Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 5/5

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

(ii) Constitutional workshops, a practical tool for popular education for training a multitude of citizen constitution-writers, guardians of the common good

Representative government (falsely called “representative democracy” – a deceptive oxymoron) is a regime of domination of the voters by the elected, was never willfully adopted and was imposed from the outset by the elected (Sieyes, Madison, etc.). The solution will not come from the elected, who are the problem since they usurp the constitutive power. The solution must come from elsewhere: from the citizens themselves.

The emancipation of the voters, their transformation into citizens, demands the institution of their political empowerment and it should therefore be the voters who practice constitution-writing themselves.

1. A citizen worthy of this name must be vigilant, and therefore a constitution-writer

Vigilance has long been described as an essential quality of a citizen.

Plato:

When a man will not himself hold office and rule, his chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse [Republic, Book 1, p. 347c].

Thucydides:

A man who takes no part in political matters we regard not as unambitious but as useless [Pericles’s Funeral Oration, The Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46].

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Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 2

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1.

(i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)

Starting with the governed, let’s see, point-by-point, how elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters:

1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic

The greatest political thinkers have long known what we have now forgotten:

Aristotle (332 BC): “Elections are aristocratic and non-democratic: they introduce an element of deliberate choice, of selection of the best citizens, the aristoi, in place of government by the people” [Politics IV, 1300b4-5]. This quote is spurious. EC has requested that it be replaced with the following quote.

Aristotle (332 BC): “It is thought to be democratic for political offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic” [Politics IV, 1294b].

Montesquieu (1748): “Sortition is natural to democracy. Elections are natural to aristocracy” [The Spirit of the Laws].

Cornélius Castoriadis (1996): “It is the Greeks who have invented elections. It is an established historical fact. They may have been wrong to do so, but they have invented elections! Who was elected in Athens? They did not elect political officers. Those were selected using sortition or rotation. For Aristotle, you should know, a citizen is someone who is able to govern and be governed. Everybody is able to govern, and therefore sortition is used. Why? Because politics is not a business for experts. There is no science of the political. That was the conventional knowledge among the Greeks” [Post scriptum on Insignificance].

So, the word aristos means the best in Greek. Elections, which by definition aim to choose the best, are by construction aristocratic. The promise of democratic equality is therefore not kept. The elected representatives and the voters are not on equal footings: the elected dominate the voters, the few control the many. We should therefore suspect that the common good would be threatened as the elected come to serve personal interests rather than the general interest.

In contrast, sortition selects indiscriminately. It is therefore the only procedure that respects the foundational promise of democracy – political equality between citizens.
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 1

Background about this essay and its table of contents can be found here.

What follows is a comparison of elections and sortition. The essay is divided into two parts. In part I, elections and sortition are compared in terms of general principles. In part II, they are compared in terms of different possible applications.

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

Let us start by a general comparison of elections and sortition in democracy, taking Paul Ricœur’s definition of democracy as our starting point:

A democracy is a society which recognizes itself to be divided, that is, containing conflicts of interests, and which has committed itself to endow each citizen with an equal part of the expression of these conflicts, of their analysis and of the deliberation of those conflicts with a view of arriving at a resolution.

That is, the definition of the common good is by construction relative, variable, debatable, conflicting, and therefore political. It rests fundamentally on the question of sovereignty: who is the legitimate communal decision maker? Who weighs the needs of the social body? Who decides? Who evaluates the decisions? The people themselves or their representatives? Do we even need representatives?

And if the scale of our societies indeed necessitates appointing representatives, what type of representatives? Because the word “representative” is ambiguous: are they the masters or the servants of the common good?

And above all, who is the legitimate decision maker regarding basic rules, the meta-rules?
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Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on Academia.edu, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’

The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Language like this shows us how fundamental framing has become to political combat. Political debate isn’t just ‘dumbed down’ or simplified. There’s a geography to the ground on which it’s fought and those with an eye to victory head for the high ground.

There’s much talk these days about the divide between political elites and ‘ordinary folk’. It’s tearing western democracies apart. I think that the elite lack respect for the hoi polloi and their view of the world. Hence my frequent reference to the ancient Greek political principle of isegoria or equality of speech.1

In Sam Roggeveen’s response to my review of his essay Our Very Own Brexit (which I recommend by the way), he isn’t the first to argue that I do my cause no favours by “aligning it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit)”.2 This is definitely sound political advice if one ventures among the red meat folk at Quillette.

But for the record, while I think Brexit makes lousy economic policy and statecraft, I wouldn’t just respect the will of the British people if they chose the course they are embarked upon with open eyes. I’d be awestruck with admiration. I’d think it was a fantastic development in which people decided that there were more important things than money and power to live for. But I don’t think any of that. I think they’ve been sold on a particular framing of the story in which the EU is an elite project gone mad, and so something which is coming after their nationhood and something on which they can heap their rage.

Roggeveen’s response goes on:

The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.

I’ll call this the ‘frolic’ school of analysis. The elites have just kept doing what elites do – pursuing various hubristic agendas until the inevitable Wile E. Coyote moment comes and they realise that they have, in their zeal, arrived at a place where there’s no ground underneath them. Now it has to be admitted that the EU has major flaws. It seemed to me that its treatment of Greece was and continues to be a disgrace, and even if you disagree with that – as Paul Frijters does – the whole Euro project was ill-conceived and devastating.  Continue reading