2009/01/27

Dynamics of Deliberation

It is sometimes said that the essence of republican government is representation, but that is not correct. Its essence is deliberation. Representation comes when it becomes unwieldy for groups to deliberate directly, either because there are too many deliberants, or they have too much business to decide.

This matter is discussed in my Introduction to Constitutional Conventions: Their Nature, Powers, and Limitations, by Roger Sherman Hoar (1917).

Any scheme of representation must represent a balancing of several conflicting utilities:
1. Representation of diverse interests and expertise so that the body can avoid errors in their decisions.
2. Representation of interest groups in proportion to their numbers, so that distributive decisions can accurately weigh those interests.
3. Allow agendas that allocate enough time to every question for all views to be heard by all members of the body and commented on by all of those who wish to do so.

Experience indicates that there is a practical limit on the size of deliberative bodies, either of primary members or their representatives, if they have much business to decide. This emerges in the ways bodies of more than about 30 members tend to break up into committees of less than 15 members, each of which allows testimony and creates a record that nonmembers can read and comment on, but which otherwise limits the number of active discussants and the time each gets to make their points. Bodies of more than about 400 become extremely unwieldy if they have more than about a dozen questions of some complexity.

The throughput limits of deliberative bodies can be seen in such deliberative bodies as the U.S. Congress or the parliaments of most modern nations. About 20,000 bills are introduced in the U.S. Congress each year. That is more than any of the members can even read, much less deliberate on. As a practical matter only a few of those can survive a filtering process involving staffers and committees, during which what was originally proposed can be and often is substantially altered or even reversed in its intent or effect. Most of the real work and decisionmaking is done by the staffers, often influenced more by their handlers outside Congress than by their nominal supervisors, mainly because of the volume of business.

Some have proposed that to be more representative, representative assemblies need to be made larger. They cite that the original U.S. Constitution had each member of the U.S. House of Representatives represent about 30,000 citizens. That was based on the population of the U.S. in 1787, and when the size of the House became unwieldy, its size was fixed at 435, where it remains to this day, and each member represents about 700,000 persons.

A constituency of 30,000 was originally seen as appropriate in large part because it is infeasible to expect a representative to personally know or listen to more than about 3000 persons, which was about the size of a populous county in 1787, and that only about 3000 out of a population of 30,000 would seek to be heard. (The largest cities, Boston, Philadelphia, and New York, had populations of only about 20,000 each, small towns by today's standards.) Today 3000 is about the population of a voting precinct. Government by town meeting worked when not more than about 300 would show up at a meeting, but was soon abandoned when the numbers greatly exceeded that.

If 3000 persons want to talk to their representative every year, that is about 10 a day. If the representative allocated each one more than about 15 minutes each, or 2.5 hours a day, he wouldn't have time to actually do the work that he would be expected to do. (In the realities of today's permanent political campaign process, each member has to spend most of his time on fundraising and has to leave the deliberation and other work to staffers.)

Congress receives more than 200,000,000 communications a year. That is more than 1000 per member per day. A member of the U.S. House typically gets about 200-500 letters a day from constituents, which can increase to many thousands during peak periods. (Postal letters, since the anthrax attacks, are processed in a way that delays them several weeks.) The average member has 14 staffers, 8 in the Washington office and 6 in the district office. That is barely enough to count the mail, or count positions on a list of issues, much less give consideration to complex content or positions on issues not on the list. Their main job is to serve as gatekeepers on access to their member, which is often strongly influenced by the advantage to their member of getting re-elected if access is granted. Members soon realize that those granted most access are most important to getting re-elected, even if they don't know the details of whether that is based on money donated or voter influence.

Numerous proposals have been made to make at least the U.S. House of Representatives more "representative". Some have addressed the ways election districts are drawn. The Voting Rights Act tries to legislate against "dilution" of "majority minority" districts, which is becoming mathematically impossible but is politically untouchable. Some have argued for a proxy system, others for sortition, which is the only method anyone has found to dispel the undue influence of special interests discussed in public choice theory. On theoretical and practical grounds some form of most of these has more merit than increasing the sizes of deliberative assemblies.

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