French Political Scientist Advocates Sortition

The English version of the French web site “Books and Ideas” has an interview with Loïc Blondiaux about the increasingly apparent undemocratic nature of traditional electoral democracy. He says in part…

Elections do not always determine new directions, but they allow retroactive democratic oversight. So, in my opinion, there can be no democracy without elections, but a democracy in which, in addition to elections, random selection is practiced along with other forms of consultation and public debate, would start to resemble a real democracy.

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18 Responses

  1. I find this idea of retroactive democratic oversight completely unsatisfactory. This makes about as much sense as saying that one should hand over the management of one’s household to a stranger based solely on some ad one reads in the paper. Then, 4 years later, one should examine the situation of the household and if one discovers that the household is in a complete mess, with all the valuables stolen by the manager, one can exercise “retroactive oversight” by dismissing the manager (letting her keep the stolen valuables) and replacing the her by another (selected by the same method from the same agency).

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  2. All democratic theorists agree that retroactive democratic oversight is less than perfect, but at least there is some way of kicking the rascals out. An imperfect mechanism for accountability is better than nothing at all, hence Churchill’s dictum. Referring back to your analogy, how else do you secure the welfare of a household with hundreds of millions of members without appointing a manager? (with smaller households one might choose to take it in turns, but this is not possible in large states). We may decide to draw straws but again, given the huge and impersonal size of the household, there is no particular reason to think that whoever draws the short straw should put the interests of the collective ahead of her own personal gain, any more than a professional manager, who is at least mindful of the fact that misconduct will lead to the termination of her contract of employment.

    If you were to apply your analogy to the governance of a commercial undertaking, would the shareholders not seek to hire the best management team? (and then fire them if, retroactively, they failed to pursue the interests of the company). Again, corporate abuses have shown this to be a weak defence of shareholder interests, but nobody has come up with a better way of doing things.

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  3. Sure, let’s rehash those talking points, Keith. If you ever feel the urge to actually address my points, please feel free.

    > there is no particular reason to think that whoever draws the short straw should put the interests of the collective ahead of her own personal gain

    In most societies (even in modern Western societies, where selfishness is encouraged) most individuals identify with the interests of the group. With the appropriate institutional design, it should take years of corruption by power for most individuals to develop an exploitative mindset. The electoral filter assures that the rulers are pre-corrupted by self-selection and by the process itself.

    > misconduct will lead to the termination of her contract of employment

    Not much of a threat once she has appropriated the household valuables.

    Besides, as I already pointed out multiple times before, the whole “rewards theory of elections” is self-contradictory. Given that she is only in it for the money, why would the manager want to keep her position if she doesn’t get to embezzle (or get some other reward that is as valuable and therefore as costly)?

    > Again, corporate abuses have shown this to be a weak defence of shareholder interests, but nobody has come up with a better way of doing things.

    I suppose this must be true because you read it on the pages of “The Economist”? Did they have commentary on the possibility of selecting boards-of-directors by sortition?

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  4. Obviously structural proposals have to be based on political anthropology. Although there is a body of evidence available in this field, none of us have much professional expertise to draw on, so we tend to rely on our personal prejudices regarding human nature. You think that elite individuals are motivated by personal gain, whereas “the masses” identify with group interests and are less likely to be corrupted. In the absence of any anthropological evidence to support this (anthropologists themselves are bitterly divided between social constructivists and Chagnonites, so we can’t hold out much hope for enlightenment there), most rational people would adopt the precautionary principle and design political institutions that allow for the fact that all humans are potentially corruptible, irrespective of what class tag we may choose to allocate to them.

    I’m puzzled by the contrast between your faith in the incorruptibility of the masses and your claim that managers are only motivated by the desire to embezzle. It strikes me as equally plausible that managers are motivated to do a good job and want to continue to do so (and continue to draw the salary that goes with it).

    By all means start a thread on the possibility of appointing corporate boards by sortition, I was referring only to actual practices.

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  5. > You think that elite individuals are motivated by personal gain

    No – it is you who think this is the case. Your “retroactive oversight” theory (motivating the manager by the threat of losing her job) is based on a presumed desire for personal gain.

    Again, if you ever decide to address my arguments instead of regurgitating your talking points, please feel free to do so.

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  6. Most people don’t want to lose their job (especially if they like it and believe they are doing their best for their fellow citizens), but there’s a difference between that and the desire to embezzle the family silver.

    If you let me know what argument it is that I’m not addressing then I’ll be happy to rectify the oversight. But any further debate must be aimed towards increasing understanding, rather than just scoring points. You’ve consistently argued that there is a difference in motivation between elites and the masses and your sortive-based proposals have been predicated on this political anthropology. All I’ve done is to point out the the precautionary principle would recommend that we assume all human agents are corruptible and design political institutions accordingly.

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  7. So people would not do their best merely for the satisfaction of a job well done, but would do their best for the sake of having a chance at having another term, despite the fact that their only reward for that additional term is the satisfaction of a job well done.

    As usual, it seems that the only fixed point of your argument is its conclusion.

    > You’ve consistently argued that there is a difference in motivation between elites and the masses

    No – as usual, you project your own preconceptions on others rather than paying attention to the arguments being made. Any differences in the policies pursued would be due to differences in the circumstances of those selected, rather than to inherent personal traits. People tend to pursue policies that they perceive as useful and legitimate. Those perceptions are different for people in different circumstances.

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  8. Yoram, it would be much more pleasant to debate with you if you could make an effort to be a little less rude — believe it or not I’m genuinely trying to engage with your arguments.

    Regarding the job satisfaction issue, most people want to continue in their employment for a mixture of reasons (job satisfaction, pay, long-term security etc), and I see no reason why political officeholders (household managers in your analogy) should be any different.

    I’m sorry if I mistook you as making an essentialist argument. I agree that circumstances are more important, that’s why I’m keen to ensure that the necessary institutional checks and balances are put into place to ensure that allotted members are not corrupted. If we agree that we cannot presuppose inherent virtue in ordinary people, then the precautionary principle would suggest that political institutions are structured in such a way as to make corruption as hard as possible. This is why I argue in favour of limiting the role of the AC to voting in secret, thereby quarantining the corruptible functions (policy generation and advocacy) to a domain in which agents are re-selected iff there is no evidence that they have embezzled the family silver.

    Note the intentional use of the word “quarantine” — you don’t need to adopt a Calvinist anthropology to admit that human nature is open to corruption. Although you would prefer to leave corruption in the hands of the police, I hope you would admit that it is at least coherent to quarantine it. I suppose a relevant analogy is whether drugs, alcohol, prostitution etc should be banned or regulated (in the latter example quarantined in legal red-light districts). Whatever you may think of the merits of the latter policy, at least you would have to admit that it’s coherent (and that the police have not had a particularly good record at stamping out these “vices”).

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  9. > Yoram, it would be much more pleasant to debate with you if you could make an effort to be a little less rude

    I find your style of discussion very rude, and I respond by pointing that out. If you feel that this is rude of me, you will either have to refrain from having discussions with me, or change your ways of having them.

    You constantly ignore what others say, repeating old arguments over without any attempt to address points being made. You frequently attribute to others various positions that they do not hold – sometimes positions they explicitly disavow. Another unpleasant habit of yours is shifting your argument back and forth (keeping only your conclusions fixed) so that a coherent discussion becomes impossible.

    > believe it or not I’m genuinely trying to engage with your arguments.

    If this is so, you will just have to try harder. I see no reason to put up with the ways discussions with you have been taking so far.

    > Regarding the job satisfaction issue, most people want to continue in their employment for a mixture of reasons (job satisfaction, pay, long-term security etc), and I see no reason why political officeholders (household managers in your analogy) should be any different.

    So, if I understand you correctly, you are arguing that political offficeholders will do a good job if they have, in addition to other factors (job satisfaction, pay, etc.), the dubious prospect of keeping their job over the long term (provided they manage to win the upcoming elections), but will not do a good job if they don’t have those prospects (but keeping the other factors – job satisfaction, pay, etc.).

    Is this your argument? Seems very narrow grounds to base a “retroactive oversight” mechanism on.

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  10. Yoram, my argument is that the same factors operate for political officeholders as in any other profession, except that in the former case retroactive oversight is even more important due to the lack of job security (the default position in most other jobs being that one retains one’s post after successful completion of a probationary period; I’m not aware of any case of an elected politician appealing to an employment tribunal after losing her job, hence the need to retain the ongoing support of her employers.) This is an uncontroversial observation, adhered to by the vast majority of political scientists, that would only likely be opposed by those with a dogmatic opposition to the electoral principal.

    I’m afraid that I simply don’t recognise your characterisation of my debating style as rude and vacillating; whenever I have misrepresented somebody else’s position I have tried to acknowledge the error (witness my last commentary). As for the charge of adjusting my arguments but maintaining my conclusions, my primary reason for participating in this forum is in order to educate myself, changing my mind (as did Keynes) along with the facts. It’s true that I have not wavered from my conviction regarding the advocacy/judgment distinction and the inapplicability of the statistically-representative mandate to the former, but this is only because nobody has yet offered a convincing argument against it. However my conclusions have changed dramatically over the years — my first book (written before I came across Pitkin) argued, in a similar manner to yourself, for the abolition of elections and political parties; you, however, appear not to have altered your views in any significant respect.

    I could ask you to provide evidence for my high crimes and misdemeanours, but it gets a little tedious for everyone else to have to witness public mud-slinging on a forum where we all share a common purpose, so I suppose you will have to resume your self-denying ordinance of ignoring my every contribution. From my side I will continue to respond to your arguments (in the full knowledge that you won’t bother to read the response) and will redouble my efforts to be polite.

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  11. > my argument is that the same factors operate for political officeholders as in any other profession

    If we accept this assumption, then like most workers officeholders would easily be willing to trade longer term job security for higher salary or more job satisfaction. (Of course, in any case, four years of guaranteed employment with a guaranteed generous severance package is actually pretty good as far as job security goes.) So, again, if a general desire for job security is your basis for claiming that elections provide an incentive for good officeholder performance, then your argument is very weak. When considered in contrast to the obvious drawbacks of the electoral system, I think it is almost comically inadequate as a justification of the system.

    > whenever I have misrepresented somebody else’s position I have tried to acknowledge the error (witness my last commentary)

    Acknowledging the error is only useful if it serves as indication of an intention to avoid such errors in the future. You do occasionally apologize for attributing false positions to people, but you simply continue to make exactly the same type of errors over and over. Under such circumstances, your apologies are meaningless.

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  12. First of all the retroactive oversight theory is not mine, it is the standard political science justification of the electoral process. (I also claim no originality for pointing out the limited nature of the statistical mandate.) So your argument is not with a cantankerous eccentric called Keith Sutherland, it’s with pretty much the whole academy. Maybe you’re right and everyone else is wrong, but I think you might be better served to take a less bullish approach to furthering your case. It’s never a good strategy to ridicule your opponents, especially when you are in a tiny minority position.

    As for my meaningless apologies, perhaps you need to be a little clearer as to whether or not the distinctions you make (for example between the elite and the masses) are intrinsic or not. My understanding of your past writing has always been that there is some correspondence between this distinction and the traditional analysis of class-based economic interests. Now you appear to be arguing that the distinction is just a by-product of the electoral process, so please accept my apologies if I’ve misunderstood you all along, but I’m really struggling to understand your position.

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  13. > So your argument is not with a cantankerous eccentric called Keith Sutherland, it’s with pretty much the whole academy.

    It is certainly true that my argument regarding the value of elections is with anyone who assumes elections are a useful tool of governance. This is a standard assumption in our society – and since it is standard it is rarely examined. I think examination of this assumption shows quite clearly that it is false.

    However, the particular argument that you are making here – that elections are a system which motivates politicians to serve the public through satisfying their desire for stable employment – is one I have not heard before. It also seems to me very contrived and implausible. The fact that you are willing to resort to postulating such motivation shows how entrenched and how irrational is the belief in elections as a mechanism of policy making by the voters.

    Regarding your misattributions and apologies: this is not a matter limited to a single occurrence or to a single issue or to your interactions with a single person. In view of that, my inference is that it is your careless reading (rather than my careless writing) that is the root cause here.

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  14. >The fact that you are willing to resort to postulating such motivation shows how entrenched and how irrational is the belief in elections as a mechanism of policy making by the voters.

    This is a cybernetic model in which political office-holders modulate their behaviour in order to appeal to the interests of their constituents, in order that they may continue to hold office. Not only is this entirely consistent with rational-choice theory, but it also fits with a wealth of empirical evidence. See also my last response to the Christos thread.

    >Regarding your misattributions and apologies: this is not a matter limited to a single occurrence or to a single issue or to your interactions with a single person.

    I’m not aware of any other complaints, although my own work has frequently been misrepresented by careless readers. However this is a by-product of the blogosphere — it goes with the territory so, like most people, I accept it with good grace.

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  15. > This is a cybernetic model [etc.]

    The point I was making was explicitly regarding the specifics of your theory – the claim that the motivating factor for politicians to do a good job is their desire for stable employment. Moving back to vague generalities once an examination of the specifics of your argument reveals that it is untenable is an intellectually dishonest maneuver that you employ regularly. The possibilities, as far as I can see, are either that you are extremely intellectually careless or deliberately mendacious – take you pick.

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  16. I’ll take a deep breath and attempt to ignore the rudeness (“dishonest . . . intellectually careless . . . deliberately mendacious”). Normally it is the host of a blog who has to appeal to posters to control their emotions; I know of no other case where the host is the worst offender, especially as I am making strenuous efforts towards conciliation. Perhaps Terry or someone else might appeal to you to calm down, before you drive all the less committed away.

    Political officeholders are, like everybody else, subject to a complex mix of motivations, ranging from idealism to raw self-interest. The point regarding retroactive oversight is that it is a reflexive (cybernetic) mechanism — the agent is motivated to please her principal in order to ensure the continuation of her agency, and (in the political case) this involves (appearing to) take on the interests, values, and beliefs of the principal. And the prime motive is to retain their job. I’m deeply puzzled as to why you find this problematic as it’s not just uncontroversial, it’s just plain obvious, and requires very little explanatory justification. In other areas it’s the principal that you don’t beat your boss on the golf course; the customer is always right etc. etc. Have I missed something?

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  17. > Have I missed something?

    Much, but since it is all spelled out more than once in my comments above, I don’t think I’ll attempt to rephrase it again.

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  18. […] here, here, and here), Lawrence Lessig, David Chaum, Jacques Rancière, Clive Aslet, Jim Gilliam, Loïc Blondiaux, and Andrew Dobson and other readers of the […]

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