Defending Democracy

Anthoula Malkopoulou (Lund University) and I just published a paper in Constellations entitled “Allotted Chambers as Defenders of Democracy.” Here’s the first paragraph:

In this paper, we identify a problem—the problem of which actors should serve as defenders of democracy—and propose a solution to that problem—the creation of randomly selected citizen bodies, or allotted chambers (hereafter ACs). Having in place institutions that are tasked with democratic self-defense, is, we argue, a critically important pillar of democratic government, but its importance has often been neglected. This neglect is exacerbated by the evasive nature of the task that these democratic defense institutions are called to perform. Part of the problem is that the task of democratic self-defense is often mistakenly conceived as an ad hoc response to an occasional problem, rather than a routine task to which democracies should devote regular attention. Once the task of democratic self-defense is properly specified, the advantages of assigning this task to ACs, rather than courts or legislatures, become evident.

You can read it here: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1467-8675.12580

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 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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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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Why Proposers and Disposers need to be kept distinct: The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning

The ‘argumentative theory of reasoning’ (conceptualized by Dan Sperber and developed with the evolutionary psychologist Hugo Mercier) hypothesizes that reasoning serves two distinct survival-related functions: a) convincing people and b) evaluating the arguments of others – ‘thereby allowing communication to proceed even when trust is limited’ (Landemore, 2013, p. 126). The theory – developed as an evolutionarily-plausible alternative to the classical (Cartesian) model of reasoning as a way of updating and correcting one’s own beliefs – is based on the distinction between performing speech acts and evaluating the performative utterances of others:

According to this theory, individual reasoning works best when used to [a] produce and [b] evaluate arguments during a public deliberation. It predicts that when diverse opinions are discussed, group reasoning will outperform individual reasoning. (Mercier & Landemore, 2012, p. 243)

‘Exposing people to disagreement and debates increases their ability to entertain different opinions . . . either by witnessing a debate or by being part of one’ (ibid., p. 252). The important factor is not participation in speech acts so much as ‘the presence or expression of dissenting opinions in deliberative settings’ (ibid., p. 254, my emphasis). (Mercier & Sperber, 2017) also point out that as a species we are much better at evaluating reasons than producing them – I may not be able to see the beam in my own eye, but I can find the mote in yours. Laboratory studies indicate that we are better able to find the flaws in our own reasons when we believe those reasons to have been produced by someone else, thereby supporting the case for the division of labour between persuaders and evaluators, as it’s very hard to change one’s mind about one’s ‘own’ (i.e. indigenous) convictions.

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Democratic power, outcomes and ideology

This post continues the inquiry carried out in a few previous posts regarding how democracy can be measured. Thanks to various commenters for the discussions that encouraged further thought on this matter.

Dimensions of democracy

In a democracy, political power is distributed equally among all members. This should probably be considered the definition of democracy. However, there are two additional democratic dimensions: democratic outcomes and democratic ideology. Outcomes are democratic when power is used to serve everybody equally. Democratic ideology states that political power should be distributed equally. This normative statement could be justified either directly or consequentially. The direct justification is that equally distributed political power is the only just political arrangement. The consequential argument is that democratic outcomes are the only just outcomes and that democratic power is the only political arrangement that can deliver democratic outcomes. Presumably often those with democratic commitments believe in both the direct and the consequential arguments. The position that political power must be distributed equally even if this leads to undemocratic outcomes seems questionable. For those who adopt consequential democratic ideology, democratic results are a necessary and sufficient condition for democracy (i.e., for democratic power).

A-priori, there are 8 possible situations regarding the presence or absence of democracy along each of the dimensions of democracy. A wholly undemocratic society lacks all three dimensions: the dominant ideology is not democratic, power is distributed unequally and the outcomes favor some at the expense of others. A fully democratic society has all three dimensions present: the dominant ideology is democratic, power is equally distributed and outcomes serve everybody equally. Partially democratic societies could have some combination of situations along the axes.

As pointed out above, however, to believe that democratic outcomes can exist in a non-democratic society, or that non-democratic outcomes can exist in a democratic society we – as observers – need to adopt a non-democratic stance. Accepting that democratic power is uniquely suited for attaining democratic outcomes implies believing that the settings along those two axes must be aligned.
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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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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 6

The term “direct democracy” could have two meanings that are a-priori distinct but are often conflated in discourse. The first meaning is: a system in which all group members are directly involved on an equal basis in all important decision making. The second meaning is: a system which employs certain devices, notably votes on legislation, involving a formal equality among citizens, and which avoids formal delegation of authority. Since the two meanings are not the same and since the first meaning is by definition a form of democracy, I’ll use “direct democracy” to mean the former. The second meaning I’ll call “non-delegatory mass politics”.

In chapter 3 of Open Democracy Landemore makes her argument against the standard reformist idea that direct democracy can and should be achieved through non-delegatory mass politics. As Landemore mentions, this idea is quite common among anti-electoralist movements. The idea certainly has an intuitive appeal since non-delegation seems like the obvious antithesis of elections. Devoting time and space to a tight argument against this idea seems therefore like a well-justified effort. Beyond the intellectual value of such an argument, it serves a practical purpose as well in

paving the way for democrats to reconquer sites of real power by disabusing them of the notion that gathering in public spaces in large numbers marching against authorities, or letting popular social media personalities end up as de facto leaders is enough, or even all that democratic.

Accepting that democracy is always in some sense representative […], and indeed needs to be, would save a lot of these social movements from the sort of conceptual and practical dead ends that the Zappatistas, Occupy, the Indignados and other proponents of assembly democracy in the Arab Spring, in Turkey and elsewhere count not find a way out of. It would allow for the civic energy mobilized by these movements to be channeled into constructive decision-making beyond demonstrating and occupying and generally go from noise to signal. (p. 76)

Furthermore, recognizing that representation is inevitable will help stave off the danger that “under the guise of immediacy and spontaneity […] self selected groups [would] speak[…] in the name of the whole” (p. 76).

Landemore’s position, like her position regarding elections, is commendably principled and uncompromising:

It is simply not the case that democracy as a political regime can ever be truly direct even at the small scale of a city or a canton as opposed to being always mediated and based on some kind of political delegation of political authority. (p. 63)

[T]he possibility of direct democracy breaks down as soon as the group expands beyond a few hundred people. (p. 65)

[T]he interesting question is not: direct or representative democracy? But instead: What kind of representation should we favor? The real opposition is […] between more or less democratic forms of represntative rule. On one extreme, ordinary people actually get to rule […] (as in Ancient Athens); at the other extreme the representative system is open only to an elite few. […] Our contemporary electoral ‘democracies’ fall somewhere on this continuum and, arguably, rather close to the elitist, closed side. (p. 78)

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 5

Rejecting “realism”

One of the strengths of Open Democracy is its normative ambition. Rather than lecturing readers about the need to be realistic and to accept elitism in various ways, Landemore insists that the democratic ideal of political equality should be taken literally. Calls for various forms of compromise are the norm throughout the scholarly literature of democracy. Often such calls are to some extent implicit (e.g., Dunn, see part 2 of this post series). Occasionally they are unabashedly explicit. In this genre Landemore focuses her wrath on Achen and Bartels.

Achen and Bartels take the Lippmann-Schumpeter-Dunn line of argument one step farther by explaining to their readers that while their impression that government does not in any way reflect public opinion is wholly justified by the facts, their frustration with this situation is wholly due to unrealistic expectations. Democracy implies elections, elections imply elite control, and elite control implies unresponsivity. It’s time to be realistic and readjust our expectations.
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This Is Not a Democracy

A version of this article was first published in the run-up to the 2020 general election in Aotearoa/New Zealand by the public interest journalism platform The Dig as part of a series on Transitional Democracy. You can find the original article here.

By Alison McCulloch

Aren’t we lucky, we’re constantly told, that we live in a democracy, a government by and of and for the people. Except our system of government is none of those things. It’s certainly not by the people, it’s barely of the people and we’ve surely gathered more than enough social and economic data to show it’s not for the people.

But how could it be otherwise when it’s based on elections, given that elections are incompatible with democracy. No, that wasn’t a typo: elections are incompatible with democracy. It might seem a surprising statement on its face, given we are raised to equate the two. But one need only scratch the surface of how electoral systems like ours actually work to see the truth of the claim.

What elections actually do is elevate elites to power — those with greater than ordinary wealth, influence, connections, education, charisma, celebrity, privilege… And rule by elites is in fact the antithesis of ‘Democracy’ which properly applies only to governments where power is exercised by the people, the vast majority of whom are ordinary. Electoral systems do not do this; they cannot do this.

The Westminster-based system we live under serves us very badly. Not only is it undemocratic, it is unresponsive to ordinary people, it is cruel and divisive, and yet virtually from the cradle we are taught that it is sacrosanct, an article of religious faith, untouchable, and that while we might tinker around its edges, there is and can be no better, more democratic system of government.

But this system is a cultural product like any other, something Māori (see glossary at end for discussion of Māori terms) know only too well, having had it imposed on them as if prior to the arrival of British colonists, this land were a kind of political terra nullius. It simply wasn’t so. It’s a point the report of Matike Mai Aotearoa (the independent Māori working group on constitutional transformation) makes in setting out both a Māori critique of the current system, and proposals for a way forward.

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