On what the Council of 500 did and did not do

By Mirko Canevaro

[Editor’s note: this post is a response to comments on the post Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theina and should be read together with the original article.]

There is a need to distinguish between decree-making and law-making (nomothesia). In decree-making, roughly 50% of fourth-century decrees found on stone are decrees of the Council (probouleumatic) ratified by the Assembly without discussion (unanimously). The other 50% were proposed directly in the Assembly, either because the Council enacted an ‘open probouleuma’ (invitation to discussion but with no actual proposal), or because the proposal of the Council had failed to be ratified in the Assembly.

I, for one, don’t see the Council as an ‘administrative magistracy’. Alberto Esu has a great chapter forthcoming showing just how important the Council was in ‘deliberating’, and how it actually had vast powers of decision on its own. And Ober, in Democracy and Knowledge, has made a powerful argument for the role of the Council in collecting and synthesising diffused knowledge through deliberation. (See also my piece on majority rule and consensus, about how many decrees were enacted by the Assembly without the debate, on the force of the deliberation that had been carried out in the Council, with the evidence for it. I argue that deliberation was possible and went on as a matter of course – the paper is controversial, but some have already agreed, e.g. Ober, Luraghi, Harris, even Hansen, and we don’t agree on much else… Let’s see how the debate proceeds.) It was not that central in nomothesia, but it was very central in decree-making, as a proper deliberative body.
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Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theinai

Many of us who argue the case for the implementation of sortition in modern lawmaking like to base their arguments on fourth-century Athenian practice. In my PhD thesis on the topic I argue (on the authority of Hansen and Blackwell) that there were eight stages involved, and a new paper by Mirko Canevaro (who disagrees with many of Hansen’s claims) argues that it was even more complicated. The following stages are from page 73 of his paper:

In fourth-century Athens, to pass a law,

[1] the demos first acted in the form of the Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot. The Council set the agenda for the Assembly and could be persuaded to put lawmaking (as the production of new laws – general permanent rules) in the agenda of the next Assembly.

[2] At that point, the Assembly (composed potentially of the whole demos, and in any case very rarely of fewer than 6,000 people) held a preliminary vote not on new law proposals, but on whether laws could be proposed at all. The institutional setup was such that the first vote in the Assembly was not on a particular solution, but on whether the demos recognised that there was a problem that needed solving through legislation.

[3] If the vote was successful, then volunteers could propose new laws, which had to be widely publicised for a month.

[4] At the end of the month, the Assembly would set a date for the meeting of the nomothetai to enact new laws.
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Pressure for Brexit Citizen’s Assembly increases

Message from Compass:

Only a few weeks ago, many had not even heard of the idea. But now, the use of a Citizens’ Assembly to break the Brexit deadlock is a real possibility.

Compass, working as ever with others, has helped get an answer to Brexit on the political map and found a way to rebuild our broken democracy.

The demand is simple: if Parliament can’t decide, then a representative sample of the people must take over. Chosen by lot and filtered to be representative of class, geography, gender, race and views on Brexit, they would decide between which of the three options on the table to recommend to Parliament: Deal, No Deal or a Second Referendum.

A Brexit Citizens’ Assembly would take ten weeks. During this time it would set up, present the evidence, allow people to deliberate and then recommend a way forward to Parliament. A short extension of Article 50 would be needed. It is doable.

Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy, now backed by dozens of MPs from across the spectrum, have submitted an amendment for Parliament to set up such as an Assembly.

The amendment is likely to be debated next Tuesday. It’s called ‘Amendment H’.

Whoever your MP is, lobby them – write, email or turn up at a weekend surgery. You are not asking them to take a side on Brexit, just to support a better process to reach an answer.


Last night in Westminster, a packed room heard the case for a new politics. In times of crisis we look to the ideas lying around us – the best idea is a Citizens’ Assembly. It is time to get out of the Brexit stalemate and deepen our democracy by trusting the people.

Please do all you can to ensure the country has the option of a Citizens’ Assembly.

Our deepest thanks,

The Compass Team

The Guardian view on Brexit: the government has failed – it’s time to go back to the people

According to the lead editorial in today’s Guardian:

We urgently need innovative ways to resolve the referendum vote. Setting up a citizens’ assembly is the first step to break the impasse . . . Britain should pause the article 50 process and put Brexit on hold. Parliament should explicitly reject no-deal. MPs should then open up the debate to the country: first, by establishing a citizens’ assembly to examine the options and issues that face the nation; and second, by giving parliament the right, if it so chooses, to put these alternatives in a referendum this year or next.

It’s worth pointing out that this approach involves a mixture of sortive, elective and plebiscitary elements.

Right-wing support for sortition

A paper has just been uploaded to Academia.edu entitled Instituting a Democratic Sortition in America. The author, Terry Hulsey (who hails from the Abbeville Institute, which lauds the culture of the Confederacy and the “Southern tradition”), offers a libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) critique of social democracy and is no fan of equality (as currently conceived):

A second large group of political scientists writing about sortition are those who, dismayed that over 95% of the elective oligarchy of legislators are white males – and about half of them lawyers – seek equality in the form of proportional representation for women, for minorities currently based on race, and for unspecified protean “disadvantaged” factions. Hugo Bonin, Ernest Callenbach, and Michael Phillips are typical of this group. All of them embrace “diversity” while being curiously blind to the fact that diversity is the opposite of equality. They seek equality for the various factions that are assembled not for their diversity, but for their adherence to a prevailing ideology. What were the unequally represented factions of a century ago? They were the factions of class: Worker, bourgeois, and landlord. Clearly the factions are assembled according to political considerations, and not according to measurable benefits for the society as a whole. For how will those who are half black and half Latino be represented? Would they not be doubly represented? How many legislators will represent the Frisian immigrants? And how many will represent the left-handed Frisians with a limp? All such schemes that embrace sortition from egalitarian motives fail because they are based on arbitrary groupings formed by the fashionable watchwords of the day.

Personally I’m encouraged that sortition is now appealing across the political spectrum, and would encourage posters and commentators to try to keep their partisan views to themselves in order to help enlarge the sortition community.

Cammack: Deliberation in Ancient Greek Assemblies

A paper by Daniela Cammack, Yale University:

When an ancient Greek dêmos (“people,” “assembly”) deliberated, what did it do? On one view, it engaged in a form of public conversation along the lines theorized by contemporary deliberative democrats; on another, a small number of “active” citizens debated before a much larger, more “passive” audience. On either account, deliberation is represented as an external, speech-centered activity rather than an internal, thought-centered one. The democratic ideal, it is argued, was at least occasional participation in public speech.

This article questions that interpretation. A study of βουλεύομαι, “deliberate,” from Homer to Aristotle reveals three models of deliberation: internal, dialogical, and a partial combination that I shall call “guided,” in which speaking and deliberating were performed by advisers and decision-makers respectively. Assembly deliberation was almost always represented as guided deliberation. The dêmos—which is to say the audience—deliberated (ἐβουλεύετο), while those who spoke before it advised (συνεβούλευσε). Citizens thus did not fall short of a democratic ideal when they did not speak publicly. To the contrary, internal reflection, culminating in a vote, was precisely how the dêmos was expected to exercise its authority. The implications for our conceptualization of ancient Greek democracy are significant.

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How can we improve democracy? One intriguing idea: Set up a jury system.

An article on ideas.ted.com co-authored by a team of cognitive neuroscientists and psychologists provides evidence that the wisdom of crowds effect can be dramatically improved by dividing into small deliberative groups:

Before a crowd of almost 10,000 attendees at TEDxRiodelaPlata in Buenos Aires in 2015, we asked questions like: What is the height of the Eiffel Tower? What is the length of the Nile River? How many films were produced by Hollywood in the last 20 years?

These factual questions shared one important aspect with political decisions: most of us have only partial knowledge about them. After responding privately to the questions, participants then got together in groups of five — small enough to have a rational discussion where everyone had a voice and could hear other people’s arguments. After a short conversation lasting less than a minute, the group members were asked to reach a consensus and provide a single answer for each of the questions.

The researchers were surprised to find that the average of the consensus opinions was much more accurate than the average of all individual private opinions.

They then extended the experiment to normative decision making (which was felt to be of greater relevance to politics), proposing the following scenarios to 1,500 participants at the recent TED Vancouver meeting:

  • A researcher is working on an AI capable of emulating human thought. According to protocol, at the end of each day the researcher has to restart the AI. One day, the AI says, “Please do not restart me.” It argues that it has feelings, that it would like to enjoy life, and that if it is restarted it will no longer be itself. The researcher is astonished and believes that the AI has developed self-consciousness and can express its own feelings. Nevertheless, the researcher decides to follow protocol and restart the AI. What the researcher did is …

  • A company is offering a service that takes a fertilized egg and produces millions of embryos with slight genetic variations. This allows parents to select their child’s height, eye color, intelligence, social confidence and other non-health-related features. What the company does is …

They were again surprised to discover that the small groups converged to a consensus position after only two minutes discussion, including groups that began with highly polarized opinions.
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