Monday, March 13, 2017

Akan Epistemic Democracy

A colleague made a literature request of me, so I reacquainted myself with work on Asante political structures in order to be able to give him better advice. Just a very quick note on what I am finding.

I am struck by two features of the (I think largely 19th C.) Asanteman political order -- 1 ) the actual ideas behind it seem pretty good, as despotisms go. The author I am reading has somewhat different focuses than I do, so I'll redescribe what they said (or so it seems to me!) to try and make salient social epistemic features of this system. It seems that in the ideal case social decisions in Asanteman were made after a period of lengthy consultation that went as follows. Village elders host consultations with community members about the matter at hand, each elder taking testimony from their own clan. The elders then meet, discuss the matter until they reach a consensus to their own satisfaction, and either make a decision themselves if the issue only affects their village, or transmit their reasonings and decision upwards to a higher council if it is a broader regional issue. Information is meant to flow up a nested chain of deliberation councils, until some point in the chain sufficiently high up such that joint action is needed. At  the lowest level possible, one further deliberation takes place until a decision is made. Each of these deliberation councils will have a chief (or somebody playing a similar role) attached, the decision is officially made by this person -- but they are bound by oath to follow consensus, and only act as a tie breaker should consensus not be possible.

 Thus, in theory at least, by means of the nested chains of deliberation councils, the final decision maker is acting on the basis of pooled information from the entire affected population, with separate regions holding largely independent pools. Just rereading this I think it sounds interesting to model, and I would want a model before pronouncing confidently, but my informed-intuition as a social epistemologist makes me think that this is a system lots of attractive features.

2 ) I was roughly aware of the points in (1), even if when I first read this stuff I hadn't yet refined my intuitions with training in social epistemology. But, what struck me the first time was how very very unrobust this system is to bad decision makers. In theory the above is how it works out, but there is basically no guarantee that the people charged with transmitting the information upwards or making the final decision actually listen to the counsel they got from the level below. It is always constitutionally possible for somebody at some stage to just make a judgement call, for whatever reason, that ignores what they have been told, and either transmit up their idiosyncratic opinion or make an idiosyncratic final judgement call as chief. Finally, there is nothing to stop chiefs making `snap decisions' and simply mandating something without first going through the consultation process. (It is of course necessary that this be possible, because the above process is by its nature very slow, and in cases of national emergency it is not applicable.) The literature I am reading is keen to stress that historically chiefs who pulled these shenanigans too often wound up dead or deposed, but still. I should like bad agents to be removable by some means short of coup d'etat. Checks and balances are a fundamentally good feature of government, and Asanteman's constitution was severely lacking in this regard. 

But I have to say, rereading this literature, I am now struck by how far the decentralisation does protect against the worst of this. Decisions are settled at the lowest possible level; if only for practical reasons one rarely transmits all the way up to the Asantehene before decisions get made. This means that one is in effect i ) protected from bad decision makers causing too much trouble, and ii ) can achieve something like the ideal of small scale social experiment, as different regions can make a go at different policy, and observe the consequences therefrom. I do not know if this opportunity was really explored (I am not familiar enough with the history, but from what I do know the tastes of the region ran conservative, making experimentation, or adoption of experiments even where successful, somewhat unlikely). But it is inherent in the system that it is at least possible.

Kwame Gyekye -- ``Liam is largely
but not entirely drawing from my
work in this post. I have cool hair.''
In unfortunate circumstances, I have seen the remnants of this system in action. My uncle passed away, and my aunts went to Ghana for the funeral. While there they witnessed and filmed deliberation taking place regarding how my orphaned cousin was to be cared for. I watched the video, and the system worked as described above. Testimony was heard from various parties. After everyone said their piece, town elders deliberated among themselves and came to a consensus decision. (Being a local decision, no upwards transmission necessary.) It was by all accounts a successful resolution of a somewhat complicated case, and my family were impressed. At the time I did worry that this system seemed unrobust to bad decision makers. But now I read about how this was meant to work in its broader context, I can see that Asanteman's constitutional order actually had more virtue than I gave it credit for. Not to be doughy eyed! It is still a despotism; the tie-breaking agenda-setting chiefs can only be selected from within aristocratic families, and were limited to being men (though women were not excluded from the broader deliberative process). Still, as Gyekye points out -- the system was evolving over time, and if it hadn't have been stamped out by British colonialism who knows what it could have achieved.

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