With the growing disillusionment with the alternative to a President widely disapproved of, and with congress approval stuck at a seemingly permanent low, the time is ripe for exploring alternatives to the standard electoral process. Some are looking for delegates on craigslist.
The idea of selecting the House of Lords by lot has made the rounds for several years now, at least since the publication of Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty’s pamphlet The Athenian Option (expanded and republished in 2008 by Imprint Academic). It’s always intriguing to see who likes the idea. Graeme Archer endorses the idea on the website Conservative Home. Check it out–
Archer is not entirely clear as to why he likes randomly-selected peers. He seems to think that only elections confer democratic legitimacy, but that our experience with juries shows that randomly-selected bodies can make very good (accurate? honest?) decisions. It’s interesting to hear him say that, as the usual objection trotted out against sortition is that ordinary people are morons who could never handle the serious burden of lawmaking. (Archer, like Barnett and Carty, doesn’t want randomly-selected peers to write legislation, just evaluate legislation drafted by a still-elected House of Commons. Also, Archer wants a new randomly-selected body to evaluate each piece of legislation, so as to minimize the chance that people will be overburdened by the job. This is one of several options considered in The Athenian Option.)
Another conservative website, the “Heresy Corner”, commented on Archer’s proposal almost immediately–
The anonymous blogger, who calls himself the “Heresiarch” (anonymous? really? hope you’re not pretending you’re putting yourself into some kind of danger with your right-wing blogging) is sympathetic to the idea. His overall evaluation, unfortunately, is rather confused. First he says elections are horrible because they put our hands in a bunch of politicians. Then he says randomly-selected bodies don’t make good decisions, but they do ensure descriptive representation (i.e., decision-making in the hands of a bunch of ordinary people). But then he declares it very important that experts evaluate legislation, not ordinary people, and so he wants the House of Lords to be…elected. Will this cause gridlock? Well, maybe, but so what? In the end, elected officials will have complete control over our fate, but letting a representative government actually accomplish things is setting up an “elective dictatorship”, and so the best we can do is make sure that the representatives can’t actually do anything.
In the end, I find Archer’s thoughts reasonable though underdeveloped, and the Heresiarch’s borderline incoherent. Both could do with a bit more thought on just what a democratic government is supposed to do. Until one has a clear answer to that question, one cannot provide reasons for preferring sortition over elections, or vice versa.
Two final thoughts. In his defense of gridlock, the Heresiarch writes, “just look at the United States, where gridlock can only be avoided if the same party controls the Presidency, a majority of the House and 60 seats in the Senate.” I’m going to assume that’s some sort of joke, given how monumentally little Obama got done with all of those conditions met. Second, I am very pleased to see British Conservatives take the idea of sortition seriously. I hope very much that this enthusiasm persists after the Tories regain power.
It turns out that the paper by Filimon Peonidis that I discussed in my last posting is in fact online. Check it out–
Thanks to Professor Peonidis for providing me with this source.
[ Edited to replace wrong link – Yoram Gat ]
In my last posting, I discussed a paper by Filimon Peonidis, a paper that offered a novel proposal for introducing random selection into our government. Turns out he has thought about sortition before. The March 2009 issue of International Journal of World Peace features an article by him entitled “Corresponding Citizens.” I can’t find it online, but the journal can be found at
Basically, Peonidis proposes sortition as a means of reigning in the conduct of the major world powers. The big boys on the international scene (primarily the U.S. and Britain) have an enormous influence on the rest of the world through the policies they enact. This is true even when they are not literally sending in the troops to other countries. But democracy requires people to have a say over the decision-making bodies that affect them. Therefore, the rest of the world needs a say in how the U.S. et al. are governed. How can this be done? Take the U.S. case, says Peonidis (p. 58). Whenever the U.S. has a presidential election, have each country in the world select a random sample of citizens (say, 1% of each country’s electorate). Then have the voters in each sample vote for which presidential candidate they’d like to see win. That candidate gets 1 electoral vote for every country whose random sample gives him/her a plurality. With 191 U.N. member nations besides the U.S., that means adding 191 electoral votes to the current 538 votes in the electoral college. Those 191 electoral votes would go to whichever candidates most impressed the international community (or a random sample therefrom.)
As with his other paper, Peonidis’ proposal is very thought-provoking. It is interesting that he regards it as more practical and less “utopian” than a functioning and democratic world government. Indeed, he recommends it for that reason. I’m not so sure. As an American, I suspect the wretched “tea bagger” community would love his proposal just as much as they love world “guvmint,” and their ability to interfere with constructive international engagement is breathtaking. I am similarly skeptical of this proposal working in countries that are currently nondemocratic. Wouldn’t a random sample of voters from China simply follow orders from the Chinese government? (It’s hard to imagine China participating in the program under any other terms.) There’s nothing democratic about allowing authoritarian governments (as opposed to their peoples) influencing America’s elections. Peonidis recognizes the problem, but seems to regard it as small and easy to address (p. 62). Again, that seems pretty utopian to me.
Kudos to Peonidis for putting two such interesting proposals on the table! Nice to see that sortition still remains on the mind of at least some Greeks!
I’ve finally had the chance to read Filimon Peonids’ interesting paper “Bringing Direct Democracy in a Representative Assembly: The Case of Allotted MPs.” The paper, as I mentioned before, can be found here–
The paper’s novel argument is that people should have the chance to cast a vote for “select somebody at random” when they elect their legislatures. After each election is held, a number of legislators should be randomly drawn that is proportionate to the number of citizens voting for this option. (Obviously, this solution requires some form of proportional representation.)
Two things struck me while reading the paper. First, the author has a somewhat unusual understanding of “popular sovereignty.” As far as I could tell, the author is completely unconcerned about the fact that legislatures don’t “look like” the people they serve. The fact that sortition ensures the presence of a diverse cross section of people in a legislature is therefore not a reason for liking it. What bothers the author is the fact that ordinary people have effectively zero chance of getting into the legislature. If popular sovereignty means that everyone who wants to participate in government has a chance of doing so, then indeed sortition can help. Of course, in the United States sortition would only give the average person one chance in several million of being selected for a randomly-selected seat in Congress, which doesn’t sound much better than the chance that a real-life “Joe the Plumber” can get elected to Congress. (It’s rather like the fact that by not buying a lottery ticket, my chance of winning is only slightly smaller than my chance of winning if I buy one.) But this argument is less applicable in a smaller country like Greece, where there will be many fewer potential candidates in the pool.
Second, the author seems to have the all-too-familiar fear of popular participation. If voters were sufficiently disenchanted as to elect a randomly-selected majority, then said majority might run amuck and do nutty or evil or fascist things or something. Peonidis seems convinced that this is more likely to happen with a randomly-selected legislature than with an elected one. I for one am skeptical that this is anything but a prejudice. Governments get elected with “mandates” all the time, and they manage to do astonishingly stupid things that betray the constituencies that elected them. (See also: Obama, Barack.) Would a randomly-selected majority do worse? Maybe, but it’s far from an obvious point.
In any event, some version of this danger will always be present so long as the randomly-selected legislators hold the balance of power in the legislature. (And if any party has an effective majority without randomly-selected legislators, expect the former to ignore the latter completely.) But if the inexperience or ignorance of randomly-selected legislators is really a concern, there are ways around it. Why not select a new crop of randomly-selected legislators for each major piece of legislation? Say that X% of the people vote to have candidates selected by sortition. Then before the legislature takes up the topic of health care, a number of legislators equal to X% of the legislature gets selected. Give them the kind of resources that Jim Fishkin/Ned Crosby/Peter Dienel give their randomly selected bodies, and then let them join the legislature as voting members, but just for that one bill. Then when the legislature considers the fight against global warming, repeat the process all over again by filling X% of the legislature with an entirely new random draw. Surely this could provide the advantages of random selection while assuaging the fears of Peonidis. And it would increase the chance that any volunteer would get randomly selected at some point, which would surely advance Peonidis’ conception of popular sovereignty.
As you can see, I don’t really agree with the paper’s conclusion. But it’s an awfully good effort at stimulating further thought–even among people who who are already interested in sortition.
Sortition relies on the people selected being themselves affected by the consequences of their decisions in order to ensure that those decisions are in the interests of the people they affect. I think advocates of sortition often underestimate the problem of cognitive and affective distance from the specific impact of those effects when the issues are treated in terms of very general policy decisions. We have a tradition of fairness as impartiality that can be very dangerous when combined with legalistic and bureaucratic top-down approaches to solving those problems of public goods that require organised solutions. Looking to the state to provide these solutions virtually guarantees that no matter how those making the decisions are selected, they will be constrained by the system to choose ways of conceiving and dealing with them that abstract from many things that are important to various sections of the communities affected.
The closer the people who decide are to the grass roots, the more likely they are to be responsive to the specifics of the diverse needs of a community and to evolve by negotiation between diverse interests solutions that offer as much as possible to each of them. In my view sortition must start at the grass roots with very local health, education and welfare institutions and programs, on a basis of constructive deliberation, designed to lead to better recognition of needs an possibilities rather than simply react to current opinion.
People know this, but regard it as unrealistic, because the crunch question is financing and the state ultimately controls that through its monopoly of taxation. I have a suggestion for getting around that difficulty. Let the state allocate funding to specific bodies (not just local but also national and international specialised agencies that are controlled demarchically) in much the way it does at present, but allow it only a very weak say in how the money is spent by the bodies so financed. Those bodies will often want to spend more than they are granted, given the ubiquitous outcries against underfunding of public goods and services. People often express willingness to pay more for public services if only they could be assured of getting the service they want.
If an authority wants to spend more than its allocation of taxpayer funds there could be an arrangement whereby those entitled to its services paid an excess on their income tax to cover the extra expenditure. As members of that constituency, statistically representative of its needs, the committee would be in a position to make a realistic judgement about whether they were willing to pay as a community for meeting those needs. That would constitute practical accountability.