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Detox democracy through representation by random selection

By Nicholas Gruen - posted Monday, 27 March 2017


I’ve outlined some of the pathologies of what I call ‘vox pop’ democracy in various posts from time to time. As Western democracy degrades before our very eyes (President Donald Trump wasn’t really imaginable a decade or so ago and is still hard to fully comprehend) we need to remember the choices that were made — modern democracy was founded — at the time of the American and French Revolutions when democracy was a dirty word!

Thus in his landmark Spirit of the Laws, Montesquieu repeated Aristotle’s claim that “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy”. Though Montesquieu regarded democracy as a scary prospect, he respected the constitution of ancient Athens as protected by the richness of its checks and balances and the way it was mixed with aristocracy.

With great anxiety about democracy degenerating into mob rule (sound familiar?) the ideas Montesquieu set out were taken up as the best chance for the new republics of the United States and France. Amidst much concern about how a democratic government might mobilise a “natural aristocracy among men”, one of “virtue and talents” as Jefferson put it expressing a widespread sentiment which went out rather more slowly, but no less comprehensively than poke bonnets, this answer suggested itself. In Madison’s words:

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“Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. … [A]s they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.”

The Roman Catholic priest Abbé Sieyès “one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution” was more unequivocal insisting that “In a country that is not a democracy (and France is not a democracy), the people can only speak and can only act through representatives.”

However a second method of representing the people was far more common at the time in many cities in Europe stretching back from early modern times to ancient Athens: Sortition or the selection of citizens at random from the citizenry as in the Athenian boule and was far more common.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century parliaments were about establishing checks and balances between popular electoral democracy and upper houses intended to represent the aristocracy or some new world simulation of it via property franchises — with different houses of the legislature representing these two poles. Likewise I think that today we should be seeking to balance electoral democracy with deliberative democracy — in which representation occurs, as it does in juries, by random selection by lot. I’ll elaborate more on this in a subsequent essay.

In any event, in this essay I itemise under subject headings firstly how various problems with our current system of electoral democracy manifest themselves, and secondly, how giving deliberative democracy mechanisms a greater role could help.

Careerism

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Careerism is a central thread that enables political power — wielded both within political parties and bureaucracies. The signal achievement of the Australian Parliament that first assembled in 2013 was to abolish the carbon pricing regime which had emerged from the bipartisan consensus for carbon pricing that had been forged with great difficulty over the previous 15-odd years. A majority of parliamentarians voted for something that an overwhelming majority of them understood to be against the public interest. Why did they vote against their consciences? They did it because they were careerists. Of course ‘careerism’ is a pejorative, but I’m not using it in that way. The centrality of one’s career is an indispensable building block of modern life in politics as elsewhere. If you’re to make a success of yourself as a politician — for yourself, but hopefully also for the things you believe in — you need to work over time to build your standing. And rocking the boat will usually be costly to your career.

There’s nothing like random selection to take these kinds of considerations out of contention. There’s certainly nothing one can do to increase one’s chances of being (randomly!) chosen for political power by being chosen to participate in a citizens’ jury or citizens’ deliberative chamber. It is possible that, once there, people do things to curry favour with others to be delivered either during or after service in the chamber. One can’t completely guard against this but one can criminalise making and/or taking bribes and other inducements to such people both before and after their service and one can also specify that, accepting a position in the people’s chamber disqualifies one from traditional political office either forever or for some period of time. It has also been normal throughout history for there to be limitations on the extent to which someone can continue or repeat their service on deliberative bodies.

There’s something else also. In addition to the privilege which those randomly chosen almost all feel and their desire to honour that privilege by doing their best, the evidence we have from the randos in the Senate, like Ricky Muir, Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus is that they don’t seem to be easily manipulated by career incentives. When their immediate self-interest in reelection was threatened they were not swayed in their vote — against the expectations of the hard heads of politics and journalism. In other words acting in your own career interests over and above your political principles is largely a learned behaviour, though to put it another way, that learning is typically done much faster by those who’ve elected to make politics their profession.

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This article was first published on The Mandarin.



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About the Author

Dr Nicholas Gruen is CEO of Lateral Economics and Chairman of Peach Refund Mortgage Broker. He is working on a book entitled Reimagining Economic Reform.

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