“Representation and Randomness,” Part Two

After a long hiatus, I’d like to return to commenting on Constellations’ recent symposium on “Representation and Randomness.” (See part one of this review.) To take up where I left off…

Hubertus Buchstein entitled his contribution to the symposium “Reviving Randomness for Political Rationality: Elements of a Theory of Aleatory Democracy.” In this contribution, Buchstein promises to “show that incorporating the factor of chance might…be of interest for contemporary democracies in terms of reform policy and how it could be achieved in practice.” In doing so, he attempts an ambitious array of tasks. The paper begins by “listing five potential functions of the lottery in the realm of politics” (p. 436). It then briefly considers the reintroduction of lotteries to modern politics via the American jury. (Two small historical quibbles: while it is true, as Buchstein says, that U.S. law has required random jury selection only since 1968, the practice was used at various times since the early days of the Republic. Also, the random selection of American military conscripts predates the Vietnam War. It was used in World War II, for example.) Then it addresses some theoretical problems raised in contemporary democratic theory (primarily by Habermas). Then it examines various recent small-scale projects involving randomly-selected citizens (notably James Fishkin’s deliberative opinion polls). Then it considers how random selection might address the problems of contemporary democratic theory that were raised earlier. It concludes with a few additional reform proposals involving random selection that might be worthy of further consideration.

That’s a lot to tackle in one paper, and the result is somewhat uneven. It is unclear to me, for example, how the section on the reintroduction of lotteries via the jury is relevant to the rest of his argument, except simply as background material. I am also a little unsure how the list of five potential political functions of lotteries fits with the list of five advantages to the random selection of juries, and how both of these lists fit with the argument that “the tool of selecting members of political bodies at random can simultaneously strengthen the participatory, representative and deliberative aspects of modern democracy in equal measure” (p. 447). And then there is the question of how all three of these lists fit together with his argument that “Aleatory democracy…attempts to link the strengths of the ‘voluntaristic’ and the ‘epistemic’ models of democracy by skillfully including aspects of chance, without getting bogged down by weaknesses inherent in these models in the process” (pp. 448-449). This last argument is intended to address Habermasian debates in contemporary political theory. Each of these lists makes sense by itself. But the overall effect is that the paper reads as though Buchstein was introducing one argument for the political use of lotteries, then starting over with a second argument, then giving up on that and trying a third before starting afresh with a fourth.

I don’t want to exaggerate here—there are clearly relationships between the various arguments Buchstein considers. And most of the considerations Buchstein offers make eminent sense. A few depend upon controversial empirical claims—especially when he discusses the relationship between random selection and deliberation—but none are outlandish. But the overall effect of the paper is truly to deliver “elements of a theory of aleatory democracy,” not the theory itself. Buchstein is quite correct to suggest that a truly comprehensive theory of aleatory democracy will have to address all of these elements, from the “potential functions of mechanisms of chance in the political realm” (p. 437) to the many potential reform proposals that might incorporate random selection in some way (pp. 449-450). But Buchstein’s paper is more successful at placing the elements on the table than relating them together into a workable theory.

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2 Responses

  1. I am very much in favor of theory in general and in this case in particular. However, it is hard not to notice that the weakness, or in fact the almost total absence, of theoretical support for the use of elections apparently mattered and matters very little for the support for the system, among the public as well as among intellectual elites. It seems, then, that, practically speaking, a consistent theory to support sortition is much less important than a general plausible argument.

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  2. […] parts one and two in Peter Stone’s […]

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