Post by Jon Roland.

A political or management system can be characterized by the kind of people it elevates to positions of authority. A number of terms have been proposed by cynics, such as plutocracy, rule by the rich, kleptocracy, rule by thieves, or kakistocracy, rule by the worst. But from this writer’s experience with the most influential legislators, bureaucrats, judges, and corporate executives, the finding is that what attribute is most important to the success of most of them is the ability to sell and make connections with other people. In Greek a salesman is a πωλητής, or poletes. This suggests a word, poletecracy.

In a few cases technical skills help enable someone to rise to power, but most people in high positions are not experts in anything but campaigning and dealmaking. Most are politicians (πολιτικοί) first and foremost. If they acquire any expertise, it is usually after being on a job for a while, not while they are climbing. Their personal assets are favors earned and paid, and being able to have other influential people take their phone calls.

Robert G. Kaiser, a reporter for the Washington Post, has a new book reporting the inside story of how the Dodd-Frank Act came to be. Kaiser’s “Act of Congress: How America’s Essential Institution Works, and How it Doesn’t”, uses the long battle over the act and his access to Christopher Dodd, Barney Frank, and their staffs to show how modern congressional legislating really works. He has identified three main things wrong with Congress as it presently operates, and one of the most important of these is the lack of real policy expertise on the part of members. They are only generalists, depending on the expertise of staffers, lobbyists, and agencies, and often not understanding issues well enough to know who, if anyone, the experts are. It is this dependence on the expertise of others that makes staffers, lobbyists, and agencies more powerful than they should be for Congress to operate as the Framers intended.
Because it takes more time than one term provides to learn enough about how to be effective, and to build the connections they need to get anything done, they are almost compelled to spend much or most of their working hours raising funds for re-election, to protect the investment already made in preparing to be effective, both on the part of the members and of their staffs and contacts.

The problems are more complicated and difficult for Congress and the federal government, as it is for large, multinational business organizations, than it is for local government. States and large cities fall in between. But as the systems to be managed become larger and more complicated, they also become increasingly unmanageable.

The problem was discussed in a 1970 paper by Jay Forrester, “The Counterintuitive Behavior of Social Systems“, in which the author used computer simulation models to demonstrate that most people, even experts, are not very good at predicting how any given intervention in a complex system will play out. That leads to the observation that “if a solution is simple, obvious, and appealing, it is probably wrong.” Computer models may not work, either, but without them the policy proposals most people will come up with are more likely than not to be ineffective or counterproductive.

One innovative proposal to remedy this problem is sortition, or random selection of decisionmakers, similar to the system used by the ancient Athenians. That doesn’t mean a one-step process of random drawing of names from the rolls of registered voters. The most successful system that used sortition, that of Venice from 1268 to 1797, combined random stages alternating with screening for talent and wisdom. Properly structured and conducted, it might select legislators who both have personal expertise from the day they start work, and who, because they can’t be re-elected, don’t have to spend any time or resources getting re-elected. The Greek word for such randomly selected legislators is nomothetai (νομοθέται). If a merit-weighted sortition process were extended to their staffs, and to the agencies for which they legislate, then we might expect better performance than we are currently getting.


7 Responses

  1. >The Greek word for such randomly selected legislators is nomothetai (νομοθέται).

    But the Greeks did not assume that legislation required any form of expertise, the justification for random selection being 1) the protection of the system from factionalism and corruption and 2) the judgment of the many being (in some cases) better than the judgment of the few. Information was provided by the advocates for the new law and those chosen by the assembly to defend the existing law. John Burnheim’s proposal for demarchic committees selected by sortition from self-selected stakeholders would be more relevant to your argument than the Athenian example.


  2. Jon,

    > Properly structured and conducted, it might select legislators who both have personal expertise from the day they start work, and who, because they can’t be re-elected, don’t have to spend any time or resources getting re-elected.

    Not having to waste resources on a re-election campaign makes sense, but I don’t see what the first claim is based on.

    What is the supposed mechanism at work here? How would repeated rounds of sortition and elections bootstrap the uninformed public (clearly less informed than the average elected legislator, which, you say, is so uninformed as to be unable to know how they can become better informed) into the selection of a group of extremely rare experts?


  3. Yoram,

    I believe Jon is using the Venetian model, where a randomly selected group (electoral college) elects (appoints) a second group (using some sort of approval voting method) that they trust, or think are experts…and then perhaps the final people to serve are selected by lot from this elected group of nominees (who were not POPULARLY elected (with campaigns and rational ignorance), but picked with careful attention. As I said elsewhere, I think this works to select an executive, but because it wipes out diversity is a poor system for legislative bodies.


  4. I understand the proposed process – I just don’t understand the reasoning: how would this process overcome the (supposed) severe ignorance of the population?


  5. The value of diversity is to bring arguments and facts into the deliberative process that have merit but might otherwise be overlooked. It is a mistake to conflate it with representivity, which is about allowing minority interests to be heard during deliberation, and the perceived legitimacy of decisions made. Any reduction in the number of decisionmakers, necessary to enable deliberation to be efficient, is going to reduce diversity and representivity among decisionmakers to a large extent, but if they are selected wisely, and are wise, they will seek out diverse and representative opinion during the course of their deliberation. That is what hearings and letters from constituents are all about, if attention is paid to merit. (Even nomothetai have constituents.)

    The general population may mostly lack domain knowledge of the issues, but they can do a good job, if asked to deliberate about it, of selecting those among themselves who are wiser and more knowledgeable about policy matters. By having successive rounds of sortition and merit selection, it can be expected that, unless they are all caught up in unthinking passion or devotion to charismatic leaders, there will be an emergence of the wisest and most knowledgeable among them to the final decisionmaking positions, and that is the best we can reasonably hope for, given the limitations of human beings. The only way to overcome that is to turn over decisionmaking to machines, and we are not ready for that as a species or as machinemakers.

    My solution for legislative bodies is a bicameral system using different selection processes. One body, call it the Senate, would use the multi-stage sortition/merit process, and the other would use proxy voting http://constitution.org/voting/proxy_voting.htm . The two houses would combine the advantages of each process, allowing diverse and representative voices to be heard, but also serve as a check on one another, to block a rush to judgment.

    I would also apply the sortition/merit process to selection of judges, much the way we are already supposed to do for trial and grand juries. Judges might be appointed for life, not to a particular court, but to a general judicial pool from which they would be drawn at random to serve on courts and hear cases.

    It is all set forth at http://constitution.org/reform/us/con_amend.htm


  6. > The general population may mostly lack domain knowledge of the issues, but they can do a good job, if asked to deliberate about it, of selecting those among themselves who are wiser and more knowledgeable about policy matters.

    So, as you put it, politicians are too ignorant “to know who, if anyone, the experts are”, but the general population can select “those among themselves who are wiser and more knowledgeable about policy matters”. Again, this seems like trying to have things both ways.


  7. Most representative polities today use a merit selection process called election, and further appointments are made by a merit selection process among the elected officials.

    Elections in the United states were designed for a time when voters and candidates mostly knew one another personally, or were only about one step removed from one another. Now we have obscurity on both sides mediated by mass marketing, that costs money that has to come from somewhere, and comes from those who most want to influence the outcome. Multi-stage sortition disintermediates the marketers, allowing people at each stage to get to know the people who move on to the next stage, but randomizing the selection so it can’t be unduly influenced. When people at the merit selection stage don’t know who will survive to the next round, they will be inclined to load the lottery pool with the wisest and more knowledgeable, because while they might trust one favorite, they are less likely to trust a bunch of them who are not otherwise meritorious.

    The design is not asking people at any stage but the top to select the few top experts in any field. Only some who are a little wiser and more knowledgeable than they are, and perhaps more diligent about inquiring further, without the pressure to get re-elected. It is hoped that such a process would elevate the wisest to the upper ranks, which is not what is happening now.


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