Quatrevalet: Sham participatory democracy in the energy domain

The following essay, dated June 14, was published in the online publication Contrepoints, which is published by the Liberaux organization.

The essay was written by Michel Quatrevalet, who is described thus:

Holding a B.Sc. in electrical engineering, Michel Quatrevalet spent 25 years in various operational positions in the industry. Over the last twenty years he has held various management and expert positions in multinational companies and in professional organizations in the areas of the environment and energy.

Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.

PPE: Sham participatory democracy in the energy domain

Ms. Jouanneau [sic, this probably refers to Chantal Jouanno, president of the CNDP, -YG] allotted 400 participants for a one day workshop on the multi-year energy plan (PPE). Have the conditions been met for this experiment in participatory democracy to work?

The debate around the PPE was “enriched” by an experiment in participatory democracy. Ms. Jouanneau allotted 400 participants for a one day workshop on the multi-year energy plan.

We don’t know much about the procedure, we don’t know the names of the 10 moderators, nor which documents were provided to the participants. During the written debates on the site of the Commision for Public Debate, several participants complained that some essential points of view were missing, such as the conclusions of the 2012 Percebois‑Grandil taskforce or the opinions of the Academy of Sciences and Technology.

The conclusions will be presented on June 29th, that is at the end of the consultation period, at which point it would be no longer possible to dispute them.

A sham process

Such activities of “allotted citizen panels” could be productive but only if three necessary conditions are met:

  • An in-depth preparation of the participants that would make them sufficiently knowledgeable on the subject (energy is a highly technical subject),
  • A detailed verification by an organization independent of the parties involved (including independence of the government) that the information provided is factual, complete and objective,
  • A transparent process of nomination of the moderators and of the drawing up of the synthesis of the debates.

In reality, none of these conditions seems to have been observed. We can even fear the worst, reading the shamelessly biased report of the project’s management. The comments posted on the site of the debate were not heeded. Here are a few of them.
Continue reading

Unger: We really don’t have much to lose!

Stephen Unger, formerly a professor of engineering at Columbia University has a short article proposing sortition as a replacement to elections with several points worth discussing:

Randomization:

Great care should be taken to ensure that the selection process is truly random. The method used should be very simple and transparent. No fancy technology. Note that every stage magician is expert at faking random choices.

Body size:

Assume that, in the new system, the legislative body consists of 200 randomly chosen citizens

Eligibility:

Assume that only American citizens at least 21 years old are eligible. Including a modest number of young people is desirable as they are likely to be more energetic, and it is worthwhile to have their views considered. Setting an upper age limit would be difficult. We might allow people over the age of 70 to decide for themselves whether they should be eligible for selection. There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.

Term of service:

What should be the term of office for the legislators? Too short a term would not give them enough time to learn the job. Too long a term would disrupt their lives, and/or make them feel too special, perhaps to the point that they were corrupted. One year seems like a good compromise–enough time to learn the job–but not likely to upset their lives too much.

Probably the most important problem that most people would face would be the disruption of the education and social lives of their children. High level professional athletes might suffer from a substantial layoff. Physicians might have problems–possibly interrupting the treatment of some patients. If the term of office did not exceed a year, this would not be all that bad, assuming special treatment for special cases. For example, we might have some minimal interval, say 3 months between selection and the start of service. Delaying start of service too much might open the door to people being corrupted. Let us assume a one-year term, which seems plausible.

Salary:

If we assume the salary of a member of congress would be about what it is today (of the order of $174,000 annually [7]), then this would be, for most people, very generous (median annual income of individual Americans is roughly $31K [8].) Wealthy people would probably not suffer too much–in most cases their incomes are largely from capital. Poor people would benefit substantially.

Selection of the executive:

The parliament might, as in most European countries, choose one of its members to be the chief executive (prime minister). But a one-year term might not be feasible, as it really isn’t enough time to master the job. It might be a good idea to have those completing their 1-year terms to elect one of their members, i.e., an outgoing member, to serve an additional year–or perhaps 2 years–as chief executive. Or maybe they should choose more freely from among the general population. This is a point that calls for more thinking.

Procedure for introduction and testing:

Sortition could be tested on a small scale by implementing it for some small municipalities. Then for governments of larger cities, then states, etc. Given the prevalence of scandals and failed governments, more and more people might be open to such experiments.

The people’s voice: as rage and as healing

There’s a spectre haunting Europe … and the rest of the Western world. We have elaborate ‘diversity’ programs in good upper-middle-class places to prevent discrimination against all manner of minorities (and majorities like women). It’s a fine thing. But there’s a diversity challenge a little closer to home which is tearing the world apart. There’s a war on the less well educated.

They’re falling out of the economy in droves, being driven into marginal employment or out of the labour force. This is a vexing problem to solve economically if the electorate values rising incomes which it does. Because, as a rule, the less well educated are less productive.

Still, the less well educated are marginalised from polite society. Polite society even runs special newspapers for them. They’re called tabloids and they’re full of resentment and hate. And yes, a big reason they are the way they are is that the less well educated buy them. They’re also marginalised, except in stereotyped form from TV.

Then there are our institutions of governance. While less than 50 per cent of our population are university educated, over 90 per cent of our parliamentarians are. Something very similar would be going on down the chain of public and private governance down to local councils and private firms.

And I’m pretty confident that a lot of this is internalised even by those not well educated. The last working-class Prime Minister we’ve had in Australia was Ben Chifley who was turfed out of office by a silver-tongued barrister in 1949. Barrie Unsworth in NSW going down badly in his first election as NSW Premier despite seeming – at least to me to be doing quite a good job. But he sounded working class – because he was. I wonder if that was it?

The world is made by and for the upper middle class, those who’ve been to the right schools and gone to unis (preferably the right unis), to get on. The ancient Greeks had a political/legal principle of relevance here which is entirely absent from our political language. In addition to ‘παρρησία’ or ‘parrhesia‘ which is often translated as ‘freedom of speech’ but which also carries a connotation of the duty to speak the truth boldly for the community’s wellbeing even at your own cost (as Socrates did), they also had the concept of ‘ισηγορια’ or ‘isegoria‘ meaning equality of speech.1

In Australia Pauline Hanson’s One Nation represents the political system’s concession to isegoria – toxified as a protest party within a hostile political culture. My own support for a greater role for selection by lot in our democracy is to build more isegoria into our political system in a way that, I think there’s good evidence, can help us get to a much better politics and policy.

In any event, the big, most toxified political events illustrating these problems are, of course, Brexit and Trump – concrete political acts of transformative significance standing before illustrating the power of isegoria as rage. Continue reading

Vandamme: low expectations idealism

Pierre Etienne Vandamme of the Catholic University of Louvain writes [original in French, my translation]:

Why do we feel poorly represented? It is partly as you said. The politicians, the elected tend to resemble each other. Certainly, they come from a certain social class, etc. and because of that sortition is useful for diversification of our political representatives. But I find that we must also be suspicious of the tendency of the advocates of sortition to condemn elections and parties completely. I think that there may be a complementarity between elections and sortition which remains to be thought out. But I am very suspicious of the arguments that attribute all the problems of democracy to the faults of our representatives which do not care at all about our wishes. This is only true to a certain extent…

Most of those who are eventually disenchanted, believed in it [the electoral system, presumably. -YG]. They believed in a party, in a candidate and then they were disappointed. To me what seems useful is to defend an ideal of society that is totally different, wanting to change things, change society, change the world, and at the same time have a certain realism in the short term. To realize that the change is not going to happen today or tomorrow, that would be too much to expect and therefore not to have our hopes to high with each election. To say, we are going to try this party, or this candidate… We are going to see what they can do. Yes, they can make some small improvements or prevent things from getting worse. I believe that it is the only way to keep believing. But in parallel to this short term realism, it is necessary to be idealistic and tell ourselves that a different world is possible. Because otherwise, if we lose our faith in change, we are trapped by cynicism and unwillingly even become obstacles to change.

Luc Rouban on sortition

Luc Rouban, director of research at CNRS, is the author of the book La démocratie représentative est-elle en crise ? (Is representative democracy in crisis?). In an interview with Vie Publique that took place in March he addressed the idea of sortition along with other reform proposals. An excerpt [original in French, my translation]:

There is a lot of talk about sortition as a way to give all the citizens an equal chance of being chosen to participate effectively in politics. The idea is to revive the ancient concept of Greek democracy at the time of Pericles. But it is necessary to recall that in the Athenian model, the electoral body was composed only of active citizens, sufficiently wealthy to buy military equipment, and excluding women, slaves and metics, that is foreigners who lived permanently in the city which were half the the Athenian population. In addition, this model relies on mistophory, that is the remuneration of allotted citizens for carrying out the charges of office, which allowed the less fortunate to participate in democratic life. It is very evident that such a system would be difficult to generalize in modern democracies, except at the local level, for example in the framework of citizen juries such as those being increasingly used recently to give their opinion to the public authorities on matters of planning projects.

In general, sortition – despite the supposed equality which it leads to – poses a philosophical and judicial problem. In fact, if Article 6 of the Decleration of the Rights of Man states that “all citizens are equally eligible to public offices, places and public employments, according to their abilities with no distinction other than their virtues and their talents”, it is proper that the evaluation of abilities, of virtues and talents of candidates are at the heart of representative democracy. Sortition, by definition, annuls this evaluation, which is taking place by the citizens when they vote. At bottom sortition depends on chance assemblies and cannot lead to the selection of the most commendable citizens. In sum, these risks lead to see sortition as no more than useful for consultation on specific projects at the local level when the purview of decision is well circumscribed. But sortition, just like the referendum, cannot provide good results unless it is associated with procedures allowing to clearly describe the objectives of the debate and allowing the involvement of experts or representatives of organizations.

Beppe Grillo proposes sortition

Beppe Grillo, the co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement, the party that won the second largest share of the votes in the 2018 parliamentary elections, has published a post in his blog where he proposes replacing elections with sortition [Google translation]:

The idea is very simple: we select people by lot and put them in parliament.

It seems absurd, but think about it for a moment. The selections should be fair and representative of the country. 50% would be women. Many would be young, some old, some rich, but most of them would be ordinary people. It would be a microcosm of society.

However, there would be an important side effect: if we replaced the elections with the draw and made our parliament truly representative of society, it would mean the end of politicians and politics as we have always thought about it.

Naturally the proposal drew some media attention.

It seems, by the way, that Grillo learned about sortition through Brett Hennig (presumably his TED talk). Grillo also mentions Democracy in Practice and newDemocracy as examples of ongoing experimentation with sortition.

A fact emerges from all modern examples: if you give people responsibility, they act responsibly. Do not get me wrong, I do not say it’s perfect.

The right question is: does it work better? As far as I’m concerned, it’s YES.

Thanks to Tomas Mancebo for drawing attention to this rather dramatic development.

Democracy, sortition and inequality

I was a little crestfallen when, after my public lecture on democracy and sortition at King’s College London was filmed with a view to producing a video, the contractors informed us that the recording was hopelessly corrupted. So I was pleased that when I gave another presentation on democracy to the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne a few weeks ago its recording appears to have remained uncorrupted. The presentation was similar to the Kings College lecture, though the King’s College lecture was longer and focused on Brexit whereas this one focused on inequality.

Anyway, reactions are, of course, welcome.