Capitalisn’t: Reinventing Democracy
- June 02, 2023
- CBR - Capitalisnt
What if we harnessed the collective wisdom of the crowds and delegated democratic leadership to the masses? In her book Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century, Yale’s Hélène Landemore proposes a radically new vision for “what genuine democratic representation means and how we could open up our narrow electoral institutions to ordinary citizens, including via [what she calls] open mini-publics.” Drawing from ancient Athenian democracy of the past and the promise of digital technologies of the future, she joins Capitalisn’t podcast hosts Bethany McLean and Luigi Zingales to talk through this vision of participatory democracy.
Hélène Landemore: One criticism I get a lot is like, “Oh, but your solution to everything is citizens’ assemblies.” And I can only answer, “Yes,” because it’s a systemic answer. It’s not like you’re going to do one citizens’ assembly for one particular problem, it’s that I really want the whole system to be redesigned around the ordinary citizens instead of elected assemblies.
Bethany: I’m Bethany McLean.
Phil Donahue: Did you ever have a moment of doubt about capitalism and whether greed’s a good idea?
Luigi: And I’m Luigi Zingales.
Bernie Sanders: We have socialism for the very rich, rugged individualism for the poor.
Bethany: And this is Capitalisn’t, a podcast about what is working in capital-ism.
Milton Friedman: First of all, tell me, is there some society you know that doesn’t run on greed?
Luigi: And, most importantly, what isn’t.
Warren Buffett: We ought to do better by the people that get left behind. I don’t think we should kill the capitalist system in the process.
Bethany: No, I’m trying to record a podcast. Sorry, you guys, I am really sorry. I’m at my parents’ place in Mississippi, and there is not a great internet connection, and there’s about to be a thunderstorm, and so I’m going to apologize for the terrible audio quality and the chaos in the background.
Luigi: Actually, I just realized that my taping was not going, so I need to re-record my part, just to add insult to injury. Anyway, go ahead with yours, and then I will re-record mine.
Bethany: In 1831, a Frenchman, Alexis de Tocqueville, traveled across Ameri-ca. His alleged mission was to study the prisons and penitentiaries in the United States, but he was more interested in studying how the young American democracy worked. As a result of his trip, a few years later, he wrote Democracy in America, a famous book and a masterpiece in political science.
Today, we’re going to interview the modern version of Tocqueville. She is Hélène Landemore, a political scientist at Yale and the author of two important and quite brilliant books, Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many, and Open Democracy: Reinventing Popular Rule for the 21st Century.
Luigi: Some of our listeners will wonder why an economic podcast like ours is interested in political theory and, in particular, something so extravagant and esoteric as the epistemological foundation of democracy. First of all, there’s a very direct and important connec-tion between the theory of information aggregation in markets and the epistemological case for democracy. Second, the interview we did last February with Martin Wolf stimulated our interest in how we can improve democracy to make it less corruptible by vested interests.
Bethany: In her 2012 book, Democratic Reason, Hélène chal-lenges the idea that leadership by the few is superior to leadership by the masses. She believes that the collective intelligence is superior to the intelligence of any one leader. And so, the trick is to find ways to involve more people and aggregate their contributions. In her 2021 book, she pos-its that this can be done by instituting some novel forms of nonelectoral democratic representa-tion, such as local assemblies or mini-publics, where citizens chosen by lottery would deliberate on and enact policies and laws.
Luigi: At first glance, this seems like a pretty crazy idea. Would you really en-trust randomly selected people to govern you? But her proposal is more complex. It implies that these people spend a lot of time deliberating with the proper support of experts and the like. So, this is not a system of direct democracy, but a system of delegated democracy with a different form of delegation system.
Bethany: Luigi, before we talk about her interview, I wanted to ask you a bit more about something that you said, which is that there is a very direct and important connection between the theory of information aggregation in markets and the epistemological case for democ-racy. Can you explain that a little bit?
Luigi: The reason why most economists believe that markets have a superior ability to allocate resources over central planning is the fact that information is diffused. Markets provide both a way to aggregate this information and a way to delegate the decision to where this information is. We don’t necessarily need to send a message to the central planning office about how many potatoes we need, because the price indicates that. And not only does the price indi-cate that, it indicates that for the person who is going to supply potatoes, the farmer. The farmer just looks at the price and makes the decision based on the localized information he or she has, and the aggregate information contained in prices. You can think about markets as a better way to allocate resources.
Bethany: Would it be going too far to say that if you’re a believer in the wis-dom of markets, then you should be a believer in Landemore’s theories?
Luigi: This is the part that is intriguing. She makes an explicit reference to that literature, and she does say, “There is a wisdom of the crowd. There is a collective intelligence that you need to aggregate. If you can aggregate it properly, you get better outcomes.”
We can decide that democracy is a good thing for moral reasons, but these days, not a lot of people think that democracy is good because it delivers good outcomes. What she’s saying, at least what I understand she’s saying, is, “Look, the reason why it’s not delivering good outcomes is be-cause it’s not really democracy in the way we would like to have it. We need to make democracy more democratic, or better to say, we need to make our institutions more democratic, in order to deliver the benefits of this collective intelligence.”
In your book, Democratic Reason, you have a beautiful analogy that is very reminis-cent of Hayek. And you’re saying, suppose we’re all in a maze, and to get out of the maze, we need a lot of clues, and different people have different abilities to get those clues right. Which system would you pick to decide whether, at every cross, you go right or left? You make an epistemologi-cal case for democracy by saying the best system is a democratic system where you gather all the information.
As an economist, I’m a little bit skeptical because you seem to mix two things. One is how to aggregate information, and another is how to delegate the decision process. I can imagine a world in which you appoint a very clever guy to make the decision, and then this guy elicits the infor-mation from the public. And in doing so, maybe you reduce some of the costs of the decision-making process. Can you say why I’m wrong?
Hélène Landemore: Well, I think the maze metaphor has its limits, and one of them is perhaps not to be clear about the distinction between information and the cognitive processes that go into making sense of that information and turning it into an enriched material for decision making. And my sense is that, even with the best of intentions and the smartest people at the top, they still form a bottleneck in terms of the way that mass of information is processed, and they will have blind spots.
That’s the main argument, that you can give them all the information you want, but they still might be blind to its meaning in a particular context and for a particular purpose. In France, we’ve had the yellow vest movement, and supposedly our decision makers are from the best elite schools. They’ve even commissioned bodies of experts to recommend solutions.
They even had an institution that organizes public debates, thinks about energy policies and writes reports, and yet they failed to take that information into account properly because they chose to apply this carbon tax very indiscriminately in the fall of 2018. I think they all came from the same background—very educated, urban, wealthy, not really dependent on their cars to go around in Paris, where they live for the most part—they didn’t quite anticipate the lived experi-ence of having to pay five euros more at the pump every month.
I think there’s a sort of discrepancy between what they think they know and what they actually know, which takes us to this question of political knowledge and its definition. And my view is that it’s not just information, it’s also the kind of cognitive processes you bring to it and how you turn that into something richer and multidimensional and that has not just factual components but also moral and ethical components.
Luigi: Now, you are really pushing in your second book, Open Democra-cy, for a more participatory democracy. One question I have is, maybe a lot of people don’t want to participate. In the last presidential election, which I think was the highest level of partici-pation since 1900, we only had two-thirds of the people voting for president. One-third decided not to, and yet this was a record because if you go down the pecking order, the participation is even lower.
What gives you faith that people will spend their weekend deliberating when they’re not even willing to spend five minutes to vote?
Hélène Landemore: Because it’s not the same participation at all, for one thing. I think people are fed up with modes of participation that don’t seem to translate into actual agency and impact. I think that explains a lot of the abstention you see during election cycles.
Second, my model is not meant to turn our systems into direct democracy, where you’d have to spend all your evenings debating and talking and becoming informed at the expense of your fam-ily or your job or your personal pursuits. It’s meant instead to encourage focused, intermittent, regular, but not that frequent, participation in deliberative assemblies, where you have the incen-tives and the structure to reach an enlightened perspective and come together as a group to make decisions or at least recommendations that have an impact.
What gives me empirically the confidence that this can be done? I would say the citizens’ as-sembly that I just cogoverned in France. It’s called the Citizens’ Convention on the End of Life. We started with 185 citizens, and we asked them to sacrifice nine weekends of two days and a half over a short period of time, four months.
By the end, how many do you think we still had in the group? Well, we had 184. Everybody stayed. And even to me, this was a huge surprise. This level of commitment even I didn’t expect. and I’m an optimist about these things. There have been close to 600 cases of mini-publics involv-ing randomly selected citizens in the world at this point.
Luigi: This is fascinating. Can you describe to us a little bit more how these things work, and in particular, how do you provide views to this assembly? Who has the right to decide what evidence is provided to them? Who are the experts that give the information? What kind of menu do they receive in their daily routine?
Hélène Landemore: The specificity of the French convention—there have been two at this point—has been to make explicit the fact that there is a governance, that there are people in charge of shaping the proceedings. Those people are not members of the conven-tion. They’re appointed from the outside by the government. I was one of them in the last conven-tion, but during the first one, those were experts on climate change. There were experts in partic-ipatory democracy, think-tank leaders.
There’s a worry that there’s a form of paternalism that creeps in, and I worry about that very much as well. But my observation and my experience, my direct experience of being on the gov-ernance committee, is that after a while, there’s in fact a co-construction that happens, in the sense that the citizens very quickly are asking for control and co-responsibility over the pro-cess.
For us, it happened during session three. The first two sessions, everybody was very shy, but then very quickly, the questions came in: “Why this expert? Why is the facilitation preventing us from spending more time discussing this or this?”
The difficulty, though—and I’ll admit that we’re still in the stages where we’re figuring this out—is that there are people, including on the governance committee, who resist the idea that citizens can have leadership in the process in ways that are not collective. But having leadership when you’re a group of 184, how does that work? You can’t have 184 agreeing on everything, but if you let people self-select, are they really representative of the larger group? Are we following this minority versus this minority? How do we make sure that when there’s leadership from the citizen-ry, it’s truly representative? And it’s tricky.
The first convention on climate had representatives . . . I mean, I call them representatives. Some of my colleagues would disagree because all that vocabulary is very much in flux and contro-versial. But I would call them representatives of the citizens on the governance committee, so that they can lodge complaints and make requests on behalf of the rest of the group in a way that’s seen as legitimate by the others. And usually, they’re picked on the basis of random selection, not elections, to stay in keeping with the very principle of this convention, which is that we bring to-gether randomly selected citizens. Everybody’s equal, everybody’s going to have an equal chance to be picked, et cetera.
The second convention on end of life decided not to include citizens on the governance com-mittee, but we had two representatives of the previous convention on that governance commit-tee. So, they brought that lived experience of citizens having gone through the first process. And we had office hours, and we had moments of consultation with the group. They made a lot of de-mands; they wanted certain experts. They wanted to be present during press conferences. By the end, I think the process was much more co-constructed than truly directed and governed by just us, the small group of experts.
I do feel somewhat illegitimate in having been put in this position of power. I do feel like you need people to coordinate the whole process, but do we need people to actually govern it? I’m not sure. And, if anything, it should be self-governance. Amazingly, we don’t know how, for exam-ple, the Greek boule of 500 ordinary Greek citizens ruled itself. We just don’t know. I haven’t found anything that tells us, “Oh, they had these rules and procedures to have an orderly debate and deliberation about topics.” You have to have rules and someone who’s deciding the proce-dures and the pace and brings in the experts, et cetera.
And right now, we’re struggling a bit. I think there’s this co-responsibility that’s naturally evolv-ing with citizens asking for more and more say. But at the same time, we don’t really have the rep-resentative structures in place that we need for this to really work out. These assemblies are not sovereign the way parliaments are. And my big question is, actually, OK, how do we get there? The additional question is, should we? In my view, we should, but there are a lot of people who think, absolutely not, we should not get there.
Bethany: Two follow-up questions here, one slightly cynical. Aren’t you at-tempting to override human nature, in a way, given that in every group someone rises to a leader-ship position? Maybe it’s the loudest person in the room, maybe it’s the most aggressive person in a room. I’ve watched Survivor a few times. Doesn’t someone always start to take over the island? How do you override human nature?
And then a second question: if the key to this is the makeup of the governance committee, how do you pick the people on the governance committee, to back up Luigi’s question one stage further? There’s some selection of people going on by somebody at some point, and how do you make that as honest and transparent as possible?
Hélène Landemore: On the human nature question, I think you’re not so much resisting human nature as channeling it. The point is not to prevent leadership from emerg-ing. On the contrary, we build on it throughout. In fact, there are natural leaders who emerge, and they’re recognized as such by the other citizens. They’re very much respected. They play an abso-lutely crucial role.
But at the same time, we don’t try to entrench the role of these natural leaders and elevate them above the rest. When that was tried, and that was tried during the convention on climate, it backfires big time. The other citizens do not want that to happen. They want the leaders to lead where they’re needed, in improving the quality of the conversation, in making excellent points, in making suggestions, in taking the responsibility of drafting certain crucial parts of the final report, like the manifesto or things like that.
When it came to talking to Macron on April 6, where they had to choose who to send to the podium, only two really had time to say anything. So, they had to pick two. And we asked them, “OK, who do you want to choose?” Because we asked ourselves, do we choose, or we let them choose? We said, we have to let them choose at this point. I’m telling you, we lost power as we went along.
It was really a big question. None of us knew what they would choose, because they had to choose between a liquid democracy system where they were able to identify the natural leaders among themselves and entrust them with that task, or choose based on random selection, which would be more in keeping with the spirit of the whole thing. And they asked us, which we hadn’t planned, they said, “Oh, we need some time to debate about the merits of one method versus the other.” So, we gave them that time.
This was one of the most interesting conversations, actually. Some people said, “Well, they on-ly have 10 minutes. They need to give a really smart and concise account of what we did in this convention. So, we need to choose people who speak well and can be at the level of Macron.” Then other people said, “No, that’s not the point. The point is that Macron needs to see France in this diversity. And OK, there are regular people in there that won’t speak well, that have a strong accent, who make mistakes.”
Then other people said, “Well, it’s also about ending with the principle with which we started, which is random selection and everything.” In the end, they actually chose random selection. But they didn’t do it systematically, because when it came to choosing people to write the manifesto, they chose liquid democracy. When it came to talking to the nation, addressing the nation during the televised part of the concluding session, they again chose liquid democracy.
It was very clear that the people they wanted were not the most outspoken, the loudest, the most visible, the ones that journalists like, but actually the quiet voices that are the good students, the hardworking bees in the group.
Human nature, you can’t change it, you just have to work with it. But you don’t have to accept that, “Oh well, because there are natural leaders, let’s give them free rein to govern us and make all the decisions.” This is something I’ve heard among circles of political theorists who are like, “Well, those people exist, and they need an arena, and so, let’s channel their passions for the common good by letting the ambitious access positions of power.” And I think, no, it’s very dan-gerous, actually. I think we should have leaders, but it doesn’t mean they have to have the deci-sion power.
I forgot your second question in the process.
Luigi: Your mechanism is clearly inspired by juries in the United States. But in the United States, juries are segregated, and until they finish deliberating, they are anonymous. I don’t expect you to have the same system, especially if this lasts for months.
My concern is, if they need to make decisions about big things, what are the risks of them be-ing bought off by private interests? We have now discovered that Justice Thomas was receiving lav-ish gifts to travel around the world and, sure, it was a friend, but it’s not out of the question that friends might be able to influence a bit, especially if you spend a lot of time in the same place with these people. So, the moment you pick 100 and, whatever, 50 people to decide on climate change, Exxon will be there the next day. How do you prevent this from happening?
Hélène Landemore: First of all, I think that it’s important to recognize that this is what’s happening in an electoral context for elected assemblies. They have this problem of lobbying, borderline corruption. I’m not saying this can’t happen for randomly elected citizens’ as-semblies. We’re all worried about that, especially as these assemblies become more and more empowered. But there are some structural features that make them, I think, a lot more resilient.
One, the fact that the people in there are randomly selected, so you can’t anticipate ahead of time who’s going to be in the assembly the way you can build long-term relationships with elected officials who stay in power for 20 years.
The second feature is that people who are randomly selected do not depend on campaign con-tributions to access their position of power. I think it’s happened a little bit. In fact, in the Climate Convention there were definitely attempts, but then maybe you can build firewalls that prevent certain contacts from happening except within the walls of the Citizens’ Assembly, under very spe-cific conditions, and you can have an ethics committee watching over the proceedings.
We also have safeguards that are structural, like there are guarantors that are present—impartial guarantors, we call them—who are appointed precisely to make sure there’s no capture that happens or corruption or manipulation, and that citizens have a voice throughout and can be heard, et cetera, et cetera. I don’t think there’s any system that’s bulletproof, but this system pre-sents certain advantages.
The final advantage I would mention is the fact that the term limits are really short so far. It’s nine months at the very most. And finally, I’d say it’s the peer accountability or internal accounta-bility of all these people. I’m afraid electoral systems tend to select for power-hungry people. I’m not going to say psychopaths, but I mean, there are certain psychological traits that seem to be overrepresented in these assemblies. And I don’t think that’s the case in randomly selected assem-blies where you have people who have had very humble lives. It doesn’t go to their heads as much as you’d think it would. I think that the evidence so far is that it would not be more of a risk than in elected assemblies, and it’s probably much less of a risk, actually.
Bethany: Back to your first comment, you talked about the question of in-centives and how important it was to get the incentives right. What are the right incentives, both for the participants and for the mediators? How do you get people to want to overcome the fun of inflamed passion and replace it with what’s less fun, which is cool, calm reason?
Hélène Landemore: I think you want to make sure that even the person who is the most shy, the most disillusioned with politics, has an incentive to care and be present and engaged. Because when we’re missing those voices, we’re missing information, but not just infor-mation, we’re missing perspectives and a kind of thinking that leads to bad decisions when it’s missing.
It’s important to think of those spaces as empowered, joyful, and rewarding, and also as costless as possible for the participants. For example, one very important feature of citizens’ assemblies is that citizens are paid an honorarium for their time. It’s around 80 euros per day, in the case of the French convention. We also make sure that they have the conditions for wellbeing, mental and physical. They eat well, they have a psychologist available from day one because, of course, espe-cially on end of life, a lot of stories were heartbreaking and very difficult emotionally. We were very, very worried about what that could do to them.
We probably didn’t do as much as we could have done. We wanted to involve artists, and so at the end we had one concert, which was fantastic, and we had one dance party that lasted until 1 a.m., which was the latest that it could go, anyway. I think people bonded enormously.
So, I think one of the rewards is the friendship, and I’m even tempted to say the love between the participants. It’s something that I’d personally never experienced in my life, really. I think you get this sense of civic friendship, civic love, only in dire straits, for example, when there’s a terror-ist attack, and all of a sudden, people bond together and try to help each other, and donate money and time and energy to a common cause, and then it disappears again.
In elected arenas, you just have hatred and contempt. I’m sure there are some friendships in the margin of these things, but with the public, the visible part of it is all about agonism and adver-sarial exchanges and conflict, and it’s not pretty. It’s especially been very ugly on this pension re-form recently in France. When you see that as a citizen, you’re just disgusted, and just want to turn away and have nothing to do with it.
What we saw in our convention was completely the opposite. I probably sound like I’m super sectarian and brainwashed, but no, I’m telling you, this place, these environments, are transforma-tive. During the last session, we asked citizens, the 184, to reflect about their process and what they took from it. A member of the minority, so very vehement, anti-euthanasia and assisted dying leader, said to the group, “I want to thank the 75 percent who voted for euthanasia and assisted dying for giving the minority 50 percent of the speaking time and 50 percent of the space in the final report.”
There was this acknowledgement that, yes, we disagree, but we’re in it together, and we’re going to work so that we stay together until the end, and we all vote on the final product as one. I think the final report got 92 percent approval, including from people who disagreed with some of the recommendations.
You also had people who just said, “I love you,” to the rest of the group, even though they also had been in the minority, and you had people who asked for forgiveness for the harsh words they had exchanged. These are things that you don’t get to live, especially in France, which is a country that is pretty cynical and suspicious, and at least the mood that I’m familiar with is absolutely not what I’m describing right now.
Bethany: Perhaps this is a concept that is uniquely US, or perhaps it’s a con-cept that has been, unfortunately, taken from the business world and applied to the world of poli-tics, but that’s accountability. You have a leader, so that you have somebody who’s accountable. Is that a valid concept, this idea of accountability resting with a single person? If it is a valid concept that you need accountability, how do you re-engineer that for a different decision-making process where it doesn’t rest on one person?
Hélène Landemore: It would be good to have a clear definition of what that word accountability means because people mean too many things by it. They mean sanction ability, like the ability to punish or reward someone with power or with the removal from power when they do stuff you don’t like. But they also mean the ability to give accounts. That’s more of the et-ymological meaning, actually, like, can you justify the policies and laws you’ve implemented? What’s the accountability of assemblies that are based on lots? You won’t have the sanction ability in the sense of removing them from power, but you could have sanction abilities through, again, maybe an ethics commission that makes sure that if somebody engages in untoward behavior, like corruption or things like that, they’re actually removed from the convention, for example.
In terms of giving accounts, I think they are uniquely equipped to do that. In fact, in the report, which is 170 pages long, you have all the arguments and reasons as to why they supported eutha-nasia and assisted dying under some conditions. You’ve got a lot more accountability, I think, in that report than in the arguments that politicians make or the justification, the spin, according to polls and what’s going to sound good. It’s a lot more sincere, I think, in these assemblies.
For accountability in terms of doing good and avoiding harm, I also think it’s in the structure of the assemblies that they bring in so many different viewpoints, so many perspectives, that it does protect them from making huge mistakes and doing harm, and it helps them do good, actually. For example, there are homeless people who have participated in these conventions. If, say, the con-versation is about housing, it’s very hard for people who are landlords to look somebody in the eye who’s susceptible to eviction or something like that and say, “Well, we have to do it this way be-cause otherwise I’m losing money.” Their sheer presence, their physical presence, changes the na-ture of the conversations.
Luigi: Your method is so interesting that one wonders, where do you stop? Should we apply that to firms? Should we apply them to universities? Should we apply them to hospitals?
Hélène Landemore: That’s a very good question because one criticism I get a lot is like, “Ah, but your solution to everything is citizens’ assemblies." And I can only answer, “Yes,” because it’s a systemic answer. It’s not like you’re going to do one citizens’ assembly for one particular problem, it’s that I really want the whole system to be redesigned around the ordinary citizens instead of elected assemblies. I think we got the design wrong in the 18th century, and if we have to change things, it’s going to take a radical reshaping and a set of reforms that run deep. And it’s not just at the political level but the economical level as well.
Frankly, I think that’s why unions and parties are so unpopular right now. It’s because they’re still based on this elitist logic of, “Oh, the people who are the most active and visible and talk the loudest are going to be on top of those institutions.” I think you could introduce some random se-lection in the way leaders of unions are selected, in the way the directors of hospitals are selected, so that nurses have access. I think you plant that seed, and I think you can grow all kinds of things that would be very good for all of us.
Bethany: Thank you so much for your time. This was really interesting, and thank you for your work, and thanks for coming on our show.
Hélène Landemore: Thank you so much.
Bethany: Did she convince you? Or maybe a better way to ask that question is, how skeptical were you going in? It sounds to me like you’re inclined to agree with her on some level. Maybe I’ll ask that as a two-part question. Did you need convincing, and if so, did she con-vince you?
Luigi: You are very perceptive because I think I feel I’m a bit biased and for two reasons. One is that she is trying to improve democracy in the direction of making it more democratic. These days, I’m afraid that people are trying to go in the opposite direction to say that we should not let people vote, or if we vote, we should disregard the vote if it doesn’t turn out the way we want.
I have to say with some disappointment that our former guest Vivek Ramaswamy, who, as you know, is running for president, came out recently with a proposal to actually eliminate the vote for people between 18 to 25, I think, unless they either do six months of civic service or they pass a test on their civicness, which is generally required if you want to get American citizenship. I’m nervous when people start going in the direction of reducing voting rights. I think that this is a trend, and she’s actually bucking that trend. I like people who buck a trend.
Second, she runs against all the stereotypes of the French intellectual. I think the French intel-lectuals tend to be very Cartesian. “We know what the right thing is, and from the top we distrib-ute to the masses.” She actually believes in the wisdom of the crowd. And so, she is to me like a modern Tocqueville. There is nobody like a foreigner to appreciate a great institution inside the United States. I think she does appreciate great institutions, including the American jury system. I think for many Europeans, the American jury system seems crazy, but I think that there is a wisdom in that that we often ignore.
Bethany: What do you make of the fact that there is this, I’m going to call it an antidemocratic strain, running through the very founding of America? As we were talking about this, I was thinking about a couple of interesting quotes. One is by Alexander Hamilton. He said this, “The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one feature of good government. Their very character was tyranny. Their figure, deformity. When they assembled, the field of debate presented an ungovernable mob, not only incapable of deliberation but prepared for every enormity.”
And then there was another one by . . . This isn’t actually a direct quote, but it’s James Madi-son, who too believed that direct democracies, like the assembly in Athens, unleashed popular passions that overcame the cool, deliberative reason prized above all by Enlightenment thinkers.
It raises two questions for me. One is, why was there this almost antidemocratic sentiment, or this skepticism of the people, running through the very country that was supposedly founded to express the will of the people? Then, secondly, is there any truth to that? When you have the pro-cess she is proposing, do you have more emotion and less reason? If you do, does that necessarily lead to a worse outcome?
Luigi: First of all, let me break it to you, but the United States is not a de-mocracy; it’s a republic. The Founding Fathers were not democratic at all. They were actually re-publicans in the . . . And there is a long tradition, actually, of them opposing the government by the many, including the electoral colleges that are still with us.
Now, I am sympathetic with some of the concerns that the Founding Fathers had at the time, first of all, because there was no precedent of a democracy since the time of Rome. There was a lot of uncertainty about what would work or not. And two, because the average level of education was much, much lower, this idea that only an elite could be better informed to govern, I think was more justified then than it is certainly now.
But what I find intriguing about what Hélène is saying is that it’s not really governance by the mob because she actually puts something in between a referendum and the people. Let me make an example very, very clear. One of the biggest objections people have about the referendum is the Brexit referendum. Now, I don’t think you should necessarily judge institutions on the basis of whether you like the outcome or not, but that was a poorly conceived referendum to begin with. It was not a discussion about proposal A versus proposal B. It was a discussion between the existing reality and a dream, versus situations like in Ireland, where, when it came to determine, for exam-ple, the law governing abortion, et cetera, they had one of these mini-publics that Hélène talks about deciding what kind of formulation is more likely to have the agreement of a majority. But then they put that proposal to a decision of the public at large.
So, there is a form of direct democracy, but it’s not complete direct democracy based on the exploitation of some feelings by some leaders. I think that the fear, in my view, of direct democra-cy is only when you have some very powerful leaders who are very good at manipulating the crowd, and they use this manipulation for perverse objectives. Think about Mussolini, think about Italy, think about a lot of the dictators of the 20th century. Hélène is not going for this plebiscitari-an democracy. She has something in between, which I find very intriguing.
Bethany: Yeah, I agree with you. I think it’s also a chicken-and-an-egg ques-tion. In other words, in America, so few people show up to vote. You saw what happened in Chica-go recently. The mayoral election, I think we had, what, 30 percent voter turnout. It’s just tragic. And you could say that that proves that her system, her ideas, won’t work here because people don’t care enough.
But of course, the counter could be that people don’t care enough because they feel like they don’t actually have a voice, and what they do doesn’t matter. And so, her system, her ideas, could also be a way more broadly to fix apathy because if people start to realize they have a voice in at least some aspects of this, then maybe they’ll care more about the rest of it.
Luigi: Yeah, I completely agree. I think that when you have low participation, the only ones participating for sure are the people with a very strong interest at stake. I think the reason why we have a huge police problem in America is because mayors don’t rule over the po-lice; the police rule over the mayor. Why? Because the police are very active in the election.
I think the problem of low participation is not only reducing the value of democracy, but really almost destroying its essence. The idea behind this democracy with this mini-public is that once you are chosen to do this role, most people take it incredibly seriously.
If you are one of the 100 people who have to decide the new law about euthanasia in the United States, or even just a proposal that would go to a referendum on euthanasia, this is incredi-bly empowering, and most people take it very seriously. Now, if you are simply one of the people who votes for somebody who is not going to listen to what you do, et cetera, you end up not vot-ing. But in that particular case, I think people are more civic-minded than we make them out to be, but not as much as to do everything that we expect them to do.
Bethany: I still do worry, though—and I think she agrees with this—but what gives me pause is that even in a supposed open forum where everybody has a voice, the rules about who speaks when, and how people speak, and what’s allowed to be spoken about, and who shapes the conversation can really play a huge role in dictating the outcome of even something that appears to be very, very much driven by equality and very participatory. I think that’s my big-gest concern, that her system could be not just hijacked by a figure in a time of passion, like Musso-lini or Hitler, but also that on more seemingly banal decisions, it could be hijacked just by the very setup. But I think she is very aware of that.
Luigi: To me, it is where all the bodies are buried, because the kind of news that you feed and the kind of agenda you set . . . She even said—which I thought was interesting and valuable—that you have some psychologists on the side to help people. But psychologists are also very good at manipulating people, so if a big decision is at stake, there is the risk of the psy-chologists manipulating that on the back side.
And as you pointed out, there is very little accountability, at least in one sense of the word. She claims that the way you make it difficult is, number one, these people serve for a limited peri-od. So, it is more difficult for any vested interest to capture because you need to set up the sys-tem. And two, there is some peer accountability when you work there. At some level, I buy it. How effective this is in practice, that’s what I’m nervous about, and in particular, I’m nervous because of this infrastructure. If the psychologist is a psychologist that works there all the time, then that psy-chologist will be incredibly influential in all the decisions, and all the vested interests will go through that psychologist.
Bethany: Yeah. I agree with you. When I think of the sophistication of the lobbying mechanisms in America, in the way so many of them are so shadowy and take just deep excavation by the press, even at the best of moments, to figure out who’s funding what and why things are happening the way they are, I just worry that our country is too much of an expert in the dark arts for something like this not to be hijacked.
Luigi: I agree. On the positive side, however, I think it is a system to reduce the cognitive load of democracy because in an ideal world, we would like people to opine on eve-rything, because if there is this collective wisdom, that’s the best way to do it. However, having everybody involved in everything is super, super costly. If you force people to vote on everything, they’re probably not going to be as informed as you would like. The idea of randomly selecting some people and at least use that to coalesce a common proposal, I think is a very good idea that should be experimented with.
It is not just in the political arena. As you know, I’m a very big supporter of corporate democra-cy, but one of the challenges that people have is that there is so much diversity within the share-holders, even within the workers, within customers, that it is very hard to convey that information to companies in any constructive way.
I think the idea of randomly selecting either workers, or customers, or even shareholders to bring a coherent proposal on some moral issues . . . I was discussing with my students the issue of Disney and Ron DeSantis. The interesting part is that most of the pressure against the law that De-Santis approved was coming from a subsidiary of Disney, Pixar, where the creative people are. To my understanding, most of these people live in California. So, you have a group of employees in California pushing the Florida employees, a company operating in Florida, to change a law in Flori-da. I challenged my students, “What if the majority of employees are in China, and we have the Chinese employees forcing a US company to lobby to change a US law, how would you feel about it?” Of course, there was a lot of strange reaction.
Bethany: Oh, my goodness, that is absolutely fantastic. And it does make me think, maybe we should do a separate episode on Disney versus DeSantis. Maybe you and I should just discuss it. I think we should have some fun with that one.
I’m going to wrap up any comments I have to say just by saying that I’m really glad we did this. I’m really glad we talked to her, and I’m really glad to think about it just because it opened my eyes to possibilities. I’m not sure they can become actualities in America, but you never know. It takes getting the possibility out there first.
Luigi: Yeah. I think that, actually, I got convinced that this is something to experiment with in companies. For example, if you want to know what your workers want, think about the issue of, do we like this law? We don’t like this law. Do we accept that a company lob-bies in this favor or not? After all, ironically, the Citizens United decision was based on a conception of corporate governance that is not the one we have. And the justices said that the reason why corporations should have a voice is because they simply represent the stakeholders that are involved, including the employees and the consumers.
The problem is that there is no way to actually listen to that in any organized way, and, really, sampling all of them and making sure they are informed, et cetera, is extremely expensive. In plac-es where there are unions, you can delegate to the unions, but the unions can have a particular agenda. So, selecting some workers in a random way and giving them a bunch of information to choose the problem and then make a proposal to the board, for example, I think that would be a really, really good way to experiment with this.
Bethany: I love that idea. I think it is doable within corporations, and that makes a ton of sense to me because I never really focused on that language in Citizens Unit-ed until you just said it. But it strikes me as completely false. I think corporations are totally undemocratic, per the example you just gave of what’s happening with Disney. I think they are sub-ject to being hijacked by the loudest voices in the room. I think they’re at the whim of the share-holders who do care and carry the loudest stick, and I think they’re all, in the end, ultimately sub-ject to the bottom line. And so, they’re not democratic at all. Putting in place something like this would be a really interesting challenge to the . . . It might be a way to make stakeholder capitalism more than just a phrase, something that actually has some bite to it.
Research examines people’s willingness to cut ties with companies whose actions they deem immoral or unethical.How Much Will Consumers Sacrifice for a Moral Stand?
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