Landemore: Open Democracy, part 4

Landemore describes (p. 34) Bernard Manin’s analysis of the electoralist regime as a mixed regime whose oligarchical element is the use of elections which favor those who have a chance to be elected and whose democratic elements are the periodic renewal of the mandate and – to a lesser extent – from the principle of the freedom of opinion and from public debate of ideas. She then discusses how this regime is defended by two normative political scientists: Nadia Urbinati and Jurgen Habermas.

For Urbinati this regime is democratic because representation is “a mode of participation that can activate a variety of forms of control and oversight”. The representatives supposedly give voice to their voters and create an alignment between voters’ wishes and actual policy outcomes. Landemore rejects this “metaphorical” participation as being unconvincing.

Landemore describes Habermas’s model as resting on deliberation in two tracks – the mass track and the decision-making track. Landemore sees the model as lacking an explanation of how the mass track influences the decision-making track in a meaningful way. Even if it did, she asks, how is the unregulated mass discussion a proper way to set the decision-making agenda? In particular, mass deliberation inevitably leads, Landemore says, to the formation of parties and thus to partisanship which is antithetical to deliberation.

In short, Landemore points out, what seems like a fairly straightforward point, that “deliberative democracy” is some combination of naive wishful thinking and apologia for the status quo. What is less straightforward is why, given that Landemore recognizes that this is the case, she continues to “embrace” this theory of democracy.

The road not taken

In the second section of chapter 2 Landemore asks why the new regimes of the end of the 18th century represented an ideology of competence of virtue of the leadership rather than an ideology of mirroring of the people or a leadership which is “the people in miniature” – when both ideologies were available and discussed at the time. One possible answer, which Landemore attributes to Yves Sintomer, is that the missing ingredient was a grasp of statistical sampling. Another answer is Manin’s claim that the notion of consent of governed, expressed through voting, was dominant.

Again, the notion that the choice of a ruling class of setting up a system that reproduces its power rather than a democratic system needs to be explained as being the result of circumstantial ideological constraints must be attributed to subservience to establishment propriety. The most straightforward and conventional explanation – that power is in general devoted to self-reproduction and that it would have been greatly surprising if voluntary democratization would have been undertaken by the ruling class – is not even mentioned. The fact that such a glaring omission can be made by a serious researcher is a testimony to the awesome power of the establishment and of orthodoxy.

Cognitive diversity, it turns out

The next couple of pages (p. 41-42) rehearse the cognitive diversity argument against electoralism. The problem is, the argument goes, that system set up in the 18th century “corresponds to a dated understanding of what makes groups smart”. Modern science tells us that “under certain conditions, cognitive diversity turns out to be more crucial to the problem-solving abilities of a group than does the average competence of its individual members”.

This is an extremely weak and dangerous ground to base a democratic theory on. At the outset, it concedes a-priori that some people have superior “competence” to others. Luckily, “it turns out” that this does not matter. At least “in certain circumstances”. Presumably we will be reading carefully those recent research papers to see how convincing the evidence is that “diversity” is more crucial than average competence, how “diversity” and “average competence” are measured, and under what circumstance this is true. Will we retract our democratic demands if in new research it turns out that diversity is not that important after all?

Beyond the danger of pinning one’s normative theory on recent empirical “findings”, the notion that some groups are “smart” and others are not is in itself anti-democratic. Assuming, as Landemore does, that the problems to solve are agreed upon, and that the objectives of the problem-solvers are agreed upon, the cognitive diversity argument asserts that some groups of problem solvers are incompetent – they are unable to represent well their own interests and would be better off if others did it for them. This is a radically undemocratic idea. The fact that the supposedly “smarter” group is the more diverse one may appeal to contemporary liberal sensibilities, but this is merely a gloss over the fact that the same argument – that some people are better off represented by others – is the classic elitist position. The claim that some people cannot represent their own interests is anti-democratic, regardless of who those people are.

8 Responses

  1. *** I agree wholly with Yoram Gat when he rejects founding the legitimacy of the democracy upon the supposed epistemological superiority of the diverse demos. If we consider it is the paramount parameter, we are logically leaning towards some kind of plural vote, to give more weight to people more away from the median citizen, and not to the equal vote of the democratic formula.

    *** That said, the epistemological argument has some interest against the elitist idea :“Let’s give power to a selected smart elite. Even if they favor too much their particular interests, they will handle the common interests much better than ordinary citizens”. Actually to be selected and to form a restricted, inevitably self-centered group, will lead to drawbacks even from an intellectual point of view. The “best and brightest” will not lead to the best and brightest policy, even for their own interests

    *** Let’s remember Krugman in 2016 just after Trump’s election « What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in ». A mini-populus would include some members less intellectually bright than Krugman, but they would at least have best knowledge of their common country, and we may hope they will be less prone to “group stupidity”, which is heightened by the idea of the group superiority.

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  2. André,

    > the epistemological argument has some interest against the elitist idea

    As I wrote, the “diverse groups are smarter” claim is in fact validating the elitist idea that some people cannot represent themselves. Once we grant that the social scientists can tell us who can represent themselves and who cannot, we are deep into elitist, anti-democratic territory.

    At the same time we are validating the notion that in our society “we are in this together” and that it is competence that matters rather than interests or values. Somehow this idea that would be seen as absurd if applied to “authoritarian regimes” (i.e., official enemies) is taken seriously when thinking about our own society.

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  3. Too often people blend at least three distinctly different but essential parts of policy making. The fact that these three functions are traditionally all lumped into one basket that an all-purpose elected legislature handles is a bad design, even if the legislature were selected by lot. The three tasks are: agenda, drafting, and approval. Establishing an agenda of what needs to be decided in the next period of time is first. Competence for devising good ways to tackle problems (setting aside for now whether diversity, university education, noble family lineage, or other factor is important) is a second part. And judging whether a proposed policy is in the community interest is a third part. The process of drafting a proposal makes those people unable to impartially judge their own handiwork, so the drafters should never be the final judges. Making these final decisions should be done by democratic mini-publics. Setting the agenda also must be done by democratic mini-publics. I am convinced the middle drafting part should be attempted by a large number of different groupings, so that the next democratic review has lots of alternative raw material to consider. However, there is more than one way to skin that cat. I can even imagine in the not too distant future having AI super computers also drafting a variety of possible policies that could achieve a certain public goal, which mini-publics could consider.

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  4. *** Yoram Gat says he does not want to validate “ the notion that in our society “we are in this together” and that it is competence that matters rather than interests or values. Somehow this idea that would be seen as absurd if applied to “authoritarian regimes” (i.e., official enemies) is taken seriously when thinking about our own society.”
    *** Actually the competence argument is not absurd, and may be taken seriously, either about “our societies” or for instance, the Chinese autocracy. Notwithstanding their official hostility to it, I feel some parts of our elites are charmed by its “efficiency”. Or, maybe, they like to speak about it because they are not really afraid of this model, and they like to put political debate about the subject of competence, with the idea of putting the supposed elite competence vs common citizens incompetence.
    *** The competence argument is not absurd, whatever oligarchizing propensions it covers. If we think true democracies would have handle the COVID pandemics in a much less efficient way (it seems difficult !), it would be a serious argument for polyarchy. Therefore the competence issue, even if it is not central to the democratic idea, is not to be dismissed.

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  5. André,

    It’s not that competence is completely unimportant. But it is meaningless to consider competence without considering representativity at the same time. If government represents my interests and values then it would be useful if it were competent. If government does not represent my interests and values then the question whether it is competent is hardly of any importance. In some situations I would prefer such a body to be incompetent.

    The focus on competence is therefore a way to mask the crucial issue of representation.

    > our elites […] like to put political debate about the subject of competence, with the idea of putting the supposed elite competence vs common citizens incompetence.

    Exactly. This is an area of discussion in which they feel themselves comfortable. This is a useless, anti-democratic debate that has been going on for thousands of years and the elites would be happy for it to continue indefinitely. The diversity argument is just another round of this discussion.

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  6. Yoram, your reading of this chapter is quite ungenerous. She says the AntiFederalist did NOT WIN THE IDEOLOGICAL BATTLE because THEY DID NOT HAVE THE CONCEPTUAL TOOLS to make a coherent argument, because they were missing sortiiton and a theory of statistical sampling. The Federalists, who won, had no need of this because they were anti-democratict through and through.

    She still embraces “deliberation” because that is what she sees–as do most of us on EbL–ORDINARY CITIZENS doing within and outside of mini-publics especially at the agenda setting level. Deliberation as opposed to merely voting or merely consenting.

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  7. Ahmed,

    > the AntiFederalist did NOT WIN THE IDEOLOGICAL BATTLE because THEY DID NOT HAVE THE CONCEPTUAL TOOLS to make a coherent argument, because they were missing sortiiton and a theory of statistical sampling

    As I wrote, the main problem with this argument is not that it is very unconvincing (through it is – the Athenians did not have a theory of statistical sampling either) but the notion that such a circumstantial argument is considered necessary. The “ideological battle” in favor of oligarchy was won in the same way it is always won – oligarchy tends to defend its power. Why would an oligarchy adopt a system that strips it of power?

    What is more interesting (but is not discussed in the book [up to the point I have read it so far]) is that the founders apparently did not foresee that much as they attempt to buttress their proposed system from the threat of democracy, their elitist electoralist system does promote a democratic ideology and that this creates a constant unresolved tension in their system, bringing us to the current “crisis of democracy” (and similar crises in the past).

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  8. Ahmed:> She still embraces “deliberation” because that is what she sees–as do most of us on EbL–ORDINARY CITIZENS doing within and outside of mini-publics especially at the agenda setting level.

    I wonder if that is how most people on EbL see the role of sortition — Alex and I have argued strongly against this view. I’d love to know what the majority view on EBL is on whether a discussion between a handful of self-selecting “ordinary citizens” is a form of representative democracy.

    Yoram:> The “ideological battle” in favor of oligarchy was won in the same way it is always won

    The battle was over the ratification of the US constitution — both camps (all of them “elite” authors) published their contributions to the debate in newspapers and the Madisonian faction won the argument as the Antifederalist view was felt to be “wildly impractical” (for the reasons that Helene and Ahmed have provided):

    Is it practicable for a country so large and so numerous … to elect a representation that will speak their sentiments, without their becoming so numerous as to be incapable of transacting public business? … [A] legislature, formed of representatives from the respective parts, would not only be too numerous to act with any care or decision, but would be composed of such heterogeneous and discordant principles, as would constantly be contending with each other (Brutus, 1981)

    Ref:
    ===
    Brutus. (1981). Letter to the New York Journal, 18 Oct. 1787. In H. J. Storing (Ed.), The Anti-Federalist (pp. 114-115). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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