Linker: An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot

Damon Linker’s argument against compulsory voting weaves in Plato and the Socratic argument for aristocracy. His reasoning is an interesting modernization of the classical aristocratic mindset. His point about the contestability of excellence is good, and he makes use of it as a justification of electoralism.

A democracy gives every adult citizen a very small say in who rules. An individual doesn’t have to prove that he’s thoughtful or informed to exercise that right. As Plato argued 2,300 years ago, this makes democratic politics exceedingly peculiar. We don’t take a vote to determine the medical treatments that doctors prescribe, and neither do we ask for a show of hands about how to construct a bridge or a building. And yet we think it’s perfectly reasonable to ask for everyone’s opinion about what policies our country should pursue at home and abroad.

That’s because in politics, unlike in medicine and engineering, the act of determining who does and does not possess knowledge and wisdom is exceedingly contentious. (One might say it’s a political act in itself.) So we solve — or rather, we sidestep — the problem by letting everyone have a say.

But of course, giving everyone a voice in periodic elections isn’t purely democratic. An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot, with leaders chosen at random from the citizenry. Elections, by contrast, presume that some people (those few who make it onto the ballot) are more fit to rule than everyone else. All that’s presumed about the voters at large is that they’re capable of recognizing civic excellence when they see it.

But even this presumption is partly a fiction. We all know that some people are more capable than others of recognizing excellence, even if we also recognize, once again, that there’s no uncontentious way to definitively determine who the more capable people are. The closest we can get to making such a determination may be using the decision to vote as a proxy for relative political wisdom.

If you can’t be bothered to vote, you probably aren’t paying attention; and if you aren’t paying attention, we’ll probably all be better off if you keep not bothering.

It seems that if he takes this argument seriously, Linker should oppose any attempt to make voting easier, but this apparently would put him farther out than he would like to be:

The president says he wants to make it easier for people to vote. Fine. He could work to lengthen the hours the polls are open, extend voting over multiple days, or move Election Day to a weekend. All would be perfectly unobjectionable and even worthwhile reforms.

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14 Responses

  1. >An absolute democracy would assign political offices by lot, with leaders chosen at random from the citizenry.

    An absolute democracy sounds pretty scary to me (and, I imagine, the original author). The word absolute generally goes (in this context) with power and any system that abrogates absolute power to a tiny group is undemocratic and illiberal, irrespective of how it is constituted. Only tiny poleis can be absolute democracies, where everyone can rule and be ruled in turn.

    >His point about the contestability of excellence is good.

    His point is actually about discovering who possesses the requisite knowledge and wisdom to choose the best political leaders as opposed to discovering excellence in domains such as medicine and engineering. So the problem is not voting, it’s determining the franchise.

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  2. I*** I am interested here by the use of the wording “absolute democracy”.
    *** Speaking about “absolute democracy” is implicitly drawing a parallell with “absolute monarchy” as an historical Western phenomenon (17th-18th centuries) and I think the parallel is easily misleading. We can compare the power of a king in a classical Western absolute monarchy and of a dêmos in a dêmokratia, but we must not forget a basic difference. A dêmos can multiply himself to oversee the entire system, by citizen juries which judge and administer or, at least, audit the administrations. The absolute king cannot multiply himself, he must trust elite bodies and bureaucratic ones without serious personal overseeing, and therefore absolute monarchy was not a real « monocracy » (and could not be one) ; it was a complex system with huge feudal, oligarchical and authoritarian elements.
    *** We must consider likewise a more subtle difference. A sovereignty is authentic only if the sovereign will may be enlightened by a political debate. That implies freedom to communicate politically with the sovereign. In a dêmocratia, given the sovereign is made from the whole citizen body, it implies general freedom of political debate (if a dêmokratia decides to eliminate this freedom, that means self-destruction of the system – nothing strange, any political system may undergo self-destruction). Let’s imagine a theoretical « monocracy » : either the political debate is restricted to the necessary free individual communication between the subject and the sovereign king, and the political debate will be poor ; or the monocrat-king allows horizontal political communications, and his power will be endangered. Practically there was some political debate in the historical absolute monarchies, but a limited one, and mostly linked to the feudal and oligarchical elements.
    *** I conclude from these basic differences that it is intellectually better to avoid the use of « absolute democracy ».

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  3. Andre

    >I conclude from these basic differences that it is intellectually better to avoid the use of « absolute democracy ».

    Absolutely (and not only from an intellectual perspective).

    >A sovereignty is authentic only if the sovereign will may be enlightened by a political debate.

    What do you mean by “authentic”? The notion of absolute sovereignty in Bodin and Hobbes did not presuppose enlightenment, only that the will of the sovereign should prevail. All Rousseau did was extend the numerical composition of the sovereign.

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  4. Andre,

    It seems to me that modifier “absolute” is simply used as a way to differentiate the existing, desirable, responsible electoral system from a dangerous situation of actual political equality.

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  5. To Yoram Gat: Ok; only I think it leads to dangerous ideas

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  6. Following Keith Sutherland’s doubts about enlightenment and authenticity of will.
    *** Let’s consider the extreme point. I am in a foreign town, totally unknown, and I need urgently a dentist. I have to choose one on the list I get from internet. I choose the first in alphabetical order, or some remarkable name. The act of choice is rational, but the choice itself is not enlightened and does not correspond to an authentic will : it is not different of a lottery.
    *** If in this unknown town I choose the dentist from the ethnic affinity of his/her surname, and connotations of ethnicity and professional efficiency which may be present in my mind – fuzzy, dubious connections, maybe unconscious ones – I doubt the choice may be considered as enlightened.
    *** In my home town, I know a dentist I trust from experience, and another one I mistrust by experience, I know others by reputation, I know some who did clear professional mistakes with relatives and friends of mine; the choice is an enlightened as possible. I can say it corresponds to an authentic will.
    *** A legend (with some historical content, I don’t know) tells than in a Far-Eastern country the emperor, officially sovereign, was sacro-sanct and no ordinary man could communicate with him, except through a specific mediator. Obviously, the mediator was usually the actual ruler. Let’s suppose the emperor reacting : it would be by sporadic and uninformed whims. In such a model, there is no authentic sovereign will.
    *** A sovereign can make enlightened choices only if he can tap from a political thought able to give him relevant informations, diverse views of issues, the diverse ways of understanding the problems that the society is able to elaborate (given its cultural state).
    *** The Athenian dêmos may have been half-literate, but he could tap from a serious political thought, developed for the common citizens through the orators speeches, and likewise through the theater – in tragedies, seriously, in comedies, with a funny manner but with clear theoretical insights. We lost most of this theater, but what we got, selected from later literary choices, is enough to guarantee us the political culture given to the dêmos. Note that included often strong criticisms of the way the democracy worked, questioning of some current postulates, and might even criticism of the democratic model itself (well, rather by an unlikeable character).
    *** We know that in Athens the democratic intellectual freedom allowed for elaboration of anti-democratic thought among some parts of the elite (including some great thinkers as Plato). In a dêmokratia such a risk cannot be eliminated by cancelling the intellectual freedom ; the democrats must acknowledge it, and consider the social factors of anti-democratic drives.
    *** Let’s imagine a monocracy in a modern society, and let’s put aside the problem of control over the administrative and judicial apparatus. The monocrat may assure perfect freedom of contact to him. But if a real political thought is to live, that needs a big amount of freedom in horizontal intellectual contacts. It is very dangerous for a personal power, and the monocrat will be tempted to deny it ; and to tap from a very poor political thought, practically the bias of a restricted pool of counselors.
    *** Let’s imagine the monocrat accepts a wide intellectual freedom. Given the monocracy intrinsic problem about control of administrative and judicial apparatus, there will be a big risk of an elite ideological network connecting the elites and the apparatus, and controlling mentally the monocracy. Actually, we may consider it was the dream of the 18th century intellectuals who were apologists of « enlightened absolutism ».
    *** I insist on the crucial difference between the monocratic and the democratic systems. In a dêmokratia the sovereign can multiply himself to oversee the entire system, by citizen juries who judge and administer or, at least, in complex modern societies, audit the administrations.
    *** Post Scriptum : Hence I am always somewhat upset by kleroterian proposals which concern only the legislative power ; good, but at the same time we must push for citizen juries monitoring the application of basic choices and laws. Let’s remember that the meaning of laws is only the practical meaning given by those who enforce them.

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  7. Andre,

    > A legend (with some historical content, I don’t know) tells than in a Far-Eastern country the emperor, officially sovereign, was sacro-sanct and no ordinary man could communicate with him, except through a specific mediator.

    This is a great story. Do you have some sort of source where I can look this up?

    > In a dêmokratia the sovereign can multiply himself to oversee the entire system, by citizen juries who judge and administer or, at least, in complex modern societies, audit the administrations.

    This is true to some extent, but it is important to realize that such juries cannot be arbitrarily increased in number by spreading authority thinner and thinner (as in Burnheim’s “demarchy”). Pretty quickly the jurists would feel that spending their time and effort is not justified by the small authority they are given – much as voters feel today. In this situation we revert from democracy to the sham of mass politics.

    > Hence I am always somewhat upset by kleroterian proposals which concern only the legislative power ; good, but at the same time we must push for citizen juries monitoring the application of basic choices and laws. Let’s remember that the meaning of laws is only the practical meaning given by those who enforce them.

    I agree that a democratic system must have all political power held by allotted bodies. I would expect an allotted legislature to be the beginning of a process of democratization in the sense that such a legislature would gradually enact laws putting more and more political activity (including monitoring and application of laws) into the purview of allotted bodies.

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  8. Andre, happy to agree with all your substantive points, my quibble was only with your choice of the word “authentic”. In standard English usage, this generally means genuine, the thing in itself etc., so a decision based on the arbitrary whim of an absolute ruler would just be authentically bad.

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  9. Yoram,

    You wrote in response to Andre’s point of multiplying mini-publics…
    >”This is true to some extent, but it is important to realize that such juries cannot be arbitrarily increased in number by spreading authority thinner and thinner (as in Burnheim’s “demarchy”). Pretty quickly the jurists would feel that spending their time and effort is not justified by the small authority they are given – much as voters feel today. In this situation we revert from democracy to the sham of mass politics.”

    I disagree. When given ACTUAL authority to make decisions that go into force, people almost always take the work seriously… even if it is only a question of who is liable from some accident, or whether a person should be locked up for a few months for some crime. Deciding on a zoning law, or municipal water rate, or other relatively mundane topic will also likely elicit serious attention and effort. I see no reason why the demos as sovereign cannot reasonably be endlessly multiplied to deal with countless small legislative matters, as well as executive and judicial oversight.

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  10. Yoram Gat asks me for the source of the story of the « sacro-sanct emperor and the mediator». Well, I did not quote it because I could not remember it. It can be a French 18th century interpretation of the relationship between the Japan emperor and the shogun, but I am not sure.

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  11. Terry,

    Naturally the willingness of the average person to invest time and effort in the decision making process depends greatly on the situation. At one extreme, for example, is the almost total irrationality involved in mass voting. Yes – quite a few people are willing to invest a few days in making a decision on issues brought before a court. Even then, the fact that some jurors are in a hurry to go home while others are not may be an important factor in the decision.

    I think that expecting a random sample of citizens to be effective and representative decision makers on matters about which many of them do not care much and which require a non-trivial amount of time and effort to understand is not realistic and is in fact a recipe for discrediting the whole idea of sortition.

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  12. Andre – thanks. I searched but unfortunately I couldn’t find any reference to quote.

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  13. Yoram,

    You wrote:
    >”I think that expecting a random sample of citizens to be effective and representative decision makers on matters about which many of them do not care much and which require a non-trivial amount of time and effort to understand is not realistic and is in fact a recipe for discrediting the whole idea of sortition.”

    I strongly disagree.

    So in your ideal sortition-centered democracy do you see the vast majority of public policy decisions being delegated by an allotted legislature to hired administrators? Clearly a traditional legislature (selected by lot) would still be responsible for uninteresting policies in some mammer, so if you can’t imagine a separate one-topic mini-public tackling a boring issue with intensity, why would a single-all-purpose allotted legislature? Remember that MOST decisions are relatively unimportant to MOST people, but combine to shape society. Is your idea of democracy limited to the “heights” of public policy only?

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  14. Yes – most public policy decisions will always inevitably be taken by professionals. This would be true whether or not nominally there is an allotted body in charge.

    An important part of the subset of decisions that should be made by an allotted body is the overseeing of the professionals who make the decisions that are not made by allotted bodies directly.

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