Could National Juries Alleviate the Problem of Political Ignorance?

One of the most serious defects of modern democracy is that most voters know very little about the policies they vote on. Moreover, as I have pointed out on previous occasions, it is rational for them to remain ignorant and to do a poor job of evaluating what limited political information they do know. Political philosopher Jamie Whyte recently focused on the same problem, and proposed an interesting solution [HT: Dan Polsby]:

The reason so many bad policies are good politics is that so many people vote: about 62 percent of adults at the last general election, both in Great Britain and in the United States. The best way to get more sensible policies would be to reduce the number of voters to less than 0.01 percent of the population.

To see why, consider a question that arises in banking. How many bankers should be involved in deciding whether to approve a loan application? The ideal number may vary with the complexity of the application. But the right answer is always, “very few.”

If a loan officer’s initial decision required sign-off by a majority of 100 other bankers, his own judgement would have little effect on the final outcome. So he would have little incentive to think hard about the application and the likelihood that the loan will be repaid. Since this would be equally true for each of the other 100 bankers, none would bother to think hard. Why struggle to make the right decision when your decision will have no effect?

This is the position of voters in a general election. Each individual’s vote makes no difference to the outcome. Even marginal districts are won with majorities of hundreds. If you had stayed home instead of voting, the same candidate would have been elected…

Research into voters’ knowledge shows a stunning degree of ignorance. Most voters would be as likely to vote for the best candidate if they entered the polling booth blindfolded…..

Hence the many foolish policies followed by democratic governments. And hence politicians’ sentimental and grandiose rhetoric. Modern politics is just as you should expect it to be when votes are cast by ignorant people taking advantage of a low-cost source of emotional gratification.

Here is Whyte’s proposed solution, a national jury system:

So what is the best way to improve modern politics? The answer is not to increase voter turnout. On the contrary, the number of voters should be drastically reduced so that each voter realizes that his vote will matter. Something like 12 voters per district should be about right. If you were one of these 12 voters then, like one of 12 jurors deciding if someone should be imprisoned, you would take a serious interest in the issues.

These 12 voters should be selected at random from the electorate. With 535 districts in Congress – 435 in the House and 100 in the Senate – there would be 6,420 voters nationally….

To safeguard against the possibility of abuse, these 6,420 voters would not know that they had been selected at random until the moment when the polling officers arrived at their house. They would then be spirited away to a place where they will spend a week locked away with the candidates, attending a series of speeches, debates and question-and-answer sessions before voting on the final day. All of these events should be filmed and broadcast, so that everyone could make sure that nothing dodgy was going on.

Some will complain that this system would disenfranchise most of the population. It would not, because every adult would be eligible for random selection. Of course, each of us would have a tiny chance of being selected. But, on the current system, it is equally improbable that any individual’s vote will make a difference to the election’s outcome. The difference with this “jury” system is that those whose votes make a difference would know who they are. And that would give them a reason to take the job seriously.

Everything old eventually becomes new again. Whyte’s idea is in some ways similar to a system used by the ancient Athenians. Each year, they selected 500 citizens by lot to serve on the Council of 500, which played a key role in the city’s policymaking. The system functioned reasonably well, but did so in part because of several key differences between Athenian and modern democracy that I summarize in this short essay reviewing historian Josiah Ober’s excellent recent book on political knowledge in ancient Athens.

Would Whyte’s version of the idea work today? I have several doubts.

First, the modern state is extraordinarily large and complex. I doubt that a few days of speeches and debates would be enough for the citizen-jurors to get more than a very superficial knowledge of it. The ancient Athenian members of the Council of 500 served for an entire year, voted on the policies of a much more limited and less complex government, and probably came in with greater knowledge to begin with (for reasons I discussed in my review of Ober’s book).

Second, Congress or some other political body would have to decide who gets to make presentations to the “jurors,” how those presentations would be structured, and so on. Would only the two major parties have the right to present? How long could they speak for and on what issues? I’m skeptical that the political system would produce unbiased solutions to these and other structural problems.

Finally, since there would only 12 voters per district, I am skeptical of Whyte’s claim that “A random selection would deliver a proportional representation of sexes, ages, races and income groups.” With such small groups, one could easily get an unrepresentative set of voters just by random chance. For example, in a district evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, there is a roughly 20% chance that 2/3 or more of the 12 jurors will belong to the same party. This problem could be mitigated by increasing the number of voters. But any major increase in numbers would undercut the whole reason why Whyte proposed the idea in the first place.

As a libertarian, I also dislike the coercion inherent in forcing people to be political jurors for a week, even though it is less severe than the coercion built into the juries we use in the justice system.

That said, I don’t think that this idea and others like it should be rejected out of hand. Perhaps we should adopt a version of it in some local or state government, to see how well it would work. It’s also possible that further research and analysis might reveal ways to mitigate the proposal’s shortcomings. We need more creative thinking about how to mitigate the dangers of political ignorance – including the kind of creativity that unwittingly revives the wisdom of the ancients.