McCormick: The new ochlophobia? Populism, majority rule and prospects for democratic republicanism

Contributors to this blog who argue the case for full-mandate, voluntarist sortition will find support for their arguments in a forthcoming book chapter by John P. McCormick, author of Machiavellian Democracy. According to McCormick, electoral representation involves rule (primarily) by the rich, whereas democracy by lot is rule by the poor — a perspective that he derives from Aristotle, mediated by Machiavelli, Montesquieu [and Marx]:

The hoplites of ancient Greece and the plebeians of Republican Rome established institutions that granted ultimate legislative authority to the majority qua the poor . . . Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic exhibited primary institutions intended to insure that the poor would rule over or share rule equitably with the rich. (pp. 2-3)

Given this dichotomy it matters little which individuals are selected by preference election or sortition, as the two mechanisms will privilege (respectively) economic elites and the poor, and the resulting political decisions will (presumably) reflect the preferences of these two socio-economic groups.
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The false choice: Should the passengers fly the airplane or should the pilots?

There’s a new illustration (January 2017) from a New Yorker cartoonist that depicts a man standing up on an airplane and saying: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The crowd of passengers all raise their hands.


This cartoon has received over 35,800 likes and 19,600 retweets on Twitter and sparked coverage and a debate in USA Today, “‘The New Yorker’ mocks Trump voters and triggers a debate on (smug) experts.”
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What’s the Point of Lotteries


I’ve done an interview for the BBC Radio show “The Inquiry.” The episode is now online under the title “What’s the Point of Lotteries?” You can find it here:

Most of the first half is concerned with lotteries as a form of gambling, but my interview (which starts at 17:23, in part 4) focuses upon the social and political uses of lotteries. I don’t think it came off half-bad.

Distinguishing characteristics, positively valued?

In a 2007 interview, Bernard Manin explains to Hélène Landemore his theory of the principle of distinction (my translation):

[E]lites play in effect an important role in a representative government. This is so because elections necessariliy select individuals who possess uncommon characteristics which are positively valued by the voters. A candidate who is not distinguished by certain traits that are judged favorably cannot win an electoral competition. That said, the electoral method does not determine which specific distinguishing characteristics positive judgment are those which would get candidates elected. These characteristics are determined by the preferences of the voters, that is, by ordinary citizens. The voters choose the distinguishing qualities which they want to find in their representatives. The qualities could consist of a number of things, including an exceptional ability to express and disseminate a certain political opinion. Even in this case, we are still dealing with elites, in the sense these people who are exceptionally capable of defending an opinion possess a talent that most of the people who share the opinion do not. This is the meaning I attach to the term “elites”.

Manin’s claim that the distinguishing characteristics of the elected must be valued positively by the voters, or else they would not be able to win the elections, is empirically refuted by the case of the 2016 presidential elections in the US. In this case, both candidates are disliked by a plurality of the voters, have negative favorability numbers and have a majority of their “supporters” state that they are voting against their opponents rather than for them.

Achen and Bartels: Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government

Via Garreth McDaid.

Political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels have a new book, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government.

I have not read the book. Chapter 1 is available online, and it certainly makes for some interesting reading. Some comments following reading that first chapter:

(1) It seems that despite their critique of electoralism the authors are not ready to abandon it. At some point they seem to indicate that they cannot imagine something better when they opine that “[n]o existing government comes close to meeting all of Dahl’s criteria [for democracy]; in our view, no possible government could.” The book’s objective seems purely analytical: to produce “a democratic theory worthy of serious social influence [which] must engage with the findings of modern social science.”

(2) The book appears to adopt the conventional electoralist terminology which makes no clear distinction between electoralism and democracy. The authors should have known better.

(3) “Democracy for realists” seems to largely retrace the elitist democratic theories which rose to prominence in political science in the third quarter of the 20th century. Indeed Joseph Schumpeter and Walter Lippmann – leading propounders of those ideas – make a prominent appearance in the first chapter. Those theories fell out of fashion when, after the civil rights struggles, dominant ideology changed and became incompatible with their conclusions. It may be that the main innovation of the book is not in “engaging with the findings of modern social science”, but in being willing to (re)acknowledge the (now-)inconvenient truths that were buried over the last 40 years or so. In that, the book seems to be very much a product of current politics.


In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants becomes government policy — a highly attractive prospect in light of most human experience with governments. Democracy makes the people the rulers, and legitimacy derives from their consent. In Abraham Lincoln’s stirring words from the Gettysburg Address, democratic government is “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” That way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of “folk theory” of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.
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Why do we need common goods? (with some concessions)

Deliberately constructed public or common goods differ in what they require of participants in several different ways. The following are typical of their diversity:

1. To solve conflicts of interests that tend to produce disadvantageous results for all the participants if they fail to cooperate, but positive goods if the do.

2. To produce positive goods that benefit almost everybody, but which private enterprise cannot as easily produce.

3. To provide coordinated action to avert evils that are the result from unregulated action.

Examples and discussion:

1. A simple example: Jack and Jill from Leeds want to go on holiday together and enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to making arrangements Jack says he wants to go to Prague, while Jill wants to go to the Costa Brava. Being sensible people the do not adopt the facile solution of tossing a coin to see who wins this year, with the promise that he or she will be given first choice next year. That simply equalises the misery of being dragged to a place one doesn’t want to go to.
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Publicity, conformity and change

I’ve been having an email exchange with Yoram about how to ensure that people in various roles act as that role requires. Basically my answer is to ensure that what they do is completely open to public scrutiny and assessment.

Yoram replies that the standards in terms of which those assessments are made are set by the establishment. So the scrutiny only serves to keep the bearers of those roles serving the interests of the establishment.

I reply that there are contexts in which that is largely true, but plenty of others where it is not, especially where there is constant open debate about the ruling conventions in particular matters. Discussion of them in completely general terms is mostly futile. Anybody who has had a long life in recent time has very many examples of complete reversals of the accepted conventions in many areas of life arising from small groups of activists succeeding in changing people’s opinions. The establishment had hardly anything to do with it. For the most part it resisted the changes quite unsuccessfully, in spite of raising fears that society was falling apart.

Where the establishment has usually been much more successful is in the case of strictly institutionalised activities like economic and political structures. Mere changes of opinion have much less effect on them. The difference is obvious. Where what people do is dependent only on their personal compromise between what they would like to do and what they think they ought to do, as in matters of sex, parenting, lifestyle, education, leisure and so on, although they are influenced by existing conventions, if enough people choose to defy or evade them, the conventions soon crumble. In many cases the result is to entrench an entirely new convention.

In strictly institutionalised roles, however, the people in those roles enjoy no such freedom. If they do not conform closely to what is expected of them, they are strongly penalised or ejected from that role. If changes are to be made in those roles, they come, not from changes of opinion among the occupants of the roles, but from those who control the sanctions and choose the employees who get to work under them. In a changing world, however, the establishment does need to change, to adapt to new conditions if they are to survive. Rigidly static organisations inevitably destroy the long run. Even in the short run they are grossly inefficient and costly.
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