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. 1
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:
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” 2 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.” 3
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 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 post.
In any event, in this post 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 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. 4 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. Continue reading
- “The people’s suffrages ought doubtless to be public and this should be considered as a fundamental law of democracy. The lower class ought to be directed by those of higher rank, and restrained within bounds by the gravity of eminent personages.” The secret ballot used to be called the Australian ballot after Australian innovation on that score in the 19th century. ↩
- Wikipedia ↩
- See this reference for an elaboration of his four reasons for his assertion. ↩
- Amongst coalition parliamentarians I would expect well over half thought carbon pricing was in the public interest. (If I’m wrong make it a third or a quarter – it doesn’t really affect the argument). ↩