How Athenians Managed the Political Unaccountability of Citizens

Recent discussions on this blog have focused on the need for ongoing political accountability in any sortition-based political system, so I thought this article by Farid Abdel-Nour and Brad L. Cook in the current issue of History of Political Thought would be of interest:

Abstract: The political unaccountability of ordinary citizens in classical Athens was originally raised as a challenge by ancient critics of democracy. In tension with that criticism, the authors argue that attention to the above challenge is consistent with a defence of Athenian democratic politics. In fact, ordinary citizens’ function in the Assembly and courts implicitly included the burden of justifying their own political decisions to an imagined authority, as if they could be brought to account. By means of practices that encouraged this self-scrutiny, Athenians marked the challenge of citizens’ political unaccountability as an unavoidable but manageable aspect of their democracy.

The authors argue that ‘one type of practice placed citizens’s political decisions under the external gaze of other citizens, another placed them under the gaze of the gods, and yet another placed them under the gaze of an internal imagined audience’ (p. 445).

The first practice was limited to votes in the Assembly (as opposed to the secret ballot in the courts and nomothetai); most modern advocates of sortition rule out public voting on account of the risk of corruption. The second practice was based on the Heliastic/Dikastic oath and would have been a significant constraint in a culture where religion played a strong role, but it would be hard to see this as relevant in modern, secular, multicultural societies.

So what about the ‘gaze of an internal imagined audience’? The authors argue that in small poleis such as fourth-century Athens, where many (most?) citizens would have known each other the fact that ‘the citizens who, though they are not now present, will nevertheless ask you what your verdict was’ (p. 447) would have contributed significantly to the accountability of decision-makers selected by lot. However

in our mass societies, the anonymity of citizens to one another renders their mutual gaze less effective at evoking shame in one another. . . . Whatever the effect of the [imagined] gaze of their fellow citizens had on the Athenians’ decisions . . . is one we can hardly expect under the conditions of social atomization and anonymity that characterize so much of modern life. (p. 455)

In Athens it was the politicians and advisers who were held formally to account and the arguments in this paper would suggest the ongoing need for this form of accountability in a modern sortition-based political system.

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37 Responses

  1. “the citizens who, though they are not now present, will nevertheless ask you what your verdict was” — This doesn’t seem particularly dependent on size. Although we don’t live in a small society, we all live in small societies sufficient to make us care about justifying our choices.

    Your friends, your family, your colleagues at work, they will probably care what choices you, the allotted legislator, make. You may not care to always please them, but you will probably care to be able to justify yourself to them.

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  2. Yes that’s true, but the burden of honesty/integrity lies with the allotted legislator. What we do does not always correspond with what we say we do, that’s one of the reasons J.S. Mill argued in favour of public voting (but that is open to more overt forms of corruption). In Athens it was primarily the politicians and demagogues who were held to account and I don’t see how a modern sortition-based political system could function without a similar mechanism.

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  3. > The political unaccountability of ordinary citizens in classical Athens was originally raised as a challenge by ancient critics of democracy.

    I can’t see the paper since it is behind a paywall. What are the ancient sources the authors provide for the this critique?

    I agree with Harald that much of real life accountability (as opposed to the fictitious electoral accountability) is to people one knows personally. If those expect you to behave in certain ways and you don’t, then you have to justify yourself or risk losing status.

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  4. Uploaded the paper to http://www.imprint.co.uk/as_if.pdf

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  5. Thanks.

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  6. I see that the sources the authors refer to are

    the so-called Old Oligarch and Xenophon, and to some extent Aristophanes and Thucydides, who referred to the ‘tyranny’ of the Athenian demos.

    I don’t believe any of those are referring to accountability of the allotted officials to the population as a whole.

    One thing they complain about is the fact that the people are easily manipulated and given to whims and arbitrariness. This is much more of a problem of the Assembly (or any mass political decision making) than of an allotted chamber.

    Another complaint (of the Old Oligarch and of Xenophon, not Aristophanes or Thucydides, AFAIK) is that the people simply pursue unjust or stupid policy. This of course would have to be judged by someone’s standards – those of the authors themselves and of their associates. So the complaint is really about the fact that the authors don’t get the authority to dictate policy to the population, i.e., that the Athenian system was democratic.

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  7. Yoram,

    The relevant concern, from the perspective of this blog, is the unaccountability of jurors, as in Aristophanes’ Wasps, the democratic juror Philocleon telling his son that their power has all the trappings of a tyrant: “As far as our power is concerned it’s equal to that of any king [basileias]. What creature is there today more happy and enviable, or more pampered, or more to be feared, than a juror…? And for doing all this we cannot be called to account – which is true of no other public authority.” (Wasps, 548-51; 587, tr. Sommerstein)

    It’s the unaccountability of randomly-selected jurors (the harlot’s prerogative) that worries Naomi and myself and has led Jon to refer to some of the proposals made on this blog as “kleristocracy”. The take-home message, in my view, is that sortition could only ever be part of a mixed constitution, with nomothetic jurors doing little more than their judicial counterparts (as was the case with the Athenian courts). If the Athenians were worried about the unaccountability of the aggregate judgment of jurors, how much worse it would be if randomly-selected individuals were empowered to propose and act as advocates for policy initiatives, without any formal accountability to the (disenfranchised) demos.

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  8. This seems incoherent. Who are the jurors to be “accountable” to? Who is to decide that the jurors, or any other allotted decision makers, are at fault?

    Again, it seems that unless there is a reason to presume that the decisions of the allotted are unrepresentative then the concern here is about the fact that the decisions are democratic.

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  9. >Who are the jurors to be “accountable” to? Who is to decide that the jurors, or any other allotted decision makers, are at fault?

    The demos, via the medium of the vote. We are all aware of the problematic nature of electoral accountability — indeed it’s been discussed at great length on this forum — but it’s better than no accountability at all. As for the representativity of the decisions of the allotted forum this is clearly true at the collective level, but statistical representativity does not apply at the level of individual speech acts.

    The burden of proof is on those who presume representativity and this is an empirical matter. My next post will be on a recent UK experiment with parallel juries on a mock trial — 10 acquitted and 2 returned a guilty verdict, so which jury’s decision was the representative one? To my mind this imposes serious constraints on the form that jury-room deliberation takes and rules out the sort of endogenous advocacy that you are arguing for.

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  10. > The demos, via the medium of the vote.

    The ancients didn’t expect jurors to be “held accountable” by voting. They were in fact complaining about the unaccountability of the demos (in the Assembly or in the courts) for decisions made by voting.

    And indeed, if we accept the formalistic criterion that political decision makers need to be held accountable, then how are the voters held accountable?

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  11. My reference was to modern democracies. As for the accountability of voters, the buck has to stop somewhere, and that’s why, for better or for worse, we get the government we deserve.

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  12. > the buck has to stop somewhere

    So, again, unsurprisingly, it turns out that the whole “accountability” argument is no more than an excuse for electoralism that is inconsistent even on its own assumptions.

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  13. Majoritarian democracy means that we are ultimately accountable to ourselves — election is the only mechanism that we have to enable this. Why is that inconsistent and what alternative is there? Accountability to the “general will”? That would be an interesting idea, given the theological origins of this concept, as it would be perfectly possible for a small number of people (or even one, for that matter) to divine the general will. But if we are looking for a secular answer then I can’t see what alternative we have but some form of electoralism (even allowing for all its flaws).

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  14. > accountable to ourselves

    This is rather amusing. We might as well claim that the allotted (or the elected for that matter) are accountable to themselves and go home satisfied.

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  15. But what about everybody else? (the masses as you like to call them). Elected politicians are accountable to the electorate, but allotted persons are accountable only to themselves (as are all tyrants). I’m not sure why you find this amusing — I can only think that you are using the words “accountable” and “representation” in a different way to normal parlance.

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  16. Yoram,
    The difference is that the government acts on behalf of the people as a whole. It only makes sense that the buck should stop with the people as a whole and not a subset of them. Without an implicit endorsement, one could certainly make the case that the government is acting on behalf of a representative subset of the people, and not the people at-large.

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  17. Sorry, I meant explicit endorsement. But I suppose both are true.

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  18. So it seems that it is agreed that the demos is not accountable and, contrary to the sentiments of the ancient aristocrats, need not be.

    As for the notion that voting is a form of consent or gives the voters some sort of control over the elected politicians, I feel that this is both evidently untrue (as was conventionally accepted until the 18th century) and has been refuted in detail many times (my own version can be read here and here).

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  19. Yoram, the theme of this thread acknowledges the unaccountability of the demos — the best that can be managed is “as if”. The problem of the accountability of allotted jurors is greater, especially in large modern states where the rotation principle does not apply, hence the need to ensure the accountability of politicians. Hanson argues that the political trial was an improvement on ostracism and Headlam argues that election is the modern version of the political trial. We are all aware of the flaws of electoral accountability but it’s all we’ve got, so we need to adopt incremental methods to improve it, rather than just giving up on the whole notion. Consent is a different issue, and should not be conflated with accountability.

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  20. I think the question of how a sortition democracy can hold the allotted members “accountable” is a mistaken or meaningless question. Accountability to the “general will” or the “people as a whole” is meaningless (since different members of society have different interests and it is impossible to determine the interest or informed preference of a whole people, since a whole people can never be fully informed.) Saying that as a default the allotted body should be accountable to an electoral expression of the general will is merely saying that the rationally ignorant preferences should trump the informed interests of a society (as established through a democratic representative deliberation best achieved through sortition).

    Interestingly, also…a LACK of accountability to the rationally ignorant expressed through elections is often cited as a POSITIVE feature of constitutional review by an unelected (unaccountable) court.

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  21. Yes, mistaken, meaningless and impossible — only individual persons can be held to account (that’s why we will always need politicians). Ostracism –> political trials –> election; it’s hard to envisage a further evolutionary possibility. The real impossibility is a “sortition democracy” — there never has been, and never could be such a creature (in its pure form), as accountability is the sine qua non of democratic governance.

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  22. I disagree that accountability is a core element of democracy. Take an extreme example…a small community using direct democracy where all citizens must participate. Saying the participants must be “accountable” to themselves is meaningless. What if half of the members of society take turns making decisions. Again it is silly to say that one half is held accountable by the other half who weren’t at the meeting and don’t know what information came out in the deliberation. And if the sample was 25% of the whole, and the other 75% were essentially ignorant of the facts of the debate, I believe that 75%, rather than demanding to be allowed to over-rule the 25% randomly selected members who deliberated, would PREFER to have a higher quality decision made by the better informed members, knowing they shared the same range of interests as the 75%. Why can’t this principle be extended. If I am NOT participating in the fact finding and deliberation, then I DON’T WANT my ill-informed opinions to trump the considered decision made by people “like me” who share my interests in the same proportion. “Holding the allotted deliberators accountable” simply results in undoing the superior benefits of informed and considered deliberation by people like me.

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  23. What about situations in which allotted legislators are found to have a clear conflict of interest – or are bribed – or don’t show up to meetings?

    Didn’t the Athenians have a procedure for charging errant allotted officials with “illegality?” I believe I read that in Manin, or Woodruff’s “First Democracy,” but can’t remember which.

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  24. > What about situations in which allotted legislators are found to have a clear conflict of interest – or are bribed – or don’t show up to meetings?

    What about the situation in which the same is true for elected officials? Elections are not supposed to handle situations such as this. The courts are used for that.

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  25. Terry,

    No-one is arguing for anything better than “as if” accountability in a direct democracy. If we want accountability then it has to be a mixed constitution, not a “pure” democracy. Only individual politicians can be held to account — in Athens this started out as ostracism, then morphed into political trials, and (according to Haslam) elections are the modern equivalent. I’ve also argued (in David’s thread) that appointed officials can effectively be held to account, but if you want sortition alone then you need to give up on accountability, and few would (like you) be prepared to give up on the principle that persons should be held liable for their actions. Perhaps this is just a consequence of an archaic religious perspective, but it runs deep in western cultures.

    >What about the situation in which the same [conflict of interest/corruption] is true for elected officials? Elections are not supposed to handle situations such as this. The courts are used for that.

    Not so. Politicians (and their party leaders) want to secure re-election and this is a deterrent against corruption. This is one of the reasons behind Headlam’s verdict on elections as the modern equivalent of the political trial. Recourse to the courts is a sign that the system is not working.

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  26. Part of the difficulty in discussing “accountability” is its multiple meanings…individuals exhibiting Bad Behavior (corruption, dereliction of duty, etc.) while serving on a legislative body, as Yoram wrote, should be handled by rules and courts. This is true of an elected or allotted legislature. The OTHER big meaning of accountability that is usually meant in phrases like “democratic accountability,” is punishing by removing and repopulating a legislative body that adopts bad policy… They may have behaved completely honestly, but pursued either unpopular or after-the-fact-demonstrably poor policy. That situation should not pursued through the courts. My question is “ACCOUNTABLE TO WHOM?” Not to an elite selected through the principle of distinction in election. Not to an ill-informed popular el3ection subject to mass media manipulation due to rational ignorance. I would want them to be held accountable to a DEMOCRATIC representative group that is small enough to overcome rational ignorance…in other words another allotted body. As has been stated in another thread (by Andre?) this is better described as taking a “second look” rather than “accountability” in both Athens and in a modern allotted democracy.

    In short, in a democracy there is no other group that can fairly and responsibly hold decision-makers “accountable” (in this non-corruption sense) than another allotted group that represents society in an informed manner.

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  27. Terry,

    The concern of this thread is the second meaning of accountability, that is not subject to police action. The Athenians made a very clear distinction between those who proposed policies (individual persons) and decision makers (the demos, or an allotted sample thereof). There can be no accountability in the latter case (other than “as if”), hence the need for powerful rewards and sanctions for the former. Whilst it would be nice to think that there is a better alternative to rational ignorance/manipulation it has always been thus, whether the mechanism was ostracism, political trials or election. There is no particular reason to think that two different samples of the same population should think differently (indeed, if they did, then which decision would be the representative one?), unless a substantial time gap were involved, so we might be better off following historical precedent than wishful thinking. I’m a realist when it comes to the design of political institutions and history is a better mentor than intimations of ideal possibilities based on a single theoretical principle (democracy). Life is a lot more messy, and if there are no historical precedents then all of us (other than utopian dreamers) would start asking why.

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  28. *** Harald K, commenting “the citizens who, though they are not now present, will nevertheless ask you what your verdict was”, said (June 29) « This doesn’t seem particularly dependent on size. Although we don’t live in a small society, we all live in small societies sufficient to make us care about justifying our choices. »
    *** I agree. And I add that if the situation could be somewhat specific for a citizen of a really small society, the argument is not valid for an Athenian civic body which included probably around thirty thousands during the Second Democracy (an order of magnitude, this was a pre-statistical age).
    *** There will be always people who don’t care about justifying their choices to their friends or their « inner audience ». But the big political problem is other : that the friends may belong to a specific category, and the « inner audience » may mirror not the entire civic body but a specific category. The problem is moral accountability specifically directed to a category – social class, race, gender, elite group, ideological group … etc. The Agora life in Athens could lessen the problem, leading to conversation between different kinds of people, but I don’t think as Keith Sutherland that Internet will be a sufficient substitute. This is a reason to establish in a modern democracy-through-sortition a step of face-to-face deliberation which was not institutional in Athens. To use Manin’s words, « conversation » and « oratory » are both necessary, and I think that one of the uses of « conversation » is to give some kind of moral accountability. That means institutional « conversation » not only between the members of a citizen jury, but with alloted persons from any involved group.
    *** The judges in France are « independent », that is to say unaccountable. Even in countries where elected judges are accountable, there are independent judges, and important ones (as the US Supreme Court). The problem is that their moral accountability is likely to be directed to elites which have very specific moral and material interests, and which are in implicit struggle with the common citizens.
    *** In ancient France, the absolute King was sovereign, therefore unaccountable – with a moral accountability to God and his inner audience. As for God, the problem was the intolerant sides of the faith; as for the inner audience, it was mirroring the small elites who could have some usual « conversation » with the King and his circle.

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  29. >”I disagree that accountability is a core element of democracy.”

    I heartily agree with Terry. I don’t see how an allotted parliament can function with accountability. In fact it is highly undesirable: it opens the possibility of threats, of campaigns of intimidation by social media, shock jocks and the gutter press, and of violent reprisals by fanatics.
    I strongly believe that the member of an allotted parliament should consider herself entirely free to vote as she wishes, without regard to the opinions of others. For this, a secret ballot in the parliament is necessary.
    I would go so far as to say it should be illegal for an MP to reveal how she voted, at least for several years. Hard to enforce perhaps, but it would have the advantage that the MP would have a valid reason for refusing to answer questions by her husband – or the pushy reporter in the street with the microphone.

    >”What about situations in which allotted legislators are found to have a clear conflict of interest – or are bribed – or don’t show up to meetings?”

    1 _What_ conflict of interest? This can’t really arise if the Parliament accurately represents (ie “stands for”) the people.
    Suppose, for example that I’m the CEO of Frackall, and my company wants to frack underneath London. As luck will have it, I’m selected by lot as a legislator, and the question of a licence to frack for Frackall comes up. I’ll make zillions if it goes through; the rest of you will have to pay for the rebuilding of Buckingham Palace, St Paul’s, the National Gallery, that stone column with the one-eyed sailor bloke, and all the rest. Naturally, I vote for it: it’s in my interest. What do the other 499 or so MPs do? Clearly, it’s not in their interest (your interest), so the bill fails, tough luck for me. Where’s the problem?
    Or suppose that a proposal is in the interest of a large number of people; say a bill to abolish tertiary education fees. MPs who are students (including PhD students who are academic publishers), or members of students’ families will stand to gain, and will (should!) vote for it. Uncultivated peasants and barbarians like myself will – presumably – vote against. Whichever way the vote goes, where is the conflict of interest?
    And if the proposal benefits the majority of those in Parliament, clearly it benefits the majority of the people.

    2 I’m convinced that bribery is not a problem in an allotted assembly.
    Consider the following example (for an assembly of 500 members): Suppose that in the absence of corruption, a bill will be passed by 260 votes to 240. To prevent its passage by bribes, a criminal would have to find 11 MPs willing to sell their vote. If all MPs are open to bribery, and the criminal does not know how they intend to vote, he would need to approach 500/260 times 11, or 22 MPs, since nearly half the chamber would already vote against the bill. Now suppose that only half the MPs are honest, and will expose any attempt to bribe them. The chance of not being exposed is 1 in 2²², or 1 in 4194304. Even if the criminal knows the voting intentions of all MPs (highly unlikely!) his chance of not being found out is 1 in 2048. But this high level of risk applies to the MPs too, so it is likely that very few MPs would dare accept a bribe, which would make the real risk even higher. In addition, with secret voting in the parliament, the criminal would have no way of knowing if his bribe had any effect.
    But corruption in politics more usually takes the form of promising or withholding support in electoral campaigns. Since MPs chosen by lot serve for a fixed term and cannot be re-elected, they are not amenable to this form of corruption.
    And if we’re talking about the sort of corruption that involves giving a highly-paid sinecure to a legislator after their term of office, to whom would you give it if you don’t know how members have voted, and don’t know if a member has made a speech one way, and passed a memo to other members saying the contrary? And in any case, once you’ve got what you want – or got the opposite – why should you dish out money after the event? And if you’re offering rewards, you’re manifestly dishonest, why should anyone believe your promises? Especially as there must be some risk involved, perhaps of a judicial enquiry.

    3 Members who don’t show up to meetings.
    Attendance at sessions, and voting on all measures should be obligatory, but a null vote, equivalent to an abstention, should be permitted. Full attendance is important when a randomly selected parliament votes, in order to preserve the accurate representation of the public. MPs’ pay should be docked for absence, except for illness or pregnancy. MPs who become ill or pregnant could be allowed sick or maternity leave, and to finish their term of office later. Permanent incapacity to attend should lead to retirement, but not any financial penalty. (I’m quoting myself here, which explains the pompous tone. Please excuse)

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  30. Andre: >This is a reason to establish in a modern democracy-through-sortition a step of face-to-face deliberation which was not institutional in Athens.

    That’s the argument for deliberative democracy. But does it work? — do people really modify their views as a consequence of the deliberative exchange? Is it really possible to have a conversation between several hundred people and how do you ensure that everyone has an equal voice? Deliberative democrats are clear that they are referring to a normative ideal and even Habermas acknowledges that ‘rational discourses have an improbable character and are like islands in the ocean of everyday practices’ (1996, p.323). If the goal of attaining a transcendental rationality is a pipe-dream then in practice the deliberation will be dominated by the eloquent and opinionated. Bear in mind that Habermas’s model for the modern-day agora was the coffee shops of eighteenth-century London, populated by the leisured and articulate classes. These people (i.e. the likes of you and me) have too much power anyway; my concern is for the silent majority.

    Campbell:>I’m convinced that bribery is not a problem in an allotted assembly.

    When it comes to determining the outcome of the debate via the secret vote then everything you say is clearly true. But most people on this forum (including your good self) advocate an allotted assembly with initiative and speech rights. So all the lobbyist has to do is find a persuasive (but impoverished) member of the assembly to introduce and act as advocate for her preferred policy. The only way to prevent this would be to have the entire proceedings of the allotted chamber take place in camera and to pump the chamber full of Zyklon-B after MPs have reached their decision, so the lobbyist cannot find out if her chosen mouthpiece performed as instructed. That’s why the powers of allotted assemblies have to be restricted to listening to the debate and voting in secret — anything more will open wide the floodgates of corruption.

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  31. >”So all the lobbyist has to do is find a persuasive (but impoverished) member of the assembly to introduce and act as advocate for her preferred policy.”

    Perhaps with a classified advert: “Wanted: Corrupt parliamentarians to present and advocate our policies in parliament. Generous payment to successful candidates.”?
    Or would you have a more discreet approach: (Nudge, nudge) “Psst. Look in this brown paper envelope and you’ll see how to get rich – if you can persuade your colleagues”? Highly risky, Keith, you only have to approach one honest member to be caught.
    Anyway, getting a proposal before the assembly and getting it passed are two very different things.

    All a lobbyist has to do with your setup is to find a persuasive (but impoverished) “expert”, with an intimidating string of diplomas and hungry for research funding, to introduce and act as advocate for the lobbyist’s preferred policy. Not hard to find, particularly for multinationals: they probably have dozens of them on their own payroll. (“You’re sacked, (we have to make you independent) but if you present an expert opinion along these lines advocating XXX we’ll reinstate you, and give you your own lab and all the lab toys you ask for, and a big fat bonus at the end of the year”. What seeker of knowledge would not be tempted? In the interests of science, of course.)

    >”The only way to prevent this would be to have the entire proceedings of the allotted chamber take place in camera”

    Let’s forget the absurd reference to Zyklon B.

    One might well have proceedings in camera, and yet have them broadcast live on radio. It would be quite feasible to disguise the voices, and to refer to participants only as “the next speaker in the debate on XX” or similar. This would allow the public to know what was being debated, without knowing who was advocating what.

    >”That’s why the powers of allotted assemblies have to be restricted to listening to the debate and voting in secret — anything more will open wide the floodgates of corruption.”

    You haven’t even come close to proving this conclusion.
    The “floodgates of corruption” are wide open at the moment because of the defects of the electoral system, and because control of the media is concentrated in very few hands.

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  32. Campbell:> All a lobbyist has to do with your setup is to find a persuasive (but impoverished) “expert”, with an intimidating string of diplomas and hungry for research funding, to introduce and act as advocate for the lobbyist’s preferred policy.

    Not so. The right to introduce proposals for new laws would be restricted to the party or parties that wins a majority in the general election and/or those whose petitions gain 100,000 online signatures and subsequently come into the top ten policy proposals after the public votation. If this all sounds a little familiar it’s because it’s called democracy.

    >The “floodgates of corruption” are wide open at the moment because of the defects of the electoral system, and because control of the media is concentrated in very few hands.

    Agreed. That’s why we need to make every effort to the reduce the power of money and media power. The UK does reasonably well in the first case and the internet is rapidly undermining the power of media monopolies. I’m sure at heart you agree with all this, because your original comments were limited to the exercise of the secret vote by allotted members and made no mention at all of initiative and advocacy rights.

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  33. @ Keith
    Ah. I confess to ignorance of some details of your proposed system, but elsewhere you have advocated the use of experts to coach the lambda citizens. I think you used the term “balanced” to describe the advice these experts would give, but who is to judge what is balanced? To me the experts are a prime opportunity for the usual villains to corruptly bias things. In any event, experts always have a point of view; I don’t think an impartial expert is possible.

    >”The right to introduce proposals for new laws would be restricted to the party or parties. . . ”
    To me this is obnoxious. A party is nothing other than a group of people who are willing to compromise, to abandon some part of their beliefs in the hope of gaining some advantage. Certainly this has been necessary in the past, but why should it be obligatory to be a party member in order to get a proposal looked at?

    >”. . . the general election . . .”
    Once again, obnoxious. I cannot see elections as being useful or democratic in any group bigger than your local Croquet Club, where you know all the members. 150 max (Dunbar), but better under 100. I have a list of 17 objections to elections – no doubt all widely known – and there are probably others that I don’t know about.

    >”those whose petitions gain 100,000 online signatures”
    And for those who have the media in their pocket this will be no obstacle. The rest of us won’t have a hope.
    And shouldn’t the number be scaled for smaller countries? Or are you only interested in the UK?

    >”If this all sounds a little familiar it’s because it’s called democracy.”
    Calling it that won’t make it so. The former East Germany was also called a democracy, as is North Korea.

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  34. Campbell:>In any event, experts always have a point of view; I don’t think an impartial expert is possible.

    Agreed, hence my call for the adversarial joust of advocates. I recently proposed that the referendum on the EU should be replaced by a deliberative poll. You wouldn’t need to turn over many stones to find the advocates for the opposing views. This is the BBC approach to impartiality — it’s, admittedly, a crude binary strategy, but it’s hard to imagine a better way to ensuring impartiality. Remember that judgment is entirely in the hands of the allotted jury.

    >To me this [election] is obnoxious.

    I’m afraid we will just have to agree to differ here as the resort to this sort of adjective [twice] is hard to counter with arguments.

    >And for those who have the media in their pocket this [100,000 signatures] will be no obstacle. The rest of us won’t have a hope.

    Democracy in large states does presuppose that proposals are well supported [100,000 is the UK figure; smaller numbers would apply to wee pretendy nations such as “Scotland”]. But developments in, for example, the music and publishing business, have demonstrated how small acorns can easily grow, so I think the notion that we are all dominated by a tiny number of media moguls is a tad anachronistic. Rupert Murdoch’s power is on the wane.

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  35. >”I’m afraid we will just have to agree to differ here”
    I agree to differ. By all means.

    >”smaller numbers would apply to wee pretendy nations such as “Scotland”.
    I had Nauru, Kiribati, and the Caribbean island states in mind. Oh, and Iceland, Singapour, Greece, the Baltic nations . . .

    >”I think the notion that we are all dominated by a tiny number of media moguls is a tad anachronistic. Rupert Murdoch’s power is on the wane.”
    I’m not so sure. In any case, the effects of that power (not just Murdoch’s) will be with us for a long time.

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  36. Campbell: >A party is nothing other than a group of people who are willing to compromise, to abandon some part of their beliefs in the hope of gaining some advantage.

    You say that as though it were a bad thing.

    We are all minorities in certain ways. Without a willingness to compromise and sacrifice one’s ideology as is necessary you are left with simple aggregation of preferences. There no reason to believe that aggregating everyone’s preferences together will result in an optimally agreeable policy plan. This is true even if you fix the rational ignorance issue. Different people support different things for different reasons. Most people could slightly support a proposal just because they think it’s reasonable. They might not have any personal stake in the issue. But the people who are personally affected and who might see their liberty or livelihoods damaged will care greatly.

    That’s the great thing about compromise: people give up the things that don’t matter much to them in favor of the things that do. The strength-of-preference problem takes care of itself. I absolutely believe that the key to good government is to start by bringing together individuals who represent the various divisions in society and giving them personal incentives to compromise and build consensus. There are other things you need too, but I really think it’s hard to get by without that core. At least in a large state. Maybe in Kiribati it would be fine.

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  37. Naomi:> the people who are personally affected and who might see their liberty or livelihoods damaged will care greatly. . . I absolutely believe that the key to good government is to start by bringing together individuals who represent the various divisions in society and giving them personal incentives to compromise and build consensus.

    That’s very close to John Burnheim’s case for demarchic committees. It’s an attractive proposal (as is your PR-based argument for inter-party compromise), but there are two difficulties: 1) deciding who is “personally affected” in a globalised economy; and 2) very often those who care greatly and have the strongest interests are the least capable of making a dispassionate judgment (at least that was Madison’s argument).

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