A blog about hybrid politics

The Blind Break is the Heart of Democracy

This is part 4 of my legislative series.

Final decisions are certainly the most sensitive in political life, and must be as democratically pure as possible. We have some wiggle room when it comes to making proposals, and this wiggle room is needed due to the open-ended nature of generating proposals. But when it comes to the final disposition of proposals, we must address a number of threats to democratic legitimacy that do not exist in earlier steps.

We might like to use a direct plebiscite, in order to replicate direct democracy on a large scale. This is clearly impossible in all but a few circumstances. Even when a plebiscite is possible, it is not practical to require voters to take time or devote energy to researching the question, so rational ignorance becomes a serious problem. Further, in the modern context we have amassed a strong understanding of statistics, which tells us that a relatively small number of individuals can stand in for the whole with a considerable degree of fidelity.

We therefore should make final decisions by jury, gaining advantages in deliberative quality that more than compensate for any accuracy lost through sampling. But that still leaves open the question how the jury is to be structured. For the epistemic portion of this question, I think the 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds sets down the main principles well.

There is another aspect that needs to be addressed: the timing of jury selection. But why should that matter? Even in a direct democracy proposals are mostly written by a small professional class. Since the jury is (statistically speaking) a close approximation to the general public, the jury should be enough to make the system democratic even if they are selected before the proposals are produced. And yet we know intuitively that if those writing the proposals know specifically who the decision makers are, they will craft very different proposals, targeting specific members of the jury rather than the general public.

I and others describe contemporary democracy as elective oligarchy because decision making is concentrated in so few hands. Single-use juries increase the number of decision makers substantially, but as a percentage of the population, the number is still quite low. But if we select the jury after the proposals have been made, those making the proposals are forced to behave as if the final decision is made by everyone.

This allows for a novel definition of democracy. Under this perspective, the number of actual decision makers is less important than the number of possible decision makers at the time of proposal writing. A democracy, then, is any system in which every citizen has an equal chance to be a decision maker at the time proposals are finalized. This encompasses both direct and indirect democracy.

This definition clarifies exactly why what we currently have really is elective oligarchy, not democracy. The phrase “elective oligarchy” is often thrown around as a kind of epithet, but now we can see that it is a rigorous and well-defined concept. It also illustrates why attempts to simply swap out elected legislatures with sampled ones will not work. Whether members are selected by lot or by election, they know too much about the decision makers. Their proposals will reflect the desires of that particular group of people, not the general public. It will be a sampled oligarchy—just another flavor of the same soup.

There are other systems that can be built on this premise. We could use a blind break but weight jury selection according to some existing characteristic in the population. States such as Belgium and Lebanon have characteristics like this, where there are constitutionally defined nationalities within the state that are weighted separately to preserve community balance. I’m not a fan of such systems, but they are sometimes the least bad option in states that have experienced internal conflict.

This definition reveals how essential the blind break is to crafting an indirect democracy, which is the only type of democracy practical for a large modern state. Without the blind break, direct democracy is the only form of democracy. Any system that fails to insert a randomization step between proposals and disposition fails the democracy test, and should be dismissed out of hand. The blind break is actually the fulcrum around which modern democracy must pivot. Unfortunately, too many sortition proposals utilize random selection without a blind break, negating the benefits of a tool that has so much promise. This needs to change.