Frijters: Against sortition

Paul Frijters is a Professor of Economics at the University of Queensland and an Adjunct Professor at the Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences.

Frijters has written a post titled “Would sortition help against corruption?” in which he lays out his thinking about “what is likely to happen to the problem of special interests in Australia in two different scenarios: if we’d select our MPs randomly, or if we’d decide on mayor policies via citizen juries.”

Frijters’s concluding paragraphs:

I used to be quite charmed of the idea of citizen juries for policies and even for deciding on who would be in parliament. It sounded so democratic, such an elegant solution to the problem of special interest groups worming their way into our democratic institutions. It seemed like a magic solution for hard problems.

On reflection though, I find myself on the side of Edmund Burke and Socrates, who both denounced the idea as silly and unworkable. I agree with them: it is hard to see what use small random groups of citizens would be for policy-making in modern Western institutions.

An interesting discussion follows the post, with several discussants who seem to be aware of the idea and who seem to have given it some thought.

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10 Responses

  1. Fritjers’ objections to random members of parliament are persuasive and indicate the idiocy of simply replacing elections with sortition. As for random policy juries he’s right to emphasise the problem of who is going to feed the jury the information needed to make decisions. But his answer (the government) ignores the 20-year research programme into deliberative polling which endeavours to give equally-balanced information on both sides (as in a judicial court and the Athenian nomothetai) and also presupposes large juries (c. 300) in order to ensure accurate descriptive representation and to protect against corruption. So this part of his article is aimed at a straw man.

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  2. Like Keith, I share Fritjers’ objections to using sortition simply to replace elections. and I also share his misgivings about who supplies the information to citizen juries. In the case of limited local issues that is not a serious problem, because the issues relate to considerations that a random selection of people who are interested enough to undertake service on such bodies can be expected to understand. But that sort of understanding certainly can’t encompass serious economic, health and environmental issues.

    The key limitation of the assumptions on which such criticism is based is that it fails to see the potential of focussed public discussion that hjas emerged as a possibility with the development of the internet. For the first time in history it is possible to conduct a fully public discussion of specific issues that is accessible to anybody who is capable of expressing what they want to say with some degree of precision so that anybody else who is interested can examine it.

    In my recent Demarchy Manifesto, published by Imprint Academic and Sydney University Press, I have argued that a well organised and financed foundation dedicated to promoting full public discussion on a particular internet site can bring together the views of various think-tanks, lobby groups and ordinary citizens and expect tjem to address each other’s concerns. In doing so they have to find common ground, not in their ideologies, but in claims about the effects of decisions that anybody must recognise and accept as relevant.

    Anybody can post their views on such a site, and it might be expected to generate an enormous amount of material of very varied quality. So careful editing is required to enable people to single out the best analyses of various threads of the discussion and be able to find the better expositions of relevant arguments on particular questions, without having to wade through it all.

    That obviously puts considerable responsibility on the editors. But it is all there in public. People who object to their not being singled out as worth reading can post their objections and seek support for their complaint. Anybody with experience of scholarly editing understands what constitutes good, helpful editing that is directed to making texts more understandable and accessible. The reputation of the foundation will depend crucially on the quality of its editing being generally recognised as helpful. You can get some sense of how this editing could work from the international websites called “The Conversation” which originated in Australia and are now published daily on local base in the US, the UK, France and South Africa. In each case these sites are supported by a consortium of universities. However, they only sporadically focus on particular aspects of problems and do not invite initiatives from the public, though they do accepts comments in the way this site does.

    In this perspective the task of a citizen jury is to adjudicate the result of the comprehensive public debate focussed on a specific issue, again proceeding entirely through published exchanges, so as to formulate a practical conclusion from it. I believe that can be successful on most issues, once the discussion focusses on the particular considerations that affect that issue. The bane of politics is ideology in which the worth of a proposal is judged largely on its being judged as for or against a certain power bloc or conception of “the sort of society we want to have”. I believe that people are now becoming very disillusioned with such “top-down” thinking. Of course, the complex of decisions that we make have to adjust to each other and from those adjustments patterns emerge, but almost always in unexpected ways, hardly ever as the proponents opponents of ideologies predicted. We have to live with the fact that the patterns of societies as wholes cannot be predicted, but short term consequences of particular decisions can and we must do our best to get those particulars right.

    Of course, all such decisions are fallible, dependent on the stae of knowledge and moods of the times. The important thing is that the public discussion goes on, seeking to profit from its own mistakes, just as science does.

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  3. Google Alerts found a response which I believe was written by Jon Roland.

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  4. Frijters’s arguments against an allotted parliament are quite standard. Their refutations appear in the list of refutations that I posted in the past.

    1. “[T]he 150 selected MPs would quickly realise that they are competing with each other for desirable jobs.” This is refuted here.

    2. “[L]ong-run political parties have an incentive to keep up their brand-name, and individual MPs currently can hope to get back into parliament in future periods if their electorate approves of them.” This is refuted here.

    3. “One-term MPs who are random members of the citizenry don’t have such constraints and should normally be expected to sell their votes to the highest bidder.” This is refuted here.

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  5. Frijters assumes those 150 allotted legislators just steal everything when you are not looking. No anti bribery laws & law enforcement agencies exist in Frijters’ world.

    His assumption that all ordinary people just steal money is contemptible.

    He is assuming Prime Minister and his Cabinet comes from this 150 member allotted body. He is unaware of Multi Body Sortition system advocated by Bouricius.

    Selection of PM & his cabinet, passing laws, oversight of law enforcement can all be done by different bodies. No need to overload everything on one single body.

    I think Sortition can work very well in a society where there is a high degree of social and economic equality & high levels of decentralization. But there are some tasks that need to be subject to Central authority, for eg, Civil Rights, possible criminal conduct by lower level decentralized government authorities etc.

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  6. It’s interesting to contrast the hysterical tone of some of the commentators here — “contemptible” — with the informed and measured comments on the original blog. As for Ajit’s objection, the standard advice for those seeking to build constitutions is to hope for the best but assume the worst, and to rely on structural constraints against corruption (rather than the police).

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  7. So accusing a large group of people for being selfish and corrupt is “informed and measured” but pointing out that this is contemptible is “hysterical”.

    Sutherland – you are a worthless joke.

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  8. It’s certainly bad manners to describe an author as “contemptible”, but then it’s equally bad manners to describe a commentator as a “worthless joke”.

    >Describing a large group of anonymous people as selfish and corrupt.

    Presumably you’re referring to Fritjers’ “One-term MPs who are random members of the citizenry don’t have such constraints and should normally be expected to sell their votes to the highest bidder.” A tad hyperbolic by my standards, but this is the sort of rational choice language used by economists, especially when writing on blogs. I would personally have described it in terms of the absence of structural constraints making such a body more open to corruption. The designers of constitutions are ill-advised to rely on the moral probity of citizens (or intrusive police action), much better to ensure that the system lends itself to ethical behaviour, and the combination of intrusive publicity, party discipline and the need to gain re-election are the key factors. All these would disappear in the Aleatorian Republic, thereby opening the floodgates of (ex-post) bribery and corruption.

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  9. A couple of responses here…
    1. Keith is off base suggesting Ajit had an hysterical tone (He did not say the AUTHOR was contemptible but rather “His ASSUMPTION that all ordinary people just steal money is contemptible.” [emphasis added].
    All people have the potential for corruption, but sociologists have shown that people who are made to feel important or powerful … elites, wealthy (like those who have WON election) are statistically MORE likely to behave unethically than are average citizens (many studies with numerous replication studies have confirmed this tendency).

    2. The author was either intentionally setting up a straw man or made the faulty assumption that sortition advocates were extremely stupid and that the allotted legislature they designed would function and use the identical procedures that current elected legislatures do. I think any reasonable person supports having appropriate structural and legal defenses against corruption by legislators (elected or selected by lot). An exception is that currently serving legislators are the LEAST likely to devise good anti-corruption tools, which is why I favor a separate meta-legislative mini-public for that purpose.

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  10. Terry,

    My original comment was not about the author; the second, ad hominem assumption, was prompted by Yoram’s description of me (“Sutherland”) as a “worthless joke” (I note that you don’t mete out the same criticism to him). On the substantive issue of corruption, the point is whether or not you build in structural constraints to ensure good behaviour. Sortition-only theorists (other than yourself) generally rely on a combination of optimistic assumptions regarding human nature (not shared by rational choice economists like Frijters) and police action.

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