Bergstrom and Varian: Government by Jury

A 1984 draft paper (that apparently never made it to publication) by Theodore C. Bergstrom and Hal R. Varian is called Government by Jury. Its abstract is as follows:

We consider a simple model of social choice where the voters find it costly to determine their true preferences. Since the influence of an individual voter decreases as the group size increases, each individual finds it optimal to invest less time in contemplating his values in larger groups than in smaller groups. This suggests that a desirable social choice mechanism might be to randomly choose a relatively small group of electors to make social decisions, since they would then have more incentive think carefully about the issues. We investigate this idea of “government by jury” in a simple mathematical model and establish some of its properties.

Unfortunately, the paper makes the rather radical assumption that the interests of all the members of the group are identical, except for the fact that each is trying to minimize the personal effort put into reaching a well informed decision. Thus, according to this model, each person would rather have someone else make all policy decisions for them, provided the decision-maker has somehow been motivated to study the policy problems. This assumption limits the scope of the model drastically and makes any results irrelevant to most political situations.

Nevertheless, the paper is interesting for being perhaps the first formalization of a sortition-based government situation, and provides a possible starting point for richer models.


3 Responses

  1. That is a somewhat dramatic simplification, yes, but it is a good starting point for a model. Looking philosophically at it, maybe our interests ultimately are the same. Nicolaus Tideman, a voting theorist I have some respect for (though he has done nothing related to sortition as far as I know), once alluded to John Donne’s famous meditation as the aim of peaceful governmment:

    No man is an Island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent; a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, and well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in Mankind; therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

    So, maybe the model isn’t really weaker for seeing everyone as ultimately having the same interests – as long as it allows for the possibility that it may be very, very demanding of an individual to discover what the shared interest is.

    By the way, I have signed up for a course in “Model thinking” with Scott E Page, one of these free online courses that they took the initiative for at Stanford. I thought maybe it might be interesting to other Equality by Lot readers who don’t have so much experience with use of models in social and political science. It’s definitively better to do these sorts of things together, so feel free to drop me a mail if anyone of you are interested. The page for the course is here.


  2. I didn’t spot the identity of interests assumption, perhaps it was contained in the mathematics, which was beyond my comprehension. I took the paper to be motivated by the rational ignorance problem in public choice theory. Such theorists presuppose a diversity of interests in voters, so I’m puzzled by your claim for an identity of interests — where exactly is that stated?

    What I did note, approvingly, was the authors’ concern that the role of a jury-style government should be limited to the decision function:

    “They would not be responsible for making laws, but just responsible for choosing laws. The legislators would have access to all sorts of tools to aid in investigating policy proposals — advisors, consultants, information, etc. Their duty would be to consider the possible implications of a policy, to compare it to their own values, and to pronounce on its desirability.”


  3. > That is a somewhat dramatic simplification, yes, but it is a good starting point for a model.

    I disagree. As can be seen by the analysis, the identity of interests assumption turns politics on its head, making decision power a burden, rather than a privilege.

    The course does look potentially interesting – I signed up.


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