The elected legislator’s burden

In his recent article “Lot and Democratic Representation”, Alex Zakaras proposes introducing a sortition-based element into the US government. His proposal is similar to the one made by Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty in the UK (The Athenian Option). The new body proposed, with its veto power over legislation and term of service of one year, would wield moderate power – it lies somewhere on the spectrum between a full-fledged parliamentary body, as proposed by Cellenbach and Phillips, and the weak ad-hoc policy juries of James Fishkin and Ethan Leib.

Zakaras emphasizes the democratic advantages of sortition over elections – primarily equality in the representation of interests. He challenges opponents of sortition (quoting Robert Paul Wolff) to reflect on what their opposition “reveals about their real attitude toward democracy”. It is natural, then, to turn the tables and challenge Zakaras as to what his reluctance to grant the allotted body full parliamentary powers – to set its own agenda, initiate legislation and draft its own legislative proposals – reveals about his own attitude toward democracy.

In one brief passage Zakaras explains that the reason for “not burdening” the allotted body with the tasks of initiating and writing legislation is that its members would lack the expertise of career politicians and “would have virtually no experience assessing the likely consequences of different policy alternatives.”

Quite a few unexamined – and, in fact, unlikely – assumptions are packed into this brief argument. Each of the several counter-arguments below is, by itself, in my mind, enough to counter the reasoning given, or, at least, grounds for a thorough examination of its logic.

First, quite obviously, being able to “assess the likely consequences of different policy alternatives” is exactly the skill needed to fulfill the role Zakaras does assign to the allotted chamber – deciding which policy proposals to approve and which ones to veto.

More substantially, if we are to believe that, for any reason, the allotted chamber can carry out the ratification function successfully but cannot write legislation successfully, we would have to believe that the two tasks require radically different skills – if not qualitatively different then at least a crucial difference in the degree of skill required. Zakaras seems to accept this assumption, and further assumes that the skill required for the second task, while uncommon among the average citizens is routinely acquired by elected officials in the course of a few years’ experience as legislators [how many?].

These assumptions are implausible for several reasons:

1. It is not obvious at all that it is easier to give an up-or-down assessment of a specific proposal than to improve that proposal by amending it or by writing a better proposal de-novo. In fact, it is a constant phenomenon of the current political system that it produces package policy proposals that contain some elements that are useful to the public at large tied together with other elements that serve elite interests at the expense of the public. (Typical examples are Bush’s Medicare Part D and Obama’s healthcare plan.) Making a decision whether such a package on the whole should be accepted is much more difficult than selecting those elements from the package that are useful and dismissing the others.

2. There is no reason to assume that a few years’ experience as an elected legislator would be necessary and sufficient training for writing legislation. One could claim just as credibly – as does Plato – that nothing but a lifetime of training for governing, starting at infancy, would allow a person to govern well. Besides, elected legislators spend most of their time and efforts in attending to the complex and demanding task of getting re-elected, rather than in drafting legislation, so it is doubtful that much useful on-the-job training is being attained while serving.

3. Tying experience to an electoral mechanism is arbitrary. If experience is believed to be a valuable asset, then the task reformers are facing is to suggest a design of the legislator appointment mechanism so as to ensure that legislators are experienced. Zakaras, for example, suggests having a two month long training period for the newly allotted in which they observe the activities of their predecessors. That period could be extended to several years if this is deemed useful.

4. Finally, even if all the above arguments are effectively countered, and it is assumed that the allotted chamber members would be unable to compose legislature, it is still unclear why they should rely on a popularly elected chamber to do so, rather than select by themselves the experts who would draft the legislation. There is every reason to expect that, due to the resources and authority available to it, the allotted chamber would be better able to make such a selection than the entire citizen body.


6 Responses

  1. […] A Reply to Yoram Gat Posted on October 1, 2010 by azakaras In his recent blog post, “The Elected Legislator’s Burden,” Yoram Gat challenges one of the arguments of my essay, “Lot and Democratic […]


  2. Yoram, do you think that elections do anything well?


  3. Hmmm… “well” compared to what? I am not claiming that elections-based government is not an improvement over some other forms of government. There must be some literature on the effects of elections. I seem to recall that Amartia Sen, for example, claimed that famines are essentially non-existent under elections-based governments. (But chronic malnourishment of the poor is wide spread.)

    Anyway, I am quite skeptical that popular elections should have any part in the mechanism of government in a good society.


  4. […] our recent exchange (1, 2), Alex Zakaras and I debated whether an allotted chamber should be given the full legislative […]


  5. Yoram wrote, “Tying experience to an electoral mechanism is arbitrary. If experience is believed to be a valuable asset, then the task reformers are facing is to suggest a design of the legislator appointment mechanism so as to ensure that legislators are experienced.”

    I think this is a useful distinction. How experienced a group of lawmakers are is a separate question from how they are selected.


  6. […] Democracy falls squarely within the limited democracy genre which contains work by writers such as Alex Zakaras, and Barnett and Carty and occupies a middle ground between more aggressively democratic proposals […]


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