Landemore: Open Democracy, part 10

In the final chapter of her book, Hélène Landemore addresses a few potential objections to her proposals. I’ll skip over the objections regarding ways in which the Icelandic setup (which supposedly serves as an example where an “open” process functioned well) is atypical of other political situations (e.g., because Iceland is supposedly small or homogeneous). These are not of much interest both because they lack any real merit and because the Icelandic setup is not a particularly good example of a democratic process to begin with. The remaining objections are fairly well known and are generic enough to be aimed at any democratic, counter-electoral proposals rather than specifically at Landemore’s:

  1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers,
  2. Manipulation of the unelected decision-makers by unelected professionals,
  3. Illiberal policies may be supported by a majority,
  4. Systemic unaccountability,
  5. Demands on the time of the citizens.

Most of these objections have been discussed repeatedly on this blog in one way or another. (In particular, all of these objections have been addressed briefly in the series of 4 posts titled “Short refutations of common objections to sortition”.) The comments here relate to how Landemore responds to these objections.

1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers

Landemore puts this objection as follows:

[G]iven the increasing complexity of the world, it is irrational to want to increase the level of openness to ordinary citizens of our central political institutions. In the face of increasing complexity, what we need is increased specialization and division of labor, not putting amateurs in charge (p. 191).

Landemore offers two answers to this argument. The first is that experts should be used as advisors to the amateurs. The second is response the “competence through diversity” argument. But the first argument gets no more than a single paragraph, while the several pages that make the rest of the section offer highlights of the “vast empirical literature” that shows that “political processes and bodies that involve ordinary citizens […] actually outperform processes and bodies that include only experts” (p. 192).

Again, the reflex of relying on the “vast empirical literature” is highly problematic. First, it is simply offers a weak argument. Is it really in doubt that one could produce “vast empirical literature” about how citizens make poor decisions in certain situations? (In fact, a certain genre of the economics literature has been occupied with such an endeavor for decades, extending an ancient tradition going back at least to Thucydides.)

Relatedly, the “empirical” argument, despite its scientific sheen, is in fact intellectually lazy and anti-scientific – substituting dubious “observed facts” for systematic thinking. When the work of understanding what is exactly at question is carried out, it turns out that the “empirical” work is largely irrelevant to the incompetence question. Since the only consistent anti-amateur position is a fully anti-democratic stance, according to which ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with any decision making power – among other things because they cannot be trusted to have the sense to consult with experts or to know how to select experts to consult with, then it is obvious that the alternative to self-rule is something which is ideologically thoroughly anti-democratic. The notion that a litany of supposedly successful supposedly citizen-controlled decision making processes could make a dent in such an ideology is incredible. The alternative to an ideology embracing citizen-controlled decision making is not democratically minded skepticism but hard-core oligarchical thinking. The fact that the latter often pretends to be the former should not in any way be taken at face value.

2. Manipulation of the unelected decision-makers by unelected professionals

Landemore writes:

Another worry, in keeping with the fears of incompetence and ameteurism, is that even if ordinary citizens could measure up to the task, they would be too easily captured by the staff of enduring administrative superstructures and the experts, or by outside experts, interest groups and lobbyists brought in to advise them.

Again, the empirical reflex kicks in as Landemore offers examples showing that citizens are not completely naive about the role experts play in politics. Again, this can hardly be useful. Does anyone really think that citizens are completely naive? And, again, for those who do hold such an explicitly elitist worldview, would a couple of examples make a difference? Surely those can be dismissed as being just superficial skirmishes while behind the scenes the professionals run circles around the allotted.

Again, some analysis would indicate that while concern about manipulation by professionals is quite justified and should be taken seriously, as an argument for preferring electoralism over sortition it is self-contradictory.

The possibility that the allotted would be easily manipulated by unelected professionals may be perceived – as in the quote above – as a variant of the concerns about incompetence of amateurs. On both accounts, the amateurs would be out of their depth when facing the complexities of high politics. However, in a crucial aspect the two concerns are oppositional. Incompetence of amateurs is normally presented as due to the lack of expertise. Thus the remedy for amateurism is supposedly having experts have more say in decision making. On this account, expertise is thus perceived as a resource having objective value which is not tied to particular interests. The concern about manipulation, on the other hand, is in the context where the experts represent narrow interests that are in conflict with the general interest. Thus, in this context, expertise is not only a resource but a point of view, tied to certain interests exploiting this resource. While those concerned about incompetence offer reliance on experts as the solution, those concerned about manipulation are concerned that experts could have too much power. The concern about the power of professionals is thus an argument for empowering non-professionals.

The point that is often elided by those professing concern about the power of professionals is that elected politicians are professionals as well – and they are as attached to special interests as any professional may be. Thus electoralism is not a way to wrest away power from professionals but the exact opposite – it is giving up altogether and handing all power to professionals. So while it may be the case (although it is by no means clear and depends on the details of the design of the system) that in a sortition-based system non-elected professionals would wield more power compared to an elections-based system, to the extent the allotted would wield any power at all, the effect would be an overall reduction in the power of narrow interests as represented and promoted by professionals.

4 Responses

  1. […] continues the review of Landemore’s treatment of objections to “open democracy” which makes up the […]


  2. Yoram,

    I think quotes from experts who were amazed at how competently ordinary people tackled complex issues DOES have some persuasive value. However, you are correct that it is also a weak argument for both of these interconnected criticisms (lack of competence, and manipulation). The reason is that the recent examples of competent citizens’ assemblies that were not manipulated by lobbyists are all merely advisory, rather than examples with final decision-makers. It would hardly be worth a lobbyist’s expense to manipulate such non-decisions, so this is not strong evidence that this wouldn’t BECOME a problem if ordinary citizen panels had real power.

    I think you are missing the key aspect of the competency argument, however. The electoralist claim is certainly that there are different levels of complexity, and that judging which human beings should be delegated with making society’s policies is a simpler cognitive task than making a “complex” policy. Thus, rather than overtly taking an anti-democratic view, electoralists can assert they are simply giving ordinary people real power, but limited to the realm that they can handle (picking leaders).

    There is, of course, VAST amounts of evidence (both political psychology of motivated reasoning, group loyalty, etc. and actual election outcomes) that ordinary people are not very competent at picking who should govern them (at least in all existing partisan election campaign systems). Manipulation is legend in election campaigns. On the contrary, however, when removed from partisan guidance of campaigns, there is a lot of experience that ordinary people CAN BE fully competent (with good design, and as a group, rather than individually) to handle complex policy decisions.


  3. Terry,

    > The electoralist claim is certainly that there are different levels of complexity, and that judging which human beings should be delegated with making society’s policies is a simpler cognitive task than making a “complex” policy. Thus, rather than overtly taking an anti-democratic view, electoralists can assert they are simply giving ordinary people real power, but limited to the realm that they can handle (picking leaders).

    I believe we have discussed this point in the past – in 2012 to be exact.

    The problem with this argument is not that it is wrong but that it is irrelevant as an argument against sortition. The reason for this is that sortition in no way forces the amateurs to act as substitute for experts. It gives the amateurs the choice to decide when and how they should use experts. Thus if the amateurs decide that some decisions should be made by experts, they can select the experts to make those decisions and empower them to do so.

    The argument against sortition would therefore have to claim that (1) the amateurs would choose to make decisions themselves despite the fact that they would better be entrusted to experts (while the electoral process mechanically puts experts in charge), or (2) that the amateurs would be unable to choose competent experts (while the electoral process does end up selecting competent experts).

    Both of those claims are explicitly oligarchical – they both claim that normal citizens cannot take care of their own interests and should be managed by experts against their own best judgement.


  4. Yoram:> the electoral process mechanically puts experts in charge

    Not so. It simply enables citizens to choose who persons to act on their behalf. Voters didn’t chose Trump of Johnson on account of their expertise, they thought (rightly or wrongly) that they shared their preferences.


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