My article in response to Justin Trudeau (Canada’s prime minister) breaking his electoral reform promise on February 1, and more generally about the absurdity of politicians deciding the rules they are elected under. (Trudeau, before and after the 2015 Canadian election repeatedly promised to make it the last one held under first-past-the-post.)
It is neither democratic nor desirable that the prime minister and the House of Commons keep deciding Canada’s election rules. There is a far better alternative.
In Classical Athens, the birthplace of Western democracy, much of the decision-making was done by juries chosen from the citizens by lottery. A modern version of Athenian juries could be used to decide election rules today.
Politicians should not decide the rules they are elected under because fair and democratic decision-making requires that those who decide do not have a conflict of interest. Election rules are far too important to our democracy to be compromised by the strong self-interest of politicians in rules that favour themselves.
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.
Nicholas Gruen, an Australian economist, consultant, commentator and former adviser to the Australian federal government, has two lengthy articles in The Mandarin advocating introducing a sortition-based body into the Australian political system. Gruen’s proposal is to create an allotted body with 6 year terms and some measure of legislative veto powers.
It is unfortunate that as a background for his discussion, Gruen offers the familiar story of the failures of the electoral system stemming from the elite’s pandering to the voters’ uninformed whims. This explanation seems to never lose its appeal despite clashing both with the fact that in practice policy outcomes in electoral systems overwhelmingly serve the elites and with the truism that those in power tend to serve their own interests.
The articles are of the interest for being another step in sortition’s journey into mainstream politics, and in particular for taking a step beyond the ad-hoc issue panel setup that is by now familiar in Australia. But beyond those points, the articles are interesting for Gruen’s suggestion for how sortition can be promoted:
I’d like to go hunting for the funds – from philanthropists and from ordinary concerned folk like you and me via crowdfunding – to simply establish a people’s chamber outside our official constitutional institutions.
Appoint some of the senators by chance. That is one of the proposals of Arnaud Montebourg, for “rebuilding the lost confidence” between the citizens and the institutions. More precisely, the candidate for the primary of the left (on the 22nd and the 29th of January) would like to allot 100 senators in an assembly reduced to 200 members. This means on citizen for each department, drawn from the electoral registry, as is already the case for judicial juries.
A system created in ancient Greece
The goal? “Assure the involvement of citizens in the political system” and making the Senate “a chamber with oversight powers over the public purse, public commitments, political promises to the public, and European decisions”. The idea is as old as the Athenian democracy – or rather klerocracy, as the Greeks called the political system where the representatives of the people and the rulers are selected by lot. But this method is rarely applied other than for selecting juries. More recently, it was Iceland that went farther. In response to the financial crisis of 2008, an assembly of 1,000 allotted citizens was formed to create the basis for a new constitution. Which was eventually rejected. In France, in addition to Arnaud Montebourg, various think tanks, philosophers, and researchers have been promoting the idea of sortition of senators for several years, proposing different numbers of people designated by lot. But are the French people ready?
George Monbiot, a Guardian columnist and a regular critic of the status quo, has finally opined about the potential of the use of sortition to address the ills of the established system. He is not too enthusiastic:
There are plenty of proposals to replace representative democracy with either sortition (randomly selecting delegates) or direct democracy (referendums and citizens’ initiatives). Such systems might have worked well in small city states with a limited franchise (sortition was used in ancient Athens and medieval Venice and Florence). But in populations as large and complex as ours, these proposals are a formula for disaster. It’s hard to see how we can escape the need for professional, full-time politicians. (Perhaps, in a fair and accountable system, we could learn to love them.)
There’s a new illustration (January 2017) from a New Yorker cartoonist that depicts a man standing up on an airplane and saying: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The crowd of passengers all raise their hands.
This cartoon has received over 35,800 likes and 19,600 retweets on Twitter and sparked coverage and a debate in USA Today, “‘The New Yorker’ mocks Trump voters and triggers a debate on (smug) experts.”