The third paper in the Constellations symposium is “Lot and Democratic Representation: A Modest Proposal,” by Alex Zakaras. This paper has already received some attention here, and so I shall try and approach it from a somewhat different angle.
Zakaras’ “modest proposal” calls for the replacement of national- and state-level senates with randomly-selected legislative bodies. These “citizen legislatures” would not be responsible for drafting legislation. Rather, they would be responsible for approving or vetoing legislation proposed by the second, elected legislative body. They could also compel their elective counterparts to hold floor votes on legislation that is stuck in committee or otherwise stalled. And they would be solely responsible for drawing and redrawing legislative district boundaries (p. 457-458). I particularly like the latter idea. It seems to me that many of the most egregious failings of modern legislatures stem from the fact that they almost invariably get to write their own rules, and enforce those rules upon themselves. That works about as well as most self-policing—it’s better than nothing, but sometimes not by much. I would see redistricting, as well as the creation and enforcement of codes of legislative ethics, as tasks particularly well-suited for a randomly-selected group of ordinary citizens.
Zakaras defends his proposal by arguing that it would advance four vitally important democratic values.—“equal consideration of interests, equal recognition, political autonomy, and deliberation” (p. 459). Before examining his treatment of these values, I should add that Zakaras also compares his proposal to several other recent proposals involving sortition, including ideas by John McCormick, Kevin O’Leary, and David Poulin-Litvak (p. 457). But from his discussion of democratic values, I am uncertain why he believes that his proposal, and not some other, is the right way to protect these values. Others on this site have asked why a randomly-selected legislature could not draft legislation itself, rather than just approving or disapproving legislation drafted for it. I don’t have a strong opinion on this topic myself, but I do wish that Zakaras had explained why he believes that those democratic values are best advanced by a randomly-selected legislature that disposes without proposing.
As for the values themselves, the one that seems to do the most work for Zakaras is equal consideration of interests. The other values seem less connected to the story he wants to tell about democracy. (Indeed, it’s a little hard to tell why “deliberation” should be regarded as a specifically democratic value at all.) This is apparent in his “master story” about democracy, which I gather is supposed to tie together all four values. “Democracy,” Zakaras writes, “presents itself as an answer to the question: how should we make collective decisions? It says, simply, that everyone should have an equal voice in collective decision-making” (p. 459). It’s pretty easy to see how this relates to equal consideration of interests, especially in light of the claim by Robert Putnam (which Zakaras fully accepts) that “The most obvious hypothesis—so obvious that it has rarely been scrutinized carefully—is that decision makers will favor the interests of the social groups from which they come” (quoted on p. 455). And so democracy requires equal consideration of interests. A decision-maker will advance the interests of the group or groups to which he belongs. Therefore, the best way to ensure equal consideration of all interests is to make decisions using groups that mirror the distribution of interests in the population. Random selection does this better than any other procedure can.
This seems to be the heart of Zakaras’ story. It’s also the most plausible part of the argument. Less plausible are his efforts to compare elections with sortition. Zakaras follows Bernard Manin in noting the dual nature of elections. They are democratic, in that everyone has an equal vote, but they are also aristocratic, in that some candidates are much more likely to win than others (p. 456). In Zakaras’ terms, as voters citizens have equal voices with which to protect their interests, but as potential officeholders some citizens will reliably have their voices heard more than others. The result will be less egalitarian than selection by officeholders by lot. This conclusion is unsurprising, but it is unclear from the argument made by Zakaras why any democrat would ever want to elect anyone. Remember that Zakaras’ proposal retains extensive use of elections. I gather that Zakaras wants to endorse elections as a method for ensuring expertise or the like. But that’s a story that’s assumed and not told in this paper.
Finally, I note with some dismay that Zakaras accepts Pettit’s argument that a citizen can be said to exercise control over decisions when those decisions are made by people who think as she does, or by people who advance the same interests she has (pp. 462-463). (I discussed this proposal in part one of my comments on the Constellations symposium.) I remain baffled by the persuasive power of this argument. Presumably Zakaras would not move out of his house because somebody who is very much like him agreed to sell it. There is simply a universe of difference between an agent making a decision that advances your interests and an agent making the decision you wanted him to make, and no amount of philosophical contrivance can shrink it. I fully accept Zakaras’ claim that elections do a poor job of ensuring citizens the ability to exercise control over their representatives (p. 464). But the correct conclusion to draw from this is that in modern societies the idea of literal self-rule is an utter nonstarter. We should abandon it—or at least radically recast it—rather than undergo desperate contortions to save it as a viable democratic ideal.
Filed under: Sortition |