Voting but not talking

I just wanted to recommend a working paper by Daniela Cammack entitled “Deliberation in Classical Athens: Not Talking, But Thinking (and Voting).” It’s available online here. It’s not directly about sortition, but it deals with a number of themes discussed on this blog. The paper argues that the Athenians maintained a careful distinction between the function of presenting arguments and the function of evaluating those arguments, and assigned the latter, but not the former, to the assembly. This distinction, Cammack argues, is conflated by those who use the term “deliberation” for both functions.

I found this passage particularly relevant to contemporary politics:

In Athens, then, as in modern democracies, an overwhelming majority of non-speaking voters attempted to control a minority of prominent political actors who took primary responsibility for advocating and carrying policies. The key difference between Athenian and modern democracy was not that all or even many Athenians took part in political discussion, but first, that large samples of ordinary citizens had the opportunity to vote on every political decision, and second, that the barriers to becoming politically influential were relatively low, while the risks associated with this position were high. This is the reverse of the situation today, where a high barrier to entry as a politician–largely financial–is combined with a low risk of losing one’s position once established. To be sure, one can fail to be reelected, but this pales in comparison to the mechanisms of accountability available in Athens, such as routine annual audits (euthynai) covering both moral and financial issues. In many modern systems, by contrast, a feedback loop is set up in which corruption becomes endemic, since the high costs of running for election are in large part met by supporters whose opportunity to shape policy then becomes significantly greater than that of ordinary voters, with very little way for those ordinary voters to hold the politician in question to account, either before or after the next election.

Worth a look.

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12 Responses

  1. Agreed. The distinction between talking (isegoria) and voting (isonomia) is central to my own PhD thesis. The distinction was maintained after the 4th century reforms, when legislative decision making was devolved from the assembly to large randomly-selected juries, who listened to the competing isegoria in silence before determining the outcome by voting. Modern proposals for deliberative democracy, which attempt to distribute isegoria equally to all participants, fail to observe this distinction and are without historical precedent. Modern advocates of silent deliberation are few and far between — only Bob Goodin, Simon Niemeyer, Andrew Dobson and (to a degree) James Fishkin come to mind, everyone else adopting the Habermasian perspective of Deliberativestimme (deliberative voice) rather than Fishkin’s dervation of deliberation from the Latin liber (weight) — the role of de-liber-ators being to silently weigh the competing arguments and determine the outcome.

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  2. Looks very interesting. The point that the Assembly was not a deliberative body but a mass political body where communication is asymmetrical is very important and it is indeed a fact that is often denied by “participative” reformers.

    I have not read the paper yet, but it seems, however, that the role of the Boule – which apparently was a deliberative body – is ignored or at least de-emphasized, which (if this is indeed the case) is a critical mistake.

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  3. Yoram: >the role of the Boule – which apparently was a deliberative body – is ignored or at least de-emphasized

    This is from page 5 of the paper:

    “. . . listening to speeches, judging them, and finally deciding, by majority vote, on a course of action. These were the acts attributed to the assembly as a whole. The key verb here was “bouleuomai,” . . . on the evidence presented here, it typically meant internal-reflective deliberation.”

    If this is true then the procedure of the “boule” (council) may well have been similar — determining the outcome of speeches delivered by a small number of rhetors. If this is the case then it resolves the puzzle of how a group of 500 can meaningfully engage in full-mandate deliberation (they can’t). The suggestion that the deliberative style of the randomly-selected council was proto-Habermasian is a) conjectural and b) extremely unlikely — seeing as the maximum size of a deliberative group is 12-20. So it would make little difference whether the group was 6,000 or 500 strong. In addition to this most historians agree that the council was little more than the secretariat for the assembly.

    The paper is available to download at http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2161074

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  4. She does discuss the role of the council briefly on page 16:

    ‘Are there any cases where an external-collective reading [of deliberation] must be ruled in? I have been unable to find any involving the assembly. However, an alternative venue where this might be expected is the council (boulē), which comprised five hundred citizens selected annually by lot and whose tasks included framing the wording of motions to be voted on by the assembly and planning the assembly”s agenda. It is inconceivable that these tasks could have been accomplished without group discussion; moreover, we know that “bouleuomai” was used in relation to the council, for Lykourgos and others use the term in this context. However, we do not know whether “bouleuomai” was used specifically to describe discussion in the council, and we have virtually no primary evidence to turn to here. Moreover, we know that many members of the council — quite possibly the majority — did not speak much, if at all: in Demosthenes” speech “Against Androtion,” for example, the complaint is made that if Androtion is acquitted, the “talkers” (tois legousi) will rule in the council-chamber, but if he is convicted, the “ordinary citizens” (idiōtai) will rule instead. It is thus possible that even in relation to the council, “bouleuomai” suggested internal-reflective deliberation in the first instance, rather than necessarily signifying discussion.’

    That certainly helps explain how a group of 500 might undertake external-collective deliberation (they can’t). Her final conclusion (which I would fully endorse) is of particular interest:

    ‘Yet the fact that modern states feature a similar distinction between committed political leaders and ordinary citizens to that seen in Athens suggests that the Athenians’ solutions to the problem of the political division of labour might also be effective today. Both lowering the initial barrier to entry as a politician (if only by making it less expensive to run for office) and raising the personal risks associated with political activity would help to strengthen the control of ordinary citizens over those who are more politically active. If this could be combined with giving representative samples of ordinary citizens the power to decide policy issues, so much the better. At any rate, this would be more in tune with Athenian “deliberation” than the kind of discussion-based mini-publics with which it is sometimes associated today.’ (pp. 27-8, my emphasis)

    I appreciate that some members of this forum are dismissive of the “argument from authority”, but Cammack is a well-published author who is clearly an expert on the classical literature, rather than just a regular PhD student like myself.

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  5. Cammack’s main point, that the Athenians probably didn’t share the modern romantization of assembly politics as some sort of an all-to-all conversation, or something that is equivalent to such a conversation, seems quite reasonable. Such a romantization can only be sustained by naivete or by propagandization. The Athenians were neither naive nor brain-washed.

    However, Cammack’s conclusion that the modern ekologratic system can be significantly improved by

    (a) lowering the barriers to entry into the political elite and
    (b) increasing the risks for elite

    is unconvincing.

    First, barriers for entry into an elite group cannot be lowered – they can only be changed. The barriers are determined by the ratio of the elite size to the population size. The only reason that the entry barriers to the Athenian elite were somewhat lower than those of a modern state is that the Athenian population was smaller. Those quantitatively lower barriers however didn’t make a qualitative difference. The rhetors were an elite group and left to themselves would have generated an elite dominated system. It is the fact that they were countered by the power of the Boule in the Assembly (and in non-Assembly politics) that made Athenian politics different.

    Secondly, a system that is elite dominated cannot be expected to put members of the elite at risk (unless this risk reflects inter-elite conflicts). The question is not whether the political elite should be held accountable (real accountability, not “electoral accountability”) – of course it should. The question is how can such a situation be arrived at and sustained.

    Therefore, sortition is not a nice-to-have (“If this could be combined with
    giving representative samples of ordinary citizens the power to decide policy issues, so much the better”) – it is the key to making democratic progress on almost any meaningful political reform and on almost any policy matter.

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  6. Cammack views the portrayal of a 500-strong group as deliberative in the external-collective sense as equally romantic. This has serious implications for those proposing full-mandate sortition based on the example of the Athenian council as in all probability the deliberative style was not entirely dissimilar to the assembly.

    What does ekologratic mean? Is it reference to the navigation system of bats? And I counted 11 references to “elites” in this short comment, which is probably a record, even by your standards.

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  7. Yoram,

    >The barriers are determined by the ratio of the elite size to the population size.

    How do you determine empirically the size of the “elite” — i.e. what are the selection criteria? Modern sociology normally refers to polyarchies — i.e. overlapping networks of power and influence but the criteria are correspondingly vague. Given your frequent references to “the elite” (singular), presumably you have some precise definition that would enable this ratio to be calculated.

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  8. Yoram,

    >First, barriers for entry into an elite group cannot be lowered – they can only be changed. The barriers are determined by the ratio of the elite size to the population size. The only reason that the entry barriers to the Athenian elite were somewhat lower than those of a modern state is that the Athenian population was smaller.

    I’ve always struggled to understand your notion of “the elite”, so it would greatly help if you could unpack this paragraph. I’ve read it over several times, and genuinely can’t understand what it means. “Barriers for entry into an elite group cannot be lowered — they can only be changed” is presumably a reference to some kind of structural principle, so it would help to know what that principle is, so that all those of us who are making piecemeal efforts to reduce inequality can cease our (ineffectual) struggle.

    And I’m still keen to learn the meaning of “ekologratic”.

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  9. Keith,

    Perhaps you are assuming Yoram is referring to some sinister elite (and he may sense that elites often are), but his point about it being impossible to lower barriers relates to the definition of elite, and is axiomatic and quite simple. When power or authority that the general population does not hold is to be vested into a relatively small number of hands for a substantial period of time… they are an elite. Random selection and relatively short duration terms is the only way to avoid having an elite. For certain functions it makes sense to have elites (airplane pilots, ballet dancers, Hellenistic scholars, et. al.)… and while Plato would say for political decision-makers (guardian philosophers), Yoram (and others) say NOT for political decision-makers.

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  10. Terry,

    Many political systems had formal property qualifications in order to stand for elected office or even to vote — for example the Putney Debates were mainly over the limitation of the franchise was to those in possession of a forty-shilling freehold. This meant that the vote was restricted to a small group of property owners. If Rainsborough had been successful and the franchise was extended beyond this group then in what sense would this not amount to a significant lowering of barriers to elite membership?

    One of the problems of modern (American) politics is the huge cost of electoral campaigns, which is a major barrier to entry. It would be possible to put a limit on campaign expenditure and/or provide state funding for electoral candidates, so surely this would reduce the barriers for entry into the political elite?

    Cammack was not arguing for the end of political elites, only to reduce the barriers for entry and Yoram has claimed that this is impossible.

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  11. Yoram,

    >The barriers are determined by the ratio of the elite size to the population size. The only reason that the entry barriers to the Athenian elite were somewhat lower than those of a modern state is that the Athenian population was smaller.

    Does this mean that the ratio is fixed (i.e. the only variant is the absolute population size)? If so what is this magical ratio that determines that the entry barriers cannot be lowered, and from where did you obtain it (Pareto, Mosca, Michels etc?). I always believed that political sociology was an empirical discipline, but you seem to be suggesting that it is in fact a branch of mathematical logic — and this is the reason why any attempt to ameliorate the problem of political inequality is doomed from the outset.

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  12. […] just finished reading Daniela Cammack’s PhD thesis (one chapter was presented recently here by Peter Stone) and would warmly recommend it — it’s […]

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