Ismael Serageldin: Transparency and Trust in Trying Times

Ismael Serageldin is the Director of the Library of Alexandria, and one of the most well-connected people in the world. In September he delivered a lecture in Latvia (where he was receiving his 38th honorary doctorate) titled “Transparency and Trust in Trying Times” in which he proposes allotting the legislature (PDF). Serageldin developed his enthusiasm for sortition reform after reading David Van Reybrouck’s book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy and Terrill Bouricius’s paper “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day”. This lecture discusses a range of topics revolving around the deficit of democracy, and the portion about his proposal for a legislature through sortition begins on page 18.

Extract:

We could try to salvage representative democracy – at least for the legislative branch – by adopting a system of sortition.

The problems we see with legislative or parliamentary elections – a backbone of parliamentary representative democracy – can be summed up as:

  • The polarization that leads to paralysis or blockage, as happens in the US congress and as seen in Belgium staying over 500 days without a government.
  • The interference of money in the electoral process which leads to undue influence of the rich, resulting in a generalized feeling of the voters not trusting the parliamentarians or congressmen that they elected.
  • The gerrymandering of individual districts to suit particular interests with a very large preponderance of particular parties wining particular seats
  • The disparity between the shares that different parties get of the actual votes cast and the shares of the seats taken in the parliament
  • The enormous power of incumbency that results in individual deputies being almost invulnerable, with probability of reelection in certain districts exceeding 95%.

Sortition would replace conventional elections. The kind of elections that we have come to take as a given, with political parties vying for power, and entrenched political incumbents getting reelected and a feeling among the public that the elected parliament still does not really represent them, and that in reality things are governed by the elite because money and politics have become too intertwined.

Sortition can respond – at least partially – to these challenges to representative democracy.

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21 Responses

  1. It is worth noting that former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan also spoke favorably of sortition for legislatures at a September 2017 conference held in Athens.

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  2. Yes. Someone pointed this out and I posted about this at the time. Sortition is on the march.

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  3. *** Yoram Gat is right : « Sortition is on the march ». But modern supporters of democracy-through-minipublics must consider two facts before being overly optimistic.
    *** First, the idea is usually centered upon the legislative power, because « it makes the law ». But the actual law is what executive agents and judges say is the law. If there are not minipublics to carry audits of the executive agencies and if the last word in judicial matters is not given to judicial minipublics, the legislative power can be bogus. That allotted judicial juries give sovereign power to the dêmos is expressed by Aristotle (Constitution of Athens, 9-1). He refers to a supposed Law by Solon giving judicial « last word » to allotted popular juries (modern historians doubt strongly of the attribution to Solon, who became a mythic figure), and he says « indeed when the dêmos is master of the pebble (= the token for judiciary votes), he is master (or “sovereign”, Greek kyrios) of the political system ». Conversely, if the dêmos is not master of the judicial branch, he is not sovereign. Likewise, in a modern society, if he doesn’t oversee the executive branch.
    *** Second point : sortition may be viewed by some supporters of the polyarchic system as a way to complicate the system and protecting the elites from « populist menaces ». It is explicit in Pierre Rosanvallon’s article « A Reflection on Populism » (Rosanvallon is a known bright historian and ideologue of polyarchy) that you can find on Internet. The summary says « As a counterbalance to the simplistic temptations of the populism that is currently spreading within European democracies, Pierre Rosanvallon invites us to complicate our notion of democracy and make it polyphonic, because the people do not all speak with one voice. » The « random people », as « the participants in a consensus conference », will be a voice among others, that will be opposed, if necessary, to the electorate (as, too, the courts, the « social people », the public opinion …). If the « consensus conferences » are « well » organized, for instance with a voluntary basis which, at least in our societies, will lead to a poorly representative sample, their median sensitivity will be quite different from the electorate, and it will be easy to play on this opposition. The conference is better for deliberation, but not representative, the electorate is bad for deliberation ; therefore no clear popular will. Rosanvallon’s polyphony is actually noise to avoid the surge of a popular will. I am afraid that this thought is behind at least a part of the contemporary appeal of sortition. I conclude that supporters of democracy-through-minipublics must concentrate on the idea of representativity as perfect as possible, and must not support sortition outside of this frame. A minipublic may have different choices than the electorate, but only because deliberation is better.

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  4. Hi André,

    Your second point is excellent. Indeed, Annan’s comments for example do indicate that for him sortition is just one proposal for fixing, i.e., shoring up, the current system, rather than a basis for a new system. In fact, the concept of “crisis of democracy” (or “democratic fatigue” as Van Reybrouck puts it) is itself problematic, since it insinuates that the existing system used to function democratically and has only fallen into disrepair lately. In reality, the system never functioned democratically (and cannot function democratically and was not designed to function democratically) and resentment about that has been building up for decades.

    Regarding the first point: I think that you make a good point in saying that the judicial and executive functions of government wield significant power and so must be democratized as well. I do however think that the legislative branch is the crucial fulcrum. Once the legislature is democratized, further democratization can be attained using the power of the legislature.

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  5. For a legislative sortition system to succeed there must also be a mini-public appointment, review, and replacement of executives. Having a directly elected executive is very dangerous. If a charismatic leader is popularly elected, I fear that it is easy to imagine how claiming a mandate from the people the risk of executive authoritarianism is even greater against a randomly selected legislative branch of ordinary people than against a counter-balance of ego-driven elected representatives who are jealous of their own power.

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  6. By the time an allotted legislature is in place the idea that election generates “a mandate from the people” will be considered a silly anachronism just as the idea of a king having a divine mandate is seen as silly today. Even now, as electoralism is increasingly discredited, the idea of the electoral mandate is on shaky grounds as far as the public is concerned. Surely there will always be the Sutherlands who will endlessly and earnestly assert such ideas, but no one will take them seriously (and few do even today).

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  7. *** Yoram Gat says « the legislative branch is the crucial fulcrum. Once the legislature is democratized, further democratization can be attained using the power of the legislature ». But the standard contemporary model of polyarchy includes « judicial review » by Courts or Councils, and this review is often officially seen as a way to curb eventual « bad » moves by the dêmos. These Courts and Councils, which I am afraid will generally have few good feelings towards Dêmokratia, will put as many obstacles as they can in the way of democratization, choosing the good moments and taking advantages of the frailties of the dêmos (as racial or religious ones).
    *** Yoram Gat says « By the time an allotted legislature is in place the idea that election generates “a mandate from the people” will be considered a silly anachronism ». I doubt. I am convinced that in France at least it would be much easier to establish an allotted legislature than to cancel the election of the president by general vote.
    *** Bouricius says « Having a directly elected executive is very dangerous. If a charismatic leader is popularly elected, I fear that it is easy to imagine how claiming a mandate from the people the risk of executive authoritarianism is even greater against a randomly selected legislative branch of ordinary people ». Actually, with a two-rounds election as in France, the possibility of an elected president with a clear absolute majority in the first round is very low. Therefore the representative legitimacy of the president would not be so strong. With one stage presidential election as in the USA, this is less clear, but in the last election no candidate had an absolute majority, and even supposing Trump or Clinton winning such a majority, everybody would have know that a part of the majority would be voters for the lesser evil. In France Macron won in the second round, but he was only preferred to Le Pen. In recent elections in western countries, how were won by charismatic leader with a strong majority of enthusiast followers ? Clearly what Bouricius fears is a possibility but not with a high level of probability.
    *** Therefore I think that the main immediate targets of a democracy- through-minipublics movement must be the legislative and high judicial bodies.

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  8. The legislative power only write law, they do not apply them. And France is an excellent actual example of a muzzled legilative power. It dangerously cannot write any law. Indeed the executive power with its “ordonance” and its supermajority in the “Assemblée nationale” dictates to the legislative power what it has to write. In such a context, an alloted Assemblée nationale wouldn’t change things much, worse it would have less legitimacy than the executive power in a democracy like France.

    This is why sortition could instead targets the executive power (to initiate a stochocracy). Before jumping on your keyboard, let me say that I agree with Mr Bourricius: designating a single person to rule is very dangerous. I would add the example of the last American election. They elected a lunatic. It is also true that you cannot govern if you are more than a small number. But why do we need to designate a single person. Sorting two lunatics would be dangerous but unlikely, alloting three lunatics seems impossible. Why can’t we have three presidents?

    P.S: Could you name the president of Switzerland? Exactly

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  9. To be aware if they are new comments.

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  10. Andre,

    > These Courts and Councils, which I am afraid will generally have few good feelings towards Dêmokratia, will put as many obstacles as they can in the way of democratization, choosing the good moments and taking advantages of the frailties of the dêmos

    Such elite sabotage is certainly something to be on the watch for. Still, by the time an allotted legislature is instituted, such efforts would be part of a losing battle. It seems to me that efforts to undermine sortition would be much more dangerous in the period before sortition is established (that is, in the period we are in now). That is why sortition advocates should be very selective in embracing various proposals and “experiments”.

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  11. Andre:> I conclude that supporters of democracy-through-minipublics must concentrate on the idea of representativity as perfect as possible, and must not support sortition outside of this frame.

    Absolutely. I note in particular Rosanvallon’s appeal to voluntarist consensus conferences as a way of overturning popular majority decisions. For stochation to be democratically valid, participation has to be quasi-mandatory, advocacy well-informed and balanced and voting secret, so that “a minipublic may have different choices than the electorate, but only because deliberation is better.”

    Andre also points out the need to consider the sovereignty of the executive and judicial branches and cites Aristotle in favour of democracy through minipublics. But it’s wrong to refer to this as “popular oversight” — in the Athenian demokratia all prosecutions were brought by individual citizens — although the trials were judged by an allotted jury, the prosecutors were usually fellow members of the political elite. This would support Terry’s argument for the need to harness the jealousy of other ego-driven elected representatives against the misuse of directly-elected executive power. It’s fanciful to believe that a randomly-selected group of ordinary citizens would have the knowledge or confidence to call powerful executives and judges to account (although, as in the Athenian example, they would have the necessary skills to determine the outcome of a prosecution.) When Aristotle claimed “the dêmos is master of the pebble” he wasn’t referring to throwing stones.

    Yoram:> Surely there will always be the Sutherlands who will endlessly and earnestly assert [the electoral mandate], but no one will take them seriously.

    Yoram’s faith in the transformation of popular consciousness that will result from the end of “electoralism” is touching but unrealistic. By contrast, public acceptance of the aleatory mandate will require very convincing evidence of near-perfect representativity, by which it can be demonstrated that the decision of the minipublic would have been the same irrespective of which empirical individuals were selected for the sample. This would (IMO) require very tight constraints on the power and deliberative style of the minipublic. There will be no golden dawn for the New Aleatory Age and the masses will not commit electoralism to the detritus of history as they were (wrongly) predicted to discard politics and the state. Don’t you old Marxists ever learn?

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  12. *** Keith Sutherland approves the argument of Terry Bouricius « for the need to harness the jealousy of other ego-driven elected representatives against the misuse of directly-elected executive power ». Indeed Bouricius’ idea has value ; and if we suppose a system with allotted legislative body and an elected president, a body of elected councilors could be useful, provided it has not the last word, but only deliberative and slowing function, as the Senate in the French contemporary system.
    *** Keith says « public acceptance of the aleatory mandate will require very convincing evidence of near-perfect representativity, by which it can be demonstrated that the decision of the minipublic would have been the same irrespective of which empirical individuals were selected for the sample ». If the legislative body is actually a string of minipublics, the reproducibility may be proven ; and if there are disagreement between the various minipublics, the legislative procedure must include more deliberation until consensus of the minipublics.
    *** Note that if I accept that Keith’s argument needs to be considered, I doubt it is an obstacle for a wide acceptation of the minipublic idea. In debates about the subject, outside the kleroterian sphere, the reproducibility problem does not seem to get a big role.

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  13. *** Romain Cazé asks : « why do we need to designate a single person. Sorting two lunatics would be dangerous but unlikely, allotting three lunatics seems impossible. Why can’t we have three presidents? »
    *** Interesting idea (and we could appeal to gender parity: a female president and a male one). Good in the perspective of a republican system (Rome had two consuls), but not so good for a democratic system. If the dêmos chooses a manager to implement a policy, it may be good to appoint to him an overseer, able to alert the dêmos in case the manager behaves as a lunatic. But if there is dual (or plural) management, there is no more accountability.

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  14. Andre:> In debates about the subject, outside the kleroterian sphere, the reproducibility problem does not seem to get a big role.

    I think that’s because the issue hasn’t been properly thought through (although both Bob Goodin and Peter Stone have raised the issue elsewhere). But surely the claim that the judgment of the minidemos is indicative of the informed judgment of the majority of the target population presupposes reproducibility — otherwise which decision would be the representative one? This is the same standard as in any other form of scientific enquiry (stochation relies on theorems derived from statistical science).

    >if there are disagreement between the various minipublics, the legislative procedure must include more deliberation until consensus of the minipublics.

    But the Condorcet theorem (and the other wisdom of crowds literature), presuppose independence, so the only representative way of overcoming disagreement would be via a new experiment using larger samples.

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  15. > the reproducibility problem does not seem to get a big role.

    The notion that people would base their opinions regarding sortition-based government on whether one allotted body would arrive at the “same policy” as some other body is laughable (what does “same policy” even mean?!). The test of any government system is not in some formal criterion concocted by some self-appointed judge but rather in the system’s ability to produce desirable outcomes.

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  16. In many countries the executives are selected by parliament. I don’t see any reason not to keep this mechanism with the only difference being that parliament is allotted rather than elected.

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  17. Which countries? It sounds like a direct violation of power separation.

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  18. Yoram:> The test of any government system is not in some formal criterion concocted by some self-appointed judge but rather in the system’s ability to produce desirable outcomes.

    That’s a good example of what Nadia Urbinati refers to as the “epistemic disfiguration of democracy”. It begs so many questions that it beggars belief that anyone can state it like that (and still keep a straight face).

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  19. > Which countries?

    The countries that use a “parliamentary system“.

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  20. Thank you Yoram. I guess this question reflects how newbie I am in political science and with my French-centralism I forgot about England (even if I lived there ;).

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  21. Ismael Serageldin’s outline of a sortition approach to legislation (17-21) is on the money in important regards, it seems to me.

    His proposing of short terms of service and division of powers for “jury parliaments” is correct, in my view. (In his outline each legislative jury parliament only decides one bill and then disbands, and a jury parliament does not decide which proposal(s) it will decide.)

    Ismael:
    >A first parliament would be chosen by lottery. Remember that, scientifically, the most representative sample from a population is a random sample. • That parliament would set the legislative agenda for the coming period by ranking the most important issues that they believe should be addressed in this session of the legislature. They would then be disbanded and go home. A process of priority setting (i.e. priority should be to health reform, or to improving public transport, etc.) with no details to be discussed would probably take a few weeks.

    I agree that the agenda items need to be decided by one or more jury parliaments, and that each such parliament only serve for a short time, such as not more than a few weeks or months.

    However, it is not good for the agenda items to be limited to only “the most important issues.” Yes, making sure “the most important issues” (as judged by a jury parliament) are addressed is part of well-designed democratic lawmaking, but it is also important and desirable that matters of lesser importance are also addressed. Also, if a matter is only of great importance to a small minority (perhaps a law to protect trans people from discrimination for example), that is no reason, it seems to me, why it should be kept off the agenda and therefore effectively vetoed and blocked (in the case that most of those in a jury parliament don’t see it as one of “the most important issues” because it does not affect them).

    As well as deciding which issues are addressed, “agenda jury parliaments” should also decide which specific proposals will go to a jury parliament for a final decision.

    Ismael:
    >Then knowledgeable and interested groups would get together and make their proposals for those priority areas. …
    Then groups of legal specialists would be composed from the ministry of justice, universities and others to combine and write the proposals as a major bill and many amendments.

    O.k., as long as arrangements are in place to make sure that legislation proposed by whoever wishes to, is not filtered out by “groups of legal specialists” or other oligarchic bodies. Only a jury parliament should have the power to filter out a legislative proposal, in my view.

    It is also desirable, in my view, to make provision for the democratic public funding of proposed legislation, so that good legislative proposals are not prevented because only very modestly funded public interest groups are interested in formulating them. For example, law reform commissions with the commissioners chosen by jury, and with their funding decided by jury, can be mandated to propose public interest laws. For example, jury parliaments can be allowed to provide funding to public interest groups that might be especially well able to formulate good legislative proposals, for example funds for the ACLU to hire the staff it may need to formulate good proposed laws on government transparency, whistleblower protections, and the privacy rights of citizens. For example, bodies of professional politicians can be chosen by jury with part of their mandate being to propose public interest laws. Only jury parliaments would be able to pass laws (anything else would be undemocratic, in my view).

    Ismael’s outline does not address what happens if new legislation is needed soon, or on an emergency basis. In my proposal for democratic lawmaking, as there continue to be standing bodies of professional politicians (preferably chosen by jury), and also other standing bodies chosen by jury that can propose laws, such bodies can quickly put forward needed emergency legislation at any time, which can then go quickly to a jury parliament for a decision. The body putting forward the emergency legislation could present the jury parliament with more than one version of it, perhaps one version supported by the majority of the body, and another by a minority of the body. The jury parliament could make the emergency legislation temporary, pending an extension by another jury parliament in say six months.

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