1. It would be madness to appoint public officials by lot. No one would choose a pilot or builder or flutist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft.
The problem with this ancient argument against sortition (attributed to Socrates) is that it implicitly assumes that there is some consensus around who should be running the state (those are the pilots, builders or flutists of politics). If there was such consensus politics would be very simple. Politics to a large extent is about identifying whose advice should be taken on which subject. The pretense of elections is that the voters can identify such people. This is a fantasy.
A small group, meeting together and discussing and examining matters in depth, would be able to do a much better job of getting the best advice than the citizens can do as isolated individuals. In fact, most voters already know that – they tend to be very disapproving of elected officials – the very people whom they supposedly selected as being the best suited to handle statecraft.
2. Average people suffer a great many shortcomings (some combination of stupidity, laziness, apathy, greed, selfishness, lack of education, lack of experience, inability to work together with others, etc.).
This dismissive view of the average person is offensive and unsubstantiated by the facts. (more…)
This Salon article, This is how the oligarchy wins: Money, politics, and the perils of part-time lawmakers argues that a well-paid, full-time ‘professional’ legislature is more likely to enact laws that the majority of citizens support.
A professionalized legislature differs from a citizen legislature in several ways: Professional legislatures generally meet for a more extended period of time and are paid enough that they do not have other careers. Professional legislators have larger staffs, more money to research policy and more time to deliberate and hold hearings. Professionalized legislatures also tend to attract politicians interested in working their way to higher levels of government.
Political scientist Patrick Flavin has focused his attention on the question of equality of representation. He created an index of how equal legislatures were in responding to constituents across income groups. He tells me that his still-unfinished analysis suggests that professionalized legislatures might have more equal political representation. One reason may be that professional legislatures are less susceptible to organized lobbying interests.
In recent years, many conservatives have fought to weaken legislatures. Ben Boychuk of the right-leaning publication City Journal argues, “Priorities, ladies and gentlemen. Priorities. A Legislature with [only] 95 days to enact laws is one less likely to spend a great deal of time introducing and passing useless legislation.”
Although the citizen legislature has a certain appeal, seeming to reflect the democratic ideal, in fact such legislatures are more open to manipulation from professionalized interest groups.
The article doesn’t consider what a statistically-representative legislature — a non-professional but well-paid citizen legislature — might do.
A new book by Shaazke Beyerle, Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice, describes grassroots efforts around the world to fight corruption.
In one of the cases described a randomly chosen group of regular citizens in Korea served as a ‘citizen jury’ that confirmed results of an investigation into political corruption. The outcome of this ‘people power’ campaign was that over 50% (58 out of 112) of the politicians identified as corrupt dropped out of the race, and of the blacklisted candidates who did run, 68% (59 out of 86) were defeated.
Democracy Does Not Live by Tech Alone
Democracy is in crisis — and more apps won’t save it. Instead, bring decision-making back to the people.
Enthusiasm for reforming our democracies has been gaining momentum. From the pages of FP to the colorful criticisms of comedian Russell Brand, it is evident that a long-overdue public conversation on this topic is finally getting started.
There is no lack of proposals. For example, in their recent FP piece, John Boik and colleagues focus on decentralized, emergent, tech-driven solutions such as participatory budgeting, local currency systems, and open government. They are confident that such innovations have a good chance of “spreading virally” and bringing about major change. Internet-based solutions, in particular, have captured our collective imagination. From Pia Mancini’s blockbuster TED presentation to New Scientist‘s recent coverage of “digital democracy,” we’re eager to believe that smartphone apps and novel online platforms hold the key to reinventing our way of governance. This seems only natural: after all, the same technologies have already radically reconfigured large swaths of our daily lives.
To put it bluntly, I believe that focusing on innovations of this sort is a dangerous distraction. (more…)
A rather amusing article in the Onion makes the mistake of assuming that the Athenian democracy was an electoralist system and therefore subject to the same elitist control:
Anthropologists Discover Ancient Greek Super PAC That Helped Shape First Democracy
ATHENS, GREECE—In a finding that provides new insight into the roots of Western civilization, a team of anthropologists from Cambridge University announced Monday the discovery of an ancient Greek super PAC that helped shape the world’s first democracy. “At the same time Cleisthenes first instituted a representative form of government in Athens, it appears that a group of wealthy citizens and merchants created an organization to influence these new voters by bombarding them with around-the-clock political messages,” lead researcher Daniel Rogers said of the early political action committee, named Athenians for a Better City-State, which is said to have received millions of drachmas’ worth of funding in gold, lambs, dates, loaves of bread, and slaves from Athens’ largest and most influential trade groups. “While the committee was prohibited from coordinating directly with candidates seeking public office, AFBCS nevertheless spent astonishing sums on orators hired to stand in the Agora and recite the negative traits of politicians that the super PAC opposed, as well as on writers who were hired to pen slanderous epic poems.”
A widespread public view (also prevalent on this blog) is that elected politicians are members of a remote political class, dedicated to pursuing their own interests at the expense of those who they purport to represent:
As the Times journalist Louis Heren said when asked what went through his mind when a politician shared a confidence, many members of the public hear an MP and think: “Why is this bastard lying to me?”
BBC home editor Mark Easton, however, takes a different perspective
Most politicians in my experience are driven by a sense of public service. Some of them advance ideas for improving common well-being that are far removed from my own. But that doesn’t make them self-serving.
[M]odern democracy was born of privilege and nurtured through class conflict. Conceived in partisan contest, initially as kings and barons, then as landed gentry in elections, the disenfranchised became chartists, then socialists, and the ultra-disenfranchised became communists. Even though the claims of the working class and the suffragettes have largely been resolved, the saga continues in a fossilised relic of divisiveness. Modern democracy rejected the Athenian ideal of equality, wherein the poor, as much as the rich, were automatically accorded a place in government.