Slow Democracy: how representation by random selection can rebalance our stricken democracy

The Acropolis of Athens by Leo von Klenze.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

  1. “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.
  2.  Wikipedia
  3. See this reference for an elaboration of his four reasons for his assertion.
  4. 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).
Posted in Cultural Critique, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory | 2 Comments

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

In reciting his famous ditty, Henry Higgins offers a comical take on an ancient dilemma.

This is a brief postscript to my essay on Care where I rather surprised myself by expounding my take on ‘feminist economics’ and the ethics of care. There’s an inherent tension in feminism as with all liberation movements. On the one hand they represent a people who have current interests and also a culture which expresses their current nature and sensibilities.

Now if the people the movement represents are oppressed or marginalised in some way, then one way for them to get on in the world is to operate more according to the sensibilities of the dominant culture. Meanwhile the natural solidarity of the marginalised group might not be too impressed with those who ‘get on’ like this. For reasons of (high) pride or (low) envy, black kids might get antsy with other black kids who are ‘acting white’ And as they reach adolescence, girls might be punished for acting too smart.

It’s always great when one is wrestling with a subtle and also highly contentious issue to come across a nice simple illustration of the issue. This article offers an excellent empirical illustration of the issue. 1 It contains the chart below which is the guts of the analysis of the extent to which Hilary Clinton adopted mannerisms of ‘masculine’ language as opposed to ‘feminine’ mannerisms. Each year in which she campaigned her language lurched strongly towards the masculine.

Ladies and gentlemen we’ve largely solved the masculine part of our development as a species. Competition has made us as rich as Croesus. We can blow ourselves up a thousand times over. But we’ve been getting worse at looking after people. All those things that require great subtlety to do well, things where empathy is one of the foundational building blocks? In education, health, building social capital. Well we’re not doing as well there are we?

It’s good that women are asserting their right to equality. But liberal feminism as currently practiced might not be helping much with these things.

  1. You may be able to download the article from here.
Posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Gender | 5 Comments

Crikey: now is the time …

Image result for crikey

Exactly why George Pell’s face should come up on Googling “Crikey” is anyone’s guess, but I for one would like people to stop being mean to him. After all, he didn’t ask to travel First Class representing the world’s religion of poverty. Well he probably did, but I’m not speaking literally here. Please try to read my words with more understanding.

For those wishing to participate in the group Crikey subscription, please email me on ngruen AT gmail with “Crikey” in the subject heading and after a week or so I’ll send the details onto Cricky and they’ll be in touch.

Posted in Best From Elsewhere, Blegs | 1 Comment

Testament of youth: the book

RegImage result for vera brittain testament of youthular readers may know of my fondness for the recent film of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, so I was intrigued to come upon this fantastic book on the subject. I say ‘book’ because in many ways this is how I think books should be written. It’s written on a Wordpress blog site as a series of essays. There’s essays on each of the characters, five essays on Vera’s response to her own grief (the author’s central contention was that Vera ultimately failed to adequately overcome her grief), five on the four men who were at the heart of Vera’s loss and five on various themes as well as an annotated bibliography.

The author is an historian though of another period and has clearly taken this task very seriously. No editors, no cost to you of reading the material. The author got deeply immersed in the material and over about eight months wrote out a book-length treatment of it. They currently remain anonymous though on my offering some comments on their site I received this email in return.

Thank you for your encouraging comments on my Testament of Youth website. While I have kept it more or less anonymous, I am happy to introduce myself via e-mail. …

I really appreciated your first comment, in which you described the ToY website as a form of book. It didn’t start out that way–I originally thought I was going to write only one essay on the material–but it evolved into eight essays and 75,000 words, so it is now roughly on the scale of a book! I enjoyed the flexibility I gleaned from posting the material in sections and editing each part as new information came in.

Anyway, I highly recommend the site. I’ve read about four or five of the essays and they always seem well-informed, well considered and humane. One thing that struck me is that when I read D.H. Lawrence’s novels many moons ago, I was always struck by how directly the protagonists communicate with each other. I regarded this as a kind of novelists’ shorthand way – psychologically realistic, even if not necessarily socially very realistic. Anyway, one of the inspiring things about Vera and her circle was how high-mindedly they communicated with each other, never afraid to go to the heart of things in their letters to one another.

I also recently picked up the book Vera Brittain and the First World War which is a short ‘book of the film’ by Vera’s published biographer Mark Bostridge.  Continue reading

Posted in Films and TV, History, Media | 2 Comments

Social systems, economics and the thing itself


In writing a series of essays last year I came to an obvious conclusion. It’s perhaps one that others had come to years ago, but then there’s something in coming to a conclusion from a position sympathetic to its opposite.1 Economics as it was constructed from Adam Smith on, was built on an insight that one could abstract from a great deal in the economy and still know what mattered to policy. Smith’s insight – following on Manderville and various other provocateurs – was that the self-interest of actors could be transformed through the alchemy of the market into the social interest. Providing markets worked ideally, the one mapped onto the other.

In many ways, this presages a hollowing out of economic discourse, away from the micro-details of everyday life towards various abstractions – like the extent of competition in a market, technical characteristics of production (scale economies and externalities for instance). Marshall, the preeminent English-speaking economist of the turn of the twentieth century was, despite being an architect of this revolution in abstraction, nevertheless proud of the decades he’d spent learning the intimate details of industrial life. Samuelson not so much. Well hardly at all actually.

Samuelson’s sensibilities have also come to dominate policy making. Before the age of economic reform beginning in the Whitlam period but strengthening into maturity by the mid 1980s, it was axiomatic that if one were building schools, hospitals, welfare services, universities, the military or any other public social institution, one would focus first and foremost on ‘the thing itself’ – on the provision of those services and the skill and commitment with which they were provided. The most important profession in building a school system would be teachers and educationists, and in building a health system would be doctors, nurses and health administrators. Of course, this wasn’t a perfect arrangement. There are other skills necessary and indeed, the expertise imparted in a standard medical degree may be a fairly poor preparation for designing or running a hospital or some other aspect of a health system.

Still, today we seem to have moved beyond the point of having much interest in the thing itself. It seems naïve, somehow beside the point with this point being replaced by somehow creating ‘markets’. We measure and incentivise and ensure things are subject to competition. The rest just falls into place. Like Bach said when asked how to play the organ “you just move your fingers up and down here and the thing more or less plays itself.”


It was with these thoughts in mind that I observed the advertisement of medical products in the US. This is prohibited pretty much everywhere else I know of unless the advertising is for simple over the counter products like paracetamol. There are lots of ways to stoke incipient hypochondria to shift medical product. Here’s Sally Field emoting all over the camera to shift osteoporosis meds.[2 As the Youtube blurb states “In 2006, Oscar-winning actress Sally Field starred in a series of testimonial ads for the osteoporosis medication, Boniva. In the wake of the overwhelming success of the Boniva spots, due in no small part to Sally’s warm and empathetic presence, A-listers in Hollywood and beyond have started to embrace the idea of pharmaceutical product endorsement as a legitimate, bona fide revenue opportunity with no negative PR.” #WhatsThereNotToLike? For a general recent history of pharmaceutical ads, try this NPR program.] So medical ads are not some esoteric part of the advertising market – they’re a substantial and growing part of advertising – running at $5  billion per year in the US Television market. It struck me as mostly pretty abhorrent. Its manipulativeness is evident. It’s wasteful and it’s hard to imagine it doesn’t do a lot of damage in paving the way for lots of anxiety, wishful thinking, over-servicing and, perhaps, mis-prescription. 2

But when I watched the ad I’ve reproduced above, I did see the possibility of another side. Because I’ve been wondering if I should get a shingles inoculation and so it struck me that such an ad could be useful in prompting others to ask themselves the same question. It’s creepily manipulative. But this is the just business as usual for TV advertising. The ad is effective at stirring up anxiety and that might prompt one to act more in one’s own interests. So perhaps there’s a case for some use of such ads. More generally, this commentator makes the reasonable claim that TV commercials “may have positive impacts through breaking social stigmas against getting medical help — particularly with depression medications …”.

But. But, but, but. Continue reading

  1. As J.S. Mill wrote: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. . . . He must be able to hear the arguments of adversaries; . . . He must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of. . . . Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men {do not do this}, even those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know. They have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them and considered what such persons may have to say, and consequently, they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.”
  2.  This paper finds “that low-quality drugs diffuse more quickly compared to high-quality drugs in the US relative to four comparison countries” (which include Australia).
Posted in Economics and public policy, Innovation | 1 Comment

Information and arts marketing

On completing a consumer survey for the Melbourne Theatre Company. I was intrigued to come upon this table.

Which of the following would encourage you to attend the theatre more frequently?

(Select all that apply)

Apparently, the problem that I think is central, in marketing and advertising generally, but particularly in the arts on account of the diversity of arts offerings and the diversity of tastes and values, hasn’t occurred to them. It’s extremely hard for me to know whether I’ll like anything they put on. The best way they could get me to their shows is to find a way to signal me when reviewers I respect think well of the offering but not to try to get my arse onto their seats if I’ll dislike the show. You wouldn’t think that would be so hard, but there you go. Looks like you’d be wrong because I know of no examples of it happening. Anywhere.

Posted in Economics and public policy | 4 Comments

Elections and development #NeverLetAGoodDeedGoUnpunished

Do anti-poverty programs sway voters? Experimental evidence from Uganda
By: Blattman, Christopher ; Emeriau, Mathilde ; Fiala, Nathan

A Ugandan government program allowed groups of young people to submit proposals to start skilled enterprises. Among 535 eligible proposals, the government randomly selected 265 to receive grants of nearly $400 per person. Blattman et al. (2014) showed that, after four years, the program raised employment by 17% and earnings 38%. This paper shows that, rather than rewarding the government in elections, beneficiaries increased opposition party membership, campaigning, and voting. Higher incomes are associated with opposition support, and we hypothesize that financial independence frees the poor to express political preferences publicly, being less reliant on patronage and other political transfers.

Posted in Best From Elsewhere, Democracy, Economics and public policy, Political theory | Leave a comment