Looking for Alternatives

With the growing disillusionment with the alternative to a President widely disapproved of, and with congress approval stuck at a seemingly permanent low, the time is ripe for exploring alternatives to the standard electoral process. Some are looking for delegates on craigslist.

Sortition, Democracy, and the Lords Again

The idea of selecting the House of Lords by lot has made the rounds for several years now, at least since the publication of Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty’s pamphlet The Athenian Option (expanded and republished in 2008 by Imprint Academic). It’s always intriguing to see who likes the idea. Graeme Archer endorses the idea on the website Conservative Home. Check it out–

http://conservativehome.blogs.com/centreright/2010/01/random-power.html

Archer is not entirely clear as to why he likes randomly-selected peers. He seems to think that only elections confer democratic legitimacy, but that our experience with juries shows that randomly-selected bodies can make very good (accurate? honest?) decisions. It’s interesting to hear him say that, as the usual objection trotted out against sortition is that ordinary people are morons who could never handle the serious burden of lawmaking. (Archer, like Barnett and Carty, doesn’t want randomly-selected peers to write legislation, just evaluate legislation drafted by a still-elected House of Commons. Also, Archer wants a new randomly-selected body to evaluate each piece of legislation, so as to minimize the chance that people will be overburdened by the job. This is one of several options considered in The Athenian Option.)

Another conservative website, the “Heresy Corner”, commented on Archer’s proposal almost immediately–

http://heresycorner.blogspot.com/2010/01/lotteries-and-lordships.html

The anonymous blogger, who calls himself the “Heresiarch” (anonymous? really? hope you’re not pretending you’re putting yourself into some kind of danger with your right-wing blogging) is sympathetic to the idea. His overall evaluation, unfortunately, is rather confused. First he says elections are horrible because they put our hands in a bunch of politicians. Then he says randomly-selected bodies don’t make good decisions, but they do ensure descriptive representation (i.e., decision-making in the hands of a bunch of ordinary people). But then he declares it very important that experts evaluate legislation, not ordinary people, and so he wants the House of Lords to be…elected. Will this cause gridlock? Well, maybe, but so what? In the end, elected officials will have complete control over our fate, but letting a representative government actually accomplish things is setting up an “elective dictatorship”, and so the best we can do is make sure that the representatives can’t actually do anything.

In the end, I find Archer’s thoughts reasonable though underdeveloped, and the Heresiarch’s borderline incoherent. Both could do with a bit more thought on just what a democratic government is supposed to do. Until one has a clear answer to that question, one cannot provide reasons for preferring sortition over elections, or vice versa.

Two final thoughts. In his defense of gridlock, the Heresiarch writes, “just look at the United States, where gridlock can only be avoided if the same party controls the Presidency, a majority of the House and 60 seats in the Senate.” I’m going to assume that’s some sort of joke, given how monumentally little Obama got done with all of those conditions met. Second, I am very pleased to see British Conservatives take the idea of sortition seriously. I hope very much that this enthusiasm persists after the Tories regain power.