George A. Christos: Democracy by random selection

The abstract of George Christos’s essay Democracy by random selection is:

Abstract: We propose a non-political parliamentary system where the parliamentarians are randomly chosen from the public, using computer technology, and there are no elections. In this ‘random parliament’, government is by ordinary people with proportional representation by all groups including women, men, workers, managers, old people, young people, and so on. The random parliament is the closest thing to true democracy that is currently attainable. Local government may be a suitable place to trial the idea of random representation.

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20 Responses

  1. A rather straight-ahead presentation.

    It is a little funny that he gives such attention to using a computer to generate random numbers (he is in the School of Mathematics and Statistics, after all), when countless low-tech and transparent public procedures are available.

    One of the optimistic assumptions he makes deserves deeper examination. He writes:
    “An interesting feature of our proposed random parliament is that all parliamentarians will be on the same side, working together towards the unified principle of governing the country in the best interests of all. The parliament will not be split into two opposing halves as in the present system…”

    How would class, religious, economic, and ethnic interests operate in a sortition democracy? Wouldn’t they seek to have their members/supporters pledge to adhere to some program if they were selected by the lottery? Perhaps the one qualification that an allotted chamber would need to have is that all members must pledge to be open to new ideas, information and perspectives they did not have prior to selection, and any citizen who has pledged to some program prior to serving is disqualified.

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  2. Yes, this is an optimistic assumption. It’s interesting to note also that the author’s statistical calculations are (correctly) limited to the voting function — I would be curious to learn how he would legitimise the more active functions (policy introduction, advocacy and executive functions) from a statistical perspective as these are clearly the role of individual human agents. What sort of mathematics would be required to legitimise these active functions? The word “democratic” is used throughout but there is no supporting argumentation as to exactly what democratic model is being pursued (other than the short paragraph on the statistical representativity of votes in parliament).

    I’m also a little concerned that he resorts to internal elections to determine executive offices, as the partisan forces reintroduced (by the back door) would almost certainly undermine his assumptions that all parliamentarians will be on the same side. Hopefully George will join in our debates so that he can respond to this and also engage with some of the more fine-grained proposals that have been made on this forum.

    I’m a little confused regarding Terry’s proposal for pledging, both on account of the ease of dissembling and because the sort of pledges involved (to pursue class, religious, economic, and ethnic interests) would be a close analogue of the delegate mandate that is one of the principal justifications of the current party system! Or, if the point is to pledge NOT to reflect the interests of those who they descriptively represent (by being open-minded) then what is the justification for statistical representation? I’m sceptical as to the possibility of disinterested judgment — all votes will to some extent reflect interests.

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  3. > How would class, religious, economic, and ethnic interests operate in a sortition democracy?

    Sure – people with different ideas and in different circumstances would have different positions. I think, however, that the author is correct in predicting that positions would be much less entrenched. The population’s position on various issues is much more open-minded and flexible than that of the electoral elite. For example, despite initially supporting the invasions to Afghanistan and Iraq, opinion polls indicate the American public would have long ago pulled the troops out of those countries in view of the disastrous results of those invasions.

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  4. I think elections actually have some advantages over sortition. That is not to say that sortition does not have some advantages over elections. I think the ideal system of democratic government would have a healthy mix of representative democracy using sortition and election as well as some direct democracy. I could lay out my preferred mix but obviously notions of what is best is somewhat subjective and there is only limited empiracle experience do draw upon as evidence.

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  5. Agree! I would be keen to hear how you would do the mix — what specific roles would you allocate to election, sortition and direct democracy? Some modern theorists advocate a mix of the three (in parallell), but it strikes me that it would be better to have a functional specification for each element, in the same way that traditional republican theories of the mixed constitution argue that each element had a specific role to play.

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  6. Terje,

    > I think elections actually have some advantages over sortition

    Leaving aside the issue of familiarity, I cannot think of any. What would those advantages be?

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  7. I’ve got a message through to George Christos (via his son) asking him to comment on this thread.

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  8. Yoram – in my view sortition is excellent for a house of review but probably isn’t so good for selecting the executive where electoral accountability has a sharper impact on motivation. Intrinsic motivation is sometimes enough but for some things extrinsic motivators are required.

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  9. Keith – my ideas relate to the Australian federal government (Westminster system). They are reforms rather than an entire reinvention but none the less they are radical enough. They reflect my strong bias towards limited government.

    1. Sentators would be appointed to the upper house by sortition. One new senator by lot every 21 days. Each senator would serve a six year fixed term. Assuming no vacancies that means roughly 104 senators at any given time. By appointing them and retiring them on a rolling basis institutional knowledge is retained. I’d require senate candidates to qualify their nomination by getting signed support from 20 citizens. This is a test for motivation with a relatively low bar. They would need to be citizens eligible to vote.

    2. I’d keep the lower house elected pretty much as it is today (equal size electorates, preferencial vote). I’d remove the option of ministers coming from the upper house. All members of the executive would be drawn from the lower house. Government would be formed in the lower house as is the case today.

    3. I’d have a “citizens veto” process where by any legislation (recent or old) could be petitioned against and if 100,000 people signed the petition then there would be a referendum in conjunction with the next general election which would remove the relevant law if the peoples vote carried.

    4. New legislation would need a majority in both houses but could only be initiated in the lower house. I’d require all normal legislation to have a sunset clause of 25 years or less. Legislation with a 100 year sunset clause would be allowed but only if 75% of senators agreed by vote. Existing legislation could be repealed at any time by a simple majority in either house. Legislation passed in the lower house could not be voted on in the upper house until a 3 month period of public scrutiny had elapsed.

    I’d also want a charter city by initative style clause such as California has but that’s getting slightly off topic.

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  10. Interesting proposal, my only argument would be a minor one over terminology — if we accept the traditional view that election is an aristocratic mechanism and sortition is a democratic mechanism then it’s a little ironic to have a democratic senate (upper house) and an aristocratic lower house. But this is just a trivial problem with nomenclature, the functional division of labour strikes me as entirely appropriate (it’s quite similar to Marcus Schmidt’s proposal, outlined in MH Hansen’s Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy). I particularly like the Condorcettian 3 month time gap, because this will ensure that the debate in the upper house properly reflects the debate in the wider society, but would note that this would require a truly diverse and pluralistic media as it’s important that allotted senators judge things on the basis of their own reasons, rather than just following the editorial line of whatever newspaper they choose to read.

    Would there be any additional debate in the upper house? If so steps would need to be taken to ensure that the advocacy is well balanced. I think it’s also crucial that secret voting is adopted, in order to insulate the process from corruption.

    I wonder also if ministers should not be appointed on merit, rather than being politicised, and should be accountable to the upper house (to protect them from partisan dismissal). But that would probably be a step to far, given the reformist nature of your proposals.

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  11. Terje,

    > sortition is excellent for a house of review but probably isn’t so good for selecting the executive where electoral accountability has a sharper impact on motivation. Intrinsic motivation is sometimes enough but for some things extrinsic motivators are required.

    I guess that by “extrinsic motivators” you refer to the idea that officeholders are motivated to do a good job by the desire to get re-elected – this is what I call the rewards-based theory of electoralism.

    Beyond the fact that this theory is based on a completely unrealistic view of the ability of the average person to monitor and evaluate the activities of the elected, the rewards-based theory is inconsistent even under its own assumptions:

    The theory assumes that politicians seek re-election and are serving the public interest because of their belief that it would increase their chances of being re-elected. But the ambition for being re-elected must then be due to some personal benefit that would be derived from success in this attempt. That potential, uncertain benefit in an upcoming term must be high enough to outweigh the benefits the can surely be derived from corruption in the current term.

    But if the benefits of service are high enough so they are comparable to the benefits of corruption, then the cost to public of providing those benefits is not much lower than the cost of having corrupt politicians. This, of course, means that the rewards-based theory of elections not only fails to provide a promise of high-quality government, it in fact provides an expectation of poor government – government which is either corrupt or imposes costs that are very similar to those of corruption.

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  12. Yoram,

    But what if the “benefit” a given “good” legislator gains through earning re-election is purely psychological (the status and self-esteem). Now, I know you and I agree that this is unrealistic…but it at least makes the “rewards theory” internally consistent, doesn’t it?

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  13. Right. And despite this being shaky grounds for justifying the use of elections, I think that these are much better than Keith’s postulated desire for long term employment.

    But status and self-esteem can be conferred in other ways that do not involve the huge disadvantages of elections. The Athenians, for example, used to confer crowns on their favorite politicians. These crowns embodied rewards both in status and in material.

    (BTW, A while back I tried to make a taxonomy of the possible rewards that elections can be seen as conferring.)

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  14. Rational-choice calculus is largely a speculative exercise (psychology, self-esteem, financial/employment interests or whatever), but there is a wealth of empirical evidence in favour of retroactive oversight. One-party states do not have a good record in this area, whereas liberal democracy does at least enable one to throw one rascal out and pick another. Whether such retroactive oversight is over the individual officeholder or her party depends largely on the political system (in the Westminster system it’s the latter), nevertheless electors have the opportunity to punish an individual or party that fails to perform.

    But this is a bog-standard truism of political science and it’s not really up to TerjeP or myself to defend it; however it’s down to Yoram to explain to us how sortition can institute retroactive oversight, because this would be entirely counterintuitive. For those of us who would wish to see elections continue (alongside sortition), accountability is one of the primary reasons.

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  15. We should not neglect the psychological benefit that the general public gets from voting out a government they are sick of. I’m not outright opposed to a system entirely free from elections however I think the path forward shouldn’t entirely abandon past traditions in a single bound lest the legitimacy of the entire enterprise is brought into question.

    That said I do simply like the idea of an elected executive. To endure the assent to power process created by elections, party preselection, election, minister, to prime minister you have to be extremely motivated. I think executive functions typically require individuals with drive and a little touch of ruthlessness. The point of sortition should be to keep their egos in check not to replace them with mediocrity.

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  16. One of the problems is that in the age of the full-time professional politician there are few candidates for office with any experience of having had a proper job. In the last Labour government, only a handful of them had experience outside politics/PR/law, including John Prescott (who used to be a steward on a cruise liner) and Alan Milburne (who had run a student bookshop). Yet Milburne ended up running the NHS. Given that the public expect competence from ministers, why should the appointments process be any different from any other large organisation? I agree, of course, that sortition would be a terrible way to appoint government ministers, for all the reasons that you state.

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  17. Terje,

    > We should not neglect the psychological benefit that the general public gets from voting out a government they are sick of.

    I think this psychological benefit is far outweighed by the frustration of the perpetual disillusionment that follows the vote, when the public discovers that the newly elected follow the same policies of those who were voted out (with some minor cosmetic changes).

    > I think the path forward shouldn’t entirely abandon past traditions in a single bound

    I agree with that. I am in favor of a gradual transition to an elections-free system.

    > I think executive functions typically require individuals with drive and a little touch of ruthlessness.

    The elected may be appropriately driven and ruthless, but they are driven and ruthless in the pursuit of their own self-serving objectives, not in the pursuit of the interests of the public. Promoting such people into positions of power hoping to check their egos once they are in office is both illogical and ineffective.

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  18. > there is a wealth of empirical evidence in favour of retroactive oversight. One-party states do not have a good record in this area, whereas liberal democracy does at least enable one to throw one rascal out and pick another.

    I am not sure there is as much empirical evidence for the success of electoralism as you assume there is, but to the extent there is such evidence the analysis of the proposed rewards-based explanation for such (again, presumed) successes indicates that it is an inadequate explanation, and that a different explanation should be sought.

    Traditionally, the “rewards-based” theory is complemented by a “virtue-based” theory. It is possible that the latter theory has more explanatory power (although I find it implausible as well).

    Amartia Sen, I understand, offered a different, more modern, argument – that electoral systems allow for a better flow of information to the decision-makers that allows them to avoid extreme disasters.

    In any case, your appeal to orthodoxy as a source of authority in an attempt to cover the rubble of your arguments is pathetic.

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  19. The appeal to orthodoxy is simply a statement that it’s not my personal responsibility to defend the argument — I am not a political scientist so there are many others vastly better qualified to defend it than me; however if you are seeking to overturn orthodoxy then the onus is on you. I would have followed up your Sen reference but was put off by your habitual rudeness (“the rubble of your arguments is pathetic”).

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  20. > I would have followed up your Sen reference but was put off by your habitual rudeness

    Quite amusing.

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