“Direct democracy” and mass politics – part 2

Part 1 is here.

Mass politics

Mass politics is the situation in which political decisions are made by a symmetrical aggregation of the actions of a large number of individuals.

The modern electoral system is an example of a mass political system. In this case, the actions of the individuals are (1) whether to run for office, (2) advocacy, and (3) voting. The political decision made is the selection of the officials.

Another example is the “direct democracy” situation – both in its modern “popular initiative” setup or in the ancient “Athenian Assembly” setup. In this case, the individuals can (1) propose legislation, (2) advocate, and (3) vote, and the decision made is the passing of pieces of public policy.

When the agenda is set externally (by the Ephors in Sparta and to some extent by the Boule in Athens, or by the elected legislature in Oregon System referenda), then the individual actions are limited to advocacy and voting. In some cases (e.g., the Spartan assembly) advocacy by individuals is also explicitly excluded from the process.

Due to the symmetry of its decision making process, mass politics has superficial similarity to democracy – a political system in which political power is distributed equally among the members – since both terms describe situations of equality. The difference is that mass politics is defined in terms of formal equality while democracy is defined in terms of equality of actual political power.

Popular support for mass political systems stems from the intuitive notion that political inequality is due primarily to inequality in the formal status of group members. If this were true, then elimination of formal inequalities – attributes like nobility status – would result in a democratic system. However, it turns out that political inequalities in large groups are not a secondary phenomenon, dependent on formal inequalities, but are rather a spontaneously occurring, self-reinforcing phenomenon. Paradoxically, formal symmetry in decision-making makes it highly unlikely that equality in political power will be achieved.

Cognitive scarcity

A large group in a state of formal political symmetry faces two obstacles to de-facto political equality:

  • high effort/impact ratio for the average group member, and
  • high information output/input capacity ratio.

The two phenomena are somewhat related, both being largely due to cognitive constraints, but a useful distinction can be drawn between them, I believe.

The high effort/impact phenomenon is what is seen as leading to “rational ignorance”. It can be conceived as affecting each assembly member in isolation, when each person’s actions do not affect others (except through the policy decisions being made). For each decision to be made, a person can spend resources (time, effort, materials) to study and understand the matter at hand. There is presumably a monotonic relationship between the resources spent and the level of understanding that the member reaches. A perfectly rational decision is reached when the amount of resources spent is infinite, but spending too much resources would not be justified by the impact of the decision made. This is true even when a single person is the sole decision maker on a particular issue, but the amount of resources reasonably spent on a particular decision diminishes as the effects of each person’s actions become diluted by the actions of many other people affecting the policy outcome. In such a situation, for the average group member, who expects their actions to make no more than average impact, it often makes no sense to study an issue in any depth. Decisions are then made based on superficialities and the members are “rationally ignorant”.

Beyond the immediate problem – that public policy is determined based on very limited consideration of the relevant information – this situation creates the potential for concentration of power. Since the superficial considerations are, due their low-cognitive-effort construction process, largely irrational, they are susceptible to manipulation. Those who are in a position to influence those considerations wield considerable influence over the political decisions made.

The second phenomenon can be conceived as a constraint on meaningful communication within the group. As the number of group members grows, it becomes impossible for each member of the group to understand what all other members think. Understanding what other people think is important when forming a decision whether to vote in favor or against on a particular proposal, because other people’s views inform one’s view. But the crucial function of communication in the context of decision making is in proposal formation and promotion. If the adoption of a particular policy choice requires the coordinated actions of many people, communication is a prerequisite for adoption.

Since it is impossible for all members of a large group to communicate with all others, some sort of a filtering mechanism always arises. The cognitive constraint is on the receiving end so all people must listen to no more than a few sources of information and ideas. However, no such constraint exists on the transmitting end: a single person or source of information and opinions can be heard by large part of the group.

Therefore, theoretically, there are two possible outcomes. The first is where the symmetry is maintained, and large audiences do not exist at all. In this case, it is difficult to formally accept any policy, since all policy proposals must travel through intermediaries before they can be considered by a large number of people. Different intermediaries will choose to transmit different proposals and some variations are bound to arise during transmission. It would therefore be difficult to align many supporters behind any particular proposal.

The more realistic outcome is one where the symmetry is broken. In this case, a few people have large audiences – encompassing a large proportion of the group – while most people have small audiences. The set of people who obtain the large audience differs depending on various attributes of the society and the political system. Changes in the political system can result in changes in the makeup of the group attaining the privileged situation of having a large audience. Clearly, however, regardless of the makeup of the group, that privileged group exerts a disproportional influence over policy making, since it is essentially no policy proposal has a real chance of being adopted unless it has a promoter within the group.

Conclusion

Due to the effects of cognitive scarcity, mass-political systems tend to foster the creation of power centers that have no formal recognition as being privileged but do in fact determine a large part of public policy. The state of formal political symmetry, where the rules of decision-making follow a ‘principle of indistinction’, results in the symmetry being broken along the lines of some exogenous distinctions within the population. Political power is accumulated by those distinguished by their wealth, organizational skills, intelligence, fame, beauty, charisma, or some other attributes external to the formal political rules.

In view of the above, reform of the existing electoral system should not be sought in introducing various electoral reforms, or in “direct democracy” or assembly politics, which share with elections the inherent drawbacks of mass politics. Those who seek to envision or promote democratic government should reject such institutions and focus on alternative devices – primarily on a different, less well publicized, Athenian device: sortition.

Advertisements

9 Responses

  1. >Political power is accumulated by those distinguished by their wealth, organizational skills, intelligence, fame, beauty, charisma, or some other attributes external to the formal political rules.

    I’m puzzled why it required such a dense and complex theoretical argument to arrive at such an undeniable conclusion. Bernard Manin wrote a book conclusively demonstrating this in 1997 — he called it the principle of distinction and you have, with breathtaking originality, named its counterpart the principle of indistinction. It’s the second part of your conclusion (that we should reject all forms of mass politics and pass all power to a tiny klerotocratic oligarchy) that requires a theoretical defence. So when can we expect Part 3?

    Like

  2. I think this is useful, but I do have questions similar to those of Keith. I think your analysis of the input and output constraints on mass politics is completely correct, but the question is what follows from it. Keith’s answer, I take it, is that some people will inevitably do much more of certain tasks (make proposals and argue for them, for example) than others, while for other tasks (like voting), people can be effectively equal. Your concern, obviously, is that the people who are unequal with respect to proposals, etc. will have more power than others, and as a democrat you’d like to equalize that. The question is whether that could ever be done.

    Your goal is to equalize political power, which I take to mean equality in the performance of all political tasks. All shall equally make proposals (as opposed to having the opportunity to make proposals), argue about them, vote on them, etc. But there are two obvious objections. First, within an AC, there’s no reason to doubt that some will still argue more effectively, and more often, than others. Second, those in the AC will obviously have much more power than those who are not in it. And unless everyone can expect to serve in the AC once in their lifetimes, this poses a serious problem for political equality.

    Now, it’s possible that your goal is not to negate all forms of inequality, but simply some of them. You don’t want the wealthy, for example, to monopolize the political process. That’s perfectly reasonable, but negating the influence of that source of political power is not the same as equalizing political power. And so I guess I’d need to hear a lot more before I could be convinced that political power could really be effectively equalized, assuming that is in fact your goal.

    Like

  3. I think everyone knows what Keith’s answer is, what we want to hear is Yoram’s — this would require part 3. In sum we are all acutely aware of the inequalities introduced by mass politics, what we need to know is how to fix them without introducing a whole new bunch of inequalities. “Leave it all to sortition” just doesn’t cut the mustard.

    Like

  4. Peter wrote of Yoram’s post…
    “Your goal is to equalize political power, which I take to mean equality in the performance of all political tasks.”
    A much less ambitious, but still vital goal (that I suspect underlies Yoram’s argument) is the goal of avoiding the unequal and consistent concentration of political power, rather than “equal performance of all political tasks.”

    Any system of mass politics (or election) will inevitably concentrate power in (often unseen) hands. Sortition also concentrates power, but for short duration and in an equal way (equality of chance), while avoiding any risk of permanence.

    Like

  5. Although there is undeniably equality of chance in being selected, the outcome is exactly as in Animal Farm (some animals being considerably more equal than others). This is the reason for representation in large political communities and why descriptive representation precludes individual functions. No doubt Yoram will tell us how intends to overcome this problem in part 3 of his post.

    Like

  6. Peter,

    The immediate trigger for this post was Chouard’s talk. My goal in this post was to argue that the hopes pinned by Chouard and other critics of the electoral system on “direct democracy” are unrealistic since the solution they offer is quite similar in its effects to the problem they are trying to solve.

    If this argument is accepted then one could argue: either (1) mass politics is not democratic but it is in fact better than democracy, or (2) mass politics is not democratic but democracy is unachievable and mass politics is the best that can be achieved, or (3) mass political institutions should be rejected.

    I, of course, opt for (3) since I think sortition does provide a path for achieving democracy and that democracy is better than non-democratic systems. But if others opt for (1) and (2), that’s fine as far as the goals of this post are concerned.

    As for equalizing political power: I do not see this as equality in the performance of all political tasks. Such a situation would be mass-political and would therefore have all the drawbacks I discuss above. Democracy is having the interests and ideas of all citizens having equal impact on public policy. I believe that a sortition-based government does, under the right conditions, provide a good approximation to such a situation. The general argument why this is so is clear, I think. As always, however, writing down a detailed argument is a worthwhile task.

    Like

  7. Terry,

    > A much less ambitious, but still vital goal (that I suspect underlies Yoram’s argument) is the goal of avoiding the unequal and consistent concentration of political power, rather than “equal performance of all political tasks.”

    Right. Equal distribution of political tasks is not even desirable. It would be another iteration on the mass politics idea – doomed to be a mere formality.

    Like

  8. Keith wrote:
    “Although there is undeniably equality of chance in being selected, the outcome is exactly as in Animal Farm (some animals being considerably more equal than others).”

    Exactly the opposite is the case. A sortition system would prevent the pigs from raising themselves above the other animals (“more equal”). Some times there would be a cow and a horse and sheep in charge, and another time a pig a chicken and a goat, but never one unified class as in Animal Farm.

    Like

  9. Yes I chose a poor literary analogy. What I meant is that speech acts are the province of individuals and that those individuals chosen by lot would therefore be “more equal” than those that weren’t. Sortition presupposes a return to a pre-modern corporate view of representation and I think we all share this perspective. If we are in agreement that modern multicultural societies are comprised of a large variety of overlapping identities and interests (pigs, chickens, goats, cows, horses etc) and that these require representation that is proportionate to their numerical strength then Yoram’s proposal (to abandon mass democracy and leave everything in the hands of an allotted chamber) would merely replace one form of inequality with another. The proposal would only work given the assumption that all members of the 99% (i.e. non-pigs) share a common interest so that it makes little difference which members of the assembly take on active political functions. So the choice is between 19th and 21st century sociological analysis of the “corporations” that make up society. To illustrate this better, take the much-cited paragraph from Callenbach and Philips, according to which a lot-derived assembly would include:

    “On average about 50% women; 12% blacks; 6% Latinos; 25% blue-collar workers; 10% unemployed persons; two doctors or dentists; one school administrator; two accountants; one real estate agent; eight teachers; one scientist; four bookkeepers; nine food service workers; one childcare worker; three carpenters; four farm laborers; thee auto mechanics; one fire fighter; one computer specialist; and a Buddhist.” (Callenbach & Phillips, 2008, pp. 29-31)

    What if (say) the speech acts of the Buddhist were possessed of greater persuasive powers than the nine food-service workers? Given the inherent complexity of modern societies, which precludes a simple aggregation of interests into “the masses” and “the elite” it strikes me as plain obvious that an allotted chamber cannot legitimately mandate individual speech acts. In the past you have acknowledged this point, and arrogated these functions to multiple allotted chambers at an earlier stage in the policy-generation process.

    Yoram:>Democracy is having the interests and ideas of all citizens having equal impact on public policy. I believe that a sortition-based government does, under the right conditions, provide a good approximation to such a situation. The general argument why this is so is clear, I think. As always, however, writing down a detailed argument is a worthwhile task.

    The general argument may be clear to Yoram, what he needs to do is share it with the rest of us, rather than repeating what we already know about the failings of mass democracy. I agree that “the goal is to have the interests and ideas of all citizens having an equal impact on public policy” (although I would argue that the impact should be proportionate to the numerical distribution of citizens sharing those interests and ideas). The question is how a few hundred randomly-selected citizens can implement this in the absence of either elections or direct-democratic initiatives. This may be obvious to Yoram, but it’s deeply puzzling to me (and, I suspect, the majority of people).

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: