Last week’s sortition workshop at Queen Mary, University of London was entitled Sortition and the Consolidation of Democracy. The host and academic convenor was Oliver Dowlen, who was a research fellow at QM, and most of the papers adopted the Dowlen-Stone ‘Lottery Thesis’ that the primary value of sortition is as a prophylactic to protect the political system from factionalism and corruption — a principle that Dowlen and Stone attribute to the arational ‘Blind Break’ introduced by the lottery mechanism. The main focus of my commentary is Peter Stone’s (draft) paper, ‘Democracy and Good Government’ (Stone, 2013), but my arguments are addressed to all three signatories of the ‘Dublin Declaration’ (Delannoi, Dowlen and Stone, 2013),* which, whilst acknowledging that sortition is also a way of instituting ‘descriptive’ representation, concluded that this was a ‘weak’ use of the lot. My claim in this commentary is that the ‘Blind Break’ is a) politically conservative (sortition is capable of protecting the integrity of any political system, not just democracy) and b) philosophically tautological (its ‘strength’ is entirely reliant on the pre-definition of the Lottery Principle).
Stone’s paper was based on Bo Rothstein’s comparative study of the quality of government (QoG) in modern states (Rothstein, 2011). QoG is measured in terms of economic, political and social outcomes (legitimacy, social capital and [non]corruption) and Rothstein finds that there is no necessary connection between democracy (an input function) and benign outcomes. One chapter makes a direct comparison between Singapore and Jamaica: both were former British colonies and equally underdeveloped, but Singapore (an authoritarian state) now ranks considerably higher than Jamaica (a democracy) in all the QoG factors. Rothstein’s book, or at least Stone’s portrayal of it, does not attribute an inherent value to democracy (other than arithmetical equality and Amartya Sen’s argument for institutional safeguards) and, in terms of measurable outcomes, ranks it lower than authoritarian alternatives. So what value could sortition bring to the table? Clearly, given Rothstein’s emphasis on impartiality in the exercise of power and the lottery’s ability to select public officials without fear or favour, this is a vindication of the argument for the Blind Break.
Although it might be unfair to use this one paper as a criticism of the whole workshop this led me to conclude that Sortition and the Consolidation of Democracy was something of a misnomer — it might have been better to call it Sortition and the Consolidation of Good Governance or something similar. The arationality of the blind break is capable of enhancing impartiality in any political system — democracy, aristocracy, epistocracy (noocracy) or even monarchy (so long as the monarch does not define the polity exclusively in terms of her own will). Indeed Stone acknowledges this in his paper, arguing that impartiality (which has no essential connection with democracy or even equality) is normally couched in terms of the rule of law, a concept that is applicable to any political system. No doubt sortition would also have enabled the German government to implement the holocaust in a more impartial way, given that the resources were not available to achieve the Final Solution in its totality.
This is the reason why the inherently conservative Stone-Dowlen Lottery Principle has proved unattractive to those of us who argue that democracy has important intrinsic properties, rather than judging it purely in terms of outcomes. Stone does make an egalitarian case for democracy (input-level equality in Rothstein’s terms) — we all have an equally miniscule role in selecting the government and we are all (theoretically) equal in our chance of securing public office. This numerical equality could be secured by sortition better than it can by election, on account of Manin’s (1997) principle of distinction. But democracy (in it’s non-Schumpeterian form) also suggests an attempt to ascertain the political preferences of (the majority of) the demos (the ‘popular self-rule’ argument rejected by both Stone and Rothstein). And democrats should also attend to Rousseau’s requirement that the preservation of the freedom that is our birthright presupposes that we are the author of our own laws. Neither of these factors has anything to do with (epistemic) outcomes; meanwhile how to achieve freedom and our own policy preferences in large-scale societies is a demanding problem.
Can sortition have anything to contribute to the intrinsic case for democracy, other than the establishment of arithmetic equality and the diminished likelihood of famine in developing countries (Sen, 1983)? I would like to argue that in addition to the Blind Break (an entirely negative principle) there is an additional positive principle, which I will refer to here as the Invisible Hand.** Decision-making by all citizens is not feasible in large political communities on account of the problem of rational ignorance, so a case can be made for decision-making by a representative microcosm — a portrait in miniature of the entire citizen body. But why not just use stratified sampling to ensure proper representation of age, gender, occupational category etc, why do we need to resort to sortition? If, however, politics is attending to the general arrangements of a group of people thrown together by choice or necessity (I paraphrase Oakeshott here), there is no a priori way of knowing what the relevant criteria are for the stratified sample (I’m leaving aside the further need for impartial selection, secured by the lottery). But this is where the law of large numbers comes into play — if the sample is large enough then there are good mathematical reasons to believe that random selection will select for all salient features (including those that we are entirely ignorant of) in proportion to their presence in the target population. This is an entirely rational use of the lot (it’s the ratio that we’re interested in), hence my argument that the Invisible Hand is an entirely distinct use of sortition to the Blind Break.
Dowlen does discuss representation in his 2008 book, but concludes that this is a ‘weak’ use of sortition. But this is only tautologically true, in so far as sortition has been pre-defined in terms of arationality. In his 2011 book, Stone also deals with representation in a cursory manner (the term fails to make an appearance in the index) but he subsumes this function within his one hegemonic Lottery Principle. In the present paper he also repeats Bernard Manin’s argument that sortition cannot possibly be compatible with the need for democratic consent. I thought I had successfully refuted that canard in my paper for the Manin workshop in Paris, so there is clearly a need to return to that subject but that will require a further blog post (Part II, forthcoming).
* The Dublin Declaration (2013) should not be confused with the Dublin Proclamation (1916).
** Yves Sintomer has argued that there are more like five or six lottery principles, but our concern here is for the political potential of sortition in large modern states, as opposed to archaic uses such as rotation.
Gil Delannoi, Oliver Dowlen and Peter Stone (2013), The Lottery as a Democratic Institution (Studies in Public Policy 28, Policy Institute, Trinity College Dublin). http://www.tcd.ie/policy-institute/assets/pdf/Studies_Policy_28_web.pdf
Oliver Dowlen, (2008), The Political Potential of Sortition (Imprint Academic).
Bernard Manin (1997), The Principles of Representative Government (Cambridge University Press).
Bo Rothstein (2011), The Quality of Government: Corruption, Social Trust, and Inequality in International Perspective (University of Chicago Press).
Amartya Sen (1983), Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (Oxford University Press).
Peter Stone (2011), The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (Oxford University Press).
Peter Stone (2013), ‘Democracy and Good Government’, draft paper presented at the workshop Sortition and the Consolidation of Democracy, Queen Mary, University of London, 10-11 October 2013.