“Anyone have any better ideas?”

Terry Bouricius pointed out the following story in The Onion, “America’s finest news source”:

Humanity Surprised It Still Hasn’t Figured Out Better Alternative To Letting Power-Hungry [Depraved People] Decide Everything

NEW YORK—Noting that it has had thousands of years to develop a more agreeable option, humankind expressed bewilderment this week that it has yet to devise a better alternative to governing itself than always letting power-hungry assholes run everything, sources worldwide reported.

Individuals in every country on earth voiced their frustration that, in spite of generations of mistreatment, neglect, and abuse they have suffered at the hands of those in positions of authority, they continue to allow control over the world’s governments, businesses, and virtually every other type of organization and social group to fall to the most megalomaniacal pricks among them.
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Science funding is a gamble so let’s give out money by lottery

Perhaps your life, like that of many of my friends and relatives, has been improved by propranolol – a beta-blocker that reduces the effects of stress hormones, and that’s used to treat conditions such as high blood pressure, chest pain, an uneven heartbeat and migraines. It’s considered one of the most important pharmaceutical breakthroughs of the 20th century.

Thank goodness, then, that the United States in the 1940s didn’t have the same attitude to science funding that it does today. If it had, you could expect to see seven experts sitting around a table, trying to assign a score to an unorthodox grant proposal to study the function of adrenaline in the body. ‘If I have properly understood the author’s intent, then this mechanism has already been settled, surely,’ a senior physician might say. A lone physiologist mounts a defence, but the pharmacologists in the room are dismissive, with one who remarks that the mathematics ‘look cumbrous and inconvenient’. So the pathbreaking research of the late Raymond Ahlquist, a professor at the Medical College of Georgia who laid the foundations for the discovery of propranolol, could easily end up with low marks, and his theories would never see the light of day.

Science is expensive, and since we can’t fund every scientist, we need some way of deciding whose research deserves a chance. So, how do we pick? At the moment, expert reviewers spend a lot of time allocating grant money by trying to identify the best work. But the truth is that they’re not very good at it, and that the process is a huge waste of time. It would be better to do away with the search for excellence, and to fund science by lottery.
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Hartz-Karp: Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making

Janette Hartz-Karp, a professor at the Sustainability Policy Institute at Curtin University, has a sortition advocacy piece in The Conversation. It covers well known ground: history, diversity, deliberation, applications in Australia, etc.

The opening of the “What’s the obstacle to reform?” section is interesting:

So why isn’t deliberative democracy happening more often? Simple. Those in power are wary about sharing their power.

Unlike the Athenians, we don’t believe that every citizen is capable of participating in important decision-making. We assume most people are too self-interested to make decisions for the common good.

This seems to conflate two different ideas:

  1. Resistance by the elite,
  2. Anti-democratic sentiments in the population.

The first idea is clear and presents a general phenomenon. Power concedes nothing without a demand.

The second idea, however, is more intriguing. How resistant are the people themselves to democratic rule? If they are, why? An empirical study of this question could be useful.

The article also generated a lively conversation in the comments.

New Report: A Citizens’ Assembly for the Scottish Parliament

citizensassemblyA paper I’ve co-written with Common Weal Scotland and newDemocracy Foundation has just been published, proposing a sortition second chamber for the Scottish Parliament.

Initial (somewhat inaccurate) press coverage by The National was okay, except for the unhelpful headline.

A (sold out) talk at Edinburgh University will discuss the merits of the proposal.

The full paper is here.

Let citizen juries decide Canada’s election rules

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.
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Gruen: A pathway to sortition

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.
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Representative Isegoria

In my sortition thesis I argue that both elements of Athenian democracy — isonomia and isegoria — need to be representative when applied to large modern states. Representative isonomia is achieved via large randomly-selected juries, but isegoria requires different mechanisms — including competitive commercial media — to ensure the accurate representation of public opinion. This presupposes a bottom-up model in which commercial newspapers “refine and enlarge” the opinion of their readers (in order to increase subscription revenue). This has been much criticised by advocates of the Lasswell propaganda thesis — the critique specifically aimed at the concentrated ownership of the MSM — arguing that “the freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one”.

The top-down Lasswell thesis has been thrown into doubt by the Brexit referendum — the Daily Mail supported Brexit and the Mail On Sunday supported Remain. Both newspapers are owned by the strongly Remain supporting Lord Rothermere, whereas the position of the broadsheets owned by Brexit-supporting Rupert Murdoch was the other way round (Sunday Times for Brexit, The Times for Remain).
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