Landemore: Open Democracy, part 11

This continues the review of Landemore’s treatment of objections to “open democracy” which makes up the last chapter of her book.

3. Tyranny of the majority

“For some readers”, Landemore says (p. 199),

the undemocratic, or at least counter-majoritarian, aspects of electoral, liberal democracy (aka representative democracy) are intended and desirable features, not problems to be solved.

Those readers

fear that promoting a purer democratic regime against electoral democracies risks undoing the minority rights protections built into the liberal core of the latter.

Landemore sees such fears as “legitimate”, but argues that

it is also entirely possible that, by starting with a liberal rather than a democratic framework, the founders of our modern “democracies” have turned the screw too tightly on the elements of popular rule that they have also tried to incorporate (while compounding that mistake by locking the design and throwing away the key with almost impossible-to-revise constitutional entrenchments. (p. 200)

Josiah Ober is then credited with a “recent attempt at drawing a clearer distinction between democracy and liberalism” and approvingly described as having “thus begun to challenge the view that the tradition of political liberalism, and consequently representative government as its central emanation, is the only ideology or historic system that can protect at least certain individual rights and freedoms.” “Pre-liberal, non-representative democracy” – Landemore reassures her readers – “was not all that unstable or even as terribly ‘illiberal’ on the substance […] as is often feared.”

All of this may seem like a step in the right direction or at least stemming from commendable sentiments, but the rhetorical and ideological framework Landemore uses reinforces a surprisingly doctrinaire orthodoxy.

Probably the most fundamental point of the doctrine is that “minority rights protections” are in some way or another “built into the core” of the existing “liberal” system. This deep concern about minority protections was supposedly “balanced” by the founders against a contending concern for democracy. In reality, of course, the only minority that the founders were concerned about was the privileged minority of which they were the representatives. The “liberal” system is thus not a regime which protects weak minorities from a vicious majority which aims to oppress them but rather a regime in which a privileged minority oppresses the majority, as well as many minorities. The nature of the “liberal” system is not merely a historical fact but is in fact an unavoidable consequence of widely accepted principles of how power is used – principles that are hardly in dispute because they are part of the liberal ideology as well. It is a basic tenet of liberalism that power is suspect, that it is used by those who hold it to further their own interests. The notion that a privileged minority would use its power in favor of the weak – rather than to promote its own interests – is thus incredible a-priori, even before examining the history that, expectedly, runs contrary to such a fairy tale. That a respected, and on occasion skeptical, political scientist would adopt such a narrative reveals quite a lot about the state of the discipline.

Parenthetically, it is worth noting that much of the hostility that certain sections in the hoi polloi express toward various minorities, and which the liberals claim to be so concerned about, is caused by the oppressive conditions which the liberal elite itself imposes upon the majority which they disempower. Such oppressive conditions, and the political impotence to resolve them, generate frustration and anger which is often channeled in one way or another toward weak groups within society.

A related part of the doctrine is the idea that the distinction – in fact, the antithesis – between liberalism and democracy is a recent discovery, at least in modernity. The idea that liberalism is an elitist ideology and that the electoral system is an elitist system embodying this ideology dates back at least to the anarchists and communists of the 19th century (if not to the anti-federalists in the 18th century). The fact that this idea has been consistently suppressed has nothing to do, of course, with its validity or with the strength of the evidence which was marshaled to back it up. The only component of the electorally-skeptical argument that is somewhat new (in modern times) is the promotion of a credibly democratic alternative: sortition.

Those among Landemore’s readers who are happy with the “undemocratic, or at least counter-majoritarian, aspects” of the current system are simply expressing an anti-democratic sentiment. This position should be seen and presented for what it is – anti-democratic – rather than misrepresented as being in one way or another “democratic” (supposedly, liberal-democratic or representative-democratic). Arguments can be brought forward for this position and their merits should be discussed – this has been happening for thousands of years, but the pretense that these are compatible with a democratic ideology should be dropped. The counter-arguments should be constructed accordingly.

4. Lack of accountability

Landemore claims (p. 202) that

[e]ven a maximally inclusive and egalitarian democratically representative system still creates a difference between rulers and ruled that will inevitably end up causing trouble.

This categorical statement seems questionable. The creation of such a difference is indeed a risk, but there is no obvious reason to accept that it is an inevitability. The notion that the members of an allotted body come to see themselves as being part of a sequential elite, of becoming ideologically more aligned with past and future allotted members of decision making bodies than with the social groups which they belonged to before they were allotted, seems very far from certain. The certainty with which Landemore predicts such a scenario seems to reflect the situation in the existing electoralist systems, which are inherently oligarchical, rather than be born of a convincing theoretical or historical argument about a sortition-based system. Historically, the sources from Athens, the only precedent we have of democratic allotted representation, show no hint of a suspicion of such a situation.

In fact, as is often the case in Landemore’s narrative, the categorical statement above is qualified or modified elsewhere – leaving the analysis confusing and unfocused. Landemore writes (p. 204) that a psychological mechanism involving “a sense of honor or duty or even fraternity and solidarity” could be counted on to avoid the “trouble” associated with the difference between rulers and ruled. While noting that such a mechanism is undermined by the electoral system which promotes manipulation and cynicism, Landemore further complicates and blurs her analysis by invoking the need for “reputation-based mechanisms of the kind that have proved quite robust in the context of at least some online communities”. This seems to refer some sort of up-vote/down-vote electoralist-like mechanisms. The bottom line if so muddled it is hard to know what institutional arrangements are being considered and what are the arguments that are supposed to motivate them.

All of that being said, it is true the threat of the abuse of power by the allotted cannot be ruled out altogether and “accountability” mechanisms – i.e., mechanisms for deterring the allotted from abusing their power, and for fixing any abuses that do occur – do need to be considered. Landemore claims that deliberation, participatory rights and transparency serve as such mechanisms.

The latter two are really nothing new. By participatory rights it seems Landemore refers to popular initiative-like processes. Why she believes that such a mechanism would motivate delegates to “think hard before suggesting or passing laws that tare likely to be rejected by the larger population” is quite unclear. The claim that such a mechanism “would indeed empower sufficiently motivated minorities to fight against majoritarian mistakes or injustices” is really no more than wishful thinking which is belied by both theoretical analysis and experience. Transparency is of course a good idea, but the notion that lack of it is a major part of the problem with the status quo is very questionable. Furthermore, the real question is not whether transparency is a good idea. That is a truism. The question is what institutional arrangements would guarantee transparency. Landemore does not offer any insights in this regard.

As for deliberation, Landemore says it implies that policy has to be justified, creating “discursive accountability”.

The pressure of arguments – whose “force”, though non-violent, is nonetheless real – means that in a system genuinely governed by deliberative norms and in which deliberation is properly institutionalized, representatives would feel morally and institutionally compelled to provide good reasons for their decisions (p. 203).

This is very weak. By assumption the decision makers in question feel themselves different and deserving of privileges. It appears that the claim is that despite this feeling the decision makers will not be able to articulate “good reasons” for granting themselves those privileges. “Good reasons” in this context means reasons that the decision makers themselves would find convincing. The instinctive self-serving feelings of superiority which are attributed to the decision makers are thus defeated and dissipated by a rational procedure to which they are morally and institutionally committed. This is a reversal of how rationality works. Rationality does not constrain or prevent people from achieving their goals. On the contrary, rationality is a tool for achieving those goals. Thus “good reasons” will be readily available (as they always are) to justify the narrow oligarchical goals, once those are perceived as desirable and justified.

Landemore follow the quote above with the following:

To the extent that they [the decision makers] failed [to provide good reasons for their decisions], as judged for example by an independent citizens’ jury, they could then be liable to a variety of sanctions, from public sanctions to legal penalties.

This undermines the “deliberation” argument further because we are now in fact back to “standard” accountability, which actually makes a lot of sense and seems potentially quite effective in addressing the threat of corruption. The judgement of an independent citizens’ jury now replaces the “non-violent force” of deliberation or rationality. The decision makers now have to convince an independent body that they acted in good faith and justifiably. This in fact is a much more effective accountability mechanism than the supposed “electoral accountability” which, even assuming it works as advertised (which is far from true), merely allows the public to send the corrupt decision makers home keeping their ill-gotten gains. Thus Landemore herself ends up abandoning (and for good reason) the notion that “deliberation” can serve as an accountability mechanism and offers the good old idea of relying on legal or legal-like procedures for accountabilty.

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