Down with Elections! Part 4

DOWN WITH ELECTIONS!

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6

PART 4

Theoretical Considerations and Explanations

Athens

Proponents of sortition usually refer to the fact that it was used in Athens, and sometimes use the Athenian constitution as a yardstick for comparing other proposals. There is no attempt here to reproduce or imitate the Athenian democracy, which had several features which would now be considered objectionable, among which are:

  1. The exclusion of the majority of persons living under the control of the government from any say in that government. One can argue about the relative numbers of adult male citizens, adult female citizens, metics (metoikoi, foreigners living and working in Athens) children of citizens, and slaves, but clearly the adult male citizens were a small minority of those affected by the laws which they alone could vote on. Amongst adult male citizens, the Athenian constitution was eminently democratic, amongst those who were subject to its laws, it was oligarchic.
  2. The lack of separation of justice and legislature.
  3. Ostracism. It was not necessary to commit a crime to be ostracised and exiled, merely to be feared.
  4. Dokimasia. This was an examination, not to determine whether a citizen was competent, but whether he was eligible for office, and if so, whether his political views were offensive (usually meaning that he had oligarchic sympathies).
  5. The graphe paranomon and graphe nomon me epitedeion theinai. These are prosecutions of a citizen who proposed a law or decree which, even though adopted, was later considered contrary to the existing laws. The penalty might be a huge fine and loss of citizen rights. The prosecution was frequently political in motivation, and often sought to attain indirectly a person behind the citizen who had proposed the law or decree.
  6. Eisangelia, which were the denunciation and trial of officials, (frequently generals), ostensibly for corruption, but often for political motivesi.

Sortition was also used for various purposes in the Italian republics of the Middle Ages (in Venice until the eighteenth century). Again, there is no attempt here to imitate these republics.

Election of the Group of Speakers and the Agenda Committee

After reading a vigorous denunciation of elections the reader may be surprised at the suggestion that election be used to choose the Agenda Committee and the Speakers. However, the numbered criticisms given above apply to elections in such large bodies as we find in nations and states, and not to small bodies such as clubs where it is possible for all members of the population to know each other sufficiently well. We may take the upper limit for adequate knowledge to be around 150 persons, though obviously a smaller number would tend to better acquaintanceii.

The reasons for preferring an election for the Agenda Committee and the group from which the Speakers are drawn are the following:

If sortition were used, there is always a small chance of getting one or two truly incompetent or ill-intentioned persons. In the large body of the Assembly they could do little harm, as they would be in a very small minority. However, in a small body of, say, ten members, one or two members who were incompetent, hostile to, or not respected by their peers could be quite disruptive. In the position of Speaker, the disruption would be worse, although limited by the fact that each Speaker holds the office for one day only.

In this case where the fifty (say) most senior members of the Assembly elect the forty (say) most competent from amongst themselves, the disadvantages of elections disappear: we have a situation like that of a small club.

Referring to the numbered objections above, we can note that here there is no possibility of fraud (§1, 19), and members are free to choose whomever they please amongst their colleagues (§2). No election campaign is required (§4, 5), there is no need for finance (§2, 3), no need to be elected to keep one’s employment (§3), no parties (§4, 13), no policies, so no need for compromise (§7). After four and a half years of working together the members will know each other well (§8, 9, 17), and consequently can make a reasoned choice. Votes will of course count equally (§12).

The representation problems disappear (§14, 15), since what is required of both Agenda Committee members and the Speaker of the day is not to make policy choices, but rather to give a reasonable judgement, in the case of the Agenda Committee: Is the proposal sufficiently well-stated? Where should we schedule it for consideration amongst the other proposals? In the case of each Speaker, to give a fair opportunity to speak to each member wishing to do so, to limit speeches to the matter under consideration, and to restrain abusive or intemperate comments and interjections.

The reader who cares to examine the list of defects of elections given above will see that the remaining defects (§§6, 8, 11, 18, 19, 20, 21, 23, 24) simply do not apply.

Although it is a complete misnomer I have preferred the word “Speaker” as used in elected parliaments rather than “President” or “Chairman” to avoid giving the holder of this office a title implying a higher status or rank than that of other members of the Assembly.

Representation by the Assembly

It has been mentioned that the representation will not be perfect unless the voting body consists of the entire population.

For some people this is a stumbling block. Anarchists and other advocates of direct democracy refuse to accept the legitimacy of any body, however chosen, to represent the population. They are not the only ones. Keith Sutherland (who is in favour of a very limited use of sortition in forming a government) has said, in speaking of an assembly chosen by lot, that it would be possible to choose two bodies by lot under identical conditions and that :

“any two such bodies would likely come to very different conclusions (an empirically testable hypothesis), leaving a residual problem of which group would be the “representative” one.”iii

And further:

“it completely baffles me how two ACs [allotted chambers, ie assemblies chosen by lot] returning opposing verdicts on the same issue can both be considered to be representative of the whole citizen body.”

While it is certainly extremely unlikely that it would happen often, we must accept that there are cases where two such bodies might disagree.

The first possible case is that each of the possible choices is as valid as the other. For instance, an assembly might have to decide whether motorists should drive on the left or the right side of the road. Although it is possible to produce arguments favouring one or the other, the two choices are equal or very nearly equal in validity. It really doesn’t matter which we choose, as long as we all drive on the same side, so the two outcomes are equivalent.

The other possible case is that two outcomes are significantly different, and although many people hold strong views on the issue, the population overall is divided 50:50, and so one of our hypothetical bodies might decide one way by 50% plus one vote, and the other might vote the other way by 50% plus one vote.

In Example 4 above I have given reasons to think that this is unlikely to occur frequently in practice, and measures that would mitigate the effects.

For Sutherland, the very possibility that two bodies chosen by lot under the same conditions from the same population might make different decisions is sufficient to invalidate the notion that the body can represent the population.

This is a very serious objection, if it is true. I think it is false. Consider the following exchange:

Flight attendant: Duck or fish, sir?

Mr Smith (returning from his daydream): Ah? Oh, duck, please. No, fish. No, duck, er, wait a minute, what did you say the sauce was?

Flight attendant: Duck with sweet potato and mushroom sauce, or fish with tartare sauce and onions.

Mr Smith: I’ll have . . . oh, I don’t know, really. Perhaps I’ll have . .

Flight attendant (who has had this before and doesn’t need it again): Left hand or right hand, sir?

Mr Smith (humiliated, but firmly): Fish.

The flight attendant serves him and moves away.

Stewardess: What would you like with your meal, sir? Red or white wine, beer, cider, coffee, tea, fruit juice, or water?

Mr Smith (overcome, but not ready to be convicted of indecision a second time ): Tea, please.

Stewardess (relentlessly): Milk in your tea, sir?

Poor Smith can only wave his hand in negation. She serves him.

Why on earth did I order tea, Smith thinks, I never drink tea. And you can’t trust airline fish.

He removes the aluminium foil to reveal three curls of onion beside a white substance that has clearly spent too long in the washing machine. Smith glances at his neighbour’s tray. The glass of red wine and the duck look very inviting. His own onion leers at him in contempt.

Shit, thinks Smith, I’m not myself today.

In spite of his last thought, I think we must agree that Smith is Smith, and therefore can legitimately be said to represent Smith, in all possible ways, before, during, and after choosing his meal. Yet he has returned “opposing verdicts” five times, and incidentally made two choices that in the end he considers bad. Smith is not alone in this, of course, we all act like Smith at times.

So, if it is possible for one man to be inconsistent, and yet still to represent himself, it is surely possible for an assembly to be inconsistent and yet representative. On a close issue, it might only need one person changing his or her mind to change the result. Hence two bodies might disagree, and yet both be representative.

At a practical level we may note that any decision made by the Assembly can be repealed by the Assembly if it is found to be unjust or unpopular, and this revocation will be much easier for an Assembly chosen by lot than for an elected government, since there will not be the “locked in” effect (§20).

The Good of the Nation, Selfishness, Conflict of Interest

It is sometimes asked “How could we be sure that members chosen by lot will vote in a way to promote the good of the nation as a whole, and not just in accordance with their own selfish interest?”

Other than the obvious reply: “What makes you think elected politicians vote in a way to promote the good of the nation?” we must ask “What is the good of the nation as a whole? Is it anything other than the aggregate of what is good for the individual citizens that compose it? And if so, what?”

Or to put it another way, “Who is competent to judge the good of the nation if not its citizens?” If you argue that there is a separate “good of the nation” different from that determined by the aggregate of the individual wishes, you are either arguing that someone knows better than the citizens what is in their own interest; or (much the same thing) that there is some external value: military glory, perhaps, or national honour, or virtue according to the notions of the ancestors, or religious values, that should be set above the wishes of the living citizens. In short, you are opposing democracy.

The original question also reveals a certain lack of understanding of the principle of taking a random sample. It is important that members should vote in their own interest as they see it, or as they see fit. If they do not, the sample (ie the Assembly) will no longer represent the population. This does not necessarily mean that they should think only of their own narrow financial interest, however. For instance, a grandmother of eighty may be far more concerned with her grandchildren’s interests than with her own. She may vote for a proposal for making tertiary education free, even though she has no intention of seeking a place in a university, because what benefits her offspring is more important to her than the increase in her own taxation that will be required. And this tendency of some members of the Assembly to further the interests of others will mirror a tendency in the population outside the Assembly. This should not really be called altruism, since Granny votes as Granny pleases, and in a highly reasonable way too, if she knows she will not live much longer, and has enough money for her own needs. Likewise, some assembly members may at times put such abstract ideals as those mentioned above before their immediate financial interest when voting. If that is what is most important to them at the time, then they are quite right to do so.

Conflict of Interest

Suppose that Mike Megarich is a major shareholder in Frackall, a company set up to exploit the new technology of fracking for oil and gas. Frackall has made an application to drill its boreholes and set off its explosions directly underneath the City of London. By chance, Mr Megarich happens to be chosen by lot to serve in the Assembly or the SIPC set up to examine the issue.

“Conflict of Interest!” scream those opposed to sortition. Well, of course Megarich thinks it’s in his interest to frack beneath London. He stands to make millions, if not billions. The risk to the historic buildings, infrastructure and the environment don’t matter greatly to him: even if it costs billions to repair the damage, most of it will be paid by the British taxpayer. He will vote in favour, and so possibly will a few other members who stand to gain from providing services to Frackall, or who will benefit from the cheaper energy. Probably, though, most of the assembly will shout “Over my dead body!”, and vote against it.

Ethically, should Megarich have voted or campaigned against it? Certainly not: if he did so the group decision would not be representative. If Megarich is in a situation of conflict of interest then so is every other member, and at all times. If the proposal had been to demolish part of the City of London in order to make a park, some members would benefit from the amenity, others not. Should those who would benefit vote against it because of the conflict of interest? Again, certainly not, and for the same reason: it is important that the decision be representative.

Projects like Frackall’s usually have some advantages. Megarich may be concerned only with the financial advantage to himself, but presumably cheaper oil would benefit many people, even if the benefits are greatly outweighed by the damage done. There might be some environmental advantage too, the oil or gas would be very close to a major market, so less energy would be wasted in transport.

The vote in favour of the project by Megarich and others merely reflects the fact that some people in the community would benefit more if the project goes ahead than if it is stopped.

Bias due to Difference in Rhetorical Skill or Assertiveness

It has been objected by a number of people, including Keith Sutherland, that discussion of proposals in the Assembly will permit the more eloquent or assertive members to dominate their colleagues in a demagogic fashion. To prevent this, he has proposed to have all propositions examined by experts, the experts’ view presented to the members “in a balanced way” and the members to vote without discussion. All questions are assumed to be binary, ie yes/no.

It is certainly true that some members will be more dominating or more eloquent or more intelligent than others, and that some people are easily swayed by the opinions of others. However:

  • In this alternative proposal, we are entitled to ask who will decide who the experts are? (If I have understood him correctly, his answer is “the peer group”, ie more experts, which does not reassure me, since it makes it highly likely that on subjects where the experts are divided only the dominant view will be heard, to the exclusion of other views) Who is to decide what is balanced, and on what criteria? Whoever decides this would have far more power to influence members than any one member, however eloquent, and indeed more power than the whole assembly.
  • With the best will in the world, experts are rarely neutral. For instance, no-one knows nuclear energy better than trained nuclear engineers and nuclear research scientists. But these people have a large stake in any decision regarding nuclear energy; if the world abandoned it, they would all be out of a job. More importantly, they would not have chosen the field in the first place if they had not been enthusiastic about it or at least favourable to it. The same applies to all fields. For this reason an assembly should be able to question the advice presented to it, and demand proof of assertions made and the underlying assumptions.
  • The objection overlooks the fact that it is impossible to isolate members of an Assembly (whether elected or chosen by lot) from discussion and comment outside the assembly. Media campaigns, TV discussion forums, editorials in journals, the neighbour over the back fence, pub pundits, husband or wife . . . all can influence members. Social media, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube videos and the like also may have enormous influence. To pretend that by preventing discussion in the assembly one can isolate members from being influenced is quite absurd.
  • Obliging Assembly members to sit mute and listen for hours to technical discourses on subjects with which they are not familiar sounds very much like cruelty to dumb animals. What if they do not understand the experts’ pearls of wisdom? Are they not to be allowed to ask for a phrase to be repeated or explained? And if this is permitted, how to prevent the question that is an implied criticism, or the straight-out interjection “That’s crap!”?Surely it is better to encourage the discussion of proposals, if only to stop the Assembly from falling asleep or becoming so exasperated that they do not care a fig which way they vote.
  • The Proposals Committee, the Single Issue Policy Committee and the Assembly (and the Review Chamber, if there is one) will not have the same membership, and so are unlikely all to have a member or members capable of shifting the majority view in the same direction.
  • Unlike the other sources of opinion, (who often have an axe to grind, or else are too lazy or simply do not have time to look deeply into matters) Assembly members will at least have all the facts available to them, and the time to consider them. Those who express opinions without regard to the facts can expect to be called to order by the other members.
  • In practice, (pace the philosophers) there will not necessarily be a binary choice of “A or not A”. Members should be free to suggest alternatives, to ask for more studies to be carried out, to delay a decision, to send a proposal of law back to the SIPC or those responsible for drafting it with suggestions or modifications.

Sortition and Juries

Those in favour of sortition in government, myself included, often mention juries. To counter the objection, expressed or implied, that “Ordinary people cannot be trusted to make important decisions” we reply “If ordinary people can be trusted to serve on a jury deciding cases of life and death, or life imprisonment, why should they be incompetent to make laws?”. This argument is certainly valid, but it has the unfortunate effect of conflating juries and assemblies, and suggesting that all bodies chosen by lot will necessarily suffer from the same disadvantages as juries. The effect is aggravated by the use of the term “Citizen Juries” to designate deliberative bodies chosen at random for various purposes.

“Trial by jury must be one of the most conspicuously bad good ideas anyone ever had . . .”

So begins an essay by Richard Dawkinsiv. Why are juries preferred to a single judge? he asks. Not because they are wiser or more knowledgeable or more logical in their thinking. They are preferred because they are more numerous. Twelve heads are better than one because they represent twelve assessments of the evidence.

“But for this argument to be valid, the twelve assessments really have to be independent. And of course they are not . . . In practice, as is well documented . . . juries are massively swayed by one or two vocal individuals. There is also strong pressure to conform to a unanimous verdict, which further undermines the principle of independent data.”

A well-known example is the Orson Welles film “Twelve Angry Men”. A notionally innocent person is acquitted, in spite of the apparently damning evidence against him. One perceptive and stubborn juror persuades the others that there is not, in fact, proof beyond reasonable doubt, so right overcomes wrong, there is a happy Hollywood ending, and American justice triumphs after all. (Personally, I wouldn’t mind betting that for every perceptive juror who sticks to his guns and defends the right there are a dozen – or more – who acquiesce with the judgement of the majority).

“Twelve Angry Men” is fiction, of course. But in real life the University of Michigan Law School “National Registry of Exonerations”v has registered 1490 exonerations of persons wrongfully convicted since 1989 in America alone, and that number is increasing. The total number of wrongful convictions is surely much higher, though often the fault lies not with the jury but with irregularities in the trial, perjury for instance.

There are also wrongful acquittals. Around twenty years ago, a former head of a notoriously corrupt government was tried for perjury and corruption. He was acquitted, to universal stupefaction. (There had been a commission of enquiry into corruption in his government, and sworn evidence of his involvement in bribery). Some time after the trial, one or two of the jurors talked to the media. It seems the jury were all convinced of his guilt, except for one young man (the jury foreman) who was a fanatical member of the former politician’s party and of a group formed to support him in his legal troubles. (The prosecution dropped the ball here; he could have been excluded). After a long period of deliberation (mostly harangues by the jury foreman), one other member of the jury threw in the towel, and the trial was aborted because of the hung jury.

Will Assemblies and Policy Committees chosen by lot be subject to the same failings as juries?

As noted above, some individuals will be more assertive or more eloquent than others. But whereas in a small group such as a jury of twelve it is likely that one or two dominant members will lead the others (as in “Twelve Angry Men”), in an assembly of a few hundred one is sure to get a larger number of tenors, who will not all think the same way. Argument between them will enlighten and perhaps amuse the whole assembly. (Indeed, this discussion in the assembly palliates one criticism of sortition, that half the members will have less than average ability. Those members who are a bit slow on the uptake can nevertheless be informed by the debate.)

There should be no pressure on members for unanimity in decisions. In an assembly of several hundred, unanimity is almost impossible anyway. And since disagreement will be expected there should be no feeling in anyone’s mind that by disagreeing, a member is being disloyal or “letting the side down” in some way. (Disloyal to whom? There will be no “sides” in a randomly-chosen Assembly.)

Generally speaking, in a criminal case, and when not asked to fix damages in a civil case, juries decide on questions that are binary, e.g. “yes” or “no”, “A” or “not-A”. The accused is either guilty or not guilty, there is no in-between optionvi, although he may be found not guilty of one charge but guilty of another, lesser charge.

In contrast, an assembly will decide on policy questions and rarely or never on questions of fact, and the issues will often not be binary. A proposal for a new high-speed railway may have several possible routes, it may be built as one project or in stages, it may or may not be articulated with other lines or modes of transport. Assembly members will be free to suggest other options, or to send the proposal back to the Policy Committee. Neither the Assembly nor the Policy Committee is expected to reach a unanimous verdict, and it should be obvious to all members that the job of the Policy Committee is to investigate all possibilities, and to point out possible problems, objections, or better ideas. That is their raison d’être; for them, unanimity is definitely not a virtue.

Groupthink

The term groupthink is used in the context of decision making in management and government to describe a situation in which members of a group align their opinions to agree with those of the rest of the group. Irving Janis described three antecedent conditions which favour groupthinkvii.

  1. High group “cohesiveness””deindividuation”: group cohesiveness becomes more important than individual freedom of expression
  2. Structural faults:insulation of the grouplack of impartial leadershiplack of norms requiring methodological procedureshomogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology
  3. Situational context:highly stressful external threatsrecent failuresexcessive difficulties on the decision-making taskmoral dilemmas

Although the predictive value of his conclusions has been contestedviii and although some of his conditions do not apply to juries, it is worth considering whether his possible “antecedents to groupthink” apply to juries and to relatively large groups chosen by lot:

Group cohesiveness: (More recent research suggests that this is not a strong predictor of groupthink)

Juries may perhaps see themselves as a group distinct from others in the court: distinct for instance from lawyers, on one hand, and the accused (or plaintiff and defence) on the other. They are neither injured nor injuring, neither learned and partial, like the advocates, nor learned and supposedly impartial, like the judge, they are not interrogated and not interrogating, not at their normal work, like court officials and reporters. They sit in their own special place, the jury box. It is not impossible that they see themselves as a cohesive group or team and that, under stress, group cohesion becomes more important to them than individual freedom of expression.

Whether this is so or not for juries, it is impossible that a large group chosen at random from a diverse society will be cohesive; their backgrounds are sure to be too different to permit it.

Insulation of the group: Juries are instructed not to take into account anything they may have heard about the case outside the court. They may be forbidden to return home until the case is decided. There are excellent reasons for this of course, but it reinforces the internal group dynamics. Policy Committee and Assembly members will be exposed to any and all views expressed in the community.

Lack of impartial leadership: Jury foremen may be highly partial. Neither the Assembly nor the Policy Committees will have a leader, so the question of partiality does not arise. The fact that the person of the Speaker changes daily will prevent the possibility of his or her becoming a leader, and will serve as a measure against systematic bias.

Lack of norms requiring methodological procedures: In contrast with the formality of the court, what happens in the jury room is generally left to the discretion of the jurors, particularly to the foreman. In the case of the Assembly, the office of Speaker exists so that formal parliamentary rules for debate are followed.

Homogeneity of members’ social backgrounds and ideology: This may well occur in the case of a jury, particularly when legal counsel can object, but also because the list of people eligible for jury duty may be unrepresentative. It simply cannot occur in a large randomly chosen body, unless all members of society are have the same background and ideology – which is extremely improbable in any real human society.

The “situational context” (stress, recent failures, difficulties in making decisions, and moral dilemmas)

Stress: For jurors, there is the stress due to the unfamiliar, even threatening, court environment. Of course this will not apply to members of the Assembly or the Policy Committees, who will have time to grow familiar with their surroundings and will not be subject to the instructions of a judge.

Juries are called to judge on questions where (usually) only two answers are possible: “guilty” or “not guilty”. Since these are the only two verdicts possible, one answer must be “right”, and the other “wrong”. If a juror is inclined to an opinion opposed to that of the majority, there may be a tendency to think “If they all believe that, they are probably right and I must be wrong, there must be something that I’m not seeing.”

The gravitas of court proceedings is calculated to instil in juries a sense of the high importance of their decisions, and jurors are made aware that trials are expensive affairs, and that if agreement is not reached, there will be a retrial. This leads to a feeling in a dissenting juror that he or she must fall into line.

Most jurors do not enjoy having to make a decision, and most are paid a great deal less than they could earn elsewhere. Jurors know that their colleagues would probably prefer to be at the beach. So failure to agree punishes the whole “team jury”, as well as “wasting” public money.

All this constitutes strong pressure on the jury to conform, as Dawkins notes. None of this applies to Assembly or Policy Committee members.

Time pressure may exist for an Assembly, depending on the circumstances, but it will not be possible for self-appointed “mindguards”ix to use it to control other members’ thinking. In any case, time pressure will not be more present than it is for an elected parliament, and it will not apply more to members who have a minority opinion than to those who share the opinion of the majority. In the Assembly, members will not necessarily know until the vote is counted whether they are in the majority or a minority.

External Threats and Recent Failures: Presumably these do not apply to juries though they may well apply to a parliament, whether elected or chosen by lot. A lost war, for instance, or the presence of a hostile army on the border might well lead to serious errors of judgement.

Difficult Decisions and Moral Dilemmas: These may apply both to juries and governments. Where time permits, the use of SIPCs, and the input from outside sources should lighten the load for the Assembly, and make sure that all alternatives get considered.

It remains that it is very important that members should make independent decisions when voting, the quality of the decisions taken depends on it. In spite of the arguments I have advanced above that the Assembly and the Policy Committees will not behave like juries, I would be in favour of the words “THINK FOR YOURSELF” or similar being written in letters of gold on the Assembly wall, over the Speaker’s chair. Perhaps the members might swear a new version of the Heliastic Oathx including the words “I swear to use my own judgement, and not to blindly follow the ideas of others.”

We have said that voting in the Assembly should be secret in order to pevent corruption. This secrecy should also prevent members looking over their neighbours’ shoulders and copying their vote.

Parties, Polarisation, and Sortition

I have said above (see §4) that political parties cause or reinforce polarisation. Is there any reason to think that there would be less polarisation, less animosity, with sortition? I believe there is.

Most of us, most of the time, just want to get on with living our lives and letting others do the same. This is the easiest way to get through life: we have enough to do with digging potatoes, changing nappies, performing surgery, mending the fishing nets or whatever else our daily existence depends on. We might have the occasional acrimonious discussion or brawl, but by and large, it’s live and let live.

For social animals this is the most cost-effective way to be successful in evolutionary terms. Those individuals who pick a lot of needless fights, whether chimpanzees or humans, make a lot of enemies and put themselves at risk, and so are likely to leave fewer descendants than more tolerant, restrained ones. Evolution has tamed us, and continues to do so.

Sunnis and Shiites after all, have been coexisting since the 8th century CE; Catholics and Protestants for the last 300 years in most places; Christians and Muslims have managed to coexist; so have Muslims and Jews; and Christians and Muslims, except at certain times.

At what times? Well, until some unpleasant individual or group finds it advantageous to cause trouble, and conditions are right for the trouble to spread. Usually, to get ordinary people involved, there’s some underlying resentment, sense of injustice, etc. Action on one side brings reaction on the other; people become polarised, violence breeds violence, until there is a state of hostilities which does not end until it cannot continue: for instance one side is annihilated, both sides are incapable of continuing, or some greater threat appears which makes the two sides drop their quarrel to face a common foe.

Now, what is the relevance of this to sortition and elections? Parties are inherent to the electoral system. (Has there ever been an elected government without parties?) It is almost impossible to get elected without belonging to one. Those few independents who do get elected are almost always ex-members of a party who have achieved enough notoriety to be popular in their own electorate, if not in their party. Now parties, whatever virtues they may possess, tend to polarise, to condemn all ideas that come from the other side, to pretend that all their own policies are light and logic incarnate, even when they are a hodge-podge of compromises. Throw in the usual ad hominem arguments, the smearing and stereotyping of the opposition, the manipulation of statistics, control of the media if it’s possible, and you have a powerful machine to make people hate the opponents.

Parties, in the sense of opinion groups, might continue to exist under sortition. Obviously Conservatives won’t stop being Conservatives overnight, Liberals being Liberals, Sunnis being Sunnis, Shiites being Shiites, Marxists being Marxists, and Greens being Greens.

However in an assembly chosen by lot, the members (initially all strangers) start off not knowing who has what beliefs or prejudices. When such an assembly addresses problems like road rules, or the provision of life-belts at public swimming pools, or the standards to adopt for Class ‘B’ electrical appliances, is there any reason to suppose that Conservatives will always vote as Conservatives, or Marxists as Marxists? If it meant that they could hang on to power by so doing, they certainly might, and this is what we find in elected governments. With sortition, where the members will be out of the parliament in a fixed time however they vote, and where they can neither be rewarded nor punished by a party, since there is no way of knowing how members vote (because of the secret ballot), why should they follow party lines?

I suggest that most issues, and many of the most important, are of the hum-drum non-ideological sort that I have tried to exemplify. Where strong differences of opinion arise on these issues, they will mostly not be on the old ideological cleavages. Why should a left-wing power point be different from right-wing one? There may be sound reasons for it having round pins, flat pins, large pins, or small pins, but not Marxist or liberal pins. Even on contentious issues, such as a large dam, in an allotted assembly an environmentalist might be fervently opposed, while a Trotskyist, a neo-conservative and a moderate socialist might find themselves in complete agreement, and vote similarly, although they are opposed in ideology. Not so in an elected assembly, where the party line will almost always prevail.

This blurring of lines and allegiances must weaken the party system in the long run. One could object that not all issues will be as bread-and-butter as those I have mentioned. True, but it will be possible, in an allotted assembly, for parties – which we have transformed into opinion groups – to make concessions on the clauses of a proposal without losing face. The platform or program of any large party cannot be reduced to a single issue. Some issues are “core”, some are of less importance in the eyes of the party stalwarts. The core issues are not the same for all groups, nor for all members of a group, so it will often be easy for one group to make a concession that is not important to it, but which is highly important to another group; and this will be all the easier since the group will have no means other than persuasion to make people to stick to its line. This should be a mechanism for defusing conflicts.

Who gains from promoting animosity? Where there are elections and hence parties, some parties and their members may gain from proposing policies that are deeply divisive. This has led some American commentators and candidates to cynically denounce others with milder views as being “soft on communism”, “soft on terrorism”, “soft on drugs”, etc, which led to a rush to the right. (No doubt right-wingers would say there was a similar rush to the left on such issues as women’s rights, black rights, homosexuals’ rights, etc.) In an allotted assembly, where members can not seek re-election, it is not easy to see how such tactics could function. Of course, furious ideologues might rant and rave outside the chamber, and affect the opinions of the public, to some extent, but parliament would be free to vote without fear and without favour, which would make the ranting much less effective than the ideological blackmail which we see now.

If you add this effect of “removing the advantage from promoting extremism” to the “defusing” effect and the “blurring” effect mentioned above, you will see why I believe we would see sortition reduce ideological divisions in society.


i For the Athenian Constitution and an explanation of these terms see Hansen, M H, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, 1991, Blackwell, Oxford.

ii “Dunbar’s Number” Robin Dunbar, after studying the size of groups in primates, concludes “that the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism’s information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously. When a group’s size exceeds this limit, it becomes unstable and begins to fragment. This then places an upper limit on the size of groups which any given species can maintain as cohesive social units through time”.

For humans Dunbar calculated this number to be about 150.

See Dunbar, R, “Neocortex size as a constraint on group size in primates”, Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 22, Issue 6, June 1992, Pages 469–493 available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/004724849290081J or the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number#Research_background.

iv Dawkins, R “Trial by Jury“, The Observer, 16 November, 1997; (included in A Devil’s Chaplain, Phoenix 2004).

vi Scotland is an exception, where the verdict may be “guilty” “not guilty” or “not proven”.

vii Janis, I. L., Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes.1982 Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

viii See for instance Esser, James K., “Alive and Well after 25 Years: A Review of Groupthink Research“, ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR AND HUMAN DECISION PROCESSES, Vol. 73, Nos. 2/3, February/March, pp. 116–141, 1998 available: http://liquidbriefing.com/twiki/pub/Dev/RefEsser1998/alive_and_well_after_25_years.pdf.

ix Janis’s expression.

x Sworn by Athenians chosen to serve on the “Heliaia”, or dikasterion, the People’s Court.
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33 Responses

  1. Excellent! Well thought through, and well argued.

    I still think your Agenda Committee is too small, as control of the agenda can be a HUGE power, that needs better representativeness and minority inclusion. Perhaps there could be some means that a group of the Assembly can get around the Agenda Committee in unusual circumstances of stonewalling. Also the election process of the Agenda Committee could have a semi-proportional element rather than the block approval system you offered…such as each member nominates up to ten members deemed qualified, for electing 40 members of the Agenda/Speaker pool…This assures that a 10% minority CAN elect some of their own, rather than being shut out. Also, you can’t assume members will vote for the “most competent” since they are free to use any criteria they wish (most religious, highest status, etc.). Even in SMALL clubs, elections can go astray from intended goals.

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  2. >Keith Sutherland (who is in favour of a very limited use of sortition in forming a government) [my emphasis]

    My proposal for sortition is viewed by inhabitants of the real world as extremely radical. This remark shows that degree to which some members of this blog are citizens of that parallel universe christened Aleatoria (in Barbara Goodwin’s utopian vision).

    Dealing with your substantive points, the problem is not that of trivial alternatives (drive on the left or the right) or when the population is closely divided on an issue, so that the margin of error can go one way or the other. These factors pertain to the aggregate judgment of the assembly and we have no dispute over that.

    My concerns, as you well know, pertain to a) the selection of legislative proposals and b) the need for balanced information and advocacy. During our exchanges over the last few days I have demonstrated how the choice of proposals by your oligarchical Agenda Committee will be random (in the pejorative sense) or subject to the personal whims of its members (the law of large numbers will not equalise the choices of a group of only 10 persons from a selection list of several hundred thousand proposals in such a manner as to reflect the preferences of the wider citizen body). And the voting outcome will be heavily influenced by the speech acts of those members who choose to exercise their personal isegoria. Given that this will be a small subset of a small group this will introduce wide variations in the final decision to the extent that it can no longer be held to be representative.

    As I explained to Yoram, political science is an empirical discipline and has nothing to do with thought experiments over airline food. Besides which my point is not the indecisiveness of Smith, it is the variations in the persuasive powers of the flight attendants. Fortunately the representativity of the decision process can be tested experimentally, after which we will have no further need for this rather fruitless exchange.

    I agree that the issue of the selection of experts is a difficult one and this part of my proposal is vague and sketchy. But you are wrong to think that I am seeking impartiality in individual advocates — far from it, I want to see the cut and thrust of the adversarial tourney, the task of the jury being to determine which of the charlatans is the most convincing. I confess I’m torn between my original plan for a standing house of experts and Naomi’s suggestion to politicise the advocacy process (unlike some people I do listen to those who offer a measured criticism of my proposals). On balance I think I would still opt for the Advocacy (an institution recently proposed by Martin Davis) as this will automatically assume an oppositional role — i.e. it will act in the same way as the 4th century assembly choosing five citizens to defend the existing law against proposals to change it. If the process is politicised then all advocates will play to the gallery, resulting in an overall epistemic loss. But perhaps Naomi is right and representativity should be the most important consideration.

    As for the influence of the debate in the media world beyond the assembly, I’m keen to let this influence the deliberations to the maximum degree (a chapter of my book is dedicated to the essential constitutional role of a strong and diverse fourth estate). Why should I want to shield decision makers from the media? My concern is that the media should to the maximum possible extent reflect public isegoria, my concern with your process being that discursive input will be random and unrepresentative, as it will be limited to the choices of a tiny group of people, most of whom will have no prior knowledge of, or interest in, the topic under consideration.

    Naturally the asking of questions will be part of the information stage. And advocates will be highly motivated to present their case in an engaging, entertaining and persuasive manner — that’s how you get to win the argument.

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  3. Thank you for the comments. If sometimes I don’t reply immediately, it’s because I need time to think.

    I shall give the Agenda Committee more thought, but it strikes me that the one I propose will be rather less powerful than other people seem to think. In my proposal, it will be subject to the Assembly. I quote from Part 2:

    “The agenda set by the Agenda Committee should be subject to modification by the Assembly. One convenient way to allow for this would be to set aside the last few minutes of each day’s proceedings to proposals to modify the next day’s agenda. This would usually not take much time as such proposals would probably be rare.”

    I would also remind you that it is entirely replaced every six months, so prolonged malarky should not happen.
    Perhaps I have chosen the name badly; it seems to me that in other people’s proposals it has some policy-choosing function. That idea is far from my intent, its function in my scheme is more to set a tentative timetable for debate. Inevitably this will involve some choices, and hence a setting of proposed priorities, but the time at the end of each day should be used by the Assembly either to approve this, or to allocate times differently, as it sees fit.
    “Mr Speaker, the AC has allotted six hours tomorrow to the debate on Class B electrical appliances, and put off the debate on emergency aid to our stricken cabbage-growers until Wednesday. Class B appliances can wait, the cabbage growers are dans les choux. I move that we bring forward the cabbage-growers aid proposal.”

    On the size of the Agenda Committee: If it is merely setting a tentative timetable, then I suggest it does not need to be strictly representative, but a good “feel” for how long a debate will take would be helpful. I think it might usefully have some advisory function:
    “Members are respectfully reminded that 59,548 proposals await their attention, and that this list is growing”
    might encourage members to try to work more quickly, though I’m optimistic enough to think Keith’s figure for email petitions will never be reached. (Why? Because most of the work will already be done by the SIPCs and the standing Policy Committees, so long debates will usually be unnecessary).
    If the Agenda Committee finds its workload excessive, there is no reason why it should not request more secretarial staff, or that an auxiliary committee be set up, similar to the Proposals Committee, to aid it. Needless to say, this committee would only have the power to make recommendations.

    As for exclusion of minorities, I shall look again at the election process. If the Agenda Committee has a large majority group which discriminates against a minority group, then this will no doubt reflect the balance in the Assembly, and so in the whole citizen body. I’ve already said that “Majority tyranny could also occur with sortition.” I think it is impossible to prevent with any political system.

    @Keith
    If the word “very” in “very limited” offends you, I shall pluck it out. I don’t see how you can object to “limited”, given your scorn for “pure sortition”.

    >”Besides which my point is not the indecisiveness of Smith, it is the variations in the persuasive powers of the flight attendants. Fortunately the representativity of the decision process can be tested experimentally”
    I shall be interested to see how you set up your experiment to eliminate the indecisiveness of the Smiths in your subjects.

    My argument is that you just cannot get representation as accurate as you and I would like. I think I can reasonably claim that it will be a lot closer with my proposal than at present with elections.
    In the case of measures that are passed or rejected by a good margin, it’s not important practically. If a bill is passed by 75% in the Assembly, does it matter if the public approval is a bit more or less than 75%?
    The practical problem comes with close votes. I think I have suggested a reasonable way of dealing with them in Example 4, but no-one has commented so far.

    >”you are wrong to think that I am seeking impartiality in individual advocates ”
    I don’t think I ever thought this. The concern is that if the experts are chosen they may all think alike because there’s a dominant paradigm, in Thomas Kuhn’s terms, and the heretics will not be allowed to speak.
    Ah, perhaps I have found it. I think I should amend “the experts’ view” to “the experts’ views”. The singular implies something which you probably do not intend. Sorry for that, it’s hard to correct your own work.

    You want the media to have its say. Good, so do I, but at least some of the argument will be influenced by where the advertising revenue comes from, and hence highly tendentious. (I propose news outlets that do not depend on advertising to mitigate this.) And the other sources of comment – I’ve given a list – you can reliably expect to be unreliable. Why then make such a fuss over speeches by members?

    >” I want to see the cut and thrust of the adversarial tourney, ”
    This was not clear to me before.

    >”my concern with your process being that discursive input will be random and unrepresentative, as it will be limited to the choices of a tiny group of people, most of whom will have no prior knowledge of, or interest in, the topic under consideration.”
    You seem to have overlooked the SIPCs and standing PCs whose role is precisely to hear all views on the topic, and who will have much more time available than the Assembly to wade through it. “No prior knowledge of or interest in” is in fact an advantage. By the time they have heard and read all the submissions made to them, they will be very well-informed, and hence quite competent to whittle all the guff down to a digestible form.

    >”Naturally the asking of questions will be part of the information stage”
    “I have a question.”
    “Please go ahead.”
    “Why are you spouting all this neo-liberal pro-business crap. Anyone who has read Marx knows that . . .”
    Good job you’ve eliminated “speech acts”.

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  4. […] Part 1 Part 3 Part 4 […]

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  5. […] Part 1 Part 2 Part 4 […]

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  6. Campbell,

    >I don’t see how you can object to “limited”, given your scorn for “pure sortition”.

    The term “sovereign” normally refers to the body that determines the laws. My proposal is structurally similar to that of Rousseau and he viewed any limitation on sovereignty as unacceptable. And yet he, like myself, advocated a mixed system of government, with policy making in the hands of the delegated government, so a more accurate description of my proposal would be “the sovereignty of an allotted assembly as part of a mixed system of government”. The proposal is only “limited” from the unusual perspective of those who propose doing everything by sortition, so if you are aiming it a larger audience than Yoram, Terry and yourself it would be better if you used the standard terminology of constitutional theory.

    >I shall be interested to see how you set up your experiment to eliminate the indecisiveness of the Smiths in your subjects.

    I have no wish to do that, as this will cancel out if the size of the assembly is large enough. How many passengers on a 747 — 500? I imagine the caterers have a pretty good idea how many fish and how many chicken dishes to pack, notwithstanding the waverers.

    >If a bill is passed by 75% in the Assembly, does it matter if the public approval is a bit more or less than 75%?

    No. My concern is the potentially large variance introduced by the lack of structural measures to ensure balanced information and advocacy.

    >I think I should amend “the experts’ view” to “the experts’ views”.

    Exactly. The problem of paradigms (or absolute presuppositions in Collingwood’s language) are inescapable, as they will also filter down to the wider public. There should be some provision for maverick and left-of-field advocacy, and this needs further consideration. But in the big referendum-type issues (should Britain remain in the EU) the advocates will be self-selecting and the exchange of views will be vigorous.

    >Why then make such a fuss over speeches by members?

    Because the media are a representative form of isegoria. Government ministrers are (rightly) more terrified of angering readers of the Mail than the Independent. And advertisers will be seeking to appeal to the readers of the publication that they advertise in, so this shouldn’t be viewed as interfering with the self-correcting market mechanism. Why should an advertiser wish to go against the preferences of their potential customers?

    >You seem to have overlooked the SIPCs and standing PCs whose role is precisely to hear all views on the topic, and who will have much more time available than the Assembly to wade through it

    These little oligarchic committees are going to be awfully busy, acting as the gatekeepers for the huge volume of proposals anticipated.

    >“Why are you spouting all this neo-liberal pro-business crap. Anyone who has read Marx knows that . . .”

    I’m sure this is just a lighthearted remark, but it does indicate why you (and self-acknowledged socialists like Terry and Yoram) are so opposed to my proposals.

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  7. >”My proposal for sortition is viewed by inhabitants of the real world as extremely radical. ”
    In that case you ought to be delighted to have fruit loops like myself set out our proposals. Yours will look humdrum and conventional.

    >” a more accurate description of my proposal would be “the sovereignty of an allotted assembly as part of a mixed system of government”. The proposal is only “limited” from the unusual perspective of those who propose doing everything by sortition,”
    I didn’t describe your system as limited.
    I said you favoured a limited use of sortition, which I think is true. No, I won’t use your phrase.

    >” the media are a representative form of isegoria.”
    I’m staggered that anyone can believe that. Even you.

    >”I’m sure this is just a lighthearted remark, but it does indicate why you (and self-acknowledged socialists like Terry and Yoram) are so opposed to my proposals.”
    And this comment shows you have completely missed my point (was it deliberate?), which is that it will be impossible to stop your policy jury from expressing an opinion, if it wishes. Even if you stitch their lips up, they can still stamp their feet, bang on chairs, or whatever. Oh, unless you lock each one in a sound-proofed cell, and force your balanced diet down their throats one after the other.

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  8. Campbell,
    Actually there is a practical way to assure members never express themselves other than by secret vote at the end… They could only listen to testimony at home by Internet and never see or know who the other random members are. I suppose we couldn’t call this an “assembly” though. ;-)

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  9. In case it wasn’t clear…I am NOT advocating that… merely showing that Keith’s plan is logistically possible.

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  10. Campbell,

    “Fruit loops”are a serious problem when a new field of enquiry has yet to be established as those of us who make measured and workable proposals will all be tarred with the same brush.

    Some degree of dicastic thorubos is, as the Athenians found, inevitable. But that misses the central point (the need to aim for balanced information and advocacy, rather than leaving it all at the mercy of a tiny group of random oligarchs).

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  11. P.S.on the topic of media isegoria, I suggest you take a look at Andre’s latest comment.

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  12. Campbell,

    Let me illustrate my argument about the non-representativity of speech acts with a concrete example (that involves no airline flight attendants). This blog currently has 331 followers but only 6-12 regular posters/commentators. The latter, a small group of activists and scholars, can be roughly subdivided into two categories: a) those who argue for sortition-only solutions (Yoram, Terry, Campbell and yourself) and b) those who argue for a mixed form of government (Naomi and I).” Through their adversarial exchanges, these “orators” seek to persuade others of the rightness of their cause. Given the tiny number of self-selecting orators, no claims can be made regarding statistical representativity. As Naomi’s principal interest is the comparative study of electoral and executive systems and given her comparative newness to the field of sortition, I think it’s fair to say that I’m the principal advocate of the “very limited” use of sortition, so if I were run over tomorrow by the proverbial London omnibus (an event that would cause great rejoicing in some quarters) then the advocacy on this forum would be radically altered as the result of a single random event.

    In what respect is this not a parallel for the working of an allotted assembly, especially as the members would not have any self-selecting interest in the work they have been drafted in to perform? The debate on this forum strikes me as a pretty good example of the need to separate isegoria (speech acts) and isonomia (voting)*** and to ensure that both processes are fully representative.

    ** Other orators (Andre, David, Peter, Conall etc) adopt a less strident position and comment less frequently.

    *** Needless to say, on account of the absence of voting, there is no way of knowing the views of the 300+ followers of this blog, or the degree to which the oratory has influenced them one way or the other.

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  13. Sorry to drop such a long comment in the middle of an active discussion. I also apologize if my tone is unnecessarily confrontational at times.

    Campbell,
    There’s some interesting stuff in this part. If you are going to have a pure sortition based system with a full-mandate allotted legislature… then having that legislature elect a powerful governing committee is definitely the way to go. Ten members is at the bottom end of what’s needed to represent the meaningful national-level policy dimension, if the voting system is proportional, of course. Ten effective actors is workable. I might prefer an odd number of members. Maybe a better number might be 15. That would give a Droop quota of only 6.25% while still being small enough that all the members can work with each other directly without the need for further reduction.

    >”Disloyal to whom? There will be no “sides” in a randomly-chosen Assembly.”

    I would be quite surprised if this were indeed the case. To quote Brams in Mathematics and Democracy: “The weight of players do not necessarily reflect their power, as measured by their pivotalness or criticalness in winning coalitions. For example, analyses based on the so-called power indices, especially those proposed by Shapley-Shubik and Banzhaf (Shapley and Shubik, 1984; Banzhaf, 1965; Riker and Shapley, 1968; Brams, 1975, 2003, ch. 5; Felsenthal and Machover, 1998), show that legislators with more weight — or parties able to discipline their members to vote as a block — usually have disproportionately more voting power than is warranted by their size.”

    Simply put, diffuse groups are difficult to work with. A block that has effectively “unionized” and consolidated around a common set of goals with a common leadership structure has disproportionate power. One of my biggest concerns regarding a conventionally structured assembly with members drawn by lot has always been that the degree of organization among factions within the body will determine the overall balance of power between ideological groupings with the more well-organized subsets of the assembly having more influence on policy than similar sized subsets that are poorly organized. As you say, most people are more interested in getting on with their own lives. Extreme fringe groups, surely, will have an easier time organizing and we should expect them to have power disproportionate to their population. Simply drawing the members of the body by lot does not change the strategic and tactical advantages of organizing. Perhaps placing the bulk of the focus on the Agenda Committee would help. There’s no advantage to organizing in such small body.

    > “Has there ever been an elected government without parties?”

    Yes. There are a few examples. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Non-partisan_democracy#Examples

    >”Parties, in the sense of opinion groups, might continue to exist under sortition. Obviously Conservatives won’t stop being Conservatives overnight, Liberals being Liberals, Sunnis being Sunnis, Shiites being Shiites, Marxists being Marxists, and Greens being Greens.” … “If it meant that they could hang on to power by so doing, they certainly might, and this is what we find in elected governments.” … “Who gains from promoting animosity? Where there are elections and hence parties, some parties and their members may gain from proposing policies that are deeply divisive.”

    “Overnight”? What? I know it’s popular to hate politicians and write them off as dangerous sociopaths, and I’m guilty of it too, but modeling people seeking power as the root of conflict in society makes no sense. Let’s use you as an example. Right now in western democracies there is an overwhelming consensus that electoral democracy is the way to go. You are trying to divide the people. Why? Is it to gain power? Or do you believe in your cause and act accordingly? Let’s use Obama as another example. Some of the his most divisive actions came after winning reelection. He’s doubled down again after the last Congressional election. Why? He’s not going to face reelection. He’s not even going to be affected by the results of another Congressional election. He and you make deeply divisive proposals out of an honest belief in their virtue.

    I think you have cause and effect backwards. People who want power for its own sake certainly use the divisions that exist in society, but those differences exist regardless of the power motive. The true cause of division in society is honest difference of opinion as to the direction the nation should take. How do you resolve such differences? Getting rid of the people who exploit cleavages doesn’t get rid of either the underlying divide or the strategic benefit of taking an adversarial stance (thought optimal strategy will vary with institutional configuration). So in place of power-seekers we have random people who, just like you and Obama, pursue divisive goals due to an honest belief in them. So? What’s changed? You certainly haven’t eliminated the tactical advantage of organizing into factions. Furthermore, keeping the power-seekers out of government only keeps them out of power if the government has a monopoly on power in society. Of course there are always independent bases of power in a free society.

    I used to have a Ghanese coworker. He once commented that the best thing about the US is that the laws here are “real.” If Congress passes a law it’s a tangible thing. No matter how important or petty, by god it’s going to be implemented all the way down to the street level. It’s like a computer program being run. In Ghana, on the other hand, when a law is passed, no one cares. Not the police. Not judges. Not local bureaucrats. It’s ink on paper. And Ghana is one of the more successful African states. I think some commenters here gloss over how difficult state-building really is. In much of the developing world tribal and/or extended family structures have been the most important high-level political structures for thousands of years. Say you draw a few hundred people at random. Okay. Who cares what they have to say… individually or assembled? What gives them power? They can put ink on a page. So can I. So what? Elected governments have done as well as they have in the developing world (which is not saying all that much) because they include and domesticate, rather than exclude and alienate, the independently powerful, much like medieval assemblies of various lords and nobles. But they do so in a framework that requires the consent of the masses and allows for an organic ebb and flow of instutional power based on popular opinion.

    Do you know why I believe a pure sortition system will prove fragile in practice? Because such systems are inherently non-representative with respect to the power structures that exist within society. *The evolution of society is a mass politics-type process.* We seem to forget that with our political institution-driven focus. All the same factors are at play. The same forces that drive public opinion and, by extension, mass politics lose out by a pure sortition system. All the powerful forces in society — be they tribal elders or industrial tycoons — have incentive to stand together and push for reform toward a system that is more representative of their ability to influence the public debate. And you know what? They’ll get it eventually. How do you get a stable, pure sortition system without also controlling the forces that drive societal evolution as well?

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  14. Naomi,

    >Elected governments have done as well as they have in the developing world (which is not saying all that much) because they include and domesticate, rather than exclude and alienate, the independently powerful.

    Exactly, it’s a myth to think that the power divisions in society are created by elections. My proposal is to include but quarantine the rich and powerful to a purely advocacy role.

    >But they do so in a framework that requires the consent of the masses and allows for an organic ebb and flow of instutional power based on popular opinion.

    And the best way to do this is to enable consent/rejection by the medium of an allotted sample of all citizens.

    >All the powerful forces in society — be they tribal elders or industrial tycoons — have incentive to stand together and push for reform toward a system that is more representative of their ability to influence the public debate.

    Agreed. That’s why their role must be acknowledged and duly quarantined (impossible in a pure sortition system). You can’t remove power differentials by fiat, they will just return, but in a covert and uncontrollable way. This is why I’ve made the comparison between “pure” sortition and neoconservatism — the erroneous belief that all you have to do is get rid of the bad guys and then society will be reborn in peace and harmony.

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  15. Some portion of societal conflict is inherent in any society and some portion is exacerbated, if not actually created by parties seeking to demonize “the other” as a means of mobilizing supporters and distracting people from policy failures with an enemy. Elections do not MERELY channel pre-existing conflicts. What proportion is which, none of us can say, and it likely varies depending on time and place.

    It may well be that no democratic system will ever completely equalize citizens’ rights (independent power will always find a way)… but isn’t it worth TRYING to achieve this democratic vision, even if we always fall short? Whether we should make special accommodations to the powerful and try to merely restrain somewhat their range (Keith’s advocacy role), or establish institutions that facilitate having all citizens actually being equal in the realm of public policy is both a theoretical and a practical question, that cannot be definitively settled here.

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  16. Terry,

    Fair point. But whilst establishing equality is relatively easy in theory (Yoram’s logical syllogisms will suffice), it’s the practical difficulties that Naomi and I are concerned about. Political science is a practical domain and we need to start with human beings and their societies as they are, as opposed to some kind of tabula rasa. The myth of the left has always been that all we need to change is the rulebook, but even the early Marx accepted there was some kind of species being, as opposed to pure social constructivism. Conservatives like me (I can’t speak for Naomi) believe that we need to work with the crooked timbers of mankind, rather than transform them by a leap of imagination, and I think this is at the root of our disagreement.

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  17. Keith,

    No, I don’t think that is the crux of our differences. We both agree that humans are extremely imperfect, and I don’t think sortition will change human nature…But human nature for all of us is a range, rather than a fixed setting.
    1. Using the “crooked timbers” metaphor…Elections are intended to select the straightest lumber, but they actually select the More crooked timbers (those who seek office tend to have inflated self-confidence, unrealistic sense of competence, power hunger, sense of superiority, reluctance to accept alternative interpretations of reality, pride of authorship, etc.) Better to take a random sample of lumber than a mix of some straight but mostly more crooked than average.
    2. All humans are subject to corruption, and extended power through re-election and elevated status make for a group of people who are extra prone to corruption. In other words even if the lumber was straight, it BECOMES crooked exposed to the warping humidity of power over an extended time.
    3. Institutions can make corruption more or less likely depending on incentives, risks, etc. We should favor institutions that make corruption least likely (which random selection and rotation do).

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  18. Terry,

    Thanks for the clarification, I’m glad we agree on the desiderata, the analysis of the human condition, and that “institutions that facilitate having all citizens actually being equal in the realm of public policy is both a theoretical and a practical question”. I would also hope we agree that theory and practice are equally important (and purely deductive reasoning of little value in human affairs) and would only differ on:

    >isn’t it worth TRYING to achieve this democratic vision

    Well, no, and for good theoretical and practical reasons. What I have consistently tried to demonstrate is that democracy is not achievable by a single mechanism (election or sortition), for reasons that the Athenians understood well — that’s why they had two concepts and two mechanisms. And this conclusion has been endorsed by a host of modern political theorists, from Pitkin through to Urbinati. So any attempt to achieve this “vision”, however well-intended, is simply doomed to failure. On the practical side there are no historical examples of a pure sortition democracy, so what you propose is an ideal type (you’ve admitted as much in the past), requiring byzantine institutional complexity. When people try to put ideal types and utopian visions into practice they always end up with dystopia. Can you come up with a single counter-example?

    >We should favor institutions that make corruption least likely (which random selection and rotation do).

    As you well know, that is only true ex-ante, and you’ve removed all the ex-post checks and balances (party discipline, need for re-election, extra-democratic constraints etc.). All that’s left is the policeman.

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  19. > “Elections are intended to select the straightest lumber, but they actually select the More crooked timbers”

    Perhaps it would be better to say elections are meant to select the timbers that are both representative of the other timbers along their policy dimension and able to handle the job in question. But that’s taking the metaphor a bit far.

    I’m not sure I agree with the focus on corruption. It’s important, but it seems like a managed/manageable problem in the developed world. And as Keith pointed out, we don’t actually know for sure random selection will do any better on whole on this front.

    In any case, what’s wrong with the conventional trial/error/iteration model for systems development? The farther we go from contemporary experience, the less well we can predict the behavior of a proposed system and the less likely it is that we’ll get it right. I’m inclined to believe our best bet is to look at the best examples of democracy in the modern world and start from there. Hence my focus on the Swiss model. They’ve had a grand coalition in place for over 70 years. They had the exact same grand coalition in place continuously for 45 years. Nobody really seemed to have a problem with it. It seems to me that taking the final say out of the hands of the elected officials is enough to take care of the election divisiveness issue. If everything that matters to people, politically, rides on the results of an election, then yeah, it makes sense for things get a bit testy. Does anyone get testy over… say… elections for class president?

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  20. @Terry
    >”Actually there is a practical way to assure members never express themselves other than by secret vote at the end… They could only listen to testimony at home by Internet and never see or know who the other random members are. I suppose we couldn’t call this an “assembly” though. ;-)”

    Quite so, and they could collect their pay, and farm the voting out to the nine-year-old.
    Yes, I realise you’re being tongue-in cheek. (Aargh! So am I for heavens sake. I hope there are no literal-minded souls out there!)

    @Keith
    >”those of us who make measured and workable proposals will all be tarred with the same brush.”
    Fear not, Keith. You’ll remind the audience of Lord Melbourne talking to Queen Victoria.

    >”Some degree of dicastic thorubos is, as the Athenians found, inevitable”
    [For the benefit of those who may have expected this discussion to be in English, my learned friend is referring to the clamour, tumult, or uproar which may occur even in such august bodies as the Athenian “dikasteria” (People’s Court) when the members are fed up to the back teeth with pomposity, jargon, and obvious bad faith. It could never happen here, of course.]

    @Keith
    Indeed. And do you think that interjections have no “illocutionary” effect? I use your preferred jargon. If not, why do people make them? And if so, your “balance” (according to your own notions) has been heckled out the window.
    As for:
    >”leaving it all at the mercy of a tiny group of random oligarchs”
    (as opposed to a tiny group of non-random oligarchs? Is that what you would prefer?)
    in fact I leave it at the mercy of the entire population, since anyone is free to express an opinion to the SIPCs.

    @Naomi
    >” If you are going to have a pure sortition based system with a full-mandate allotted legislature… then having that legislature elect a powerful governing committee is definitely the way to go”

    It’s definitely the way I don’t go. (See my last post on Part 3 in reply to Yoram and Terry) And since the AC has no real authority (ie they can be overruled very easily) it’s not important that they be representative; in fact they won’t be, by the mere fact of an election. It will help if they have some experience though, it will mean the Assembly has to waste less time overruling them and doing their work for them.

    >”>”Disloyal to whom? There will be no “sides” in a randomly-chosen Assembly.”

    I would be quite surprised if this were indeed the case. ”

    If we changed to sortition tomorrow, of course socialists would still see themselves as socialists, conservatives as conservatives, etc. There will be no way of disciplining “party members” (non-scary quotes because the socialists need not be paid-up members of a socialist party nor conservatives of a conservative party). There would be no way of knowing how an Assembly member votes, and I would think, no point in paying party subscriptions. I’m sure your authors are probably mostly correct in their conclusions (no, I haven’t read them) but if they are talking about elective parliaments, I think their scholarship has absolutely no bearing on this case.
    How or why any member should put up with being told how to vote in an Assembly chosen as I have suggested is beyond me.
    >”Simply drawing the members of the body by lot does not change the strategic and tactical advantages of organizing.”
    What it does do is permit the members to say ‘Go and **** yourself’ to anyone who attempts to organise them.

    >”Yes. There are a few examples”
    OK. I read this with interest. All your examples are very small communities, except for the places where parties are forbidden, and Nebraska. (This last puzzles me.)
    ” Nauru, for example, has no political parties; its Parliament consists entirely in independent members of parliament or MPs, who form governing coalitions and opposition blocs through alliances of individuals”
    The line between “party” and “alliance of individuals” must be pretty fuzzy. Nauru has about 9 000 citizens, I think.

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  21. > “How or why any member should put up with being told how to vote in an Assembly chosen as I have suggested is beyond me. … What it does do is permit the members to say ‘Go and **** yourself’ to anyone who attempts to organise them.”

    Obviously, no one can force them. But it is strategically wise to organize for collective action. You have to get to a majority somehow. You can do it by networking with other members and consolidating into blocks around specific compromise demands, and then from there those blocks can network with other blocks to pass legislation on various issues. Or you could just vote your conscience on matters as they arise. But letting the cards fall where they may is rarely the optimum strategy. Trading your vote on something you don’t care about to get something you do is smart. The problem is, one vote only has so much leverage. It’s difficult to individually network with hundreds of other members on an ad-hoc, issue-by-issue basis. A consolidated block of members, on the other hand, is able to network with other blocks with less difficulty.

    I could be completely wrong, but I can’t shake the suspicion that fringe groups will have little difficulty organizing in the Assembly, even with secret voting. Maybe it won’t make much of a difference in practice, what with them being fringe groups and all. It still concerns me greatly. The Assembly would consist of an extraordinarily diverse group of amateurs. Who knows what will happen when you put them in power for a few years? We are in completely uncharted territory.

    > “OK. I read this with interest. All your examples are very small communities, except for the places where parties are forbidden, and Nebraska.”

    Nebraska is non-partisan on paper only. It’s a constitutional restriction on the formal recognition of a politician’s political affiliation, I believe. Nothing but a legacy of the progressive era’s general hate for political parties.

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  22. Naomi,

    >In any case, what’s wrong with the conventional trial/error/iteration model for systems development? The farther we go from contemporary experience, the less well we can predict the behavior of a proposed system and the less likely it is that we’ll get it right.

    Exactly. We know only three things about sortition:

    1. Selection by lot is a prophylactic against ex-ante corruption (on account of the blind break).

    2. A large enough sample will be a statistically-representative microcosm of the whole population. However, this applies (by definition) only at the aggregate, statistical, level, so it’s hard to understand how representativity can extend beyond binary functions such as voting.

    3. Randomly-selected juries have a reasonable track-record for adjudicating between competing arguments/evidence, and this is accepted by most people as a democratic form of decision making.

    That’s it really (anything I’ve missed?). Sortition-only political systems built on this minimal foundation are no more than a house of cards and will never be taken seriously beyond tiny groups of activists on forums like EbL. Much better to build on existing successful experiments like Fishkin’s 20-year social science research programme in deliberative polling, derided by purists on this blog as a sell-out to “electoralism”.

    >It is strategically wise to organize for collective action. You have to get to a majority somehow.

    Yes, parties (or at least informal alliances) will emerge spontaneously in any assembly with an active (policy generating) role, irrespective of the method of constitution (election, appointment or sortition). That’s the only way of getting things done in majoritarian systems. Not so if the only role of the jury is to determine the outcome of policy proposals generated by exogenous democratic processes.

    Campbell,

    >as opposed to a tiny group of non-random oligarchs? Is that what you would prefer?

    Well, yes, as the oligarchs have been chosen by their own peers and can be dismissed if they fail to perform as anticipated. Randomly-selected oligarchs have not been chosen by their peers and are accountable to no-one (apart from the lobbyists who may have purchased their services).

    >in fact I leave it at the mercy of the entire population

    You still refuse to address the fact that direct democracy in very large states will lead to such large numbers of interjections that none can be properly considered, hence the need for modern isegoria to take a representative form. Yoram at least recognises this, but his chosen form of representation (selection by lot) does not work at the level of the speech acts of single individuals.

    >If we changed to sortition tomorrow, of course socialists would still see themselves as socialists, conservatives as conservatives, etc.

    The implication being that this would no longer be the case on the day after tomorrow (as the 99% would be in power, leading to the end of politics and the state). This is not intended as a facetious observation, it’s the only thing that makes sense of “pure” sortition-only political systems and it’s no coincidence that advocates of such systems appear to share a (broadly) post-Marxian provenance, especially on account of the call for “real” democracy (and dismissal of the bourgeois variant).

    If this is not the case then I really don’t understand how otherwise highly intelligent people, like Yoram, Terry and yourself, can take this “pure democracy” stuff seriously. Your collective understanding and exposition of the flaws of our existing political arrangements are second to none but your own proposals are so full of flaws, that I can only imagine that you are pursuing it on account of some hidden (unconscious?) assumptions (or millenarian vision), that have not been explicitly stated. I really do want to understand what motivates you guys, so please help me out.

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  23. While I agree that some sort of hybrid system with both elections and sortition is as far as reform is likely to go in the foreseeable future, here is my concern about maintaining an electoral element. I believe the electoral element will badly distort the democratic output of the allotted portion. People are always ready to avoid doing hard mental work and instead rely on various heuristics (I recommend Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow”). You can also think of this ass short-circuiting the Condorcet Jury Theorem, or the Wisdom of Crowds by forfeiting the independence element. If elected members of a political party have advanced a proposal, a large segment of the allotted body will simply support or oppose it depending on how they feel about the party. (Look at the way the supporters of the Democratic PArty in the U.S. linded up to support Obama Care, even though it was originated by a conservative think tank and first adopted as Romney Care in Massachusetts. Once it became Obama’s, Republicans who had supported it under Romney attacked it as “socialist,” and Democrats who had favored Single Payer championed it as (pseudo) universal health care. In other words, political parties cause average citizens to defer their own judgment to their “betters,” who are still motivated by competitive electoral imperatives. This is why I prefer reform that carves off entire pieces of public policy, and hands that chunk over to an allotted system of policy decision making (like health care policy as an example), where the political parties and the elected legislature are no longer involved at all, rather than having elected officials having some formal role, mucking up the potential of the sortition process.

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  24. @Naomi
    >”“Overnight”? What? . . . He and you make deeply divisive proposals out of an honest belief in their virtue.”
    I’m not at all sure that I follow what you’re driving at in this para.

    >”but modeling people seeking power as the root of conflict in society makes no sense. ”
    I don’t think I’ve expressed an opinion on this in my post.

    >”Elected governments have done as well as they have in the developing world (which is not saying all that much) because they include and domesticate, rather than exclude and alienate, the independently powerful
    I think it’s you who are putting the cart before the horse here. The independently powerful domesticate the elections to their own ends.

    >”Do you know why I believe a pure sortition system will prove fragile in practice? Because such systems are inherently non-representative with respect to the power structures that exist within society.
    You may well be right, in tribal societies. Elective “democracy” is also a failure in these countries. The examples are legion.

    @Keith
    >”the erroneous belief that all you have to do is get rid of the bad guys and then society will be reborn in peace and harmony.”
    Did I say this? No.

    @Terry
    >”We both agree that humans are . . . . institutions that make corruption least likely (which random selection and rotation do).”
    I agree.

    @Naomi
    >”I’m not sure I agree with the focus on corruption. It’s important, but it seems like a managed/manageable problem in the developed world.”
    There have been huge scandals in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Australia, Italy, Spain, Greece, Japan, Iceland . . . Not all of the scandals resulted in the corrupt parties being punished.
    Managed? I suppose it depends on what you mean by the term.

    >” I can’t shake the suspicion that fringe groups will have little difficulty organizing in the Assembly, even with secret voting. Maybe it won’t make much of a difference in practice, what with them being fringe groups”
    Certainly groups may organise to some extent. But you’ve given part of the answer. Another part I have mentioned in the article, it is that issues will tend to cut across traditional lines. This will be true in tribal societies too, a Xhosa power-point need not be different from a Zulu one.

    >”We are in completely uncharted territory. ”
    What else is new? We always will be. Who would have thought that most of the Polish government would be wiped out in a plane crash? Or the dramatic rise of the IS? Or that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists would get a state funeral, attended by a whole bunch of foreign Heads of state?

    @Keith
    >”Yes, parties (or at least informal alliances) will emerge spontaneously in any assembly with an active (policy generating) role,”
    Informal alliances may well form. Without party discipline to hold them together, they will be unstable and shifting. If this were not so, there would be no need for the party discipline which we do see.

    >”Randomly-selected oligarchs have not been chosen by their peers and are accountable to no-one (apart from the lobbyists who may have purchased their services).”
    Accountability is in Part 5. Corruption in Part 6. Oligarchs are nowhere, except in your House of Lords.

    >”it’s no coincidence that advocates of such systems appear to share a (broadly) post-Marxian provenance,”
    I wish you would not keep trying to pin a political label on me. Quite frankly, I don’t myself know how to class my political views: I don’t follow any party or tendency that I know of. I’m perfectly sure you don’t know how to categorise me without error.
    But who gives a damn whether I’m left, right, or neither? CW is not important, and it’s got nothing to do with the argument I’m setting out.

    >”your own proposals are so full of flaws”
    It’s precisely to find flaws that I’m posting here, not to evangelise EbL readers. For the most part your objections have not convinced me, though I do attempt to see your point of view, as should be apparent from Part 4 of my essay.

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  25. Terry,

    I think perhaps someone who has devoted most of their life to public service may be disposed to view his fellow citizens as potentially endowed with similar motivations. But is this realistic for a group of randomly-selected conscripts in large modern states where most people view themselves as consumers of public services rather than active citizens? People may well have been infantilised by the political process in the ways that you suggest but I’m a lot more sceptical that most will rise to your challenge to doing the hard mental work that your active citizen model suggests. And if you end up with a small minority doing the hard mental work, then the sortition mechanism will have failed in its duty of representing what most people would think under good conditions. The classic wisdom of crowds literature focuses on aggregate judgment, not the hard mental work required to come up with innovative solutions to problems that may not even affect them directly.

    Where I think you are being unduly pessimistic is believing that the partisan forces that sway the judgment of elected officials will affect allotted juries in a similar way. Why do you think that jurors will not simply measure up the arguments, decide which are the most persuasive and then vote accordingly? If the advocacy and information is well balanced why should this affect the Condorcet independence criterion one way or the other?

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  26. As the discussion begins examining corruption, I have a challenge…”Corruption” isn’t the perfect word to encompass the kinds of distortions I am concerned about. It would be helpful to agree on a word that is broader than bribery, etc. that included the tendency to change one’s thinking over time in power… psychologically into a more or less privileged elite; basing policy decisions on factors that are not relevant to the matter at hand, but reflect some quid pro quo vote swapping; etc. In other words behavior that is perfectly legal and normal in current legislative bodies, yet I believe is detrimental and most people would not label as “corruption.” The thesaurus doesn’t offer a good word in English…perhaps “corrosion?”

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  27. Corrosion or institutional corrosion sounds good

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  28. @Terry
    >”the kinds of distortions I am concerned about. It would be helpful to agree on a word that is broader than bribery, etc. that included the tendency to change one’s thinking over time in power… psychologically into a more or less privileged elite; basing policy decisions on factors that are not relevant to the matter at hand, but reflect some quid pro quo vote swapping; etc. In other words behavior that is perfectly legal and normal in current legislative bodies, yet I believe is detrimental ”

    The grey area here certainly bears thinking about. Has no-one done a study of it?
    One of my favourites is the plaintive wail of an ambitious deputy prime minister to the prime minister:
    “Oh come on, Bob, you’ve been PM long enough. It’s my turn now.”
    A little later he got his way. I don’t know to what extent his cabinet colleagues were influenced by this appeal to “fair play”. No laws were breached, not even custom; and yet the argument makes me think of a band of robbers quarreling over the division of the spoils.
    Another one is the case of a senator of a minority party which held the balance of power in the senate, and was able to block any laws which offended their minority views. This gentleman was a thorough pain in the side to successive governments, until one of them made him ambassador to the Vatican. Bribed? What an outrageous suggestion.

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  29. Terry,
    I forgot to add that I have inserted a sentence in item 5 part 1:
    5. Some countries subsidise political campaigns at taxpayers’ expense, ostensibly in order to reduce the effect of donations by wealthy groups. Unfortunately this leads to an unfair advantage for some parties, generally the largest, since the money is usually given in proportion to the votes that each party receives, or is limited to parties that gain more than a certain percentage of the vote. Since the laws governing these subventions are implemented by the politicians of the major parties, who are the ones that benefit, this is a form of corruption.

    The last sentence is new.

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  30. […] 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part […]

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  31. […] 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part […]

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  32. No-one has commented on the section “Conflict of interest”, nor on “Will Assemblies and Policy Committees . . be subject to the same failings as juries?”

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