Public Opinion vs. Sortition

There’s been some recent discussion here of the possibility that a randomly-selected decision-making body (an Allotted Chamber, or AC) might disagree with the people it represents because the former is well-informed and has thought things through carefully but the latter has not. James Fishkin discusses a movie that illustrates this possibility well–

http://www.one-country.com/061magictown.html

Thought this might be useful for the discussion.

Advertisements

37 Responses

  1. Thanks. Nice piece.

    “… possibility that a randomly-selected decision-making body (an Allotted Chamber, or AC) might disagree with the people it represents because the former is well-informed and has thought things through carefully but the latter has not.”

    And, of course, it’s also possible that they might come to disagree with the people at large because the hoopla of celebrity (a kind of social Heizenberg) corrupts their independence and undermines their capacity to think carefully and remain well-informed.

    And, wouldn’t this be pretty easy to neutralize by periodic turnover/rotation of the sample?

    Like

  2. Agreed — there is always a danger that allotted members will go native, so frequent rotation is essential. My preference is to summon a different ad-hoc “jury” for every legislative act. This would have the added benefit of enabling as many people as possible to participate directly in politics. Hansen refers to a Danish proposal that would allow every citizen to participate once in a lifetime, but Denmark is a small country and even then the numbers of the AC are so large that they almost certainly exceed the rational ignorance threshold.

    Like

  3. And that’s not to mention the ever-present risks to the quality of the evolving conversation associated with in-breeding and self-pollination (he mentioned).

    Like

  4. In our sham-democracy people are encouraged to hold unfounded opinions because those unfounded opinions are easy for the powerful to manipulate and use. In opinion polls, for example, very few people answer that they have no opinion on some matter.

    A sortition-based system should be founded on the understanding that many problems take effort to have a good grasp on, and therefore it is often impossible to arrive at an informed and considered opinion without some effort, implying that in the absence of the effort it is better to withhold judgment. If such an understanding is prevalent, one could expect that conflicts of opinion between the population at large and an AC would be rare and would be limited to those cases where there is a good reason to suspect that an AC has some special interest.

    Like

  5. “A sortition-based system should be founded on the understanding that many problems take effort to have a good grasp on… often impossible to arrive at an informed and considered opinion without some effort…in the absence of the effort it is better to withhold judgment.”

    Isn’t this true for any decision system? Even our current “sham-democracy”, if it actually focused on ensuring an effective conversation among members of the House, for example, would likely reach much better quality legislative & policy decisions.

    The advantage of sortition-based systems is that it affords a useful tool against the influence of bogus reasoning (at least that’s my understanding of Peter Stone). In our current “sham-democracy” bogus reasoning is clearly the dominant form of whatever reasoning can be found in our supposed policy debates. So, more than a dose or two sortition is desperately needed. I think we’d all agree.

    But, the matter of public opinion being so ill-informed, and seemingly satisfied with simplistic quasi-solutions that often contribute mightily to making things worse, is a much larger matter. One that has to get to the matter of education, as Jefferson knew so well. And one that while sortition might open the door, it does little to help to resolve for many beyond, perhaps, the allotted souls (what I think is here called the Allotted Chamber).

    It seems to me that the pressure from an ill-informed public to assert the illegitimacy of the work the Allotted Chamber should be expected to continue until the public becomes much less enchanted with simplistic solutions (such as the popularly held belief that the incumbent US President is and ought be in charge of Mubarak and all things Egyptian etc.).

    So, while an Allotted Chamber will increase the odds of informing and improving policy, it seems a bit of a leap of faith to see it having much impact on the public at large without significant other work on educating a wider public that has been conditioned to accept, if not demand, simplicity. No?

    Like

  6. I share Greg’s scepticism and would argue that one needs to focus on structural features, as opposed to appeal to the moral character of the agents. People hold unfounded opinions as there’s no point in bothering to become informed (the rational ignorance problem) as their opinion or vote will not make any difference, not because of some sinister power elite; parliamentarians fail to engage in effective conversation because there is no point, as the outcome is determined by partisan rather than discursive factors. If you want intelligent debate and informed decision making then you need to make the necessary structural changes to overcome the rational ignorance problem and the domination of political parties.

    As for the relationship between the AC and the general public that’s a more tricky matter, which will not be resolved by a public information campaign (aka propaganda). What is required is 1) experiments to demonstrate the effectiveness of the AC (Fishkin is almost alone in doing this work) and 2) clear analysis of what descriptive representation can and cannot do. I suggest we 1) stop badmouthing Fishkin and 2) read Pitkin and then return to discuss what descriptive representation can and cannot do.

    Like

  7. Greg,

    > Even our current “sham-democracy”, if it actually focused on ensuring an effective conversation among members of the House, for example, would likely reach much better quality legislative & policy decisions.

    I disagree. The main problem with the current system is not lack of “effective conversation” among the electoral elite. It is that the electoral elite promotes interests that are contrary to those of the large majority of the population.

    > The advantage of sortition-based systems is that it affords a useful tool against the influence of bogus reasoning (at least that’s my understanding of Peter Stone).

    Again, I disagree. The advantage of a sortition-based system is that it aligns the interests of the decision makers with the interests of the population at large. Peter argues that the use of the lottery guarantees that the selection process does not result in systematic negative effects (by eliminating all systematic effects), not that it eliminates bogus reasoning (either by those selected or in the population).

    > In our current “sham-democracy” bogus reasoning is clearly the dominant form of whatever reasoning can be found in our supposed policy debates.

    Those “policy debates” are nothing but sham debates anyway. They are simply rationalizations of policies that are driven by the interests of the powerful. They are used to manipulate the public, not to determine policy.

    > It seems to me that the pressure from an ill-informed public to assert the illegitimacy of the work the Allotted Chamber should be expected to continue until the public becomes much less enchanted with simplistic solutions

    This disenchantment with sham-choice (as in the sham-choice between electoral candidates) and the adoption of sortition must go hand in hand.

    > So, while an Allotted Chamber will increase the odds of informing and improving policy, it seems a bit of a leap of faith to see it having much impact on the public at large without significant other work on educating a wider public that has been conditioned to accept, if not demand, simplicity. No?

    There won’t be an AC until the public repudiates the current infantilizing mode of mass politics. So, again, those things must go hand in hand. Interestingly, BTW, advocates of “participative democracy”, who are critical of the status quo for its elitist nature, effectively advocate for more of this mindless simplistic mass politics.

    Like

  8. hello, everybody.

    sorry, this is off topic. am i the only one who thinks egypt is perfectly placed to actually institute rule by lottery? i want to be really excited about their revolution but i’m afraid that it will not be very revolutionary.

    Like

  9. That’s an interesting point — but how do we persuade the generals (or their American paymasters)? One strategy might be to argue that sortition would be the only democratic way of preventing total domination by a partisan or extremist group. I imagine the Muslim Brotherhood would be the largest party, and under competitive elections would be able claim a mandate for (say) Sharia, even though the majority of Egyptians might not want to go that far. Of course extremists could still try to persuade an allotted chamber (AC) to (say) implement Sharia and/or cut off relations with Israel, but they would only be able to do so through force of argument, rather than by recourse to mandate theory. Whereas in the West, elective democracy is moving towards the centre ground, in the East (as well as in conflict-divided societies), elective democracy mandates the extremists or the largest ethnic or religious subgroup — hence the need for special constitutional provisions in countries like Iraq. Ian O’Flynn has done some good work on the potential of sortition in divided societies (as opposed to d’Hont and other anti-democratic constitutional fixes). This isn’t to suggest that Egypt is divided along ethnic or religious grounds, merely that an extremist minority could easily take over the government, even if most Egyptians would prefer a decent living wage, an end to corruption and living in peace with their neighbours.

    The other argument for sortition of course is that it’s the best way of combatting corruption and cronyism, which is one of the biggest problems in Egypt.

    So there would be a strong practical and *prudential* case for sortition, given the imminent demise of traditional American policy in the Middle East. Anyone know Hilary Clinton’s phone number?

    Like

  10. Greg, I’m afraid that conversations with Yoram always end up with a restatement of the (Marxist) doctrine that “politics” can always be reduced to the conflict of class interests. Superstructural factors (ideology) can always be explained by material factors (interests) and society can be divided into two discrete groups — a homogenous elite and the masses. Of course there is some truth in this quaint idea, but most modern Marxists are a little more nuanced in their arguments. I’ve been chastised in the past for calling Yoram a Marxist — and he disavows the label as he is interested in political, rather than economic equality. But this fails to convince because “interests” are generally expressed in economic terms, so political and economic equality are inextricably linked.

    Like

  11. keith,

    sorry, i don’t know anything about any of this. i posted my essay on a site and someone else posted a link to demarchy on wikipedia. i followed links and searched some more and found this site. today is the first that i’ve heard of any of this.

    i’m not terribly interested in convincing generals to do anything. or hillary. i think the people of egypt can do this. and with nothing more than a lottery.
    1. decide what positions there are.
    2. decide what the pools are for each position.
    3. decide on a removal process.
    4. pick people by lottery.

    just off the top of my head so i know i’m missing stuff.

    and, just wondering, what would you say if the majority in egypt wanted some type of sharia?

    Like

  12. Yoram, request that points not made in my ramblings not be read into them. This, we’d surely agree, is difficult via an internet exchange — particularly when my ramblings are, perhaps, not so well rambled, and when I am such a new entrant into a long-standing conversation the details and context of which I am unsure and unclear about.

    So, bear with me as I attempt to clarify what I believe, perhaps incorrectly, might be a misinterpretation of some points I claimed above.

    (1) I did not mean to suggest that our sham-democray only needed an adjustment in the quality of the conversation among political elites. Rather I meant to suggest that such a conversation would be an improvement over a conversation in which the political elites rationalize their points with bogus reasoning. I only brought this up in an attempt to support my claim that ANY system in which the participants make the effort to learn the finer points of the issues would likely lead to better policy — NOT just a sortition-based system as you seemed to claim.

    (2) You wrote “Those “policy debates” are nothing but sham debates anyway. They are simply rationalizations of policies that are driven by the interests of the powerful. ”

    On this we are in clear agreement. My ramblings intended the same point.

    (3) You wrote “The advantage of a sortition-based system is that it aligns the interests of the decision makers with the interests of the population at large.”

    I think this is but one advantage of a sortition-based system. Another, as important to me, is that it increases the chances for improved choices to the extent that it obstructs the coalescence of mindless allegiance to ideological talking points that often permeate political parties and other special interest factions.

    (4) You wrote “This disenchantment with sham-choice (as in the sham-choice between electoral candidates) and the adoption of sortition must go hand in hand.”

    I agree.

    (5) You wrote “There won’t be an AC until the public repudiates the current infantilizing mode of mass politics. ”

    Most probably so. But that only points out the importance of public education on this and more. And by public education I do not mean PR(opaganda) campaigns. Which is why this is such a huge obstacle/challenge to sortition or any other serious attempt to improve the quality of public policy decisions.

    Like

  13. Keith, you wrote “conversations Yoram always end up with a restatement of the (Marxist) doctrine that “politics” can always be reduced to the conflict of class interests…[and] there is some truth in this quaint idea”

    Why quaint? I find more than a little truth to Yoram’s and Marx’s and other’s concern that the political class in my country is not only out of synch with the rest of us and rarely interested in fixing the situation beyond campaign slogans, but that they have discovered how useful it is to advancing the interests of their class by keeping the rest of us confused and ill-at-ease. Do you disagree?

    Like

  14. “and, just wondering, what would you say if the majority in egypt wanted some type of sharia?”

    Then that is what they would get. The trouble with electoral politics is that people can end up with policies they *don’t* want. As for the people of Egypt deciding what to do, there is one slight problem, namely that the country is currently run by the military, with the support of the US administration, thus a certain amount of persuasion is in order.

    Like

  15. “the political class . . . have discovered how useful it is to advancing the interests of their class by keeping the rest of us confused and ill-at-ease. Do you disagree?”

    I disagree with the Marxian analysis that society is composed of two distinct classes — the elite (singular) and the masses and that each class has a homogeneous set of interests. This quaint analysis may have been true at some time during the last 150 years, but most political sociologists would deny it now. I’m also not impressed with the conspiracy theory that goes along with this analysis.

    Like

  16. Keith,

    OK. Forget Marx. Do you disagree that, today, the political class is consistently out of sync with the public and rarely interested in fixing the situation beyond campaign slogans, and that they have discovered how useful it is to advancing the interests of their class by keeping the public confused and ill-at-ease?

    Like

  17. No. I don’t believe in unitary classes with unitary interests. And I don’t believe that the motives of politicians are intrinsically any better or worse than anybody else (although I do accept Acton’s maxim on the corrupting effect of power). I also think the principle “there but for the grace of God, go I” is a valuable corrective to any self-righteous tendency that I observe in myself.

    Like

  18. Well, then it looks like we’ll just have to disagree on this. I have much less confidence in the virtue of professional politicians, and would gleefully throw each and everyincumbent out at the first opportunity and start over. I find something unsavory about a system that essentially makes association with political parties necessary to becoming a serious contender for office. And I’m more than suspicious of the motives of all candidate wannabes who willfully play the game of saying just about anything to win favor among party regulars (political elites).

    Like

  19. “I find something unsavory about a system that essentially makes association with political parties necessary to becoming a serious contender for office. And I’m more than suspicious of the motives of all candidate wannabes.”

    I agree with your first point (a structural issue) but disagree with your generalisation about the moral character of political wannabees. I imagine that in this respect there is little variance from the norm among the general population — at least amongst novice politicos. But then of course the Acton principle starts to apply, but Acton’s point was that structural factors will inevitably impact on moral psychology.

    Like

  20. “…in this respect there is little variance from the norm among the general population”

    How so? To the extent that candidate wannabes have different characteristics than the public at large they will differ from the public at large on those characteristics, at least. It’s hard to accept that those who choose to run the gauntlet of party nomination processes (candidate wannabes) resemble the general population.much, if at all.

    I deal anecdotally with the wide ranging demographic differences between the US Congress and the general public in Article III: Conspicuous Misrepresentation of my blog — Rectify Misrepresentative Democracy. I doubt it’d be too difficult to articulate significant differences between the Congress and the public in other traits such as ambition, ego-centeredness, etc.

    Like

  21. > Greg, I’m afraid that conversations with Yoram always end up with a restatement of the (Marxist) doctrine that “politics” can always be reduced to the conflict of class interests.

    Greg, as you may have already noticed, I am afraid Ketih’s descriptions of other people’s positions often have very little connection to reality.

    Like

  22. > It’s hard to accept that those who choose to run the gauntlet of party nomination processes (candidate wannabes) resemble the general population.much, if at all.

    It’s not only a matter of who chooses to run the gauntlet, but who actually manages to make it through the gauntlet. That is, there is not only self-selection, but also selection by the powerful interests who choose which candidates to back and which to discard.

    In any case, Keith is splitting some very fine hair. It really doesn’t matter what the unobservable “moral character” of the politician is. What matters is the outcome – whether we attribute the failure of elected officials to represent the interests of the people to a wretched character or to corruption by power makes very little difference.

    Like

  23. Greg,

    > Yoram, request that points not made in my ramblings not be read into them.

    Ok. We seem to be in agreement on all major points.

    Like

  24. people who run for political offices are freaks of nature, not the norm. if some naive person thinks that they can accomplish some good and runs for an office they will soon see the futility and danger (to their soul) of the endeavor. if they refuse to start playing the political game, they lose. those are the normal people. if they stay with the system they are eaten up by it. they are or become freaks of nature. either way they don’t represent normal people.

    as an example, when obama was running for president he said in an interview that he left it to his wife to decide whether or not to run. very decent of him as the decision would greatly impact their lives.

    but, did he ask rev wright? did he ask william ayers? any of the other people he dragged with him into the muck? and 2 years in, i ask you, did the ends justify the means?

    the higher up it goes, the worse it gets. like mercury levels in fish. at the top it is particularly toxic.

    yoram, there is self-selection for running and selection by powerful interests for winning. but the winning is also an element of self-selection. will i say and do whatever it takes to win? if not i choose to lose.

    keith, would you tell me please, what is the acton principle?

    Like

  25. “What matters is the outcome – whether we attribute the failure of elected officials to represent the interests of the people to a wretched character or to corruption by power makes very little difference.”

    It does make a difference, because an opinion that has been frequently expressed here (not by you) is that the inherent virtue of the ordinary people (“masses” in your parlance) by contrast to the inherent moral depravity of the existing political class (“elite” in your parlance) will enable an AC to work effectively, without the need for checks and balances.

    “keith, would you tell me please, what is the acton principle?”

    “All power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely” (to which has been added more recently) “the prospect of losing power corrupts even more”. It is this latter factor that we need to bear in mind when advocating sortition and is one reason why I argue for a residual role for political parties in a sortive constitution.

    Like

  26. Greg: “It’s hard to accept that those who choose to run the gauntlet of party nomination processes (candidate wannabes) resemble the general population.much, if at all.”

    Agreed. What I was referring to by “moral character” was specifically whether they were any more motivated by venality and self-interest than anybody else. I think that would be hard to demonstrate, although it’s clear that political wannabees are ambitious, charismatic etc. — that’s why Manin describes electoral politics as aristocratic in nature.

    Like

  27. > 2 years in, i ask you, did the ends justify the means?

    Yes – Obama is serving his backers very well. He is completely true to who he was two years ago.

    > will i say and do whatever it takes to win?

    Exactly. It really doesn’t matter if I do as I do because I am somehow inherently corrupt, or because there are certain pressures I cannot resist. The outcome is the same, and there may not even be a way to tell the difference under the current system. With sortition, of course, you can at least be sure that the allotted are not any more corrupt (or any less) than the average citizen.

    > acton principle

    “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

    Like

  28. > it’s clear that political wannabees are ambitious, charismatic etc. — that’s why Manin describes electoral politics as aristocratic in nature.

    I am sorry, but here too your account of other people’s ideas cannot be trusted. First, the idea that elections are oligarchical (not “aristocratic”) does not originate with Manin – it is ancient. Secondly, the oligarchical nature of elections is due to a fact that is deeper than superficial psychological characteristics of the candidates. Elections are oligarchical because they are competitive on a mass scale. Any mass-scale competition produces a winner that is atypical because typical people cannot win mass-scale competitions. This is true of elections as much as it is true of Olympic marathon races. It is this inherent property of elections that Manin’s “principle of distinction” refers to.

    Like

  29. @keith
    >”the prospect of losing power corrupts even more”. It is this latter factor that we need to bear in mind when advocating sortition and is one reason why I argue for a residual role for political parties in a sortive constitution.”

    what would that residual role be and would it be enough? is the idea that those who’ve been absolutely corrupted by absolute power would be willing to give up part of their power in exchange for keeping some of it? can you point to an example of this being true? very recent examples, Sadam, ben ali, mubarak all point to the opposite.

    @yoram “Yes – Obama is serving his backers very well. He is completely true to who he was two years ago.”

    i was imagining a situation where someone set out do good. but, yes, i had allowed some hope for change to creep past my head and into my heart during that election. now, though, i think my disenchantment with the entire system is complete. the same with many others also. but they just disengage because they are not aware of other options.

    Like

  30. To what degree would-be politicians are motivated by venal self-interest for seeking power, is an interesting question. But, I think they have more of this kind of motivation (and also more of the nobler motivations) than the typical person, because the typical person does not seek political power!

    (But really, there’s a distinction we should make about power: power to cause a certain thing to come to pass, and power to decide what will come to pass. In the literature on power indices, they call the first I-power (for influence) and the second P-power (for purse, as in splitting a purse). In theory, political parties seek I-power – the power to realize their program – and in working PR systems, this even works to a degree. But there are inevitably people, especially in non-PR systems, who are in it for the money, the popularity, and the pleasure of simply being the one who decides – P-power. I think the latter kind of power corrupts more, and is more damaging when it’s unevenly distributed.)

    Like

  31. That last one was me, from my phone. I forgot to enter mail and name (a bit surprising WordPress didn’t reject it)

    Like

  32. >”very recent examples, Sadam, ben ali, mubarak all point to the opposite.”

    and we all know that the death-grip which the republican and democratic parties have on america is much tighter than that which any dictator ever held. for they are veiled behind a facade of freedom, hiding under a veneer of liberty.

    Like

  33. Agree with Harald that political wannabees might well occupy both extremes of the spectrum — Hobbes is quite good on how venality and virtue can be variations on the same theme. The point I was trying to make is that they are not all unprincipled scumbags, many, or even most, people who enter politics are trying to change things for (as they see it) the better, not just trying to feather their own nests. When it becomes clear that this is not possible, then cynicism comes in to play.

    sa’ada: My proposal on the residual role for parties in a sortive constitution is in my post on the main page: “The Party’s Over: Blueprint for a Very English Revolution”. I don’t know of any examples of it being put into practice, but it would be potentially attractive as it would be the prerogative of the harlot (power without responsibility).

    Like

  34. This is somewhat tangential, but it seems relevant. Keith, if you want a well-stated and well-documented version of the anti-elitist position expressed here, I recommend to you the following:

    http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2011/02/11/campaigns/index.html

    A pertinent passage–

    “But the real issue highlighted by this episode is just how lawless and unrestrained is the unified axis of government and corporate power. I’ve written many times about this issue–the full-scale merger between public and private spheres– because it’s easily one of the most critical yet under-discussed political topics. Especially (though by no means only) in the worlds of the Surveillance and National Security State, the powers of the state have become largely privatized. There is very little separation between government power and corporate power. Those who wield the latter intrinsically wield the former. The revolving door between the highest levels of government and corporate offices rotates so fast and continuously that it has basically flown off its track and no longer provides even the minimal barrier it once did. It’s not merely that corporate power is unrestrained; it’s worse than that: corporations actively exploit the power of the state to further entrench and enhance their power.”

    Like

  35. > The point I was trying to make is that they are not all unprincipled scumbags, many, or even most, people who enter politics are trying to change things for (as they see it) the better, not just trying to feather their own nests.

    I agree. Many of those seeking to influence policy in a certain direction can do so in an earnest attempt to improve things for everyone. They can still do a lot of damage if they aren’t representative, though, and especially if important interests aren’t represented at all.

    (This point is worth expanding: Most people, even when furthering the interests of a narrow group or even themselves, are willing to accommodate their policies to demands if they can do so at little or no cost to themselves. But if they don’t even get to hear the demands, because the objectors aren’t represented at all, then you get needlessly harmful policy)

    But that would be about I-power. People who seek power for the sake of deciding what to do with it later, are seeking a different kind of power, P-power. There is quite a bit of room for seeking P-power in today’s systems, and yes, I think this appeals especially to bad apples, and also has a larger possibility of turning people bad if they get it accidentally.

    There is also the point that while idealists of all stripes may enter politics with the best of intentions, it’s not random who gets further than just entering. I agree with Yoram Gat that there are serious selection for characteristics we don’t want in our decision makers (or policy proposers).

    Like

  36. @keith
    “… they are not all unprincipled scumbags…”

    Perhaps not. Yet, that seems not to the point which is that they represent a higher degree of scumbaggedness than the population at large. For sure, this might be due to Acton, or other structural elements. No quarrel there. But it is also due to their being a different breed of cat (freeks of nature as Sa’ada refers to them) than the average, typical and/or randomly selected citizen.

    Like

  37. A few east coast USAers are planning a small meeting, 10 AM-3 PM, here in Washington on March 18.

    The focus to be: To brainstorm, plan and commit to ways of putting the idea of sortitional selection on the national agenda (even while realizing that local, municipal and regional manifestations will likely come first).

    We only have room for eight. Three places are taken. Does anyone have recommendations about who to invite?

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: