John Burnheim: To Reason Why

The recent publication of John Burnheim’s autobiography by Sidney University Press (Burnheim, 2011) coincides with improved availability of his 1985 work, Is Democracy Possible? (Burnheim, 2006). Although SUP republished the book in 2006 they have only recently made it available on John very kindly sent me copies of both books, even though he knew that I would not be the most sympathetic reviewer, as we have always disagreed fundamentally on the potential of sortition in our offline exchanges.

John divides his adult life into three two-decade periods during which he moved from the priesthood through philosophy to retirement, pausing en route only to (assist in) blowing up the Sydney University philosophy department (1973) and publishing an attempt to torpedo democracy in its modern incarnation (1985).

Born in 1928 in Sydney, Australia of Irish Catholic extraction, John discovered his vocation and entered the local seminary in 1943. From an early age he had been interested in philosophy and was sponsored by his diocese to take an MA in Ireland and a PhD (on Fregian logic) at the Catholic University of Louvain, which he gained with ‘grande distinction’ in just one year! Returning home to Sydney he became the rector of St. John’s College within the University, joining the philosophy department in 1960 on the retirement of the redoubtable John Anderson. Disillusioned with the Church’s response to the Second Vatican Council, John resigned his vocation in favour of secular humanism, immersing himself in the turmoil that split the philosophy department between analytic traditionalists (led by David Armstrong and David Stove) and Marxist-feminists. He then took early retirement (1990), moving briefly into commercial life (running a small yacht brokerage) before retuning to the life of the mind and art (an enduring interest).

This is a fascinating book, both on the level of a personal history and also a witness to the monumental intellectual and social changes that occurred during the second half of the Twentieth Century. It’s very readable and I’ve no mind to undermine sales with a long précis, so go out and buy it! My concern in this post is with the insights his biography provides into his major work Is Democracy Possible?

In the preface to the second (2006) edition (all page references not marked 2011 are to this book) John is commendably frank in admitting that the book is an attempt to forge a revisionist vision of socialism (iii) or Marxism (iv) and that this makes it a little dated for modern readers. In addition to the Cambridge school of political theorists, other prime influences include the analytical Marxists Gerry Cohen, Jon Elster and John Roemer (xi). While Marx predicted that the state would naturally wither away, Burnheim shares the anarchist view that it needs to be abolished in order for demarchy to blossom. The term ‘demarchy’ is derived from Hayek’s Law, Legislation and Liberty (Hayek, 1973, 1976, 1979) and Burnheim likens his own radical rethinking of socialism to Hayek’s market-based rethinking of liberalism (119).

Demarchy is best characterised as government by a large number of committees who are ‘statistically representative of those with an interest in their decisions’ (104, my emphasis). Such a policy has nothing to do with localism, decentralisation or ‘subsidiarity’, as the relevant distinctions are functional rather than those pertaining to scale. Although some demarchic committees may be small and localised (say, car-parking committees), others should even function at the international level (say, global warming). All committees would be established by sortition from a self-referring pool. Burnheim’s emphasis on volunteerism has found echoes in David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ proposals (although Burnheim’s allotted members would be remunerated) and the emphasis on self-reference is shared with Stephen Elstub’s model of ‘associational’ democracy (Elstub, 2008), Michael Saward’s Representative Claim (Saward, 2010), and other deliberative theorists who privilege the quality of the locutionary acts of the representative over concerns for accurate ‘mirror’ representation. As such Burnheim’s work has little in common with the Deliberative Polling experiments of James Fishkin which view volunteering as antithetical to accurate descriptive representation.

Burnheim is honest about the practical difficulties involved in implementing demarchy: ‘we are proposing to replace all our political elites, most of our bureaucracy and the private ownership of land and land capital’ (122).  Although he acknowledges a historical materialist perspective (140), he doesn’t have the benefit of Marxist teleology or any historically-defined mechanism to resolve the contradictions in the old order. And his abolitionist goals are nothing if not ambitious, the candidates for the guillotine including:

  • The state
  • Bureaucracy
  • Elective democracy
  • Taxation
  • The police and armed services
  • Private ownership of land and ‘land capital’

Burnheim is not clear as to exactly what forms of capital fall into the latter category – ‘demarchic control of the major productive enterprises’ is deemed necessary (p.130) – but, given the abolition of taxation and the consequent need to finance the requirements of all the functional committees (along with a generous welfare system) via the rent-seeking activity of ‘public’ financial institutions, then a substantial capital base would be required – particularly in countries with low land values and minimal natural resources. Bearing in mind that Burnheim’s Hayekian anarchism rules out the state as the means to bring about the necessary non-violent revolution it’s a little hard to see how exactly we are going to get from here to the demarchic future. To be fair to John, he is well aware of the uphill struggle for a demarchic settlement (acknowledging that it would need a ‘good deal of luck’ (123)), hoping instead that a gradualist approach (appointing new quangos by sortition from a volunteer base) would provide the necessary foot in the door (ibid.).

Burnheim’s involvement with Marxist thinking has always been somewhat ambivalent – Althusser in particular (who was very influential in the Department of General Philosophy at Sydney which he headed after its foundation in 1973) with his notion of ‘privileged access to the truth as the warrant for authority’ (p.119) clearly reminded him too much of his earlier faith in the Catholic Church as the medium of divine revelation. Nevertheless in his biography he still holds out hope for a ‘Communist Luther’ and is particularly inspired by James Fishkin’s DP experiment in Zeguo, China, where the ‘hope finally resurfaced’ (2011, p.135). Unfortunately, as previously mentioned, Fishkin’s work is antithetical to Burnheim’s views – DP participants are (in effect) conscripted, deliberation is restricted to selecting from alternatives prescribed in advance by the sponsoring authority (in this case local communist party officials) and participants do not get to choose their own expert advocates. This has nothing in common with Burnheim’s preference for policy emerging out of conversations among a committee of volunteers, derived from his own philosophical perspective in which rationality is an emergent property of social interaction. Burnheim’s approach is antithetical to agonistic perspectives on democracy, and rejects the liberal reliance on mixed constitutions in which one ‘power’ is checked by another, preferring instead that demarchic committees should ‘negotiate’ with each other.

Whilst it’s misleading (and insulting) to seek to explain a political theorist’s work by reference to his own biography, nevertheless John’s autobiography does provide some very helpful insights. His hatred of state sovereignty would appear to be not unconnected to his rejection of Catholicism:

The whole of creation depended on the will of God . . . In submitting to his will we achieved our destiny as his creatures. Similarly ultimate political authority was supposed to repose in the sovereign, to whose decisions all good results were attributable and to whom his subjects owed ultimate obedience. The earthly fulfillment of the subject lay in identification with the power of the monarch, or the nation conceived as a sovereign entity. (2011, p.143)

When Burnheim gave up on the authoritarian church, he also gave up on the authoritarian state (democratic or otherwise) and the authoritarian behaviour of David Armstrong and his philosopher colleagues, but he was equally repelled by the undisciplined and ignorant behaviour of the radical democrats who were responsible for the anarchy in his university department. Burnheim’s ideal of government by voluntary committee is his own via media between an authoritarian Scylla and a democratic Charybdis, derived from his own experiences in 1970s university politics:

At regular weekly meetings attended by staff and mainly senior students with a strong commitment to the continuance of [the department], discussion was rational and well-informed. But when issues became divisive, mass meetings of hundreds of students [up to 500] were polarised by inflammatory speeches and politicised resolutions were passed. (2011, p.115)

One is reminded of criticisms of Athenian direct democracy by Harrington and other conservative critics. But is government by voluntary committee democratic? Although Burnheim’s 1985 book is entitled Is Democracy Possible? he never actually answers this question, preferring instead to consider whether demarchy is possible (his concluding chapter). But is demarchy (government by informed conversation) democratic?

My answer would be a qualified ‘no’ – i.e .only democratic in the sense that the pre-1867 House of Commons (the last instance in Britain of an elected house with a conversational decorum) could also be said to be democratic. Burnheim argues that his demarchic committees should be formed by sortition from volunteers who are ‘interested’ (p.59) in the particular function of the committee, ‘committed people who act on principle’ (p.73). No doubt it helps for people to find their work interesting, but the word ‘interest’ was also used to describe the ratepayer franchise, the male-only franchise and other forms of limited ‘stakeholder’ democracy. Although Burnheim assures us that institutional safeguards could be imposed to protect such committees from corrupt ‘interests’ it would strike me as relatively straightforward for lobby groups to either flood the sortition base with their supporters or else to use a variety of strategies to persuade those who have drawn the golden ticket to sponsor their own agenda. Burnheim also relies on the naïve notion that statistical representation ensures democratic accountability: ‘Granted a sound statistical procedure the people automatically control the broad outlines of the result simply by being what they are’ (p.85, my emphasis). Unfortunately the falsity of this conclusion was demonstrated by Hannah Pitkin two decades before the publication of Burnheim’s book (Pitkin, 1967, p.145); Burnheim’s conclusion only applies to collective actions (such as voting) but cannot apply to individual speech acts, the core function of a demarchic committee: ‘Is [the representative] really to literally to deliberate as if he were several hundred thousand people?’ (ibid.)

But even if it were possible to insulate demarchic committees from lobbyists and other corrupting forces, is it necessarily the case that those with an ‘interest’ in a topic are best enabled to judge policy impartially? (c.f. Madison’s objection in Federalist 10):

Granted that they volunteer to work in this particular area rather than some other or none, it is likely that they feel more strongly than most people about the issues involved and that they have or are prepared to acquire superior knowledge of the problems. So it would be reasonable for the group that these people represent statistically to accept them as representatives in decision-making (p.81, my emphasis).

Not so, for two reasons: 1) In large societies, most people are affected by most important decisions – we all (apart from the Greeks) pay taxes, most of us have children to educate, and we all want to walk the streets without getting mugged and have our health taken care of. So it’s not at all clear that the ‘interest’ criterion is any more than the distinction between the opinionated busybody and the ‘silent majority’. The volunteer system would also over-privilege the participation of the leisured, the articulate and the wealthy – especially ‘those who are active negotiators in their everyday lives (p.127) – and disadvantage, for example, self-employed business people. As expertise is not considered a qualifying factor for membership in a demarchic committee (unlike in Burnheim’s university example), sortition from an ex-officio base is ruled out. Demarchic committees would most likely be dominated by ‘a few enthusiastic and able people [who would] make the running, and come up with the new ideas, the decisive arguments’ (ibid.). No doubt this is true but it’s unclear how to reconcile it with democratic norms, given that such people will be entirely self-selecting and cannot claim any ‘mandate’, the statistical one only applying in aggregate. Do we want to be ruled by ‘a minority . . . [willing] to envisage solutions that certainly would not be chosen by most people who are not so strongly affected by those issues’ (p.131, my emphasis). As we have seen, in modern societies most people are affected to a greater or lesser extent by all the major political issues.

But there is a further, and more critical epistemic objection to Burnheim’s proposal: there is now a wealth of research that indicates that optimal decisions (from an epistemic point of view) are made by groups that have a wide diversity of perspectives, and any process that encourages consensus is harmful to this (Estlund, 2007; Landemore, 2007; Page, 2006; Surowiecki, 2004; Tetlock, 2005). Whilst true sortition (random sampling of the whole population) retains this diversity, sortition from self-referring volunteers will tend to encourage similarity rather than difference.

Burnheim unwittingly provides the evidence to support the argument for epistemic diversity when he contrasts enlightened criminology with ignorant public opinion:

It is often the case that a relatively small deliberative body will take a much more enlightened view on a matter than the general public does . . . Not many people understand a great deal about criminology . . . their judgment is not soundly based. (p.69).

Granted that criminologists (both professional and amateur) may well take a more ‘enlightened’ (aka liberal) perspective. does this give rise to optimal penal policy? It’s a simple fact in the UK that since the introduction of ‘civilised’ penal policies by Roy Jenkins in the 1960s, recidivism rates have skyrocketed. This would appear to be the direct result of civilising policies based on informed criminology, whereas most ex-cons would endorse the popular prejudice that, pace the ‘informed’ perspective, the best approach to recidivism is to make the penal experience as unpleasant and as uncivilised as possible – that way offenders will do as much as possible not to have to return to prison. Such perspectives may be ‘short-sightedly conservative’ (ibid.) but they are based on sound common-sense popular inferences.

To choose another example rather closer to home, two members of this forum – Yoram Gat and myself – hold very strong opinions on the appropriate role that sortition might play in society. Given our strong interests we are probably the least capable of impartial judgment in this particular domain. Much better for Yoram and myself to be permitted equal time to present our opposing arguments and then for the outcome to be decided by others who are less ‘interested’.  This is the rationale behind the Fishkinian decision-making process: interests and judgment are diametrically opposed. It’s hard to imagine anything much worse than a committee composed entirely of the self-nominated, the only danger to the alternative model being some of the judges falling asleep while Yoram and myself were ranting on!

Based on his own experiences at Sydney University Burnheim assumes that the mini-populus (Fishkinian) alternative to committees of volunteers would simply enfranchise the uninformed prejudices of the rabble – the two stark alternatives being enlightened demarchy or ignorant democracy. But this is just a straw man. Fishkin’s experiments in deliberative polling started not long after the publication of Burnheim’s book and have demonstrated convincingly that volunteering is not a prerequisite to informed deliberation. All that is needed is a clear choice of proposals (supplied in advance) and balanced expert advocacy (Gat and Sutherland in the above example). Burnheim dismisses this because ‘people would be reduced to accepting or rejecting proposals’ (p.2). True, but if the proposals were arrived at by a democratic mechanism prior to adversarial debate and deliberative scrutiny this would have the advantage of providing a deliberative procedure that was also democratic (as opposed to proposals that emerged from the smoke-filled rooms of the demarchic committee men).

Is (such a) Democracy Possible? Yes.


Burnheim, J. (2006). Is Democracy Possible? Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press.

Burnheim, J. (2011). To Reason Why: From Religion to Philosophy and Beyond. Sydney, Australia: Darlington Press.

Elstub, S. (2008). Towards a Deliberative and Associational Democracy. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Estlund, D. (2007). Democratic Authority: A Philosophical Framework. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Hayek, F. A. (1973, 1976, 1979). Law, Legislation and Liberty. London: Routledge.

Landemore, H. (2007). Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many. Harvard.

Page, S. (2006). The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Pitkin, H. (1967). The Concept of Representation Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Saward, M. (2010). The Representative Claim. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Surowiecki, J. (2004). The Wisdom of Crowds: Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few. London: Abacus.

Tetlock, P. E. (2005). Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Could We Know? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


62 Responses

  1. Most people’s opinions on most issues concerning the provision of public goods (including such enlightened figures as myself) are not well based. Most of us, however, seem to believe that the present system of supplying public goods via huge bureaucracies under parliamentary control does not work very well.
    In the first instance my proposals of representative committees is intended to offer an alternative way of delivering public goods to the specific publics that need them. It is intended to assure three desiderata.
    1. that the precise form that a particular good takes in a particular context is decided by those who have to bear the consequences of their decisions, including the budgetary costs. If they go over budget they will have to pay a special surcharge on their taxes. It is not enough to consult people. They will only tell you what they would like. It is essential that the deciders carry the can for their decisions
    2. that there is a strong public debate about the issues, based on the assumption that it is in everybody’s best interest in the long run that all the various interests that are directly involved as producers or consumers are as well catered for as is possible in the circumstances. The overall satisfaction of the community depends on a justified confidence that we can all identify with the results. In particular, they are not to be seen as the triumph of a party or an ideology or some coalition of particular interests constructed by power-trading, patronage and lies.
    3. That there is minimum need for regulation from a centralised authority, thus allowing a great deal of experiment and adaptation to specific needs and possibilities. Increasingly, as demands on budgets grow and are inevitably disappointed, public provision turns to rationing and more and more inflexibility. These goods become icons of discontent where they should be a matter of collective pride.

    On the question of asking for volunteers to serve. Dealing actively with the difficult questions of what is possible and desirable even in a regional health or education system is hard work. One cannot impose it on people and expect them to do a good job, especially as they may have many things to do that are much more important to them and others. We are very used to having to rely on others for most of what we need, trusting that there are people in charge of all the complex supply chains and networks on which we depend, who for one reason or another are adequately motivated to do a reliable job. Demarchy could work only where this assumption is justified. SThat involves our having confidence that if something is being done wrongly, it will be exposed publicly. That is, I believe, what people value most under the label “a democratic society”.

    This talk of grass roots demarchy may seem very small beer compared to the urgent global problems we face. I think it is obvious that we need specific international authorities, independent of the internal party politics of nation states, to tackle such specific problems as the custody of the seas, global warming and global monetary regulation, as we already have in the postal union, aviation etc. These existing authorities are unproblematic, for the most part, because the needs they serve are mainly technical. I would urge that the governing bodies of the more substantive authorities we need should be chosen by a statistical procedure from a pool of people who have proved good public servants to represent the major ways in which ordinary people are affected by such problems.

    I am not seeking to abolish the state. As Hayek argued it still will have a role in ensuring the rule of law. Nor do I think demarchy is a panacea. It will only get a start as a solution to specific problems, perhaps because politicians want to get free of them. It admits of lots of development and adaptation that can only remain speculation at the present.


  2. I completely agree that most people’s opinions on most issues concerning the provision of public goods are not well based and that there is nothing worse than government by opinion poll. But Fishkin’s work has demonstrated conclusively that a randomly-selected assembly of ordinary folk are competent judges over policy options when properly explained and suitably motivated (ie their vote would have a significant impact on the outcome), even if they have no specific “interest” in the issue at hand. This is all the Chinese DP that your referenced in your new book demonstrated, not the efficacy of demarchy.

    From a philosophical perspective you view rationality as an emergent property of social interactions whereas I’m more disposed to a dialectical perspective. You favour the examining magistrate; I favour the adversarial joust. I don’t really understand how producer and consumer interests can be resolved conversationally — the “beer and sandwiches” approach to labour relations adopted by Harold Wilson’s government culminated in the winter of discontent. Most commentators (including the Labour Party) now acknowledge that the sick man of Europe (UK) was only healed by a government that actually enjoyed conflict. If conversational committees can’t even work in one small country, what hope is there for trans-national problems?

    Our principal disagreement is over who gets to propose policy options and who gets to argue for and against them. I acknowledge that my suggestion for the introduction of policy proposals is conservative, populist and open to manipulation by elites, although I’ve suggested ways for ameliorating these shortcomings. The problem with your suggestion is that (as you acknowledge) it’s not democratic and is, in effect, government by busybodies.

    I would be interested in hearing some examples of what sort of demarchic committees would be required to deal with specific interests and how exactly the risks and costs could be hypothecated so that nobody else was affected. Surely this would be better achieved by a classical liberal night-watchman state that concerned itself with defence and security, leaving everything else to free market choices? If I want to purchase health care or education services then why do we need a quango of self-appointed busybodies; why not just leave it to the market? I don’t understand what Hayekian socialism would look like, in fact I imagine Hayek would have dismissed this as just as much of an oxymoron as “social” justice.


  3. I think you point to the most significant disagreements between us. However, I’m quite prepared to concede that your proposals might work for a state stripped down to its essential functions, but that to leave everything else to the market is to ignore the importance of social identities and to ignore the dynamics of uncontrolled markets.
    In the case of the recent global crisis, caused by fraudulent selling of bad debts as prime “securities” the certification people at firms like Standard and Poor knew very well what they were doing, but they were dependent on their employers and lied to suit them. But those same “certifying” firms can still make or break less powerful institutions with complete impunity. The biggest offenders get away withit in the market, as in power politics.
    Over the last few years the Australian dollar has varied in value against the US dollar between 63 cents and 109 cents in a period when Australia has had no significant government debt, a good balance of trade and stable internal prices. We are a trading nation. So the currency is traded in large volumes relative to the size of the economy. So it is a prime target for speculators to drive up and down. Major imports such as cars continued to sell at the same prices, because importers and exporters were forced to buy insurance against currency fluctuations from the very people who manipulated them and creamed off handsome profits from doing so.
    In the present system the volume of money traded internationally is over forty times the value of all other trade. Because of the rapidity of turnover, the small margins on particular transaction soon add up to very big margins. The solution many economists advocate is a very small tax on such transactions to discourage speculation. But it is not possible without an international authority. The present woes of the US and UK are, I believe a result of substituting financial speculation for genuine capital investment.
    At the same time all over the world the relative incomes of the rich and the poor have grown apart, and the ease with which the rich evade taxation has led to a fall in the quality and quantity of the public goods on which those who have nothing the market wants depend. You blithely say that the era when inequalities mattered is behind us. In fact it is ahead of us, as global competition drives down the price of unskilled labour towards what the poorest of the poor have to accept.
    An irresponsible democracy will always try to have its cake and eat it and politicians will always be tempted to tell people they can. Only when consumers who need a specific public good are responsible for deciding what they get and how it is paid for will public provision be satisfactory.
    Of course, any change is a matter of introducing new arrangements as a solution to some specific problem, and I’m not capable of doing that in any particular case. It has to be a matter of preserving continuity, legitimate expectations, of appropriate scale and local circumstances.A lot of people would have to work together to bring it off in any particular instance. I imagine that in the UK the relevant scale for a regional health service might be a county or a
    small group of counties, supplemented by national centres for certain specialised services as cooperative projects of the regions rather than top-down authorities.
    Specialisation is very important, as the history of conglomerates in commerce shows. The conglomerate fails because crucial decisions affecting its components are made on purely monetary criteria, neglecting the needs of a business strategy, because the people at the top have no conception of the particular markets in which the components operate. Governments at present are super-conglomerates ruled by a mixture of Treasury parsimony and political irresponsibility.


  4. John I don’t think I ever claimed that the era of inequalities was behind us, only that the convergence on the centre ground has ended the era of widely-divergent political ideologies.

    In the absence of global authorities I’m still unclear as to how a demarchic committee would function on anything other than a very local level (car park committee). You use the example of the regional health authority in the UK. Governments of various political persuasions have attempted to devolve power from Whitehall by using such committees to better ensure local health provision. Such committees are co-opted, not demarchic, but nevertheless they are composed of people with an “interest” in health care and include both producers and consumers. However they have failed to resolve the problems in the NHS and are all about to be swept away and replaced by other committees of interested people, so it’s unclear that a demarchic committee would make a big difference. Either you have a state-provided health service funded by general taxation or else you have a private insurance-based system. If the latter then there is no need of demarchic committees, if the former then why do you think control by demarchic committee would be so different from a quango? Note that the issue is not whether the service is provided at the nation-state or regional level, the distinction is between a (monopoly) public service and (market-based) private provision, where no organising committee is required.

    In short I’m still not convinced that Hayekian socialism is a coherent concept. In fact contemporary social or market democracy is probably an attempt to implement it and it doesn’t seem to work very well. Perhaps this is why you hold out more hope for the reform of communist systems than liberal democracies.


  5. The core of Hayek’s position is that independent initiative by people who bear the consequences of their decisions is what produces good results. From this point of view the enemy is bureaucracy, organisations that are run according to the need to produce controlled, predictable outcomes on a large scale by assigning very specific roles to functionaries in making decisions on the basis of very limited information. Bureaucracies have their place where predictability is all-important, in enforcing many kinds of precautionary regulations and in tax-gathering. It is very bad at responding to changing or diverse circumstances or in producing, or even allowing, innovative and flexible provision of goods and services. (That applies to non-government bureaucracies just as much as to governmental ones. Large health funds are as inflexible as their government counterparts and highly selective in the sort of cover they offer)
    Hayek, like pretty well everybody else, assumes that public goods could only be provided by the state bureaucracy. What I want to argue is that there is an alternative. The failure of quangos to deliver the goods is no argument against my proposals. They are prisoners of the bureaucracy and largely ineffectual.

    In spite of its bad name, bureaucracy continues to have a lot of appeal. While they complain about inflexibility people love predictability. They complain about “one-size-fits-all” but love strict egalitarianism in the name of justice and envy. And, of course, they don’t have to do anything about it, except register the odd complaint. It suits a consumerist society. In some cases the economies of scale bureaucracy allows outweigh the costs of inflexibility. Clearly, in most cases a more innovative and responsive provision is going to cost more than a standardised one, unless one values a culture of constructive participation in and identification with significant public goods not as a cost but as a benefit. The question is whether we want a society in which people express themselves publicly principally in choosing the brand names of things they purchase or in earning public respect for their contribution to public goods. Maybe we are condemned to private affluence and public squalor.

    As for the argument that demarchy would mean rule by busybodies, that is indeed a possibility. There are, and no doubt always will be, people who love interfering in all sorts of contexts, public and private, just for the sake of exercising a certain measure of power over others. But there are other people who are concerned to influence outcomes in certain matters because they value what is at stake in those outcomes or seek a reputation for responsible action in the public arena. Whether enough people of the latter sort volunteer to reduce the busybodies to relative insignificance will depend on a culture in which genuine public service is recognised and respected. A successful demarchy would, I believe, generate such a culture, but, even if I am right, there is still a chicken and egg problem.


  6. > The core of Hayek’s position is that independent initiative by people who bear the consequences of their decisions is what produces good results.

    If this is true, then Hayek was a fool. This not only is ridiculously controverted by facts (life without organization is impossible and countries where no powerful central authority exists are the worst places on earth), but is also meaningless in theory.

    What does “independent initiative” mean? All initiative is constrained by the activity of others. And what does “bear the consequences of their decisions” mean? The only answer to this question that does not require a central authority to determine what consequences follow which decisions is the answer that consequences is whatever happens. But if we accept this answer then the creation of organizations is simply a part of “whatever happens” and therefore organizations are as legitimate as any other “consequence”.


  7. no! Hayek had no truck with the fantasies of Rothbard and co. He was quite clear about the need for a civic order based on law, punishing force and fraud, establishing clear conditions of responsibility and liability etc. Part of the point of the rule of law is that it guarantees, as far as possible, that people are in a position to make decisions in the knowledge that the rules will not be changed arbitrarily, that a central authority will not determine the consequences of one’s action in an unforeseeable manner. They have independent initiative in that they are not subject to arbitrary interference from a superior authority.
    The context of this discussion is the delivery of specific public services. Of course that requires organisation. The question is what sort of control of that organisation is optimal, market control or some kind of control by those the organisation is supposed to serve. The usual assumption is that the only alternative to market control is state control. THAT is what I contest.
    “Bear the consequences of their decisions” means that whether or not they get what they need depends on their making realistic decisions. Of course, like any decisions, they depend for success on a lot of other things that are outside of their control.


  8. I’m all for people bearing the consequences of their decisions, it just strikes me that in modern societies most decisions affect most people, regional health authorities and global warming being prime examples. If this is the case then what is the relevant distinction (between participant and non-participant)? Demarchy (a) is government by activist volunteers whereas elective democracy + bureaucracy (b) is, in theory, government by the representatives of the silent majority. While we don’t know whether (a) works we do know that there are some serious problems with (b). It strikes me as more prudent to concentrate on ameliorating the latter by adding sortition to a clear separation of functions, but we need to hear some more concrete examples of what sort of demarchic committees would be needed in order to properly assess the former. Trans-national committees are not viable at this moment in time; the regional health committee looks a lot like current initiatives; so does this just leave the running of the local car parks?


  9. > They have independent initiative in that they are not subject to arbitrary interference from a superior authority.

    Again – I don’t see how this can be interpreted in any meaningful way. Once a legislation and enforcement authority is assumed, then who gets to determine what activities are arbitrary and what activities are legitimate. Any policy can be posed as simply being a matter of enforcing the rules of responsibility, liability, etc. Thus “market control” is a meaningless description – it in no way constrains the set of possible policies.

    It seems that Hayek imagined that there is some sort of a natural set of laws that should be legislated and enforced, while all else is arbitrary bureaucracy. Of course, it is much more respectable intellectually to maintain that one promotes a system characterized by “independent initiative by people who bear the consequences of their decisions” than that one promotes a set of rules that are simply what appears right to oneself.


  10. Market control is the assumption that producers will produce only those things for which consumers are willing to pay. In a free market both the consumer and the producer gain because each gets as a result of the exchange something that they prefer to what they had prior to it. That the exchange is free presupposes that the contract is well understood, that there is protection against force and fraud and so on. In principle the law is also equally advantageous to both parties. It is opposed to a command economy where what producers produce and what consumers get is decided by some central authority, democratic or traditional etc. Both have their problems, but the superiority of a market economy in the production of most goods and services is clear. It is much more responsive to the preferences of consumers.
    It is not true that “any policy can be posed as simply being a matter of enforcing the rules of responsibility, liability, etc.” Hayek did not “imagine that there is some set of laws that should be legislated and enforced”. He based his views on analyses of procedures and their systematic consequences, backed by a certain amount of empirical evidence. He always claimed that there were no great differences about values between him and his opponents, to the extent that some of his extreme followers criticised him for being too much of a social democrat. My argument with him is that he failed to see certain possibilities and appreciate the importance of certain public goods.
    Of course, these matters are complex and there are no knock-down arguments, but they are not just matters of raw power or individual preference. What happens is never determined entirely by relevant arguments, but, even where a doctrine is a cynical cover for a power strategy, it has its effects in the long run. Authorities that fail to live up to their pretensions eventually lose control even of the forces that keep them in power. Power without legitimacy is evanescent.


  11. Greetings Mr. Burnheim,

    Forgive this newbie question, but what is “Hayekian socialism”? What’s its relationship to

    – Georgism?
    – Binary economics?
    – Mutualism / Cooperativism?
    – Economic measures implemented by the Paris Commune?
    – Left-oriented market socialism (Lange, not Deng)?


  12. > Market control is the assumption that producers will produce only those things for which consumers are willing to pay.

    What consumers are willing to pay for and how much they are willing to pay is completely determined by the system of ownership set in place. For example, if a single person owns all the land, or all the sources of water, or the air, then the “choices” of other people in the society are so constrained as to make them essentially that resource owner’s slaves. Thus, without assuming various additional conditions about who owns what all the talk about “mutually beneficial free exchange” is nonsense.

    On the other hand, if all the resources are assumed to be owned by all the members of the group then any decision making mechanism – consensus, majority voting, elections-based, sortition-based, demarchy, etc. – can be portrayed as a “free market mechanism” since, it may be claimed, the mechanism is nothing more than a way to resolve questions of ownership.


  13. Yoram, I’m puzzled about what is going on here. Nobody denies that monopolies destroy free market relations. Any social mechanism operates only under certain conditions.
    On the other hand, if all resources are owned collectively by a group, sharing out the wealth certainly cannot be portrayed as a free market mechanism. The system of sharing is a way of “resolving the question of ownership” if it results in distributing title to particular durable items to particular individuals. Once that happens there may arise a set of free market exchanges between those individuals. On the other hand, if the collective decision is to put the resources into communal means and housing, clothing that people may use but not own, and so on, that may be free decision, but it is not market exchange.
    The fact that some people misuse language doesn’t mean that anybody can make it mean whatever they like.

    Jacob. “Hayekian socialism” is a label Keith Sutherland invented to characterise my attempt to show how public goods might be provided in a way that avoided state monopoly and had the virtues that Hayek attributed to free markets. It is also called ‘demarchy’. It is quite different from all the other proposals you list. There’s an article on demarchy in Wikipedia.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. John, I read the wiki and it didn’t say much if anything about public goods or assets.

    Binary economics “endorses both private property and a free market” (wiki) but focuses on widespread stock ownership and interest-free loans by a central bank (and perhaps even by a nationalized banking monopoly).

    Mutualism / cooperativism also tries to demonstrate, in your words, “how public goods might be provided in a way that avoided state monopoly.”

    The Paris Commune demonstrated that cooperative projects cannot survive in the long run without State Aid at some point in their respective business cycles, whether that aid comes in the form of enforcing worker buyouts of existing businesses by eminent domain, or extensive technical assistance and grants programs with no strings attached, or the older but crude call for State Credit.


  15. John,

    > Yoram, I’m puzzled about what is going on here.

    It seems that I am doubting the validity of certain concepts or ideas that you are taking as being obvious. I would understand if you feel that this is not a discussion that you would like to get into right now.

    When people define “the free market” they start with something simple and appealing – free exchange, etc. But once you start probing, things shift very quickly and it turns out that “free market” is really about other things altogether. Here are some of my thoughts on the matter: Free markets, ownership, “Free market”, revisited.


  16. Yoram
    I agree completely with you points about free markets, and could indeed add further criticisms of those who fail to grasp their limitations. My work has all been about the need for essential goods such as health, education and insurance against unemployment to be available as public goods, independently of the individual’s capacity to pay.
    I believe that people do have aright to life. In America a lot of otherwise good and clever people do not believe that. They are so hypnotised by the idea that public goods can be supplied only by the state, and that state power is evil, that they are prepared to accept the idea that the indigent must rely on the pity of the rich for their very lives! The important Havard philosopher Robert Nozick said that people do not have a right to life, only a right to compete for it, and that a distribution of ownership based on original appropriation and subsequent free exchange is just, irrespective of how it works out for people in the present. Of course, he recognised that most titles had been contaminated by force and fraud, but there is now way of remedying all those past wrongs!
    In any case, saying that people must compete is to say that they must play a particular game, in which many, through no fault of their own are bound to lose, because the game is rigged in favour of those who not only start with enormous advantages, but control the rules and the umpires.


  17. Hi Jacob
    Somebody has hijacked the entry in Wikipedia since last looked at it a few years ago. They dismiss my ideas as irrelevant to demarchy, even though I invented it!
    I don’t think there is a magic procedure that can solve all problems. A few comments:
    Binary economics is naive. Widespread stock ownership does not empower people, since the small owner has no say in the policy of the firm. Interest is not the problem. Low interest loans can encourage imprudent purchases. The problem is the availability of the essentials of a decent life to people who have no income.
    Purely voluntary mutualism cannot solve the problems of people who do not have the resources to get the coop up and running. The rich , who could contribute don’t join.
    The Paris Commune didn’t last long enough to show anything about the long run. We are stuck with capitalism for the economy as a whole, supplemented by provision of the basic necessities of life as public goods. Have a look at the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. John,

    > Robert Nozick

    Doctrines such as Nozick’s are so absurd and without merit as to hardly deserve discussion, except that, as you say, they have become quite common in some places (due to their agreeability for the powerful, presumably).

    > saying that people must compete is to say that they must play a particular game, in which many, through no fault of their own are bound to lose, because the game is rigged in favour of those who not only start with enormous advantages, but control the rules and the umpires.

    Ok – but then if we agree that any game can be called “the free market game” (since the rules can be changed arbitrarily by the powerful players), then how can any claims (positive or negative) be made about “the free market”?

    By the way, do you know if there are any sources (your own or of others) discussing this kind of critique of the notion of “the free market”? (I am referring to critiques of the notion itself rather than critiques of the supposed wonders of the free market.)


  19. > Somebody has hijacked the entry in Wikipedia since last looked at it a few years ago. They dismiss my ideas as irrelevant to demarchy, even though I invented it!

    Can’t say I’m surprised. Wikipedia deserves a case study in dysfunctional online communities.


  20. > Wikipedia deserves a case study in dysfunctional online communities.

    That is unfair, I think. Wikipedia is an amazingly useful resource – hardly the product of a completely dysfunctional community.

    It does have its problems, of course. I was thinking that many of the problems of Wikipedia can be addressed by applying sortition in one way or another.


  21. @ Keith Sutherland: This article raises two questions:

    1. Why is “expertise not considered a qualifying factor for membership in a demarchic committee.” It certainly could be and I’d hypothesise that this principle will greatly improve both, the deliberation quality and the popular acceptance of demarchic decision committees.

    2. How specifically does Hannah Pitkin demonstrate the falsity of John Burnheim’s position that “statistical representation ensures democratic accountability”? (I take this to mean “legitimacy”.)


  22. hjhofkirchner,

    1. I agree expertise could be a qualifying factor but John’s current position is that council membership is determined by a sortition from a self-nominating pool of those with the greatest “interest” in the outcome. Obviously interest and expertise are independent variables. I agree that popular acceptance of demarchic councils would be higher if members knew what they were talking about.

    2. Pitkin is using “accountability” in the literal sense that accountable representatives are appointed and removed by their principals and performance/probity will be an important factor. Legitimacy is a more complex matter and Pitkin is clear that the legitimacy of descriptive representation is restricted to functions that apply at the aggregate level (i.e. voting). “Statistical representatives” are unaccountable in that they cannot be removed by their principals.


  23. Thanks for elaborating, Keith.

    1. Understood. When John wrote the book, there was no scalable means of objective expertise tests. Now that there is, we could ask for an update of John’s opinion: Would there be any reason against mitigating his “Expertise Objection” in Ch 4 by improving sortition with empirical expertise weighing?

    2. John explicitly mentions the lack of traditional accountability, and he delivers lucid arguments why demarchy can do without. So it must be a misunderstanding that he “relies on the naïve notion that statistical representation ensures democratic accountability.” Assuming he meant democratic legitimacy: Would you (or Pitkin) object for any reason?


  24. 1. I’ll email him and ask for his view.

    2. John takes the view that legitimacy can be earned via purely epistemic means — if the outcome is reasonable/sensible etc then it will be accepted, over time as legitimate. Needless to say this begs a number of questions from the perspective of democratic/representation theory. But in his new book he takes a Habermasian perspective, emphasising that the role of demarchic committees is purely to inform and refine opinion in the public sphere, with political will being determined by conventional (electoral) means. So demarchy is no longer viewed as an alternative to democracy.


  25. 1. Thanks. I will relay this to our Vienna Circle if you can get a response.

    2. I did not know he recanted. “The political will being determined by conventional (electoral) means” is just the unsatisfactory situation of today. Do you have a source where I can read up on his reasons? I am sure we can do better.


  26. You would need to take a look at his new book The Demarchy Manifesto


  27. for Keith, H J Hofkirchner and all. updates on 2011 etc

    My email address is

    First, let me emphasise the status I claim for my various proposals: They are just more or less practical suggestions about the sort of thing s we might do to improve our public goods. I offer various considerations in favour of them that I hope will be recognised by most people as having some claim to desirability in the circumstances.

    I reject all foundationalist theories that base a social program on one or more “self-evident” principle. All attempts to base practical authority on a unique theoretical basis are mistaken and dangerous.

    Take the moral and political theories that we call consequentialist or utilitarian, that popularly go under such slogans as that the only right thing for apolitical authority to do is to attempt to produce the greatest aggregate good for all sentient creatures. It seems “obviously” right. What reason could there be for doing less? It treats the individual simply as a means to the great collective end.
    It is disastrous.

    Although I insist that societies are more like ecosystems that single organism and the different considerations app [y to different interactions between elements of any ecosystems and many of these considerations point in different directions, giving rise to difficult theoretical and practical problems. What will work satisfactorily to deal with a particular matter in a particular context can be assessed only in practice. But to get such answers we have to design very specific practical proposals.

    I have always said that the basic way of ensuring that all and only relevant considerations are brought into play and subjected to assessment is a fully public discussion focussed strictly on the specific problems under consideration rather than ideological generalities. Some people place great weight on market processes, others on expert design. But these are only means of dealing with particular problems. In the particular context neither has any privilege over the other. Both have their limitations and strengths in very general terms, some of which may be relevant to the particular problem, but neither may be useful in the particular context.

    Is Democracy Possible? was written before the explosion of the internet following the development of the World Wide Web. It is now possible to have specific website, completely open to anybody’s contribution, but carefully edited to maintain focus on the problem at hand that allows full discussion of a problem. I now see the task of a demarchic committee as to adjudicate the debate and try to draw a practical proposal out of it.

    Of course, there can be no guarantee that such a process will regularly arrive at sound practical conclusions in many circumstances. What I hope is that people will be prepared to be guided by such attempts to get things right in order to get as good a solution to the problem as is possible in the circumstances. A sophisticated public will realise that every serious practical decision is in many respects a gamble, but that gambles have to be taken if we are to act together effectively. I have treated all of this at some length in my new book The Demarchy Manifesto: for better public policy.

    Second, as regards accountability, the completely public processes of my suggested bodies ensure that everybody is in a position to assess whether the active participants are doing what they are supposed to be doing, namely attempting to find the most acceptable solution to the problem they purport to address. No doubt many journalists and others will comment on that performance. My hope is that we can get away from talk about the will of the people or power to the people, as if that vague entity already knew what is best for it. That is absurd. What the people need is a process of developing practical proposals that solve their problems and exploit the new opportunities open to them in the circumstances.

    Finally, a word about authority, or one aspect of the state’s monopoly of legitimate violence. It is often assumed that this power inevitably confers on the sovereign institution the real authority to decide everything in the public domain, because it alone can enforce its decisions.

    O want to insist that he authority to make certain decisions may lie with some non-state body, but that the state can be invoked in certain ways to protect that authority. So, for example a certain body, say one certifying certain capabilities, may exercise the right to issue or refuse certification in virtue of general public recognition of its procedures. But it and interested parties may prosecute offenders who falsely claim to have such certification, not in virtue of any status conferred on that certificate by the state, but in virtue of legal penalties attaching to fraudulent behaviour. Similarly, the state may be invoked to punish other forms of exploitation or violence, not in virtue of some specific piece of legislation, but in common law.


  28. John,

    >I want to insist that he authority to make certain decisions may lie with some non-state body . . . in virtue of general public recognition of its procedures.

    How would you operationalise such a recognition? It sounds a bit like social contract theory, whereby we are all deemed to have authorised the state by not voting with our feet. In fact, historically speaking, the authority of the state exists on account of its successful monopolisation of violence — a principal that anarchists like yourself reject. And what would be the difference between such a body and a quango, appointed either by the state or some supranational body like the EU or UN.

    PS typo in your email address, should be

    Liked by 1 person

  29. Keith,

    >How would you operationalise such a recognition?

    The Vienna Circle seeks to organise demarchy as a political party, freely competing with other parties in their respective jurisdictions, while adhering to demarchic principles internally. When – as John said – demarchy earns general public recognition of its procedures by virtue of its successes, it will increase its vote share, thus demarchic influence on decision making.

    An explicit, democratic authorisation.

    >What would be the difference between such a body and a quango, appointed either by the state or some supranational body like the EU or UN.

    Appointment by expertise-weighted representative sortition is the foremost difference, the advantages described by John follow from it.


  30. I’d be keen to hear John’s views on the merits of a demarchy party. Why do you think it would not suffer from the unintended consequences of mass democracy any less than other new parties? Judging from developments within the Italian 5 Star movement, the Iron Law of Oligarchy appears to have an exceedingly long tail. The point is that you can seek to structure a political party any way you like but the outcome will always be constrained by the need to attract mass (and poorly-informed) votes and funding in order to achieve electoral success. At the moment, in the UK, all voters are interested in is party unity and strong leadership and it’s hard to see how that would be compatible with demarchy.

    PS is there any connection between your Vienna Circle and its logical positivist forebear?


  31. John,

    > I now see the task of a demarchic committee as to adjudicate the debate and try to draw a practical proposal out of it.

    Fully agree. Now the question is: would you have any objection that the demarchic committee in drawing the practical proposal also decides on it? This power follows logically from the requirements we put on the committee’s composition.

    Keith reported that you may have reconsidered and now want to put the decision back to elected representatives, politicians?

    Our position on this is as follows:

    As long as demarchy is not a party deriving its mandate from its own earned vote share, elected representatives of other parties or appointed government leaders may chose to delegate some of their competencies to a demarchic committees, on their own authority.

    This is however only a technical detail during demarchy’s grass-roots phase. I personally see no issue with fundamental legitimacy and superiority of direct demarchic decisions. Do you?


  32. Keith,

    > Why do you think it would not suffer from the unintended consequences of mass democracy any less than other new parties?

    Movimento 5 Stelle publicly claims some interesting principles, sure, but it does not have an internal demarchic process, it is authoritarian. For example the autocratic expulsion of part members by Beppe Grillo:

    It is straightforward: a demarchic party must apply its own demarchic principles onto itself, so there can be no direct authority resting in any single person, no leaders.

    The Law of Oligarchy has no grip on the fluid quicksand of true demarchic committees.


  33. The problem is that parties without leaders don’t attract mass votes. The Green Party in the UK was strongly opposed to leaders but had to bow to the inevitable. Michels’ thesis on the internal workings of political parties would appear to be universally true.


  34. Keith > operationaliomg opinion.

    I certainly do not want to reject the state monopoly of legitimate violence, only rejecting reliance on it to achieve agreed social action. I still want it to keep its monopoly of punitive action. What I reject is the idea that only state decisions can or ought to be punished and the attitude that if there is no law against what one wants to do , one is perfectly free to do it. Above all, I reject the idea, so popular in the US, that only people who can exercise effective violence on their own behalf are really free.

    Any community rests on conventional practices, norms and values that are generally accepted as the core of what it is to belong to that community. Ordinary people know this and often fear immigration mainly because they fear that people who do not belong to the community because of a strong background of the ordinary operation of those conventions in everyday life are a threat to the cohesion of the community.

    Of course, people who have an experience or even a theoretical knowledge of how communities share the same problems and answer them in the same way do not feel threatened in this way , especially, as in recent times when they find many problems and paradoxes in their local practices and want to remedy them in the interests of those who have been downtrodden by traditional practices. As I continually urge, the social movement not to abolish conventions in the name of liberty, but to modify them to give people a fairer and more hopeful normative structure is one of the great developments of our age, particularly in the way that women, children and the handicapped are treated in normal social practice. I deplore the fact that some groups who support these changes try to have them enforced by state action, as if that makes them more secure. In fact that often demeans those changes by reducing them to manipulative deals of power trading.

    Politics is properly a matter of doing what is needed to promote or protect those public goods that require generally accepted organised action, often to prevent people profiting from fraudulent or violent abuses of existing practices in ways that are dangerous to others, but also to secure effective and rapid response to dangerous developments that arise from practices that are otherwise harmless but are dangerous in the circumstances. It cannot be assumed that the normal practices of opinion formation will be adequate to deal with such problems.

    What is important to people’s interests in such matters is that the action to be taken be appropriate, effective and well accepted. My proposals are based on the assumption that it is possible by deliberation focussed on the specifics of the situation to arrive at proposals that are generally accepted as at least as worth trying as any available alternative. This hope rests on the assumption that focussed discussion of this sort will supplant bloc ideological adversarial politics. There is not much precedent for such a hope, but we do have intellectual and communicative resources of quite unprecedented power. The main thrust of The Demarchy Manifesto is to take account of the potential of these changes in a way that has not been adequately explored.


  35. Keith,

    >The problem is that parties without leaders don’t attract mass votes.

    The demarchic party needs no leaders, just talented speakers/orators, tasked to communicate demarchic decisions and the deliberated arguments supporting them.

    Actors have done quite well in politics in the past, so I have little doubt that this would work just fine, as long as they do not presume to lead.


  36. John,

    >Any community rests on conventional practices, norms and values that are generally accepted as the core of what it is to belong to that community.

    Sure, but when it comes to political decision making certain institutions are authorised and others aren’t. This isn’t just a matter of social convention, that’s why I asked you how decision making by demarchic committees would be converted directly into public policy. You need to get specific.


    >The demarchic party needs no leaders, just talented speakers/orators

    Sure, but they will become (in the public eye) the leaders and this will inevitably affect the process by which the decisions are arrived at. Policies presented in a manner that the public find amenable will be favoured by the demarchic council and the tail will end up wagging the dog. Prior to 1997 (UK) Labour Party policy emerged as a result of a democratic process but the party failed to achieve electoral success until it appointed an actor as its spokesman. But the actor (Tony Blair) ended up as an elected monarch, and there’s no reason to believe that this would not happen for the speaker of the demarchy party.


  37. Keith,

    >this will inevitably affect affect the process by which the decisions are arrived at.

    How could it? The demarchic process is a given and binding on all. Even if any of the orators had an own opinion on any of the many proposals in the diverse topics dealt with by the many committees at any given time, their influence is practically nil.

    Not being a member of any committee (highly unlikely due to expertise weighted sortition) orators neither partake in deliberation nor do they get a vote in the demarchic committees’ decisions.

    Labour 1997 was an entirely different matter. It had no demarchic process in place. Tony used a standard leadership acquisition practice in a traditional hierarchic party organisation, starting as “just” a speaker, and entrenching to become its hierarchic leader.

    @ John:

    I apologise for imposing on this ongoing debate. My entry is motivated by the article saying that “expertise is not considered a qualifying factor for membership in a demarchic committee.”

    Is this your position? If so, which are the reasons against mitigating the “expertise objection” in Ch 4 of your earlier book by improving representative sortition with prior empirical expertise weighing according to our Rule #3?

    As mentioned above, we strongly believe that expertise matters greatly and that its strengthening will greatly improve both, deliberation quality and popular acceptance of demarchic democracy.


  38. Keith>partied without leaders

    Demarchy is not a party. The role of a leader in a party, an organisation or a nation-state is to symbolise and give emotional force to the need for unity in action. That is needed to the extent that a huge range of matters are to be given a single focus, as the traditional image of the nation state, or other organisation, as an organic unity witha single purpose assumes.

    In the days where sovereignty was a matter of physical force, and the right of conquest was recognised, that purpose in the case of the nation was might. ” God who made thee mighty make thee mightier yet!” amd so on. In our very complex international order that seeks to eliminate the use of force to settle questions of authority what matters are the procedures vy which decisions are shaped.

    There is indeed a need for leaders as people who can articulate and give concrete expression to our needs and aspirations in particular respects and particular components of our multi-dimensional lives, but yhey must exercise persuasion not some overriding power.


  39. John,

    >There is indeed a need for leaders…

    I oppose this claim strongly. It is an anachronism which just as well ends in tyranny, as the last half-sentence above is wishful thinking.

    We now live in the age of bitcoin, the blockchain, and non-hierarchical distributed worldwide systems. Such emerging systems are intrinsically democratic and they have shown positively that they can flourish perfectly without leaders.

    We also disagree in that demarchy does not have to arrive as an utopian system replacement, a revolution, a new constitution. Its processes can just as well organise the inner workings of national parties, competing with traditional hierarchic parties, earning legitimacy through democratic votes. This makes full-blown international demarchy (as a “demarchic democracy”) realistic in our lifetime.

    Hayek had his definition of demarchy and we criticise that his concepts ignored his own principles of “Use of Knowledge in Society”). You developed yours. We are now developing it even more, adding empirical expertise weighting to the sortition process and collective intelligence tools for the broadest participative “in-formation” capability.

    I hope we can agree that demarchy (or demarchic democracy) must be improved and changed if we want to solve the plethora of problems which come with its representative democracy.


  40. hjk> expertise.

    There are many kinds of expertise. In general we use the word for any skill that is likely to contribute reliably to getting a certain matter right in practice. But there tends to be a tension between experience and theory. Theory is able to suggest possibilities that go far beyond existing experience, while experience reflects the complexities of the concrete cases which theory cannot usually predict.

    Any practical solution to a concrete problem must draw on both kinds of expertise. In our highly differentiated world both kinds of expertise are divided into specialties concentrated in different groups, each containing just a few people. Both are work in progress, as theory is continually being developed and experience is being analyses anew.

    Each must be given the maximum scope to enlighten the people who have ti make a choice about the consequences of the various options open to them. But in the long run the people who are most affected by those choices need to be entrusted with the hazardous task of choosing the best practical option in the light of their assessment of the risks involved. I would argue that people closely affected by a problem tend to form more realistic assessments of risk than those who are only remotely affected. So it is sensible, as well asmore equitable to be guided by their assessments than to give everybody who might be affected an equal say.


  41. Keith> getting specific

    I have made a very specific suggestion about the next step to be taken to improve public policy and backed it up with general considerations that seem to me to support the desirability of testing it in practice. Beyond that it is impossible to go.

    If it should happen to work in practice on a sufficient scale it would certainly make some big differences. But what they will in fact be is utterly unpredictable, if only because at the same time many other elements in the situation are going to change very significantly.

    Any kind of evolution can only come about through minor changes to the existing gene pool, but very small changes can have colossal consequences once their potential for better or worse in relation to a changing environment begins to be exploited.

    You constantly suggest that even if , improbably, demarchic councils come up with good proposals that are widely accepted as the best available, the powers that be will not take any notice of them unless they have to. I agree. I assume that the swinging voters will be sophisticated enough and numerous enough to put decisive pressure on the politicians to commit to what is seen as the best available suggestion, and that this will come to be the convention.

    I reject giving the councils any official power, because I believe that power always corrupts deliberation. They must make their case by persuasion.


  42. hjh.> power to the councils?

    As you say, if the councils are to have power, the procedures by with they are selected become crucial. I do not think it is either possible or desirable to arrive at a selection process that commands acceptance. Instead I want what authority they may aspire to must rest solely on their claim to have made a thorough attempt to arrive at a sound solution to a specific problem. They must show that they have considered all the relevant factors to which their attention has been drawn in the public discussion and have tried to find an acceptable compromise between those factors when they conflict.

    This view abandons the traditional idea of representation as regards the development of policy recommendations, but does not reject the established practice of allowing elected representatives the power to accept or reject that recommendation. This not because I have “recanted” what I wrote in IDP, but because it is not possible to persuade people to abandon the assumptions of established democratic practice. It is a question of practicality, introducing a new procedure that does not involve such a radical constitutional change, and seeing how that develops. It does represent what I see as a practical possibility rather than a theoretical optimum, as I have tried to explain at some length in The Demarchy Manifesto.

    I may have been misleading when I said that leadership in particular matters is desirable. I did not make it clear that the sort of thing I had in mind was that not many people are prepared to go beyond accepted assumptions. People accept things as they are and try to make the most of the opportunities the present social arrangements offer them. That is inevitable if we are to have a stable and predictable social environment. But there is also a need for people who are prepared to envisage changes in those arrangements and try to lead others to follow them in attempting to do so. Such authority must rest on persuasion, not status. Of course, such leaders may be dangerous if they succeed in persuading people to adopt authoritarian or individualistic ideologies that are invoked in the interests of irresponsible experiments. I want to insist on incremental changes in response to clearly analysed problems.


  43. John shares his anti-foundationalist views (he is a staunch Wittgenstinian) with most deliberative democrats. Such an approach rejects the historical evidence for the origin of political society (violence) and is equally contemptuous of the claim from evolutionary psychology (a discipline loathed by anti-foundationalists and constructivists) that political speech has merely recast swords into verbal weaponry. Why take the risk of fighting if you can get the same results through persuasion alone?

    Such a perspective is anathema to Habermasians, who seek to replace “instrumental” with “communicative” action. But this is little more than a set of ideal norms and there is no evidence that human cognition is optimised for dispassionate reason-based communication. Besides which, the pursuit of reason (as opposed to the expression of reasons) is just about as foundationalist/monotheistic as it comes, it’s just that the old god has been replaced by a secular one.

    hjh:> Even if any of the orators had an own opinion on any of the many proposals in the diverse topics dealt with by the many committees at any given time, their influence is practically nil.

    You have overlooked the feedback loop. Deliberators will seek to have their deliberations converted into public policy (otherwise it’s just hot air), so will listen carefully to the feedback from the orators. One of the most important agents in the New Labour project was Philip Gould, Blair’s opinion pollster, who told the deliberators what they would need to recommend in order for the party to get elected. Exactly the same would be the case for a demarchy party. The iron law of oligarchy is a product of mass democracy, not inter-party organisational structures.


  44. Keith,

    >”You have overlooked the feedback loop. Deliberators will seek to have their deliberations converted into public policy”.

    This paragraph starts from a mistaken premise. There is no feedback loop to consider in first place, because in our model a demarchic committee’s deliberation already decides the public policy conclusively.

    Deciding today’s complex policies by the yardstick of the median knowledge level of masses as determined by a pollster is less a mark of deliberation in the interest of citizens than an interest in their deliberate deception.

    The crucial point to consider: A demarchic party will not be elected for any specific stance it takes, be it popular or unpopular. It will be elected for the fully transparent, highly participative, and absolutely inviolable process it employs.

    Voters’ motivation will be that a much bigger number than ever before in human history will get a fair chance (by expertise weighted sortition) to have an active say in one of the many committees each of which decides on the stances which the party will take.

    What will surprise us, is that decisions thus deliberated – and skilfully communicated by the orators – will prove popular to their masses due to the superior quality.


  45. hjh:>There is no feedback loop to consider in first place, because in our model a demarchic committee’s deliberation already decides the public policy conclusively.

    John’s perspective of demarchic councils is for them to be of a permanent and domain-specific nature (albeit with rotation amongst its participants), so feedback on earlier decisions will have a strong constraining role to play on current and future deliberations. I don’t see how this differs from the current dilemma of the (UK) Labour Party — do they go with “optimal” (in their eyes) policies resulting from their internal party deliberations or do they come up with policies that are likely to appeal to voters? This dilemma looks like being on track to destroy the party.

    >Deciding today’s complex policies by the yardstick of the median knowledge level of masses as determined by a pollster is less a mark of deliberation in the interest of citizens than an interest in their deliberate deception.

    Why is pandering to public opinion a deception? Even if the epistemic outcomes are sub-optimal, I don’t see why giving people what they ask for is deceiving them (unless you think they are so stupid as to not know what they really want and therefore need to be informed by their betters what is in their real interests).

    >What will surprise us, is that decisions thus deliberated – and skilfully communicated by the orators – will prove popular to their masses due to the superior quality.

    What evidence do you have to support this optimistic conclusion? How will their “quality” be assessed and why do you think this is the most important political consideration (as opposed to the self-interest and beliefs of voters)? My own (competing) model to demarchic councils presupposes that the decisions of well-informed deliberative minipublics will be accepted by the general public iff it can be demonstrated that the decision would be the same, irrespective of which citizens participated. This is a normative argument derived from (representative) democratic equality, not epistemic outcomes and it would suggest serious constraints on the deliberative mandate enjoyed by the minipublic in order to ensure its ongoing representativity.


  46. PS how do you reconcile your pessimism with the “median knowledge level of the masses” with your optimism that they will recognise the superior quality of decisions made by persons selected by expertise-weighted sortition? Government policies are also strongly influenced by expert opinion and generally have the additional advantage of having secured a mandate in the form of a manifesto commitment. Yet you consider this to be a form of deliberate deception.


  47. Keith >anti-foundationalism

    “Such an approach rejects the historical evidence for the origin of political society, violence…”
    I certainly do not reject the claim that political institutions have their origin in violence, nor indeed the claim that that origin has shaped most of their features until fairly recently. What I would reject is (1) the claim that we can never get beyond that origin and (2) that political institutions shape or ground the whole of society. There is ample evidence that “primitive” societies, like those of Australian Aboriginal people developed through kinship relationships and customary laws, without any thing like a political institution. Of course, there water rules about violence and who was entitled to use it in what circumstances, but nothing like a monopoly of it. Political institutions are not the basic institutions of society.

    I am an ardent evolutionist, particularly in insisting that evolution is characterised by the emergence of complex bodies that have properties that their components do not have. Genuinely evolutionary psychology and sociology trace these developments. I reject the absurd claim that all the properties of any complex are reducible to those of its primitive elements. The same molecules of H2O can form ice or water or steam or clouds, each of which has characteristic properties that no molecule of H2o or anything else enjoys. On the other hand many other molecules eg CO2, can also form solids or liquids or vapours. What people can do collectively is a matter of how they are organised, as well as of their individual capacities.

    Reductionism rightly insists that we do not need to posit either a distinct additional component or some change in the pre-existing components to explain the properties of a complex. But it neglects the fact that both evolution and construction produce things that have properties that are shared by other complexes, but not by any of their components. Construction needs to be studied and assessed and exploited. That is not an “ism”, just the rejection of reductionism and its corollary foundationalism.

    “Feedback loops in a demarchy party”

    If my suggestions work, there will never be a demarchy party, only a broad social movement comprising a range of independent initiatives. My emphasis is always on processes and procedures, what they can do, under what conditions and on what scale. I strive not to neglect any procedure or process, but I can’t hope to say anything useful about what produces oligarchy in a few words. I do reject the sort of sociology that looks for explanation in terms of patterns of outcomes rather than the logic of processes.


  48. John,

    >>If my suggestions work, there will never be a demarchy party, only a broad social movement comprising a range of independent initiatives.

    A demarchic party may seem an unnecessary or even wasteful institution. However, there are two things to consider:

    1. The demarchic party will function exclusively on demarchic processes, and be not anything like a traditional party with leaders as described by Keith or as represented by Movimento 5 Stelle. It would essentially be a broad social movement eo ipso, no more no less.

    2. However, the demarchic party is a lemma. Without it we would have to be a deliberation on how we should do deliberation, which poses a paradox. Between demarchic, parlamentaristic, monarchistic, tyrannic, etc. who gets to say which deliberation by whom? By what right?

    The lemma is that we (e.g. the EU) already have a constitution which envisages that citizens get to elect parties. No violence is needed. (The EU politicians otherwise completely ignore Article 1 of the Treaty on European Union which would support John’s original improvement on Hayek.)

    Hence the outcome is the same and with the lemma we will live to see it working.


  49. keith> PS

    “How do you reconcile pessimism…”

    Collective opinions about such matters as what institutions to trust are more a matter of imagination than of knowledge, for better or for worse. i’m gambling on demarchy getting a favourable image. That depends on a range of factors that are beyond any organised control.

    Governments ignore expert advice when it suits them. They get away with it because it is always easy to drum up dissident experts who throw that advice into doubt. And experts are not popular anyway. I hope that in demarchic councils non-experts are avle to assess experts in a way people will find convincing.


  50. Keith,

    >>John’s perspective of demarchic councils is for them to be of a permanent and domain-specific nature

    F. A. Hayek’s demarchy was quite different from John’s, and our new Vienna demarchy model is different again.

    We factor in the very recent progress in social networking and distributed application technology and add the several competitive elements to the model described at the time of John’s IDP:

    (1) a demarchic party competing with traditional parties (see above for our reasons)

    (2) a massively parallel social forecasting competition falsifiable against actual outcomes in an open ontology, for empirical expertise weighting of sortition into committees,

    (3) an massively parallel online debating competition, to determine the best orators, for weighted sortition of a non-voting orator to each committee,

    (4) a very large number of short-term expertise weighted committees focusing on single decisions or the smallest efficient bundle of decisions of demarchic proposals,

    (5) committee sizes ensure a 99% confidence level of the requisite supermajority of a socio-demographically representative group whose interest is determined by self-organising ontological information.

    (Sorry for this last bit, but it is quite crucial: the English word “interest” is terribly imprecise, Keith rightfully criticises it above. We must bring “interest” back to its Latin root “inter esssere” and “information back” to “in formare” to express the needed emergence. Even better in German: “Zwischenmenschlich” which means “between people” with an intrinsically positive, trusting sentiment.)

    > unless you think they are so stupid as to not know what they really want and therefore need to be informed by their betters what is in their real interests.

    That’s rhetoric. “People” are neither stupid, nor will they have betters in a demarchy.

    We cannot brush away the ever growing complexity and specialisation lockstepping human evolution. Already Socrates – in a much simpler world of two millennia ago – criticised demarchy by the simple fact that a cabinet maker (not referring to Karl Popper) should not do a flutist’s work, and vice versa. Surely this does not mean that one is better than the other? It just happens that they have different expertise for specific task at hand. The Vienna model only reacts to Socrates, admittedly with a slight delay.

    >how do you reconcile your pessimism with the “median knowledge level of the masses” with your optimism that they will recognise the superior quality of decisions made by persons selected by expertise-weighted sortition?

    Further to the explanation in the paragraph before, people do want the best qualified others (not betters, though) to make decisions on their behalf. Just like an entrepreneur makes decisions about which features should be in the next iPhone, and the people buy the devices, or not. Our collective processes will work just as efficient with New Demarchy.

    The opposite – asking people to decide specialised proposals which exceed their expertise – is the problem of traditional mass democracy.

    I was in Greece during the time of the Euro bailout referendum. A lady was interviewed on the street, how she would vote tomorrow. She looked at the interviewer and burst out in tears. “I know it is important, but I have no idea what either Yes or No would mean”, she cried. I sensed she was representative of a vast majority of Greek citizens there.

    In John Galton’s famous democracy experiment of 1906, the ox’s weight was estimated perfectly by the collective average of the participating farmers, experts in cattle weight. When my ingenious co-author of “The Science of Predictions”, John Puleston, repeated the experiment with college students in 2014, a dairy cow was estimated 200 kg less than she had, an error of 36%. We can safely assume that these students would gladly delegate decisions on animal husbandry policy to Galton’s farmers for higher quality decisions, without implying in the least that the selected farmers are the betters of the students.


  51. John,

    >I hope that in demarchic councils non-experts are able to assess experts in a way people will find convincing.

    It’s difficult to see how that would happen if both categories of members had identical functions and status (i.e. making proposals and also assessing them). This is a product of the (discredited) classical model of deliberation as a way of updating/correcting one’s own knowledge. The new evo-psych model of deliberation has two mechanisms, one which facilitates persuasive rhetoric and the other for judging the rhetoric of others and this would suggest different functional roles for the experts and judges. No doubt you will find this two reductionist for your taste, but if you don’t seek a foundation for your proposals in human nature you end up seeking an alternative skyhook (Dennett’s term) in abstractions like reason and truth.


    Why not submit a new post on the Vienna Circle model of demarchy to the blog? There’s clearly a lot we need to learn before being able to comment on it intelligently. In the meantime, your iPhone analogy would suggest a number of competing demarchy parties and I’m not sure that the analogy really works as people choose between (say) an iPhone and a Galaxy on the basis of personal knowledge/experience/preferences that would not really apply to political decisions.

    PS according to Surowiecki the predictors in Galton’s experiment weren’t all farmers — the accuracy was a product of the diversity of the knowledge base.


  52. Keith> functions of members

    What I envisage is a discussion in which the members try to understand what each other is saying, asking each other to explain their apparent differences, with a view to arriving at as much agreement as possible. If they cannot reach substantial agreement, they have nothing to say as a body. So there is no conclusion others can draw, except that there is little prospect of solving the problem.

    When I express the hope that the non-expert will bring the expert down to earth I assume it is a matter of asking a lot of pertinent questions.
    Nobody is there as an advocate for an interest, but simply to make what contribution he or she can to the collective consideration of the problem. Your advocacy/judgement distinction has its place in many structured contexts, but not here. I admit that such discussion may be open to group-think. We all have our weaknesses. But remember that everything that is said is on the public record. So they do have to convince those who are interested in the proceedings that hey haven’t been too cozy. At least a lot of people who have taken a position in the preceding public discussion will want to check whether their points have received due attention. There will inevitably be hostile critics.


  53. hjh> a different model

    The fundamental difference betwee the Viennese model and mineas presented in The Demarchy Manifesto is that yours is directed specifically at using state power to institutionalise demarchic structure, where I want to avoid that path for many reasons that I hope will emerge from a reading of the book. They are quite complex, and I am reluctant to attempt a short summary here.

    Similarly, I doubt if it would be very useful for me to attempt a critique of the Viennese program without having studied it in detail, which I am not in a position to be able to do at the moment.

    In any case I am not sure that the positions are incompatible in practice, whatever the differences in their underlying assumptions. But I am very conscious from a lifetime of experience that reformist groups easily fall into the habit of emphasising their differences to the point of lapsing into dogmatism. I offer my thinking as simply a matter of some suggestions that I hope people will find worth trying out in practice. Of course, we cant try them all at once. We need tolerance and patience.


  54. hjh . IDP?

    I do want to emphasise that when IDP was written the internet did not exist as we have it today, and in my view that changes the practical perspective quite fundamentally.


  55. John,

    >when IDP was written the internet did not exist as we have it today, and in my view that changes the practical perspective quite fundamentally.

    That’s what I meant to say: working with what technology was available then. And it just in case that I expressed it badly unintentionally: i do not thing or want to imply that this diminishes IDP’s contribution and its important progress on Hayek’s version.

    >reformist groups easily fall into the habit of emphasising their differences to the point of lapsing into dogmatism. I offer my thinking…

    This thinking is what we are seeking, and dogmatism would not help. I believe an evolutionary progress is needed for demarchy, like for any innovation, appropriately integrating new social technologies is a big chance, as M5S shows.


  56. John,

    >a discussion in which the members try to understand what each other is saying . . . I express the hope . . . Nobody is there as an advocate for an interest.

    Exactly. Deliberative democracy is a set of normative ideals without any foundation in actual historical practice or human cognitive mechanisms.

    >they do have to convince those who are interested in the proceedings that they haven’t been too cozy.

    Why do you think anyone would be interested in scrutinising the proceedings of a self-nominated group without any actual power?


  57. Keith>discussion.

    “Normativeideals….without foundation.”

    The foundation is very deep in our nature and our history. It is the desire to understand, to explore and learn, to get things right. In all of the traditions on which I draw it has been extremely powerful. For many of us this is fundamental to what we are and what we have made of what we are. Since the explosion of our knowledge in modern times, even the hard-headed people who are concerned only with power or those other people who fear the unsettling desire to learn, recognise that getting things right is indispensable to practical success in almost any project. The norms governing collective enquiry are continually being developed in critical practice. They are neither given a priori nor simple dogmatism but an enduring construction, one of our most precious public goods. It is an organism that needs to be fed, to grow and reproduce itself in an environment that is always in some ways hostile to it..

    Anybody who is seriously interested in solving a collective problem knows that they cannot afford to neglect a ny serious attempt to do so. There is indeed a problem in a group attracting attention if it doesn’t have power. It is principally a matter of flair and good advertising, things on which I have nothing to offer. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who do not care much about anything beyond the pleasures and pains of the moment. Unfortunately, our present political and economic practices often give them too much weight in determining public policy.


  58. John,

    >The foundation is very deep in our nature and our history. It is the desire to understand, to explore and learn, to get things right.

    That may be true with regard to open philosophical and scientific enquiry (although Kuhn would disagree), but it’s hard to see that it has had an overwhelming influence on politics and society in general. As to your rejection of philosophical foundationalism, this is understandable for someone with a long background in Marxism and the Catholic Church. In both cases the foundation was a skyhook — a dream of a philosophical ideal that has no foundation in the historical world populated by actual human beings. The foundationalism that I advocate is 100% empirical and historical and includes the following premises:

    1. Political history is little more than a catalogue of violence.
    2. The violence is grounded in human nature, which has developed by natural selection (the fittest survive by killing the less fit).
    3. Evolutionary psychology explains reasoning as an adaptation of physical violence (persuasion is less costly than fighting). The confirmatory bias and the abhorrence of cognitive dissonance are functions of the need to believe passionately in the cause you are fighting for (by force of arms or argument). But evolution provides us with a complementary cognitive tool to evaluate the persuasive efforts of others.
    4. Successful political institutional design should build on these two innate cognitive faculties and that requires a bicameral structure with advocates and judges with entirely distinct functions.

    By contrast demarchs (and deliberative democrats in general) seek to design political institutions on normative theories as to how people should behave in ideal “rational” conditions (as do most religions and abstract political doctrines like Marxism). Even Habermas (like yourself, a former Marxist) acknowledged that “rational discourses have an improbable character and are like islands in the ocean of everyday practice” (1996, p. 323). Although you use the language of ecospheres and evolutionary adaptation, this is purely metaphorical as the time scales involved are anything but Darwinian. As such, deliberative democracy and demarchy are little more than a pipe dream.


  59. Keith,

    >Successful political institutional design should build on these two innate cognitive faculties and that requires a bicameral structure with advocates and judges with entirely distinct functions.

    Fully acknowledging the behavioural forces you describe, I still do not understand how they the point to any issue with the demarchic process. As demarchic committees decide on proposals made by others (Rule #4 of New Demarchy), the separation which you are asking for is already built-in, is it not?

    >deliberative democracy and demarchy are little more than a pipe dream.

    For falsification, I offer the link below to an Australian initiative towards demarchy (I believe they are following John’s model), which shows that progress is already happening. Or do you have a different opinion of their work?


  60. Hubertus,

    You really need to send in a post outlining your demarchy model — John certainly admits of no functional separation between proposers and disposers.

    I don’t know what specific New Democracy initiative you have in mind
    demonstrating that deliberative democracy/demarchy has the potential to replace existing adversarial/agonistic politics.


  61. Keith,

    I am not an author on this blog, so I cannot post. Also, we are running the New Demarchy initiative quite transparently on the internet, so it’s there for anybody interested to read up, without having to buy a book:

    >specific initiative:
    I really liked the New Democracy description of their Melbourne budgeting exercise let year. It had a “we are getting there” feel about it, judging from the distance. Their practical case studies are a very important contribution to advancing the cause elsewhere.

    1. If we accept the nature of a demarchic process, it must be fully in the public domain, it must belong to no-one. Nobody can “steal it”, from F. A. Hayek, from John, or from anybody who contributed to it since or will in the future.

    2. Like an innovation in the private sector, we will have to pivot demarchy from time to time, changing what needs changing as we learn (internally) or as the situation changes (externally). So there should be no frozen “recipe”, only what brings us forward at any given moment.

    3. I do not have a fixed opinion if decision power would corrupt demarchic committees as John fears, if distributed so widely and fluidly as proposed in the Vienna model. Even more so as he writes here above: “There is indeed a problem in a group attracting attention if it doesn’t have power.” I am quite certain that the power to decide is a key feature, for reasons of motivation, efficiency, and purpose. If a power abuse problem should arise, there are game theory solutions to structure committee decision making in a manner where this effect can be minimised to irrelevance.

    4. Last, I have no idea why John would not want a party (reforming an existing party or creating a new one) organised itself by demarchic principles, to be the democratically legitimated agent of introducing demarchy.


  62. To submit a post, just send it to the convenor,


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