A letter to The Newfoundland and Labrador Independent

Democracy and elections

Dear Justin,

I am writing in response to the recent column by Raymond Critch “Why should every vote count?” (Sept. 29th). Mr. Critch describes his feeling of disenfranchisement due to the process that led to the selection of a new Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador – a process not involving public elections.

However, as Mr. Critch himself alludes by quoting John Kenneth Galbraith, elections are in fact not a tool of democracy but rather a way to inoculate the population against the feeling that the government is not theirs.

Mr. Critch also points out that democracy originally did not rely on elections to select political decision makers. In ancient Greece everybody knew that elections are typical to oligarchies, like Sparta, while democracies, like Athens, used sortition. Sortition is the mechanism of selecting decision makers by drawing lots – generating a decision making body that is statistically representative of the entire population.

Modern society is trapped in a situation where we have an elections-based elite-dominated political system and yet we call it “a democracy”. We are unhappy with it, and yet we keep venerating it. Until we free ourselves from identifying elections with democracy we will not be able to start working our way toward what can properly described as democracy.

Only rule by a statistically representative body – a portrait of the people in miniature – can produce a democracy: rule by the people for the people.

Best regards,

Yoram Gat


30 Responses

  1. Critch’s objection was not to election per se but that the electoral college was a partisan one: “decisions made by a committee of Tories and not by the committee of the whole.”


  2. Yoram,

    As you well know, sortition was not the basis for democracy in ancient Athens. The Assembly was. All citizens could attend. Citizens in the Assembly were the decision makers. Sortition was used for selecting magistrates, the people who oversaw the distribution of grain and like functions.

    Arthur D. Robbins


  3. Arthur,

    I disagree – oligarchical poleis like Sparta had Assemblies with decision making powers as well.

    In Athens sortition was used to select the Council of 500 which managed the city, including setting up the agenda for the Assembly. It is this fact, rather than the formal decision making power of the Assembly, that made Athens a democracy.

    This was the view of Aristotle, and it apparently was the conventional view as well, but it is also to a large extent an unavoidable implication of the size of the Assembly. Any body that has thousands of members cannot really set an agenda and is therefore manipulated by some elite subset, elite body, or person.


  4. Yoram,

    Those who govern are those who debate, legislate and set policy. In Athens, in the fifth century B.C, this took place in the Assembly, where as many as 6,000 people were in attendance on any day. This is what democracy means, government by the people, themselves, not a designated subset, selected by whatever means.

    Arthur D. Robbins


  5. 6,000 can’t debate, legislate or set policy. All they can do is listen and select policy options from a short menu set by others. Those who set the agenda are the ones who set policy.

    (In most cases even the selection from the short menu is manipulated by an elite which controls the information that is available to the those who select, but even that is not quite necessary. Once you control the options on the menu, selecting between those options is meaningless.)


  6. Update: my letter was just published.


  7. Yoram,

    “…half of the Assembly’s decrees were ratifications of concrete proposals by the Council, and the other half were proposed directly in the Assembly….” (Hansen, p.140)

    I think you are reasoning backwards from our current political situation. In ancient Athens, anyone in the Assembly could speak. That is what is known as political equality and that is the basis of democracy.

    There is a significant difference between voting on a piece of legislation yourself and having someone else cast the vote on your behalf.

    Arthur D. Robbins


  8. Yoram,

    Where is this elite you speak of. As you point out the Council of 500 was chosen by lot. Anyone of 30,000 citizens, from any element in Athenian society, could be selected. Council members could serve for only two non-consectutive years in a lifetime. How does that produce an elite? The whole purpose of sortition is to avoid the formation of elites.

    Hansen considers the possibilities of parties, political factions and the manipulation and garnering of votes that we associate with modern governments. He concludes: “The Assembly behaved in accordance with the democratic ideal: the people did not just vote according to the crack of their leaders’ whips.” (p.286).


  9. You’re both right: the assembly was (in the fifth century) the principal institution of Athenian democracy, and the council existed in order to prevent the manipulation of the assembly agenda by factions (elite or otherwise). The interesting development is the fourth-century transfer of legislative decision-making from the assembly to the legislative courts. Arthur views this as a sign of decadence, whereas Yoram and myself view it as an improvement on assembly democracy, albeit for different reasons. Yoram sees it as a progressive development (as, in his view, sortition is synonymous with democracy) whereas I view it as a conservative reaction against the arbitrary/populist nature of assembly decisions — a transition from the rule of men to the rule of law. I believe most historians agree with the latter viewpoint.


  10. Arthur,

    > In ancient Athens, anyone in the Assembly could speak.

    In modern elections-based political systems anyone can speak as well. The issue is that only a few have an audience that is large enough to matter. This was true in Athens as it is true now. It is a cognitive limitation of humans. No one can pay attention to thousands of people. Those who gain the attention of mass audiences are a political elite.

    > As you point out the Council of 500 was chosen by lot.

    Indeed – and that is the reason Athens was a democracy. If the Council of 500 was elected, it would not have been.

    In Athens, the Assembly was the arena of mass politics where the democratic element – the Council of 500 – competed with the oligarchical element – the rhetor kai strategos. In a modern sortition-based political system the mass political arena would probably be mass media, where the democratic elements would compete with the rich and famous for the attention of the public.


  11. >In Athens, the Assembly was the arena of mass politics where the democratic element – the Council of 500 – competed with the oligarchical element – the rhetor kai strategos.

    That’s overinterpreting the evidence to fit your definition of democracy (as Arthur has pointed out, Aristotle’s epithet referred to magistracies). Most historians claim that the council was little more than the secretariat for the assembly and that Athens (in the fifth century) would be best described as a direct democracy. The significant development was the legislative courts.


  12. > Most historians claim that the council was little more than the secretariat for the assembly and that Athens (in the fifth century) would be best described as a direct democracy.

    I am not sure what “most historians say” and in any case I am not impressed by arguments from authority. If you can show primary sources backing this “little more than the secretariat for the assembly” view I’d be interested. Otherwise, I am inclined to prefer Aristotle’s view to yours.

    (In any case, of course, the Athenian system is not a model to be copied. The specifics of the Athenian system are only important in this context to the extent they impact the ideas and lessons that can be learned from Athenian history.)


  13. So your repeated claim that “sortition is democratic and election aristocratic” is not an argument from authority (Aristotle via Montesquieu)? I imagine that Arthur will substantiate his claim that Aristotle was referring to the selection of magistrates, but Aristotle’s notion of democracy was “ruling and being ruled in turn” and the council had “very limited” decision-making power:

    “It was the council’s probouleutic and administrative functions, not any power of decision making, that gave it its central place in the democracy: Aristotle was right to say that a council loses its independent powers under a democracy, where the people meet often and are paid for attendance at their meetings” (Hansen, 1991, p.247)

    The “secretariat” view of the council probably originated with Headlam, and Manin/Urbinati/Landemore concur. The most detailed work on the Athenian council is by P.J. Rhodes — I discussed this point with him last year when he came to Exeter and he agreed that the council was not a ruling body, and that while some legislatives proposals emerged directly from council deliberation, the council was also a conduit for proposals from the usual suspects (politicians). It’s not possible to quantify this as “at the meeting a citizen who was not a councillor could speak, but, if it led to a motion, that could only be proposed by a councillor in his own name”, the only exception being the generals (ibid., p. 253). In a small society like Athens it would have been very easy for politicians to lobby council members, so there’s no way of knowing the ultimate source of probouleumas.

    The Athenians were concerned that the council should not undermine the sovereignty of the assembly so they “set narrow limits to its authority” (p. 255). “The Athenian Council was only independently competent to settle routine and minor matters . . . the council could only decide on details” (p.256). “Policy at Athens really was made by the Assembly rather than the Council (p.140).

    So your claim that the council was the prime democratic institution in Athens is not supported by historians. Neither you or I are experts in Greek history, so we are obliged to follow the guidance of such “authorities” rather than to run the risk of cherry-picking and misunderstanding primary sources. Those of us who seek to privilege sortition over direct democracy would be better served studying the nomothetai rather than the boule.


    M.H. Hansen (1991), The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers)


  14. > So your repeated claim that “sortition is democratic and election aristocratic” is not an argument from authority (Aristotle via Montesquieu)?

    Certainly not. I happen to be in agreement with those philosophers, but I do not accept their claims on their authority and I don’t expect anybody else to do so.

    > The “secretariat” view of the council probably originated with Headlam, and Manin/Urbinati/Landemore concur […]

    You do know what primary sources are, right?


  15. You do know what primary sources are, right?

    Yes I do, and explained why I rely on historians: “Neither you or I are experts in Greek history, so we are obliged to follow the guidance of such “authorities” rather than to run the risk of cherry-picking and misunderstanding primary sources.”


  16. Go ahead and feel free to cherry pick the primary sources. Much better than cherry picking the secondary sources.


  17. I don’t believe that I have done, I’ve just attempted to portray the general scholarly consensus — if you can find any historians who view the council as the primary institution of Athenian democracy (over and above its role in preserving the sovereignty of the assembly) then please enlighten us. Historians do, however, agree that the fourth century reforms undermined assembly sovereignty (merely disagreeing as to whether or not that was a positive development). That’s why I focus on the nomothetai, rather than wilfully misunderstanding the role of the boule.


  18. > I don’t believe that I have done, I’ve just attempted to portray the general scholarly consensus

    Again: please feel free then to attempt to portray the evidence from the primary sources.


  19. I don’t have time to go to the university library and plough through the 368 pages of Rhodes’ The Athenian Boule, hence my reliance on the chapter of Hansen’s book (both being eminent authorities on the period). Are you claiming that a) we should not trust the scholarly consensus among Greek historians or b) that I’m misrepresenting it? If so then please substantiate your claim by reference to your own sources (primary or secondary), although in the former case I would not be in a position to comment on whether you have decontextualised or misunderstood the ancient source. I leave that judgment to suitably qualified scholars (even though, for unstated reasons, you are “not impressed by argument from authority”).


  20. Keith,

    I believe you are overly reliant on a particular interpretation of the role of the Boule (Council of 500) — Headlam and Rhodes. And those you mention being in agreement (Manin/Urbinati/Landemore) are not and make no claim to be experts on Ancient Athens. Other scholars of Ancient Athens, such as Josiah Ober, take a different view on the role of the Council. Here is a quote from a 2007 article of his based on a relatively recently discovered original source (Headlam was unaware of)…

    “In terms of making a participatory Greek democracy work, the key institution was a popular deliberative council chosen from the entire citizen body. The Greek recognition of the centrality of a popular council for democracy is underlined by a recently discovered inscription from Eretria. In ca. 340 B.C. the Eretrian democracy promulgated a decree offering rewards to a potential tyrant killer, that is, to anyone who took direct and violent action against those who sought to overthrow the existing democratic government. In a revealing passage, the decree orders all citizens to fight without waiting to receive orders if anyone tries to establish “some constitution other than a Council and a prutaneia (a subset of the Council) appointed by lot from all Eretrians.”

    [Ober, Josiah. “What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy.” Version 1.0 .September 2007, Stanford page 7 http://www.princeton.edu/~pswpc/pdfs/ober/090703.pdf accessed May 20, 2012, citing Knoepfler 2001, 2002; translation Teegarden 2007]


  21. Terry,

    That’s entirely compatible with the Headlam/Rhodes interpretation — the council was an essential part of the democracy because it preserved the sovereignty of the assembly by protecting it from aristocratic or factional domination (this also accords with the Stone/Dowlen view of the role of sortition). I’m not aware of any historian who takes the view that the council was the democratic body and the assembly was more akin to an ancient version of the mass media (as Yoram suggests). Fifth-century Athens was essentially a direct democracy and the move towards sortition-based legislative decision-making was a consequence of the fourth century reforms (which did not alter the role or status of the council in any significant way).

    In any event how can a randomly-selected group of 500 people deliberate in any meaningful sense (other than voting)? It’s a shame that there are hardly any records of council debates as that would be a clear way of establishing whether or not the view that Yoram and yourself take (the council as a precursor of Habermasian deliberation) is anachronistic.


  22. *** It is difficult to assess the exact political weight of the Council in the political process in the Second Athenian Democracy, and that explains a lack of perfect consensus among serious historians. That said, it is clear that the allotted Council was an institution necessary for dêmokratia, but not a channel for the sovereignty of the People. When Aristotle speaks of the citizen as exercising sovereign power (kyrios) it is as ekklêsiastês (member of the assembly) or dikastês (member of a jury). Councilors were a specific kind of “magistrates” – therefore any citizen allotted as councilor could be challenged as unfit (the dokimasia procedure) – for instance for oligarchic leanings; something possible for any magistracy (allotted or elected), but impossible for the assembly or the juries. Lysias speeches “against Philon” and “for Mantitheus” are about such cases.
    *** I agree with Keith Sutherland that the devolution of legislative power to legislative juries was a main parameter in the Second Athenian Democracy. But we must not forget that in the 4th century the judiciary power was taken from the assembly, and given exclusively to juries; and we must consider the extended political role of judiciary juries with “judicial review” of all decrees and laws. Even a law voted by a legislative jury could be crushed by a judiciary jury as contrary to the principles or basic values or deep interests of the democracy. It is difficult to assess exactly the weight of the two kinds of juries, but it seems that the political clout of the judiciary juries was globally much stronger.
    *** Keith says that the rise of the juries in the Second Athenian Democracy was “a conservative reaction against the arbitrary/populist nature of assembly decisions — a transition from the rule of men to the rule of law”. It is clear that a jury could concentrate more on the subject, that it was freer of many ways of manipulating a large assembly, that the procedures could be more easily enforced, that the vote was secret (it is sure for judiciary juries, at least), etc. … which means that the process was less sensitive to some kinds of demagogic maneuvers. The number of steps in the process was likewise a factor against “crowd enthusiasm”. And a jury undertaking the ‘judicial review” of a decree or law could be expected to be more sensitive to the legal or constitutional sides. All these points could have a ‘conservative” effect. But if we understand “conservative” as leaning to the established interests of the upper classes, it is less sure, as the members of the juries were ordinary citizens, in majority from the lower classes of the society. For that reason the elitist thinkers as Plato and Aristotle were as antagonistic to the juries as to the assembly – if not more. For Aristotle the constitutional history of Athens is degradation from Solon to his time – which means that the last Athenian Democracy, the 4th century one, was the worst.
    ***… Keith speaks of “a transition from the rule of men to the rule of law”. As I said, a jury undertaking the ‘judicial review” of a decree or law could be expected to be more sensitive to the legal or constitutional sides, and with the distinction between decrees and laws and the strong role of “judicial review” the Second Democracy can be considered as a system with institutional “rule of law”. But we must remember that in the end the law is what the judges say it is law – our courts (including the supranational European courts) create in a big part the law when interpreting it, and it was the same for the judiciary juries of Athens.
    *** There are two kinds of citizen deliberation, well defined by Manin: “oratory”, the citizens hear the different sides from skilled orators, and think afterwards; and “discussion” – with face to face talking. If I remember well, Manin thinks the best chronological order is first oratory second face to face discussion. It was rather the opposite in Athens as the discussions in the agora were ahead of the orators speeches in front of the assembly or the jury. But the multiple steps procedures in the Second Athenian Democracy allowed for a good mixing of the two kinds of deliberation, at least for decrees and laws (not for judiciary trials, as there were no appeal procedure).
    *** We must not forget the role in the Second Athenian Democracy of face to face discussion in the Agora, even if it was an informal institution. For instance any citizen initiating a legislative process had to publish the proposal in the Agora -“by the statues of the Eponymous Heroes” “for everyone to see” (Demosthenes, “Against Timocrates”, 18) and before the end of the legislative process there was much time for “discussion”.
    *** Yoram Gat says “oligarchical poleis like Sparta had Assemblies with decision making powers as well” and thinks that the allotted Council made the difference. He must be right that it was an important point. But we don’t know well how worked the Spartan system – which I think must be described as a “republican system with oligarchical leanings” rather than pure oligarchy. It was a complex system which must have included various constitutional means of circumventing the apparent power of the People – as in our modern polyarchies


  23. Andre, great to have you back on the forum again!

    My use of the word “conservative” is “tending to stability”, as opposed to “supporting oligarchy” — the two definitions only coincide for those who adhere to the whig/marxian theory of history (in which the status quo is defined as oligarchic).

    Which work of Manin are your referring to? I must read it.

    I wonder what would be the equivalent of the agora for large heterogenous cultures — the internet? I can understand the attraction of face-to-face deliberation by a microcosm, but still claim that such a debate would be unrepresentative for reasons that I’ve already given. And I’m still waiting for defenders of the Boule as the prime democratic institution to explain exactly what a conversation between 500 people would sound like — the Tower of Babel? or, more likely, domination by a few self-selecting charismatic and/or high-status individuals.

    PS I’d hugely value your feedback on my draft paper at https://www.academia.edu/8295259/The_Blind_Break_The_Invisible_Hand_and_the_Wisdom_of_Crowds_The_Political_Potential_of_Sortition


  24. Hi Andre,

    Thanks for the references to relevant primary sources.

    Following your reference, I just read Against Philon and noted the following passage toward the end:

    [I]t is not you who are debarring him [Philon] from honor today; it is he who deprived himself of it, at the time when he declined to come [to fight the Thirty tyrants], with a zeal such as brings him now for the drawing of the lots, to take his stand with you then as a champion of the Council.

    Talking about someone who fights tyranny as “a champion of the Council” does not seem compatible with seeing the Council as having merely a technical or mechanical function.


  25. Yoram,

    Even if you are correct in your understanding of Greek history,** you’ve yet to explain how a group of 500 people can engage in equal face-to-face deliberation (the statistical representation that we both endorse presupposes isonomia, as opposed to isegoria). My understanding of the top limit for such a group is c. 18-20 and this is in no sense a portrait in miniature of the whole citizen body. If this is the case, then what is the relevance of the Athenian council to modern sortition proposals?

    ** my layman’s understanding is that the council under the tyranny was selected from 3,000 partisan supporters of the oligarchs, so it was just a symptom of the destruction of the democracy — in which all citizens participated, rather than only one faction. The democratic appeal of the allotted council was that most citizens would have served at some time in their life (a rotation principle that is entirely irrelevant in large modern states) — this is why Aristotle described the council as a magistracy.


  26. For high-stakes, high-resources situations all-to-all communication in a body of a few hundred should be feasible. See Dunbar’s number.


  27. I’m struggling to understand the relevance of Dunbar’s number, which refers to the cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. As social networks take a long time to establish this would mean that the randomly-selected assembly would “go native”, thereby prejudicing its statistical representativity. (Although various term models are proposed for an allotted assembly — ranging from ad hoc to one year — none of them are long enough to establish the necessary stable social relationships.) And Dunbar’s number does not refer to “all-to-all” communications — in political terms it refers to the communication between me and the members of my faction (people being free to choose those with whom they wish to establish social relations). In addition to this, much of the work of legislatures is routine in nature, with “high-stakes” issues being the exception to the norm.

    But the elephant in the room is isonomia (numerical equality). This clearly applies to voting (all votes having exactly the same value) but individuals are very different in terms of their networking and persuasive skills. If my own allotted representatives (i.e. people who shared similar preferences and beliefs to me) happened to have poor networking and persuasive skills and were of low perceived status, then my equal liberty would be compromised. Isegoria (equal speech rights) is not sufficient to guarantee isonomia, so a full-mandate randomly-selected assembly would lead to inequality by lot.


  28. Terry,

    I’ve just finished reading the Ober paper that you referenced — very interesting, but I don’t see how his views differ from other historians of Classical-era Greece and, more specifically, that the paper adds any weight to your argument for the council as the prime democratic institution. My page citations are to the published (2008) version:

    “For today’s student of democratic practice, the most striking formal Greek institution is the citizen Assembly” (p.73) whereas the the key role of the council was “making a participatory Greek democracy work” (ibid.).

    As for the claim that the council was a prototype for face-to-face deliberation:

    “[I]n the Athenian Assembly, Council, and lawcourts, mass audiences judged and responded vocally to speeches” as these were all “mass fora in which the deliberative ideal of each individual expressing an opinion is not feasible” (p.71).

    Andre has pointed out that the agora, not any of the formal political institutions was the locus of face-to-face deliberation.

    Ober’s description of the role of ostracism has made me more sceptical of Headlam’s claim that election is the modern equivalent of the political trial. In fact ostracism would be a better parallel as parties that have displeased the public (for whatever reason) are typically banished for around 10 years and this is a consequence of “a mass nondeliberative decision-making process” (p. 75). The political trial was a big improvement on this as the verdict (guilty or innocent) resulted from an adversarial deliberative process. This is why all kleroterians insist that political officials should be held to account by a large randomly-selected court (although we might differ as to what form the deliberation should take).


    Josiah Ober (2008), What the Ancient Greeks Can Tell Us About Democracy, Annual Review of Political Science, 11: 67-91


  29. Keith,

    Two points…

    1. I don’t assert that the Boule was the key decision-making body…but rather an ESSENTIAL piece of a multi-body democratic system, that probably played much more than a clerical role. The group that shapes the agenda and prepares draft resolutions for voting is often the most powerful unit of the system. The fact that this key element was protected from elite domination by sortition is fundamental.

    2. You assert that isonomia “clearly applies to voting (all votes having exactly the same value)”… not so. there was different term for equal voting power. You imply that since only the vote can be reduced to mathematical equality that only the vote reflects isonomia, but I disagree. Here is what the Wikipedia article says about the ancient meaning…

    Mogens Herman Hansen has argued that, although often translated as “equality of law,” isonomia was in fact something else.[2] Along with isonomia, the Athenians used several terms for equality[2] all compounds beginning with iso-: isegoria[5] (equal right to address the political assemblies), isopsephos polis[6] (one man one vote) and isokratia[7] (equality of power).

    When Herodotus invents a debate among the Persians over what sort of government they should have, he has Otanes speak in favor of isonomia when, based on his description of it, we might expect him to call the form of government he favors “democracy.”

    “The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.[3]”

    Thucydides used isonomia as an alternative to dynastic oligarchy[8] and moderate aristocracy.[9] In time the word ceased to refer to a particular political regime; Plato uses it to refer to simply equal rights[10] and Aristotle does not use the word at all.[11]


  30. Terry, we agree on the role of sortition in protecting the council from elite domination, only differing on whether that is an end in itself or an intermediary for preserving the ultimate sovereignty of the general assembly (the consensus of historians, including Ober). My interest is in what isonomia means in institutional practice, given that the Greeks reserved another term for equal speech rights (isegoria). So how would you propose cashing it out?

    In the 2008 article that you brought to our attention Ober argues that “equality, as a value and social practice, was not uniquely associated in Greek culture with democracy” (p.77), referencing Paul Cartledge’s claim that equality featured “all the way down” in Sparta and contrasting the latter unfavourably with the “more constrained Athenian notions of political equality and equal right to engage in public speech” (ibid.). Cartledge’s disparaging view of Athenian political equality would support my notion that it was limited to voting (and taking it in turn to rule and be ruled in the magistracies). But you haven’t presented any evidence to support your claim that the council was a deliberative body in the modern sense of the term, and it’s very hard to understand what a body of 500 randomly-selected citizens could do beyond Ober’s claim that “in the Athenian Assembly, Council, and lawcourts, mass audiences judged and responded vocally to speeches” (p.75). If this is true then an operationalised definition of isonomia (in large magistracies, like the Council) would be voting. What’s the alternative?


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