Mueller on Landemore

Jan-Werner Mueller, Professor of Politics at Princeton University and author of the recent book “Democracy Rules”, wrote an article in which he reviews Hélène Landemore’s book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the Twenty-First Century (along with a couple of other books that he devotes less space to).

Luckily Mueller’s review focuses on the better points made by Landemore (e.g., that elitism is inherent to elections) rather than on the less convincing parts of the book. (For a detailed review of the strengths and weaknesses of Open Democracy see my series of posts devoted to this book.)

Mueller’s objections to allotted chambers are the following:

  1. Alotted “bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate.”
  2. A sortition-based system “promises inclusion and openness, but it ultimately excludes all who have not been chosen in the process of random selection. In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).”
  3. A “lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.”

Mueller concludes:

In any case, one need not go as far as abolishing elections to see that sortition chambers could play a useful role in situations where highly fraught moral issues need to be debated (as in Ireland’s abortion decision), or where conflicting parties need to set the terms of competition. That could apply to the shape of election districts, salaries for legislators, the overall size of parliaments, or any other issue where professional politicians have a conflict of interest.

5 Responses

  1. They are devastating criticisms of the Landemore project — any sortition program would need to be designed to overcome these objections (or else risk sortition being of only marginal utility). It’s interesting that the third book he reviews is equally critical of sortition, and for similar reasons. I agree with Mueller that sortition needs to be combined with elections — Alex’s work, in line with Mueller’s suggestion, is focused on institutional reforms, rather than abstract philosophical and sociological analysis.

    Yoram:> Mueller’s review focuses on the better points made by Landemore (e.g., that elitism is inherent to elections)

    Mueller argues that the same thing can be said about citizen assemblies:

    they also would form a kind of temporary elite, since it is they – not the rest of us – who ultimately would get to decide matters. . . more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate. . . educated males played a particularly prominent role

    At least elections allow all citizens to select/deselect their own elite agents.

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  2. This idea of allotted representatives constituting a ‘temporary elite’ is really of very limited use. If their elite status is only temporary, their long-term interests are in line with those of comparable situation who were not selected. The real risk is that selection could act as a leg-up into permanent elite status.

    > “Alotted “bodies also can end up favoring the privileged, either because those who feel unqualified will abstain or because more educated and eloquent participants will dominate the debate.””

    As opposed to elected chambers, in which this never happens.

    > “In large countries, many people will never get a turn (indeed, serving would amount to winning the lottery).””

    If all that’s in question is the composition of the national legislature, then yes. It says bad things about either Landemore’s book or the reviewer that the latter isn’t clear that ‘sortitional democracy’ has to mean a top-to-bottom constitutional reconfiguration, rather than a simple one-for-one substitution of allotted for elected representatives at the top. If sortition were employed at every level of government, down to town councils, this would not be a problem.

    > “A “lottocracy might fail to fulfill one of the functions that elections reliably serve: the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting. If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.””

    This is where Keith and Alex have the right idea: an allotted assembly can only play this role if society’s contesting parties (in the broad sense) are able to make their cases before them and feel they get a fair hearing. That’s a role that can be played by an allotted assembly either in a fully deliberative mode, in which the jurors devise their own proposals in response to what they hear, or a purely adjudicative mode, as per Keith and Alex’s model, where they pick between the offered options.

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  3. Oliver:> their long-term interests are in line with those of comparable situation who were not selected.

    The problem is they are (effectively) self-selected and voluntarism combined with small sample sizes will not be a representative sample.

    >If one accepts political realists’ argument that elections are always essentially conducted in the shadow of civil war, the counting process serves to demonstrate the relative strength of each conflicting party.

    This is where there is a profound philosophical difference between “realists” and diehard sortinistas. The former believe that jaw-jaw is a (benign) sublimation of war-war, whereas the latter believe that disagreement is a product of the party system. I guess it’s a case of nature vs nurture (whereas it’s more likely a bit of both).

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  4. As usual, the academic discussion around sortition, in English at least, is superficial and hardly ever moves beyond the most trivial unreflexive talking points.

    To address Mueller’s three objections:

    1. The notion that the “educated and eloquent” would dominate the feeble minded, sheep-like, inarticulate hoi polloi through their rhetorical prowess is of course directly in contradiction of the observed facts and is merely a reflection of the self-flattering notions of the elites that their privileged position is due to their inherent attributes. But if we did imagine that rhetorical domination was somehow a real risk, then surely the academics in their wisdom and sophistication would be able to set the institutional arrangements so as to minimize this risk. Somehow, the wisdom and sophistication of our scientists comes up short at exactly this point, and rhetorical domination is presumed to be an inevitable an immutable feature of human existence.

    2. If “never getting a turn to sit on a high-powered body” would be considered a major defect in a government system, then no government of a large group would be free of this defect, so surely this cannot be what Mueller has in mind when he talks about “inclusion”. Mueller presumably sets his sights much lower – on the right to vote. But then he never explains why having a vote for who will be the ruler is more “inclusive” than having a chance to be the ruler oneself, or any action or right or attribute of citizens in any government system. Why can’t the right to pass an exam and become an influential official in some sort of bureaucratic system not be considered “inclusive”?

    All of this confusion about “inclusion” is of course no more than an indication that “inclusion” is a meaningless formalism that serves no useful purpose in defining or identifying what a democratic system is. Democracy, in fact, is about equal political power as expressed in policy outcomes. A group is democratic if the group’s policies take account of each member’s interests and values equally. The fact that electoralist systems are not democratic is thus easily observable empirically as well as easily understandable theoretically.

    3. Mueller has things exactly backwards when he claims that an electoralist system allows for peaceful conflict resolution while a sortiion-based system does not. Eletoralist systems are, at best, a way to mobilize the masses as arbiters in disputes within the elite. The balance of power between elite factions is set by the ability of the factions to garner votes. Thus the notion that elections allow for “the peaceful resolution of conflict through vote counting” can be sustained only if the conflicts in question are limited ahead of time to intra-elite conflicts. Interests that are in conflict to those of the elite are excluded a-priori.

    In contrast, an allotted chamber does indeed bring into the “political battlefield” forces that are proportional to their prevalence in society and allows those forces to resolve conflicts in ways that are maximally beneficial to all those involved, while allowing each interest and value to be expressed and to impact policy according to their power within society as a whole.

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  5. Yoram,

    1. There is a wealth of evidence from social psychology (along with everyday experience) that persuasive people are more . . . persuasive.

    2. The exclusion from power of those who fail to win the lottery is obvious for all to see (absent mechanisms to ensure ongoing statistical representativity).

    3. Most of the work on sortition presupposes the deliberative paradigm, which privileges the forceless force of the better argument. Realists like Mueller claim that the historical record indicates a more direct type of force and this has nothing to do with elites.

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