In Praise of <i>Probouleusis</i>

In Praise of <i>Probouleusis</i>

by / March 3, 2001
In addition to the problems with absentee ballots, voting irregularities, recounts, etc., the recent election demonstrated growing citizen impatience with representative government. The number of citizen initiatives on the ballot has increased significantly in recent years, especially in Western states, and the debates surrounding the issues involved have grown more testy. It is as if citizens have given up on the ability, or even the willingness, of elected representatives to tackle tough issues, much less come up with satisfactory solutions. So the citizens have taken matters into their own hands: an angry mob chanting "quick-fix" solutions for complex problems.

Often, the initiatives are subsequently invalidated on constitutional or other grounds by the courts, but only after bitter legal battles that further inflame emotions. And many of the initiatives that do survive legal challenges eventually create new and worse problems than those they were intended to solve, because they unduly limit legislative and executive options or combine with other initiatives in unanticipated ways. But the initiatives will continue until something is done to alleviate growing citizen frustration with the existing, seemingly unresponsive, political system. Indeed, the situation will become increasingly irrational and chaotic, if not explosive, unless citizens are given greater and more meaningful participation in the decisions of government.

To do this, some persons have advocated eliminating representative government altogether in favor of more direct democracy, such as the "electronic town meetings" proposed by Ross Perot in the 1992 presidential campaign. Others have suggested more frequent interactions between citizens and their elected representatives -- for example, nonstop (but non-rigorous and non-binding) electronic public opinion polling proposed by Dick Morris in his book [Renaissance Books, 1999] (see "Reinventing Politics," March 2000).

Simple, Easy and Wrong

I do not favor the elimination of legislatures, because simple, direct democracy does not work and never has. It degenerates too quickly and too frequently into mob rule. Even legislatures are not immune to this pernicious affliction, which is why we have bicameral legislatures, judicial review and other checks and balances. I remain firmly convinced that some form of representative government is imperative, if only because the issues are so complex that initiatives and opinion polling cant deal with them adequately. Complexity requires deliberation -- as H. L. Mencken said: "For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple and easy, and its wrong" -- and deliberation requires the time and attention of thoughtful and informed persons.

But perhaps the present system can be re-engineered using information technology to reduce the time now required while maintaining, if not improving, the "quality" of decisions as perceived by citizens. Now that the levels of communication and transportation extant in the late 18th century when the Constitution was written no longer limit us, we should seek to use our technology to increase citizen participation and deliberation in the cause of a better society.

Ironically enough, the best way to do this may lie in turning the clock further back to revive the Athenian practice of probouleusis. That is the political scientists term that refers to a process in which a small group of representatives -- elected by popular vote or chosen at random as we do with juries -- is charged with leading the deliberation, delineating options and their respective merits and demerits and determining what should be further debated and then voted upon by all the citizens. Although such an approach might not have been feasible for the number of citizens and their geographic dispersion in the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, technology has greatly improved its viability in the 21st century.

Again ironically, probouleusis could actually facilitate the judicious use of citizen initiative, as well as referendum and recall, because it provides checks and balances against angry mobs. Switzerland and its government practices might serve as a model and a starting point for reinventing democracy along these lines (see Thomas E. Cronins, Direct Democracy: The Politics of Initiative, Referendum, and Recall [Harvard University Press, 1999]). However, because of the much greater size of the United States, some use of information technology would be necessary.

Opponents of change will argue that the cost of proposals like this will be prohibitive. However, given the increasing penetration of PCs and the Internet into American homes, the development of infrastructure -- networks, digital signatures, etc. -- and the public knowledge base for e-business and e-government, the incremental costs could be brought within reasonable limits. Moreover, when compared with the alternative -- that is, increasing political chaos and/or gridlock resulting in growing citizen anger and disrespect for government and the rule of law -- almost any price may be acceptable.