Stephen James Kerr: ‘Against Proportional Representation’

‘Dissident writer and independent scholar’ Stephen James Kerr writes Against Proportional Representation:

The result of such a radical constitutional change [i.e., a switch to sortition based representation] would be a complete transformation of the relationships between citizens and their representatives.

Citizens chosen for office by sortition would not be chosen for office by anything other than chance. They would therefore not “represent” a voter or a constituent in the way that persons elected to office can claim to represent others by virtue of their being chosen by the votes of citizens. Likewise, no representative chosen by lot would have a basis to exclude or ignore a certain section of the citizenry “because they’ll never vote for me.” Representatives would merely be statistically representative of the community from which they come, as they would be selected out of that community. Hence the relationship between representative and constituency would be fundamentally different under a sortition system from the current system of relations. The representative would remain an indivisible part of the whole.

Between the representative and the other citizens there would be no faithless promises to be made, no manipulative relationship to be established. Holding political office would be like performing volunteer work in the community, with nothing to be gained privately thereby. This is supposed to be the essence of civics in western liberal states, but the domination of politics by private interests has perverted it into a laughable cartoon. Nobody in western liberal states takes the ideal of “public service” seriously any longer. Politics is merely self-advancement wearing public drag.

The use of sortition would prevent the ambitious and self-seeking from gaining control over our institutions for purposes against the public interest. Nothing could be gained, and there would be no institutional framework to allow the self-seeking to take over our institutions for their own ends. Statistically, MPs would be representative of the whole society, just as a random sample used for polling purposes is judged to be today. Lawyers could go back to practicing law in the courts. Business people could go back to minding their own business.

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16 Responses

  1. This is an excellent argument for demarchy, somewhere in government structure.

    Relief is a compromise between sortition and election to choose leadership.

    A 12,000 congressperson legislature, half elected, half sortitioned, and a 9 president elected executive is a big tent. Demarchy plays a vital role.

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  2. Finding kindred spirits on a subject for fours years was knowingly shared by only two other contrarians (Richard Ward who introduced sortition to me and has researched and written essays on the subject. And just recently Yoram Gat and his statistical studies on the fairness of such an election system is exhilarating indeed. At this stage of the game (Overton Window pane one) even a hint of acknowledgement of a cure-all for all our popularity election woes is music indeed to the ears of this old curmudgeon. Thanks again for the post.

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  3. Hi Harvey,

    Welcome – it is a pleasure for me as well to find like-minded people on this crucial matter.

    I was not aware of the Overton Window concept. Interestingly, while we are indeed in the stage where sortition-based government is “unthinkable” as far as elite discourse is concerned, it is quite acceptable to large parts of the US population.

    By the way, I would not say that sortition is a cure-all. I see it as an important tool, but not as a silver bullet. For example, as long as the news-media is largely controlled by interested parties the public will likely continue to be misled on many issues.

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  4. I am also pleased to find a community of people who are thinking about the use of the lot as a democratic device.

    Recent developments in Iceland, and to a lesser extent here in Ontario, lead me to believe that the use of sortition could become “thinkable” if only it had some sort of public platform. It’s not entirely without precedent.

    I expect that the deepening financial and governance crisis in the west will throw up numerous opportunities to put sortition on the public agenda.

    Thanks for the Rasmussen Reports link. I was unaware of that poll, but not at all surprised by its results.

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  5. The first thing that site convinces me is that font choice is not universally appreciated. Ah, my eyes!!

    But seriously: opposing PR because it is not sortition is on the level of preferring monarchy over electoral democracy because the latter doesn’t go far enough.

    The path to reform is an issue you can’t afford to ignore. Lots of people in the US (and elsewhere) criticize the whole idea of popular representation, hanging on to the idea that the semi-aristocratic institutions left to them by their founders are better. You’re not going to to convince anyone that perfect representativeness is a good idea, when they don’t believe in representativeness in the first place.

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  6. Rasmussen: “41% Say Random Selection From Phone Book Would Do A Better Job Than Current Congress”

    As I’ve said before this is just like someone throwing their hands in the air and saying “a monkey could do better than that lot”. Speaking as someone who has written two books arguing for the sortive alternative, I can assure you that it is extremely difficult to convince anyone (political class or otherwise) that random selection by lot is a viable method of political representation. Martin Davis formed a political party that, by endorsing sortition, sought to abolish itself. I’m a paid up member of the party but I think there’s only half a dozen other members, notwithstanding Martin’s sterling efforts.

    So please don’t keep quoting this vox pop and start supporting those (like Fishkin) who are trying to prove it, rather than just declaim it.

    Keith

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  7. Keith,

    I am afraid that I do plan to continue to quote this statistic. You, and anyone else, are welcome to interpret this finding in any way you find plausible. BTW, I do not claim that this finding means that 41% of the public support a sortition-based government system. It is clear that the large majority of those people have never even considered the possibility of such a system. I do claim that the people responding favorably to the question would likely be open to an argument for such a system.

    As for the size of the membership of the Newid party – in my mind this is means much less than the percentage I quote. Not joining a certain party is very different from rejecting certain ideas in its platform.

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  8. For equality by lot but against the vox pop? Mr. Sutherland, I must be missing some nuance in your argument. Perhaps the people should flock to a party with six members? I think Monty Python may have already nailed this one in the opening scenes of the Life of Brian…

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  9. Stephen –

    Keith just seems unable to take “yes” for an answer. He is convinced that elite sentiment against sortition is shared by the public at large. He will explain to you at length how – unlike elections – sortition does not allow people to express their ‘consent’ to government. This seems to be the result of taking the natural rights mythology too seriously.

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  10. “For equality by lot but against the vox pop?”

    Yes because sortition is the best way of establishing a representative assembly that is also deliberative — “the microcosm offers a proxy for the much more ambitious scenario of what would happen if everyone discussed the issues and weighed competing arguments under similarly favourable conditions” (Fishkin, 2009, p.194). If all you want is raw public opinion then there is no need to bother with sortition and deliberation, just leave legislative decisions to the pollsters. But of course we don’t want that — and that’s why Fishkin introduced the Deliberative Poll.

    As for Yoram’s claim, the point is that most people haven’t even thought about the potential of sortition, not that they’re “against” it. That’s why we write books, journal articles and blog posts and do social science experiments on the topic. But as a sociologist I’m cautious not to overinterpret questionnaire responses to leading questions. The question in the survey was little more than a cynical inversion of “do you believe in motherhood and apple pie?” (ie “could your dog/aged grandmother/101 monkeys do a better job than that bunch of shysters on Capital Hill?). Only a diehard positivist would claim that answering “yes” to that question makes a you an advocate of sortition-based politics.

    Keith

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  11. Yoram: “He is convinced that elite sentiment against sortition is shared by the public at large.”

    So what if he is? Count me as well. You don’t have to hang around long at political discussion sites to find someone saying “This isn’t a democracy, it’s a republic! Democracy is just mob rule and it’s not what our founders wanted!” and being moderated to the skies.

    Of course, people hanging out at such sites aren’t exactly representative, but what makes you think the sentiments are not more widely shared? (or would be, if people cared). It seems to me just as many Chinese people earnestly defend the Chinese system, lots of Americans defend the US system, as British people defend the UK system etc.

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  12. Harald –

    The polling evidence cited above does indicate that people are not impressed with the performance of the elected, and that they are at least open to the idea that a random sample of people would do better. That, of course, does not mean that a majority of people would support a sortition-based system if one was offered to them today. It does suggest that Keith’s disdainful attitude toward the population at large and his reverence toward the people in power are elite sentiments.

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  13. I agree that the people are not impressed with the performance of the elected. But I disagree that they are open to institutional change, in particular institutional change towards sortition. Keith Sutherland is right: it’s just a way of saying anything is better.

    You have thought these things through and are consistent in your views. If an institution persistently promotes corrupt people, you blame the institution. Regular people haven’t thought these things through, and aren’t as reasonable: They are perfectly happy to blame each corrupt individual in turn, rather than criticize the system that promoted him. Especially when that system is a major core of the civic religion, as it is in most nation states.

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  14. Saying that “anything is better” is not that far from support for institutional reform. Of course, there is some intellectual inertia – it is not easy to unlearn a lifetime of indoctrination. Yet, people seem to be much more able to do that than elitists would like to believe.

    By the way (and this is another statistic that I keep mentioning), in at least one survey, people expressed overwhelming support for a sortition-based constitutional amendment process. The standard-issue electoral system reforms (proportional voting and instant run-off voting) were not nearly as popular.

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  15. Just getting caught up with a whole stack of reading, including Kerr’s paper. I must admit–I found it a bit confused. He makes some good points when he talks about the power elite that effectively controls elective office due to its money, organization, etc. That’s an argument that says the problem with elections (PR, plurality rule, or whatever) is that the people who get in ignore what the people want. But in part II, he seems to argue that it would be bad if our officials listened to the people–or to anything other than their own consciences. It’s not obvious to me that those arguments are compatible.

    Finally, I don’t take Keith to be making a particularly radical point. He just doesn’t want us to sound like we’re closer to demarchy than we actually are. We do need to keep getting the word out, encouraging experiments, etc., but that should be true whether the number of committed sortition fans out there is 10 or 10 million.

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  16. […] a finding indicates that many Americans would view a proposal to allot Congress favorably. Instead, they suggest that the positive responses are merely equivalent to exclaiming that “a monkey could do better […]

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