Confessions of a Traitor to the Cause: Some reflections looking back from John Burnheim

As I struggle with my ninety-fifth year, I would like to beg forgiveness from the true believers in sortition.

Nearly forty years ago, in 1985, I published the book Is Democracy Possible? with the subtitle The Alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. The sortitionists believed that the alternative could only be to reject the electoral system and replace it by sortition. The will of the people could be expressed only by the people themselves, so they assumed I must support that view.

In fact what the book advocated was something different, but it was so far outside the mainstream that it attracted little attention. There is no point in offering answers to questions people, apart from a few anarchists, don’t ask. Everybody assumed that democracy was a matter of ensuring that the power of the state is invested in the nation’s people. Anybody who denied that was a traitor to democracy.

My contention was that the real problem was the concentration of all public goods in the powers of the state. Those who agreed with me on that point usually assumed that the only alternative was to manage the power of money to protect the rights of the owners of property — radical capitalism. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), claimed that the public goods that the state did not provide could be provided on a moral basis by the rich. This was hardly a prescription for democracy. Clearly public goods are very important to human life. Many public goods are conventions that evolve from the interactions of people as unplanned byproducts. Our languages are the obvious example. However in complex technological societies, many of the goods we need to have at our disposal must involve rational choices between different possibilities that are accepted by all those who need them.

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 13/13

Landemore concludes her book in chapter 9. Looking at this chapter and looking back at the entire book’s narrative, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book’s promise was not lived up to. By this point it seems that not much remains of the book’s original radical spirit. Gone in this conclusion is the most subversive part of Landemore’s narrative – the hints that the status quo, the elections-based system produces terrible outcomes. Also gone is the radical insistence on political equality. Other than some non-committal language about “an open door” connecting representatives and society at large, in the conclusion “open democracy” seems to boil down to three institutions – allotted bodies, popular initiative processes and delegative voting. Landemore writes that “open democracy” means that ordinary citizens “have access to power”. But of course it may be argued – and conventionally it is argued – that voting is also a form of “access to power”. Why is voting in the initiative process or though vote delegation a better form of “access” than conventional voting?

The concluding chapter is mostly concerned with issues that are only tangentially related to the topics discussed in the book. A concluding chapter can be expected to contain some “future directions” – ideas that were not explored in the book but which are somehow relevant to the topics that were discussed. These future directions, however, should stem from a concise summary of the conclusions that were drawn from the preceding discussion. The conclusions should position the reader at a new vantage point from which the future directions can be pursued. Unfortunately, such a new vantage point is missing. In particular, Landemore devotes a fair amount of space in the chapter to a discussion of the role of nation-states in governance, the inclusivity of the demos, and other sites of power such as corporate power. This discussion, however, does not build on previously discussed topics and does not go beyond the standard claims and arguments made. The claim, for example, that “there seems to be a logic to democracy that is conducive to universal inclusion” and that “[t]his logic eats away at the closed borders of a nationally defined demos and cracks them open” (p. 210) is a questionable commonplace, rather than an idea that builds on the main arguments of the book.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 12

The final objection to “open democracy” which Landemore considers in chapter 8 of her book is that a non-electoral system would be too demanding on people’s time and effort. Landemore does not explicitly do so, but it seems useful to differentiate between the demands made on the population in total, or on average, and the demands made on specific people. A system may be problematic if it requires the average citizen to invest more time and effort than the average citizen sees fit. But even in cases where the demand on average is low, there may be problems if some citizens (even a small number) are asked to put in more time and effort than they are willing to put in.

Landemore rightly emphasizes that “it is essential to consider citizens’ time and attention as scarce resources that must be used wisely”. The notion that it makes sense, or even commendable and serves some ideal of citizenship or democracy, for citizens to show up to mass meetings or mass political events of any kind must be firmly rejected. This is not “participation” but exploitation. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for other forms of powerless “participation”, quite a few of which Landemore “makes room for” (p. 206) in her let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach. Spending time on a “crowdsourced platform” (p. 206), for example, or even sitting on an “agenda-setting” or “proposal review” body which is one of thousands of such bodies, meaning that its output is diluted thousands of times, is also a meaningless, exploitative anti-democratic ritual.
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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.”
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The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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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).
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 9

Chapter 7 of Open Democracy presents Hélène Landemore’s assessment of the constitution-writing process in Iceland that took place following the 2008 financial crisis. Landemore describes this process as “the first domino of the classic electoral democracy model to fall toward a more open democracy model at a national level”. This seems to me to be a highly over-optimistic assessment of the significance of the process. First, this process was a dud, its outcomes being eventually dismissed by the Icelandic parliament. But more importantly, this was conceived from the outset as a one-off process, not a fundamental change for how things are done. Furthermore, this one-off process dealt in very abstract subjects – phrasing articles of a constitution. By construction it was clear that would not be able to serve as template for the workings of anything like a sortition-based policy making body. The idea of radical democratization (by abolishing elections or at least creating a sortition-based co-equal chamber) was never on the agenda. Thus, the entire discussion in the chapter – and below in this post – should be understood in this light. This was not a momentous occasion whose outcomes did or could have affected how politics is done. The analysis is therefore mostly a theoretical exercise. (A detailed analysis of the workings of the French CCC – which dealt with setting practical policy – could be much more instructive in this sense.)

With this diminished significance, even a radically democratic process would hardly justify the notion that it would serve as a “first domino”. However, as the analysis below indicates, the process itself is far from living up to an aspiration as serving, if not as a template or a model of a democratic process, then at least as an inspiration. Landemore’s celebratory tone is wholly unwaranted.

As Landemore describes the Icelandic process, it had three innovative “open” aspects: the National Forum – an allotted body that met for one day and “established the main viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organization of the country’s government and its constitution”, the assembly of amateurs – a body elected from among candidates that were not incumbent professional politicians and which was to draft a proposal for the constitution, and the crowdsourcing phase – an online platform on which the assembly of amateurs would post drafts of the constitution to which the public could post feedback comments on the platform itself or on social media platforms.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 8

Chapter 6 of Open Democracy presents “institutional principles” of “open democracy” – Landemore’s ideal system. These are aimed to be compared and contrasted with the principles of “assembly democracy” – the Athenian system, and with the principles of “representative democracy” – the present day electoralist system.

“Assembly democracy” and “representative democracy”

The initial section describing the principles of the Athenian system and of the electoralist system presents a rather conventional view of both those systems. The names used for as labels for those systems are themselves more easily attributable to convention than to their descriptive power. The Athenian system is labeled “assembly democracy”, putting the emphasis in that system, following convention, on the assembly. Landemore does mention the “less often remarked upon” equality of “opportunity to participate in the agenda-setting Council of 500”, but this remains a detail rather than a focal point. The electoralist system is labeled “representative democracy” and is presented as having a commitment to “equality” despite the fact that equality not only is far from the reality of this system but was also explicitly denied as a design goal at the outset.

The conventional approach persists throughout the description of those systems. There is the supposed contrast between “constitutionally entrenched” modern individual rights and the lack of those in Athens. It is far from clear that this conventional contrast is more than apologia for the modern system. In terms of either “institutional principles” or ideology it would in fact be hard to show that such a contrast exists. The Spartan sympathizers in Athens, for example, enjoyed freedom of expression and action that are almost unimaginable in modern “democratic” societies.

Another conventional contrast that Landemore adopts is in the attitudes toward the majority principle. Landemore says that majoritarianism was wholly embraced by the Athenians but is embraced with reservations in the modern system, where it is supposedly feared for potential of “tyranny of the majority”. It is true that “representative democracy” is historically ideologically anti-democratic and thus anti-majoritarian. However, this is a vestigial feature of the modern system and in its contemporary form “representative democracy” is ideologically democratic – and thus committed to majority rule – even if it is substantively oligarchical.
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The True Representation Pledge

This is the final chapter from my book published last year entitled “True Representation: How Citizens’ Assemblies and Sortition Will Save Democracy.”

What if we were to demand that every candidate for President, Senate and House of Representatives sign a True Representation Pledge? The pledge strategy can be used in any election, in any country, at the national, state, provincial or local level, wherever people want to demonstrate the potential of sortition and citizens’ assemblies, by targeting an important issue that politicians cannot resolve.

In signing the pledge, each candidate would promise, upon being elected to office, that:

  • They would quickly enact legislation to authorize and fund a national (or state, provincial or local) citizens’ assembly to decide an important issue, identified for the pledge.
  • The citizens’ assembly would be conducted with a briefing book prepared to fairly represent the pros and cons of a wide range of views on the chosen issue.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 7

Having argued in Chapter 3 that all mass democracy is representative (i.e., cannot be based on mass participation on a basis of equality), Landemore proceeds in chapters 4 and 5 to offer an analysis of representation which aims to determine which mechanisms of representation should be considered as good. The idea, it seems, is to define criteria for good representation that would allow the examination various forms of representation – electoral, allotted, self-selected, “liquid” – and assess their quality. Doing so we will “complicate our understanding of democratic representation” (p. 80) and allow us to overcome the established habit of regarding electoral representation as the only good representation.

All of this may seem like a constructive way to proceed, but in fact it is a framing of the question of government and democracy that is already committed to a set of problematic conventional assumptions. This framework conceives of government as being created through an act of delegation of power by individuals to representatives and thus focuses on the supposed act of delegation as the critical point which needs to be analyzed and rationalized. This leads to a formalistic discussion regarding the notion of representation and regarding formal properties of the mechanism of appointment of representatives. The author then finds herself encumbered by a set of questions to which the answers are often blurry or unsatisfactory. With this formalistic focus, government as an ongoing phenomenon in the world – its policy outcomes, primarily, but in general the role government plays in the world – is sidelined, ignored almost entirely. The result is a morass of “analytical hair-splitting” (Landemore’s own expression, p. 108), which does produce a lot of complication but despite much effort produces little insight.

Landemore follows convention, then, by putting heavy emphasis on the notion of a “representative” – someone (or some group) being recognized as “standing in for” a group (or for another group). This notion which is supposedly fundamental serves no useful purpose in the discussion as far as I can tell. A-priori it is unclear that such a “standing in for” relationship is necessary for government in general or for good government in particular. This is thus a poor starting point. Having started with “representation”, Landemore now spends her effort on defining what democratic representation is (representation that is “characterized by inclusiveness and equality”) and what legitimate representation is (representation that has been “properly authorized”). At the outset neither of these characteristics seem clearly meaningful or useful, and the lengthy discussion that ensues does little to dispel this suspicion. It is also rather surprising that in this theory of representation the matter of deliberation – which was so prominent in previous chapters – plays a very minor role.
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