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–

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–

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.

9 Responses

  1. Peter,

    The question of single-issue panels vs. an all-issue limited-term body is interesting to consider carefully. Do you know if this was done somewhere?

    I tend to favor the latter approach – an alloted parliament. I think that having single-issue panels would lead to a weak representation of the public interest for four reasons:

    1. A lot of power would be in the hands of those controlling the mechanism for selecting the issues which the panels are selected to handle and the way those issues are circumscribed and posed.

    2. Having a limited mandates would make it less likely that fundamental changes would be pursued.

    3. The decision process would become a series of high-stakes decisions rather than an ongoing process that allows experimentation and tweaking.

    4. The limited scope of the authority of the panels would diminish the motivation of the panelists to spend the time and effort needed to become aware of all the implications of their decisions (i.e., gain “enlightened understanding” of the issues).


  2. BTW, I left invitations to join the conversation here at the comments sections of both blog posts.


  3. Great idea re: the invitations. I’m sympathetic to the limited-scope idea myself. I think that what classical Athens did was something like that. (I don’t know if you’ve ever read Richard Mulgan’s paper on sortition in Athens–it’s very good on this.)

    As for your concerns–the biggest objection is #1, and I agree that it’s a very serious point. It’s the real danger facing all uses of sortition–can someone manipulate randomly-selected groups and make them do something other than the public interest? I don’t buy #4–the job of making ALL laws is a huge one, and I can’t believe that just asking a randomly-selected deliberative body to evaluate, say, Obama’s health care plan (whatever it is) wouldn’t be interesting enough to motivate panelists. The same response can be given to #2, I believe. A panel reviewing the U.S. death penalty, the drug war, or our response to global warming would have great opportunities to enact fundamental change, unless lots of roadblocks were put in their way. Finally, point #3 is a very real issue, but in order for me to be concerned by it I’d have to know what the mechanism is for new juries to be called to review the work of old ones. That, of course, opens the danger of #1 again. That’s really the big one, I believe, but it will bedevil any plan to expand the use of sortition. It’s going to take some hard thinking to device solid institutional solutions to that one, no matter what the scope of sortition-based authority!


  4. I haven’t read Mulgan’s paper. (Obtaining journal papers can be difficult for someone outside academia, unless one is willing to pay $10 or more per paper – an outrage by any standard considering that most of the work in those papers was done at the public’s expense.)

    Regarding the points of difficulty I raised:

    1. If one accepts the per-issue jury approach, then the natural approach to address the matter of agenda setting would be to use an alloted body for that. That body would set the agenda for the single issue juries but would have no decision power.

    2. The nature of fundamental reforms is such that their implementation often requires action in diverse policy areas. A panel with restricted mandate would therefore be limited to applying patches to the status quo. Any attempt to affect a systemic change would be challenged as overstepping the mandate bounds. (The agenda setting body, or some other body, would presumably be able to overrule a single issue jury based on the decision that the jury overstepped its mandate, I guess.)

    3. Is there an agenda setting mechanism that you think would avoid the high-stakes decision points scenario?

    4. I think you are underestimating the difficulty of making informed decisions (and maybe overestimating the interest inherent in many areas of decision making).

    First, accepting or rejecting a pre-made proposal is certainly not the way to obtain real representation of interests. The panel must have the power to write its own decisions. Doing so in a thorough way could require a long time, a great effort, and the support of professional staff, as well as cooperation between members of panel based on close acquaintance. All of those would be in much shorter supply for a single-issue panel than for a high power all issue panel.


  5. Hmmm…I must confess that I find that a bit puzzling. Surely working on all issues is a much larger task than working on one issue? And that means that, for a given quantity of staff support, it would be more demanding for a jury to work on many issues than on one. I suppose you’re saying that not all things are equal, and that a each jury in a one-issue-per-jury world would have less staff than the lone jury in a one-jury-does-all world. But the latter task strikes me as absurdly hard. I don’t think Congress does a very good job of it, and they’re allegedly full-time professionals. I have trouble imagining a body of amateurs–even given staff support plus an entire year or two–could write competent legislation regarding health care AND global warming AND stimulating the economy AND gay marriage AND etc. etc. etc.

    Of course, a legislative body that simply scrutinized another body’s legislation (as in the proposal above, as well as Keith Sutherland’s proposal as well as Barnett/Carty) would have a less onerous job. But you don’t sound sympathetic to that.

    Finally, I like the idea of a randomly-selected body whose job was shaping the agenda for other randomly-selected bodies. That’s basically what the Boule did in Ancient Athens for the assembly. With that kind of body in charge, I’m not sure why you’re still concerned about particular juries winding up with agenda that are too limited.


  6. Well, the way I think a parliament-by-sortition should work, it would have a term which is similar to those of current parliaments (say 4 years), plus a couple of years of training as observers of the previous batch of alloted delegates. That should give the delegates enough time to be at least as professional as the current crop of elected officials, especially considering that the main expertise of elected delegates is in getting elected and re-elected. Per-issue juries are likely to have much shorter terms (a few days according to Leib’s proposal) and may be considered by the members as being a short interlude in their normal routine rather than a task of great significance. (This is similar to the dynamics I suspect would plague John Burnheim’s local alloted committees.)

    Handling decision-making across all policy areas surely is a daunting task, but the point is that there are no clear boundaries between those areas. Therefore any attempt to circumscribe areas would be problematic. On the other hand, understanding gained in one area is valuable for decision making in other areas – and understanding is a resource too valuable to be wasted. Of course, the delegates would be able to get advice from anybody and any body they wish to rely on – professional experts, alloted per-issue juries, etc. – and would be able to pick those topics that they consider most urgent. The agenda that you listed (healthcare, climate, economy, gay marriage, etc.) has been building over decades of government malfeasance.

    All that said, I would not deny that a single-issue-jury system could probably be very valuable (especially if the agenda setting body is also alloted). An accept-or-reject panel system such those proposed by Leib and Barnett and Carty (either per-issue or all-issue), on the other hand, would likely be so weak as to be almost useless in my opinion.

    Such a system doesn’t even have the advantage of reducing the difficulty of the job of the panel since scrutinizing a pre-made piece of legislation can be made arbitrarily difficult by having many elements bundled together. This could be done by the author of the legislation in a deliberate attempt to use the all-or-nothing nature of the decision to force the panel to accept undesirable elements together with what the panel considers desirable. In a way, bundling the bad with the good is what Obama the candidate did (his main desirable aspect was that he was not Bush; many of his policy proposals were much less appealing), and what the Obama administration has done with the healthcare plan (putting before the public the choice of either handing over more money to the insurers and providers or sticking with the current system that doesn’t cover many of those who need coverage most).


  7. Sortition needs slowly subvert the popular imagination. This requires some successful role model examples.

    Is anyone aware of business organizations using sortition to choose leadership? If so, are these businesses succeeding with this leadership? Generally speaking, the role of government is to promote the will of the people. The true test of sorition becomes its ability to produce leadership that promotes the will of the people.

    Successful businesses are generally admired. A sortition business organization plan, that caught on, and was successful, could go far to validate sortition methods. Is anyone aware of such a business entity?

    What sortition models in business and government are actually being used and where? An extensive list of activity might be useful.

    Most people want evidence of practicality before changing plan. Business and military oligarchies are successful, recognized, and widely understood. Elective democracies are successful, recognized, and widely understood.

    Sortition based systems, lotteries, military drafts, juries, etc. are too much seen as sideline and novel by most of the population. Mainstream and successful examples are important. Until this changes, sortition remains academic. On the bright side, “sortitous” thoughts are a rich source of sarcasm and irony.


  8. This requires some successful role model examples.

    Successful examples of applying sortition would surely be useful. There aren’t many of those – not because sortition has failed but because it has not been tried.

    One main reason that experiments with sortition are rare is the issue of scale. Elections are suited for governance in face-to-face groups, which is how most egalitarian organizations start out. Therefore, as an organization begins to grow there comes a point in which a switch from elections-based governance to sortition based governance is necessary. Unfortunately, by the time this is widely realized an established electoral elite is likely to exist already. This elite needs to be overthrown (or at least weakened considerably) before sortition can be implemented.


  9. An odd contribution to this debates will come on prime-time telly on April 4th, from Billy Connolly (a Scottish comedian, well-known in the UK for being outrageous):

    “Comedian Billy Connolly, 67, interviewed by Melvyn Bragg for an April 4th documentary about the South Bank Show, says we should all have a chance of becoming life peers.
    He tells Bragg, 70, a Labour life peer since 1998: ‘Why don’t we just empty the Lords completely and fill it like jury duty and we can all be summoned into it?’
    Labour insider Bragg replies: ‘Some of us are trying to do that but we need your support…’ Must try a little harder, Melvyn.”
    By Ephraim Hardcastle
    Last updated at 12:33 AM on 25th March 2010


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