Peace Magazine: Governing by Juries

Peace Magazine

Governing by Juries

• published May 18, 2024 • last edit May 30, 2024

A Chat with Peter MacLeod about Citizens’ Assemblies

Could we abolish elections and parties and start really governing ourselves by ourselves?

What’s wrong with democracy today? Even in the most progressive societies, most citizens feel deserted by their elected officials. But in a recent video interview with Project Save the World, Peter MacLeod promoted a surprising solution: citizens’ assemblies.

This radically democratic innovation is gaining new credibility and MacLeod heads a Toronto-based firm, MASS LBP, that organizes citizens assemblies for governments. The idea is ancient. For 180 years, ending in 322 BC, Athens was governed entirely by its own citizens instead of by elected representatives. Except for the military leaders, who were elected on the basis of their skills and experience, almost all public offices, including the Council of 500, were filled by lot. Any citizen (always a male) might be randomly selected to serve, just as any citizen today in your own society might be called for jury duty. The use of lotteries helped to pre- vent power from becoming concentrated in the hands of a wealthy or influential few. And direct democracy worked. Could it work today?


Mr.MacLeod’s organization creates assemblies that do not replace our elected representatives but enhance our system by adding seats at the democratic table. The name “MASS” refers obviously to our mass society, in which we have lost some of our social connections, and also to a quotation from Thomas Paine: “There exists in man a mass of sense lying in a dormant state, and which, unless something excites it to action, will descend with him, in that condition, to the grave” Like Paine, MacLeod’s solution is to become more intentional interlocutors and to bring people together. Thus, the latter half of the organization’s name is LBP, or “Led By People.”

Since 2007 MASS LBP has brought citizens into policy-making, having run an estimated 50 assemblies and over 300 completed policy projects for government. These citizen assemblies often work to advance or evaluate a policy proposal that can be appraised by up to 100 people during the deliberative process. To ensure the representativeness of the assembly, MASS employs stratified random sampling. However, recruiting and incentivizing such a large group of people is often a challenge. This often requires the organization to provide childcare, elder care, and for evident financial needs. The citizens assembly is a democratic jury that gives policymakers confidence that its decisions are broadly reflective of public opinion.


How reasonable is it to entrust ordinary citizens with decisions about complicated matters?
Mr.MacLeod’s own view is this: “You don’t ask a parliamentary commit- tee to design a plane, you don’t ask citizens assembly to make a plane, either.” However, you can ask both to deter- mine environmental regulations such as national greenhouse gas emissions and economic measures for neighborhoods affected by aviation. Both forms of representation require additional sources of information.

That sounds right to me.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.40, No.2 Apr-Jun 2024
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