Can reason be democratic?

What is the point of raising the question in the context of this website?

I suspect that there is a difference of a fundamental sort between me and some of my critics that can be characterised very roughly as this: they are committed to democracy as the will of the people. Not because they think that will is infallible, but because any effort to make it less fallible is going to put too much power in the hands of self-appointed elites that are worse in many ways, even at getting things right. We cannot risk giving power to the elites who claim to be the voice of reason. No more Lenins!

On the other hand, I want to emphasise the supreme importance of getting it right in dealing with the dangerous world we have created. I postulate that this goal can only be achieved by a rational process in which any citizen who wishes to do so may take an active part. One takes an active part in a rational process by putting forward considerations for or against a proposal that others can be expected to recognise as having a certain amount of validity. Mere will or gratuitous assertion do not count.

An obvious objection to this view is that it makes people unequal. Almost anybody can cast a vote, but taking part in a rational discussion of a serious political problem demands a degree of skill in thinking and expressing one’s thoughts that many people do not have. Many also lack the time and energy that the task demands. There is certainly inequality of participation here. But is that any worse than the inequalities that voting almost inevitably inflicts on many people in any situation where the decision is determined by majority voting?
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Correction: sortition and caution

In my last post, emphasising the importance of giving mavericks a say and of changing general assumptions, I may have given the impression of advocating permanent revolution. I should have been more precise. You need very solid evidence to challenge established assumptions, even though it is sometimes very fruitful to do so. It is a matter of taking the unusual seriously.

Take the instances I referred to from the history of science, Newton first, challenging the old mechanists’ rejection of action at a distance. He set out to look at a very precise and limited problem: how to explain the stability of the planetary orbits. No grandiose questions about the nature of the universe. He found that they could be explained very precisely if one postulated the existence of a particular predictable force that could also explain many other phenomena. It was no open day for any old suggestion about other forms of attraction.

Nevertheless, it subsequently turned out that there were other forms of attraction at a distance, electricity and magnetism. And eventually the sub-atomic forces, all of which were more powerful and fundamental than gravity. They could not have been discovered without Newton’s breakthrough. Nor was it the case that Newton dismissed mechanist explanations. On the contrary, he was he first to formulate precisely the general laws of mechanical interactions. Similarly, when Einstein rejected Newton’s assumption of the invariance of space and time, he did not invalidate Newtonian physics within certain very broad limits. If you want to go to Mars, Newton is your guide, but to go to Alpha Centauri you need Einstein.
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The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

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Participatory and Deliberative Democracy: Sortition and Democratic Representation

An upcoming session in the Political Studies Association’s Annual International Conference 2017:

Participatory and Deliberative Democracy: Sortition and Democratic Representation

Room: Executive Room B
Time Slot: Wednesday 12th April 11:00 – 12:30

Panel Chair: Dr John Boswell (University of Southampton)
Panel Members:

  • Mr Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter)
  • Dr Brett Hennig (Sortition Foundation)
  • Dr Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin)
  • Mr Dimitri Courant (University of Lausanne & University Paris 8)

We are witnessing something of a revival in support for sortition, with the idea popularised in particular in David Van Reybrouck’s recent Against Elections: The Case for Democracy. Although the debate around the use of sortition has typically been tied to discussion of mini-publics, this panel seeks to look more broadly at its relationship to democratic theory and democratic practice more broadly conceived. It brings together proponents and sceptics, normative theorists and those whose work is more applied, for a contemporary, lively and varied debate on this age-old topic.


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.