Between Burke and the Anti-Federalists: An Epistemic Argument for Descriptive Representation

New paper by Helene Landemore (Yale) just uploaded to SSRN:

Abstract: This paper proposes an interpretation of representative assemblies that strikes a conceptual middle ground between Burke’s ideal of an assembly of trustees and the Anti-Federalists’ ideal of a mirror image of the people. The normative appeal of this conceptual middle ground is supported by an argument emphasizing the epistemic properties of a descriptive assembly of trustees deliberating about the common good. Building on findings about the importance of cognitive diversity for efficient collective problem-solving, the paper argues that given the nature of political problems, a case can be made for the epistemic superiority of descriptively representative assemblies over less accurately descriptive ones. The paper further defends sortition as the best way to ensure descriptive representation over alternatives such as quotas and gerrymandering.

Keywords: representation, deliberation, cognitive diversity, epistemic democracy, delegates, trustees, Burke, Anti-Federalists

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One Response

  1. This is a very interesting paper that has a somewhat different approach to that favoured on this blog. Helene’s interest is in the cognitive diversity offered by sortition, rather than normative concerns like political equality or the accurate representation of interests via descriptive representation.

    The emphasis on cognitive diversity presupposes an ‘epistemic’ approach to democratic decisions making – i.e. that there is a ‘right’ answer to problem solving, as opposed to merely ensuring that decision-making follows the appropriate democratic procedures – and that the cognitive diversity resulting from sortition-based democracy would provide an epistemically better response than expert- or partisan-based assemblies. This does not require an absolute, Platonic notion of rightness that is approximated to by human agents, but merely one relative to a ‘given culture or set of values’ (p.7).

    I confess to being attracted to this model, as I’ve long argued for sortition as a way of making sure the trains run on time, rather than implementing some abstract notion of social justice, but I have a number of issues with the paper. The example she provides of the epistemic value of cognitive diversity is the case of a New Haven district seeking to address the problem of mugging on a bridge (pp.19-21). Although Helene views the solution (solar-powered street lighting) as a vindication of the cognitive diversity of a randomly-selected group, it’s equally possible that a similar solution might have been proposed by an elected official, or a salaried member of the city bureaucracy, who might well have been aware of similar implementations elsewhere. Only one solution was required, so it’s not clear how this is an illustration of the ‘wisdom of crowds’.

    It’s also unclear that her goal – a sortition-based deliberative assembly of Burkean trustees – in any way approximates to the way actual legislatures operate. The UK House of Commons has long ceased to be a deliberative chamber, seeking solutions to common problems in the same manner as her New Haven neighbourhood watch initiative. Even the House of Lords (which still operates along deliberative lines and where members sometimes wait until after the debate before deciding how to vote) sessions are still organized on the basis of a pre-existing agenda, as opposed to emerging from a collaborative effort to solve the problems of the nation. In sum, whereas the New Haven neighbourhood watch arose out of an obvious local problem, it’s unclear as to how a sortive-based legislature would arrive at its agenda. As demonstrated clearly in the references in Helene’s paper (Scott Page, Lu Hong, James Fishkin etc [c.f. Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds]), the cognitive diversity of a descriptively-representative assembly is the optimal way of deciding a wide variety of issues (political decision making being one of them), but it’s at best unclear as to the connection of this to the introduction of policy proposals, especially when taking into account the need for a democratic mandate. But I suspect I’m beginning to repeat myself again!

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