The Party’s Over: Blueprint for a Very English Revolution

Greg requested an outline of my structural proposals for the introduction of sortition, so here goes. It’s a talk I gave recently to the University of Brighton Philosophy Society. The focus is the UK parliament, but the principles are more general.

It’s become a commonplace that our political arrangements are in bad shape. Party leaders know we’ve twigged that there is no connection between manifesto commitments and actual policies, yet for some reason we don’t call their bluff – those of us who still turn out to vote give politicians the benefit of the doubt by maintaining that polite fiction called democracy. Party membership has declined catastrophically since the middle of the last century – parties now do little more than reflect what focus groups say we want, rather than continuing to stand for a particular manner of thinking, or specific socio-economic interests. So what is the point of the party?

The argument that I want to put forward this evening is that tinkering around with the electoral system by introducing AV or proportional representation is just re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. What is needed is clear thinking, we need to bring to bear the tools of the philosopher via:

  • A clear analysis of the relevant concepts and categories
  • A thorough understanding of the history of political thought

So let’s start with some conceptual distinctions: we’re supposedly all citizens in a ‘representative democracy’. In fact this isn’t true, our constitution, formally speaking, is a constitutional monarchy. Walter Bagehot, the Victorian author of The English Constitution, referred to this as merely the ‘dignified’ aspect of our constitution – most Victorians still believed they were ruled by the Queen. In practice, ‘efficient’ power at the time was in the hands of a secret cabinet committee, a body that didn’t even appear in J.S. Mill’s competing text.

The obfuscation that characterises our constitutional arrangements derives from the fact that our hybrid system of government (the Crown in Parliament) has been eroded over the last few centuries. The prerogatives of the crown have been successively annexed by politicians without the checks and balances that characterise constitutions observing the formal separation of powers. In modern times the royal prerogative has passed from the hands of the cabinet to the prime minister in person.

But leaving aside the language of formal constitutional analysis, our political arrangements are normally described as ‘representative democracy’. But as we shall see this strange hybrid term is really just an oxymoron. Democracy derives from the Greek demos and kratein (power in the hands of the people). Indeed the popular assembly in ancient Athens – which all (male) citizens could attend – was the primary lawmaking body. From the fourth century, Assembly decrees were subject to review by a legislative court, but even members of that were selected at random from older citizen volunteers – a process known as sortition. Ancient Athens really was a democracy in the true sense of the word.

By contrast, at the end of the eighteenth century the founders of representative government shared a total disdain for democracy. James Madison, whose views dominated the Philadelphia constitutional convention in 1787, argued that what distinguished modern ‘representative’ government from ancient democracy was:

the total exclusion of the people in their collective capacity from any share in government’ (James Madison, Federalist 63: 14).

His co-author of the Federalist papers declared:

‘The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very nature was tyranny.’ (Alexander Hamilton, 1787, speech in New York)

Another of the founding fathers, John Adams, argued:

‘Democracy wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was never a democracy that did not commit suicide.’ (John Adams, Letter to John Taylor, 15 April, 1814)

and George Washington:

‘You could as soon scrub the blackamoor white as change the principles of a profest democrat; and that he will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government of this country’. (George Washington, Letter to James McHenry, 1798)

This leads, in the words of a prominent academic theorist on representative government to the following paradox:

At the same time that the founding fathers were declaring the equality of all citizens, they decided without the slightest hesitation to establish, on both sides of the Atlantic, the unqualified dominion of a method of selection long deemed to be aristocratic’ (Bernard Manin, Principles of Representative Government, 1997).

Election vs Sortitition

This is because all writers, from Aristotle and Polybius to Montesquieu and Rousseau, agreed that election in classical times was an instrument of aristocratic rule (in the original meaning of the word), as elections are designed to select ‘the best’ (aristoi). Out of 700 or so Athenian magistracies, only around 100 were elected and inevitably such posts were filled by wealthy, educated people. The remainder were selected by lot. This led Montesquieu to conclude:

The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy; as that by choice is to aristocracy. (Montesquieu, d’ Esprit des Lois, Bk. 2., Ch.2)

Yet, during the first two decades of the nineteenth century, a system of representative government that was designed to lead to an elected aristocracy was transformed into the oxymoronic hybrid ‘representative democracy’. If we are worried that our own system of government is no longer democratic this should not surprise us, as it was never intended to be in the first place. But there are further conceptual distinctions that need to be made.

Interests and Judgment

In order to understand our current political malaise, a further distinction is required. In an important passage Madison outlines two opposing aspects of political representation:

a body of men are unfit to be both judges and parties at the same time . . . Yet the parties are, and must be, themselves the judges; and the most numerous party, or, in other words, the most powerful faction must be expected to prevail. (Federalist, 10, ¶8)

Judgment and interests (parties) are analytically distinct aspects of the representative function – and when combined in a single ‘body of men’, they have a tendency to corrupt each other. One of the reasons why the legislature is so prone to the evils of factionalism is that legislators are constantly being cast in the dual role of advocates and judges in the causes before them. Their self-interest corrupts what should ideally be a disinterested pursuit of the common good.

According to Hanna Pitkin’s book, The Concept of Representation, there are two aspects of the representative function. The prime duty of an elected representative is advocacy – acting in the interests of her constituents. Active representation does not require that an elected representative should resemble (‘describe’) her constituents in any respect, only that she should act as a trustee or advocate for their interests, in a similar manner to a lawyer representing the beneficiaries of a trust fund.

In politics, unlike in the legal case, we expect our advocates also to be judge and jury (and, in the case of fused parliamentary systems like the UK, executioner as well). But how can the ‘natural aristocrats’ returned by the elective process really know what is in the interests of their constituents (or the nation) if the membership of the legislative chamber does not accurately mirror the broader population? According to the Antifederalist view at the time of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, the representative assembly should be a ‘portrait in miniature’ of the whole citizenry, one that represents the nation descriptively. The two sides of the representative coin – active and descriptive (‘Federalist’ and ‘Antifederalist’) – are not really comparable: According to Pitkin, descriptive representation does not cover what the representatives do, while active representation is indifferent to who does it.

But if Madison is right – judgment and the representation of interests are impossible to combine in one ‘body of  men’ – then why not divide up these two roles and have two bodies (‘judges’ and ‘advocates’), created by two different systems of representation – election for the advocates and sortition (random selection) for those allotted the judgment role – at the same time? This would require a subdivision of one of Montesquieu’s categories of governance.

The Functional Division of Powers

Category Title Function Selection Principle
Legislature Advocates Representation of interests Election (active)
MPs Political judgment Sortition (descriptive)

The Greeks had two reasons for preferring sortition to election for anything other than specialist roles:

  • The random nature of the process was a powerful weapon against the corruption that Madison feared.
  • Random selection ensures ‘descriptive’ representation – those chosen will between them mirror the attitudes and socio-economic background of the whole population (as in modern public opinion polls).

But how could this possibly work in modern times? What about the sheer level of competence needed to govern a large modern state?

Expert Political Judgment – vs – the Wisdom of Crowds

Madison believed that elections in large constituencies would uncover a natural elite, ‘whose enlightened views and virtuous sentiments render them superior to local prejudices and schemes of injustice (Federalist, 10). Unfortunately he was wrong – partisan interests and the corrupting influence of money, media and celebrity soon put paid to his hope that representation would ‘refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through a chosen body of citizens’. This was largely on account of the unanticipated seizure of power by political parties during his own lifetime. Thus the impartial judgment of the representatives has been corrupted by partisan needs.

Most of us would be skeptical that the dispassionate, rational judgment of the ‘natural aristocracy’ returned by elections could magically transcend partisan interests. There is no evidence that the judgment of experts is better than anyone else. Indeed the aggregate ‘wisdom of crowds’ is a more reliable and certainly more democratic. The modern principle of the ‘wisdom of crowds’ has its origins in Aristotle’s Politics:

The many, of whom each individual is but an ordinary person, when they meet together may very likely be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively . . . For each individual among the many has a share of virtue and prudence, and when they meet together, they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses; that is a figure of their mind and disposition. Hence the many are better judges than a single man. (Aristotle, Politics, 3, 11)

As the public opinion polling industry has demonstrated, the best way of ensuring accurate descriptive representation is via a randomly-selected microcosm, The Deliberative Polling (DP) experiments of James Fishkin (2009) and his colleagues have shown that a randomly-selected group of ordinary citizens can judge an issue just as rationally as any elite body – at least when supplied with balanced expert advocacy.

The $64,000 question is how to combine these two distinct aspects of representation (judgment and ‘parties’) without incurring the factional evils that Madison deplored. A radical answer would be a binary division of roles within the legislature, as James Harrington proposed in his Commonwealth of Oceana (1656). Harrington’s proposal was based on the Venetian ballot, which involved a combination of election and sortition (random selection by lot):

An equal commonwealth is a government founded upon balance . . . a senate debating and proposing and a representative of the people resolving (Harrington, 1992, p.25).

Harrington illustrates the natural justice of his binary constitution with the example of two girls dividing a cake equally:

Two of them have a cake yet undivided, which was given between them: that each of them therefore might have that which is due, ‘Divide’, says one to the other, ‘and I will choose; or let me divide, and you shall choose.’ If this be but once agreed upon, it is enough; for the divident, dividing unequally, loses, in regard that the other takes the better half. Wherefore she divides equally, and so both have right (Harrington, 1992, p.22).

Although Harrington’s original proposal was bicameral, the functional distinction within the legislature – ‘debating/proposing’ and  ‘resolving’ (‘parties’ and ‘judges’ in Madison’s terminology) does not require two separate parliamentary chambers. Indeed the trial jury analogy suggests that both elements would need to meet in plenary as it is hard to understand how a jury could adequately judge a case without first hearing the evidence. My own attempt to modernize Harrington’s proposal (Sutherland, A People’s Parliament, 2008) argues that political parties should be restricted to an advocacy role – the party or parties that won the general election would be entitled to prepare parliamentary bills for consideration by randomly-selected MPs, who would then judge the outcome, deciding whether or not to pass them into law.

The victorious party or parties in the election would still need to convince the legislature through the force of their arguments, as voting rights would be restricted to the randomly-selected members. It would no longer be possible for a victorious party to steamroller through a policy that was buried in an election manifesto that few had bothered to read or that was deliberately concealed before the election. But given it is the same electorate that is being balloted in two complementary ways (preference elections and sortition) one would anticipate that the party/parties that won the election would also have a reasonable probability of winning the parliamentary vote. Going back to Harrington’s example of the two girls dividing the cake, the victorious political parties would need to ensure that their policies won both the initial (unconsidered) vote and the considered verdict of the same electorate, sampled descriptively.

The Separation of Powers

So far we have only considered the legislature, but what about the executive, the government itself. In the UK we have become so accustomed to a ‘fused’ constitution, where the government is formed out of the largest party in parliament, that we forget that most modern democracies, including the US, involve a separation of executive and legislative powers. Indeed this was formally the case in the UK at the time Montesquieu wrote his book on the separation of powers and might well have continued so, had not the Whigs repealed that part of the Act of Settlement intended to ensure that ‘no placeman of the Monarch’ (government minister) could be an MP.

The role of the government is to implement the decisions of the legislature, that’s why it’s called the ‘executive’ arm. The prime requirement of the executive is competence, so why not select ministers in a similar manner to the head-hunting of senior executives in the commercial and voluntary sector? The doctrine that government departments are led by ‘political’ ministers is only observed in the breach as already three out of five civil servants work for so-called Next-Step agencies like the Prison Service, JobCentre Plus or the DVLA, headed by chief executives who are not directly accountable to parliament. And ministers, who are often poorly qualified for the job, rarely remain in post long enough to fully get to grips with their ministerial briefs. So why not appoint ministers on merit alone, but hold them to account in parliament?

Such a policy would be much easier to implement in a supposedly classless and post-ideological age like our own where there is broad agreement on middle-of-the-road market-democratic principles. The left has given up on socialism and the Conservative Party likes to view itself as ‘progressive’ so the fundamental policy divides that characterized earlier ages appear to be absent.

As an example of how this might be possible one need look no further than the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Prior to 1997, the setting of interest rates was viewed as one of the prime responsibilities of elected politicians. Monetary policy was a key instrument in the transformation of the economy during the 1980s, but the flip side has always been that many Chancellors chose to inflate their way out of their accumulated debt and to meddle with interest rates when an election was in the offing. This usually ends in tears so Gordon Brown’s decision to entrust the setting of interest rates to a committee that was appointed purely on merit led to a decade of stable economic growth. The maintenance of low inflation is now accepted as an important priority right across the political spectrum and it is now inconceivable that monetary policy could be returned to elected politicians.

But if this is the case with monetary policy then why not fiscal policy? Gordon Brown’s “golden rule” for public borrowing required that the government’s books should balance over a single economic cycle, so why not contract out this bi-partisan commitment to an all-appointed Treasury “Fiscal Policy Committee” (FPC) in a similar manner to the mandate given to the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC). This is particularly relevant given the fiscal black hole that we are currently in.

Although the Governor of the Bank of England and the members of the MPC are appointed by the elected government, no-one would suggest that this is in any way political. The mandate was carefully specified and of a technical nature, so a shortlist could have been drawn up by headhunters, with the final appointment made by the appropriate parliamentary committee. Exactly the same principle could be applied to a Treasury “Fiscal Policy Committee” and its head, the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The appointment of the Chancellor would be for the duration of an average economic cycle (typically a decade or so). If the books balanced over this period then the retiring Chancellor would be well rewarded, or might even renew his contract; if the books didn’t balance then he would retire under a shadow and on severely diminished means. “Successful” Chancellors might expect to have a say in the appointment of their successor, who would probably rise from the ranks of the FPC. The coalition government has moved half way in this direction by the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility. Already the markets and media give more credence to the statements from its chairman, Robert Chote, than to George Osborne. Gordon Brown was even proposing legislation to bind the government on the fiscal straight and narrow, so one is tempted to ask what is the point of electing ministers if they cannot even trust themselves.

It might plausibly be argued that such a model is inherently conservative and that the role of the Chancellor would be akin to that of a corporate finance director. This is undoubtedly the case, but bear in mind the flip side – the model constitution I am proposing presupposes an unaccountable legislature appointed for a short term of duty by lot (exactly as in jury service), hence the need to counterbalance this with officials with a long-term perspective and clearly-defined responsibilities – the buck has to stop somewhere. Every legislative proposal would be costed and referred to the FPC who would then point out the fiscal consequences – politics cannot alter the laws of arithmetic, as Dennis Healey put it. It would then be for parliament to decide its priorities (raising taxes, or reducing some other area of spending) It would also be the case that the decisions of the FPC would be subject to exacting scrutiny by the media and other independent bodies (the IFS would in all likelihood assume an analogous role to the IEA Shadow Monetary Policy Committee). Removing fiscal affairs from party politics would not mean a lack of scrutiny – in fact the opposite, given Vince Cable’s complaint that the vast majority of members of parliament have no influence at all over government expenditure.

If this model works for the Treasury then how about other departments of state? The employment contract for an education minister might uncontroversially stipulate improvement targets for numeracy/literacy and GCSE and A-level grades (leaving it to the minister to decide how best to achieve these targets, without being constrained by dogma or party prejudice). Similar principles would apply to the Department of Health. Energy secretaries would be contractually required to ensure long-term interrupted supply and price stability, and this requirement could easily be operationalised. Given the emerging consensus on anthropocentric global warming, environment secretaries might well be charged with medium-and long-term carbon emission targets.

Of course this is where it all starts to get interesting, as the remit of the energy secretary and the environment secretary would be diametrically opposed. Reduced carbon emissions will lead to higher energy costs and heavy industry decamping to a country that is less concerned about global warming. But at least the debate would be honest – the two ministries could slug it out in public without the need to maintain the appearance of cabinet unity. The ultimate decision (do you want cheap electricity and foreign holidays or do you want to reduce global warming?) would be referred back to parliament, without mendacious politicians claiming that you can have your cake and eat it.

In all the resulting choices and conflict (which we usually refer to as “politics”), the Treasury would assume a central role in preserving the equilibrium of taxation and spending over the economic cycle. For this reason the Chancellor of the Exchequer would be the default chair of inter-departmental meetings and would assume the role of ‘prime’ minister – primus inter pares. Indeed the first prime minister (although the term originated as an insult) was Robert Walpole, who’s official title was First Lord of the Treasury and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Conclusion

My thesis is that the only solution to our political malaise is a modification and extension of Montesquieu’s doctrine of the separation of powers, with the integrity of each power secured by a unique selection method:

The Separation of Powers

Category Title Function Selection Principle
Legislature Advocates Representation of interests Election
MPs Political judgment Sortition
Executive Head of State Symbolic Heredity
Ministers Government/Administration Appointment on merit
Judiciary Judges Application of law ?

Much of the detail of the proposal, including the requirement for balanced and independent advocacy in the legislature and the crucial role of the media has of necessity been left out, but it’s all in my book, A People’s Parliament.

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51 Responses

  1. Thanks, Keith. It seems I have another book to add to my Amazon wish list.

    In the meantime, though, there is little that you’ve written, here, that I find disagreement with, except that it is incomplete.

    For sure, the founders you cite disdained liberal democracy, at least at the times when you cite them. Though, I believe Madison, for one, had a change of heart/mind once he saw the course the monster he helped to create had settled upon.

    But what about those who see/saw the document crafted in Philadelphia as little more than a power grab by colonial lords and masters; license to legitimate and consolidate their power over their lesser privileged countrymen such as women, slaves and the masses/rabble in general?

    And what of the lamentation of Jefferson? “An elected despotism is not what we fought for.”

    Or his revolutionary advisory? “… laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind…We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors”

    And, following in the latter vein, what of all we have learned in the last 200 years that was unknown even to the best educated among the founders and their generation in such fields as mathematics, statistics, control theory, evolution, group decision making, physical science, economics, ecology, group psychology, communications, sociology and more? Shall we passively huddle en-masse under the regimen of conniving elites and watch the devastation they wreak on the planet, their fellow man and TRUTH all the while knowing a better way — even if we cannot describe in perfect detail the blueprint?

    In my view modern Rome is ablaze. We have little time remaining to fiddle around the margins, else another dark age awaits. Those in power have repeatedly and intentionally misled and violated the trust of their citizenry. It is time for them to go the way of the Caesars.

    And rather than fill the void with a system of further aristocratic nonsense — as has filled power voids through the ages and will surely emerge to fill the void upon Mubarak’s demise — I prefer to advocate the pursuit of liberal democracy on moral grounds (none should be entitled dominion over another), social justice grounds (none are entitled to a greater share due to their cunning manipulation of others), and practical policy grounds (ideological zealots are not entitled to prevail over the wisdom of an independent crowd).

    For me history amply and convincingly shows that replacing elections with lottery selections affords the most democratic, just and wise means of governance because it counterbalances and undermines partisan dominion. Masdison was correct to see faction as a most “dangerous vice.” He was mistaken that the constitution crafted in Philadelphia provided a “proper cure for it” unless the only faction to concern him was that faction in which the vast majority of us find ourselves (which, unfortunately, is likely the faction that so frightened him and his fellow aristocrats/republicans).

    Yet, he also pointed out that the protection of the “diversity in the faculties of men…is the first object of government.” I interpret this to mean that the primary purpose of government is not to be confused with the advance of military and economic might on the one hand, or social security and health care entitlements on the other; but rather the protection of the inherent mental aptitude and physical ability of the citizenry broadly defined. Can there be a better rallying cry for liberal democracy? (He said rhetorically.)

    So, if democracy is the proper means by which humankind is to pursue liberation from aristocratic domination, then let’s get on with it.

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  2. Thanks for posting this. Two quick concerns. First, I’m not sure I understand how your advocates work. At present, you seem to think that political parties do a lousy job of following through on their campaign promises. In other words, the problem with parties is that they don’t necessarily do anything like what they said they’d do. But in your Harringtonian model, you seem to assume that parties WILL do what they say they will do. Indeed, you list as one of the advantages of your proposal the fact that parties won’t be able to sneak in obscure parts of their platforms. This makes no sense unless parties really do try hard to pass their platforms. So why do you think parties will be effective advocates for principles and positions, given that they aren’t so now?

    Second, I can’t speak to the British case, but in the U.S. anyone who thought that the Federal Reserve was apolitical would be incredibly naive. I’d like to sell such a person some real estate in Florida. It’s pretty clear that the federal reserve leaders might as well be paid agents for the banking community. This is reflected in their priorities–banks hate inflation, and don’t really care about employment, so the Fed will happily accept 20% unemployment in order to avoid 5% inflation. You can like that or not, but you can’t call it “post-ideological,” and you sure as heck can’t call it “classless”–it’s pretty naked class warfare, IMHO.

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  3. Greg: Many thanks for your comments (I love your rhetorical flourishes!) and it’s great to have a civilised conversation over these issues at last. I don’t think anyone can deny the oligarchic/aristocratic/plutocratic origins of the American republic but, like it or not, we start from where we are rather than somewhere that we would rather be. The two alternatives are to blow it all up and start over (your suggestion) or to seek ways of improving our current arrangements. Whilst the former call has all the attractive rhetoric, the latter has more chance of success — hence my enthusiasm for Fishkin’s proposals. If we are to opt for the latter course then the starting point has to be careful analytic distinctions and where better to find them than in holy scripture — the Tenth Epistle of St. Madison, starting at the Eigth Verse. But if the consensus on this forum is to go for the fiery rhetoric rather than a realistic attempt to influence policy then I’ll just have to move on somewhere else.

    Having said that I think what my critics have failed to acknowledge is that ultimately ALL power rests with the sovereign allotted assembly. Although the advocacy and administration roles are elite functions the assembly decides whether or not to pass or reject the laws and can sack any government minister at any time. So, going back to the Harrington model, elites are obliged to propose legislation that will meet with the approval of the allotted assembly — a virtuous feedback loop. Harrington was the original second-order cyberneticist.

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  4. Peter, at the moment (at least in the UK) the majority party can force through anything that it likes, but the usual excuse is that it is a manifesto commitment. Under my proposal, the winners of the preference elections would be mandated to introduce manifesto bills but would still need to persuade the sovereign assembly of the merits of their case. Thus they would have to obtain both the popular (unconsidered) vote and the allotted (considered) vote.

    This would also have the benefit of introducing the essential time delay (to be filled by public and media deliberation) that Condorcet argued was so essential for good legislation. Even if a party wins the popular vote on dog-whistle policies, they will then be subject to intense public scrutiny before and during the deliberation of the allotted assembly.

    Regarding appointed government officers, under my proposal if they are found to be partial then they can be sacked by the sovereign assembly.

    Partiality is mostly likely to be detected by the media — I devote a chapter of the book to a discussion of the vital need for media pluralism. The other encouraging factor is the growth of the blogosphere and internet media, making it harder for media monopolies (who may or may not have ties to political elites) to unduly sway public opinion. Interestingly in the UK the media are increasingly viewed as the official opposition — they all but destroyed the government during the parliamentary expenses row.

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  5. So it sounds to me like you’re not bothered by the fact that parties do what they promise to do. It sounds like you may be more bothered by the fact that parties try to do ALL that they promise to do, i.e., their entire programs. The problem with this, I’m inferring, is that people can’t pick and choose which elements of a party platform to endorse–it’s all-or-nothing. And so a party can win election on one popular issue (possibly an issue that’s nothing but a distraction–e.g., mosques in Manhattan) and then use its power to enact 28 unpopular programs as well.

    Is that right? If so, it would behoove you to make plain that you’re not particularly bothered by parties that deviate from their platforms. You open your talk with the observation that “Party leaders know we’ve twigged that there is no connection between manifesto commitments and actual policies, yet for some reason we don’t call their bluff – those of us who still turn out to vote give politicians the benefit of the doubt by maintaining that polite fiction called democracy.” But this seems to go against the rest of what you say.

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  6. Agreed. It’s a combination of the Trojan Horse and rational ignorance problem. In fact political parties do not form an essential part of the program. My preference would be for the electoral competition to be on issues — any citizen or ad hoc group should be able to put forward policy proposals online and then those that garnered a minimum number of (digital) signatures would appear on the final ballot paper. The individuals/groups who won the election would be authorised to put forward their manifesto commitments as bills before the allotted assembly. This would tend to attract ad-hoc groupings on particular issues rather than parties as traditionally understood.

    Given the difficulty of aggregating interests into a coherent package in our so-called classless/post-ideological/multicultural age, the party really is over.

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  7. >My preference would be for the electoral competition to be on issues<

    OK. If you mean that selecting among solutions proposed to address issues can be done by voting, then I can live with this. But that does not lead to the conclusion that those who would act on behalf of the public to make the selection would be chosen by an electoral process.

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  8. >The two alternatives are to blow it all up and start over (your suggestion) or to seek ways of improving our current arrangements. <

    No, I am not suggesting we have to blow anything up and start over. It would be silly to expect that the odds for improving the status quo would be improved in the chaos that would follow blowing up the current system. Rather, I'm suggesting a different incremental approach than you would like. One that acknowledges that election contests are among the most serious defects in the current system, and must be replaced by something more representative — and there seems no better alternative than to select officials by lot.

    Now, if we had millennia to deliberate this, as was the luxury for Plato and others, or even centuries, then your approach of pursuing the development and then consensus on an apt structure might work. But, with 7 going onto 10 billion folks competing for resources on a planet that is taxed beyond its limits, we do not have such luxury.

    Further, one of the benefits that accrues to sortition is that the sortites (meaning those who are selected) are much more likely to act independently, and produce better policy choices than loyal faction advocates ever could, and often better choices than most experts. So, why not let them participate in fleshing out the structure you want to see? What puts you in a position to declare to them the structure under which they must perform?

    Perhaps a bit of an experiment is in order. What if we assumed we had been selected (randomly?) from among a larger body of national sortites to work together to develop consensus proposals for consideration by the larger body?

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  9. “OK. If you mean that selecting among solutions proposed to address issues can be done by voting, then I can live with this. But that does not lead to the conclusion that those who would act on behalf of the public to make the selection would be chosen by an electoral process.”

    Agreed. My proposal is for the public to vote *directly* on manifesto proposals. This wouldn’t require that the proposals be aggregated on party lines, as at present. Citizens would simply vote for the people (including individuals and ad-hoc groups) whose manifesto proposals they liked most. The vote would be as unconsidered as it is at present, because of the problem of rational ignorance, so the winning proposals would then be voted on again by the allotted assembly after proper deliberation (in the assembly and also in the media).

    “What puts you in a position to declare to them the structure under which they must perform?”

    My only claim ist that I’ve made the necessary analytic distinctions originally formulated by Montesquieu and then Madison. The notion of “public officials” conflates three distinct functions — advocacy, judgment and administrative ability — and it strikes me as implausible to think that one mechanism (election, sortition, appointment, heredity or whatever) is the right way to appoint these superheroes that we assume will be able to combine these distinct functions. Much better to make the necessary distinctions and then to choose the appropriate selection method. I don’t think I’ve ever expressed a personal preference here, simply that an analytic distinction would automatically lead to a particular appointment mechanism:

    1) in an age of widespread popular education where the norms of equality and universal suffrage are predominant, sortition is the *only* way of ensuring that legislative judgments reflects the wisdom of crowds and the ultimate sovereignty of the people (elections, as we all know, are aristocratic in nature). This isn’t a matter of preferences (yours, mine or anyone else), it’s just a matter of fact.

    2) In a democracy elections are the only way to establish policy initiatives, as leaving this to an allotted assembly will be corrupted by lobbyists and there is no evidence that the policy initiatives proposed by a few political activists in a small group will reflect the general will (see below).

    3) Given that the requirement for the third function (administrative ability) is experience and competence then there are established methods of appointing the most competent people.

    However the allotted assembly will be able to fire the officials and vote down policy options from advocates that don’t offer convincing arguments in their support, therefore ultimate sovereignty lies with this body, so I hope the proposal would fulfill the wishes of sortition advocates. I would also point out that none of this represents my personal preferences — my first book contained no role at all for elections and political parties, but I had to change that when it was pointed out to me when I presented it at seminars that I had not allowed properly for the advocacy function. The new book has only been criticised by those who view equality as the *only* relevant principle.

    “Perhaps a bit of an experiment is in order. What if we assumed we had been selected (randomly?) from among a larger body of national sortites to work together to develop consensus proposals for consideration by the larger body?”

    I’m afraid that wouldn’t fulfill the role of an experiment. Everyone here is an activist and reasonably well versed in political theory. In no sense would this forum represent an allotted assembly. Indeed it indicates one of my principal fears about leaving policy proposals in the hands of such a body — it would almost certainly be dominated by the few allotted members who were politically engaged (or of high status), who would bias its agenda one way or the other. But if the assembly only acted (like a jury) to judge the outcome of the deliberation on proposals selected by the entire electorate then each member (including the silent majority) would have only one vote thereby ensuring true equality by lot.

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  10. I’m getting a better picture of what you are suggesting, but I’m not persuaded.

    >I’ve made the necessary analytic distinctions originally formulated by Montesquieu and then Madison. <

    Montesquieu has been dead for 250 years +/- Madison 175 +/-. They both lived on a much less crowded planet, missed the industrial revolution, the scientific revolution, Darwin etal, developments in control theory and cybernetics, economics, Freud, Marx, Weber, Wright brothers, Radio/Television, Neil Armstrong, and nuclear bombs etc. etc. No matter how exceptional they might have been, I see no reason to limit any conversation on effective governance to them.

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  11. >the problem of rational ignorance<

    And willful ignorance, and just plain lack of interest. Are you suggesting a national referendum on each major legislative proposal? Besides your concern that sortites would be too easily bribed, a concern that I do not share quite so dearly as you, why not let them decide matters of legislation and policy upon proper review and deliberation on behalf of the public — as legitimate representatives of the interest of the public?

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  12. >sortition is the *only* way of ensuring that legislative judgments reflects the wisdom of crowds <

    Really? What about decision markets? I think they have the potential to offer significant improvements over current methods.

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  13. >I’m afraid that wouldn’t fulfill the role of an experiment. <

    I'm not suggesting a rigorous scientific experiment. i used the experssion "bit of an experiment." My purpose was to suggest a way that would put us in the position of conflicting sortites, and learn whether, and to what extent we might be able to resolve our differences. If so, then perhaps the results would be informative to how we might come down on the need for imposed structure as you suggest, and I still disagree. Perhaps it would be a waste of time. Not married to the idea, but want to set the record straight on what I was intending to suggest.

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  14. “No matter how exceptional they might have been, I see no reason to limit any conversation on effective governance to [Montesquieu and Madison].”

    OK, but the nature of analytic distinctions is that they are a-temporal. It’s true of course that you can’t find these distinctions in the classical authors but 1) (apparently) the Greeks had no notion of proportionality so would not have felt the need to ensure that a sample “represented” the whole 2) there was a stronger sense of shared interests and common culture (due to the small and homogeneous citizenry, the overriding priority to defend the polis, and the cultural emphasis on homonoia [same mindedness]), so there wasn’t quite the sense that interests and judgment could be opposed. Also 3) modern states are much bigger and more complex, hence the need for government officers to be technically competent. This being the case, the distinctions made by Montesquieu and Madison are even more applicable nowadays — if you don’t agree you would need come up with a convincing argument as to why merging all three in a “single body of men” is not simply a conflation of three analytically-distinct properties that would require a group of supermen/women. I think that is asking an awful lot of sortites.

    “Why not let them decide matters of legislation and policy upon proper review and deliberation on behalf of the public”

    I do suggest they “decide” in the sense that the jury decides the outcome of the trial (your original analogy) but, leaving aside the issue of corruption, the two remaining problems are the lack of democratic mandate (“consent”) and the practical problem of whittling down the thousands of proposals that would be sent to the sortites. But I’m beginning to repeat myself.

    “Really? What about decision markets?”

    This is Surowiecki’s clear preference and the reason that he comes down against sortition in the last chapter of The Wisdom of Crowds. My feeling is that sortition is the more democratic of the two options as it directly empowers the silent majority. This is particularly important if the other two functions (representation of interests and competence) are to be maintained by aristoi-cratic principles.

    “My purpose was to suggest a way that would put us in the position of conflicting sortites, and learn whether, and to what extent we might be able to resolve our differences.”

    As an Anglophone and Anglophile I’m naturally suspicious of consensus conferences. Both Tetlock and Surowiecki are clear that consensus mechanisms are the best way to destroy the independence and diversity criteria that underlie the wisdom of crowds. Bear in mind the murky origins of the consensus view of deliberative democracy in Bodin and other early-modern theorists of power as the indivisible will of the sovereign. This has taken the European tradition of sovereignty in some very dangerous directions so I think we need to hold on carefully to the liberal-pluralist Anglophone view.

    PS: the term “liberal democracy” which you used in an earlier post normally refers to competitive party elections. The correct term for a sortition-based system would be demarchy.

    all best

    Keith

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  15. But it’s not up to Madison or Montesqueiu or Sutherland or Surowiecki or me or any of us alone. It’s up to those who are randomly selected to make their determination(s) as aggregate representatives of the masses based upon whatever and whomever they wish to say/hear from (even lobbyists!). You have some good points/arguments, so do thousands of others. It is up to the sortites to be determine which are most relevant. If not willing to accept this, then how are you offering anything other than a variation Plato? And if a variation of Plato, then why only Philosopher Kings with last names Madison and Montesquieu and Sutherland?

    But, Plato, and Madison and Montesqueiu and many others of note are dead. There is no way of knowing what they might think or say, today, based upon the changing knowledge that has occurred since their deaths. That is for the living to determine. Yes their ideas, as we struggle to interpret their true meaning, can be useful as guides, but not as natural laws or others carved-in-tablets in the presence of an 18th century burning bush. They simply are not.

    And how and whether to use decision markets or consensus is not up to Surowiecki or any other wizard not within the group chosen by lot. If this were not so, then the independence of the sortites would be in serious question, as too the wisdom of anything the decide. You see, Surowiecki also allows for not following his edicts too strictly by repeatedly cautioning against chasing the expert. He is, of course, advising against endlessly chasing other experts, but I cannot see why such reasonable advise does not apply to him, as well.

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  16. I think you are conflating political decision making and constitutional design. The huge difference between Plato’s ideal constitution and my own suggestion is that Plato argued that political decisions should be made by a philosophical elite, whereas I’m calling for political decisions to be made by a randomly-selected microcosm of the entire citizenry. So why do you compare me with Plato?

    Plato and Aristotle however, like Madison and Montesquieu, were schooled in the art of making the sort of analytical distinctions that are a necessary part of the process of constitutional design, and I’m puzzled as to why you feel this is a skill that is likely to be possessed by the entire population (randomly sampled), 99.9% who haven’t even considered it before. This is a bit like saying Peter Stone and his peers might as well shut up shop and get a proper job. I’ve always preferred to think that a training in analytic philosophy and the history of political thought is quite helpful if one wants to ponder the flaws with our political arrangements.

    I do wish that rather than just repeating the argument for absolute equality, my critics would point out the flaws in the analytic distinctions that I’ve made and argue how they could be overcome (Peter Stone being the only person who actually engages with the arguments, rather than just trumping them with e words [equality, elites etc]). I suppose this is understandable, given the name of this blog, but it confirms my fears that I need to pursue these distinctions somewhere else. I think this is a great shame because the blog will then continue to be a forum for preaching to the converted, rather than seeking to engage sortinistas with the wider political thought community.

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  17. >I think you are conflating political decision making and constitutional design. <

    Perhaps so. And I should probably stop. But, I'm also sure I'm making lots of other mistakes. I seem unable to help myself. That's why I ask a lot of strange questions. I'm actually trying to learn something, not be taught. And a great way for doing this is to test for and attempt to correct misunderstanding wherever it creeps in.

    Now, I suspect part of the confusion here is that I am not advocating major structural changes to the US constitution. Not that I wouldn't love to redesign it from scratch — in which case I would, no doubt, consult with you on the matter. Rather, I'm only considering changing the manner in which representatives are selected. All the other structural stuff would remain as is — at least in the beginning. And, as best as I can tell (being a non-lawyer) there is no need to change the structure of the US constitution to make this change. Reps are selected by whatever means the states choose.

    Sure, it might be nice to make the structural changes you suggest, and perhaps someday that will make sense, but I see little need to go to that trouble. Adoption of sortition as the means to select the congress without the delay will not ensue if we make this too hard (abstract) to grasp by minds not so well versed in this stuff as you and others on this blog.

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  18. >So why do you compare me with Plato?<

    I don't. I asked a question.

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  19. >I’m puzzled as to why you feel this is a skill that is likely to be possessed by the entire population<

    I don't. Why do you suggest I do?

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  20. >This is a bit like saying Peter Stone and his peers might as well shut up shop and get a proper job<

    I don't agree. I think it's extremely important for experts to work diligently to advance their expertise. If they're selected as a member of the sortinistas, then they should hold forth how ever long they have the energy and interest to do so. And if they're not, then they should do whatever they can to persuade those among the sortinistas that of whatever matters they feel need to be address. All I'm trying to say is that it is not up to the experts to set the terms of the conversation. That challenge, in my view, is up to the sortinistas. We either trust their collective judgment to act on our behalf, or not. If not, then why go to all this trouble?

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  21. > it confirms my fears that I need to pursue these distinctions somewhere else.<

    Oh, I get it. Get me to order your book and then leave me hanging. This is cruel. It hasn't even been delivered ;-)

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  22. > I think this is a great shame because the blog will then continue to be a forum for preaching to the converted, rather than seeking to engage sortinistas with the wider political thought community.

    This is rather pathetic. If you ever manage to create a community of people who support your suggested constitution, please do let me know. If not, then apparently “sortinistas” is all you’ve got.

    I find your name calling par for the course. For all your boilerplate talk about pluralism, your politics, as well as your rhetoric, are based on an attempt to marginalize anyone who doesn’t agree with you.

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  23. “Sure, it might be nice to make the structural changes you suggest, and perhaps someday that will make sense, but I see little need to go to that trouble.”

    OK, so to go down your route, presumably the allotted congress would be responsible for introducing legislation. So let me ask you four questions:

    1) How would individual members of congress cope with the thousands of legislative proposals they would receive (from lobbyists, activists and the general public)?

    2) How would you insure the system against corruption? (pointing to the corruption in the present system does not constitute an argument)

    3) What mechanisms would operate to ensure that the legislative priorities of congress align with those of the whole nation?

    4) Given that the president would be the only remaining elected officer (with a popular mandate), how would you insure the system against Caesarism? (allusions to the Weimar Republic are not just scaremongering).

    Four questions, four replies please (and no “e” words).

    “We either trust their collective judgment to act on our behalf, or not.”

    To unpack that fundamental conflation you need to order another book: Hannah Pitkin, The Concept of Representation (Berekely: UC Press, 1967). Pitkin’s argument is that sortive (descriptive) representation is fine for collective judgment but not action. Her book is still the gold standard on this stuff and you need to read it.

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  24. “Four questions, four replies please (and no “e” words).”

    Now, this is insulting. Especially when you have skipped over so many of my questions.

    “and you need to read it.”

    And, this.

    I suggest that you could stand to learn that who are truly interested in learning are not looking to being taught.

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  25. “Four questions, four replies please (and no “e” words).”

    The context is that whenever I ask a question on this forum the only reply I ever get refers to elites and equality, as if there were no other values in the political firmament. After a time it gets a little tiresome.

    “and you need to read it.”

    Unfortunately if you want to engage with the rest of the political thought community then you have to read the key texts. Clearly nobody here (with the exception of Peter Stone) wants to do the necessary groundwork, so I’ll retire gracefully and pursue the conversation with people who are prepared to do the work. This is why I’ve just returned to university after a 35-year sabbatical — I’m very happy to be taught by those with a deeper understanding of these issues than myself. What is a little galling is that in the one context (university) I’m viewed as some kind of Maoist, intent on “blowing up the English constitution”, whereas in the other (this forum), I’m derided as a Madisonian reactionary.

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  26. Some unsolicited answers here:

    “1) How would individual members of congress cope with the thousands of legislative proposals they would receive (from lobbyists, activists and the general public)?”

    Well, it’s a full time job. Three rather obvious suggestions 1. They can use secretaries and staffers just like present congressmen, to help summarize and categorize proposals. Or,
    2. They can randomly select as many proposals as they can handle. It will be a statistically representative sample of proposals (for what it’s worth) – random sampling is a useful tool in more than one way.
    3. They can just ignore the mail. Rather, they research the issues, consult experts, and make proposals themselves. Since they are statistically similar to the people, their proposals will be the kind of proposals people come up with. People mailing in proposal might not be happy with this, but they’re really a tiny minority of the population…

    “2) How would you insure the system against corruption? (pointing to the corruption in the present system does not constitute an argument)”

    Pay them good wages. Make their communications public. Randomly select a special committe (from the whole population) tasked solely with investigating abuses. Preach to the public (before and after their selection) about what a contemptible act taking bribes is, and how important it is that they follow their conscience when they have the once in a lifetime opportunity to affect the path of their societies. (By the way, when arguing for a new system, it is legitimate to compare it to the present system, not to some perfect, unattainable ideal).

    “3) What mechanisms would operate to ensure that the legislative priorities of congress align with those of the whole nation?”

    Their statistical representativeness. I don’t think courtroom games (“competing advocates”) are necessary. One of the interesting revelations of this thread is that you initially didn’t think it was necessary either, but I still don’t understand how they convinced you (and let’s not get into that again).

    “4) Given that the president would be the only remaining elected officer (with a popular mandate), how would you insure the system against Caesarism? (allusions to the Weimar Republic are not just scaremongering).”

    That’s a valid concern, at least. I think that in a climate where sortition is implemented, the prospects for a sortition-hostile presidental candidate would be poor. If the people still worship the president and revile congress as they do today, remember that this attitude would be shared by the selected congress itself – at least on the day they take office! Probably not on the day they leave it. If worst comes to worst, and this is the situation, we can hope the steady trickle of ex-congresspeople back into society acts as an eventual antidote to emperor-worship.

    Sooner or later a sortition-selected congress and a sortition-positive people would have to challenge the notion of a powerful elected executive. I’m hopeful that it can happen with Greg’s approach.

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  27. Good Morning Harald, delighted to join you in a civil and reasoned debate.

    1) “Since [allotted reps] are statistically similar to the people, their proposals will be the kind of proposals people come up with.”

    This is the sort of assumption that Pitkin cautions against (conflating the active and judgment functions) — I really do suggest we all read her book carefully. Most people are not politically active — this is partly a result of the problem of rational ignorance, but also down to temperament and social background (indoctrination of the downtrodden masses, if you prefer). It would take a long time to overcome this habit in new members of a sortive assembly, by which time they would have gone native and ceased to be descriptively representative. In the interim they would be the victims of lobbyists and other loudmouths.

    2) Corruption: “when arguing for a new system, it is legitimate to compare it to the present system, not to some perfect, unattainable ideal.”

    Fair point, but do not underplay the degree to which the venality of professional politicians is constrained by party, the media, the need to gain re-election, not to mention their own political ideals (sic). This has been dramatically demonstrated in the UK by the parliamentary expenses scandal (involving relatively trivial sums of money). Allotted members would not be subject to any of these constraints, so it’s reasonably to assume that serious corruption would increase.

    3) “I don’t think courtroom games (“competing advocates”) are necessary. One of the interesting revelations of this thread is that you initially didn’t think it was necessary either, but I still don’t understand how they convinced you.”

    Simply the need to proceed within the constraints of the existing discourse on constitutional theorising. My personal preference is, like Mill and Rousseau, for policy proposals to be originated by government ministers, but I was persuaded that this would contravene existing democratic norms. (However, I’ve always argued for the joust between competing advocates — policy proposals and debate being analytically distinct functions). Unlike some, I really do listen to the arguments of my critics and alter my views accordingly!

    4) “If the people still worship the president and revile congress as they do today, remember that this attitude would be shared by the selected congress itself – at least on the day they take office!”

    Exactly. The president already has the dangerous role of elected monarch. It would be very easy for him to pick up on minor gaffes from inexperienced sortinistas, ridicule the allotted chamber and thereby enhance his own divinity.

    In short, constitutions are unitary phenomena and you cannot alter one piece without affecting the others, hence the need to take a holistic perspective.

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  28. > Unlike some, I really do listen to the arguments of my critics and alter my views accordingly!

    If this is a dig at Yoram, it won’t work: I’ve followed his blog a lot longer than this one, and I’ve even convinced him of a thing or two myself (current project: the significant improvement PR is on FPTP for representativeness). If it’s a dig at me, well…

    > The president already has the dangerous role of elected monarch. It would be very easy for him to pick up on minor gaffes from inexperienced sortinistas, ridicule the allotted chamber and thereby enhance his own divinity.

    And the people might fall for this (indeed, they already do) but the chamber would not – what amused them from afar will probably outrage them when they are on the receiving end. You can expect they will return to the people from which they came, to the social groups from which they came, and carry with them a deep suspicion of unrestrained executives.

    > … but do not underplay the degree to which the venality of professional politicians is constrained by party, the media, the need to gain re-election, not to mention their own political ideals […]. Allotted members would not be subject to any of these constraints, so it’s reasonably to assume that serious corruption would increase.

    No, I don’t think it is. First of all: The media. Allotted members will be watched by the press just as elected members are, and the price of being caught seems rather to be higher for them. They have no island paradise to retire to, they’re going back to work at the auto repair shop once their term is over – how nice would that be if all your friends (who were elated at your selection) learn you’ve taken bribes?

    By comparison, there was a bribery scandal with the rural party here in Norway recently. They took illegal money from special interests related to rural interests (hydro power companies, etc.) to promote the party. The people responsible, will they find that their party colleagues and voters shun them? Not likely! They did what they did to “bring home the bacon” as they say in the US.

    Second: Re-election. Yoram Gat has written a bit on this, as I recall, on the virtue-based and rewards-based theories of accountability. If it was a significant constraint, you’d expect politicians to be more corrupt and less respectful of their constituents when they were in their final term (due to term limits). It doesn’t really seem noticeable if it exists.

    Third: Their own political ideals. Yeah, I’ll give you that, to the degree that they can be counted on to really believe in them, genuine ideology does restrain politicians quite a lot, particularly in PR systems (which do not require compromising on your ideals to the same degree.) But regular people have ideals as well. More intuitions of fairness and common sense, compared to the “systematic theology” of parties, but very much present.

    The question is who has the strongest convictions, regular people or party activists/party leaders. I’m a pessimist with respect to politicians there. Of the handful of people I know who have seriously aimed for a political career, they were not the most passionate of their peers, the most idealistic, the most unbribable. Rather, they were people who identified confidently and effortlessly with their “side”, and who liked the idea of becoming politicians. When I think about it, most of them were “hereditary” politicians too: from families strongly associated with their party.

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  29. One topic that has not been much discussed here is the question of a unitary legislature. It’s worth remembering that Athens had, not one, but 2, 3, many randomly-selected decision-making bodies. Most were small (boards of magistrates), but the juries were politically extremely significant. And constitutional change (postwar) was in the hands of the Nomothetai.

    I mention this because it seems that a lot of the problems that have been raised here could be addressed if we accepted the idea of governing the country through multiple randomly-selected bodies. I guess this is an extension of Keith’s argument for getting clear on the function of each office. Policing ethical norms, for example, is a function that should probably be carved off from lawmaking more generally. And so corruption in one randomly-selected body could be policed by another randomly-selected body. One could go further, and suggest that different lawmaking areas should require different decision-making bodies. If the government decided that it needed to overhaul the health care system, or come up with a proposal for fighting global warming, why not have specific randomly-selected bodies for each of these areas (either standing or ad hoc)? I’m not completely convinced by John Burnheim’s idea of “demarchy,” but I do think he’s on to something in his desire to employ sortition on many levels and for many purposes.

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  30. “if you want to engage with the rest of the political thought community then you have to read the key texts.”

    I could be mistaken, but by “key” I’m coming to suspect you to mean something very close to sacred and canonized by the high priests of political thought (ideologues?). Surely we do not disagree that it might well be worthwhile to read such texts, but it’s hard to take serious what you imply — that the only political thoughts worthy of considering are those that emerge from the minds of such blessed souls as have read books prescribed by some political priesthood. If so, which priesthood? And how was its membership determined?

    Sorry, but I’m not so confident there yet exists such a group that has achieved a corner on truth. Not by a long shot. And that, to me, is sufficient reason to embrace the spirit of sortition if nothing else as a means to steer well clear of such political thought cabals.

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  31. “I could be mistaken, but by “key” I’m coming to suspect you to mean something very close to sacred and canonized by the high priests of political thought (ideologues?).”

    With all due respect, I think your reading of Keith’s intentions is very uncharitable. I don’t worship Locke, or Harrington, or Montesquieu, or Rousseau, or Madison, but I have no problem saying that they all said smart and interesting things about political institutions, and that anyone concerned about political institutions should be familiar with the arguments and ideas expressed in their works. The contribution such books could make to this debate seems obvious to me, even if we ultimately decide to reject most of their conclusions. (Every atheist should know the Bible very well.) I think that’s all Keith had in mind.

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  32. Peter, please don’t overlook my comment that “Surely we do not disagree that it might well be worthwhile to read such texts.”

    I have no intention to disregard the works of any of the masters in this field or other as might apply. Only don’t intend to tell others, or be told myself, which books count and which do not.

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  33. Well, then I’m not sure anyone is disagreeing with anyone else. Unfortunately, the internet is one of those places where people can have heated arguments over little if any disagreement. I would strongly encourage bloggers here to be mindful of that danger. I wouldn’t read you as dismissing any use of classic works of political theory–my apologies if I mischaracterized your position–but I also wouldn’t read Keith as trying to police the canon. (Which work was he dismissing as unworthy of inclusion? I can’t remember any.) So let’s try to talk productively, and that means applying a certain measure of charity in reading and responding to messages here.

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  34. Harald: “how nice would that be if all your friends (who were elated at your selection) learn you’ve taken bribes?”

    It needn’t be as blatant as that — whatever the rules, lobbyists will find a way of getting round them (usually by way of Swiss bank accounts) and it would be hard to monitor families and friends. The usual solution is a secret ballot and that cannot apply to legislative advocates. Peter’s idea of multiple sortive bodies is an interesting one, but policing is normally a job for the police (and there is also Juvenal’s problem).

    Greg: “If so, which priesthood? And how was its membership determined?”

    It’s called a university and (in the case of Pitkin’s book) the high priest was her PhD examiner.

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  35. “It’s called a university ”

    Keith, this comes as no surprise. And it speaks to a huge part of the problem — the frequent and consistent disdain for the practical wisdom of the less-formally educated.

    I do not impugn the knowledge acquired in/among academic circles. I merely work to keep in mind the limitations of such knowledge and not discount the practical wisdom acquired among the citizenry, more generally.

    Your comment implies, to me, that you discount the thoughts of those who have not read the right books as you and those in your field have determined them. This strikes me as elitist poppycock. All of those subject to the rules/laws/procedures deserve to be full participants in the conversation. How else are we to advance/learn individually and collectively?

    And this gets to a bedrock question. One that I think you and I disagree: how best to advance individual and collective learning? Perhaps a topic to explore as the interest moves another time.

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  36. Actually I’ve spent all my adult life working printing machines and only returned to university a few months ago in order to study sortition. I don’t think this has anything to do with elitism, it’s just that there is a body of knowledge in most areas of life and if you want to get involved you should study it. I don’t know what you do for a job, but this is as true of printing, plumbing, brain surgery and software engineering as it is the study of political theory. Jim Fishkin has been doing experiments in sortition for 25 years or so, yet his work is ridiculed by the amateur sortinistas on this site. As Peter mentioned in his post, by all means disagree with the canonical texts (or Fishkin’s methodology), but first of all you need to study them.

    I’ve never discounted anyone’s thoughts, I’ve only sought to challenge and argue with them. If you recall our conversation it started with me saying how much I liked your own blog, before going on to argue that your policy proposals had failed to consider certain standard objections that would be raised by any political scientist/theorist.

    As for the general question of how to advance learning, I think that’s not really the topic of this blog.

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  37. “I don’t think this has anything to do with elitism”

    I suspect you don’t. And perhaps you’re correct.

    “…there is a body of knowledge in most areas of life…Fishkin…ridiculed by the amateur sortinistas…”

    I’d agree that there is a body of ‘supposed’ knowledge in ‘many’ areas of life. Knowledge that passes as the best we seem to know at the moment. But that’s obvious. Nothing new or objectionable here until you suggest there is a single body of knowledge that is preferred when it comes to political thought because you and others say so. Of course, those who disagree must be amateurs — and that’s not being elitist. Riiiiiight.

    The point you seem to consistently deny is that yours is not the only field that has something important to say on this matter, and not everybody need or can be required to be an expert in your specific field before they can make a contribution.

    You specifically claimed that “to engage with the rest of the political thought community then you have to read the key texts”

    So, shall we exclude all biologists that have not read the key texts from engaging in political thought, or physicists, or astronauts, or garbage men, or plumbers, or farmers, or soccer players, or, or, or? Of course not.

    Shall we assume that these and others don’t have something of value to add to the conversation that comes from outside the key texts? Again, of course not.

    And, what if these folks were to make the effort to read the key texts. Would that qualify them to engage in the conversation? Or would they, first, have to sit for an examination to determine their understanding of the material — before their thought contributions were given serious attention? To spend one ounce of energy to develop a system based on such an obviously faulty assumption seems silly to me, and I suspect you. Which is why I keep looking for you to alter your statement and bring it into line with something more sensible.

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  38. “So, shall we exclude all biologists that have not read the key texts from engaging in political thought, or physicists, or astronauts, or garbage men, or plumbers, or farmers, or soccer players, or, or, or?”

    Of course not and this is you and I believe in sortition, as everybody has something to add to the conversation. But if you want to engage in constitutional DESIGN then you do have to read the literature, because then you will come to appreciate that your own particular interest is only one element in an integrated whole (this was my own experience and it took me many years to appreciate this point, eventually concluding that I would have to quit work and go back to school at the age of 60).

    The parallel with other areas of design (architecture, computer software or whatever) is an exact one. If you decide not to do the homework then you will have to suffer the indignity of others who have done the work pointing out that you have only a partial perspective because you have not considered x, y or z. I’m sure that biologists, physicists, astronauts, garbage men, plumbers, farmers, and soccer players would have a similar attitude to the body of knowledge that underlies their own profession.

    “you suggest there is a single body of knowledge that is preferred when it comes to political thought”

    No, there are many, many perspectives, but some of the texts are better regarded than others, judged by the process of peer review (and longevity). This is not a perfect method of establishing what is worth reading and what isn’t (my own books don’t appear on any university reading list) but it’s the best we have at the moment. And it certainly doesn’t help when the highly-regarded work of one of the acknowledged pioneers in this field (Fishkin) is ridiculed by members of this list on account of its lack of ideological purity.

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  39. About credentials, just so you all know: I’m “merely” a community college educated engineer, who have (as a private citizen, not a student) for many years made use of the University of Oslo’s sizable political science library. I’m interested in the philosophy of democracy, social choice theory, electoral systems and lately (thanks to Yoram Gat and this blog) the institutions of ancient Greece.

    About “key texts” in the philosophy of democracy (or of government), no, I haven’t read them all, but one I have read and that I treasure highly, is Popper’s “The Open Society and its Enemies”. There’s actually a great argument about academia and the problem of choosing your successor in book two, which probably made me worry less about my lack of formal credentials :)

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  40. It’s been 30 years since I read Popper, must dig it out and take another look. Thanks!

    Keith

    PS As a professional engineer I imagine you would agree over the distinction between having an amateur interest in (say) bridges and aircraft and designing one that won’t fall down or crash. Re-engineering constitutional institutions is not entirely dissimilar.

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  41. Keith, earlier you wrote, “if you want to engage with the rest of the political thought community then you have to read the key texts.”

    More recently you have written, “if you want to engage in constitutional DESIGN then you do have to read the literature.”

    I find the latter statement much more agreeable. The key difference being the morphing from the word thought to design. But still I would not be so black and white as you appear to be — else the huge risk of reifying, if not deifying, obsolete and/or unproven notions/best guesses (some more educated, perhaps, than others) from our intellectual ancestors, and, thereby, leading to stagnant if not retarding designs.

    This last point is critical if we are to avoid foreclosing the possibility for designs that improve our lot and lead to advancements in the human condition. If we constrain the design to those principles known to experts within the field, then we place limits on considering even the possibilities for designs that originate on the fringes of what has been proven within the normal science scope of the field, if not from outside. This point was made more eloquently, as you know, by Kuhn many decades ago, and although not as favored among philosopher-of-science kings today as it once was, still has much to say for it. [eg., the Wright brothers were very bright (brilliant?) bicycle designers/engineers. To suggest that the invention of the Wright Flyer emerged from the aviation literature of the day, though, would be a clear overstatement of the importance of an infantile if not non-existent literature to their breakthru.]

    Now, so what to do? We clearly don’t want to have folks engaged in designing legislation and constitutions who know little about quality constitutional design principles (like most lawyers and lobbyists and well-connected businessmen and garbage collectors and citizens at large), AND yet we don’t want to unduly constrain the solution set under consideration to one that is based upon possibly archaic and/or obsolete principles that have yet to be proven anywhere near as rigorously as the principles undergirding bridge or building or rocket design (such as much of Madison and Montesquieu and Plato and many many many more).

    I admit to not having an answer, and remain suspicious of any full-fledged proposals that you and/or others put forth that are constrained to the “key” canon — errrrrr — texts of a field that is far from settled science.

    But I do have a suggestion — modeled after the use of pilot projects in the physical sciences and medicine — in which real citizens participate in pilot projects and make suggestions of how these designs can be improved that are taken seriously regardless of what their training or education might be. Who knows, maybe there will emerge something useful that neither you, nor I, nor any thousand other philosopher king wannabes has considered.

    BTW, I have specifically avoided posting credentials here since I find them to be highly over-rated, and often put-offish to less-well credentialed, but not less-well qualified discussants/participants.

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  42. Hi Greg, I’m glad to agree with pretty much all you say here (perhaps because I’ve just downed a very nice bottle of claret). More specifically:

    “if you want to engage with the rest of the political thought community then you have to read the key texts.”

    I was only trying to make the banal point that if you want to speak to French people then you need to learn French. This is a pragmatic point and certainly not intended to privilege French over any other language.

    “if you want to engage in constitutional DESIGN then you do have to read the literature.”

    This is a more substantive issue, by which I meant that certain distinctions and problematisations have been pointed out by those working in the field, that really need to be addressed. This doesn’t imply that Montesquieu or Madison’s solution needs to be adopted, merely that the solution should address the problems already delineated.

    Regarding Kuhn, I agree with you that sortition is a paradigm-changing position. But to return to your Wright brothers analogy, bicycles and jet aerofoils both have to observe the laws of fluid dynamics. Similarly the distinctions and problematics outlined by Montesquieu, Madison or whoever still apply, whether the proposed solution is an eighteenth- or twenty-first century one. If we are advocating a novel solution, then we need to show how this better fits the empirical constraints than the old solutions. This is the mechanism of Kuhnian paradigm change — it was the Michelson-Morley experiment that led to the paradigm change, the new theory was a better fit to the data. Thus the job of sortinistas is to point out how their solution better fits the problematic, rather than just the normative claim that equality trumps elites. Period.

    I’m as keen as you for garbage collectors, printers (like myself) etc to make suggestions as to how best to improve our political arrangements. But the successful solution will still have to overcome the obstacles pointed out in the canonical texts. Remember Einstein was just a provincial tax collector or whatever but his theory was a better fit to the data than the luminiferous aether. (I may have got some of this wrong, but you get the point).

    I think we could all be pleasantly surprised as to how such suggestions might be received, but this will only work if we stop dissing elected representatives as a bunch of scumbags and canonical authorities as Madisonian reactionaries. Rhetoric is important and we all need to adopt a less confrontational style, otherwise this blog will continue to be a conversation between three or four people.

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  43. Would just like to chime and and say Keith I have read your book and found it very informative. I would encourage people who criticise his ideas to read the book first as before I actually read it I simply assumed that a parliament selected entirely by sortition would work by itself and we didn’t need any scumbag politicians or crusty lords stinking it up, but the truth as Keith explains is the wisdom of the commons works only when they are presented with a range of view points, which is why Keith insists on both the separation and independence of advocacy and judgement,

    A question to Keith – In your book you stated that the advocates, most of whoom would become life peers would be self-regulating – what is to stop them from going native and selectively present and withhold information to prevent your political jury from making a fully informed decision.

    Also Keith your book makes little mention on how to get your constitutional revolution achieved leading to some of your critics to dismiss it as utopianism. Have you got any ideas actually get your vision implemented under the actual existing system of liberal democracy?

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  44. Many thanks for your kind comments. I’m at work at the moment and need to think your questions over carefully, so will respond tonight.

    Keith

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  45. Mark

    Thanks again for asking some searching questions – you’ve picked up on two of the weakest points in my book:

    Advocacy
    ————-
    In this article I only deal with one aspect of advocacy, in that the winners of the election are entitled to present their manifesto proposals to the randomly-selected parliament. I don’t go into how ‘opposition’ advocates might be selected, although this is covered in the book, where I argue that the (UK) House of Lords should become a chamber of expert advocacy. Here’s the relevant paragraph (p.137):

    “There is no attempt made in this essay to camouflage the fact that the estate of the Lords Advocate would be unashamedly elitist in its composition – a body of the great and the good. But, at the same time, it would need to be highly pluralistic and representative of the range of interests and the key professions necessary to comment on the issues that legislation is likely to cover. And the notion of an elite – a true aristocracy of talent, experience and merit – is perfectly compatible with a quota system. Thus quotas would need to be specified for business and the trades unions, science and its environmental critics, transport advocates and countryside conservationists, religion and the military, education, law, health, finance, culture, sport and all the myriad professions that might have something useful to contribute to the national debate.”

    The reason that I’ve kept this vague is because the agenda of the book was only to outline the principles, leaving it to people working in the field (Fishkin being an obvious example) to fill in the details.

    Of course this is all based on the pluralist worldview of complacent liberals like Fishkin and myself. If, like some members of this blog, one seeks to argue that interests are simply divided along class lines – between the elite (singular) and the masses – then it would inevitably be the case that Lords Advocate would simply reflect elite interests. Perhaps my naïve pluralist assumptions are no more than wishful thinking, but it remains the case that Fishkin has done some very useful work over the last twenty years based on similar assumptions.

    Harrington (the ultimate source for my model) did in fact assume that society was divided into two discrete groups (the elite and the masses) and perhaps this was true in the seventeenth century. But he concluded his model would still work, because all the voting power was in the hands of the popular house. So if all the advocates go native and argue against the common good then their proposals will be rejected. Thus the self-regulation mechanism of the constitution as a whole will feed back into the self-regulation of the advocate house. Also, the role of the media in influencing the outcome of the debate shouldn’t be underestimated, hence the need to ensure that this is equally plural.

    If this model were dismissed as being too elitist then the other alternative would be for the losing party/ies in the election to assume the opposition advocacy role. This is all too partisan for my taste, but it would still leave decision making in the hands of the allotted body. Madison wouldn’t approve of the partisan aspect but would endorse the separation of advocacy and judgment.

    Implementation
    ——————–
    Interestingly the chair of the Electoral Commission read my book and his only objection was that I didn’t consider how to put it into practice, as turkeys (professional politicians) are not generally disposed to vote for Christmas. Fair point but, given the opprobrium heaped on MPs of late, there is a greater chance that they might favour a system in which they retained a residual role. In many respects the advocacy role of politicians – in which they no longer had to worry about tiresome things like unintended consequences – is the enviable prerogative of the harlot (power without responsibility), so who knows, maybe they would jump at the chance.

    However I think the turmoil in the Middle East provides a better opportunity – see the posts above:

    https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2011/02/14/for-egypt-are-elections-the-way-forward/

    https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2011/02/15/inshallah/

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  46. I wonder what you think about these quota’s being provided by mixing in an element of sortion from say a shortlist of candidates amongst the membership of various professional associations.

    Although I have no objection to an elitist house in an advisory capacity – I do have concerns in how that elite is selected and would not wish it to be comprised of conformist men who achieved their position merely because they were ‘yes’ men who refused to rock the boat and did whatever those above them in the bureacratic hierarchy told them to.

    It’s interesting to know that the chairman of the electoral commission read your book, but alas he does not set policy elected MP’s do that. It seems to me the only way to achieve our desired political reforms is through party political means – and by that I do not mean creating a political party purely dedicated to sortition but joining an actual existing political party and try to influence it in a sortitionist direction.

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  47. Mark: I think your idea of quotas being provided by sortition amongst members of professional associations is truly excellent. My book is a little vague in this area and I think your proposal is much better (I’ll put it in the next edition — pls let me have your name to acknowledge the source of the idea). Of course there is the non-trivial question of which organisations to choose but I’m sure that could be resolved. Ivor Jennings is very good on how civil society organisations (his examples from the 1930s were the BBC, TUC and LGA) become incorporated into the scheme of governance by informal constitutional convention.

    Again I agree with you over the ongoing need for political parties (how else can policy options be formulated in a democratic society?) Hopefully if that ongoing role is acknowledged then existing political parties might be more sympathetic to the case for sortition as they would not be shooting themselves in the foot. My impression is that many or even most MPs are somewhat gloomy regarding the state of politics and might be surprisingly open to approach. Douglas Carswell has certainly shown that he is thinking equally radically in his book.

    PS sorry to be so slow in replying — just got back from holiday.

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  48. Mark

    PS your blog claims that you are 13 years old. If that’s true then I’m deeply impressed (actually, astonished)! I can honestly say that your understanding of these issues is much better than (say) Vernon Bogdanor, who reviewed both my books (in THES and TLS). Bogdanor was Cameron’s tutor at Oxford and is reckoned to be amongst the most knowledgeable on constitutional issues in the UK. If “13” isn’t a typo or a wind-up then you can look forward to a glittering future!

    Keith

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  49. PS — forgive my idiocy, I see now that “13” is a reference to the number of profile views on your blog, not your age. Sorry!

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  50. […] scrutiny in randomly-selected nomothetai (legislative courts). The proposals contained in Sutherland (2008) are an attempt to provide a modern-day instantiation of these principles, in which ratification by […]

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  51. […] would be introduced by their original (stage 1) advocates and would be opposed by members of the house of advocates, composed of members of a wide range of civic society and interest groups. Membership of the house […]

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