Nicholas Gruen: Establish special-purpose ‘democratic’ elites

Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics, Chairman of the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, an entrepreneur involved in a number of internet startups, wants to use sortition to “cut through the weaknesses of ‘vox pop democracy'”:

It turns out that it’s in the opposition’s interest to oppose government policy even where most informed people think the government is right, perhaps even where most of the people think it’s right. Whereupon the process of undermining community sentiment begins apace. On abstract and complex subjects, lots of effort can be expended emphasising uncertainties, nursing resentments, breaking the law to obtain emails and then using them to smear scientists’ motivations etc. Who cares that careful investigation showed that these emails didn’t illustrate what they were taken to illustrate? By then the caravan has moved on.

Other areas where there’s been strong consensus based around expert opinion which have then been exploited by oppositions include tax reform of virtually every hue from the mining tax to CGT, FBT and GST reform.

Is there an antidote to all this? ‘Popular opinion’ is nothing more than what everyone thinks about something at a given time. But at any given time, most people don’t know much about it. So their opinion doesn’t count for much as far as making an informed decision. The trouble is, if one simply delegates the decision to an elite — as we do with monetary policy or judge-made law, for instance — there can be questions of democratic legitimacy. Of course if elites behave well, then things work out. And indeed people can be brought to support such elites, as most of us would defend the judiciary and monetary policy independence.

But we have one time-honoured institution in which we establish a special-purpose ‘democratic’ elite. A jury is a random selection of ordinary people who we ask to turn themselves into a cognitive elite regarding a particular matter — a legal case — with a view to their making a determination regarding the facts. This cuts through the weaknesses of ‘vox pop democracy’. Such people have access to ‘experts’ and, in discussion with each other, they can make up their own minds. They have minimal incentives to do otherwise; their career does not depend on their decision.

Notice how seldom shock jocks claim that juries are out of touch or question their authority, for they are one of the most unimpeachably democratic institutions we have.

So I’d like to see this kind of deliberative democracy brought into the kinds of issues I’ve discussed above to at the very least influence democratic decision-making.


10 Responses

  1. >A jury is a random selection of ordinary people who we ask to turn themselves into a cognitive elite regarding a particular matter — a legal case — with a view to their making a determination regarding the facts.

    “Cognitive elite” is an odd phrase. What trial juries actually do is decide the outcome of an exchange regarding two opposing views of the facts. Jurors are not required to become experts, merely to decide which team of experts is most convincing.


  2. A sound democracy delivers results that are in the interests of those most affected by a particular range of decisions. A decision is in the interests of a certain group of people if it is what they would choose if the alternatives were well understood.
    We need to be able to trust the representatives whom we charge with making decisions on our behalf to devote the time and energy necessary to ensuring that the alternatives are as properly presented and assessed as is humanly possible.
    The biggest incentive to pay attention to assessments on a range of issues is that one is directly and substantially affected by the consequences of the decisions in question.
    That suggests a need for different representation in different spheres of decision. There is not a single public good, but a host of diverse goods in which we all participate indirectly. But in most cases what is best for a particular good is best determined on the specific merits of the proposal for those it mainly affects.
    The strength of the market is that it puts the decision of what is produced and consumed in the hands of the particular group of producers and consumers who are involved in that particular set of transactions. An open market allows specialised initiatives, which have a host of unpredictable effects, but the overall affect is to present all of us with opportunities we did not suspect in advance.
    It is time that we realised that the same applies to those public goods that can only be produced by authoritative organisation and regulation.
    When all public goods are lumped together under the same authority, each is traded against all the others. The result is that public provision inevitably tends to be minimal provision, because most groups are minorities that resent paying for better services than they think the other minorities really need.
    We need to devise ways in which there is a combination of a basic funding for needs coupled with a capacity of those affected by particular public enterprises to raise funds to give themselves a better service, eg by imposing a supplementary income tax on them.
    One of the main problems in the production of both public and private goods is the dependence of consumers on producers. Those in power in the production process tend to design the product to suit themselves and reward themselves excessively for their efforts. In both domains the only cure for this is closer involvement of investors and consumers in dealing with the producers. The larger and more agglomerated the productive organisation, the more difficult that is.
    Finally, deliberation is inevitably slow, and the whole tendency of our current ways of doing things is to speed up the decision process, automating it wherever possible. A lot of inventive thinking is called for if we are to remedy that potentially disastrous trend.


  3. John,

    > A sound democracy delivers results that are in the interests of those most affected by a particular range of decisions.

    Often the interests of the many are opposite to those of those “most affected”. For example, the interests of public are to have the environment free of pollution, but the interests of manufacturers is to save costs by dumping waste rather than treating it, containing it, or avoiding producing it altogether.

    For a particular manufacturer, this may be the difference between a having a profitable business and going broke. Should we have the manufacturer – who is “most affected” by the environmental regulation – be the one that determines what the regulations are?

    Relatedly, who gets to determine who is “most affected”?


  4. I agree with Yoram. It strikes me that most political decisions can be located somewhere on the tax and spend continuum and, as such, affect most people. If I remember correctly, John’s proposal for funding the decisions of demarchic committees depends on a radical shift to a land tax which is unlikely to be implemented any time soon. I think we would also need to hear some concrete examples as to how voluntary demarchic committees would not end up as rule by activists (aka those with an interest in the area) and, as such, would lead to government being even further removed from the concerns of the silent majority.

    Needless to say, none of this has anything to do with juries. If we are going to use trial juries as a model for political decision making we need to be very clear as to what the former actually do. In the example given by Yoram, the role of the allotted jury would be to hear conflicting evidence from advocates for the interested parties (manufacturers and environmental groups) and then determine the outcome by seeking to balance the need for profitable businesses (presupposing a capitalist political economy) and the need for an unpolluted environment. Those making the final decision should be, as Madison proposed, those with NO interest in the outcome (but, unlike Madison’s proposal, should represent the whole political community descriptively). It really is important to separate out advocacy and decision making (conflated in John’s proposal), and not leave the latter to the former.


  5. a belgian deputy introducing sortition in the belgian parliament… To subtitle and share! ;)


  6. Results of a giant survey in Spain, done by 15M activists. 50 000 people took part in the survey, which analyses sortition and constituent assembly, share and translate!!107&cid=f2ba9805414d2c92&app=Excel&authkey=!ALFVvBpH1fBX7Rc


  7. Thanks Edd – very interesting and good news: Chourad and Louis have joined forces. The comment thread for the Louis video is active and very supportive.


  8. […] commenter draws attention to a recent speech by Belgian MP Laurent […]


  9. *** Nicholas Gruen proposal must be clarified but is very interesting. As he speaks of “determination regarding the facts”, it seems about the concept of a “cognitive citizen jury”, set to establish a file about a given subject – for instance the climatic evolution of the planet and its factors. It is a good democratic proposal. The members of these cognitive juries will not be experts – but the members of our Parliaments are not, nor our Presidents, and they have to ascertain which are the facts before deciding what to do.
    Establishing the facts, or, better, the probability of the different versions of the facts, will be often difficult; but at least the juries can reasonably be trusted to look for the truth, whereas the politicians are weary of the reactions of an uninformed public, of strident militancies, of the feelings of their financial contributors…
    *** The contemporary judicial juries are cognitive and decisional. This is practical, and partly logical: if the accused has nothing to do with the crime (cognitive assessment), the acquittal is a direct consequence. But for many complex political problems it is different. Suppose a cognitive jury says: global warming seems real and not a hoax, and reduction in the emissions of greenhouse gases could limit the damages. This will clarify the public debate, but not determine a precise policy; there are many ways of reducing the greenhouse gases, and each one has its drawbacks. It is even conceivable to decide that the best is to do nothing, that global warming is a lesser evil !
    *** Keith Sutherland says: “What trial juries actually do is decide the outcome of an exchange regarding two opposing views of the facts.” In the English-style trials, right, but it is not a logical necessity. In French criminal trials, it is more complex, with the part of the “président” and of the “partie civile”. (Sometimes the discussion in the blog is a little too much “anglo-americanocentric”!). Investigative parliamentary committees are another model. A cognitive citizen jury could work with multiple information channels.


  10. André

    I was struck by the differences between the Anglo-American and Continental judicial system when watching the TV program Spiral (Engrenages) and would be interested to hear what the continental equivalent of existing Anglocentric proposals for political juries would look like. Surely the involvement of the président and partie civile are non-democratic factors? While this might be helpful when the goal is determining guilt or innocence, political decision making has to be tightly constrained by democratic norms so I don’t see how it would be possible to introduce similar elements without adversely affecting the representativity of the jury.

    I also don’t understand why the fact that parliaments or presidents are not experts is a good reason to put discovering the facts in the hands of other lay people, although the latter would be the only ones who could decide which expert case is more convincing, and would definitely be the ones to take consequent decisions (such as “even if the case for global warming is proven, it may or may not be a lesser evil”). These are political decisions, but they need to be based on the facts and the best way of determining the facts is via adjudicating between competing teams of experts. Surely we need to respect the standard philosophical distinction between facts and norms, the role of experts being limited to the former.

    Investigative parliamentary committees (departmental select committees in the UK) are usually staffed by parliamentarians who have expertise in the field under consideration — often considerably more than ministers. None of this has much to do with sortition.


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