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.

A prominent French presidential candidate makes sortition part of his programme

A post by Arturo Iniguez.

L’Avenir en commun (A Shared Future) is the name given to the programme of La France insoumise (France Uprising) and its candidate for the May 2017 French presidential election, Jean-Luc Melenchon. The programme is arranged into 7 parts. The first one, under the tag-line L’urgence démocratique (The democratic urgency), is called La 6eme République, in reference to a new Constitution that would replace the current one, the Fifth, instigated by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. If elected president, Melenchon has promised to convene a constitutional convention and prematurely end his five-year mandate as soon as the new constitution is adopted. Thus, the very first measure in the programme is Réunir une Assemblée constituante (Summon a Constituent Assembly).

Each individual measure is developed in a separate booklet, forming a whole collection. Number 28 of the series, under the title Changer de République pour faire place au peuple (Reform the Republic to create a place for the people), explains how the members of the constitutional convention would be designated. The proposal is to combine election and sortition. In which proportion? That is left to the people themselves. At the poll, each citizen can either vote for a candidate or express his or her personal preference for sortition. The percentage of options for sortition will determine the share of seats to be sorted.

This is a clever way to avoid one of the main sources of resistance to any future attempts to introduce sortition: the opposition of those who are not interested in being sorted, will immediately resign in the event of being chosen by the lot, and are generally happy with the aristocratic setting of voting for professional politicians. These people will see any amount of power given to a purely sorted body as power directly detracted from them. Such a change will be unfair to them (the status quo is of course unfair to all those who do not vote).
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Notes on McGill Sortition Workshop

Here are some brief notes on a workshop on sortition held at McGill University.

“Representation, Bicameralism, and Sortition: With Application to the Canadian Senate”

McGill Sortition Workshop: Randomly Selecting the Canadian Senate

I had the pleasure of attending a fascinating one-day workshop on sortition and replacing the unelected Canadian Senate with a randomly selected Citizen Assembly that was held on December 9, 2016, at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. Peter Stone (Political Science, Trinity College Dublin), Alex Guerrero (Philosophy, Rutgers), and Arash Abizadeh (Political Science, McGill) each presented papers on sortition in separate sessions.

In advance of the workshop, Abizadeh did a radio interview (at 21:10) on Ottawa Today with Mark Sutcliffe. Sutcliffe seemed very receptive to the idea of replacing the Canadian Senate with a randomly selected Citizen Assembly. Abizadeh also published an article in the Montreal Gazette in advance of the event.

This event was a timely opportunity to inject sortition theory and practice into current discussion of reforming the unelected Canadian Senate. Canadian Senator Paul Massicotte participated in the public forum and wrote a diatribe—“A randomly selected Canadian Senate would be a disaster”—against sortition following the workshop. Yoram Gat in his post on this insightfully commented on how exceptional such a response is: “It is an indication of the precarious position of the Canadian Senate with its non-electoral appointment procedure that the Senator feels that the proposal to appoint the Senate using sortition requires a refutation. It is a feeling that, as far as I am aware, no elected member of parliament has ever shared in modern times.”
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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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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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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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