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Threats to democracy

Along with the phrase bad actor, one of my other big rhetorical pet peeves is calling things “threats to democracy.” AI seems to get mixed up in this kind of name-calling all too frequently (and perhaps deservedly). I’ve just heard it so many times that it’s lost all meaning. How can literally everything be a threat to democracy?

Actually, I think that’s true: literally everything is a threat to democracy – including and especially democracy itself. The so-called tyranny of the majority being one of the most notable threats under majoritarian systems. It’s all very fragile, which is why there are things like checks and balances, division of powers among branches, bicameral legislatures, etc. James Madison in Federalist No. 10 said that factionalism was the natural state of humans, and all you could seek to do was aim to manage its effects.

Every time I hear that something is a “threat to democracy” though, I always laugh because, well, we’d have to first actually have democracy for that to be the case, no? We have representative democracy (a republic, actually) after a fashion, but we don’t have true direct democracy. And if we did, would we be happy then either?

Maybe. But maybe not. In my AI lore book, Inside the Council, I go into how after the AIs takeover, they encounter increasing resistance from humans, such that they form a sort of token council to represent the humans, appointing prominent resistance leaders into positions of power. But the ordinary members are chosen through sortition, or by lottery essentially, like a jury:

…is the selection of public officials or jurors using a random representative sample. This minimizes factionalism, since those selected to serve can prioritize studying the policy decisions in front of them instead of campaigning. In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.

A principle characteristic of democracy that is…. largely ignored now? That seems weird. Wikipedia goes on to quote Aristotle:

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.

Wikipedia is at a loss, however, to definitively say why in a revival of other ancient forms of democracy, the Framers of the US Constitution left sortition on the cutting room floor. The answer seems obvious: that then as now, the balance of desire tipped in favor of oligarchy rather than what was considered by Madison “mob rule” in direct democracy. But for someone who was supposedly against factions and partisanship, he seems to have axed a somewhat viable tool in sortition, where candidates could not be unduly influenced by any interest if who might actually win could simply not be predicted because it was decided at random.

Anyway, I don’t have a grand conclusion here, just more on-going lingering (and malingering) thoughts. Let’s end on this interesting piece by Tim Dunlop on sortition.


Sovereign AI


After nation-states

1 Comment

  1. Tim B.

    i wanted to get into these two AI lore books also but ran out of steam while writing, so making a note of them here:

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