Benet Brandreth proposes selecting the legislature by lot

In a 13 minute speech on BBC Channel 4 radio,

Benet Brandreth argues that our current political discourse is bankrupt, so he proposes a novel solution: a legislature by lot.

Below is my summarized transcript of Brandreth’s talk:

  1. Important things are difficult to understand. They can’t be debated using Facebook comments. They require thought, consideration, research.
  2. Political rhetoric is no longer about persuasion or debate of the issues but cheerleading. This is a symptom and a cause of a fundamental failing of our system of democracy.
  3. The politician doesn’t wish to persuade people but to say something that is pleasing.
  4. The rhetoric tries merely to mobilize sufficient numbers of those who already share our prejudices. It’s about getting out the vote.
  5. Modern technology exacerbates cognitive biases. We are pleased to hear arguments which confirm our existing prejudices. Satellite TV and the Internet allow us to choose content that matches our opinions and we block the little that doesn’t.
  6. It is impossible to sort the accurate information from the biased and irrational noise.
  7. Politicians are not incentivized to educate or to persuade. They want to be re-elected – if nothing else their salaries and pensions depend on it.
  8. A political rhetoric that does not engage but divides is not the right way to make decisions.
  9. The solution to this problem (offered at least as a stimulus for thought) is for the lower house of the legislature to be selected by choosing 600 people at random to serve for 1 year, or maybe 4 year terms, staggered.
  10. Many other potential details will not be touched upon in this talk.
  11. Objection 1: the allotted chamber would not be representative. Answer: it would be representative in the way a jury is. It would not suffer from the self-selection bias of those who have the time and personality to seek power. It would not be made of professional politicians but of regular citizens.
  12. Objection 2: the allotted would be easily swayed by lobbyists and propaganda. Answer: to sway the allotted a persuasive argument would have be made rather than rely on sloganeering.
  13. There is no room for apathy or ignorance in a world in which at any moment you may find yourself dragged from obscurity and into the position of a member of parliament.
  14. For a policy or principle to succeed it would have to commend itself not by pandering to the prejudices and preconceptions of a narrow electorate but because its merits and necessity are made sufficiently clear to a disparate body of 600 people, who legislate without any thought of reelection or a lucrative consultancy to come but because they have been persuaded that it is best for the people, and who will in a short time return to live under the effects of that policy not shielded from it in the strange world of Westminster.
  15. Object 3: how could a body of amateurs be entrusted with coming to the right, the best decision. Answer: the is no right decision. Decisions involve balancing between incompatible principles. What is important is not that we come to the right decision but that we are prepared to live with it even if we disagree with it. Democracy provides not the right answer but the consent of the governed.
  16. A legislature drawn by lot guarantees consent. By being a truly representative body legislating without regard to perpetuating power it comes closer to Lincoln’s government of the people, by the people and for the people than any before.
  17. Current political rhetoric presents intractable politics issues as if they were questions of fact. In reality those decision making requires both educated guesswork and choices about what values to promote.
  18. Modern political rhetoric sees opponents not partners in the quest to discover the best course but an enemy that has to be stopped. To change such patterns of thought we need a revolution.

About these ads

29 Responses

  1. An interesting piece. I liked in particular his argument for sortition in the lower house (rather than the aristocratic senate) and his connection between an allotted legislature and the consent of the governed — assumed by Manin and others to be the reason for the switch from sortition to election.

  2. Too bad it’s not available in the United States.

  3. Oh, never mind. It looks like only the mobile version is region locked.

  4. To Keith Sutherland
    *** You mention “the consent of the governed — assumed by Manin and others to be the reason for the switch from sortition to election”.
    *** The concept of “the consent of the governed” – a concept strong in the Western tradition, but not included by Plato among the rights to rule (Laws, III, 690) – may have been a factor of the vanishing of sortition in the political thought at the end of XVIIIth century – as Manin assumes. But how strong a factor? As far as I remember, in his seminal book Manin gave few historical evidence. Do you know studies about the question?

  5. I challenged Bernard Manin on this point at one of the Paris sortition seminars — in fact his book contains no evidence that the natural rights theory of consent was the reason for the replacement of sortition by election. He became a little indignant at this point, referring me to the section of his book on the Putney Debates. But the Putney Debates were all about the extension of the franchise (and took place 100 years earlier), not the balloting principle. If the prevailing balloting principle had been sortition but amongst a restricted franchise then Rainsborough would have made the same demands. There are many plausible candidates for the strange death of sortition, but the natural rights theory of consent is not one of them. And Brandreth is absolutely right that sortition is a much better way of indicating consent than election.

    I have a paper on this which I would be happy to send you if you like.

  6. @Keith, I’m confused. You seemed to have done a 180 on the consent issue. You recently commented the “consent issue” was an insurmountable obstacle for allotted legislatures. Now you say it is trivial?

    Brandreth presents his points well, but why 600? Why not 12 or 50 or 100 or 1000? Optimal group size is not just an issue of representativity, but one of social psychology. Here’s an article by an economist about some recent findings on “small group intelligence.”
    One could call this article “Faction in Fish”: http://t.co/m827XxAVjD

    Ironically, this issue, the unknown optimal size of groups to reach–no create–decisions is one that was lamented 100 years ago by Mary Parker Follett in “The New State,” a book that tried to combine social psychology and political theory to recommend a deeper democracy.

    Surely we’ve made some progress in social psychology over the last century?

  7. @Ahmed I suspect the large assembly size is due to the open-ended nature of a legislature’s job. Also, the need to be statistically representative favors large assemblies.

    Where the scope is limited to a simple yes/no on a single presented topic I suspect 12 people would usually do better. Even then, you’ll end up with a few unstable individuals in the body from time to time. Which could be a serious problem.

  8. Ahmed,

    >You recently commented the “consent issue” was an insurmountable obstacle for allotted legislatures.

    That is only the case for allotted legislatures that perform functions other than voting — because the variation brought about by individual speech acts will mean that they cease to be statistically representative. If different samples lead to different outcomes then it is not clear which decision those who did not participate would be deemed to consent to. Not so with large juries — I imagine that different juries, presented with the same evidence and advocacy would have returned identical verdicts on Socrates. Whatever the epistemic merits of the decision, no-one can deny its democratic legitimacy. Brandreth’s figure of 600 was probably a nod to the size of the UK parliament — from the perspective of representativity one would wish the sample to be as large as possible, but the threshold is dictated by rational ignorance. If the role of the jury is simply to deliberate in silence and then return a verdict, I don’t see that psychological factors (other than rational ignorance) are relevant.

    Naomi,

    I think the figure of 12 (derived from jurisprudence) is on account of the need for unanimity and is also dictated by cost factors. Also the task of the trial jury is purely epistemic, rather than representing diverse interests. Several hundred would be needed for a legislative jury, assuming the need for representativity.

  9. @Keith
    I am also a bit worried about the content issue. Being new to this, I apologize if my question has been answered often before.

    Lets assume we want to vote on the U.S. Federal budget by sortition. Would that even be a reasonable proposal? My worry is that such a bill would be hundreds if not thousands of pages long, with a lot of details in it. Would the random voters be assumed to understand it? If not, would there not be a danger of transferring a lot of power to the bureauracy, who would ultimately have a lot of sway on how the money actually gets distributed (even more so than now?)?

    Thanks!

  10. to Keith Sutherland
    “Brandreth is absolutely right that sortition is a much better way of indicating consent than election.
    I have a paper on this which I would be happy to send you if you like”
    Please can you send me this paper? Thanks.

  11. HH,

    I doubt whether many elected legislators would have read the bill either. Yes it would transfer a lot of power to the bureaucracy, but I believe in mixed government, not democracy. However in most sortition-based proposals government executives would be subject to removal by censure vote in the allotted parliament.

    Andre,

    I’ll dig out the paper and email it to you tomorrow.

  12. Keith,
    I agree completely. But the quality of deliberation we see in juries is worth reaching for, in my opinion. I’m rather fond of a hybrid approach. Split the country up into a few thousand districts and call a 12 member jury to decide on each individual proposed law in each district. Laws can be proposed from above by an elected executive council, or from below by initiative. If, after a period of deliberation, two-thirds of the members of a jury vote for the proposal, their district is said to support the proposal. If a majority of districts support the proposal, it becomes law. Each jury would be not be anywhere near large enough to be representative, but the tens of thousands of jurors all together most certainly would be. As service would only last a day, the conventional, mandatory, jury duty system can be used as-is. Just with a much higher workload.

  13. Dang it. I copy/pasted on my phone and for some inexplicable reason Firefox mobile pasted three copies into the text box. Apologies. [Fixed. -YG]

  14. *** Keith Sutherland, mentioning the Socrates trial, says” Whatever the epistemic merits of the decision, no-one can deny its democratic legitimacy.” The “epistemic” consideration needs some comments.
    *** Well, Socrates trial was quite exceptional: Socrates became, with some cooperation on his part, a scapegoat after a bloody civil conflict – ended by an amnesty but not without much resentment. Such an historical situation is not especially conductive to high epistemological value of a trial, in any political system.
    *** But we must remember likewise the “primitive” sides of Athenian trials.
    A) The trials were only oral –necessary with half-literate jurors.
    B) The trials were short, only one day – longer trials would have practically exclude citizens other than retired or jobless, as the State could not give a good indemnity
    C) The vote was binary; guilty or not guilty of the alleged crime, without possibility of a more refined verdict– with ancient technology, it was impossible with an huge jury.
    D) If the verdict was “guilty”, the choice of punishment was likewise binary: between the prosecutor proposal and the defender proposal – it allowed for a famous provocation by Socrates.
    *** Many of these defects could be eliminated in a modern dêmokratia, rich, literate and technically developed. Especially computer technology allows for multi-choice and preferential vote (even if the eventual Condorcet effect must be treated by some procedure).
    *** More generally, taking ideas from ancient Athens is logical and useful for modern supporters of “democracy-through-sortition”, but it would be stupid to copy Athenian institutions with their primitive sides, whereas modern conditions allows much smarter systems.

  15. As usual, Andre is correct.

  16. Naomi,

    > Split the country up into a few thousand districts and call a 12 member jury to decide [...]

    The problem with arrangements like this is that they move us back to the “mass politics” arrangement where formally decision making power is equally shared, but in reality formal power is dispersed so thin that informal power inequalities are bound to emerge. This is in fact the situation of mass voting of current electoral system.

    I wrote more about this some time back: here and here.

  17. >As usual, Andre is correct.

    Agreed!

    I’m very attracted to Naomi’s proposal (although it would be rather expensive), but Yoram is right to point out the problem of aggregation. The issue is whether jurors would take the trouble to deliberate properly if they knew that their final vote would be diluted so much as to carry very little causal weight. This is the reason to transfer deliberation from the macro- to the micro-public, and I’m not sure whether Naomi’s suggestion would be able to trump the laws of psychological arithmetic.

  18. Reblogged this on Suefew's Philosophy Blog and commented:
    Excellent points about changing our democratic system to be more inclusive, better deliberated and as such more democratic. I love it.

  19. > The issue is whether jurors would take the trouble to deliberate properly if they knew that their final vote would be diluted so much as to carry very little causal weight.

    This is only one problem with mass politics. The more significant problem is that mass political arrangements do not provide a democratic way for setting the agenda and policy alternatives.

  20. Yoram,

    I believe that Naomi’s comments were limited to the optimum size of juries, rather than their job description, and juries do not set their own agenda. By all means propose full-mandate sortition, but this would pertain to an allotted assembly, not a jury. Brandreth’s argument appears to be for legislative juries.

  21. I tend to favor a hybrid approach. An elected assembly responsible for the executive and able to make legislative proposals from above, and an initiative system for proposing them from below. As much as I dislike direct democracy, initiatives have a lot going for them. And the jury system seems to be the ideal way of deciding which proposals ought to be dismissed out-of-hand and which should be passed on to a higher level for further consideration.

    The need to foster constructive discussion was the reason I suggested a supermajority requirement in each jury. Perhaps it might be better to require a supermajority for both yes and no. The jurors either have to discuss the matter and come up with something resembling a consensus one way or the other, or they have to wait out the clock. I suspect this may give a forceful personalities in individual juries extra sway, but we have a statistically significant number of juries.

  22. Naomi,

    >I tend to favor a hybrid approach.

    Agreed. Your proposal for intermediate scrutiny by allotted juries has a lot in common with a proposal made by Terry Bouricius on this blog. My concern has always been forceful personalities but I guess if you have a large number of juries then this will cancel out (so long as this doesn’t let rational ignorance in by the back door).

  23. > An elected assembly responsible for the executive and able to make legislative proposals from above, and an initiative system for proposing them from below.

    Both of these methods are elitist, not democratic because both are mass political (either through mass elections) or through the initiative process. Once the agenda is controlled by elites, the process cannot be democratic. The effects of rational ignorance caused by the diminishing power of the average participant complete the undemocratic picture.

  24. The issue is immensely more complicated, Keith, Naomi.

    Just to start, there are information cascades, factions, frontrunner effects–not to mention emotions, ideologies, particular interests.

    A sharp distinction between “epistemic” and “deliberative” does not survive close inspection–and it matters little to non theorists anyway. There are two levels of “collective intelligence,” if not more. Maybe corresponding to large and small groups, you have both condorcet jury “aggregation” and the interaction of diverse heuristics. Besides these is the issue of bringing private information from individuals to the group–including how sure each is of her/his “vote” even a simple up or down.

    The digital vote (yeah or nah), whether or not done in secret, misses the important analog reality. People don’t just hold preferences, they also attach different levels of confidence in those preferences. To return to the fish, not only does the direction that each fish turns matter but the confidence with which it does so signal something to the group.

    And this still leaves the “creative” aspects mentioned by Ron, Tom Atlee, M.P. Follett, and others. Deliberative theory attempts to get at this, but I feel it doesn’t quite capture it.

    As far as “consent,” are you having your cake and eating it too? If consent is an issue for you for a deliberative (or small) groups it must be one for a voting (larger) group. But consent is a trap and red herring.

    We consent to little in life. We certainly do not “consent” to the most important facts of our existence. We do not consent to our places of birth, our social classes, our genders, our talents, our educations, our languages. When we reach majority we do not consent to our country of citizenship, its political structure or its economic system. We do not consent to the political parties there before us, or the Constitution they all claim supports only their views. We do not consent to the political philosophy that’s in fashion on our Constitutional courts or in our universities in our lifetime. We do not consent to the voting methods in use or the electoral system that it is a part of.

    Better leave “consent” aside and talk about making institutions and procedures that work. The starting point is not a blank slate, but what we see before us right now.

    My concern is that many are attempting to fit an analog world (of values, preferences, beliefs, knowledge) into a digital mechanism, voting.

  25. Yoram,

    Initiatives are elitist if and only if the threshold to propose one is high. If you only need a few thousand signatures, anyone with a problem and a solution can get the job done with some hard work. Of course, most proposals would be crap, hence the need for a sorted review process before proposals can move on to the actual vote.

    For what little it’s worth, elitism doesn’t bother me. As long as the government’s actions are reasonable, reasonable popular, and don’t infringe on essential liberties I don’t care if my politicians are elected, sorted, or hereditary. I have no ideological commitment to democracy or strict equality. But governments built on democratic principles are, without the faintest shadow of a doubt, better across the board in practice, so I embrace those principles wholeheartedly. To the extent that there is a practical gain.

  26. Naomi,

    > Initiatives are elitist if and only if the threshold to propose one is high. If you only need a few thousand signatures, anyone with a problem and a solution can get the job done with some hard work. Of course, most proposals would be crap, hence the need for a sorted review process before proposals can move on to the actual vote.

    No – there is a fundamental mass-political barrier here that cannot be avoided by changing the parameters of the system. If the threshold is low the review system will be flooded by a torrent of proposals. As a result most proposals will not get any serious attention – any proposal that would be unfamiliar would be rejected out of hand as “crap”.

    In such a situation, the real threshold is not the formal signature threshold but an informal threshold of resources for propagandizing that are used to draw the attention of the reviewers to particular proposals to make them among the few that will receive serious review.

    Fundamentally, as long as the process is one of competition, where there are a large number of potential competitors (candidates or policy proposals) then the dramatic winnowing of the field occurs at a pre-rational stage. Therefore, unless the winnowing happens completely at random, those with some advantage – who can affect the non-rational winnowing process – get to determine the outcome of the winnowing. This is the elitist effect.

    > To the extent that there is a practical gain.

    I agree – the point of good government is to get better policy, not some theoretical aesthetics. So, yes, the advantage of democracy (as opposed to electoral oligarchy or any other form of oligarchy) is that there is a good reason to expect it to produce good policy.

  27. Ahmed,

    None of the social-psychological or epistemic factors that you bring up are of any relevance to the decisions of a non-deliberating jury. Juries return binary decisions — whether or not such decisions adequately reflect analogue reality is not the concern of Brandreth or the respondents in this particular thread. Of course how to create a digital map of analogue reality is a non-trivial problem, my concern being the democratic one of ensuring representativity. As an epistemic democrat, your concerns are different.

    >Consent is a trap and red herring.

    The concerns that you bring up would all be very interesting if this was a forum devoted to existential philosophy. But it isn’t — our concern is Rousseau’s rather prosaic question of how is it possible for everyone in an extended republic to consent to the laws that govern them? If you like I’ll send you my consent-by-proxy paper, but in essence the argument is extremely simple:

    1. Assuming simple majoritarian principles, I would consent to the deliberative decision of a small randomly-selected group in which I participated (and voted) directly.

    2. If a number of such samples returned the same decision outcome then I would consent to the decision as it would make no difference to the outcome whether or not I attended in person.

    Note that this is a deliberative decision and that the groups would be small enough for my decision (or that of my proxies) to have a causal effect, thereby differentiating “make no difference to the outcome” in the minipublic example from the problem of rational ignorance that affects large-scale electoral democracy.

    >Better leave “consent” aside and talk about making institutions and procedures that work

    This is more than a little vague. What do you mean by “work” — returning good epistemic outcomes? Sure, but that’s not the concern of this thread.

    Naomi,

    Delighted to find someone with whom I can agree! On the issue of popular initiatives and elitism Yoram doesn’t acknowledge the democratising inroads made by the internet (and its destruction of media monopolies). It’s comparatively easy to attain the 100,000 signature threshold on the UK government petitions website required to trigger a parliamentary debate.

  28. Ahmed,

    This is Yoram’s synopsis of Brandreth’s (Hobbesian/Rousseauvian) argument on the issue of consent:

    “What is important is not that we come to the right decision but that we are prepared to live with it even if we disagree with it. Democracy provides not the right answer but the consent of the governed.”

  29. I like Naomi’s suggestion a lot. Not because it is the pure gospel, but because it is practical and a realistically achievable plan. For the possible long term goal of determining the main legislative body of a country using sortition, I can just not see any way how this is supposed to happen with the consent of the public.

    Naomi’s suggestion however could actually be put into practice and improve the current situation considerably.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 298 other followers

%d bloggers like this: