For some time the sharp disagreements — often ending up as slanging matches — between different members of this forum has intrigued me. If we are all part of the tiny community that is interested in, or even believes in, sortition, then why do we so often come to blows and indulge in name-calling? This post is an attempt to unpack this issue and, hopefully, help us deal with disagreements better in the future. That’s not to say that we should seek consensus, only that we should understand why others might find our own views difficult to stomach.
Let’s start with the name of this blog — Equality by Lot. Equality is a mathematical abstraction (“no equality without equations!”), which morphed, over time, into a normative ideal. The first philosopher to develop a normative understanding of equality was Plato, but his treatment of equality appears very strange to modern sensibilities. Plato distinguished “mere” arithmetic equality from equality of value, in which each person should receive according to his desert (geometric equality). This has some parallel in Christian thought via the Parable of the Talents (“For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away.”) However modern Christian sensibilities privilege the (alternative) biblical view that we are all (arithmetically) equal in the eyes of God. This is the view that Jefferson adopted for the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but that wily old fox Franklin argued that a secular version would be better (“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”). Of course this is complete nonsense as all the evidence points to the differences (biological and environmental) that we inherit at birth. But no matter, the transition was made from a religious gloss on a mathematical construction to a secular normative ideal.
Modern egalitarianism is mainly concerned with the redistribution of economic goods and the opportunities to acquire them in an arithmetically-equal fashion. One way to distribute scarce goods (and/or onerous tasks like military service) is by drawing lots, as everyone would have an exactly equal chance of drawing the golden ticket. Barbara Goodwin’s book Justice by Lottery (Imprint Academic, 2005) is a vision of an utopian society called Aleatoria, in which everything is distributed according to a total social lottery. The principal advocate of social lotteries on this blog — in particular lotteries for the egalitarian allocation of scarce educational resources — is Conall Boyle, but his posts rarely attract comments.
This is probably because most commentators on Equality by Lot are interested in political equality — hence the logo incorporating the Athenian kleroterion machine on our masthead. The Athenian demos was prepared to tolerate wide economic inequality, so long as everyone had an equal say in their political arrangements. This is the model that theorists and activists — Yoram Gat being the prime example — have adopted as a template for political equality in modernity, and have often quoted Montesquieu in its defence (“The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy; as that by choice [preference election] is to aristocracy”). This being the case, the way to create equality in modernity is to replace election with sortition. Given Montesquieu’s view (elaborated by Bernard Manin in his book) that election is an aristocratic principle, it can have no place in modern democracies.
The other principal theory-derived position is outlined in Oliver Dowlen’s book The Political Potential of Sortition (Imprint Academic, 2008). Dowlen starts off by looking for the unique feature of the lot, and concludes that it is the “blind break” that occurs at the throw of the dice. There is no way of knowing in advance which way the dice will fall, or which individuals will draw the golden ticket. The distinctive feature of all lotteries is the total break in causality — there are no reasons connecting the input to the output. He then looks around for a practical application for his “lottery principle” and observes, correctly, that it can act to preserve the political system from factionalism and ex-ante corruption . Dowlen then offers a historical overview of how sortition has been used over the last 2,500 years, interpreting the use always in terms of his theoretical starting point. Any other use of sortition (statistical representation, for example) is described as “weak”.
Given that both the blind breakers and the advocates of equality-by-lot are seeking to implement a theoretical project or an egalitarian ideal, it’s understanding that they are inclined to view other approaches through the lens of their own project and to put a premium on theoretical consistency.
The other category of frequent posters on this forum is made up of those who merely seek to improve some of the deficiencies of our current political arrangements and are happy to make use of whatever tools they can find to hand. I would include myself in this category and if you take a look at Robert Gauthier’s blog profile, this would appear to be his primary motivation. My interest in politics can be traced back to (UK) Labour’s 1997 election victory which struck me as a political confidence trick. This led me to write an article for a right-wing magazine calling for a return to constitutional monarchy as literally understood. During a drunken exchange at a party a friend pointed out to me that this was a tad on the reactionary side, so why don’t I incorporate a randomly-selected legislative jury into the equation. This struck me as a good idea, but as my motivation was, and still is, entirely pragmatic (making sure the trains run on time) rather than the pursuit of a normative or theoretical goal this makes me quite flexible as to how to go about it. But it does require a study of political theory (in the analytic Aristotelian/Oakeshottian sense, rather than the modern normative school) in order to understand what we mean by concepts like representation, consent etc and the constraints imposed on praxis by the theoretical understanding of what bodies selected by lot can and cannot do (hence my return to university three years ago, to do a PhD on sortition). Whilst I doubt if Robert shares my conservative inclinations, I think his willingness to change his mind is a result of a similarly pragmatic starting point.
What about other frequent posters? Terry Bouricius is an interesting case because, as a former elected legislator, one might anticipate a similarly pragmatic perspective. Yet his comments are much closer to Yoram and he finds no place at all for elections. Is this a case of the gamekeeper turned poacher? I can understand the attraction of a Damascene conversion to someone who has spent years frustrated by his labours in the cesspit of partisan pork trading. Peter Stone is another intriguing example — he told me once that his interest in sortition was on account of needing a topic for his PhD and chancing on a newspaper article on sortition. Although his own position is in the blind break camp (“representation” doesn’t even figure in the index to his book) it’s hard to understand what he really thinks about the proposals for descriptive representation via sortition as his presence on this blog is so erratic.
I would be keen to hear whether those mentioned on this post agree with my classification and how others not listed would categorise themselves (I’m unsure how to place Andre and Ahmed, although Campbell and Martin appear close to Yoram’s starting point). I should emphasise that a theoretical starting point, such as the pursuit of equality, does not rule out a burning interest in improving our political arrangements. It’s just if your starting point is a normative goal (equality) this will always be the guiding light, as opposed to pragmatists like Robert and myself, who are only concerned about what works. I think it’s also the case that campaigners for normative ideals tend to apply this perspective to others, so that pragmatism and realism are often viewed as a defence of the status quo.