Hall: Sorting out sortition

Matt Hall writes in the openDemocracy website:

‘Britain’s political system is plainly in trouble’ […] One solution that has been growing in support […], is the replacement of elections and politicians with the random selection of ordinary people. […] Too radical say some. Too naive say others. Familiar complaints, but is this really the case? In this article I’d like to provide some counterpoints to the main arguments against sortition.

1.Sortition would select individuals without the skills to fulfil political office

Political office is about making decisions. Decision making is based on values, interests and aims, not upon a unique set of professional skills.

[…]

2. By abolishing the election sortition would render political officers unaccountable

Sortition shifts the focus from retrospective punishment through the ballot box […] to making better, more representative decisions in the first instance.

3. Sortition would require compulsion of unenthusiastic participants

4. Sortition would entail serous disruption to people’s lives

5. Sortition would require large organisational changes in the structure of governance in Britain

The remaining common arguments against sortition are largely complaints against the logistics of implementing the system, rather than the legitimacy of the system itself. More than 400,000 people are selected at random for jury service each year in the UK.

[…]

Rather than its radical nature or naivety, the real barrier to sortition is the fact that elected bodies are simply not interested in dissolving the political power which their members have individually and collectively accumulated.

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3 Responses

  1. Two comments on the claim that “By abolishing the election sortition would render political officers unaccountable.” First, I think it should be stressed more how lousy a job elections currently do at creating accountability. Losing political office just isn’t that big a penalty for corruption, venality, incompetence, or just plain stupidity, especially when the private sector has loads of well-paid jobs for corrupt legislators who finally lose.

    Second, a sortition-based system need not abandon ex post accountability. Athens certainly didn’t. But the Athenian example suggests that perhaps the locus of responsibility needs to be shifted from the legislature to the proposer of bad legislation (whether that proposer is inside or outside the legislature). That’s very important given how hard it is for any legislature to function without specialists; no legislature can function without specialization, and the specialists are those most prone to corruption. (This, of course, presupposes a single AC, but the problem will persist in weakened form in a system of many ACs like Burnheim’s demarchy.)

    It’s funny. I was recently listening to the song “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.” The opening lyrics are pertinent here:

    Indian legislation on the desk of a do-right Congressman
    Now, he don’t know much about the issue
    so he picks up the phone and he asks advice from the
    Senator out in Indian country
    A darling of the energy companies who are
    ripping off what’s left of the reservations

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  2. > Losing political office just isn’t that big a penalty for corruption

    It’s even worse than that, I think: corruption is built directly into the model of electoral accountability. If politicians are motivated by personal gain, then there is really no incentive for them to stay in power unless they can somehow exploit the office for their personal benefit.

    Of course, if they are not motivated by personal gain then good governance is its own reward and there is no need to motivate them with the prospect of re-election.

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  3. >Of course, if they are not motivated by personal gain then good governance is its own reward and there is no need to motivate them with the prospect of re-election.

    Not so when the term of office is only 3-5 years. You can’t do much in that sort of time-span, hence the need to seek re-election.

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