Why sortition is not enough

In over forty years of advocating sortition, the reaction I have most frequently encountered is: “No thanks. I’m not surrendering my vote to a faceless ragbag of the sort of people I have to put up with every day. Politicians may be full of faults, but at least they have gone through a selection process that ensures they aren’t complete idiots.”

I reply that it is not a question of personnel, but of structured roles and the way they work. Most people do attempt to meet the requirements of the roles entrusted to them. Not everybody succeeds, but in a representative sample they will do at least as well as a corresponding sample of voters at the task of making the right decisions. One of the basic defects of voting is that people are reduced to choosing what is on offer, and it is often the case that none of the options on offer is satisfactory, because the party system subordinates considerations of policy to the wheeling and dealing of the struggle for power. Sortition removes policy from any such struggle.

One would expect people who have no career at stake to look at proposals on their merits, as they affect people like themselves rather than as a matter of political tactics. But that is not enough. Already in the early 1980s when I wrote Is Democracy Possible? I realised that even very intelligent open- minded people often don’t understand the problems of minority groups such as Aboriginal people or the long-term unemployed. The advice of experts is often of limited value; based on theories that concentrate on one aspect of a problem, where the difficulty is how to relate incommensurable aspects of that problem.
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Democracy, public opinion and sortition

Democracy is a disputed term. Many totalitarian regimes have claimed it in the name of the true destiny or real interests of the people, assuming that in all major decisions all those who are committed to that destiny or those interests must agree. Whether they know it or not, deviants are working against the people and must be discredited. These regimes devote great efforts to constructing a facade of unanimity among almost all of their citizens.

This demand for unanimity is not limited to dogmatic Communists and Fascist movements. It also characterises populist movements that appeal to segments of a population who feel that their way of life is threatened by the dominant elites within their society or by infiltration by sinister enemies. These enemies are identifiable by their lack of enthusiasm for the right values.

In opposition to these disastrous regimes, liberal democrats insist on freedom of opinion and on political practices that ensure there is a real choice between rival occupants of positions of political authority. This view assumes that the competition between aspirants to power takes place against a background consensus about the limits of legitimate power and the sort of considerations that are relevant to choosing between opposing policies. People who prefer one set of candidates to others can accept their opponents as legitimate occupants of public office, at least for their term of office.

Such a society depends on a strong public opinion being understood not as fixed agreement about everything of importance to public life, but on a confidence that the process of public discussion will deliver practical conclusions that are certainly fallible, and by no means universally agreed, but open to correction in the normal course of events. What is largely agreed is what sort of considerations are to be taken into account in particular kind s of decisions, even though people will differ about the relative weight to be attached to different considerations.
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Clarification after a week in the desert

1. There are very good grounds for believing that strong public debate over a short period of time, say five years, is extremely effective in changing public opinion and consequently political decisions to the extent that they are responsive to thoroughly well-considered public opinion.

I list a few triumphs for critical moral discussion in more or less random sequence in my experience:

  • The abolition of the White Australia mentality and the laws that implemented it.
  • The recognition of the rights of Indigenous people as the original owners of this land.
  • The recognition that women should be able to take full part as equals with men in every public activity.
  • The abolition of the assumption that women should be paid less than men.
  • The recognition of unions that are not formalised by marriage, and of the rights of people to premarital sex.
  • The recognition of the right to equal respect for same-sex couples as different-sex couples.
  • The rights of colonies to complete independence.
  • The rights of individuals and groups to cultural freedom within nation-states.
  • The abolition of racism as a basis for inferior treatment, socially, economically and politically.
  • The recognition of the need of the disabled to be able to participate fully in community activities.

All of these changes were brought about primarily by critical moral thinking coming to very generally accepted by people who had been educated in the contrary view. In hardly any respect were those who embraced those changes people who themselves benefited from them. The only sense in which they benefited was in their self-esteem and, as agreement grew, in the esteem of others. In almost every case, explicit political recognition of these changes followed enlightened, critical opinion. That is the core meaning of democracy, in my view, and my concern is to extend it.
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Why do we need common goods? (with some concessions)

Deliberately constructed public or common goods differ in what they require of participants in several different ways. The following are typical of their diversity:

1. To solve conflicts of interests that tend to produce disadvantageous results for all the participants if they fail to cooperate, but positive goods if the do.

2. To produce positive goods that benefit almost everybody, but which private enterprise cannot as easily produce.

3. To provide coordinated action to avert evils that are the result from unregulated action.

Examples and discussion:

1. A simple example: Jack and Jill from Leeds want to go on holiday together and enjoy each other’s company. But when it comes to making arrangements Jack says he wants to go to Prague, while Jill wants to go to the Costa Brava. Being sensible people the do not adopt the facile solution of tossing a coin to see who wins this year, with the promise that he or she will be given first choice next year. That simply equalises the misery of being dragged to a place one doesn’t want to go to.
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Publicity, conformity and change

I’ve been having an email exchange with Yoram about how to ensure that people in various roles act as that role requires. Basically my answer is to ensure that what they do is completely open to public scrutiny and assessment.

Yoram replies that the standards in terms of which those assessments are made are set by the establishment. So the scrutiny only serves to keep the bearers of those roles serving the interests of the establishment.

I reply that there are contexts in which that is largely true, but plenty of others where it is not, especially where there is constant open debate about the ruling conventions in particular matters. Discussion of them in completely general terms is mostly futile. Anybody who has had a long life in recent time has very many examples of complete reversals of the accepted conventions in many areas of life arising from small groups of activists succeeding in changing people’s opinions. The establishment had hardly anything to do with it. For the most part it resisted the changes quite unsuccessfully, in spite of raising fears that society was falling apart.

Where the establishment has usually been much more successful is in the case of strictly institutionalised activities like economic and political structures. Mere changes of opinion have much less effect on them. The difference is obvious. Where what people do is dependent only on their personal compromise between what they would like to do and what they think they ought to do, as in matters of sex, parenting, lifestyle, education, leisure and so on, although they are influenced by existing conventions, if enough people choose to defy or evade them, the conventions soon crumble. In many cases the result is to entrench an entirely new convention.

In strictly institutionalised roles, however, the people in those roles enjoy no such freedom. If they do not conform closely to what is expected of them, they are strongly penalised or ejected from that role. If changes are to be made in those roles, they come, not from changes of opinion among the occupants of the roles, but from those who control the sanctions and choose the employees who get to work under them. In a changing world, however, the establishment does need to change, to adapt to new conditions if they are to survive. Rigidly static organisations inevitably destroy themselves.in the long run. Even in the short run they are grossly inefficient and costly.
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Representation and what it’s for

Focussing on the importance of tackling specific problems is the key to my claim that in that way we have a much better chance of achieving a broad consensus on what needs to be done in each of those matters. Only such a consensus can lead to that decision being seen as public good, not just a necessary evil.

I further assume that what we want in each case is to get a sound solution to that particular problem. Accordingly I conclude that when it comes to deciding, after full public debate, what is the best solution in the circumstances, the people most likely to reach a good decision are those who, in different ways, are most directly and substantially affected by the outcome. They have to face the actual consequences of a decision. They cannot afford to give too much weight to merely expressive considerations, as people making decisions about public goods are apt to do.

If we care at all about public policy, it is inevitable that we will want it to express the sort of values and aspirations that we would like our social arrangements to exemplify. That is the case in any kind of regime, theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy or democracy. Indeed people accept authoritarian regimes mainly because they think those authorities can deliver the sort of social order they want, because of their religious, social or other beliefs, which all proper members of the community ought to share. The vice of all such authoritarianism is that it substitutes coercion for persuasion, which is the proper driving force of culture. But persuasion is open to change and the orthodox see change as inevitably for the worse
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Policy and representation

There are two activities that go under the heading “Public Policy”, one that concentrates on political processes, as we do here on this website, and the other that is the focus of university departments of Public Policy and numerous professional associations. The first group (call them PPs) are concerned with political processes of arriving at political decisions, the second (call them PNs) with identifying needs in the community and devising means of satisfying those needs.

The two hardly ever engage with each other. If they did, the PPs would no doubt say to the PNs: you are at best just paternalists, patching up holes in the status quo, arrogating to yourselves decisions about what others need. To which the PNs might reply: you PPs are just entrenching the power of existing adults to suit yourselves. You completely neglect the fact that the young are in no position to understand what lies ahead of them and many disadvantaged people are deprived of the means of understanding what it is that they need to overcome their disabilities. They depend on the ‘paternalistic’ interest of competent professionals to bring about the changes that will open up opportunities for them. With all due respect, you PPs, however benevolent, are not very good at that. Your concern is framed by your own experience and aspirations, drawn from your past, not by any understanding of the potential of the future. You just want to replicate yourselves.

There is a lot more to be said on both sides. I’m an old PP, but one of my daughters, both of whom I greatly admire, is a very successful PN in educational policy. More significantly, there is a lot of empirical evidence that adult representation leads to decisions that favour the old at the expense of the young. Especially as life expectancies increase, we oldies and potential oldies would outvote the young by large margins, if it were a question of deciding policy by voting. Such arguments as these challenge the supremacy of representation as the unique ground of legitimate intervention on behalf of others. I am talking here of debates on policy, not about the right to legislate or administer programs. Status in public debates is not a matter of authorisation of any sort, but of the validity of arguments.
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