Is Participatory Democracy Smart?

Critics of public participation in decision-making often point to its costs. Participation might be normatively desirable, they say, but it is costly to implement (in time and money) and can undermine policy coherence. The “irrational” public might choose poor policies, or participation might lead to polarization that prevents any policy from being implemented.

But what if participation was not just normatively desirable in its own right? What if it led to better policy results on average?

This idea is controversial, but it is backed by an intriguing literature on “epistemic” democracy – the idea that broad public participation makes democratic regimes “smarter” than others. These arguments for democracy, reviewed and extended in Helene Landemore’s 2012 book Democratic Reason, do not assume current forms of representative government; in fact, they generally argue for more direct participation than is common in modern democracies.

Claims about the “smartness” of democracy turn on our understanding of knowledge and who has it. If a few experts hold relevant knowledge and use it to make the best choices, then we should prefer systems that empower such experts. If, however, useful knowledge is distributed more widely among a population, then expertise is insufficient for making good decisions and we should prefer systems that empower the broader, cognitively diverse public.

Josiah Ober tackles the knowledge question in his 2018 book on Athenian participatory practices. He argues that we need a combination of social and technical knowledge for effective governance. Social knowledge is widespread and encompasses our understanding of how society works, the nature of alliances and oppositions and whom to trust. Technical knowledge is related to the use of specific tools. While it is dominated to some extent by a small group of experts, there are many domains of important technical knowledge in complex societies, so there will be many experts and others “whose mastery of a domain falls short of true expertise, but is much greater than that of most other people.” Thus, even much technical knowledge is more distributed than concentrated.

This idea is consistent with the so-called “knowledge illusion,” which is the theory that most of what we think we know is embedded in networks, rather than in our individual brains. As Sloman and Fernbach argue in their 2017 book by that name, “Language, memory, attention— indeed, all mental functions— can be thought of as operating in a way that is distributed across a community according to a division of cognitive labor,” rather than nested within the brains of individual experts. It is also consistent with evolutionary theory, which sees reason as a collective enterprise organized around persuading others. According to this logic, fully explored in Mercier and Sperber’s 2017 book, The Enigma of Reason, knowledge is a byproduct of social argumentation, and not the property of individuals.

Ober (like Landemore) adds one other important idea – that there is no individual in a complex society, including its experts, who can recognize in advance all of the useful forms of knowledge needed to govern. Participatory democracy, if well-structured, “systematically brings diverse experiences and knowledge-sets to deliberative decision-making processes. Diversity of input brings to the fore latent knowledge possessed by individuals who would not be recognized by elite power holders as experts.”

Ober’s ideas draw on the Athenian approach to knowledge management where they used a lottery to select leaders and ensure that ideas and information were gathered from throughout the community. The structure of Athenian institutions, such as the Council of 500, which set the policy agenda for the citizens’ Assembly, was comprised of members from different parts of the polity that were required to work together and across localized communities. Members of the Council (but also members of small-team boards of magistrates, appointed to manage specific policy areas) served for only one year, ensuring rotation of people, ideas, experiences and forms of knowledge. Participation by a large portion of the population stimulated civic education and contributed directly to a “smarter” polity.

One challenge for epistemic theories of democracy is the conflict between presumed knowledge generation and aggregation methods and the way in which we expect modern democracy to work. For example, the theory of “the wisdom of crowds” (see James Surowiecki’s best-selling 2004 book) suggests that we get smarter results when we aggregate and average independent knowledge from group participants. Therefore, we should actively encourage diversity, discourage consensus and use voting or markets to aggregate.

But most of our norms around democracy do not align well with this argument. Much democratic theory is pluralist, expecting voters to form groups and engage in politics through group pressure. Independent individual participation is less important than group identification. Deliberative democratic theory, on the other hand seeks greater consensus, relying on something closer to a general will than the averaging of individual wills. Deliberative processes are seen to be better precisely because people change their minds through talking to each other, and not through the magic of averaging an array of opinions.

The Athenians partially addressed these contradictions by relying on a variety of mechanisms to populate their institutions, each of which aligned with different ways of eliciting public knowledge. They employed all three major approaches to deciding who would participate in decision-making: random selection, self-selection and election. And they used both independent aggregation by secret ballot, raucous open deliberation and voting by a show of hands.

This eclecticism may also be the direction in which modern advocates for greater democratic participation are headed. Helene Landemore’s new book, not yet out but previewed recently in The New Yorker, advocates for the use of randomly selected teams of citizens deliberating on policy, but also the use of election with majority rule, crowdsourcing (a form of self-selection) and a big dose of transparency. This diversity of means is expected to produce a “smarter” polity overall.

What remains is to think harder about how each of these approaches might best serve the goals of different policy domains, including public finance. I will take up that challenge in a subsequent blog.

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