Eric X. Li: A tale of two political systems

Eric X. Li is not impressed with the electoral system:

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21 Responses

  1. I agree with Yoram and Terry that this is an excellent talk, indeed I published a piece on the OpenDemocracy blog 3 years ago supporting Fishkin’s claim that China was developing an entirely new model of democracy that “may set an example for public consultation in many settings around the world”.

    http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/keith-sutherland/chinese-democracy-%E2%80%98scientific-democratic-and-legal%E2%80%99

    I am, though, a little puzzled that uberdemocrats like Yoram and Terry should be attracted to a political system that appears to be at the opposite end of the spectrum to their own preferred alternative to electoral democracy (open-mandate allotted assemblies). Apart from the critique of competitive elections what was there about this talk that you found attractive?

    Fukuyama has christened the Chinese political system “responsive authoritarianism”, which would also be a reasonable description of the mixed constitution that I propose in my book A People’s Parliament, in which I argue for an executive government appointed on merit, but held to account by an allotted assembly with no powers of initiative. In the book I argue that the shortlist for government ministers should be drawn up by head-hunters but I would agree that the modernised Chinese mandarin system (wherein wannabe government officials progressively demonstrate their merit over several decades in academia, business or public service) would be much better.

    The principal attraction of Chinese governance from Fishkin’s perspective is that it is the only instance when the policy preferences arising from a DP were immediately implemented by the government, even though they were completely different to those of the ruling Communist Party officials. Eric Li makes the point that the Chinese government are the principal customer for opinion polls in the country, Fishkin’s argument would be that if you make those opinion polls deliberative then you end up with a system of government that is meritocratic, scientific, democratic and legal.

    What more could you ask for?

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  2. I am not at all attracted to the Chinese political system.

    My point is that it is common to credit electoralism as allowing Western societies to make various supposedly wonderful achievements – e.g., increased life-spans, improved material well being, legitimate and accountable government, equitable treatment of minorities and marginalized groups. The video serves as a useful to reminder that such a link is very far from obvious.

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  3. True, but Eric Li’s main point is the superiority of Chinese democracy (responsive authoritarianism) which, if the polls and statistics are to be believed, is both popular and effective. Given your views on meritocracy (“expertise” always been subject to scare-quotes), there is a certain irony in your finding comfort in this particular post. I doubt if the author would have much time for government by full-mandate allotted assemblies.

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  4. > I doubt if the author would have much time for government by full-mandate allotted assemblies.

    Quite likely. You seem to be entrenched in a mindset where the position of this or that author(ity) carries much weight. I am interested in the arguments and evidence Li presents, not in his preconceptions.

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  5. Agree that it’s right to focus on the argument, but Li’s argument is primarily one for government by an expert meritocracy — the discussion of electoral democracy is incidental. If the alternative to responsive authoritarianism were monarchy, aristocracy or any other system of government no doubt these would be the targets of his post.

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  6. The well argued part of the presentation is that the Chinese system is doing as well as, or better than, the electoral system. I have not seen Li present evidence that the Chinese system produces particularly effective or beneficial policies, so it is hard to see his argument as being “for” of that system. Diagrams of selection pyramids cannot be seen as constituting such an argument. (I am also quite doubtful of the whole “meritocracy” concept, as you would no doubt not be surprised to read.)

    By the way, one of Li’s arguments in favor of the Chinese system was that it doesn’t discriminate against people of unprivileged background in selection for positions of power (or, to be more accurate, doesn’t discriminate as much as electoralism does). Of course, sortition is even better in this respect (being optimally non-discriminatory).

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  7. Like Yoram, the thing that interested me is the speaker’s challenge to the assumption that electoral “democracy” is the inevitable optimal endpoint of political evolution, and that it certainly must outperform any other system in terms of giving the people what they want and need. Now, Yoram and I propose a different alternative to electoralism than the Chinese single-party system…that being sortition. However, there are ASPECTS of the Chinese system (dating back to the Confucian civil service meritocratic bureaucracy long before the Communist Party) that are instructive…to try and get competent people into the positions for ADMINISTERING the policies that are arrived at democratically through sortition.

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  8. Terry,

    I would agree with that. The only thing that separates us is how best to generate policy options. There is a strong argument for those who actually implement them having a key role in policy generation — in the modern literature that approach goes back at least to Rousseau and Mill. But governments should be listening attentively to the public mood and a microcosm of the public should make the final policy decision (as in effect happened in the Zegou DP). In line with the speaker I would predict that sortition will become an integral part of Chinese government before it makes a significant impact in liberal democracies. The Chinese government are already the principal customer of the public opinion industry, all they need now to do is to ensure that their polling is deliberative.

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  9. > The only thing that separates us is how best to generate policy options. There is a strong argument for those who actually implement them having a key role in policy generation

    Really? I thought you were for the separation of proposal & implementation.

    Policy proposal is definitely an issue in open-mandate allotted assemblies.

    We often see UK trial juries constrained by biased judges; e.g. the De Menezes case:

    https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=judge%20uk%20open%20verdict%20de%20menezes

    How do you ensure that the full range of policy options are available to the allotted assembly? Any proposals here Yoram?

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  10. > How do you ensure that the full range of policy options are available to the allotted assembly? Any proposals here Yoram?

    This is part of the role of the allotted chamber itself – the allotted delegates are the ones who will put proposals on the agenda (this is, of course, how things are done today).

    Of course, the delegates should not work in a vacuum – they can consult with and get help from whomever they see fit. I would also expect that the chamber would create institutions that would assist it in this role (as in any other role) – mechanisms for soliciting and processing public opinion and expert opinion.

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  11. Anon> I thought you were for the separation of proposal & implementation.

    In my first book, The Party’s Over, I followed the traditional Rousseau/Mill line which restricted policy innovation to the “magistrates”. I was then persuaded of the need to democratise this and suggested that the majority party in the general election had a right to introduce manifesto pledges; and was then subsequently persuaded that public petitions that passed a numerical threshold would be a democratic alternative. But I’ve always argued that government ministers also have a mandate to introduce “housekeeping” legislation. If so, then the issue would be how to achieve a balance between government proposals (responsive authoritarianism) and democratic initiative. My leaning is towards the former, as conservatives like me view politics as trimming the sails of the ship of state rather than planning for the New Jerusalem.

    Anon> We often see UK trial juries constrained by biased judges.

    In my constitutional proposal there is no analogue for trial judges, only advocates. This is a dialectical approach to decision making and there is no reason to think that the speech acts of the proposing minister would carry more illocutionary weight than those of a charismatic advocate arguing against them. And it would be down to the allotted sample of citizens to determine the final outcome, as in the DP methodology.

    YG> the allotted delegates are the ones who will put proposals on the agenda (this is, of course, how things are done today).

    Not so: politicians are elected by the public and secure victory on the basis of party allegiance and manifesto commitments (even if they do not always implement them). What you are suggesting here is policy proposal “by bean”. There is, of course, no way of ensuring that this would lead to the “full range of policy options” as it would depend on the arbitrary whims of the tiny subset of the tiny allotted sample that happened to have a view on the topic in question. I strongly recommend Jeffrey Green’s recent book, The Eyes of the People, which demonstrates that most people have no particular view on most political issues.

    But why do I have to keep restating the obvious? I would contrast YG’s resolute and dogmatic insistence that full-mandate allotment is the “democratic” way to do *everything* in politics with the evolution in my own thinking outlined above. Why bother to debate things if you never listen to what your opponents have to say? This isn’t debate, it’s just repetition and sloganising.

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  12. > This isn’t debate, it’s just repetition and sloganising.

    Indeed – feel free to stop at any time.

    But to be more substantive, you have got things exactly backwards. Party manifestos and popular petitions are completely undemocratic ways to set agendas (even assuming that they are specific enough and broad enough to be considered as determining an agenda at all). Party manifestos are controlled by the elites that control the party apparatus and popular petitions are controlled by the elites who have the resources to promote petitions.

    The notion of “the full range of policy options” is nonsensical. The range is infinite and there is no way for any decision-making body to consider it. The democratic way to go is to empower a statistically representative sample of the population to set the agenda. We’ve been over the argument for that several times before, e.g., here.

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  13. >Party manifestos and popular petitions are completely undemocratic ways to set agendas

    Although election manifestos are controlled by elites they are constrained by the need to appeal to the electorate, who get to choose between those on offer. This is just standard democratic theory.

    >The democratic way to go is to empower a statistically representative sample of the population to set the agenda.

    There is no good reason to believe that the agenda proposed by one allotted microcosm would be the same subset of the infinite range of policy options that would be chosen by another. This is easily testable — if the experiment were done and each sample failed to come up with the same (or very similar) agenda (the sine qua non for statistical representativity) would you accept that as refutation of your hypothesis?

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  14. > the agenda proposed by one allotted microcosm would be the same subset of the infinite range of policy options that would be chosen by another

    We’ve been over this several times as well, e.g., here. This repeatability requirement is completely irrelevant – it is neither a necessary condition nor a sufficient condition for democratic decision making.

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  15. > Although election manifestos are controlled by elites they are constrained by the need to appeal to the electorate, who get to choose between those on offer.

    I am quite impressed by how quickly you move from “covering the full range of policy options” to “choosing between those on offer”.

    > This is just standard democratic theory.

    Indeed. Just like the usefulness of elections. You may remember that Li’s point was that standard democratic theory is baseless dogma. Relying on this shaky foundation is not an effective way to convince of the validity of your arguments.

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  16. >This repeatability requirement is completely irrelevant

    It would only be irrelevant (from a democratic perspective) to someone who accepts your reification of a statistical average into the person of The Average Man (Mr. 99%). Multiple statistical samples return a consistent male/female ratio (and other salient factors) and that is the normative justification for descriptive representation. Any selection process that fails to return a consistent sample fails the representativity test, so the generation of inconsistent policy options cannot be irrelevant from a democratic perspective.

    And from an epistemic perspective the policy proposals would be limited to the life experiences of the small active subset of a tiny microcosm, most of whom would not have even thought about the topic under consideration (see the Jeffrey Green ref. cited above). Both electoral democracy and direct initiative, by contrast, open up (at least in theory) an infinity of possibilities, the only formal limit being the need to gain the support of one’s fellow citizens.

    >I am quite impressed by how quickly you move from “covering the full range of policy options” to “choosing between those on offer”.

    The point is that democracy obliges political elites to generate policy options that are likely to be chosen — natural selection if you like. If public opinion moves to the left, then the political options will move in a similar direction, otherwise those who offer unacceptable proposals will become extinct.

    >standard democratic theory is baseless dogma

    Perhaps something is being lost in translation here, but I’m not disposed to dismiss the views of my peers as dogma simply because I disagree with them. By all means engage with the arguments, and seek to disprove them, but don’t just dismiss them as “baseless”.

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  17. Just watched this, and I must say, I wasn’t very impressed. He seems to think he invented the idea that legitimacy means “the trains run on time.” It’s clear that recruitment practices for civil services in authoritarian regimes can go disastrously wrong–Albania, North Korea–in fact, China’s pretty close to unique, although it’s clearly had an impact on other countries in the region (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan). I would have been more impressed if he’d had something–anything–to say about why the Chinese have been able to make such a process work. But he didn’t.

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  18. Peter,

    His other claim was regarding the unprecedented level of satisfaction with the political system amongst Chinese (although I take the point that a similar poll in North Korea would likely generate 100% approval ratings). History would indicate that periods of rapid industrialisation are generally associated with social and political discontent so I think China is somewhat unique in this respect. I’ve submitted a new post to Yoram on Jeffrey Green’s book The Eyes of the People (which Melissa Schwartzberg told me to read) and I was intrigued to see Green has a forthcoming paper entitled “How My Visit to Fudan [China] Helped Me Evolve My Idea of Candor”. This would suggest that there is a growing interest in Chinese Democracy amongst political scientists other than James Fishkin.

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  19. Does anyone have any comparative development figures for China and, say, India? My impression is that India comes out a poor second on economic development, poverty alleviation and inequality. Almost 50% of Indian households are forced to perform open defecation, child mortality and life expectancy are worse than Bangladesh, real wages are stagnant and 25% of young women are still illiterate (Sen and Dreze, 2013). The authors acknowledge the greater efficiency of China in providing services for the poorest. As for public satisfaction with the system of government, the figures are China: 85%; India: 38% http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/3/country/100/ Both countries are plagued by corruption, but the Chinese have a robust policy for eliminating it (a bullet in the back of the head).

    Of course the comparison here is between responsive authoritarianism and elective democracy; we have no way of knowing what the figures would be for allotted democracy.

    Ref
    ==

    Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze (2013), An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions (London: Allen Lane).

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  20. Dear Eric,
    I would like to suggest you to read about “In+Direct” Democracy that is a rough concept that combines one party political system with democracy. I hope we could work together and develop it further into let say “democratic one party political system”
    All Bests
    Tomasz Sinczak
    P.S. “In+Direct” Democracy can be found at democracy.locoglosbi.eu
    It can change the World

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