Alex Guerrero: Against Elections

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

The paper begins as follows:

It is widely accepted that electoral representative democracy is better — along a number of different normative dimensions — than any other alternative lawmaking political arrangement. It is not typically seen as much of a competition: it is also widely accepted that the only legitimate alternative to electoral representative democracy is some form of direct democracy, but direct democracy — we are told — would lead to bad policy. This article makes the case that there is a legitimate alternative system — one that uses lotteries, not elections, to select political officials — that would be better than electoral representative democracy.

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17 Responses

  1. Alex,

    I’ve just read your paper. I think it is excellent. As I read it, one element of your hypothetical design struck me as potentially problematic.

    You wrote about the process of preparing legislation by the allotted legislative body (SILL)
    “… for many issues, this process should include consultation with non-members, either virtually (online) or through having the members return to the geographic area from which they came, and to hold town-hall style meetings, in which individual members or multi-member panels talk through the items on the agenda, talk about what the experts told them, and solicit questions and comments from those in attendance.”

    While this SEEMS obvious and FEELS right at first blush, I think it might be under-cutting one of the values of lottery selection. It sort of conflates the traditional representative who must “listen to her constituents” with your earlier good point that these “indicative” representatives should NOT be trying to represent constituents back home, but rather act as they think best (and collectively by all doing so, represent the community as a whole most accurately). By attending public town hall meetings, rather than merely gathering information, we would be exposing these members to all of the majoritarian conformism and social pressures and threats (not to mention powerful interests’ ability to exercise domination at such gatherings)…Thus the original epistemically beneficial diversity of the allotted body gets narrowed and harmed by these public gatherings (where ill-informed, but passionate people may chant slogans, hold signs and seek to intimidate the allotted members).

    I know the BC Citizens’Assembly held 50 or so such meetings, and I can agree that there may be SOME cases where they would be more useful than harmful (a wonderful policy can still be disastrous if people will be up in arms against it once adopted) …but think that as a general rule they would be harmful to good decision making. Imagine members of a traditional trial jury attending open public hearings in addition to attending the trial, prior to deliberating on a case.

    If public input is valuable to members, then it should not be at public meetings, but rather be anonymous and in writing (as Bentham and Condorcet advocated) and alternated pro and con, so that the arguments have to persuade on their merits rather than through high volume.

    On a separate point…You state “44% of Congresspersons have a net worth of over $1 million.” That is out of date…Following the 2012 elections it is now just over 50% of Congress (including roughly 2/3 of the Senate)

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  2. Hi Terry. Thanks for that comment and the kind words about the paper.

    I, too, am torn about the community consultation part. (For almost every element, I think: in some cases, for some issues, it might be better not to have that element!) I think things could be structured so as to prevent intimidation, social pressure, threats, and so on (one way would be by eventually allowing votes within the SILLs to be anonymous). They could also be regulated so that chaos didn’t rule, and particular individuals didn’t dominate. But there might be worries in this regard. I also think it’s worth stressing that the SILL members really would be just using this as part of the information gathering, and they would be instructed to think of it that way. So it wouldn’t be about counting heads, or getting numbers of people in the crowd who thought one way or another, but about hearing different perspectives and views. But, you may be right that at the end of the day the epistemic costs outweigh the epistemic benefits. And maybe anonymous/written comments would be better in some cases.

    I do think, on the non-epistemic side, there are at least two reasons to want a community consultation phase. For one thing, some of the consultation is really as much about the SILL members talking to the community about what they are thinking about and what they have learned, rather than just collecting information or opinions from the community. This is important, I think, for the eventual buy-in with respect to the decisions made by the SILL. This might be particularly important in early stages before the whole lottocratic idea has taken hold. So I do think the buy-in reason is very important. For another thing, I do think it is important for their to be a place for interested people to participate and have their voices heard. There might be different ways of doing this (perhaps something like what one gets with notice-and-comment phases in administrative rulemaking), but I’d be somewhat wary of a system that didn’t have a place for this.

    Thanks, too, for the update on the info about Congresspersons. Any chance you have a citation or link?

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  3. Alex,

    Here is a link to the Center for Responsive Politics Jan. 2014 press release about the Congressional millionaire majority analysis…
    https://www.opensecrets.org/news/2014/01/millionaires-club-for-first-time-most-lawmakers-are-worth-1-million-plus/

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  4. Hi Alex,

    I have read the first part so far. I think it is clearly argued and of course I am sympathetic to the anti-electoral message. I do have a few comments about the details of the arguments:

    1. It seems that you put the entire weight of unresponsiveness on rational ignorance. As I mentioned in our discussion in a recent comments thread – I think this misses the point to a large extent. On many areas of policy rational ignorance does not apply yet there is no responsiveness (with the case of MP pay being a clear example of this situation).

    2. The missing ingredient is the principle of distinction. You discuss how powerful interests can influence voters’ perception of candidates. This is certainly true, but it is a derivative effect. The primary phenomenon is that in an electoral system the set of viable candidates V is a subset of the set K of people who are known (at least by name or by some other signifier that can be used in the voting booth) to a significant part of the population. In a mass society the set K is a tiny minority of the population, and, almost regardless of how society is arranged, it is a very unrepresentative section of society.

    No matter how well informed people are, then, the elected will be members of the set K and can therefore be expected to promote interests of the set K, which may be antithetical to those of the rest of society.

    3. The analysis in the paper revolves entirely around the rewards-based theory of electoralism. This ignores the other theory – the virtue based one (“the voters can identify and elect people of upstanding character who can be trusted to represent the popular interests faithfully and competently”). If identifying people of general virtue is possible then understanding the details of particular policy issues is not necessary and the rational ignorance argument loses its force.

    In order to counter the virtue based theory, it is therefore necessary to argue either that (1) general virtue cannot be identified via mass media channels, or (2) that all viable candidates are unvirtuous (in the sense defined above), or both. The principle of distinction argues for (2). I think (1) is also a solid argument. I appears to me, however, that you didn’t make any of those arguments.

    4. You devote some space to the “good governance” argument. This is in fact an elitist non-democratic, or even an anti-democratic, argument. The argument is that elite observers would appreciate the beneficial effects of electoralism even when voters do not. The elites, being liberal and otherwise noble are more concerned about good governance than the unwashed masses. Or maybe it could be argued that the liberal effects do not depend on the benevolent character of the elites, but rather on some sort of Madisonian balance-of-power-between-factions mechanism. In some versions of the argument, it is argued that liberal elites are able to produce good governance exactly because electoralism is not responsive since the masses are anti-liberal. This line of argumentation is less fashionable these days, but in any case, the argument is specifically not about responsivity. In a way it is a “principle of distinction” argument in reverse – the members of K, it is argued, are all (or mostly) virtuous so it doesn’t matter as much which of them the public votes for. To the extent this is still taken seriously by anyone, it needs to be refuted by an argument that is not about responsiveness.

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  5. Yoram>: No matter how well informed people are, then, the elected will be members of the set K and can therefore be expected to promote interests of the set K.

    Why? Did the Rt. Hon. Anthony Neil Wedgwood-Benn, the Second Viscount Stansgate, promote the interests of the hereditary aristocracy? If you hire a lawyer to act on your behalf and then discover that she is promoting the interests of lawyers rather than your own, I suggest you would sack her and hire a replacement. If so then why are elected politicians not subject to this kind of sanction? Answer: they are, as the majority of empirical research into the median voter hypothesis (ignored by political theorists and left-leaning activists) confirms.

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  6. Yoram,
    You wrote: “If identifying people of general virtue is possible then understanding the details of particular policy issues is not necessary and the rational ignorance argument loses its force.”

    But for many reasons, INCLUDING rational ignorance (lack of reason to devote time monitoring incumbents and researching challengers), voters have little if any chance of reliably assessing the relative “virtue” of candidates, not to mention policy.

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  7. Alex,

    An interesting and well-argued paper. Comments below (bracketed nos. refer to your m/s):

    1. Like most theorists and activists working in this field your background assumptions are elite capture – this phrase, along with “powerful interests” appears frequently. The citations that you provide from the empirical literature (Gilens, Pierson, Crouch, Jacobs/Shapiro etc) are one-sided – examples of the competing median-voter theorem are provided here. Given that lottocracy can redress the problems of both elite capture and governance by opinion poll your paper might reach a wider audience if you acknowledged that other theories exist in addition to the doctrine (sic.) of elite capture.

    2. Agenda Setting. You are a little vague about how the agenda might be arrived at. The role of a responsive delegate (Pettit’s term) is to “track what I think” (p.23) and formulate policies accordingly. But how is that possible with indicative representatives, given that there is no one-to-one relationship between the principal and the proxy (pace Pettit, 2010, p.427-8)? Pitkin is adamant that descriptive (indicative) representation does not cover what representatives actually do, other than to vote (as the aggregate result “indicates” or “describes” the judgment of the whole political community).

    3. Expert Presentations. You rightly acknowledge the quis custodiet? problem – one of the criticisms of the BC Citizen Assembly was the ability of the permanent staff to determine the choice of advisors. And why should we assume that “advanced graduate students in political science” will make fair and impartial facilitators of group discussions?

    4. Examining Magistrates or Adversarial Joust?. Although you like to distance yourself from the deliberative democracy tradition, you share the same model of policies emerging endogenously from the group, with the members seeking to inform themselves as they best see fit (via expert input and public consultation). The contrasting model is the adversarial joust which, I would suggest, combines the merits of responsive and indicative representation. The agenda and expert issue advocacy for the SILL would be provided by either the victorious electoral party or the proposers of a direct-democratic initiative; this would be counterbalanced by the “accredited community of experts” (p.38). At least the former would benefit from a democratic mandate.

    5. Courruption I don’t share your optimism that the financial records of the 300 members of x SILLs will be that easy to scrutinize (offshore bank accounts etc). All lobbyists need is one or two persuasive and/or high-status persons within the SILL. As Naomi has pointed out on this forum, party discipline and electoral accountability are better ways of monitoring the financial probity of political representatives than police action.

    6. Policy Coherence and Execution. I think you underplay the potential overlap between different SILLs. You mention the need for a climate change SILL — the Environment brief will be in clear conflict with the Energy policy SILL. Who will adjudicate? Granted that electoral considerations undermine long-term climate change policy, why do you assume that an indicative group of citizens will decide to forego their gas-guzzling SUVs and aircons in favour of high-cost green energy (assuming you don’t rely on assumptions of republican virtue)? And what about fiscal policies? It strikes me that an allotted legislature will require an equally powerful executive (elected or appointed) in order to counterbalance ad hoc and unaccountable SILLs.

    7. Equality and Consent. The emphasis on the equal (but infinitesimally small) chance of all citizens to win the political lottery is no improvement on the equal (but infinitesimally small) chance of a citizen to influence policy outcomes by exercising her (single) vote. And what about the huge inequality between the resultant kleristocracy and the vast mass of disenfranchised citizens? For members of the latter group to consent to disenfranchisement it will be necessary to demonstrate that lottocratic SILLs really are indicitavely representative. To my mind this would require parallel SILLs (for a given topic), each generating identical legislative outcomes. If it can be empirically demonstrated that it makes no difference which group of citizens are sampled, the outcome will be the same, then I think most people (assuming an acceptable quality of epistemic outcome) would consent. But this would require a much more tightly constrained deliberative model, more akin to the DP (exogenous agenda and expert information) than the participative model that you are proposing.

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  8. Terry,

    > voters have little if any chance of reliably assessing the relative “virtue” of candidates

    Yes – I agree. My point was that Alex’s argument focused on the ability to understand policy issues (see his P4 and P5 and the conclusions Alex draws, pages 12-13) and did not touch upon the issue of the ability to assess the virtue of candidates.

    (Again, I think that epistemic obstacles are of secondary importance compared to the principle of distinction in making electoralism oligarchical.)

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  9. Yoram,

    While I agree that the principle of distinction underlies many of the problems with elections, for me the problem eventually comes down to the epistemic quality of decisions. Suppose it turned out that the decisions of an elite elected set of “gaurdians” did in fact consistently reflect the best interests of the general population and conformed with their preferences. The MERE fact that they were elite elected officials would not be sufficient to damn the system. As it happens this is NOT the case. Likewise, if it turned out that decisions of an allotted democracy genuinely made up of political equals were consistently disastrous for the general population, the system would be indefensible.
    My point is, the kinds of decisions being made is the core of my concern, rather than just the theoretical equality of decision makers.

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  10. Terry,

    Fair point, but how do you judge this in the short/medium term and what if there was a tension between the best interests of the general population and their preferences? Your capitalisation of the word NOT suggests some sort of god’s-eye perspective. Added to this, Rousseau’s problem (the need for all citizens to approve the laws by which we are governed) would suggest a tension between epistemic and democratic criteria (Chris Bertram’s 2012 paper is very good on this).

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  11. I want to return to the first topic of this thread – public consultation.

    Alex, you wrote in the paper,

    >the process of developing and deciding upon legislative proposals, and possibly eventually enacting a proposal . . . should include consultation with non-members, either virtually (online) or through having the members return to the geographic area from which they came, and to hold town-hall style meetings.”

    Terry, you wrote,

    >By attending public town hall meetings, rather than merely gathering information, we would be exposing these members to all of the majoritarian conformism and social pressures and threats (not to mention powerful interests’ ability to exercise domination at such gatherings)…Thus the original epistemically beneficial diversity of the allotted body gets narrowed and harmed by these public gatherings (where ill-informed, but passionate people may chant slogans, hold signs and seek to intimidate the allotted members).

    You raise two issues here. One is about intimidation of the members of the allotted body. I suspect there are many ways to deal with that problem, especially considering that members of Single Issue Legislatures wouldn’t be worried about being re-elected.

    The other issue is the possibility that allotted bodies views will be swayed by too many people chanting slogans and holding signs, or the ability of powerful interests to mobilize many people to speak for their side. I’m working for a local legislator in my city and observing many public hearings, and I don’t see much of this problem. If anything, I see an “opposite” problem — in most cases, the public comments seem to have no effect whatsoever on the deliberation or decisions of the legislators or commissioners.

    Are people here familiar with useful literature on methods and experiences of public consultation that avoid the extremes of (1) the public intimidating the decision makers; and (2) the decision makers paying no attention to what they hear in the consultation?

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  12. David:>i n most cases, the public comments seem to have no effect whatsoever on the deliberation or decisions of the legislators or commissioners.

    Isn’t that because such consultation is often a PR exercise? Allotted legislators would not be able to claim either expertise or an electoral mandate, and as a result would be far more likely to be swayed by pressure groups and organised interests.

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  13. Terry,

    > for me the problem eventually comes down to the epistemic quality of decisions.

    I agree that the objective of good government design is to generate good policy. The rest are just means to this end. That said, I am not sure what you mean by “epistemic quality of decisions” and how that relates to my point above.

    The issue of epistemic difficulties came up in Alex’s paper not in the context of the decisions of the delegates but in the context of the decisions of the voters. Again, my point is that even if voters knew everything there is to know about the candidates and about policy alternatives, this would be of little help since the candidates are members of a distinct set of people with their own interests. Any of those candidates, when elected, would make decisions that serve themselves but are of low quality as far as the majority of the population is concerned. This fact, and not any epistemic difficulties, is the major problem with the electoral system.

    The situation is somewhat similar to a society in which everybody has a vote, but only members of some hereditary aristocracy may be candidates. In such a situation it is hard to imagine that the aristocracy would not use its monopoly on legislation to buttress and enhance its privilege no matter how well informed the electorate is. The fact that in our society the set of candidates is not determined by genetics but by some other arbitrary mechanism matters little.

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  14. Yoram,

    >Any of those candidates, when elected, would make decisions that serve themselves . . . This fact

    With the exception of voting on their own salaries (in the UK, now in the hands of an independent commission), what is the evidence for this exceedingly strong claim?

    >The fact that in our society the set of candidates is not determined by genetics but by some other arbitrary mechanism.

    Yet another “fact”. Why is joining a political party and then putting oneself forward as a candidate for election an “arbitrary” mechanism? Drawing straws or sticking pins in the phone book is certainly arbitrary, but it’s not at all clear that why choosing a career in public service is of a similar nature. I’m sure that there are common characteristics about the type of people that stand for public office that would make them anything but arbitrary.

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  15. A late comment from a slow thinker.

    I read this paper with enthusiasm, and it’s influenced my thinking. I have a few questions:

    By what authority is a SILL appointed, and who decides which issues need a SILL?

    How big or small will the “single-issues” be? Will they have similar titles and similar broad scope to Ministries or Departments: Trade, Foreign Affairs, Health, Science and Technology, etc etc? Or would they be much narrower and more numerous? Would there be any sort of sub-committee structure? Would you have an “Energy” SILL, or would you have a SILL for each of Coal, Oil, Gas, Wind, Hydro, Solar . . . .

    Like Keith Sutherland, I wonder what happens in the case of conflict between SILLs? Conflict is inevitable, if only because needs are infinite, means are not. I think there will also be a tendency for people, as they become more knowledgeable about a subject, to become enthusiastic exponents of that subject.

    In addition to the problem of conflicts, there is a potential for problems of interdependence, eg energy requirements will depend on: a) population which depends on immigration and health, b) the state of the economy, which will depend partly on government fiscal and monetary policies, c) transport policy, which will in turn depend on urban policy and so on and so on.

    How does one deal with foreign governments under a system of SILLs? Two things concern me: Continuity of policy, and the personal side. Whose hand does the foreign government shake, whose voice does it listen to?

    How is the transition from electoral (or other) government to be handled? (To be fair, no-one else seems to give this much thought.)

    My questions probably reveal my scepticism about SILLs. I think we need an over-riding authority, which should be the parliament (chosen by lot, of course). However, I can see wonderful possibilities for single-issue committees (SICs), with no legislative powers, reporting to the parliament. In this case, though parliament could in principle, reject the recommendations of an SIC, it’s hard to see why it should, unless the SIC itself is hopelessly divided on an issue, or there is a conflict with another SIC. So SICs would still have a lot of influence, and would retain the advantages of permitting serious study of issues, and of involving more citizens in government.

    “>Obviously, there will need to be a process by which a person is allowed to speak to a
    SILL as an expert.”
    I don’t think there is a good way of ranking or filtering experts; those commonly used are notoriously unreliable.
    I don’t see why you can’t let anyone self-declare himself an expert, and send him packing when he talks nonsense. But would not most opinion be written submissions?

    As for sortition/lottocracy generating good policy, I remain a bit pessimistic. For me, the important thing is that we should suffer the consequences of our own, and not someone else’s foolishness, or worse, of their self-seeking, malice, or megalomania.
    That said, setting up bodies to study single issues should lead to more rational decisions.

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  16. All Campbell’s points are well made, in particular:

    >As for sortition/lottocracy generating good policy, I remain a bit pessimistic. For me, the important thing is that we should suffer the consequences of our own, and not someone else’s foolishness, or worse, of their self-seeking, malice, or megalomania.

    Yes, we [should] get the government we deserve. But it strikes me that sortition-generated policy options (with or without SILLs and SICs) would be just as subject to someone else’s foolishness/self-seeking/malice/megalomania. The microcosm will accurately reflect all the features of the wider public. If everyone gets to vote on policy proposals and only those that pass the public approval threshold go on for in-depth legislative scrutiny (by SILLs or in an allotted parliament) then we can only blame ourselves if it all goes tits up.

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  17. I agree with Campbell points about SILLs and experts. The democratic way is to leave the allotted parliament in charge. To a large extent such proposals for circumscribing the way sortition-based government would work are about not trusting the average citizen to make good decisions when given any real power. Tying such measures to the idea of sortition is counter-productive in my opinion.

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