their pseudo-deliberation to party insiders who are by definition NOT cognitively diverse, with occasional outside expert consultation. Intra-party power conflicts would again elevate power negotiation above open-minded, diverse, deliberation, necessarily generating worse proposals for the jury to choose among.

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  4. Terry,

    I think we can all agree on the epistemic merits of your proposal, but would it pass Dahl’s test? Alex and I acknowledge that the Superminority Principle restricts deliberation to within the proposing bodies but, given the need to develop the best PASSABLE option (your emphasis), deliberation will naturally generate proposals that will be acceptable to the considered opinion of the majority. Surely it’s just a case of pitching the proposing threshold at the lowest possible level, commensurate with practical considerations? This will mean proposing bodies (parties) will seek internal cognitive diversity as this will be the best way of winning (the existing polarisation is a product of the 50% + 1 threshold). The Iron Law of Oligarchy becomes more malleable with every % drop in the proposing threshold and this is entirely through the self-interest of party elites — there need be no commitment to deliberation as a normative goal.

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  5. Terry:> The best way to achieve this is to make use of diversity and open-mindedness of non-partisans…

    Superminority does exactly that. There is nothing about this idea that requires negotiation.

    Terry:> …engage in genuine deliberation to mix and amend to prepare an optimal proposal…

    There is nothing about the method you propose that suggests you will get an “optimal” proposal. You’re still talking about a negotiation, even if it is among allotted members. Negotiations reflect the interpersonal dynamics of the participants, not the convergence of broad public opinion. And of course it introduces obstructive tactics, which are available to allotted members just as much as elected ones.

    Terry:> The parties narrowly restrict their pseudo-deliberation to party insiders…

    This is not the case. In order to meet the threshold, each group needs to assemble quite a few members from the assembly, which will not be controlled strictly by party. Party discipline is about controlling the agenda; since the agenda is determined ahead of time, the pressure to maintain party discipline is less, and the freedom of individual members is greater. Further, in order to win with the jury, there will be significant pressure to supplement their own diversity with advice from external advisors.

    Terry:> Intra-party power conflicts would again elevate power negotiation above open-minded…

    Nonsense. A party that succumbed to such temptations would fail repeatedly against better organized groups. Your own negotiation-based system is far more susceptible to this problem.

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  6. Terry:> …engage in genuine deliberation to mix and amend to prepare an optimal proposal…

    Is there any evidence that this happens? None of the examples that Helene Landemore provides in her first book involve random selection. And how would you judge when a proposal is “optimal” when political decisions are involved? The Superminority Principal will ensure that proposals map more closely to public preferences, as for which is “optimal”, this would be the decision of the jury.

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  7. While I admit the word “optimal” is a bit squirrely, it isn’t that hard to imagine. Each political party (the proposers in your design), by definition, has somewhat homogeneous mindsets. When evaluating their own handiwork in crafting a proposal they will suffer from confirmation bias, lack of diversity of perspectives, etc. Substantial research suggests looking at things from other perspectives (greater cognitive diversity as well as life experience) brings other ideas and options to the fore, that each homogeneous party did not examine. (This could be termed the “wisdom of crowds,” but that term has other meanings). When a group of evaluators is brought together with no preconceived proposal to push (such as a review mini-public), they can mix and match elements form multiple sources, and even discover new “win-win” angles that the political parties had not considered, and had a disincentive from considering, since carrying the day with THEIR proposal is the partisan priority A diverse set of independent “judges” (such as a lottery can create) allows optimal proposals to emerge or be cobbled together, that none of the parties considered or had an interest in promoting.

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  8. Terry:> carrying the day with THEIR proposal is the partisan priority

    The partisanship is the product of the decision threshold (50% + 1). Reduce the threshold and the parties will be obliged to seek common ground (in the sense of making proposals that are likely to make it both to, and past, the allotted jury). Of course this presupposes that Adam Smith’s perspective on what motivates the butcher, brewer and baker is transferrable to public policy — that’s why the term “political economy” is of value. Even if you focus on cognitive diversity, Landemore has no robust evidence to suggest that random selection is the best way of recruiting it (for anything other than the aggregate judgment of the jury).

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  9. It’s perfectly possible for one or more political parties within Keith’s system to conduct their own random population samples and develop policy proposals along the lines of Terry’s theory. Indeed, if the proposals thus developed tend to be better, as Terry suggests, it’ll be in their interest to do so. That means there’s no need for the state to be the mechanism that conducts that deliberation.

    As for the cognitive diversity argument, I’m with Keith (and Yoram) on it – it points toward weighted sampling that favours cognitive minorities, whoever they might be, not evenly-weighted sampling.

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  10. Good point Oliver. And it would circumvent the problem of perceived legitimacy, which is the Achilles’ Heel of state-sponsored sortition initiatives. Nobody expects a political party to be impartial, but it would certainly be in a party’s interest to do whatever it takes to come up with policies that would be optimal in the sense that they have a good chance of being presented to, and approved by, the allotted jury. I guess this also fits well with the “deliberative systems” approach which is currently in vogue in democracy studies.

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  11. Two topics here: 1) electoral party incentives/interests; 2) how best to create diverse review bodies.

    1) Firstly without final authority in this design, we can’t know for sure what parties would be like. But… Parties inherently have an agenda, a set of policy preferences a priori, which means the insiders will not be open-minded (willing to reverse their policy preference), be subject to confirmation bias, etc. These parties would also still face off in competitive elections, which means demonizing other parties is a vital strategy. elected party members want to win re-election, and getting a policy adopted that is not core to their reason for being, but gives credit to other parties as well can be more harmful than helpful, Looking at the U.S. now we see that stoking feelings of victimhood while losing on policy is often a MORE effective strategy for whipping up partisan supporters, than merely passing policies. These parties will have little interest in conducting the kind of diverse policy-making process i am describing… BECAUSE they face an electoral imperative, which requires attacking the “others.” When I was a legislator, and a different party introduced a bill, like nearly every other elected legislator, I saw my first priority to be to look for elements in the bill for grounds to attack the motivation, competence, or hidden agenda of that other party, rather than entertain any notion of finding good within that legislation. We ne4eded to expose the other parties as evil or stupid in preparation for the next election.

    2) While it would be possible to have an elite commission appoint highly diverse review bodies, this is a bad approach. The beauty of lottery is that it BOTH generates diversity be default, AND has the natural anti-corruption impartiality in selection. An aristocratic commission charged with creating diverse bodies would always be suspect, and indeed easily become corrupt. My design relies on the blind break aspect of lottery to create diversity, and impartiality rather than a lotteries potential to create statistical representativeness.

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  12. Terry,

    I’ll leave it to Alex to outline how his new-style parties might differ from their existing incarnation. But I think what really divides us is the approach to the market (hence my liking of the archaism “political economy”. Our view is that if competition on the open market is the best way of “optimising” goods and services in general (you might disagree) then there is no reason to banish this principle from the electoral marketplace. Sure, the parties will slug it out, badmouthing each other, but if the proposal threshold is low enough then only the parties that can appeal to the broadest interests will succeed. 50% + 1 won’t be anything near good enough. Let me quote this from a piece we have currently under review for the Spectator:

    We would have real pity for today’s entitled politicians under such a system. How can you reward your cronies when there are multiple proposals that might undercut you? How do you insert self-dealing provisions when ordinary citizens get to judge for themselves, with the time and resources to do a thorough job? The worst fate of all would befall politicians like Mitch McConnell, whose stock-in-trade is partisanship, not policy.

    And who thrives in our system? Simple: politicians who learn, politicians who study the needs of the public, and politicians who subordinate their own goals to the wishes of ordinary citizens. The legislature becomes a learning machine, a Bayesian engine for producing proposals. And the majority becomes what it was in the cradle of democracy: not a weapon for the powerful, but the considered response of politeia.

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  13. Terry:> Substantial research suggests looking at things from other perspectives (greater cognitive diversity as well as life experience) brings other ideas and options to the fore, that each homogeneous party did not examine. (This could be termed the “wisdom of crowds,”…

    Cognitive diversity is indeed important. But cognitive diversity is a function both of who is chosen and how they deliberate. The book you mention, “The Wisdom of Crowds” (James Surowiecki, 2004) has criteria for when crowds can make good decisions. Here are the criteria as summarized by Wikipedia:

    1. Diversity of Opinion – Each person should have private information even if it’s just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts. (Chapter 2)

    2. Independence – People’s opinions aren’t determined by the opinions of those around them. (Chapter 3)

    3. Decentralization – People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge. (Chapter 4)

    4. Aggregation – Some mechanism exists for turning private judgements into a collective decision. (Chapter 5)

    5. Trust – Each person trusts the collective group to be fair. (Chapter 6)

    The simple fact is that the highly social, negotiation-style process you advocate cannot meet the independence condition, which is absolutely essential. The decentralization criterion is also doubtful. A well organized assembly might be able to meet this condition by breaking into committees and subcommittees, but this is really dependent on the level of cooperation in the group, and so cannot be counted on in general.

    The whole point of the superminority principle is to meet these criteria, and hence put jurors in the best possible context for making a good collective decision. The lack of independence in your model eliminates the benefits of cognitive diversity. I have seen myself in the context of university seminars how quickly groups that have real cognitive diversity fall into group-think once they get to talking, destroying any benefit of assembling people from diverse backgrounds.

    Note in this context that disagreement can also be a form of group-think, as opposition is just as detrimental to cognitive independence as agreement. People who get to bickering about some point or other are just as distracted from the larger picture as people who are busy patting each other on the back.

    In my view, there is just no way around the following conclusion: whatever group makes final decisions–the disposing group–can only be a “group” through the aggregation process. They must work independently. There is some flexibility for small groups; for example, a jury of 1000 people could split into 100 small groups of ten each, but independence is an existential matter for obtaining a wise crowd.

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  14. Terry:> Firstly without final authority in this design, we can’t know for sure what parties would be like. But… Parties inherently have an agenda,…

    You make some strong points here. Parties are problematic under the current system, and how they would behave under any new system is speculative by definition.

    Still, we need to be honest about one thing: there will be political parties. Under any system. Government is a large, complex enterprise requiring cognitive elites to shoulder a significant burden. These elites will have agendas of their own, and they will coalesce into groupings that can be considered parties no matter what name they are given. Your system will have these parties too, whether or not you incorporate them explicitly.

    In other words, the challenge of democracy isn’t eliminating parties. That’s what the framers of the Constitution tried to do, and their vision failed immediately. Instead, the challenge is to make governance an interplay of elite and popular dynamics, and to ensure that factions among the elite are properly contained. Our current political nightmare is the result of a utopian vision in which parties will simply go away because of “checks and balances” or some other such nonsense. This vision not only failed, its refusal to acknowledge the inevitability of elite factionalism means that we lack the political tools to contain it.

    Your experience is real, and it is a cautionary tale. But a cautionary tale for what? In my opinion, eliminating parties is a dangerous fantasy, because it strips future generations of the tools needed to check their influence. In the same way, the fact that the Constitution does not mention corporations means that they, too, can operate unchecked.

    Who will be the political parties in your system? That is speculative as well, but your model depends on having some guidance given to the citizen assemblies you propose. That’s what is required for the Deliberative Polling Project: Fishkin supplies moderators to guide his groups, and to provide “balanced” source materials. Who will these guides be? I guarantee that will be an existential ideological fight for someone.

    Note that my system also doesn’t depend on elections per se. The proposing body could be populated by random selection from among activist volunteers willing to serve for at least a couple of years. (Mandatory service is out, due to length of service). I choose elections not because I love elections, but because it fits the mandate of proposing but not deciding. It also doesn’t bury our heads in the sand about the inevitable existence of parties, but instead ensures that parties face control from both sides: they are elected by the citizens, and they can only act through citizen juries. This is democratic containment of a kind the world has never seen.

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  15. Alex:> The proposing body could be populated by random selection from among activist volunteers willing to serve for at least a couple of years.

    That might be true in principle, but it would mean that 99.9% of citizens would be excluded from the political process (no involvement in either proposing or disposing) and I think that would be a tough sell.

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  16. Keith:> That might be true in principle, but it would mean that 99.9% of citizens…

    I agree, I was just noting that it is structurally possible.

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  17. Keith,

    > ‘And who thrives in our system? Simple: politicians who learn, politicians who study the needs of the public, and politicians who subordinate their own goals to the wishes of ordinary citizens.’

    My hypothesis would be that this wouldn’t be quite how things pan out. Parties would have to make two kinds of appeal: a partisan PR appeal to voters, and a more reasoned, defensible set of arguments to jurors (arguments before the jury should be public, but most people won’t watch them). That suggests specialisation within parties – a set of public-facing elected reps with many of the same incentives as present politicians, and a set of jury-facing policy technicians who actually devise and argue for the proposals the party makes. The main difference in the elected reps’ incentives is that they wouldn’t need to look beyond their base – all they’d need is the 17% of the votes required to be able to pass legislation to the juries. The wonks would be the ones who’d have to make a public-interest case for the bills the reps pass; the reps themselves would just need to get their base riled up enough to vote for them. This makes them a potential liability to the system, as Terry notes.

    Containing their potential corrosive effects on the system’s legitimacy would have to be the job of the media. It would have to be genuinely independent from the interference of both state and capital, and would need to have obligations to truth and non-partisanship (in that order) enforced by some neutral body – perhaps a citizens’ assembly that would refer complaints to juries for assessment.

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  18. Alex and I are assuming (hoping?) that the stark partisan divides that separate the two warring tribes reflect the decision rule in the legislature. And we are assuming that there will be shifting temporary alliances within the legislature, depending on the particular law under consideration. Of course there will be a need for different kinds of actors within the parties. In a sense this is a blessing, as successful parties will have to appeal both to the prejudices of the electorate and the considered verdict of the jury — it will be the same population, but represented in two different ways.

    I’m sceptical about your claims for the possibility of impartial media via oversight, especially given the current debate over non-platforming and self-censorship. My preference would be for every citizen to be issued with a voucher, which she could invest in whatever (print) media she chose. Obviously I have skin in this particular game, but print media do tend to encourage people to read beyond their comfort zone more than online. And recent events show the value of an independent media with ready capital to hand (it cost the Spectator a lot to take the Scottish government to court).

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  19. Oliver:> My hypothesis would be that this wouldn’t be quite how things pan out. Parties would have to make two kinds of appeal: a partisan PR appeal to voters, and a more reasoned, defensible set of arguments to jurors…

    I agree 100%. I think you’ve put your finger on a central dynamic of my system. I don’t see this as a criticism, but just as a basic fact of democracies themselves: most citizens will not follow the minutiae of policy making. The point of the system isn’t to eliminate this gap (it cannot be eliminated) but to close it by providing accountability on both ends.

    Your point also goes to the fact that I have left the composition of the proposing body vague. That’s because I’m assuming that in practice countries will simply use their existing legislatures as proposing bodies, however these are composed. But issues of proportionality, single-member vs multi-member districts, etc. will make a huge difference.

    Oliver:> Containing their potential corrosive effects on the system’s legitimacy would have to be the job of the media.

    True, and the media under this system have a lot more tools to do the job. They have real proposals from multiple political factions, not just fake policy platforms. There is no obstruction, so they don’t have to cover tactical parliamentary maneuvering as if it has real substance.

    The obligation to “truth and non-partisanship” is highly problematic. I do think action should be taken against baseless conspiracy theories, but the threshold you use is too subject to political bias.

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  20. Alex,

    My worry isn’t about some new variant of parties, but about their subjecting the population to simplistic ideas in election campaigns. It is the campaigning, which seeks to win votes from inevitably poorly-informed voters that is the problem. And, these voters will have and even heightened level of rational ignorance, because one’s vote won’t matter twice as much as before because the winners aren’t even making final decisions. Campaign experts have well established that irrational emotional appeals that stoke tribalism are key to winning votes. You have baked in a deeply harmful feature (election campaigns) that taints the jury pool, and makes the mini-publics less valuable, as jurors will have a psychological inclination to stick with the tribal party they voted for if they get called for a mini-public.

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  21. Terry:> My worry isn’t about some new variant of parties, but about their subjecting the population to simplistic ideas in election campaigns.

    Ok, then let’s be clear about where we disagree. I have two propositions:

    1. Decisions should be made by randomly selected juries that choose from an array of fixed options.
    2. The options should be created by an elected body that looks like today’s legislatures but operates by the superminority principle.

    It sounds like you don’t object to 1., and yet you base your system on a noisy, highly social form of deliberation that (IMHO) destroys the intellectual independence that is essential to wise crowds.

    Can we agree on 1., but debate 2. separately?

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  22. Yes, we’ve always agreed on proposition #1 (It is an essential part of my 2013 paper). On proposition #2, it is my assessment that elections poison the public discourse, fostering more animosity in society than exists anyway, and undercutting the ability of members of a final jury to exercise honest independent judgment.

    As for the “wisdom of crowds” reference, Surowiecki’s summary of Francis Galton’s formulation is only ONE variant. the Aristotelian variant assumes people contribute to the collective understanding. Authors like Josiah Ober, Scott Page and many others explore a more Aristotelian than Galtonian version, in which it is only by the sharing of personal knowledge that diffuse private knowledge is brought to the fore. It is here that DIVERSITY is key. In my 2013 paper I argue that the Galton wisdom of crowds is best applied to the final jury, whose members should listen, but not debate, and instead each make independent judgments; while in the crafting and amending stage of preparing a proposal active deliberation among diverse participants is crucial to discover optimal solutions. If you haven’t read it, my paper is here:
    https://delibdemjournal.org/articles/abstract/10.16997/jdd.156/ 

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  23. Terry,

    The distinction — between the counting and talking approaches is straight from Landemore’s first book, and she acknowledges that she has no interest in the former. Unfortunately, unlike Surowiecki, she provides no evidence as to how sortition could lead to “collective wisdom” and her “selective genealogy of the talking approach” from Aristotle to Dewey, via Marsillius, Machiavelli and Mill, provides scant support for her preferred option. Deliberative Democracy is really little more than a normative ideal — Habermas (1996, p. 323) acknowledging that “rational discourses have an improbable character and are like islands in the ocean of everyday practice”. So by all means carry on with your Fabian project of sitting among the dandelions, Alex and I would rather organize the docks (as Shaw put it).

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  24. Terry:> I argue that the Galton wisdom of crowds is best applied to the final jury, whose members should listen, but not debate, and instead each make independent judgments;…

    This doesn’t seem to make it into your own system, which as far as I can tell requires a social, performative process throughout. Do I have this wrong? Do you submit the results of the social process to a (silent) jury?

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  25. Alex,
    Yes.

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