Brexit is a turning point in the history of western democracy. Never before has such a drastic decision been taken through so primitive a procedure – a one-round referendum based on a simple majority. Never before has the fate of a country – of an entire continent, in fact – been changed by the single swing of such a blunt axe, wielded by disenchanted and poorly informed citizens.
Fifty years ago, we lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics. Now there is both passion and distrust. These are turbulent times, as the events of the past week demonstrate all too clearly. And yet, for all this turbulence, there has been little reflection on the tools that our democracies use. It is still a heresy to ask whether elections, in their current form, are a badly outmoded technology for converting the collective will of the people into governments and policies.
We discuss and debate the outcome of a referendum without discussing its principles. This should be surprising. In a referendum, we ask people directly what they think when they have not been obliged to think – although they have certainly been bombarded by every conceivable form of manipulation in the months leading up to the vote. But the problem is not confined to referendums: in an election, you may cast your vote, but you are also casting it away for the next few years. This system of delegation to an elected representative may have been necessary in the past – when communication was slow and information was limited – but it is completely out of touch with the way citizens interact with each other today.
But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem. Where is the reasoned voice of the people in all this? Where do citizens get the chance to obtain the best possible information, engage with each other and decide collectively upon their future? Where do citizens get a chance to shape the fate of their communities? Not in the voting booth, for sure.
People care deeply about their communities and want to be heard. But a much better way to let the people speak than through a referendum is to return to the central principle of Athenian democracy: drafting by lot, or sortition as it is presently called. In ancient Athens, the large majority of public functions were assigned by lot. Renaissance states such as Venice and Florence worked on the same basis and experienced centuries of political stability. With sortition, you do not ask everyone to vote on an issue few people really understand, but you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision. A cross-section of society that is informed can act more coherently than an entire society that is uninformed.
The most common argument against sortition is the supposed incompetence of the those who have not been elected. A body of elected representatives undoubtedly has more technical competencies than a body chosen by lot. But what is the use of a parliament full of highly educated lawyers if few of them know the price of bread?
Besides, the elected do not know everything. They need staff and researchers to fill the gaps in their expertise. In much the same way, a representative body chosen by lot would not stand alone. It could invite experts, rely on professionals to moderate debates and put questions to citizens. Legislation could arise from the interaction between it and an elected chamber.
The arguments put forward against sortition are often identical to the reasons once put forward for not allowing peasants, workers or women to vote. Then, too, opponents claimed it would mark the end of democracy.--David Van Reybrouck "Why elections are bad for democracy," The Guardian.
The first quoted paragraph above is the first paragraph of Van Reybrouck's essay. It's astounding hyperbole and nonsense. Consider, for example, the implications of The Sykes–Picot Agreement and the subsequent drawing of artificial boundaries through the Middle East (which generated a century of warfare and turbulence); the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia (1914) that produced nearly forty years of war; and, given Van Reybrouck's argument, today's favorite, the Athenian's assembly decision to forge ahead with the Sicilian Expedition that ended up destroying Athenian power. (Fill in your favorite examples--undoubtedly George W. Bush's attack on Iraq can figure in that.) Van Reybrouck's grasp of history is shaky in other respects: "fifty years ago" we "lived in a world of greater political apathy and yet greater trust in politics" than now; yet he forgets it was the height of the Vietnam war (and Stateside the Civil Right's movement)--a period of political assassinations, massive protests and street riots, etc.
This is not to deny that the outcome of the British referendum will have serious consequences (even if you think Leave was a swell idea), but as I have been arguing this past week it was the effect of both (unnecessary) institutional innovation -- something Van Reybrouck fails to note -- and the peculiar transformations of British political-economy. It's also too early to tell how things will play out.
Van Reybrouck misrepresents the utility and justification of a "system of delegation to an elected representative." He claims it was due to slow communication and limited circulation information. Even if we leave aside subtle matters of legitimacy and representation or the mundane issues concerning defense of interests, it's quite clear that the very idea of delegation is, in part, based on the intellectual division of labor -- the representative is freed up to devote her attention to policy matters --, and this kind of specialization is just as necessary, even more necessary, when there is abundant information and massive communication. And, indeed, in the division of labor voters 'cast away' their vote in some sense. But, of course, they can stay massively involved in interest groups, participation in various campaigns, etc. That is to say, Van Reybrouck misrepresents modern democracy as much as he fails to acknowledge all those folk that have been reflecting on the "tools" that democracies use.*
But my central complain about Van Reybrouck's article is two-fold. First, he fails to acknowledge that his version of rule by lot is really a version of epistemocracy. For, in his approach it is experts that guide the randomly chosen folk. But rather than owning up to the fact that he is an epistemocrat, he pretends his main innovation is the lot. Yet, notice how the experts are necessary yet invisible in his account: "you draft a random sample of the population and make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter in order to take a sensible decision." Who and how does one "make sure"? Of course, via experts or some other privileged group (civil servants?) left off-stage in the proposal. [He does discuss the role of experts in providing advice.] And who controls these experts? We are not told. On principle, if forced to choose, I prefer the lot over experts; but if I have to choose between a disguised epistemocracy and the real thing (say Plato, Al-Farabi, or Brennan), then I'll opt for rule by known experts.
Second, while Van Reybrouck claims to be discussing known criticisms of rule by lot, he fails to acknowledge the most devastating one. It is quite evident that if the legislature is inexperienced, then either civil servants, experts, or some other group (the rich who can easily bribe) will become the dominant force behind the scene--the history of Athens offers ample evidence of this. When term-limits are introduced (and on his proposal the lot generates very restrictive term limits), then the balance of power shifts to those who have an information or temporal advantage. The point is not that ordinary citizens are incapable of ruling -- they manifestly are --, but they end up at the mercy of the folk who 'make sure they come to the grips with the subject matter' (and who help define what is or what is not sensible.).
There is a more fundamental issue lurking here. It's a methodological point that Jason Brennan tends to emphasize (and so this allows me to say something nice about him). Van Reybrouck systematically fails to consider non-ideal circumstances of his preferred approach, and so compares his small-scale pilots with the real world of fallible electoral politics we're familiar with. I do not deny that there are many limitations to contemporary electoral politics -- and Van Retbrouck's comments on the misguided way it can get imposed on others is well taken --, but with friends like this 'democracy' does not need enemies.