Are Sortitionists sincere?

Do sortitionists really believe their own rhetoric? A Citizen’s Jury will be called using the method of random selection. They then proceed to chew over the issue at hand, and normally decide by voting!

What’s the matter with these guys? Surely the matter should be resolved, either by Unanimity, or failing that by a lottery, weighted by the votes of the CJ?

I was inspired to pose this question after reading a piece about the rise of Majority Voting which is mostly about French and Catholic Church experiences.

The Anglo-juridical Jury (12 citizens drawn at random) used to require unanimity, and still needs 10/12 to convict. Who so?

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20 Responses

  1. Surely the matter should be resolved, either by Unanimity, or failing that by a lottery, weighted by the votes of the CJ?

    I would disagree and prefer majority here. My main motivation for supporting sortition is that a sufficiently large randomly selected body will be statistically representative of the people, but will have more resources to make a sound decisions. Both arguments do not apply here.

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  2. Actually, I don’t see any relationship between the two issues at all. It’s one question what is the right way to form a decision-making body to make a decision. It’s another question what rules that decision-making body should use. I can see no reason to assume that the answer to the two questions should be the same. Nor do I see any necessary connection between a fair lottery, a weighted lottery, and/or the unanimity rule.

    BTW, Melissa Schwartzberg (Political Science, Columbia University) has a book forthcoming on the subject of supermajority rules and their relationship to simple majority rule on the one hand and unanimity rules on the other. It’s not listed on Amazon as forthcoming yet, but it will surely be relevant to these debates once it appears.

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  3. I agree with Fela. The point of sortition is not to make policy decisions at random. To the contrary, the point is to make decisions according to the informed and considered opinion of the majority.

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  4. Agree, and this is why the “lottery principle” (1) invoked in this instance is an entirely rational one, as statistical representation assumes a ratio relationship between the microcosm and the whole. Conall is right though in his earlier comment where he drew a sharp distinction between this and the use of the lot as (2) a mechanism for distributive justice or (3) to ensure impartiality. These three uses of the lot have nothing in common, and statistical representation by lot (1) is an entirely modern invention.

    The trial jury is something of a hybrid, as it relies on all 3 mechanisms. Trial should be by one’s peers (lottery principle 1); it’s a tiresome nuisance for the jurors (2) and the jurors should be selected impartially (3). Unanimity (or 10/12) is required in order to minimise wrong convictions. Simple majorities are good enough for political juries as the juror’s judgment is supposed to reflect the informed preferences of those she represents (or her assessment of the common good). Even Rousseau felt that this did not require unanimity, and why would you want to decide the outcome of a deliberative process by a lottery (weighted or otherwise)?

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  5. Oh dear! I think some folk are living in a Platonic universe where there is a Right and Wrong answer to everything, and somehow the majority must be right. In our messy world, different viewpoints can be valid. OK some more valid than others. Perhaps I would accept a threshold, so that only the top two ideas are put to a weighted lottery.

    And consider the ‘representative’ jury of 5 red, 7 blue: The blues always win with majority voting. With weighted lottery there would be an incentive to firstly negotiate unanimity, secondly to realise that the minority might prevail, so watch out!

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  6. Fair point, but I think the universe majoritarian democrats inhabit was designed by Jeremy Bentham, not Plato!

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  7. Conall,

    > I think some folk are living in a Platonic universe where there is a Right and Wrong answer to everything, and somehow the majority must be right.

    The majority is not always right in some objective sense, but it always gets to set policy in a democratic system.

    The minority leverage power that you are seeing as an advantage of randomized decision-making is just as open for abuse as majority power is. Why bother compromising if one could hope to have one’s most favored policy chosen by the random number generator?

    In any case, the decision-making procedure you are offering is unstable. Once a randomized decision is made on a certain issue, what prevents the losing side from putting the topic on the agenda again, hoping that the randomized decision would go the other way this time?

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  8. I think that if there are 2 possible options we could select, X and Y, either X is better than Y, or Y is better than X, or they are equally good. That’s not Platonist; that’s just simple logic. That doesn’t mean it will be easy to figure out which is better than which. X might be better than Y in some respects, and Y might be better than X in some respects, and it might be really hard to figure out which one is better all things considered. It also doesn’t mean that the majority will always select the right one; the circumstances facing the majority might be different in different circumstances. But yes, at the end of the day one is trying to figure out which option is better (or at least no worse) than any of the others. If one denies this, then one must explain, in a coherent and non-muddle-headed way, how some fourth possibility is possible.

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  9. > at the end of the day one is trying to figure out which option is better (or at least no worse) than any of the others. If one denies this, then one must explain, in a coherent and non-muddle-headed way, how some fourth possibility is possible.

    Clearly, if we disagree on the metric for “goodness” then we would not have a unique ordering of policies. Disagreements on what constitutes “a good state of society” are the normal situation in politics.

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  10. If a body chosen by random selection deliberates, it is likely that all relevant points of view are considered. If they fail to reach unanimity, the majority vote will represent a majority of the whole.
    If a single party holds a majority in the legislature what a majority of that party, usually a much smaller fraction of the whole legislature will decide the outcome.
    Voting should be a last resort, not the basic decision procedure.

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  11. > Voting should be a last resort, not the basic decision procedure.

    What is the basic decision procedure then? Unanimity? The notion that a group of a few hundred people would be unanimous on the best course of action at some point in time seems far fetched to me. The notion that unanimity could be a common situation seems fantastic.

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  12. Unanimity, as well as being fantastic is, on the whole, undesirable. Laws that result from cross-party unanimity often turn out to be of poor quality. The wisdom-of-crowds and Condorcet evidence favours independent judgment, rather than consensus, and the best way to ensure independent judgment is via the secret vote. If this offends Millians, Habermasians, and (lapsed) Catholics by privileging private interests over public reasons then so be it. Deliberators will still have to adopt the rhetoric of public reasons (in order to appeal beyond their core constituency) but how allotted members decide the outcome will always be on the basis of both public and private considerations.

    I suppose this would be characterised as a liberal republican solution. It would be the best and worst of both worlds, best in the sense of ensuring diverse and independent judgment, worst in the sense of being open to corruption in that the outcome will be the will of all, rather than the general will. Such is the politics of fallen man.

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  13. I stumbled on this website looking for sortition sources — interesting stuff.

    “Laws that result from cross-party unanimity” are often low quality, sure, but that’s because compromise saps them of coherence or policy impact. Condorcet/wisdow-of-crowds condemns the compromise, not the unanimity.

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  14. Yes, compromise is part of the problem, but the principal danger, from the WoC/Condorcet perspective, is the lack of cognitive diversity and groupthink. John Burnheim’s proposal does introduce cognitive diversity, but the emphasis on unanimity does make it very susceptible to groupthink and compromise (it’s interesting to note that compromise is seen as a desirable quality in Conall’s comment); the only defence against it is secret voting on majoritarian lines. This is not to say that the majority is right in the epistemic sense, only the weaker argument that it is motivated by the greater good of the greater number. That’s what we mean by democracry.

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  15. I agree that John Burnheim’s proposal emphasizes a unanimity that is associated with groupthink and compromise. My point was a limited one — that there is no necessary connection between unanimity and compromise. Consider a trial jury that unanimously returns a verdict immediately after receiving its instructions, i.e., without time to deliberate. Can’t we be confident in both the epistemic and (given the jury’s democratic pedigree) democratic validity of the verdict?

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  16. Yes, good point, a non-deliberating trial jury comes up trumps both epistemically and democratically. Deliberation is only required on account of the need for unanimity — not so in the case of political juries, where simple majority voting would suffice. Such a body would also tick all the epistemic and democratic boxes and it puzzles me why Habermasians insist that political juries should actively deliberate. When the idea of political decision making by a lay body was originally proposed (in the 17th century by Harrington, and in the 18th century by Rousseau), both thinkers realised that active deliberation contravened both epistemic and democratic legitimacy.

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  17. Let’s get real. Most decisions about the provision of public goods are questions of who gets what. Even in cases where no material good is involved, the questions are usually about people wanting to live in certain relationships, in a community where they feel comfortable, and different people want different kinds of order. Such decisions are best structured as negotiations between those affected. In such matters there is no one right answer, though there are many wrong ones. Ideally the aim is to reach a decision that is recognised by all concerned as acceptably fair and efficient, though not necessarily what they would prefer. In a weak sense of “unanimous”, such decisions are unanimous. If we can’t agree about a particular compromise, we fall back on voting. But that works only if there is virtual unanimity about an obligation to accept the specific voting procedure in the circumstances, in view of some greater good.

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  18. > But that works only if there is virtual unanimity about an obligation to accept the specific voting procedure in the circumstances, in view of some greater good.

    I don’t think that the current system, for example, enjoys such unanimous support. Lots of people feel it is unfair. It is stable due to various interacting factors, not due to a universal perception of legitimacy.

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  19. It’s informative to contrast the demarchic approach with its Madisonian antonym. One of the functions of an extended republic made up from large electoral constituencies was that decision making would be in the hands of people who had no particular interest in the legislative agenda and who could therefore judge dispassionately. To Madison this meant primarily people drawn from the professional classes and he was not alone in this view (Hegel, and then Weber, for example). Of course, since Marx, we know that these theorists were conflating a lack of particular interests (agricultural, manufacturing etc) with disinterestedness in general. By contrast, John’s self-selecting demarchic committees are drawn from “those with an interest in the topic”, and would negotiate a compromise between the various interested parties — a process that, in an earlier era, was described as “smoke-filled rooms”.

    The political jury approach combines features of both these approaches. Interests would set the agenda and be responsible for advocacay, whereas judgment would be in the hands of a cross-section of the whole community. In the social democratic state we are all affected by pretty much everything, so the distinction between those with interests and everyone else no longer means very much. As to whether the judgment of the political jury would be disinterested or just the statistical aggregate of competing interests we will never know (and I don’t think it matters much to anyone other than diehard republicans). Assuming, pessimistically, that power and interests will predominate (this is John’s view) then if most legislative acts affect most people, I can’t see a better way of determining the outcome.

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  20. sorry, anonymous was me (Keith Sutherland)

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