AR; of pyramidal democracy

How could deliberative democracy be put into practice? To tackle the threefold problem involved (that of scope, competency, and required time commitment), Marcus J. Pivato proposes a model of pyramidal democracy (find the original article here).

This model consists of several tiers built on top of one another. On the lowest tier, citizens self-organize into small groups to deliberate about public matters. Each group then delegates the most competent person to the tier above; and the process is recursively repeated on the upper tiers too. Participants in the deliberation receive financial incentives; the result being, ideally, a meritocratic pyramid of deliberative groups, where everyone does have a say, and where information travels both from the bottom to the top, and from the top to the bottom. (What about peer-to-peer communication though…?)

This is a radical arrangement, in the sense that it expects every citizen to participate – even children could be involved -, and it proposes to replace the party-based representative democracy. The deliberative pyramid would instead act as a “fourth branch” of the government, in cooperation with the other three.

I think this is an interesting concept, but one that is also seriously flawed in a number of respects.

To begin with the trivial, I have serious concerns about the practical feasibility of such an arrangement. Pivato does back up the proposal with mathematical models, arguing that this system could not only work, but also be flexible yet stable at the same time; but he doesn’t take administrative costs into account; which I think would be substantial. This would require an immense administrative apparatus; one that would not only have to take care of every single deliberative group, but also to establish and maintain communication between the peers and across the different tiers; to clarify what the agenda is etc.

More importantly, I think the model rests on a number of questionable assumptions.

It supposes that the most competent person would ascend the pyramid; i.e. from each group the person with the best arguments would be delegated to the tier above. But why would this be so? Pivato doesn’t make the crucial distinction between consensus-oriented deliberation and bargaining; and still expects everyone to have the same chance in the debate, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

The model also assumes that a society where everyone is politically active, and where every public matter is solved somehow through public deliberation, is something we should set as a goal. Even if we accepted that such high levels of political activism are not extremely unrealistic, would this really be a good thing? The importance of the private, of non-political behaviour, of keeping away from public matters, have long been emphasized by scholars and thinkers of various disciplines; so all I can say here now is — seriously? :o/

In sum, I think that a pyramidal setting could work well when organizing small-scale deliberation, and Pivato’s article is commendable for backing up such an organization with mathematical models. But it would be a mistake to establish deliberative democracy “in a large polity” by extending small-scale deliberation to it; it would result in an arrangement which might be formally or procedurally correct (although this would require an immense administrative apparatus), but as for the substance, deeply flawed.

Pivato, Marcus J. (2009): “Pyramidal Democracy”, in Journal of Public Deliberation, 5(1), Article 8.

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