Alexander Guerrero: The lottocracy

As was mentioned here before, some time ago Prof. Alexander Guerrero and his ideas about the use of sortition in government were the subject of an article in The Boston Globe.

I thank Prof. Guerrero for alerting me to a recently published essay of his about sortition in the online magazine Aeon. The essay presents Guerrero’s proposal, but starts with an interesting analysis of the failure of elections and follows the proposal with an analysis of the promise of sortition.

The lottocracy

Elections are flawed and can’t be redeemed – it’s time to start choosing our representatives by lottery


The celebrity comic Russell Brand is gesticulating wildly, urgently, in a hotel room, under the bright lights of a television interview. ‘Stop voting, stop pretending, wake up. Be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already.’ He is responding to his interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, who is taking him to task for never having voted.

We are brought up to think that voting is important, that it is a necessary condition of being a politically serious person, that we can’t complain about politics if we don’t vote. This last principle has echoes of the more reasonable parental admonition, said of lima beans or cauliflower: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. But that principle is based on sound epistemological grounds: you might, for all you know, like cauliflower or lima beans. The voting thing is, as Brand argues, stupid. There are ways of participating in public affairs other than voting. For example, one can become a celebrity and call for revolution in a television interview.

Guerrero describes electoral theory as making the following chain of thought:

  1. Equality of moral standing implies self-government;
  2. The straightforward implementation of self-government is direct involvement of all the group members in decision making;
  3. Reduction of cognitive load involved in informed decision making implies delegation;
  4. The delegates would strive to serve the interests of the voters in order to be re-elected.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that despite the elections, elected representatives are not actually accountable, not meaningfully accountable, to those over whom they govern.


[M]eaningful accountability requires not just open and fair elections; it also requires that we are capable of engaging in informed monitoring and evaluation of the decisions of our representatives. And we are not capable of this. Not because we are stupid, but because we are ignorant: ignorant about what our representatives are doing, ignorant about the details of complex political issues, and ignorant about whether what our representative is doing is good for us or for the world.

Our ignorance means that representatives can talk a good game, and maybe even try to do a few things that benefit the majority of us, but the basic information asymmetries at the heart of the representative system ensure that, for many issues — defence manufacturing and spending, policy that affects the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, agribusiness policy and regulation, energy policy, regulation of financial services and products — what we get is what the relevant business industries want. In the presence of widespread citizen ignorance and the absence of meaningful accountability, powerful interests will effectively capture representatives, ensuring that the only viable candidates — the only people who can get and stay in political power — are those who will act in ways that are congenial to the interests of the powerful.

Turning to considering alternatives, Guerrero rejects the idea of “going small”. Modern societies and the issues they face are large scale. Small scale communities cannot handle those issue. Guerrero then lets the cat out the bag.

Modern policy is too complex for there to be meaningful electoral accountability. Electoral capture is too easy and too important for powerful interests. So, what’s the alternative? Get rid of elections. Use lotteries to select political officials.

There is historical precedent for this kind of method, also referred to as ‘sortition’. There are also a number of academics who have argued for a role for lotteries in the selection of political officials, including C L R James, Oliver Dowlen, and Peter Stone.

Guerrero proposes government by a set of single-issue legislatures:

There are hard questions about how exactly to structure a political system with lottery-selection at its heart. Here’s one approach, which I am in the process of developing, that I call lottocracy. The basic components are straightforward. First, rather than having a single, generalist legislature such as the United States Congress, the legislative function would be fulfilled by many different single-issue legislatures (each one focusing on, for example, just agriculture or health care). There might be 20 or 25 of these single-issue legislatures, perhaps borrowing existing divisions in legislative committees or administrative agencies: agriculture, commerce and consumer protection, education, energy, health and human services, housing and urban development, immigration, labour, transportation, etc.


Single-issue focus is essential to allow greater learning and engagement with the particular problems, especially given the range of backgrounds that members would bring to the institutions, and the fact that these individuals would be amateurs at the particular task of creating legislation.

Guerrero claims the following advantages for sortition over elections:

  • Better informed delegates than elected delegates:

    Lottery-chosen representatives would have more time to learn about the problems they’re legislating than today’s typical representatives, who have to spend their time learning about every topic under the sun, while also constantly travelling, claiming credit, and raising funds to get re-elected.

  • Representativity:

    In the lottocratic system representatives will be — at least over a long enough run — descriptively and proportionately representative of the political community, simply because they have been chosen at random. But they will not have in mind the idea that they are to represent some particular constituency. Instead, they will be like better-informed versions of ourselves, coming from backgrounds like ours, but with the opportunity to learn and deliberate about the specific topic at hand.

  • Reduced corruption:

    Because members are chosen at random and don’t need to run for office, there will be no way for powerful interests to influence who becomes a representative to ensure that the only viable candidates are those whose interests are congenial to their own. Because there is no need to raise funds for re-election, it should be easier to monitor representatives to ensure that they are not being bought off.

  • Cognitive diversity:

    Another advantage of lotteries over elections is that they are likely to bring together a more cognitively diverse group of people, a group of people with a better sense of the full range of views and interests of the polity. Because individuals are chosen at random from the jurisdiction, they are much more likely to be an ideologically, demographically, and socio-economically representative sample of the people in the jurisdiction than those individuals who are capable of successfully running for office.

  • Addressing problems by importance rather than based on electoral considerations:

    Elections lead elected officials to focus on those problems for which they can claim credit for addressing, and to ignore or put on the back burner those problems with a longer horizon or those solutions for which it is harder to get credit. This negligence is made possible by voter ignorance and made inevitable by the perverse short-term incentives that elections provide. Lottery selection can help us to avoid this problem.

The article generated a fair number of comments, many generally approving, and those approving getting most of the up-votes. Among those who addressed the details of the proposal a couple pointed out the obvious problem of dividing up politics between different bodies. One commenter asked about the applicability of sortition to smaller populations – anything smaller than the population of a large city.

There was the expected crop of critical comments with the standard reflexive objections or with well-worn formulas – elections are needed as a form of participation, or as an expression of the consent of the governed, people need to be more well informed, need shorter terms – within 3 years the allotted will be as corrupt as the elected, the allotted will be easily manipulated by lobbyists, not a democracy, a republic, mandatory voting. One commenter suggested adding a recall mechanism and one suggested an IQ test barrier. One commenter made a reference to William Buckley.

Since some of the problems associated with single-issue bodies were discussed in comments to the post about The Boston Globe story relating to Guerrero’s proposal, I think that the very lucid presentation in the current essay creates a good opportunity to revisit aspects of the argument for sortition that are not specific to the proposal: the reasons for the failure of the electoral mechanism to achieve the promised democratic results, and what can be the expected advantages of sortition. I’ll get to that either in the comments or in a follow-up post.


46 Responses

  1. Would Guerror’s proposition be more properly termed a demarchy?


  2. It is a bit misleading to talk of “single issue” legislatures, since there are always many dimensions to any of the areas of policy that Prof Guerrero distinguishes. But he is spot on in underlining the importance of keeping them separate.
    The dominant image of the nation-state has always been the human organism. Everything needs toi be integrated in a planned way in virtue of the good functioning of the organism. The assumption is that there is some single common good that can only be achieved by centralised decision over the whole range of the diverse organic functions involved in achieving that good. The head, the brain is supposed to control everything that needs to be controlled to ensure the health of the whole.
    Instead we need to think of the community as an ecosystem, with many component subsystems , dependent in turn on wider regional and global systems. As in any ecosystem, a political body works effectively by the flourishing and mutual accommodation of a variety of of functional elements each of which has its own specific way of functioning.
    Even in medicine, in spite of the ideological attractiveness of “holistic” approaches, we have found that health is assured by very precisely targeted interventions to deal with particular sources of malfunctioning of particular processes, bases on a very specific analysis of their particular needs. If everything is functioning well, we leave it alone.
    The same, obviously, applies to ecosystems of all sorts. What assure the health of the whole is dealing effectively with specific needs of particular organic functions.
    The basis trouble with politics as we have it is that it is based on territoriality, not on functional needs. The nation-state is an artifact of war and territorial power based on violent acquisition and maintenance of territorial power. Simply because of its monopoly of legitimate violence the state acquired responsibility for the good functioning of every aspect of the nation.
    That plenary power is dangerous and most democratic theory has been concerned with finding ways of limiting it, very ineffectually.
    When all decisions are weighed up against each other, the results in every case are decided ultimately, not by considering the particular merits of the case, but by power trading among those who make the decision, directed to winning the power game. The essence of cobbling together a majority in a legislature is that you trade your vote on something you don’t care about for votes from others on things you do care about. On that basis political parties are constructed in which a relatively small but well-organised group can gain a majority in the party and thence a majority in the legislature on the basis of suitable manipulation of media and presenting voters with vague promises. No wonder ther is widespread dissatisfaction with politics.
    However, sortition won’t cure the problem unless the attempt to put all decisions in the hands of a single body is abandoned. A group of ordinary people, given suitable back-up, devoting their full attention to problems of public health, would be expected to consider decisions in that area on their specific merits. In the context of a vigorous public discussion based not on ideological dogmas but on concrete needs, one might hope they would arrive at sound decisions.
    Of course the decisions in any area are going to need to be reconciled with decisions in cognate areas, but that shoule be consequent on those decisions. We have learned unequivocally that the secret of the market is that it enables businesses with a specific function to make their decisions in the light of their own interests and only subsequently to reconcile those interests with competing interests, as opposed to a planned economy in which everything is decided in general terms and then incorporated in particular administrative decisions.
    There are enormous problems in developing a bottom-up rather than a top-down polity, which are not going to be solved a priori, but only by experiment with particular ways of dealing with specific problems. The thing is to make a start with devolving particular areas of decision to bodies that are statistically representative of the various interests that are most directly affectd by that range of decisions, people who have to bear the effects of those decisions.


  3. This is original and exciting work, a purely logical/philosophical argument devoid of “constitutive moments” or a supposed original model of perfect democracy in Athens or elsewhere! Of course, what first came to mind was your own book, John Burnheim; although the approaches seem different even while they recommend similar mechanisms.

    And it would be an interesting exercise in itself, to compare Guerrero’s argument for sortition in “Is Democracy Possible?”

    Any news on Guerrero’s book project? I remember the Boston Globe article mentioned a book “The Lottocratic Alternative” in the works.


  4. Two obvious problems:

    1. All the talk nowadays (at least in the UK) is the need for “joined up government” — i.e. the need for a holistic approach to break down the barriers between existing departments. Subject-specific deliberative assemblies are a move in the opposite direction.

    2. Whilst random selection removes the problem of ex ante corruption, if the goal is to establish a group of citizens who become well informed in the speciality of the committee this would suggest a reasonable period of service. If they group is going to be small enough to enjoy a good quality of deliberative exchange and will be able to make legislative proposals then such a group would immediately become a target for inducements by lobbyists. It’s hard to imagine a better way to produce a corrupt legislature.


  5. The article offers “informational asymmetries” as the main, if not the only, reason for the failure of the electoral mechanism to generate democratic policy. (This is also the thrust of arguments along the “rational ignorance” line of thought.)

    I think that while the inability of the voters to follow the actions of the elected, or the high cost of doing so, plays some part in the oligarchical effects of the electoral system, it is of secondary importance. If issues associated with information and knowledge were the main problem, the effect would be that the politicians would be able to convince the electorate that they are serving the public interest while in fact doing something else. If this was the case, then successful elected politicians would generally enjoy high approval ratings. But, of course, this is not the case. In fact, despite the fact that politicians are generally seen with disapproval both as a group and individually, they still manage to get elected and re-elected. Therefore, the problem is the inability of the system to generate credible alternatives that are able to generate expectations of being less corrupt than the incumbents.

    This is directly tied to matters of scale. In a large population, for a person (or a group of people) to become well known enough to garner the votes of a noticeable fraction of the population, that person (or group) has to be a member of a very special elite within the population. This elite, like any elite, has its own interests that are different, and to some extent antithetical, to those of most of the members of the group. Thus, the set of credible candidates is limited a-priori to a set of people who are predisposed to serving non-democratic goals and it is this effect that is the main reason that elections do not produce democratic policy. By the time the public gets to vote, there are no good alternatives on offer. Any difficulties with knowledge and information are just icing on the oligarchical cake. The public is quite aware of this, and yet there is really not much that can be done about it within the electoral system.


  6. >This elite, like any elite, has its own interests that are different, and to some extent antithetical, to those of most of the members of the group.

    Yoram has repeated the M&M** doctrine many times on this forum and has still not provided evidence as to how it applies to the likes of Terry Bouricius, a long-serving elected member. Perhaps its time to give a little credence to the Millian alternative to old-fashioned economic determinism. Note that it’s perfectly possible for a politician to be elected on the basis of the principle of distinction and still represent the interests of her electors (indeed this would be the claim of most serving politicians). As Griffiths points out in his 1960s article (which led to Pitkin’s book) there is no necessary connection between descriptive representation and the active representation of interests — it’s an entirely contingent relationship. And the converse is also true (a member of an elite is perfectly capable of representing interests that are not her own). The only people who deny this are economic materialists — a doctrine that I thought went out of fashion a couple of decades ago.

    ** The Marx-Mosca theory of elites (If we also included Michels it would be 3M)


  7. PS If we add C. Wright Mills (The Power Elite) that makes it Marx/Mosca/Michels/Mills against poor old J.S. Mill (and the epistemic democrats). I always like to stick up for the underdog.

    Terry’s position is an interesting one in that he uses the (idealist) epistemic literature in defence of a materialist theory of interests. And I’m still keen to hear from him what 500 people deliberating together might sound like (and also whether he would consider his old self a card-carrying member of the rich-‘n-powerful supporters’ club, prior to his Damascene conversion to “real” democracy). I would also ask him why he chose a life as an elected public servant and whether he would consider his motives differed from those of his peers.


  8. Keith,

    Some responses to your questions…

    “…what 500 people deliberating together might sound like?”

    I don’t know what your question is here…presumably a 500-member deliberative body would spend some time in smaller group committees and some time in plenary sessions. Obviously there would be none of the grand-standing for electoral reasons, which is standard in eleced legislatures. I expect there would be more questioning, and less assertion of certainty by members.

    “…whether he would consider his old self a card-carrying member of the rich-’n-powerful supporters’ club, prior to his Damascene conversion to “real” democracy)?”

    While few members of the legislature of the tiny state of Vermont were rich… we were definitely a de facto political class of elites, distinct from the general population in many ways. My behavior was definitely molded by an electoral imperative of trying to ‘expose’ the members of the other political parties, to enhance the prospects of my own party in future elections. Most of my speeches on the floor of the House chamber had no hope of persuading the other representatives…That was not my real goal. The deliberative process (mine and others) was essentially a fake show.

    ” why he chose a life as an elected public servant and whether he would consider his motives differed from those of his peers?”

    I was a socialist third-party activist who had almost no chance of serving in a state legislature in the U.S., but due to unique circumstances was elected, and as an incumbent repeatedly re-elected. My motivation for participating in politics was VERY different than most of the other members. I was hoping to fundamentally change society (a rather vain hope). For most of them, I believe serving was largely a matter of a personal honor… a public recognition of their success and worth. They were not motivated by any evil intent, but nor were they interested in fundamentally changing society.


  9. Terry,

    I note (and respect) your socialist background but take issue with the implication that only those who seek to “fundamentally change society” are motivated to serve the interests of their constituents. Those of us of a more conservative inclination genuinely believe that the interests of the “masses” are best served by cautious incremental reforms and that things are often best left alone, on account of the law of unintended consequences. I’m glad that you acknowledge that this does not constitute an evil intent.

    >I believe serving was largely a matter of a personal honor… a public recognition of their success and worth.

    That could be taken straight from Demosthenes. To my mind, if you are going to claim Athenian provenance for your proposals, you need to work (as they did) with the crooked timbers of mankind. Whilst you acknowledge that the political elite is very different from those who they seek to serve, you are a self-confessed minority (the lone socialist rep.) within a minority, so I wonder if that is a suitable basis for democratic reform. Of course that didn’t bother Lenin, but I don’t think we should have much truck with that kind of elitist thinking — especially those of us who believe that socialism is so twentieth century.

    On the question of the Council of 500, is there any evidence that they spent most of their time brainstorming in small groups? Needless to say this would be entirely unrepresentative, hence my (speculative) claim that the primary role of the council was that of a gatekeeper.

    I’m glad also that you acknowledge the behaviour of elected politicians is on account of systemic requirements (the need to win votes in order to implement policies) as opposed to reflecting different interests from their constituents and I’m also glad to hear that state legislators are largely of modest means. If this is the case, then the language of “elite interests” misrepresents what is in fact just a system property. I think your own work in epistemic democracy confirms that the primary differences between electors and the elected are cognitive, rather than material, putting you closer to J.S.Mill than C.W.Mills (see comment above).


  10. PS. Is there anyone else on this forum who considers that sortition is a balloting technology with indeterminate outcome, as opposed to a Trojan Horse to “fundamentally change society”. It’s just possible that “the masses” might well choose to keep things more or less the way they are or even (as in 4th century Athens and Restoration England) to return to the patrios politeia.


  11. Keith,

    While the Vermont House didn’t have many extremely wealthy members, they were predominantly in the top 10-20% income bracket. But at the level of the U.S. Congress, according to a recently published study, an absolute majority of members are millionaires. At some point a change in quantity results in a change in quality.


  12. Yes I’m sure that’s true, but I suggest you read the Griffiths article indicating that there is no necessary connection between descriptive representation and the representation of interests. Whilst it’s clearly the case, as Mill pointed out regarding the right to strike and you pointed out regarding social landlords, that there is a need for greater cognitive diversity in order to better understand all the perspectives involved, this is a long way removed from Yoram’s (oft-repeated) argument that “informational asymmetries” are automatically trumped by interests. Your position appears to be half way between Mill and Mills and that strikes me as a fair compromise.

    Regarding your self-acknowledged socialist motivation, I’m happy to use the S word instead of the (banned) M word, and this would appear to be the dominant position on this blog. Please remember that conservatives are not bad people, they just have a different perspective on the efficacy of social engineering, so I think you are wrong to draw such a sharp distinction between your own saintly motivation and those of your peers.


    Griffiths, A. P., & Wollheim, R. (1960). “How can one person represent another?” Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes, 34, 187-224.


  13. Regarding the advantages of sortition over elections:

    Alex presents 5 items which can be grouped under two headings:

    * Improved understanding by the delegates – better informed delegates, and cognitive diversity,

    * Improved representativity – representation of population characteristics, reduced corruption, and addressing problems by importance rather than based on electoral considerations.

    As I commented recently, the suggestion that the effects of the electoral system are due to a failure of understanding on the side of elected is problematic for several reasons.

    As for non-representativity, the main effect is of course the inherent elitism of the electoral mechanism due to its extremal nature (putting in power those who garner the *most* votes).

    But the last item Alex mentions – addressing problems by importance rather than based on electoral considerations – is quite interesting because this argument – the well known “pandering” argument – is usually presented as an elitist argument. Here, however, Alex turns the tables and presents it as a democratic argument.

    According to the pandering argument elected politicians want to pursue the public interest but cannot because the electorate is unable to discern its true interests and would therefore be displeased if the public interest was served. This argument reverses the standard argument about “accountability”. Classical democratic dogma asserts that electoral considerations motivate elected officials to serve the public interest, while according to this argument electoral considerations motivate elected officials to do exactly the opposite. Usually the pandering argument is presented as apologia for situations where elected government pursues policy that is not popular. Here, it is an argument for rejecting elections altogether.


  14. Keith,

    I didn’t suggest my motives were “saintly,” merely different than my colleagues’. Wanting to be prom queen or captain of a sports team, or state legislator is not evil, it merely speaks to a different personal motivation, than a quasi-revolutionary might have.

    It may be slightly tangential to this blog, but I think Keith (who argues materialism (e.g. wealth) doesn’t define ideology), might find it interesting to read a study I just heard about. While it doesn’t prove that ALL people have their ideology shaped by their circumstances (there are always exceptions)…the study of lottery winners who suddenly gain wealth found that they also tended to suddenly become more right-wing ideologically. Here is a little article about the study done in the UK. The article is titled “Money makes people right-wing and inegalitarian”


  15. Thanks for the link, Terry. Not unexpected, but quite interesting nonetheless and very relevant, I think, to the topics we discuss.


  16. Terry,

    That’s an interesting paper, I’ll be keen to hear how it’s received if and when it’s published (it’s a working paper). I think the PhysOrg post has hyped the results a little — n was in fact 354 (rather than “thousands of people”) and the extra swing to the right for this sample (medium to large winners) was only 5% over non-winners). The authors also raise the possibility that lottery players may not represent a typical sample, in that they are likely to be more self-interested than most citizens (the National Lottery has also been called a tax on the stupid) and therefore more inclined to adjust their political leanings in accordance with their interests. I’d be interested to hear what a statistician like Conall thinks of it and also note the authors’ reference to referees’ comments, which might suggest that the paper was only posted online because it was rejected for publication. Most peer-reviewed journals embargo online posting until well after publication.


  17. Yoram,

    Alex’s portrayal of the pandering (to popular opinion) problem is as normally portrayed (see, for example, Alex Rubner’s Mendacious Colours of Democracy: An Anatomy of Benevolent Lying This is the principal reason for the 4th century reforms, the template for some proposals for the modern reintroduction of sortition. These reforms did not abolish politics, they just put a stronger emphasis on measured argument (not possible in the soundbite culture of the assembly).


  18. Dear All,
    I have just noticed the IMMENSE social media popularity of this article! On reddit alone, it’s gotten hundreds of up votes with 67% for. On other networks it’s been shared hundreds of times more. I invite you to set aside debates for a second to enjoy this significant success for sortinistas. People are listening and they are hungry for reform, in the US and elsewhere.


  19. Ahmed – could you provide some links?


  20. Links to? If you mean reddit, whenever you add a link, it notifies you of precious additions and reveals voting and commenting stats on those links.

    Am Feb 9, 2014 um 10:03 Equality by lot :


  21. Ok – so now I found the reddit discussions. The link to the main discussion is this.

    Any other links?


  22. There is a presumption here that special interests (=minorities) being able to get their will in spite of majority opposition is always a bad thing. Yet, minorities have no reason to unquestioningly accept a dictatorship by the majority which runs strongly against their interests. They have a fair case that the decision should be a result of negotiation with the minority having sufficient power to ensure a compromise solution. At its most dysfunctional you see the “majority rules” view of democracy right now in Thailand or Iraq. We had in the UK in the case of Northern Ireland.

    But even with less fundamental issues, often the desire for participation is triggered when people feel very strongly about a particular issue, and then they want means of influence. It is not just the rich and powerful that are being accommodated in their desire for influence in representative democracy. Whether it is animal rights activists or anti abortion activists, or farmers, or miners, they get a much stronger voice in today’s representative democracry concerning the issues they care about most strongly, than the majority does.

    And I would argue that this is actually a good thing to quite some degree, because our society is a voluntary compact between many individuals and groups, and in this compact the negotiation element of decision making should be important and weight should not just be given to simple voter numbers, but also to how strongly people are affected by decisions.

    We may not implement this perfectly (via lobbying, via having some decisions being delegated to local councils, or to the parents of a school district), but this is an element I do not see at all (at least not explicitly) in the sortition proposals.


  23. Heiko

    That’s very well argued and I agree that most sortition-based proposals — the notable exception being John Burnheim’s demarchic committee –, are based on simple majority rule. In my own proposal I draw a distinction between advocates (those with an interest) and judges (those who decide the outcome), sortition being the relevant selection mechanism for the latter only. Although I do argue for majorities to determine the final decision, this would be situated in the context of extra-democratic constitutional safeguards.


  24. Heiko,

    I agree this is a conundrum that I haven’t been able to resolve. under current “democratic” electoral regimes it is only those minorities with POWER (usually wealth – but sometimes, as you note, organizational energy) who have the ability to defeat the majority. Indeed these minorities with power USUALLY defeat the interests of the majority. That doesn’t seem to be a particularly good status quo. If the majority always got to decide in sortition, it is the DELIBERATIVE stage where the minority can appeal to an allotted body about the urgency of their needs. There is not other obvious judge of which minority wish is justifiable, and which is unreasonable. Whether this cas is made by the minority to a mum jury, or in a back-and-forth debaating situation is a different matter.

    So, Heiko, since not all minority requests are justifiable, how would you imagine society should distinguish between an abused minority’s needs and the desires of a powerful oligarchy?


  25. Terry,

    >it is the DELIBERATIVE stage where the minority can appeal to an allotted body about the urgency of their needs.

    Absolutely. These are parties with interests and they should play no part in the final judgment. We’ve focused on abused minorities and rich ‘n powerful lobbyists, but Heiko’s concern, like John Burnheim’s, is how to privilege those with legitimate interests. The solution that I propose in my book is inclusion in the permanent House of Advocates (an entirely “aristocratic” body).


  26. Hi Heiko,


    Arguing that democracies (i.e., systems where decisions made according to the informed, considered opinion of the majority) sometimes pursue (or more accurately, could pursue, since we have not had a democratic state in at least 2,300 years) morally reprehensible policy is beside the point. Of course they do.

    The real question is whether there is a superior alternative. In particular, it is hard to imagine that any system could guarantee that all policy would be ethical. This is not only an absurdly high standard, it is not even well-defined since there is no objective way to decide which policies are ethical and which are not.

    Even if we relax the standard (which already makes the argument against democracy as you make it above irrelevant) and merely require a system that can be expected to produce superior results to those of democracy, the situation is not promising. Certainly privileging certain minorities is not a promising approach, and I have not heard any operational proposals that do not boil down to that. What often goes under the names “republic”, “checks-and-balances” or “Madisonian democracy” is really no more than tilting the balance of power in favor of some and against others.

    As for weighing opinion according to how strongly it is held, I am not sure that this is indeed such a solid foundation for a just system, but surely to some extent this happens naturally in a democracy, where coalitions are regularly built by giving ground on matters of lesser importance in exchange for gaining ground on matters of greater importance.


  27. Through no involvement of my own, a Hebrew version of The Lottocracy was just published.


  28. And now Google Alerts found this.


  29. >What often goes under the names “republic”, “checks-and-balances” or “Madisonian democracy” is really no more than tilting the balance of power in favor of some and against others.

    Yes that’s true, and the normative goal has, since antiquity, been to privilege the role of ‘the best’ (aristoi). In classical times this translated to those who had the resources to gain an education and the time to devote to public life. Modern commentators usually conflate oligarchy and aristocracy, ignoring the fact that the former is quantitive (how many rulers), whereas the latter is a moral category (the quality of those who have power). Whilst it’s very difficult in modern societies to operationalise what constitutes ‘the best’ we should beware the Benthamite project of reducing morality to mathematics and should take Heiko’s objection to majority rule seriously.


  30. Thank you Heiko for bringing this up; I was feeling alone in doubting majority rule as an a priori normative assumption. @Terry, one way out of the conundrum is how the Anglo-American trial jury and the many small communities that operate on a consensus or near-consensus basis–at least in theory.

    Another way, is what some (Machiavelli, Manin, McCormick) remind us: keep separate institutions for the “populo” excluding the “grandi.” But this appears to only address socio-economic class struggles and not race, gender, culture, religion, and other sources of domination.

    The idea of weighing opinions according to how strongly they are held is characteristic of an “information market.” This makes sense in an economic market where “bidders” are revealing their privately held information about the underlying value of the thing.

    It also could apply for minority issues. For example, a native tribe could have a special cultural/religious attachment say to a particular lake that the majority values only for its potential tourism development. Majority rule would say tough luck. Something closer to consensus would take the tribe’s objection more seriously or even give the tribe a veto.


  31. > Something closer to consensus would take the tribe’s objection more seriously or even give the tribe a veto.

    You seem to be willing to repeat this argument over and over despite the obvious refutation. Since I already have Democracy and Its Critics out, here is Dahl making this point (pp. 155-156):

    Yet, just as a majoritarian democratic system offers no constitutional guarantee of minority rights and privileges beyond the primary political rights of all citizens, so nonmajoritarian democratic arrangements by themselves cannot prevent a minority from using its protected position to inflict harm on the majority.


  32. While I fall on the side with Yoram, it is only because I don’t see an alternative that doesn’t allow an elite to use any system of minority protection to abuse the majority. Some issues are simply matters of societal coordination (“We’ll all drive on the right side of the road.”) For these majority is clearly sufficient. The problem is how could one define when an issue pits incompatible deep interests, and when the losing side (minority) would be sooo harmed that the majority should defer to them. I think that probably can only be through empathy within an allotted deliberative body that really UNDERSTANDS the minority’s concern. I wonder if one approach might be temporal… If an allotted body enacts a law by some super majority (e.g. 75%), if goes into force more quickly, or cannot be brought back for reconsideration for a longer time…this gives the members a small incentive to seek out solutions for members who want to vote “no.” Or perhaps, a law that passes with less than 60% yes, has to lay over for a second vote by a separate allotted jury.


  33. But those temporal strategies are probably useless for a tiny minority, such as an ethnic/racial/religious, etc. group with only 1% of the population…I don’t see ANY institutional arrangement (with sortition, election, aristocracy, etc.) that assures minority protection. The best hope is developing a culture of tolerance and face-to-face deliberation where the deliberators can learn and appreciate the concerns of the minority. They may not…but I don’t see how a consensus rule does not allow abuse of the majority by a minority.


  34. By the way, vote-trading (or log-rolling) the standard whipping boy of would-be reformers, including in this forum, is a tool by which minorities can amplify their influence on matters on which they feel strongly. Members of a minority can prevail on a matter that is critical to them (but less important to others) by trading their votes on other issues in return for votes of others on the critical issue.


  35. >I don’t see ANY institutional arrangement (with sortition, election, aristocracy, etc.) that assures minority protection.

    A simple constitution with a single decision mechanism cannot protect minorities (or, for that matter, majorities against their own folly), hence Aristotle’s preference for a mixture of aristocracy and democracy. Of course how to operationalise “the best” in a complex modern society is a non-trivial problem, but the Aristotelian solution should not be ruled out for purely ideological reasons — the need to establish the rule of the poor (the dictatorship of the proletariat). Terry’s call for a temporal fix is going in the right direction (Madison and Condorcet would have approved) but it does not obviate the need for a mixed constitution. Moderns, unfortunately, confuse aristocracy and plutocracy, although Aristotle was insistent that it was the rule of the wise and virtuous.


  36. Keith,

    I don’t see how a “mixed” constitution protects any minority other than the one that is privileged (historically either nobility by birth, or the wealthy). Even if Madison’s natural aristocracy of merit could be elevated, why do you expect them to protect the interests of a hated minority (historically slaves, gays, poor, or whoever). All a mixed constitution does is abuse the rights of the majority and protect a PARTICULAR privileged minority.


  37. Terry,

    That would depend on how it was constituted. Your focus on “a particular privileged minority” betrays a sociological perspective that really doesn’t do justice to the rich diversity of modern pluralistic and multicultural societies (and a manichaean tendency to view politics as a battle between two social groups). That might have made sense when you originally acquired your self-acknowledged socialist worldview, not so any more.

    My proposal is for an “aristocratic” executive (appointed on merit alone) and a very broad church of advocacy, that would privilege, et alia, spiritual and religious leaders (some of who currently have seats in the House of Lords), centres of learning and knowledge (that’s why university towns used to have additional MPs), professional organisations, pressure groups and as many diverse civil society organisations as possible. Exactly which groups to include is, of course, highly problematic. Due consideration would be given to membership levels (Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds have far more members than political parties) but there is a danger here of slipping back into majoritarianism. Once a civil society group achieved a seat in the house of advocacy, sortition might well be the best mechanism to decide which person(s) from that group would be selected. “Oppressed” minority groups, of course would have their own advocates (Stonewall, Ethnic Minorities Advocacy Group, Disabled Peoples’ International, Survival International, etc).

    In addition to this there are the standard constitutional checks and balances (bicameral legislatures, supreme court, bill or rights etc). Where we do agree is that, once the aristocratic executive and privileged advocates have exercised their persuasive powers, the final decision should be a simple majority of the statistically-representative microcosm.

    To my mind such a mixed constitution is the best compromise that we can hope for between the interests of the majority and the rights of minorities. Simple constitutions are (by definition) tyrannical in nature, the only distinction between monarchy, oligarchy and democracy being numerical. Equality by Lot would be just as tyrannical, unless part of an overall balanced constitution.


  38. I like Terry’s “cooling off period” proposal that ties the time to implementation with the level of support for a measure. A period that decreases (from say 1 year down to 1 month) from minimal majority support to unanimity combined with a constitutional review BEFORE implementation (or even before a final vote) is worth a closer look as a way to take minority objections seriously. Some constitutions currently include pre-vote or pre-implementation constitutional review, for example in France a certain number of parliamentarians can seek review by the Constitutional Council (Conseil constitutionnel) of pending legislation.

    On Mon, Feb 24, 2014 at 2:56 AM, Equality by lot wrote:

    > keithsutherland commented: “Terry, That would depend on how it was > constituted. Your focus on “a particular privileged minority” betrays a > sociological perspective that really doesn’t do justice to the rich > diversity of modern pluralistic and multicultural societies (and a manich” >


  39. *** Keith Sutherland’s proposal of a House of Advocacy (February 24) is interesting. In modern times with telecommunication, such an institution does not need a building, what is interesting is an independent set of advocates and advisers. Independent, that is the point : the advocate or adviser must not be afraid of displeasing the common citizens.
    *** Let’s consider an ideal absolute monarchy. The king needs free information and advocacy from anybody, to feed his deliberation – and without serious deliberation any sovereignty is valueless. The king evidently can consult any adviser he wants ; and he must specially consult the persons concerned by a specific policy. But it is very useful, actually necessary, that the political system include institutional and independent advocates and advisers, to prevent any inconscious drift by the king to select only pleasant advocates and advisers – « flatterers ». This is true, likewise, for an aristokratia, with a sovereign elite, and for a dêmokratia, where the dêmos is sovereign.
    *** Ancient Greek democracies did not need such institutions, as the spontaneous « agora » deliberation in a small society provided a big variety of information and advices, and as the problems were relatively simple and not quickly evolving ; furthermore anything like a « senate » was dangerous as giving a physical basis for elite plotting and as being the virtual nucleus of an oligarchic revolution. In modern times the situation is very different, and something like Keith Sutherland’s proposed institution looks a necessary element of a modern dêmokratia, without creating specific risks.
    *** I would object to Keith’s characterisation of his « House of advocacy » as « an entirely “aristocratic” body » ((February 13). This wording must be avoided, even with inverted commas. « Kratos » is the power, the ultimate power, and « X-kratia » must be only refer the body who has the last word. An institution of independent advocates and advisers does not mitigate the sovereignty of the dêmos, or of a patriciate, or of an absolute king : it is necessary to ensure a good deliberation, therefore a good working of the sovereignty. A dêmokratia with good institutions of information, advocacy, advice, is not a « mixed constitution » in the classical sense of Aristotle / Polybius tradition, it is only a well-organized dêmokratia. You have dêmokratia everywhere the dêmos has the last word (and only


  40. Andre,

    You are right that my use of the word “aristocratic” is misguided, for the reasons that you provide. My concern was to demonstrate that the advocates would be aristoi, but agree that they have no kratos, as their role is purely advisory. If the Greeks had such an institution they would have come up with a different name.

    The $64,000 question is who gets to advise? There is no obvious clear-cut answer, in my book I adopt a Hegelian perspective on the “corporations” of civil society:

    “In many respects the proposal is analogous to the tried and tested system whereby members of a college or professional body recommend the appointment of new fellows. . . There is no attempt in this essay to camouflage the fact that the advocates “estate” would be unashamedly elitist in its composition — a body of the great and the good. But, at the same time, it would need to be highly pluralistic and representative of the range of interests and the key professions necessary to advise on the issues that legislation is likely to cover. And the notion of an elite — a true aristocracy of experience and merit — is perfectly compatible with a quota system. The quotas would be needed to be specified for business and the trades unions, science and its environmental critics, transport advocates and countryside conservationists, religion and the military, education, law, health, finance, sport, culture and all the myriad professions that might have something useful to contribute to the national debate.” A People’s Parliament (2008), p.137.

    I admit this all a little vague, my defence being that the role of the political theorist is just to establish the selection principle, rather than the detailed mechanics. I agree with Andre that in addition to the principle of merit/expertise, independence from the legislative and executive branches is vital. Andre is right that such a system would still be a demokratia as the ultimate sovereign power is vested in a statistical sample of the demos, although I would prefer to view it as a mixed system, in that both the government and the advocates would rightly exercise a strong influence on the final decision. It depends whether the classification is based on “formal” or “efficient” power, as Bagehot put it. In the sort of demokratia that I am advocating the aristoi would be attempting to pull the strings, but the harder they pulled the more the demos would resist, in true Machiavellian fashion. Agonism is essential in order to preserve liberty.


  41. Andre,

    > You have dêmokratia everywhere the dêmos has the last word (and only [there) [?]]

    No – in a democracy a representative body controls the entire decision making process.

    If an elite body has a privileged position allowing it to set (or to heavily influence) the agenda, and control (or to heavily influence) the information upon which the decision is made, then this body wields a disproportional political power, and the system is not democratic even if the nominal decision maker is a statistically representative body.


  42. I think an important distinction is whether the expert advisers constitute a body, or are drawn individually into particular issues by the allotted representative side. It is self-evident that any allotted group would recognize the value of getting expert advice on any matter with any complexity. We don’t need to mandate that they seek advice by having a formal body or “upper house.” Having a formal body of agenda setters/advisers (as Keith favors, and as Yoram warns) may move the BULK of REAL decision making to this unrepresentative “expert” body. Andre seems to make the point that with modern telecom, etc., experts can be brought in ad hoc, which makes sense. But I think it is crucial that an allotted representative body establish the agenda, since that is just as (or more) pivotal, as voting yes or no on final proposals. (In my scheme the agenda setting body is a separate allotted body, from the deciding body).


  43. I don’t think Andre was referring to agenda-setting, only expert advisers. Yoram is right that when only the final decision is decided by an allotted body it is formally a democratic system but in reality the aristoi (expert advisers) are a lot more equal than everyone else. Such a mixed constitution is preferable to pure democracy as it privileges those who know what they are talking about. A compromise might be for the allotted legislature to veto advocates that they find unsuitable but this would be just like Andre’s example of the king who selected only pleasant advocates and advisers – « flatterers ». Indeed this was a charge levied against the Athenian demagogues. As a consequence they moved to a system of nomothesia — agonistic advocacy and allotted juries.

    In sum, pure demokratia (well-ordered or otherwise) is just as tyrannical as any other form of pure government — that’s why Marx referred to it as the dictatorship of the proletariat. Yoram may be comfortable with dictatorship (see his comment last night), but liberals like myself find it without merit.


  44. >You have dêmokratia everywhere the dêmos has the last word

    Strictly speaking this would be demarchy (the people rule). Formally speaking the people have kratos; in practice this would be limited by the other political arrangements in force.** Whether that would be a well-ordered democracy or a mixed constitution depends on whether you take a formal or efficient perspective on political power (and, I suspect, the degree to which you hold democracy to be a non-negotiable political good).

    ** Formally speaking in Libya under Gaddafi (and other Rousseau-inspired constitutions), the people had the last word.


  45. […] Alex Guerrero has a new paper forthcoming: “Against Elections: The lottocratic alternative”. […]


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