Fran Barlow proposes a system of government

[This article was originally posted as a comment by Fran Barlow.]

For me the key question of representative governance turns on the legitimacy question. In what senses, if at all, is the exercise of executive power a bona fide expression of the attempt to meet all of the legitimate and contested claims of the community the sovereign ostensibly serves?

To qualify in this way, it seems to me that the legislature, in its composition, must be and be seen to be rather like the population as a whole in its composition. All of us are far more inclined to suppose that people who are socially like us are more likely to resist doing things we’d fundamentally object to and to be predisposed to serving the interests we see as valuable. That the legislature is like the populace as a whole isn’t a guarantee against them acting recklessly or like tyrants, but it makes it less likely.

On the other hand, we surely know that large sections of the populace aren’t highly across policy, even in a big picture sense. This is one of the contextual factors that subverts good policy because career politicians can exploit this ignorance (or complain that it constrains them) to do things that amount to very poor policy. In my view, sortition (or any proposed system of governance) should foster inclusivity and empowerment. We ought to want a better informed and more engaged citizenry. My outline below aims at ensuring that over time, the pool of people who are engaged with policy and have the skills to analyse and develop good policy grows.

We know that whatever similarities communities have they remain complex and socially heterogeneous. Even at the most basic levels of service there are going to be conflicts between stakeholders over how to value public goods and to set priorities in the deployment of scarce resources. How does one define an externality or restrain a collective action problem?

Although politics is rarely discussed in such express terms, these questions, in ostensibly democratic polities, have tended to fall within the rather woolly notion that self-selected delegates of some kind, subsequently approved at a plebiscite counted on the basis of some voting system acquire a kind of power of attorney to adjudge the best interests of the nation as a whole. Edmund Burke (IIRC in his letter to the constituents of Bristol in 1774) many years ago tried to reconcile the notion of delegate authority with service to the notion of the nation as a whole according to conscience and reason. It wasn’t all that convincing or robust, in my opinion, and essentially amounted to a warrant for arbitrary exercise of power.

One may excuse Burke somewhat of course. In 1774, only a minority of the public was literate and numerate. And even in the case of those who were, there were few vehicles for them to express themselves on matters of policy. It wasn’t entirely clear which community the people were part of and of course by contemporary standards everyone was massively ignorant of many of the things one would want to be aware of to begin to make rational public policy. It’s by no means clear what by the consent of the governed would mean, if we assume, as we do in matters of contract, that consent must be informed to be genuine.

Today, at least in the advanced industrial economies, we have excellent education and communication systems. Most adults are at a minimum, literate and numerate and at least in principle, capable of making rational decisions on their own behalf. One may question whether representative governance is superior to, for example, some form of direct democracy. Today, we have highly secure communications vehicles for people to participate directly. We could, in theory, establish a kind of meeting quorum threshold, specify times for people to participate, have mirrors reconciling all of the data and so on and so forth. Eventually, a vote on a matter could be taken.

One suspects that in practice, such a system would be very unwieldy, and that there would be objections from aggrieved parties about the integrity of the process, particularly if there were any serious technology based system failure. A voter pool of 1400 might work well this way, but a voter pool of 14 million (as is the case in my country, Australia) would seriously test the schedule and technological constraints of such a system.

It seems to me that Direct Democracy, while unworkable for the day to day business of government, might well be very good for the big picture stuff. It might well be that at a scheduled point every year, the populace as a whole would affirm or amend a set of national policy goals for the next 1, 3, 10, 20 even 50 years. Throughout each year, working groups within the legislature would make proposals on various matters that would be publicised within the populace as a whole. Studies would be commissioned, analysis done submissions considered and grouped and proposals refined. Those who dissented could mount counter-campaigns and if these acquired significant support these too could be put at the annual consideration of the national plan.

Once a plan was agreed, the task of the legislature would be to implement it as effectively and efficiently as possible and as above, to propose amendments where it was still thought to be inadequate.

It would be the legislature that would be chosen by sortition. In my view, half way through the term of the legislature (perhaps 2 years in) one would draw from those who had expressed an interest in becoming representatives and were not excluded on one ground or another (serious criminal offences, mental incapacity etc) a long list (perhaps 20-25) per district. The candidates would then be assessed for their skills and offered training in areas they deemed pertinent to their areas of primary interest — (e.g., surveying, engineering, finance, social policy etc). They would be provided with support staff and the resources needed to communicate with their constituency. 12 months into the process a deliberative poll would be held. Each candidate would submit up to 10 policy areas in which they had a vision for the country, and the responding constituency would weight these areas for significance (proportions of 100%) and for their support (scaled from 1-10). One could choose of course to vote simply to reject the candidate.

At the conclusion of the poll each candidate would be given the data from poll and this would be publicised. The candidate could revise policies withdraw or continue as he saw fit. This process would be iterated in six months and then finally just before the final sort.

Ultimately all the values from all the polls would form the basis for a weighted pool and the final selection would be conducted like a lotto competition. The candidate would be selected along with two alternates, in the event the selected person was unable to serve out his or her term.

It seems to me that this would result in a legislature that would substantially resemble in its composition the polity as a whole, though in practice it would still be skewed somewhat up the socio-economic scale, in favour of those with relatively advanced policy making and communication skills. Yet it would not guarantee that those with the most consensual views of what was good policy had exclusive access to power. Some with more controversial ideas would benefit from anomalies in the selection, and ensure that the legislature was not simply a ‘hive mind’.

In this system political parties could no longer be vehicles for the promotion of candidatures. Their attempts to influence the pool could only be indirect, since even a majority of support would not guarantee a candidate would succeed. Their role would be to attempt to create a consensus around certain policy goals by making a rational public interest case.

The strength of this system, it seems to me, is that a much wider slice of the population would see being a member of the legislature as plausible, and thus be more engaged with the legislature’s policy-making behaviour. Within 20 years, pretty much everyone would know someone who had been considered for office and the idea that one might be called upon to serve might moderate some of the more reckless claims people sometimes make, knowing they will never be called on their claims. In short, we would get a better talent pool to draw upon, which in the longer run, is perhaps even more important than the structure of governance.

I take note of the problem raised above about whether one would be happy to have someone like you decide whether your house should be sold.

It seems to me that one of the indispensable features of democracies concerns the reach of state authority. The purpose of the surrender of individual sovereignty to states is to make it possible to resolve conflict over public goods or social obligations to one’s community. What one does that is regarded by the community as within one’s private discretion is not something to be determined by the sovereign power, even if they really are like you. What the sovereign should do is set the rules for public goods as a whole, specifying claims and obligations that are legitimate and denying those that are not.

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11 Responses

  1. As I wrote, I think there is quite a lot here to examine, but I will start with the point you make at the end, which may not bear a direct relationship to the substance of your proposal:

    > The purpose of the surrender of individual sovereignty to states is to make it possible to resolve conflict over public goods or social obligations to one’s community.

    This contractual framework of thought, by which one “surrenders individual sovereignty to states”, is in my mind fundamentally erroneous.

    First, it is completely counter-factual. People do not surrender individual sovereignty. They don’t have an individual sovereignty to begin with (and people never have had individual sovereignty), and they cannot choose not to “surrender” such sovereignty.

    Secondly, it assumes, quite arbitrarily, that the world can be a-priori divided into the private and the public, and that the private is an antecedent of the public. If anything, the situation is reversed: a-priori, everything is public, i.e., everything is everybody’s business. By agreement, some matters can be decided by the public to be private. This is as much a form of regulation as other forms of regulation. Indeed, declaring that a certain matter is “private” is a severe demand upon all those who are expected to accept having no say on the “private” matter.

    The contractual framework is an intellectual burden imposed upon us by the “natural rights” philosophy that was associated, for historical reasons, with the birth of what is now called democracy. It is a burden that the ancient Athenians were unencumbered with, and one which, I think, we should rid ourselves of.

    See a related discussion here:
    The Demos Versus ‘We, the People’: from Ancient to Modern Conceptions of Citizenship by Ellen Meiksins Wood

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  2. Yoram: “a-priori, everything is public, i.e., everything is everybody’s business.”

    Also sprach Engels, Marx and Lewis Henry Morgan (but I’m not allowed to say that on this forum).

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  3. Fran: “in practice it would still be skewed somewhat up the socio-economic scale, in favour of those with relatively advanced policy making and communication skills”

    Agreed, especially as your sortition system is based on volunteering. If you really want accurate descriptive representation then you can’t start with a self-selecting pool. I also think you underestimate the extent to which the process will be hijacked by political parties, which are an unintended consequence of the electoral process in large-scale polities.

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  4. Yoram Gat said”

    First, it is completely counter-factual. People do not surrender individual sovereignty. They don’t have an individual sovereignty to begin with (and people never have had individual sovereignty), and they cannot choose not to “surrender” such sovereignty

    In practice this is so of course, but I would argue that this is how the matter of state power is often warranted when constraining the citizen. It’s a legal fiction that is implicity, if not expressly, widely accepted.

    it assumes, quite arbitrarily, that the world can be a-priori divided into the private and the public, and that the private is an antecedent of the public.

    Where one draws the frontier between private and public is not universal, but in all but totalitarian societies most believe that such a line should be drawn — that while one has binding obligations to do or refrain from doing certain things, that one retains scope for discretion over what affects one’s own wellbeing or interests, and that by default, individuals are best placed to adjudge what serves it best.

    By agreement, some matters can be decided by the public to be private. This is as much a form of regulation as other forms of regulation. Indeed, declaring that a certain matter is “private” is a severe demand upon all those who are expected to accept having no say on the “private” matter.

    That’s so, but of course, since nearly everyone seeks at least a modicum of discretion over one’s life, one can see the imposition as both the price one pays for enjoying the benefit of relief from the impositions of others and relief of responsibility for the actions of others. If everything is everyone’s business, then everyone’s obligations to others are orders of magnitude larger.

    I haven’t had time to do more than skim the link you offered, but I will look at it more carefully and respond in due course.

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  5. Keith Sutherland said:

    If you really want accurate descriptive representation then you can’t start with a self-selecting pool.

    That is likely so, but on the other hand we want things from governance beyond a polity in which we can begin to recognise our own faces. We want a polity composed of those who bring worthwhile ideas to governance and commitment to the service of the community. These qualities are more likely to predict a workable legislature. If we are to educate people for their roles, we want to know that they have the acumen to make use of it, if not in the legislature then within their micro-communities.

    I also think you underestimate the extent to which the process will be hijacked by political parties, which are an unintended consequence of the electoral process in large-scale polities.

    That’s certainly possible, but as things stand, they are little more than vehicles for fashioning stable coalitions based on the pursuit of the interests of propertied elites. A process such as I’ve outlined would make direct influence over candidates far more tenuous. It would be a lot like herding cats because the candidates would not have any use for the parties in subsequent selections. They only get one shot, for good or ill.

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  6. “We want a polity composed of those who bring worthwhile ideas to governance and commitment to the service of the community.”

    Agreed, but this is not what we normally mean by democracy and therein lies the dilemma of all of those who like to call ourselves democrats. In the pre-democratic age it was assumed that a limited franchise would ensure government by those in possession of worthwhile ideas/commitment to service, the intermediary being education and sufficient free time to devote to res publica (cf Wilde’s comments on socialism requiring too many evenings), along with a residual aristocratic public-service ethos.

    What you are proposing reintroduces this patrician leaning by the back door. My resolution to the democratic dilemma is to privilege the *advocacy* role of those with worthwhile ideas and commitment, but to leave *judgment* in the hands of an assembly selected on the principle of pure sortition. That way you can have your cake and eat it.

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  7. You are allowed to say it, Keith Sutherland, but it doesn’t make it true. I agree with Yoram Gat: The default state is that everything is public, and all your business is my business.

    But we don’t stay there. We cede freedoms to interfere in others business and private matters, because we don’t want them to interfere in ours. Where to “draw the frontier” is up to us to agree on. Maybe there are right answers, but we aren’t in any privileged position to dictate what those answers are.

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  8. I agree with Keith Sutherland, that the “good ideas” or expert advice need not come from within the decision making body. Lotteries can be used in more ways than just selecting the legislators. I can imagine a system in which any person who wished could draft proposals for consideration by the sortition bodies. If there are too many proposals, a lottery can be used to select some for detailed consideration. I would also imagine a role for adversary presentations by panels of experts (selected by lottery from volunteers), with the role of the sortition body being to make a judgment. The members of the sortition body would not have formal “constituents,” but citizens could still “write letters to their representatives”… but which legislator receives each letter again could be sorted by lottery. This would lead writers to stress compelling arguments that reached across social divides, not knowing who would be reading it.

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  9. Fran,

    I find it unlikely that the population could, or would be interested to, learn and understand the platforms of 20-25 people. The multiple rounds of voting would only serve to further disengage people from policy discussions. It is much more likely that the voting would revolve around matters of image – matters that could be easily manipulated by established power centers.

    As you may be aware, your proposal falls within a tradition of participatory proposals – proposals that emphasize the supposed educational value of political participation through voting and other devices of mass political choice. A good example of an advocate of such ideas is Carole Pateman. While the objectives of these proposals are laudable, I think that they are misguided. Decision making is inherently a small group activity. Decision making power cannot be spread too thin – it naturally becomes concentrated in few hands, since most people become disengaged as the ratio between the effort required for participation and the power of the average individual grows.

    That doesn’t mean that there is no room for mass political participation, but it does mean that the participation has to be done in non-decisional channels. Democratic mass media, for example, has the potential to provide a channel for participation with real political impact that is not merely formal, and that has an educational value as well.

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  10. For once I find myself in agreement with Yoram. I’m afraid there is no way of escaping Downs’s rational ignorance principle — people will only take the time to study the issues/platforms etc if their own vote makes a significant difference. This will never be the case in mass democracies, hence the argument for direct sortition for legislative assemblies. The only dispute is over what powers such an assembly should have.

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  11. I agree that representative democracy has limitations, particularly in respect to participation. But then direct democracy is participatory but can lead to ill-considered results. There is a third possibility – deliberative democracy http://press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7869.html in which the electorate or sub groups discuss and debate to try and develop a consensus. Perhaps a modern democracy should be a combination of representative, direct and deliberative democracy.

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