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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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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Le Parisien Magazine: For or against allotting senators?

Nicolas Priou, January 18th, 2017

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?
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Monbiot: Sortition is “a formula for disaster”

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.)

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