Arnold Kling  

Participatory Dictatorship

More Rebooting America ... Libertarian Misanthropes...

Stephen R. Shalom has a proposal to re-scale government institutions.

I propose that legislative functions be carried out by a system of nested councils. Here is one way that such a system might function.

There would be primary-level councils that would include every adult in the society. The number of members in these primary-level councils would be somewhere between 25-50. Each primary-level council would choose a delegate to a second-level council. (Each second-level council would be composed of 20-50 delegates, probably the same size as the primary councils, but not necessarily so.) Likewise, each second-level council would choose delegates to third-level councils, and so on, until there was one single top-level council for the entire society.

At the top, about the fifth or sixth level, would be the ultimate council of deciders, although sometimes decisions get referred back down to the primary level. It reminded me somewhat of my essay We Need 250 states, although I was trying to enhance checks and balances, not to promote participatory democracy.

I recommend reading Shalom's entire article. He is a socialist, and so he thinks that democracy will be easy once class conflict has been eliminated. So what looks to me like an architecture for dictatorship looks to him like a beautiful system for making democratic decisions.

But he has an interesting safety valve.

One further check on the tyranny of the majority is the right of secession, a right which would be recognized constitutionally.

He would forbid secession if the seceding unit has "a disproportionate share of the common resources" or if it would "use secession as a means of oppressing some minority within its borders."

That would be fine with me, as long as the body that rules on the legality of secession does not evolve an arbitrarily expansive definition of "common resources" or "oppression" or "minority."

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CATEGORIES: Political Economy

COMMENTS (7 to date)
Alex J. writes:

The process begins when the workers of a city elect their local soviet. This body holds both legislative and executive power for that city. (The idea is identical to the Paris Commune.) The local soviets choose their delegates for their county soviet. These county soviets in turn elect their provincial soviet. Lastly, the provincial soviets then choose their delegates for the regional soviet. Each soviet has legislative-executive power over the territory it governs. This elective process of a group of soviets electing the council above it continues until the national soviet, which is the supreme governing body of the nation.

It worked so well the last time!

Sorge L. Diaz writes:

Oh, goodness, he thinks he's found something new? Communist dictatorships use that system: from the local level up to the Central Committee, everybody MUST participate. In practice, though, all the important decisions are made by the Central Committee.

It is not only a blueprint for tyranny, but a true-and-tried blueprint.

Alex J. writes:

An alternative to the nested-council idea is selection of legislators by lot. With 435 random citizens serving in the House, you'd have a fairly representative sampling. Unlike a voter spending a moment in a booth, a randomly selected legislator would at least have the opportunity to become informed over the course of his term. Also, he wouldn't have time to set up an elaborate system of patronage. OTOH, he wouldn't have the prize of reelection to keep him in line.

Dan Weber writes:

I like the concept of election by lottery, but one fear is that the lobbyists will then take over. I don't know if that's true or not. I'd like to see it actually tried someplace.

Kurbla writes:

Sorge is right. Such kind of multilevel delegate system is democratic in theory, but very fragile. People on the low level are amateurs, not wealthy, with ordinary existential problems, known only by few people. Hence, some unformal organization can corrupt them or frighten them much easier.

Unlike that, in parliamentary system, you have few hundreds of very powerful and relatively wealthy people. They can be corrupted - but they are so powerful that even then, they still challenge the dictator wannabee; if they are intimidated, they are known to whole country and whole country will be informed if someone beaten them, and they can easily fly away and search for asylum if they have to. So, 100 on top are much tougher problem for dictatory wannabee than 10000 on the bottom - I said, even if they are corrupted.

That's why Chavez tries to establish such political system. He already has parallel organizations suitable for intimidation of the delegates on the low levels, but he is not powerful enough to do the same on the parliamentary level.

Unfortunately, many people do not understand that, and they believe that such kind of democracy guarantee more power to the ordinary people. It is not the case. At least not on the current level of human conciousness.

Dain writes:

The more representative, and less directly participatory, the greater the threat of principal-agent problems. This is called the Iron Law of Oligarchy, if one recalls.

That right of secession is a nice out, surprising coming from a socialist, as they tend to believe that the right to opt out is the genesis of inequality. They're probably right. Proudhon called this tendency of statist socialism the "cult of association".

liberty writes:

Sorge L. Diaz is exactly right. This was precisely the system used by the Soviet Union. Every detail.

The centralization of the democratic system was part of what made it a tyranny (you could not vote out the top level person, like you can vote out a president, so if there is dissatisfaction it must creep all the way up by first voting out the local council, until the local council votes out the higher council, etc). Of course, common ownership was the primary tyrannical mechanism. But centralization of democracy ensured that the plan could go through without real dissent.

Secession was also legal in the Soviet Union so long as it wasn't used "as a means of oppressing some minority within its borders."

This is not an idea for some future society, this is a description of a society which already existed for 75 years. It is also a perfect example of why we need to study the Soviet Union more, because it seems nearly everyone can still be fooled by its ideas, having not learned why they failed.

As to your contingency on which you would agree to try this system again:
When are government definitions ever not arbitrary and expansive?

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