Legislature by Lot

[Note: this has been adapted from an orginial blog post here: http://www.bretthennig.com/legislature_by_lot]

legislature

From Friday to Sunday this weekend (September 15-17) the co-founder and director of the Sortition Foundation, Brett Hennig, will be joining a group of academics, researchers and activists gathering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to discuss the pros and cons of a “Legislature by Lot” – a parliament, senate or congress selected by sortition.

The workshop is being organised by Professor John Gastil (Penn State) and Professor Erik Olin Wright (University of Wisconsin-Madison) who have drafted the principal proposal that attendees are responding to. Their proposal is for a bicameral legislature where one chamber is elected and one is selected using sortition.

Deepening Democracy CoverThe intended outcome of the workshop will be a book whose prospective title is “Legislature by Lot: An Alternative Design for Deliberative Governance”, to be published by Verso as part of of the Real Utopias series.

The workshop will be attended by many well know academics and practitioners in the field of deliberative and participatory democracy, including Lyn CarsonNed CrosbyJim FishkinArchon FungJane MansbridgeYves SintomerGraham Smith and many others.

Workshop session titles include “Legislatures by lot in the context of major democratic reforms”, “From deliberative to radical democracy? Sortition and politics in the 21st century”, “On democratic representation and accountability” and “Random assemblies for law-making? Prospects and limits”.

It promises to be an interesting and stimulating weekend of discussion about if and how sortition should be introduced into the legislative branch of government – and the resulting book (probably appearing in late 2018) should make a major contribution to the debate about radical but achievable changes that could be made to better our democracies.

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Ranciere: What times are we living in?, part 1

What to save from the drifting French political system? The philosopher Jacques Ranciere was the guest of Aude Lancelin in “The war of ideas” of June 20th, 2017. Here is the transcript of this interview. [My translation, corrections welcome. -YG]

01. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system.

Aude Lancelin: Jacques Rancière, welcome. I thank you, a great political philosopher, for coming to help us understand what is happening in a democratic country where full power is obtained with the support of less than 11% of the electorate. One of the very cruel lessons of your new book “In what times are we living?”, which is a dialog with the editor Eric Hazan, is that despite the mass abstention, despite the dysfunction of the representative system, someone holds power. Moreover, power becomes more and more oligarchical in our societies, without meeting any serious obstacle. It is not enough to turn our backs on the electoral system for it to collapse by itself. It continues to function without the popular classes, without the left… until when?

Jacques Ranciere: As I see things, the representative system is made to function with the support of a minority. There is always this confusion between democracy as the power of all and a representative system. The electoral system is made as a conflation of the two but fundamentally the representative system is in its essence an oligarchical system. In the 17th century the representative system was therefore made for a small part of the population that was supposed to be “enlightened”, representative and conscious of the general interests of society, to be able to govern with as few obstacles as possible. At the time of the revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries a belief in the power of people emerged, which could express itself through the electoral system and representation. Today we realize again that in different ways power is always with a small minority. In the past it was a social class, now it is difficult to say what social class can really govern the country, even if we know what interests the system serves. In consequence, we professionalization occurred which produced an interaction between a left and a right which fundamentally thought and did the same thing. And at the same time, they saw themselves as representatives and called for a non-establishment system or an “anti-system”. That is, the system itself produced its anti-system. What we see with Macron, with En Marche [Macron’s party], is a new and unexpected way in which the system produces its “anti-system”. I mean that the representative system carries within it the potential for several possibilities. There is the Le Pen style alternative, that is the people of the depths who are going to sweep away all the people of the system, and then there is of course the Macron alternative, which is a more subtle form because it replaces the system by the system itself. Fundamentally, what is the great novelty about under the banner of En Marche? These are alliances which are already known in other European countries (Germany, for example), with the difference that the parties keep their autonomy, while keeping the same politics, sometimes as adversaries and sometimes as allies.
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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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The Paradox of Democratic Selection: Is Sortition Better than Voting?

Book chapter just uploaded to academia.edu by Anthoula Malkopoulou

Sortition, or the selection of political officers by lot, has its antecedent in the direct democratic tradition of ancient Athens. Its transfer into a modern context of representative democracy poses rightful scepticism not only about the practical difficulties, but more so about the theoretical inconsistencies that arise. Modern systems of political representation are based on the aristocratic idea of ‘government by the best’, who are to be selected through a competitive call for candidates (Manin 1997). Sortition, on the other hand, replaces this aristocratic criterion of competition and evaluative election with the democratic mechanics of direct and equal distribution of political office by chance. Hence, the very expression ‘democratic (s)election’ includes a paradoxical contradiction in terms, between the democratic concept of equal access to public office and the aristocratic idea of government by the (s)elected best. My aim in this chapter is to shed some light on this contradiction by critically discussing the benefits and pitfalls of using sortition today, comparing it throughout the chapter with voting and the general effects of electoral representation.

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Strictly Eating Chances: You can’t eat chances? Oh yes you can!

I say this despite David Wasserman’s snide comment on the claims made by us lottery enthusiasts. We would say that where there are more qualified applicants than places available, a lottery’s the thing. Some will then win a place — “eat”— but everyone will benefit by having had the chance of winning.

But what is the value of a chance when you win nothing? Rationally we should conclude that the value of nothing is zilch, zero, nada.

In another swipe at advocates of lotteries for sharing Wasserman comments:

if it makes sense to treat an expectation as a good, it also makes sense to ask whether the value of that good increases the longer it is held by the recipient.

It’s nice to see a bit of sarcasm from a philosopher whose main concern is medical ethics!

Instead, I’d like to take up Wasserman’s challenge, and propose that your ‘expectation’ — your ticket to the lottery — can indeed be made more valuable by spinning out the process.

Take for example the way the TV hit show Strictly Come Dancing (in the US it’s called Dancing With the Stars) operates. They start with a dozen or so stars. Each week they dance competitively, and by a complex process one star is eliminated. Over the next weeks the process is repeated, one ‘loser’ every week until there are three left. It is then decided by a Grand Finale.

I take it as axiomatic the producers know how to give the public good entertainment value. That’s show business!
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Ganesh Sitaraman’s sortition version of the Roman tribunes

Ganesh Sitaraman proposes a sortition version of the tribunes of the Roman Republic in his new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.

Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist, describes the proposal in his review of the book in the New York Times (March 20, 2017):

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Sitaraman is an associate law professor at Vanderbilt Law School.

Le Forme della Politica: Improving Democracy

Roberto Barabino writes the following:

Le Forme della politica” (Forms of Politics, abbr. FDP) is a an Italian non-partisan association whose objective is to analyze the forms, i.e. the rules of the game and the conceptual premises of the political decisions, in order to make proposals and take action for their improvement. The FDP is based on the teachings of the philosopher Giuseppe Polistena, who is also a co-founder of the association. He intends to correct “Aristotle’s mistake” (his statement that “the man is a political animal”), because politics is the pursuit of the common good and this is not a natural attribute of men and women, but requires a difficult effort in order to be achieved.

The FDP was founded in 2012 and up until 2016 focused on the Italian political sphere. The main themes were: the criteria necessary to guarantee the democratic functioning of political parties, the differences between institutional and political leadership, the limits to parliamentary mandates, and the study of foreign experiences regarding direct democracy and participation.

In 2016 we read and discussed David Van Reybroucks’s outstanding book “Against elections” that showed the intrinsic weaknesses of the electoral-representative democracy and proposed a bi-representative democracy in which sortition plays a relevant role. This was the inspiration for creating the international branch of our association, called “Improving Democracy” (ID), and to launch the “International Sortition Project” (ISP), in which we propose that a small proportion (e.g., 10%) of the members of the elective assemblies at various levels (parliament, regional council, town council, etc.) should be reserved for citizens, who will be able to put themselves forward as candidates for such roles without being part of an organized political force.
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