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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Hague and Harrop: Would we really want a parliament containing its due proportion of the ignorant, the inarticulate and the corrupt?

The following excerpt is from the 2004 edition of Rod Hague and Martin Harrop’s textbook Comparative Government and Politics (The “Functions of legislatures” section, p. 253):

We have suggested that the essence of assemblies is that they ‘represent’ the wider society to the government. But how can we judge whether, and how well, that function is fulfilled? What features would a fully representative assembly exhibit?

One interpretation, plausible at first sight, is that a representative assembly should be a microcosm of society. The idea here is that a legislature should be society in miniature, literally ‘re-presentating’ society in all its diversity. Such a parliament would balance men and women, rich and poor, black and white, even educated and uneducated, in the same mix as in society. How, after all, could a parliament composted entirely of middle-aged white men go about representing young black women – or vice versa? To retain the confidence of society, the argument continues, a representative assembly must reflect social diversity, standing in for society and not just acting on its behalf (Anne Phillips, The Politics of Presence, 1995).
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McCormick: The new ochlophobia? Populism, majority rule and prospects for democratic republicanism

Contributors to this blog who argue the case for full-mandate, voluntarist sortition will find support for their arguments in a forthcoming book chapter by John P. McCormick, author of Machiavellian Democracy. According to McCormick, electoral representation involves rule (primarily) by the rich, whereas democracy by lot is rule by the poor — a perspective that he derives from Aristotle, mediated by Machiavelli, Montesquieu [and Marx]:

The hoplites of ancient Greece and the plebeians of Republican Rome established institutions that granted ultimate legislative authority to the majority qua the poor . . . Athenian democracy and the Roman Republic exhibited primary institutions intended to insure that the poor would rule over or share rule equitably with the rich. (pp. 2-3)

Given this dichotomy it matters little which individuals are selected by preference election or sortition, as the two mechanisms will privilege (respectively) economic elites and the poor, and the resulting political decisions will (presumably) reflect the preferences of these two socio-economic groups.
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