On the Citizen House: A Disquisitional Fiction

On the Citizen House: A Disquisitional Fiction is a novella of ideas in the form of socratic dialogue wrapped up in a road trip. Formatted as a proto-screenplay, description is sparse, characterization thin. Dialogue and visuals dominate.

The Citizen House is the world’s first national legislature chosen as the original Athenian democrats did — by sortition (by random selection). Two representatives face the challenges of advocating for their disparate views (eugenics / universal basic income) in a legislature demographically more reflective of the entire population than any other.

Amazon e-book: http://tinyurl.com/yao8lckx

68 pages, single spaced. 22,800 words.

Marcela Iacub: To reform political life, long live the lottery!

The French original is here.

The prevalent disgust with the political class will not be resolved as long as the powerful enjoy unwarranted privileges and as long as the president lives in the Elysée palace

It seems that attempting to reform political life brings bad luck. Once the government appointed François Bayrou to draft a law for reforming political life he was quickly paralyzed. Ever since the announcement of this effort, scandals are surrounding the allies and the close associates of the president’s party. Faced with this curse, two explanations suggest themselves.

The first is sociological. The privileges associated with power are shared by practically the entire political class. How then may one find the person capable of putting an end to those privileges? And if by happenstance such a person is found, even the most straight-laced would be surrounded by others who may not be…

The demands of honesty keep increasing year-by-year. That which was common practice suddenly becomes ethically unacceptable, and that which was unethical becomes illegal. Things are moving so quickly that the political class will soon face a crisis. And it is normal. In a democracy, isn’t the gratitude of the people the only privilege allowed? But maybe under those conditions, no one would wish to govern…

For a regime to be really deprived of unwarranted privileges, it must be based on sortition: the rulers are to be appointed in the same way juries are. Everything would then be very different: the political class would simply be a mechanical intermediary and the public in involvement in politics would be strong. Populism would disappear because the citizens would be educated about every question being collectively discussed.

The second reason is psychological. In the current context, the one who is charged with reforming political life is necessarily hated. Not only because he is suspected of hypocrisy – must he not be hiding his own scandals or those of his associates? – but also because the mere idea of “reform” provokes a desire to punish. The entire political class is transformed into a scapegoat for all the collective frustrations. The disgust with the political class is but a mild version of the desire to eliminate it. If it recently benefited the present government, it will soon to turn against it. Can this be doubted?

This is why it is hopeless that the attempt to reform political life will restore the public’s confidence in those who rule over it. It will only further this hate. No sanction will appease the public’s wish to make the power elites pay, to make them fall, to see them suffer. For that to dissipate, the entire system of privileges accorded to the rulers has to be abolished. And above all a profound remaking of institutions has to conceived. Representative democracy has to be reconsidered. It creates the political elites that extract from the people the power to shape their destiny. It is necessary to abolish the material privileges attached to the exercise of power. Today, the most symbolic and the most jarring among those is the fact that the president lives and works at the Elysée palace. Doesn’t this hall signify the unfathomable abyss which separates the rules and the ruled? Aren’t the former nothing but the servants of the sovereign will of the latter? These transformations will make the people, woken from the aggressive apathy toward the ruling elite, re-become a real actor in political life, their hate transformed into delight.

Sortition in Current Affairs

A June 26 Current Affairs article must be the most pro-sortition editorial to appear in mainstream media in recent history. More importantly, it oozes with wit that justifiably pillories America’s “intolerable” Congress. The arguments here are familiar but are combined in an unforgettably entertaining way.

It begins with the sad shape of Congress.

The data confirm that Congresspeople have a lower approval rating than marketing executives and bubonic plague.

Second, it points out that Congress is not “representative” in the demographic sense.

Take our current Congress, which is 80% male, 95% college-educated, and 50.8% millionaires. The population it “represents” is 50% male, 30% college-educated, and 5% millionaires. That’s not even close

It then moves on to the evidence that “representation of interests” is a fantasy, citing Gilens and Page.

If your Congressman (or Congresswoman, but probably Congressman) puts forward the kinds of policies that you yourself would wish to see advanced, why does it matter whether you and he happen to have wildly different backgrounds? That would be an excellent argument, if Congress usually put forward policies that Americans agree with. Alas, it does not. One Princeton study estimates that, statistically speaking, the preferences of 90% of the American electorate have a “near-zero” impact on policymaking. And a number of highly-publicized legal reforms with a broad popular mandate, such as closing the gun show loophole, have never made it anywhere near the President’s desk. How is that possible in a “representative” Congress?

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Sortition versus manipulation?

I have been studying the claims that the Trump election was the product of clandestine manipulation of voters by sending them false information so targeted to their personal characteristics as to have a decisive influence on their voting behaviour.

The data firm Cambridge Analytica claims to have profiles of nearly everybody in the USA, based on information about them collected from the internet. These profiles enable predictions of a very high accuracy of what sort of information will be accepted by particular people and what influence it will have on their voting. It is not very likely that such manipulation would induce many Democrats to change their vote, bit it might leave them less likely to turn out for Hillary. It could easily account for bringing fringe Republicans to vote. The Trump campaign spent relatively little on conventional media. They got so much free! But they are said to have spent heavily on covert manipulation.

A first reaction is that we have another argument against voting and all that goes with it in current practice. But further reflection reveals a danger even to sortition. The members of a body chosen by sortition can be identified and their prejudices cultivated to pervert their view of the facts they are considering. It need not be very expensive, since they are relatively few in numbers, and well worth the cost to a body with big interests at stake. It would be more attractive than lobbying in many circumstances.

The only remedy I can see is insistence that all the proceedings of public decision-making must not only be available to all, but open to comment at every stage so that untruths are challenged and patterns of deceit uncovered.

Correction: sortition and caution

In my last post, emphasising the importance of giving mavericks a say and of changing general assumptions, I may have given the impression of advocating permanent revolution. I should have been more precise. You need very solid evidence to challenge established assumptions, even though it is sometimes very fruitful to do so. It is a matter of taking the unusual seriously.

Take the instances I referred to from the history of science, Newton first, challenging the old mechanists’ rejection of action at a distance. He set out to look at a very precise and limited problem: how to explain the stability of the planetary orbits. No grandiose questions about the nature of the universe. He found that they could be explained very precisely if one postulated the existence of a particular predictable force that could also explain many other phenomena. It was no open day for any old suggestion about other forms of attraction.

Nevertheless, it subsequently turned out that there were other forms of attraction at a distance, electricity and magnetism. And eventually the sub-atomic forces, all of which were more powerful and fundamental than gravity. They could not have been discovered without Newton’s breakthrough. Nor was it the case that Newton dismissed mechanist explanations. On the contrary, he was he first to formulate precisely the general laws of mechanical interactions. Similarly, when Einstein rejected Newton’s assumption of the invariance of space and time, he did not invalidate Newtonian physics within certain very broad limits. If you want to go to Mars, Newton is your guide, but to go to Alpha Centauri you need Einstein.
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Voting, sortition and power

Behind debates about forms and procedures of representation in political decision-making are the more fundamental questions about collective power, for what purposes ought coercive power be exercised and by what means. That in turn raises the question: who should have a say in what decisions, and about what constitutes having a say. A lot of discussion of the relative merits of representation by sortition or by voting ignores these questions with unfortunate results.

Historically in our Western traditions of democracies arose from struggles against monarchies and aristocracies in which the vast majority were subjects of the sovereign. Even as late as the First World War, that notion lingered on. Even in Australia the standard form of praise for those killed in the war was that they died “For King and Country”. We were Australian citizens, but subjects of the King of England, our sovereign lord.

One strand of various democratic traditions has seen democracy as the transfer of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. The old sovereign achieved and sustained power by force of arms. Of course wise monarchs tried to win the loyalty of their subjects by adorning their power in various ways and taking good care of their subjects. In return, grateful subjects sang God Save the King with joy and enthusiasm. The central activity of the monarchy remained war, and success in war was so glorious a thing as to override all other considerations. One sort of democracy saw the nation, the people, as the new incarnation of sovereignty and its power. That conception is alive and kicking in Donald Trump and his admirers. Emotionally it is very powerful. It is easily rejuvenated in new trappings to meet the needs of each age and culture.
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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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