Vox pop democracy and the division of cognitive labour

In the last post,Paul Frijters dismissed my proposal that deliberative democracy mechanisms should have had some role in the Brexit decision.

I don’t think sortition makes any sense in the case of something like Brexit. The notion that a jury of randomly chosen citizens would decide for the whole population whether or not to quit a union would simply not fly, nor should it: there have been impassioned debates on Brexit for months now all up and down the UK, so its very hard to argue that the population was not informed or not engaged. They have not been this engaged for a generation.

The argument is not that the issue wasn’t discussed – obviously it was. It’s not even that it’s nigh on impossible to be properly informed by the mainstream media – though obviously it was. It’s that this is a category mistake.

As Schumpeter argues “Collectives act almost exclusively by accepting leadership — this is the dominant mechanism of practically any collective action which is more than a reflex”. Schumpeter uses the word ‘leadership’ here because he’s heading into his next point- that rather than representing  ‘the will of the people’ – which Schumpeter regards as inchoate in any event representatives’ function is to lead the citizens – subject to competition amongst factions of the governing class for the consent of the governed.

It’s an impressive and compelling argument. But as I read Schumpeter’s argument one can reduce his initial claim to a more parsimonious one – that any social organisation requires a division of cognitive labour. And representatives perform that function as well. They invest the time necessary to understand issues that would not hold the interest of the electorate and/or that require knowledge, thought, and deliberation to make good decisions about. So I take his argument to be that if decisions are to be made well by a ‘collective’ of people there must be a division of cognitive labour.

Now representative democracy used to be quite good at the function that Schumpeter described for it – representatives played their role in the cognitive division of labour. It didn’t represent the people’s raw views on all things, but where it differed it often did so from the perspective of leadership – delivered by class leadership. (Of course it wasn’t always necessarily leadership as in good leadership – it came with its share of class interest and vested interest. So that was the downside). But along with its delivery of the interests of the governing classes it also played its role in the cognitive division of labour. 

The representative democracy we now have is viewed as toxic by the hoi polloi. It’s interesting as to why this is the case. After all, as the culture in the system has somehow morphed from a fairly classic republican one (albeit in our country in monarchical dressing) of citizens and their representatives to consumers and producers of politics (voters and politicians) the system hasn’t delivered less utilitarian outcomes. Inequality has widened a little here, but I’m not that confident people policies on income distribution would have generated very different outcomes under the democratic culture of Australia a generation ago. Meanwhile things are much better for minorities, and things are at least as well run as previously – I’d guess they’re run rather better. There are ombudsman offices for all manner of things from governments to monopolistic utilities.

So why do people feel so bad about their politics? Well we hear them say that politicians are not listening. But since when did someone get to have a politician listen to them as if it was all about them? There are 24 odd million Australians and many of them won’t be listened to. I think there’s something more going on. With the providers of politics having become brand managers and the medium through which they get their message across that of the mass traditional and social media, people know that they’re being full on manipulated.  I know people who’ve recently gone into politics – on both sides of politics – and their newsletters to their electorates I get are written in PRese. It’s impossible to read these things with a brain and not feel manipulated.

Within months of going into parliament I hear new parliamentarians say things against their opponents that might sound plausible enough. They certainly go in on one side or another believing in it. But as the show goes on they all say things against their enemies – for instance that they’re heartless and out of touch when they’re speaking against some spending cut – which you can just hear them being on the other side of if they were in government rather than in Opposition. And vice versa.

Meanwhile people are endlessly wound up by the media. Andrew Bolt has Tony Abbott on his show and debates whether 1788 was an ‘invasion’ or not. I thought Abbott was quite good on that by the way. He said he thought it was a settlement or “an ‘occupation” if you like” but he didn’t think it was an invasion because it wasn’t done in the prosecution of an armed battle or anticipation of one. Well lots of aborigines feel very different about it, which is all fair enough. And who cares? Andrew Bolt wanted a good old ding dong about a word which of course in different circumstances his friend Tony would have been happy to join in on. We just have one of these wind up battles every few days. All completely silly. People get how stilted and stupid and pointless this is. But just as fast food keeps them rolling through the doors and edging towards and beyond obesity, these tricks keep people tuning in and clicking on links.

So as I see it deliberative democracy institutions are required to essentially re-inject deliberation into a system that once tolerably had it. And by deliberative democracy institutions, I don’t mean dinky advisory citizens juries on a few things. I mean building them into our constitution. They’ve been built into Oregon’s constitution in a small way. Any citizens’ initiated referendum cannot be put without a citizens’ jury sitting on the question and issuing a 300 word guide which is given to voters when they vote. Sounds very sensible to me.

We can take it much further. And we can mix and match institutions in the hope that they can provide checks and balances on each other (as opposed to cheques and balances!) and can strengthen each other. Some intriguing academic modelling suggests that parliaments would reflect the public interest better if we added some randomly chosen citizens to otherwise representative chambers. When some parliamentarians have no party allegiance, the legislature’s overall efficiency (in addressing the public interest) improves. Certainly one can imagine that having a few randos around to vote if on nothing else then on procedural motions, would improve Question Time no end.

I’ve previously proposed a People’s Chamber in Parliament either replacing or adding an additional chamber to the upper house. I’d like to be more specific. I’d suggest it comprise 297 citizens chosen by lot for six-year single terms with 99 appointed every two years.

How should such a body relate to the existing system? Even without formal constitutional power, having randomly selected citizens’ deliberation and collective views on the public record would powerfully strengthen the fabric of our democracy. A public record of the considered opinion of our peers – collected as a formal body and given time to deliberate and air their views – would be a powerful tool with which to discipline parliamentarians – and perhaps even media commentators – to show greater respect for those views. Given this, I hope a ‘people’s chamber’ might be privately sponsored until such time as our lawmakers can be persuaded to build such institutions into our constitution.

Until we have more experience in the field, I have previously suggested that the People’s Chamber not be given a blocking power, but rather a delaying power as the House of Lords has in the UK. This gives the other chambers sufficient incentive to engage it without undermining the ultimate sovereignty of our existing representative system and the legitimacy it confers.

I suggest further that if the randomly selected members of parliament achieve a super-majority of say 60 per cent of their number then they should acquire additional rights to make it easier for other parliamentarians to put the public interest ahead of their party’s. I propose that a super-majority of randomly selected parliamentarians give them the power to compel a secret ballot from other (representative) parliamentarians on any matter (as happens in members’ voting for the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President of the Senate). This would solve the two specific policy problems for Australia. Under such a system I think it inconceivable that we would

If, after three months the deadlock between the representative and a super-majority of randomly selected parliamentarians remained, the latter could vote substantively with representatives in a joint vote in the relevant chamber or a joint sitting between them.


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5 years ago


Fourthly, the House of Commons has what may be called an informing function—a function which though in its present form quite modern is singularly analogous to a mediaeval function. In old times one office of the House of Commons was to inform the sovereign what was wrong. It laid before the Crown the grievances and complaints of particular interests. Since the publication of the Parliamentary debates a corresponding office of Parliament is to lay these same grievances, these same complaints, before the nation, which is the present sovereign. The nation needs it quite as much as the king ever needed it. A free people is indeed mostly fair, liberty practises men in a give-and-take, which is the rough essence of justice. The English people, possibly even above other free nations, is fair. But a free nation rarely can be—and the English nation is not—quick of apprehension. It only comprehends what is familiar to it—what comes into its own experience, what squares with its own thoughts. “I never heard of such a thing in my life,” the middle-class Englishman says, and he thinks he so refutes an argument. The common disputant cannot say in reply that his experience is but limited, and that the assertion may be true, though he had never met with anything at all like it. But a great debate in Parliament does bring home something of this feeling. Any notion, any creed, any feeling, any grievance which can get a decent number of English members to stand up for it, is felt by almost all Englishmen to be perhaps a false and pernicious opinion, but at any rate possible—an opinion within the intellectual sphere, an opinion to be reckoned with. And it is an immense achievement. Practical diplomatists say that a free Government is harder to deal with than a despotic Government; you may be able to get the despot to hear the other side; his Ministers, men of trained intelligence, will be sure to know what makes against them; and they MAY tell him. But a free nation never hears any side save its own. The newspapers only repeat the side their purchasers like: the favourable arguments are set out, elaborated, illustrated; the adverse arguments maimed, misstated, confused. The worst judge, they say, is a deaf judge; the most dull Government is a free Government on matters its ruling classes will not hear. I am disposed to reckon it as the second function of Parliament in point of importance, that to some extent it makes us hear what otherwise we should not.

Bagehot was actually pretty archaic when he wrote in 1867, but if parliaments ever did ave an informing function it is howling gone. Precisely why it is long-gone is an interesting question.

The clever Irish appoint a referendum commission before each referendum. Their job is informing the electorate about the impact of referendum proposals.

The same-sex marriage referendum in Ireland produced more questions than usual from the public and the commission dutifully answered.

After the campaign both sides stated publicly that the commission had treated them fairly. Many of the wilder claims that dominated the US referendums on the same topic, and will no doubt dominate the plebiscite here, were dismissed out of hand by the commission and gained little traction with the electorate.

Parliament has abdicated its informing function. If we want to be a generous, compassionate, bold and joyful people we need parliament to take it back, or we need other institutions to do it for them.

paul frijters
paul frijters
5 years ago

Hi Nick,

just back from holidays, so only just saw this.

As I said before, I can see value in random juries when it comes to appointing people: it is what random crowds are good at. I don’t really see what 300 random citizens with no particular incentive to be interested, knowledgeable, or honest for more than a few weeks, would add to our parliaments. Why would they have the ideals and the function you want them to have? What is in it for them to deliberate knowledgeably for the benefit of the population?

I don’t see the category mistake you lay at my feet. You say above you want sortition to “re-inject deliberation” and I note that the UK referendum injected more deliberation than anything else in a generation. The referendum was certainly outside the normal parliamentary structure and as such ‘somewhat’ novel but it wasn’t sortition yet it achieved what you want sortition to achieve. I thought the quality of the debate in the UK was impressively high, to be honest. All kinds of expert reports that were subsequently picked apart and reconstituted, laying bare their hidden assumptions and real arguments.