Merit vs. Mirror
From "The Trouble With Elections: Everything We Thought We Knew About Democracy is Wrong," Chapter 7.2
Another fundamental disagreement on representation is whether representatives should be typical of ordinary citizens, or should be exceptional. In Plato’s Republic, while criticizing democracy and proposing rule by philosopher kings, Plato famously used the analogy of a ship pilot. It was as foolish to use a lottery to pick one’s rulers, as to select the captain of a ship. He asserted that there were a set of specific skills and traits appropriate to each task that average citizens wouldn’t possess. The debate about the merits of popular democracy versus rule by an elite political class (whether royalty, or an elite political class of “guardians”) has persisted for eons. The analogy of the expert ship captain steering the ship of state coined by Plato is still used.
Edmund Burke also believed that representatives should be men of superior wisdom and ability. Like many aristocrats of his time, he believed such men were to be found in the upper classes. It wasn’t intellectual ability or knowledge he sought, but rather moral virtue, good judgment and reason, which he felt were derived from experience. Burke imagined that political questions had morally correct answers, which wise representatives could ascertain. While the people were suited for identifying oppression, Burke used a medical analogy to explain the role of the elite in government. The average people
“are the sufferers, to tell the symptoms of the complaint; but we know the exact seat of the disease, and how to apply the remedy.”
The irony, of course, is the fact that a physician of that time would be likely to use bloodletting to drain bad humors, harming or even killing the patient. Such elevated, but faulty, self-assessments of the abilities of political elites continues today.
A leading orator and statesman of the French Revolution, the Count of Mirabeau, used a map analogy, rather than Adams’s portrait analogy, in stressing the importance of a legislature mirroring the people. Clarence Hoag and George Hallett quote Mirabeau in 1789 in their book Proportional Representation, saying:
“A representative body is to the nation what a chart is for the physical configuration of its soil: in all its parts, and as a whole, the representative body should at all times present a reduced picture of the people – their opinions, aspirations, and wishes, and that presentation should bear the relative proportion to the original precisely as a map brings before us mountains and dales, rivers and lakes, forests and plains, cities and towns. The finer should not be crushed out by the more massive substance, and the latter not be excluded; the value of each element is dependent upon its importance to the whole and for the whole.”
A few delegates to the Philadelphia convention advocated for mirroring. James Wilson stated that the government ought to possess
“the mind or sense of the people at large. The legislature ought to be the most exact transcript of the whole society. Representation is made necessary only because it is impossible for the people to act collectively.”
But, Bernard Manin notes that the bulk of the framers of the US constitution, like Hamilton and Madison, did not, in fact, see representation
“as an approximation of government by the people made technically necessary by the physical impossibility of gathering together the citizens of large states.” [Manin points out that they believed that representatives] ``should rank higher than their constituents in wealth, talent, and virtue.”
Manin refers to this dynamic of elections as the “principle of distinction.”1
During the ratification debates for the new Constitution, Federalists and Anti-Federalists alike saw the election process as naturally favoring men of wealth, especially from “large” districts, regardless of whether there were property requirements for being a representative or for voting. Federalists often favored both large electoral districts as well as property requirements specifically to make it more likely that the wealthy and successful would be elected. Many of those who opposed the proposed constitution preferred keeping power at the individual state-level with the argument that average men, the “yeomanry,” had a better chance of winning elections there.
While sortition itself was not debated during the Constitutional convention, during the ratification debates the Anti-Federalists did object to the oligarchic nature of large elective districts provided for in the Constitution (and by “large” they meant Congressional districts with just 30,000 residents).2 They feared that farmers, mechanics and small merchants could never get elected to the House of Representatives. Writing under the pseudonym “Brutus” a leading New York Anti-Federalist anticipated Manin’s “principle of distinction” in writing in 1787:
“ According to the common course of human affairs, the natural aristocracy of the country will be elected. Wealth always creates influence, and this is generally much increased by large family connections: this class in society will for ever have a great number of dependents; besides, they will always favour each other – it is their interest to combine – they will therefore constantly unite their efforts to procure men of their own rank to be elected.”
With near universal suffrage today, Americans seem to have embraced a more democratic vision of who should grant consent. But this does not necessarily apply to the issue of whether the actual rulers should be elite, even if not a class of propertied white men as intended by the framers of the Constitution. Yet, the notion that the winners should earn their seats through “merit” is deeply ingrained. America is often referred to as a “meritocracy,” even if we doubt the merit of those actually elected to Congress. The very idea that we should be represented by merely “average” fellow citizens is subject to ridicule, akin to when U.S. Senator Roman Hruska defended President Nixon’s nomination of Harold Carswell to the U.S. Supreme Court, saying “Even if he is mediocre, there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers. They are entitled to a little representation, aren’t they, and a little chance?” This is a key argument offered against sortition, and will be a focus of subsequent chapters.
In modern times many people associate merit and education, and indeed, typically over 95% of the members of European parliaments and the US Congress have a college education, often from prestigious universities. However, Michael Sandel, in his book The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?, notes that practical wisdom and civic virtue are not developed in such institutions.
“And recent historical experience suggests little correlation between the capacity for political judgment, which involves moral character as well as insight, and the ability to score well on standardized tests and win admission to the elite universities. The notion that ‘the best and the brightest’ are better at governing than their less-credentialed fellow citizens is a myth born of meritocratic hubris.”
Even if one accepted that it was desirable to select representatives who were better than the average citizen, is it safe to assume that elections actually select for “superior” citizens? Approval ratings of Congress commonly sink into single digits, and a poll conducted by Rasmussen Reports in April 2013 found that just five percent of likely voters believed that Congress and their staffs could be described as the “best and brightest.” There is plenty of anecdotal evidence, however, that elections tend to attract candidates with what psychologists term the “Dark Triad” of personality traits — narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. These and other psychological tendencies of politicians will be a major focus of later chapters.
Elections, unlike random selection, allow for the use of rational thought and good reasons in selecting rulers. But elections also promote the use of irrational bias and bad reasons – or corruption. It is this avoidance of bad reasons and corruption that is central to many past decisions to use sortition. This tension between being typical, and being the best, is generally glossed over today. But I would argue elections fail to satisfy either vision (neither merit nor mirror) of who we should have representing us.
My own state of Vermont with no property requirements and a history of direct town-meeting democracy, wherein ordinary residents could act as a town legislative body, formalized this principle of distinction in its original 1777 constitution with a specification that the state legislature “shall consist of persons most noted for wisdom and virtue.” (Chapter II Section VII https://sos.vermont.gov/vsara/learn/constitution/1777-constitution/#ChapterII)
By “large” districts they meant those of over 30,000 residents, which is the minimum size for Congressional districts set in the constitution (though this is now approximately three quarters of a million residents per Representative, exacerbating the bias towards wealth). While the Federalists favored this bias, viewing men of wealth as likely a better repository of public spirit, many Anti-Federalists were opposed, believing the Representatives should have a “likeness,” “resemblance,” and “closeness” to the people. As the nation grew, additional seats were added to the House of Representatives. But in 1911 Congress fixed the size at the current 435 seats, regardless of population growth. As a result, Congressional districts have grown in population size and now must represent around 750,000 residents. This is one of the most extreme constituent to representative ratios among the world’s national legislatures, and average citizens have effectively no chance of serving.