Epistemic Democracy and Sortition

In order to spark a discussion of the significance or relevance of “epistemic democracy” to the use of randomly selected assemblies, juries, or other minipublics, I paste my (very positive) review of Democratic Reason. A short paper by David Estlund called “Introduction to Epistemic Approaches to Democracy” names at least four flavors of epistemic democracy. I believe Landemore’s is it’s “purest” form and therefore a good one to discuss.

How relevant or significant is the epistemic approach? How relevant or significant is the work on diversity and group decision making? How much does all this depend on empirical work not yet done by political scientists?

What empirical studies are out there that Kleroterians would recommend to other sortinistas and to the general public?

Review of Democratic Reason

This book follows the recent trend in democratic theory termed “epistemic democracy” in a novel way. Rather than relying on liberal philosophy or an analogy with science, it begins with results in mathematics, decision theory, psychology and cognitive science. It also mentions an evolutionary basis for the superiority of group decision making.

Landemore begins with a history of epistemic arguments for democracy from Aristotle to Mill to Dewey to Hayek, then sets out on her own path resting on the Condorcet Jury Theorem, the Law of Large Numbers, and recent results in decision theory such as the Diversity Prediction Theorem. At its core it is a sophisticated application of crowd wisdom theory into the political realm.

Democratic Reason assumes that individuals bring good faith and (on average) better-than-random intelligence to their evaluation of the proper course of action or predictions about the future. She cites empirical work not only on the “wisdom of the many” but also the “averageness of the few,” such as Phillip Tetlock’s “Expert Political Judgment.” Tetlock, like Kahneman and Tversky before him, used extensive data to show that political and business elites are about as accurate as the layperson in predicting outcomes of political and strategic decisions.

The positive side of the argument (for inclusive deliberation) relies on Lu Hong and Scott Page’s work to the effect that diversity trumps average ability when it comes to group problem solving and decision making. To that end, Landemore recommends deliberation (in assemblies selected by lot) followed by voting, because large, diverse groups make better decisions. Her ideal democratic mechanism would begin with deliberation to bring out information and points of views, followed by a vote taken among options two at a time. She sets aside the issue of a “stop procedure” for the deliberation phase. While most deliberative democrats would recommend some version of consensus here, Landemore (in my view correctly) leaves this for more empirical work. It may very well be that stoppage at a point of having a satisfactory number of proposals is rarely an issue in deliberation; but it is not part of her theoretical argument.

Individual fallibility and bias, she says, citing for example Hugo Mercier’s work, may actually be an evolutionary adaption that helps us make better group decisions. If each person presents her best possible argument to a particular point of view (even blind to her own fallacies and biases) while others have the natural ability to find fault with her arguments, all important information will emerge before the collective tribunal.

In other words, evolutionary psychology could be telling us that we were “built to parley” when it comes to social decisions. We make horrible decisions (see Kahneman and Tversky) as individuals and surprisingly good ones in groups (Surowiecki, Page) at least when the group is free of systemic bias. Diversity is essential not only because it brings in different points of views, heuristics, and information, but also because it allows individual errors to cancel.

A weakness I see is that there appears to be a missing link between deliberation and voting. Landemore, like many others, assumes that it is possible to end a deliberation with yes/no (binary) votes between possible political choices. She states that current parliamentary procedure already functions in this way, and that even if the order of voting effects outcomes, the agenda could be set in a random order so that all options are given equal chances. Some might find it unconvincing; some might find it a detail to be worked out later.

An issue that most would find minor, but that in my own opinion ought to be further explored by political scientists, is majority vote. She, like most theorists, assumes that in so far as voting is concerned, we must go with majority vote, because any other way of counting amounts to minority rule. Granted consensus would be next to impossible in any but tiny groups, but the choice is not binary. The option of supermajority should be given fair consideration.

Landemore makes it clear that more data are needed on what actually happens in deliberation both in current representative assemblies and among non-experts in other contexts. If nothing else, Democratic Reason begins to undo the distrust of “the masses” that has plagued political science since the time of James Madison. While remaining humble about its own claims and leaving many questions open for more evidence, this book has shifts the burden of proof (in my non-expert opinion) with respect to quality of political decisions onto those who oppose democracy.

It also makes perhaps a greater achievement; it beats rational choice theory, usually employed in political science to bemoan the meaningless of voting or belittle the ignorance of the average voter, at its own game. Democratic Reason, like much recent literature on collective intelligence, argues that (pre-deliberation) ignorance of the average citizen is irrelevant when thinking about systemic properties. Democracy works (absent systemic bias) because what happens at the group level overcomes the shortcomings of individuals. This is, after all, why we (more or less universally) work in groups and teams in the first place.

Yet another interesting aspect of Landemore’s book, like epistemic democracy in general, is side-stepping the “communitarian” versus “liberal individualist” conundrum. Democratic Reason proceeds neither from “aggregation of preferences” nor an assumption of a mythical “general will” (at leas as often interpreted). It is founded on something entirely different: “general wisdom.” Epistemic democrats, whether Joshua Cohen, David Estlund, Robert Goodin, or Hélène Landemore, do not normally claim they are inventing anything new but rather trace their roots as far back as Aristotle, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Mill, Dewey, Pierce, or Hayek.

The book tables the issues of fairness (that democracy is inherently desirable independent of outcomes) as well as the issues of good faith and corruptibility. But in so far as the task it sets out to do, provide a purely epistemic justification for democracy over aristocracy and monarchy, it thoroughly succeeds.

In defense of epistemic democrats, they do not claim that only correctness (however measured) of decisions is important but that it must be part of why democracy in the first place. Democracy, they would say, like anything one comes to love has more than one thing going for. New or simply a return to ancient wisdom, it is exciting work for lovers of democracy!

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49 Responses

  1. Nice review Ahmed, have you invited Helene to comment on it here? She came to our university recently for a seminar on her book and I attach part of my commentary:

    Cognitive diversity – vs – the wisdom of crowds

    At first sight these appear to be identical, but Hélène hints at a distinction in these two chapters. The distinguishing feature of the New Haven neighbourhood committee was extending the membership sufficiently in order to identify just two people responsible for proposing the “right” answer (solar lighting) [the knowledge of how best to finance the lights could well have come from city hall representatives]. In principle one person would have been enough. The net needs to be cast wide in order to provide a cognitive pool that is sufficiently diverse to find individuals able to make the best proposals. I would argue that the correlation between cognitive diversity and democracy in the proposal function is purely contingent or even negative [Stuart’s commentary takes this argument further], Crowd-sourcing or e-petitions might be a better way of establishing cognitive diversity than a group of randomly-selected persons.

    But in the case of the Twelve Angry Men movie, the courtroom jury was aggregating its collective wisdom in order to dispose in favour of the defendant. Although both proposing and disposing are epistemic functions the proposal function is individual but the disposal function collective. The aggregate wisdom of a random sample would be the best way of choosing which among a variety of proposals to implement and, if the sample is large enough to be a reasonable statistical microcosm, then the choice would “stand for” the informed choice of the whole citizen body (Pitkin, 1969). The normative case for political equality applies to the disposing function but not the proposing one. Who cares where the policies come from, so long as everyone has an equal vote in which ones to adopt?

    Athenian Democracy

    Although Hélène’s focus in this book is the epistemic potential of democracy, the distinction between proposing and disposing maps well onto the two different kinds of normative equality in Athenian democracy. Isegoria was “the right of every citizen to speak and move proposals in the political assemblies” The right to make proposals was open to any citizen who so desired, and as such might be described, in modern parlance, as equality of opportunity. In Athens few citizens chose to exercise this right; in modern societies only a minority would choose to participate in crowd sourcing or making an e-petition, so isegoria is the relevant form of equality for the proposing function.

    Isonomia, by contrast, referred to the general ‘equal right’ of all citizens. In the fifth century this was principally the right of all citizens to attend the assembly and register their preferences by voting. Each citizen had only one vote and all votes carried equal weight, so isonomia was more akin to equality of outcome. In the fourth century lawmaking was transferred to large randomly-selected courts – the verdict of the court represented the considered will of the entire citizen body. The literature on the wisdom of crowds originated in Aristotle’s description of isonomia and the randomly-selected court is the best way of instantiating it. As such sortation is better suited to the disposing function, whereas other (non-representative) procedures based on the isegoria principle might be better for establishing the cognitive diversity necessary to generate good proposals.

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  2. If I understand the epistemic argument correctly, it says that a democracy produces better results for everybody, through its “better” decisions, including for the elites of society who in an alternative, oligarchical, system have more power.

    This argument suffers from multiple obvious flaws making it completely and irredeemably broken. For example:

    This argument assumes away conflicts of interests between people. Many decisions cannot be “better” for everybody. In this sense there are often no “better” decisions, only decisions that are “better for”.

    Second, it essentially assumes that elites are unable to effectively represent their own interests. This is unlikely as a matter of fact and problematic as a piece of a democratic ideology that assumes that people are the best representatives of their own interests.

    Third, this argument ignores the issue of scale and how agenda is set in large groups. A group can be considered more “diverse” the larger it is, but as the group grows all the problems of mass politics make it less democratic.

    Fourth, the argument doesn’t connect between diversity of opinion and equality of political power. One could rely on a diverse and equalitarian body for policy analysis and advice, and eventually, having used the supposed wisdom of the crowd to understand the implications of policy, implement the policy that best suits a narrow power elite. Thus, it is, at best, an argument why a ruling elite should rely on a diverse set of advisors.

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  3. The crowd may be good at guessing the weight of pigs, but in political matters it can be disastrously wrong. Hitler, Stalin and Mao all had enormous, almost unanimous popular support.
    The problem about collective decisions is that there is no unique right decision. So general acceptance of a particular decision involves manufacturing agreement.
    But if there is no unique right decision, talk of epistemic value is inappropriate. That doesn’t mean there are not very many wrong decisions, much less that there are no good grounds for deciding that some decisions are better than others. But most of what is crucial here is evaluative. There is no algorithm for deriving collective decisions from individual preferences.
    What matters most is the w quality and relevance of the discussions through which the alternatives are framed. That is a creative process that inevitably involves a certain amount of ideology. The key to keeping ideology in check is to focus discussion on very specific questions.

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  4. John Burnheim:

    >The crowd may be good at guessing the weight of pigs, but in political matters it can be disastrously wrong. Hitler, Stalin and Mao all had enormous, almost unanimous popular support.

    John, I’m surprised at you — as you well know what is being proposed is measured and informed small-group deliberation. Helene prefers the term “collective wisdom” to the “wisdom of crowds” and her deliberative model is practically identical to your own. Where I differ from you and her is in my requirement for larger groups (several hundred rather than small demarchic committees) and constraints on the deliberative style, both due to the overarching requirement for representativity that is presupposed by the word “democracy”. This leads to a meagre form of deliberative exchange but one which does not damage the representativity of the microcosm. But both models (demarchic and jury democracy) have nothing to do with mob behaviour, as you well know!

    >There is no algorithm for deriving collective decisions from individual preferences.

    Huh? The algorithm is normally called “addition” (of votes). This presupposes a binary decision model but that’s the way that democratic legislatures function. Somewhere in her book Helene explains how most collective decisions can be reduced to a series of binary decisions. You’ve been to a lot of committee meetings and know full well how final decisions are taken.

    Yoram:

    I agree that epistemic democrats gloss over conflicts of interests, but this is partly a semantic problem. When people decide the outcome of a deliberative exchange via voting, there is no way of knowing whether they are determining the common good or just expressing an interest/preference. But so long as the group is representative and the deliberative style does not adversely affect this representativity, who cares what you call it? We both take issue with Terry’s suggestion that the general will has to be determined before the deliberations begin, so that all remains is problem solving. In this respect the epistemic democrats are mistaken — what they are referring to has nothing to do with politics, which is, and always has been, agonistic in nature.

    But I do take issue with your claim that people always know their own interests, and the related suggestion that elites will always act in their own interests rather than their understanding of the general good. My own position is a half-way house between your materialism and the idealism of the epistemic democrats. If you take the passage from Mill that I frequently quote (on the need for the working man to be present in parliament), you take it as an example of the competing interests of capital and labour, whereas Helene takes it as a purely epistemic problem. My view is that it’s a bit of both. Terry also thinks it’s a bit of both, but seeks to split the issue into two separate stages. In a sense I agree with him, that’s why I suggest the legislative agenda should be determined via the electoral process. But once that’s done I don’t accept that from there on it’s just technical problem solving — it’s political all the way down — that’s why all microcosms have to be representative. I think we agree on this, but disagree on how best to achieve it.

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  5. With the qualification that my view is provisional at best, I will also try to answer the question about the relationship between the epistemic approach and sortition.

    For sortinistas who rely on either the statistical properties of or representativeness of allotted bodies, that on average they would serve the common good or do what the whole would do, it seems that epistemic democracy is extremely relevant. If epistemic democrats like Landemore (and I believe Goodin) think that a diverse, representative deliberative (or dispositive) bodies do better then they are at least implicitly endorsing sortition.

    For sortinistas more concerned with curbing corruption or political influence of wealth (or other inequalities) then “epistemocracy” would bear only indirectly on sortition. It would still be relevant, because undue political weight given to outside power (wealth, celebrity,..) would distort the epistemic qualities of decision making bodies. Since epistemocrats rely on 1) inclusivity/diversity and 2) the canceling out of individual errors, they also need the absence of non-systematic bias, such as one would have with elections as currently practiced.

    @Yoram, I will address your objections because some seem unfair, and it’s probably true that my review does not capture the argument.
    1) Assuming away conflicts of interest
    — Yes, the book specifically tables that question in order to look at pure epistemic properties, and what that ideal would entail. That said, any “big picture” theory that looks at systemic properties must make some simplifying assumptions. At any rate, it seems that is something epistemocrats are beginning to get into.
    2) Assumes that elites are unable to….
    — There is nothing in her or other epistemocrats work that mentions this all. They are interested in systemic properties that include all views. If you mean they ignore political economy or some forms of marxist critiques, then sure. But I don’t see that as a weakness and certainly not one having any bearing on sortition.
    3) Ignores scale
    — It seems to me that the issue of scale is something that all democratic theorists, not just epistemocrats, are struggling with right now. What is the ideal size of a deliberative body? What is the ideal size of a dispositive body? Landemore, I believe, simply says, more research is needed.
    4) Opinion versus power
    — This objection is entirely unfair. A thesis of the book is that equality of say and equality of political power should go hand in hand (isegoria and isonomia if you prefer) in order to make better decisions for everyone. It never considers “advisers”; rather it assumes inclusivity in decision making bodies.

    Lastly, I no longer think the issue of deliberation to proposal is material. If deliberators know they can propose any measure they choose, and that there is a fair mechanism of putting them to a vote, there will not be a lack of creative proposals. But I still believe that the differences advantages and disadvantages of majority, supermajority, and consensus voting is something that should be taken up by political science—especially how voting rules affect the quality of deliberation before a vote is taken.

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  6. Ahmed,
    If a super-majority is required to adopt a policy, then that means the votes of the majority members are being devalued compared to the votes of the minority. It also opens the door to a greater risk of gamesmanship, since threatening to vote “no” increases your voting power over another member who intends to vote “yes.” In parliamentary rules, the only time the minority can trump the majority is when the majority wants to suspend the rules, which, for example, assures that all members have the right to continue debate, but not on matters of policy itself.The question is when should a minority be able to defeat the majority. the vague answer is when the fundamental “RIGHTS” of the minority are being threatened…the trick is how to define those rights, and how to apply the rule.

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  7. With all do respect Terry, that sounds like a clichéd view taken for granted by most democrats. My question is, what are the actual (experientially measured) effects of various levels of super majorities on the quality of deliberation and outcomes?

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  8. Ahmed,

    >For sortinistas who rely on either the statistical properties of or representativeness of allotted bodies, that on average they would serve the common good or do what the whole would do, it seems that epistemic democracy is extremely relevant.

    It certainly should be, but the problem is most epistemic “democrats” are not intrerested in statistical representativity, only in cognitive diversity. I’ve pushed Helene repeatedly and she (reluctantly) agreed that the above scare-quotes were correct. At her Exeter seminar the other commentator (Stuart Ingham) argued that there may well be a negative correlation between democracy (either elective or sortive) and the kind of cognitive diversity associated with thinking outside the box — crowd sourcing, competitions and e-petitions may well work better. Helene also stresses that the cognitive diversity and wisdom of crowds approach is different and that only the latter is relevant to statistical representativity. This maps well onto the proposing (cognitive diversity) / disposing (wisdom of crowds) distinction. Epistemic and deliberative democrats are pretty snooty about the wisdom of crowds on account of its association with preference aggregation.

    Terry,

    >It also opens the door to a greater risk of gamesmanship, since threatening to vote “no” increases your voting power over another member who intends to vote “yes”.

    That’s why we insist on the secret ballot (as in the nomothetai). The trouble is you are conflating your own experience as a political rep with the (very different) sortition proposals.

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  9. Ahmed,

    > 1) Assuming away conflicts of interest – Yes, the book specifically tables that question in order to look at pure epistemic properties, and what that ideal would entail. That said, any “big picture” theory that looks at systemic properties must make some simplifying assumptions.

    When the simplifying assumptions contradict the basic facts of reality, the treatment becomes useless. Conflict of interests is a basic fact of politics which determines its entire character.

    > 2) Assumes that elites are unable to…. – There is nothing in her or other epistemocrats work that mentions this all.

    Of course this assumption is not made explicitly, but this is an implication of the model. If an oligarchical system produces worse results for the oligarchs than democracy does, then the elite is unable to promote its own interests effectively.

    > 3) Ignores scale – It seems to me that the issue of scale is something that all democratic theorists, not just epistemocrats, are struggling with right now.

    Yes, the classical democratic theory does not address the issue of scale and indeed the epistemic argument fits well within the standard theory. But, no, other theories do address the issue of scale. Elitist theories address it by restricting political power to an elite. And, of course, sortition-based democracy does address the issue of scale directly (without giving up representative government).

    > 4) Opinion versus power – This objection is entirely unfair. A thesis of the book is that equality of say and equality of political power should go hand in hand (isegoria and isonomia if you prefer) in order to make better decisions for everyone. It never considers “advisers”; rather it assumes inclusivity in decision making bodies.

    Indeed, the argument claims to be an argument for democracy. My point is that, in fact, it doesn’t. The fact that the book never considers the difference between allowing a diversity of views and political equality is a major problem.

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  10. > With all do respect Terry, that sounds like a clichéd view taken for granted by most democrats. My question is, what are the actual (experientially measured) effects of various levels of super majorities on the quality of deliberation and outcomes?

    Actually, the rather obvious point that Terry felt it was necessary to make – supermajority requirements simply privilege the status quo – is, unfortunately, often far from being taken from granted. Quite the opposite, in fact. Formally privileging the status quo in various ways – e.g., requiring majorities in two chambers, granting veto powers to the president and/or to the courts – is standard practice in many Western systems and a mainstay of the classical democratic doctrine.

    In addition, arguments in favor of “consensus-based decision making” have been a familiar part of the “participation-based” or “Anarchist” political schools for decades if not centuries. In all that time, they have never managed to offer anything beyond the “let’s all come together” wishful thinking or the “majority decision is the oppression of the minority” sloganeering as justifications. It is then the arguments for supermajority requirements that could be fairly characterized as cliched.

    As for evidence, I am not sure what you would consider “experientially measured effects on deliberation”, but I think that it is clear that the powers of minorities (even within the government) to hinder change have many times in the past, both distant and recent, resulted in bad policy in the US.

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  11. *** Keith Sutherland writes: « Isegoria was “the right of every citizen to speak and move proposals in the political assemblies”. (…) In Athens few citizens chose to exercise this right; in modern societies only a minority would choose to participate in crowd sourcing or making an e-petition, so isegoria is the relevant form of equality for the proposing function. »
    *** In an ancient dêmokratia, isêgoria allowed the dêmos to hear any idea or information available on a subject. Few citizens chose to exercise this right in the assembly or by going to a court, sure; I don’t need to speak if somebody more rhetorically able than me already has spoken, explaining my ideas or information. Most probably in ancient democracies usual speakers belonged to the best-educated classes; but an idea needed only one member of these classes to be proposed to the dêmos. Therefore isêgoria did ensure absence of filtering, including elite filtering (for information and ideas; for proposals of decrees, the “graphê para nomon” could ensure some form of filtering). Therefore the problem for a modern dêmokratia is to ensure the same absence of filtering. It is a necessary criterion in considering “crowd sourcing” or “e-petition” systems.
    *** We must not forget the role of informal deliberation in the agora, with the free-speech, “parrhêsia”, legally different of “isêgoria” but connected with it. The lack of such intense informal deliberation in modern societies must be compensated by formal deliberation systems; and this necessity is heightened by the very big amount of political decisions to be considered in a modern society. E-referendums following the clash of e-petitions is not a good formula for a modern dêmokratia.

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  12. Andre

    In the ancient example a citizen would (according to your argument) need to find an advocate for his proposal and that is a non-trivial problem (especially given the penalties for proposing bad laws), but anyone could in principle make the proposal himself. In the modern example the only filter for e-petitions is a numerical one (a suitably democratic criterion). Given the growth of viral campaigns and trending on social media, it’s no longer the case that large media groups possess a monopoly on numerical filtering. Newspaper readership levels are dropping off a cliff and are being replaced with internet blogs and social media, so this trend looks set to continue. As for the presence or absence of deliberation in the modern agora, the only difference is that this now takes place in cyberspace. The main reason that public deliberation has been marginalised to the chattering classes is that citizens are impotent to affect outcomes; not so if e-petitions and crowdsourcing find a key role in policy initiation.

    >E-referendums following the clash of e-petitions is not a good formula for a modern dêmokratia.

    In my proposal this is only the first stage, followed by a deliberative exchange in front of a large randomly-selected jury, exactly as in 4th century Athens. The temporal gap between the two stages will be filled by lively cyber-parrhêsia, as predicted by Condorcet.

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  13. Hi Andre,

    > In Athens few citizens chose to exercise this right

    This seems to be the case, which is very convenient, since it leaves some reasonable time for each speaker to make his case. I never managed to to find out what the selection procedure would be if a large number people wanted to speak. Do you know if this matter is addressed by any of the sources?

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  14. Yoram
    Sorry, I don’t remember of anything about the matter.

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  15. Thanks.

    Rather curious. I would imagine such a situation must have occurred at least once in a while. I would also think packing the speakers’ list could be used as a political tactic.

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  16. Yoram,
    I have never heard how the speakers in the Assembly were recognized by the chair, but there were some anti-corruption incentives in place. The 50 members of the Council of 500 who were running the Assembly meeting were all from one Tribe (each Tribe took a turn for one month out of the 10-month year). If a Tribe was perceived as allowing stacking the deck of speakers, that Tribe might find itself getting short-changed by the other nine Tribes in the future. We don’t know the specific method for selecting who got to speak (signing up to speak in advance, alternating pro and con speakers, appointing a “manager” for each side who would allot speaking spots, or what)…but the Tribe whose turn it was to run the meeting dared not be seen as unfair.

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  17. Terry,

    I was not talking about corruption, but simply about a tactic of using the rules of selecting speakers to limit the chance of political competitors to address the Assembly. A coalition of people could put in many requests for speaking slots and in this way have their position dominate the discussion.

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  18. Is it at least plausible that the 4th century reforms were a reaction to these problems? The choice of speakers in the legislative courts was down to the two parties and parity was strictly enforced (by a water clock, if I remember correctly).

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  19. About compared epistemic quality of democracy and elite rule.
    *** Let’s imagine a modern aristokratia in a XXIst century State. It is technically possible, as a dêmokratia, using electronics and sortition. Instead of taking the governing samples from the entire dêmos, they would be taken from an elite objectively defined. For instance if the chosen elite is the money elite, the lot will be from the 1% richest taxpayers (an objective criterion would be more difficult for a “culture elite”, but could be devised). The epistemic quality of the deliberations could be ensured, as says Yoram Gat, by relying “on a diverse set of advisors.” We can think that the governing elite would be able “to effectively represent their own interests”. These interests would be at least partly common with the other citizens; and, as I am optimist, I think that the “moral interests” of the elite would include some concerns of solidarity and compassion.
    *** First, I will note that in such an aristokratia epistemic diversity would depend totally on institutional arrangements whereas in a dêmokratia a strong minimum amount of diversity is built in the sovereignty model itself.
    *** But the big drawback of an aristocratic modern model is its utopian nature, as it is contrary to general characters of the modern mind. Open aristocratic rule could be possible in ancient times, in the world of Tradition, where inequality was the basic standard and equality a motivated exception, where the deference of the common man to his “better” was something “natural”. A modern society will not accept an aristocratic model.
    *** Therefore the choice is not between dêmokratia and aristokratia, but between dêmokratia and regimes, like polyarchy or authoritarian systems, with strong oligarchizing tendancies, i.e where some elites have a strong influence on political decisions, but without anything like an elite body exercising openly a simple sovereignty. These modern elites must disguise their power; they must elaborate ideologies able to lead the common citizens to support material and moral interests partly different from theirs – and it is morally difficult to extol an ideology without more or less believing it. Furthermore, in a complex political system a high degree of ideological conformity is necessary for an elite to act collectively. The situation is quite different from an aristokratia where the ruling elite does not need any ideological unity except belief in its own excellence. Therefore in a modern oligarchizing elite we cannot expect neither requirements of strong epistemic diversity among the advisors nor strong free internal intellectual debate. This makes difficult good deliberation inside the elite. If we consider the behavior of French authorities which led to the death toll among the hemophiliac minority, we can see that it resulted from different choices – sometimes in form of no-decisions – by small oligarchizing bodies in the health systems with narrow-minded interests and ideologies, choices which would have been probably different after a serious deliberation. And if the USA would be governed by an open, strong, widely and open-heartily accepted aristocracy of the 1% richest, at least the policy would be rational, and maybe it would be better, even for the poor and medium classes.
    *** We can discuss the epistemic relative quality of the dêmokratia and of the aristokratia for ancient times, or in a science-fiction perspective. But for the times to come, aristokratia is an utopian option, and there is no epistemic parallel between the rule by a modern dêmos and the oligarchizing aspects of contemporary regimes.

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  20. Andre

    Who are you responding to? Nobody on this forum is advocating a modern form of aristokratia or even regimes with strong oligarchising tendencies (the status quo?). It certainly has nothing to do with my own proposal which allows anybody to make a legislative proposal and allocates the final decision to an assembly selected by lot from the whole citizen body. In the age of media monopolies it might well be argued that the power of initiative would be dominated by the rich and powerful but this is no longer true in the social media age. Our mutual concern is how to establish rule by a modern demos but this is a non-trivial problem for reasons that we have endlessly discussed.

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  21. @andre, I really like that comment although I don’t know whether or not I agree with it!

    Keith, Andre might be referring to a sub-argument of epistemocrats that an “epistocracy of experts/elites” is not viable for one reason or another. Estlund uses “acceptability” to throw out the possibility; Landemore uses cognitive diversity to do so.

    I would say Andre’s is a third type related to Estlund’s.

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  22. Yoram, your argument against “supermajorities” and pointing out the anarchist Utopianism (literally: going nowhere) of consensus decision-making is an argument I’ve used recently against a “Democratic socialist” position made on North Star.

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  23. *** Keith Sutherland asks: “Andre, Who are you responding to? Nobody on this forum is advocating a modern form of aristokratia or even regimes with strong oligarchising tendencies”
    *** Sorry, the line was not clear enough. The basic subject of the post was about the epistemic value of democracy. Yoram Gat (January 28) opposed a thesis “which essentially assumes that elites are unable to effectively represent their own interests” and said that the epistemic quality of the deliberations could be ensured anyway by relying “on a diverse set of advisors”. My own position is that in an aristokratia that reasoning might be partly valid, but that in a polyarchic regime the various elites, which have a strong influence, are not able to elaborate political choices along deliberations of high epistemic quality; not for IQ or learning levels (which may be high), but for the systemic reasons I exposed. A modern dêmokratia could deliberate badly, for different “local” reasons, but at least deliberation of high level is made possible by the political model. Therefore the epistemic argument in favor of democracy has real value, comparing to the alternative models: polyarchic and authoritarian (and totalitarian, of course!).

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  24. Yoram Gat reminds us that “supermajority requirements simply privilege the status quo” and “hinder change”. I agree strongly, but we must precise “official political” (for instance legislative) status-quo and change. In modern dynamic societies, the no-decision does not mean “no social change”, it means that the official political power leaves freedom to the “spontaneous” changes of the world – heavily influenced by the de facto social powers. In ancient times, in quasi-static societies, much could be said by traditional wisdom for giving some amount of privilege to the legislative status-quo. In modern times, that means irresponsibility in front of the changes, or abdication of the official political power in favor of the de facto powers which control “spontaneous” changes.

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  25. > the epistemic quality of the deliberations [of an elite] could be ensured anyway by relying “on a diverse set of advisors”.

    I agree with this argument (although elites tend in practice to prefer, as FDR put it, “one-handed economists”). I’m not convinced of the value of sortition (or any democratic mechanism) for generating policy proposals, as all that is required is cognitive diversity; the case for sortition is in judging which proposals to accept. As to whether allotted decision makers would express epistemic judgment or just indicate their preferences is only of interest to Rousseau scholars.

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  26. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « Is it at least plausible that the 4th century reforms were a reaction to these problems (of choice of speakers)? The choice of speakers in the legislative courts was down to the two parties and parity was strictly enforced.
    *** I think Keith Sutherland is basically right. The 4th century reformers copied the court process at least partly because it was free of many of the possibilities of manipulation exhibited in the Assembly, including probably the choice of speakers. Any new law had its advocate – “ho bouleumenos” who proposed the bill – whereas it seems that the legal status-quo had its own advocates, chosen by the Assembly.
    *** But, here as in courts, the binary model has a big drawback: obliging the jurors to choose between two solutions A and B, whereas the best, maybe, is C. (In the criminal courts, that meant, after a “guilty” verdict, choose between the sanction proposed by the accuser and an alternative proposed by the defender).
    *** In a modern dêmokratia, technology will allow the jurors to choose between a plurality of options, by a preferential vote, whatever the size of the jury. Therefore it will be strange to keep the primitive Athenian binary model. But, clearly, the jury cannot deliberate about one hundred options. Therefore we cannot avoid the problem of a preliminary screening of the options, and of the advocates of the options.

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  27. Andre,

    > in a polyarchic regime the various elites, which have a strong influence, are not able to elaborate political choices along deliberations of high epistemic quality

    Electoral elites and their allies are doing very well for themselves. Thus, they manage to make policy choices that serve them very effectively. The problem with elections-based government is not incompetence but unrepresentativity. Elections-based government is quite capable of attaining its goals. The problem is that those goals are not the goals of the majority of the population, they serve the ruling elite and its allies at the expense of the average person.

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  28. Yoram,

    You’ve made that claim over and over again but it would appear to be little more than a logical inference from the Marx/Mosca/Michels/Mills theory of elites. Please give some evidence in support of it — I can given loads of evidence in support of my contrary claim that UK politics can be more accurately described as pandering to the uninformed prejudices of voters.

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  29. Andre

    That’s an interesting point but it’s hard to see, in practice, how to chart a middle course between binary options (Yea or Nay) and allowing a thousand flowers to bloom. Somewhere in her book Helene Landemore explains how seemingly complex alternatives can be reduced to a series of binary options. As a software engineer Yoram has professional expertise in this field so perhaps he could explain how it might be possible. Perhaps the answer is to be found in the evolution of the criminal justice system — the jury exercises binary judgment to determine guilt or innocence then the judge exercises analogue judgment in apportioning sentence. We rightly require the first kind of judgment to be democratic, but would we really want to democratise the second? (thereby risking the Socratic outcome).

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  30. Andre,

    >In a modern dêmokratia, technology will allow the jurors to choose between a plurality of options, by a preferential vote, whatever the size of the jury.

    This suggests a two-stage process, the first stage being the reduction to a short-list (plurality of options). As Andre says the jury could be any size, but if there are a large number of options originally proposed, they won’t be able to consider each one in depth, so why not include all citizens? (as in the Swiss system of votation). Once the short-list has been compiled this is then the occasion for in-depth deliberation, so the randomly-selected legislative jury is better suited. However the final decision is always binary (yea or nay to the particular option proposed).

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  31. > I can given loads of evidence in support of my contrary claim that UK politics can be more accurately described as pandering to the uninformed prejudices of voters.

    Your child-like naivety is touching. To pick the most superficial case, I presume we must take elected officials paying themselves top decile salaries despite almost unanimous public sentiment in favor of lowering their pay as a form of pandering.

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  32. Keith wrote:
    “Helene Landemore explains how seemingly complex alternatives can be reduced to a series of binary options.”

    Yes, but the order in which the binary choices are presented can determine the outcome in many situations. Helene therefore suggests that either a “trusted” facilitator set the order of votes, or that the sequence be set randomly.

    As for the notion that a jury can use modern technology to wade through a large number of choices (such as with a ranked choice ballot)…I happen to be knowledgeable in the arcane field of social choice theory (Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem and all that). There is no perfectly fair voting method that can accommodate more than two choices… all are subject to strategic voting, etc.

    The hope of deliberative democrats is that a period of deliberation can discover some sort of optimal choice(s), rather than jumping directly to the vote aggregation phase of decision making that social choice theory is obsessed with (as if voter preferences are fixed).

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  33. Terry,

    What is at issue is whether you deliberate at the beginning (over the large number of potential solutions) or at the time of the final binary decision — as with 4th-century practice. (It would be interesting to know how many legislative proposals were rejected at the assembly stage and never offered up for nomothesis.) The problem with early-stage deliberation is whether there is sufficient time to consider each proposal properly. IMO this is unlikely to be the case, hence my preference for ill-informed votation followed by well-informed deliberation. I know you would prefer to see it deliberative all the way down, but I doubt if there would be public confidence in multiple sortitions, people would want to have a direct input at some stage (as in the Athenian example). There’s a big difference between a decision by the plenary body to appoint a deliberative subcommittee and the plenary body voting (in effect) to abolish itself.

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  34. Yoram,

    We’ve been over the legislator pay issue before — indeed I pointed out your double standards (large bribes for legislators selected by lot whilst denying decent salaries to those who choose to devote their lives to public service).

    Let me give you a real example of pandering: on 10 January 2014, UK Chancellor George Osborne made a speech in which he claimed that an increase in the national minimum wage might be self-defeating in that it would ‘cost jobs’. Two days later a YouGov public opinion poll commissioned by the Sunday Times indicated that 66% of the public supported a ‘substantial increase’ in the minimum wage and only 19% opposed it (Dahlgreen, 2014). Four days later (January 16th), Mr. Osborne announced that he wants to see an above-inflation increase in the minimum wage. I could provide many other examples.

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  35. So if I understand you correctly, you claiming that the reason elected officials are not willing to give up some of their “decent salaries” in order to please the masses (despite the fact that they usually do pander to the public) is because they are aware that some obscure blogger from the Middle East is in favor of high salaries for allotted delegates?

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  36. As always, Yoram, you misunderstand me perfectly, I was merely accusing you of double standards.

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  37. As always, your accusations are baseless and merely reflect your own intellectual and moral failures.

    Now, will you answer the simple question? If elected officials are trying so hard to please the voters, why aren’t they willing to give up some of their “decent salaries”? Surely this is not because they are greedy and self-serving?

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  38. Pandering means deriving policy options from polling information and focus groups. This is what commercial entrepreneurs do, but they don’t establish a focus group in order to set their own remuneration. Doing a demanding job and wanting to be paid for it does not, normally, equate with being greedy and self-serving. Are these the adjectives that you will apply to your randomly-selected legislators, given the emphasis that you place on generous remuneration for ensuring accurate statistical representation? If not then you are applying two entirely different standards for two alternative balloting methods.

    And what is your explanation for George Osborne’s behaviour, if not pandering? The only interests that it serves (apart from those on minimum wage) are securing his own re-election. The rich ‘n powerful, who like to grind the faces of the poor, do not approve of his volte face.

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  39. > Pandering means deriving policy options from polling information and focus groups.

    Actually, no. Again, I suggest you take a look at the dictionary.

    In any case you have again avoided answering the simple question, so let me repeat it:

    If elected officials are trying so hard to please the voters, why aren’t they willing to give up some of their “decent salaries”?

    > And what is your explanation for George Osborne’s behaviour, if not pandering?

    I am not sure why you think “pandering” is a good description of this behavior. The most appropriate way to label the occurrences as you describe them is perhaps “dissembling”.

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  40. Huh? Here’s the Wikipedia definition:

    “Pandering is the act of expressing one’s views in accordance with the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal. The term is most notably associated with politics. In pandering, the views one is verbally expressing are merely for the purpose of drawing support up to and including votes and do not necessarily reflect one’s personal values.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pandering_(politics) The devices that politicians use to find “the likes of a group to which one is attempting to appeal” is the focus group and opinion poll.

    The difference between pandering and dissembling is that in the former case the politician has no personal convictions, and seeks merely to mirror the views of the group to which she is attempting to appeal. The only sinister interest that she serves is her own (rather than those of an ill-defined “elite”) hence her reluctance to use the focus group to define her own salary. The public interests that she serves are the (apparent) interests of the demos. Dissembling, on the other hand, is a Machiavellian strategy, where the politician is hiding her own genuine convictions (or the interests of an elite group) behind a populist veneer. No doubt actual democratic politicians combine both vices but my thesis is that the former (pandering) is on the rise.

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  41. And, obviously, again, you did not answer the question.

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  42. >And, obviously, again, you did not answer the question.

    I did, repeated in emphasis below:

    The only sinister interest that she serves is her own (rather than those of an ill-defined “elite”) hence her reluctance to use the focus group to define her own salary. The public interests that she serves are the (apparent) interests of the demos.

    Thereby indicating why this (the salaries of elected officials) is an exception to the overall principle of “pandering”. The wikipedia definition of pandering is exactly as I intended, please refer me to an alternative dictionary/encyclopedia if you think this definition is incorrect.

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  43. > Thereby indicating why this (the salaries of elected officials) is an exception to the overall principle of “pandering”.

    So you have now added an exception to your claim that elected delegates follow public sentiment. You now claim that elected delegates follow public sentiment as long as it does not conflict with their own interests.

    Of course, with this amendment, your previous claim is essentially content-free. Elected officials pursue their interests, essentially unconcerned about electoral considerations, and only on matters about which they do not care, they follow public sentiment.

    If Mr. Osborne, for example, employs a cleaner and pays her minimum wage (or buys products made by minimum wage workers, or has a friend who employs minimum wage workers in his factory) then he has an interest in keeping the minimum wage low. In this, according to your description of the behavior of elected officials, he would promote his interests by keeping minimum wage low, regardless of public sentiment or public interest.

    As for the meaning of “pander”, I would think you would be able to help yourself with a dictionary, but since you are apparently unable to do so, here is the definition of the Meriam-Webster dictionary:

    to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.

    You will note the missing ingredient in your definition: a politician following public sentiment is pandering only when the public sentiment is improper.

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  44. Your claim that politicians are motivated by self-interest is nothing but crude reductive materialism. For any talented and educated person to choose a life of public service in the UK for personal enrichment they would have to be either stupid or desperate (that’s why we end up with such a bunch of mediocrities). George Osborne is independently wealthy (he is heir to the family wallpaper business) and I can only imagine he entered politics in order to improve the lot of his fellow men (excuse the non-PC term). Like all people he suffers from epistemic failings, but his own personal interests strike me as only marginally relevant. I can’t imagine he knows or even cares how much he pays his cleaner and the skilled artisans working in his factory would be paid well in excess of the minimum wage. Of course he does have an interest to be re-elected and this is the reason for pandering.

    >a politician following public sentiment is pandering only when the public sentiment is improper.

    And who is to decide what is or is not “improper”? I would claim that a politician is pandering whenever the tail is wagging the dog.

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  45. > Your claim that politicians are motivated by self-interest is nothing but crude reductive materialism.

    Heh – in fact, it is your own claim. It is you who wrote in your comment above:

    The only sinister interest that she serves is her own (rather than those of an ill-defined “elite”) hence her reluctance to use the focus group to define her own salary.

    Tsk, tsk – shame on you, you crude reductive materialist.

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  46. The sinister interest that I referred to was her own salary, as opposed to the Benthamite reference to collective partisan interests (referred to on this forum as those of the rich ‘n powerful). The politician’s own salary is an exception to the pandering principle. Whilst most people are concerned about their own salary, this is a long way removed from the claim that people are only motivated by self interest..

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  47. > The politician’s own salary is an exception to the pandering principle.

    Yes, well, you, Mr. Sutherland, had been careless enough to put your foot into the crude reductive materialism quicksand. And once you have taken that first step in, staying with just one foot in the sand is not really a tenable position. You may find that flailing your arms wildly only gets you deeper and deeper into the quicksand.

    For if the politician ignores public sentiment when it comes to her (or, actually, mostly his) salary, why wouldn’t she (or, actually, mostly he) be willing to lower the minimum wage in order to keep the hired help cheap? Or why wouldn’t he be willing to change the environmental rules a little bit in order to help a political backer, who happens to also be a personal friend and who also might be willing to help out the politician with a nice paying job after the politician retires from electoral politics? Such a nice paying job might be worth so much more than a few hundred of thousands of pounds. Definitely something an elected politician might want to consider.

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  48. I’m sure such abuses do happen as nobody is perfect. When their every move is subject to cynical attack, those who have chosen to devote their lives to public service must be tempted to sweeten what must be a very bitter pill. My point is that to assume that politics is nothing more than self-interest is crude, reductive, doctrinaire materialism. By all means seek to defend the 4M + P thesis, but this is a thread on epistemic democracy (which you have airily dismissed), so you must expect a robust response to your claims.

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  49. Oh, you doctrinaire cynic!

    How dare you so crudely and reductively blame our hardworking elected politicians of self-serving behavior?

    How dare you spread around your materialistic doctrines claiming that women and (mostly, actually) men who devote their lives to swallowing daily the bitter pill of public service, who so meticulously implement every wish and whim of the electorate, suddenly, when it comes to their own paychecks, so shamelessly ignore public sentiment?

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