I’ve been commissioned to write an ‘in brief’ review of Peter Stone’s new book (OUP, 2011) for Times Higher Education but wanted to bring up a couple of points here that I can’t squeeze into their measly 60-word limit. The book is an attempt at a theoretical clarification of lotteries as an equitable method for the ‘allocation of [scarce] goods’ and ‘assignment of responsibilities’ (both wanted and unwanted) (p.13), Peter’s thesis being that the distinguishing feature of the lottery is its ‘sanitizing effect’ (p.16). This is on account of the essentially arational nature of the lottery – it serves an entirely negative function by shielding the decision process from reasons of any kind (good or bad), therefore protecting it from partiality and corruption.
A lottery is a process capable of generating a set of outcomes, in which the particular outcome to be expected whenever the process occurs is unpredictable given available information (p.20).
Much of the book deals with allocative justice and covers similar ground to Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery but from a rigorous theoretical perspective that is hard to disagree with (presupposing certain Rawlsian assumptions).
The chapter on sortition, however, sits less easily with this essentially negative thesis. Peter clearly agrees with Oliver Dowlen (who he cites at length) that the prime purpose of sortition is to insulate the political process from factionalism and corruption. Ollie’s book (The Political Potential of Sortition) denies that sortition has anything to do with representative government, for reasons of anachronism and definition. In the first case sortition as a means of descriptive representation is ruled out because the Greeks (who invented sortition) had no (mathematical) concept of proportionality; in the second case representativity is ruled out by the (somewhat circular) argument that as the lottery is based on arationality then it cannot subserve any rational goal (such as democratic representation).
Peter, however, has a harder task, as he acknowledges that sortition has three normative goals (justice, incentive alignment and descriptive representation). Although these are all positive functions, nevertheless he feels constrained (for theoretical consistency?) to subsume all three functions under one (negative) explanatory principle: ‘all [three] ultimately appeal to the sanitizing effect of lotteries’ (p.124). This is unconvincing: taking the last function first, Peter acknowledges (following Dowlen) that it would be better to specify the particular characteristics that are felt to be necessary for an assembly to be descriptively-representative (age, sex, occupation, education or whatever) and then to ensure proportionality by stratified sampling. There is no need for the sampling method to be random, volunteering or even an auction would suffice, we only randomise in order to ensure that each stratified sample will be ‘sanitized’. This is, at best, a ‘weak’ example of the lottery principle. However the call for a legislature to be a ‘portrait in miniature’ is an end in itself – both a normative democratic ideal and also on account of the growing evidence that the (epistemically) best decisions require as much diversity as is possible. But (as Peter acknowledges) stratified sampling cannot achieve this as the list of relevant ‘diversity’ characteristics is arbitrary and combinatorially infinite so the only way of arriving at such an assembly is by sortition. He acknowledges in a footnote (p.176, n.27) that stratified sampling would not be necessary in a legislative-size assembly with mandatory service.
The descriptive-representation function is an entirely positive role for the lottery – it is a reason, so cannot have anything to do with arationality and resists being shoehorned into a single-factor scheme just for the sake of explanatory consistency. The (negative) sanitizing effect has to do with the second benefit: ‘incentive alignment’. This is the role of the lottery in preventing the domination or corruption of a legislature by partisan forces (the ‘rich and powerful’ in the parlance on this forum): ‘By preventing the “wrong” reasons from influencing either those who hold office or what officeholders do, the integrity of the ultimate decisions is protected’ (p.129). If only – as Peter acknowledges: ‘This protection does not last once the officials are identified and reachable’ (p.128); ‘A lottery can only sanitize the stages of a decision that have been undertaken up to the point at which the lottery’s outcome becomes known’ (p.154). If this is the case then the prime role of sortition (according to the Downlen-Stone thesis) in preventing corruption isn’t going to work very well, given that legislative members would normally hold office a lot longer than trial jury members and would be easily identified (and corrupted). Far from ‘sanitizing’ the political process, sortition has the potential to open the overflow sluices at the sewage works, as allotted members would not be constrained from offering their services to the highest bidder by manifesto commitments, party discipline or the need to be re-elected. As I’ve argued before (following Pitkin, 1967), this effectively limits the role of an allotted assembly to voting in secret, a process that is not open to corruption.
In sum, it would appear to the present reviewer that the attempt to shoehorn sortition into a theoretical framework designed around considerations of social justice is a doomed project.