Hague and Harrop: Would we really want a parliament containing its due proportion of the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt?

The following excerpt is from the 2004 edition of Rod Hague and Martin Harrop’s textbook Comparative Government and Politics (The “Functions of legislatures” section, p. 253):

We have suggested that the essence of assemblies is that they ‘represent’ the wider society to the government. But how can we judge whether, and how well, that function is fulfilled? What features would a fully representative assembly exhibit?

One interpretation, plausible at first sight, is that a representative assembly should be a microcosm of society. The idea here is that a legislature should be society in miniature, literally ‘re-presentating’ society in all its diversity. Such a parliament would balance men and women, rich and poor, black and white, even educated and uneducated, in the same mix as in society. How, after all, could a parliament composted entirely of middle-aged white men go about representing young black women – or vice versa? To retain the confidence of society, the argument continues, a representative assembly must reflect social diversity, standing in for society and not just acting on its behalf (Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence, 1995).

But there is considerable difficulty here. Achieving a legislature which mirrors society would require interfering with the normal process of election. A microcosm could only be achieved by quota, not election. Assemblies in communist states certainly achieved high levels of representation for peasants, workers and women. But this success was at the price of strict party control over nominations and elections.

Indeed, a true microcosm is best obtained by random selection, dispensing with elections altogether, as with juries in the English-speaking world. In any case, would we really want a parliament containing its due proportion of the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt?

Representatives would also need to be replaced regularly, lest they become seduced by the trap-pings of office. Rotation is sometimes attempted by new radical parties but not usually for long. Indeed, Kay (Kay, J. ‘Too Many Polls Are Apt to Harm a Democracy’, Financial Times, 14 August 2003) suggests that the idea of a microcosm is incoherent in itself: ‘those who take part in politics are unrepresentative because, if they were representative, they would be at home watching television’. In truth, the assembly as microcosm is an impractical ideal – if it is an ‘ideal’ at all.

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19 Responses

  1. The desire to achieve “representivity” has gone off the rails in these discussions. “Representivity” is of interests, not limitations. That’s why a merit screening phase is important. In practice that would be by the reputation of the selected one as a community leader, and like roughly representative of those who regard him as such.

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  2. >those who take part in politics are unrepresentative because, if they were representative, they would be at home watching television.

    True, hence the need for mandation, as with jury service. In what other sense than the descriptive fidelity described in the piece would a randomly-selected microcosm be representative?

    >a representative assembly must reflect social diversity, standing in for society and not just acting on its behalf

    But there is no guarantee that a body that stands for society would of necessity act on its behalf as these are two fundamentally different aspects of political representation. This is the problem that Peter Stone identifies in his introduction to the second edition of Callenbach and Philips.

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  3. Hi Jon,

    Yes – representation of interest is what matters. But it is generally accepted in our society that with few exceptions people are the best representatives of their own interests. (Quite literally, other than children all those who are unable to represent their own interests are considered insane.)

    As for delegating decisions to others (e.g., community leaders), that can be done by the allotted themselves (if they think this is appropriate) after the allotment and on a decision-by-decision basis. That is, if an allotted person thinks that they would prefer someone else (e.g., their community leader) to make the decision for them, then they can always ask that someone else for advice and act accordingly.

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  4. Yoram,

    >with few exceptions people are the best representatives of their own interests.

    That is, at best, questionable. The nostrum that ‘I am always the best judge of my own interests’ was originally postulated by Jeremy Bentham and then discussed by Dahl in Politics, Economics, and Welfare as a tenet of utilitarian moral philosophy, not an epistemic claim.

    Besides which, persons (effectively) volunteering for an all-powerful allotted group might well represent their own interests but further argument (and evidence) would be required to support the claim that such interests would automatically align with the interests of the whole political community.

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  5. Thanks, this is a useful example of this kind of slur: “the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt.” This is from the 6th edition.

    From a search on Google Books, it appears that the 7th edition (2007) removes that reference to the ignorant, inarticulate and corrupt. The 7th edition also adds a section on “Leib’s proposal for a popular branch of government” where “525 citizens are to be selected at random for compulsory service in the new popular chamber.” (p. 47). The authors go on to say: “Why will Leib’s scheme fail to progress? … America’s constitution has proved fit for purpose in providing a framework for encouraging compromises between interests and in contributing to stability. This success creates an understandable bias against radical reform: ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'” (p. 48).

    The Leib reference is to: Leib, E. (2004) Deliberative Democracy in America: A Proposal for a Popular Branch of Government (Pennsylvania University Press).

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  6. > ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

    The glibness is extraordinary: a system that generated, and is still generating, so many atrocities is ‘fit for purpose’ and has an understandable bias against radical reform.

    Of course, this glibness is exactly what the US political elite feels, as so well embodied by Hillary Clinton. Leib himself, by the way, is very much part of this sentiment. His own proposal is very, very far from being a radical reform proposal.

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  7. I have read, a few years ago, that the percentage of U.S. Congress members charged with crimes significantly exceeded the average citizen’s. (Sorry, I no longer have easy access to a citation.)

    > ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

    Whether one holds the view that the U.S. political establishment was seduced or ennobled by WWII into being world policeman OR that the U.S.’s imperialist tendencies have merely grown naturally from the initial genocide of the original populace and enslavement of another …
    I greatly doubt the broad swath of the American populace would support the outrageous (and when it comes to nuclear, insane) military expenditures.

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  8. Accidentally did not sign in. Previous message by ‘anonymous’.

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  9. Yoram,

    >Leib himself, by the way, is very much part of this sentiment [glibness]. His own proposal is very, very far from being a radical reform proposal.

    So we need to add Ethan to the long blacklist of pro-establishment apologists. It’s interesting to note that the only book on sortition* that has received the unqualified endorsement of the convenor of this blog was written by a couple of activists with no academic background in the study of politics. This is unsurprising, given that Yoram has claimed that political theory is a phoney discipline, practiced by charlatans and lickspittles (with the honourable exception of Martin Gilens).

    *Callenbach and Philips’ book has been republished back to back with a piece of embarrassing juvenilia from yours truly, so I guess it will also have to be committed to the book-burning pyre in order to ensure complete ideological purity.

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  10. *** Constitutionalism said (March 1) : . « “Representivity” is of interests, not limitations. That’s why a merit screening phase is important. »
    *** The idea reminds us of a famous letter of John Adams ( letter to John Penn,1776 ; vol. 4 of Collected Works, 2nd edition, Boston, 1851, p 205) : « In a community consisting of large numbers, inhabiting an extensive country, it is not possible that the whole should assemble to make laws. The most natural substitute for an assembly of the whole, is a delegation of power from the many to a few of the most wise and virtuous. […] As the representative assembly should be an exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large, as it should think, feel, reason, and act like them, great care should be taken in the formation of it, to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections. […] Equal interests among the people should have equal interests in the representative body. »
    *** There was a basic error in this piece of theoretical politics: the most wise and virtuous, or rather, factually, those who succeed in being considered as the most wise and virtuous, are different – as well underlined by Bernard Manin – and therefore will have specific moral and material interests. It will be true even if the electoral procedures are not « unfair, partial, corrupt ». It will be true even with the best designed electoral procedures. Never the elected ones will « think, feel, reason, and act like » their electors.
    *** It will be true even if we imagine, instead of an electoral screening, an objective screening, for instance an exam ascertaining the level of political knowledge. And, in this case, we have the problem of the arbitrariness in the design of the exam, and its manipulation.
    *** For Constitutionalism the merit screening could be « by the reputation of the selected one as a community leader ». A perfect idea to support « the Principle of Distinction ». And the word « community » seems to imply that only some kinds of moral and material interests will be represented. Let’s consider a category, « the working mothers with low wages », they have very specific moral and material interests, but I don’t think that, in France at least, they form a « community ».

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  11. Andre,

    It’s interesting to read the full context for “exact portrait, in miniature, of the people at large” quote as it’s always puzzled me that arch-Federalist John Adams should be cited in favour of the Anti-Federalist (and sortitionist) perspective, albeit some 10 years before the Constitutional Convention.

    I warmly recommend the HBO series on the life of John Adams. He did view himself as a simple farmer (ha!), but also one of the wise and virtuous, so I guess we should be cautious about viewing moral distinctions through the lens of post-Marxist sociology. Adams would have made a firm distinction between “moral” and “material” interests that sounds a little quaint to modern sensibilities. Personally I think he was right and I don’t see any reason why persons of distinction should not act in the interests of people that they do not resemble “descriptively”, although that puts me in a small minority on this blog.

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  12. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « I don’t see any reason why persons of distinction should not act in the interests of people that they do not resemble “descriptively”, although that puts me in a small minority on this blog ».
    *** A person with a high level of « autocentrism » will not easily take into account the moral and materials of persons he does not resemble – except if he has a specific connection with them (as real or virtual allies, for instance).
    *** A person could act in the interests of people that they do not resemble “descriptively”, because of a specific virtual or real alliance – or because he has a low level of autocentrism. We don’t have to be cynical under the pretence of realism, and suppose all persons have a ultra-high level of autocentrism (except myself).
    *** But we must consider the collective effects. The problem with elite phenomena is that the hopefully limited individual autocentrism of the members of the elite will be reinforced by frequent interactions with other members of the same elite, through personal interactions or through reading of the same newspapers, books, internet forums etc. On the night of Trump victory against Clinton, Paul Krugman wrote « What we do know is that people like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. » This bright economist got the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences, which sure guarantees he is intellectually a person of distinction, but as a member of an elite he got a fair level of intellectual autocentrism, as « most readers of The New York Times », as he says. Moral autocentrism, i.e. low sensitivity to the material and moral interests to people who are neither resembling us nor allies, follows often the same way. We don’t have to be cynical to be afraid of that.

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  13. Andre

    What you say is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless it remains the case that the representative claim of a pathologically autocentric member of the plutocracy — who made an electoral virtue out of how rich he was and how smart he was not to pay any income tax — was favourably received by a huge number of people who he did not resemble in any shape or form (including the plurality of white women voters without college degrees). Whether or not his claim to represent the interests of his constituents turns out well in practice remains to be seen but there is no a priori reason why the principal of distinction embodied in the electoral process should render this impossible.

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  14. It is not clear to me why we have to resort to sophisticated notions of “intellectual autocentrism”. We are talking about the truism that people tend to pursue their own interests.

    Ridiculously, Sutherland likes to pretend that the notion that the powerful serve themselves was somehow invented by evil Marxists. In fact, of course, this is not only a universal idea taken for granted in every culture but also a basic, maybe the most basic, tenet of mainstream liberal economic dogma, endorsed by everyone from Adam Smith to Lord Acton, from Madison to Hayek.

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  15. Yoram,

    >the truism that people tend to pursue their own interests.

    That’s why I referred to your approach as “axiomatic”. Dahl’s comment on people being the best judge of their own interests is not an axiomatic or empirical claim, but one derived from Utilitarian moral philosophy — given that there is no objective way of determining the greatest good of the greatest number the Utilitarian calculus has to rely on stated preferences (expressed via elections under universal suffrage).

    >the notion that the powerful serve themselves . . . is not only a universal idea taken for granted in every culture but also a basic, maybe the most basic, tenet of mainstream liberal economic dogma

    It may well be an axiom of both Marxist and liberal economic theory (and Utilitarian moral philosophy) but political psychology is an empirical discipline and accepts that people act out of a variety of motives. In addition to The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, and Madison believed that elections in the extended republic would select wise and virtuous citizens who could act in a disinterested way for the good of the whole. In this respect his views were closer to Burke than Harrington or Hume. The American foundation is now generally discussed by historians and political theorists in republican rather than liberal terms and the plethora of Roman place names in New England is a testament to this. Although Andre is right to point out on that “the hopefully limited individual autocentrism of the members of the elite will be reinforced by frequent interactions with other members of the same elite”, nevertheless it is only Marxist and rational choice economists who view all political behaviour as determined by economic interests. Paradoxically, your own view that democracy is only possible in societies that respect the notion of the general good flies in the face of such determinism (unless you define the general good as the economic interests of the masses).

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  16. *** Yoram Gat writes « It is not clear to me why we have to resort to sophisticated notions of “intellectual autocentrism”. We are talking about the truism that people tend to pursue their own interests », which is « also a basic, maybe the most basic, tenet of mainstream liberal economic dogma ».
    *** Yoram Gat’s discourse is oversimplifying.
    *** I was speaking of both autocentrisms, the moral one, « pursuing its own interests », and the intellectual one. The intellectual one leads to errors, which may contrary to its own interests. Krugman’s error about Trump’s appeal comes from intellectual autocentrism, and such errors may be contrary to the interests of the US elites.
    *** I was speaking of « moral and material interests ». Yoram mentions the « Homo Oeconomicus » model, which considers only the material interests – and which is a simplifying model the validity is limited even in economy.
    *** My point was to distinguish the individual scale and the collective scale. In elite phenomena, intellectual and moral autocentrisms are highly strengthened by the interactions with other members of the same elite, through personal interactions or through reading of the same newspapers, books, internet forums etc. « People tend to pursue their own interests », maybe, but the elites have a specifically strong tendency to pursue their own material and moral interests, because of collective phenomena. Is this idea really too sophisticated ?

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  17. *** Keith Sutherland writes : « Whether or not [Trump’s] claim to represent the interests of his constituents turns out well in practice remains to be seen but there is no a priori reason why the principal of distinction embodied in the electoral process should render this impossible. »
    *** Ok, it is possible that Trump’s future policies wil be conform to the moral and material interests of his electors, or of a specific fraction of them. But, as Keith says it « remains to be seen ». As Rousseau wrote (Social Contract, book II, chapter I)
    « The Sovereign [People] may indeed say: “I now will actually what this man wills, or at least what he says he wills”; but it cannot say: “What he wills tomorrow, I too shall will” »

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  18. Andre,

    “I now will actually what this man wills, or at least what he says he wills”; but it cannot say: “What he wills tomorrow, I too shall will” (Rousseau, Social Contract).

    True, but Ledru-Rollin better captures the Trump conundrum:

    There go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

    And I think we both agree on the need to distinguish between moral and material interests and the danger of reducing the former to the latter.

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  19. > Is this idea really too sophisticated ?

    It is too sophisticated as a means for explaining why an elite cannot be expected to rule in the interest of the average person. Any group with power can be expected to use that power to pursue its own interest – at the expense of others if need be.

    (And, of course, coming up with rationalizations for pursuing your own interests is always easy. One does not need a Nobel prize to do it but it is certainly no hindrance.)

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