Sortition and accountability

Sortition relies on the people selected being themselves affected by the consequences of their decisions in order to ensure that those decisions are in the interests of the people they affect. I think advocates of sortition often underestimate the problem of cognitive and affective distance from the specific impact of those effects when the issues are treated in terms of very general policy decisions. We have a tradition of fairness as impartiality that can be very dangerous when combined with legalistic and bureaucratic top-down approaches to solving those problems of public goods that require organised solutions. Looking to the state to provide these solutions virtually guarantees that no matter how those making the decisions are selected, they will be constrained by the system to choose ways of conceiving and dealing with them that abstract from many things that are important to various sections of the communities affected.

The closer the people who decide are to the grass roots, the more likely they are to be responsive to the specifics of the diverse needs of a community and to evolve by negotiation between diverse interests solutions that offer as much as possible to each of them. In my view sortition must start at the grass roots with very local health, education and welfare institutions and programs, on a basis of constructive deliberation, designed to lead to better recognition of needs an possibilities rather than simply react to current opinion.

People know this, but regard it as unrealistic, because the crunch question is financing and the state ultimately controls that through its monopoly of taxation. I have a suggestion for getting around that difficulty. Let the state allocate funding to specific bodies (not just local but also national and international specialised agencies that are controlled demarchically) in much the way it does at present, but allow it only a very weak say in how the money is spent by the bodies so financed. Those bodies will often want to spend more than they are granted, given the ubiquitous outcries against underfunding of public goods and services. People often express willingness to pay more for public services if only they could be assured of getting the service they want.

If an authority wants to spend more than its allocation of taxpayer funds there could be an arrangement whereby those entitled to its services paid an excess on their income tax to cover the extra expenditure. As members of that constituency, statistically representative of its needs, the committee would be in a position to make a realistic judgement about whether they were willing to pay as a community for meeting those needs. That would constitute practical accountability.

9 Responses

  1. Hi John,

    Localism is of course a mainstay of anarchism and an important theme of your own book “Is Democracy Possible?”. I am quite skeptical, however, as to the feasibility and the desirability of dramatically increasing localism in society. Here are some points that occur to me:

    1. There is a fair level of localism in current society: provincial governments, city halls, school administrations, etc. are all entrusted with significant power within a local area or a certain field of activity. In fact, it seems unlikely that some such hierarchical division of authority can be avoided in any large scale administrative body.

    2. Who decides at what level a certain decision would be made? I think the natural procedure would be for high level bodies to delegate to lower level bodies those decisions that they consider appropriately handled at the lower level. The success of such a procedure, however, depends on the high level body functioning satisfactorily. Therefore, effective representation of interests has to occur at all levels.

    3. The procedure described above is also, it seems, more or less the way things are handled in the present system. The problem with the present system is not, in my opinion, its over-centralization, but the fact that the interests of the people are not represented well at any level.

    4. Could you give examples of important decisions that you think are currently taken at an inappropriately high level body and would be much improved by being taken at a lower level?

    5. If localism is advantageous for a society I would expect that smaller countries would enjoy its benefit at least to some extent. Do you believe this is happening?

    6. It seems to me that implementing sortition at lower levels is more difficult than at higher levels. At high levels resources and attention can be concentrated to verify effective participation on the part of all alloted officials assuring political equality within the alloted body. This would be more difficult at lower levels due to the decreased ratio of resources per official.


  2. Hi Yoram. Thanks for the comments. Replying to the points:

    1. I am not in favour of localism, especially where it encompasses a large range of institutions and activities under a single jurisdiction. Participation in public affairs must begin at local level, but each body, as I emphasise in Is Democracy Possible? should have that scope that is best suited to the task assigned to it in view of effective responsiveness to its role. Localism is often chauvinism, repressive of diversity and concentrating power in a local power elite.

    2. Indeed, effective representation of interests is vital at all levels, as I have always emphasised. However, it is important to make a distinction between the substantive question of making decisions in the service of the relevant interests and the higher order question of structuring the scope and powers of representative bodies. In practice, in the short run the latter can only be made by existing higher authority. It is a matter of chipping away at the state from below, as demarchy proves itself in practical contexts.

    3. I agree. Don’t forget the effects of power-trading, bureaucracy and budget tyranny.

    4. Certainly in Australia health, education and welfare are excessively bureaucratised, as most people agree. But they rightly think that privatisation is worse, and wrongly think it is the only alternative, as I argue in the blog.

    5. Obviously part of the difficulty of getting good public health, education and welfare systems in the US is a matter of scale and the diversity of the country. In Denmark or Sweden it’s relatively easy.

    6. I don’t understand this point. Resources need to be related to tasks. It is true that a higher authority may be able to afford to pay a lot more consultants and achieve other economies of scale, but I think the internet is changing that pretty radically, and that there is no reason why a specialised authority, thoroughly in contact with similar authorities elsewhere, should not have adequate expertise at its disposal. I am prepared to grant that decentralisation will cost more than centralisation, but that is the price of better decision-making and participation.



  3. John,

    I am not sure now what exactly is the thrust of your argument. Is it that officials at all levels should be nominated using sortition? Or that power should be more decentralized by splitting areas of authority? Or that allotting should be first implemented at lower levels of aggregation?

    What I am skeptical about is whether more decentralization (as compared to the current state of affairs) is feasible or useful. I am not sure how decentralization by function rather than by location would avoid those problems that you named. I would also argue that because of the concentration of power at the higher levels, representation of interests at those levels is more crucial than at lower levels.

    Regarding the specific examples you mentioned in points 4 and 5: sure, governmental systems are functioning unsatisfactorily, but that doesn’t mean that the solution is decentralization. In my mind, if those systems are managed by alloted representatives rather than professionals, there is a good chance that they will improve. I don’t believe there is a reason to think that an education system or a health system that, say, serves 1 million people would be any better than those that serve 300 million people, and there is good reason to think that when the group size becomes small enough, the system becomes less useful, since it doesn’t have enough resources. I don’t know of evidence that small countries are doing, in general, better than bigger ones.

    Re 6: The lack of resources expressed in terms of lack of professional expertise at the local level is, I think, a serious problem – which is what drives centralization – but it is not specific to the mechanism of sortition. My point was that it seems unlikely that citizens would be motivated to put as much effort and attention when serving on low level bodies as they would when serving on high level bodies, and that the support structure provided in terms of professional staff and authority would have to be minimal. As an example: I would be willing to put much more effort discussing and deciding how to spend a million dollars than how to spend one thousand dollars.



  4. Most klerotatains are focused on equality, but I’m focused on aggregation of POWER and on those affected by decisions making those decisions. Sure equality is important in maximising the number and scope of opportunities for active, responsible (not just partisan) participation in public affairs that are important to them and within their capacities.
    You think people who serve on low level bodies won’t be motivated to do a good job. Surely they will if it affects them directly and substantially. If they have any sense they will seek out the best advice.
    Start with tings like education, health, infrastructure and wlefare.
    Of course mere numbers, one or a hundred million is not the problem. It is diversity of needs and aspirations and opportunities for experimentation.


  5. I think that having decisions made by those affected by them is a generally accepted principle – the question is how to implement this principle. It is not clear to me that this could be implemented in a way that is very different from the way it is done now. Even if we accept that each neighborhood could have its own, say, health committee, I think many of the important health policy decisions would need to be made at higher aggregation levels.

    Maybe you could flesh out an example showing how a certain area of public policy should be organized differently than it is now, with what you would expect to be significantly improved results.


  6. Hi Yoram Keep it up! Reply: Of course, people pay lip service to the principle that decisions ought to be made by those affected by them, but that can mean anything, including buying some comprehensive package covering all the issues that affect them in any degree, even “plebiscitary democracy”. What I want is that ordinary people in very large numbers have first hand experience of the different problems that affect themselves and their neighbours in a variety of ways, and that they try together to work out the best solution for them and how much money they are willing to spend on it. So a community in Florida may have a mixture of retired people and young minority groups with a very different range of public and private health issues than say rural Kansas. It would be very desirable that each produce a set of health care institutions and services that cater to its specific needs and circumstances. The result, I would hope, would be a lot of geographically overlapping authorities that are coordinated by cooperative arrangements, or where that fails by arbitration. I regard it as just as important that a culture of public service, a genuine pride in their communal achievements and a sound morality grow not out of partisan hype but out of real, grass roots constructive work in which anybody can contribute. It may cost more, but that depends a lot on what you count as cost and what counts as benefits. Bureaucratic health systems are cheap, but they squeeze both the providers and their clients into “one size fits all” solutions. Both capitalism and nationalism favour concentration of power and mass production, draining the substance out of choice. There are questions of an entirely different kind, where only a global authority can possibly be effective, such as climate change and international financial law. It is absolutely clear that as long as these matters are left to treaties between nation states they will be subject to the ghastly internal politics of each of those states, and nothing of real substance will be decided, much less enforced against powerful vested interests. I think there is just a chance that people might agree to the required sort of authority if its governing body were chosen by lot from a large pool of people nominated by states and relevant scientific bodies, with very clearly defined powers. I am very anti-bureaucratic in general, but where it is very important that uniform standards be accepted and applied strictly, there is no escaping it. Our current ideas of democracy as popular sovereignty incarnated in the state have to be whittled down, to say the least. A lot of people take my book as a prescription. It is not that, but an exploration of possible forms of organisation. My perspective on political change is very Darwinian. If no other solution suits those with power they may allow a small change in genetic engineering, which may get adapted to suit other situations until it has effects on lots of contexts to the point where the whole ecology changes…..but certainly not, one hopes, according to any single prescription.


  7. Hi John,

    1. Whether or not one accepts the utility of decentralization through the mechanism you suggest, it seems a separate matter from the idea of substituting sortition for elections for existing government bodies. Do you think that the latter is useless without the former?

    2. Let’s explore your example in more detail. If I understand correctly, in your vision each community would have an alloted body making healthcare policy decisions. How big would each community be? How big would the body be? How long would members serve? How much of their time would they be expected to spend on activities related to their role? Would they be paid? Would there be professional support staff? What kind of decisions do you expect the body to make? What are the improvements in healthcare quality that you would expect compared to a situation in which broad policy decisions are made by an alloted body at a higher aggregation level, and local authority is given to professionals accountable to that body?

    Also, how many other alloted bodies, handling other aspects of the community’s life, would there be?


  8. Hi Yoram Re 1. A crucial comment. If you are going to get good decisions you must keep irrelevant matters out of the negotiating process. Wherever you have a situation where a legislative body is responsible for all the policy decisions over the whole range of public goods, from health to housing to zoning to education, to infrastructure etc. players A,B..will stitch up deals, trading their ability to assist other players X,Y..get things they want in return for similar assistance on things A,B.. want. That is what politics consists in, no matter how the players are chosen, in aristocracies, dictatorships, electoral systems or even sortition. The people who have the most to trade, who don’t give a damn about most issues other than certain narrow interests, who can exercise most patronage or other power win, and are much admired for doing so. Poor Obama has no great power base in the legislature and administration. So he can’t get deals through. What he has to offer is not what the players he needs to buy want. The system is very constraining. If you want success you have to buy it. Even players who favour a measure are likely to feel they have to play hard to get on it, so as to extract support for something else they want. That is what succeeds. It means that a lot of bad decisions are made because the crucial votes are bought at the cost of irrelevant considerations. The only way of getting really good decisions is to make sure that the players in the negotiation have only relevant concessions to make to each other. So in a local health provision there may be a conflict between the needs of children and those of the elderly. In a constructive process of negotiation each party will attempt to offer the other as much as possible at least cost to itself, often making a win-win compromise. But if one set of players in a health question buys swinging voters with promises of crucial support for a municipal marina, the odds are that both those decisions will be sub-optimal, not what best fits the specific needs. My conclusion is that as far as possible there should be distinct clearly defined authorities of distinct areas of need for public goods, each with a circumscription appropriate to the scale at which the problems pose themselves in a given situation. So my answer to your first question is that if you had a national legislature consisting of members chosen by lot, they would inevitably have to start making deals and would soon evolve a system of small parties that would play hard ball with each other, much as is at present the case in countries with extreme proportional representation , such as Israel. 2. As i said in an earlier comment I’m pretty Darwinian about the shape of things. You have to work by reforming existing institutions adaptively with a bit of genetic engineering. But ideally I would like to see existing municipal authorities split up into about ten different authorities, some of which would be very local such as parks etc, others, like garbage and recycling on a much bigger scale. The structures might turn out to look pretty different in rural Vermont from NYcity. It is simply not practical to ask people to make informed decisions about who is to represent them on such a range of authoritities. Elections favour elites and people with “connections” etc. At this level the jobs would be part-time and paid only an average hourly rate for a clerical worker. Some tasks might be contracted out, others would need a full-time professional staff. 3. The sort of bodies I’ve been talking about are concerned with the delivery of services. there is a very different range of questions concerned with legal rights and duties, professional standards, overall allocation of resources and so on that require fairness and other broader concerns. I suggest that such higher authorities need to be peopled by lot from a pool of those nominated by their peers on lower bodies as having shown the sort of abilities and sensitivities demanded by these bigger issues. But that is a long way off, I fear. In any case I think that people chosen at random would include too many who had no real understanding of or sensitivity to such issues. I also think that participation should not be imposed as a burden like jury service. Even very public-spirited people at a given stage in their lives may have interests that are more important to them than participation in public affairs. John


  9. Hi John,

    1. I disagree with your assessment of the reasons for disfunction of high level bodies. I don’t see vote trading as a serious problem, or indeed as something that is in principle undesirable. It is in the nature of compromises that they can be carried across policy areas. Vote trading (“logrolling”) actually contributes to arriving at mutually beneficial agreements (“win-win solutions”) – we do that regularly at home, at the workplace or at any other natural group (“o.k, we’ll go to see the movie you want, but afterwards we’ll go to eat in the restaurant that I prefer”). Logrolling is often blamed by the elected for not serving their voters, but there is no reason to believe that it is anything but an excuse, as far as I know.

    In my opinion the reason for the disfunction of high level bodies today is that, due to the election process, they are populated by people whose interests are very different from those of the average citizen. Obama is not a hapless well-meaning politician who is hamstrung by the system, he is serving exactly those interests that he values most.

    2. I am doubtful that people working part time with little professional support would generally produce improved results as compared to professionals supervised by a high-authority high-resource body, even if that body has a wide area of responsibility. I would also argue that the type of decisions that you would place in the hands of higher level bodies (decisions regarding “questions concerned with legal rights and duties, professional standards, overall allocation of resources and so on that require fairness and other broader concerns”) may often be the crucial ones anyway. I do agree, however, that rather than making such judgments a-priori, experimentation is called for.

    3. I am very wary of your suggestion of limiting the pool of candidates for higher level bodies. The argument that such bodies should be comprised of people who have “shown the sort of abilities and sensitivities demanded by these bigger issues” is exactly the kind of elitist argument that is used to legitimize elections and other mechanisms of power inequality. There is every reason to think that such filtering would produce a governing elite whose interests would be different from those of the average person. I think the evidence shows that the average person is quite capable of showing “abilities and sensitivities demanded by bigger issues”, given the chance to express them.


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