Checks and balances

Excerpts from an email exchange between Keith Sutherland and me:


As Peter wrote recently (and I agree), “there’s more theorizing to be done here,” but it is quite clear to me that it is going to be much easier to make a coherent theory of representation of interests by sortition than a coherent theory of representation of interests by elections.


I think the two concepts are so distinct that they require different mechanisms. Most successful constitutional settlements involve a variety of institutions, so I’m puzzled why you want one element (a randomly-selected chamber) to fulfill all of them, if only to benefit from the checks and balances afforded by a plurality of institutions. But perhaps that’s all too Madisonian for your tastes!


“Checks and balances” is too often a pseudonym to preserving existing power. When a policy is backed by the majority’s informed and considered opinion, then giving a minority veto power over that policy is oligarchical. Calling that minority “experts” does not change that.


Agreed, that’s why in my model, voting powers are restricted exclusively to the allotted house. However, although allotted MPs have all the power, the role of knowledge and expertise is given its due place in guiding the debate. If you think that is reactionary and Madisonian, then so is our entire education system.

An arrangement in which “experts”  are “guiding the debate” is incompatible with the claim that in that system “MPs have all the power”.  Whoever is “guiding the debate” has an enormous amount of power. This, for example, is the power of the mass media elites in our present society. In fact, voting on legislation proposals that someone else writes, based on information that someone else provides leaves the voter with very little power. Again, this is essentially the situation that the voters are in in the present system.

The allotted delegates voting on a proposal written by the “experts” would face a situation similar to the one that the members of U.S. Congress are currently facing when voting on the healthcare legislative proposals that are being put before them. Consider a hypothetical member of Congress who, like a majority of the American public, is unhappy with the current healthcare situation and at the same time is unhappy with the proposed legislation. That Congressperson would like to vote against the proposed legislation, but those who “guide the debate” provide an all-or-nothing situation in which if the present proposal fails, the status quo will be maintained indefinitely into the future. The Congressperson eventually votes for the legislation, preferring the resulting system to the status quo, and thus does his part in a political theater in which those “guiding the debate” can claim that their unpopular proposals are legitimate since they get approved by a majority of votes.

Any “mixed constitution”, meaning a sortition system in which the allotted chamber votes on proposals designed by a non-representative body rather than coming up with its own, would perpetuate, in a new form, the existing theater of democracy.

The Common Lot

The film “The Common Lot” has a website–

I viewed the trailer, and I must say–I don’t think the director is going to be the next Emile de Antonio. Still, it sounds like a very interesting project, and I’m ordering a copy of the DVD. I’ve also joined the film’s FB page. I hope other Kleroterians will try and make contact with the filmmakers.

Common Lot Productions

Google Alerts notified me about the appearance of the Common Lot Productions website. We have already had the founder of Common Lot Productions drop us a note.

From the “press kit” and the “how might sorititon work?” page on the site it is possible to learn a little about the Common Lot sortition proposal. Two elements seem problematic to me:

  • The Common Lot sortition proposal sets a qualification for the inclusion in the candidate pool of attending a two year long part time “civics training”, and then passing an exam “in order to demonstrate [understanding of] how the legislative process works.”
  • The proposal also suggests setting the salary of the allotted legislators to be equal the median household income.

A qualification of any kind for inclusion in the sortition candidate pool creates a bias in the representation. Setting the bar at attending a two year course, for example, makes it very likely that people of limited resources would be significantly underrepresented in the candidate pool. It is not clear at all that the resulting bias would translate to improved policy results.

A salary equal to the median household income is, it seems to me, completely inadequate to compensate allotted legislators for the inconvenience involved. Like the qualification condition, this may make service in the legislature an occupation that only the relatively wealthy can afford. Furthermore, in a society in which status is connected to income, this sets the status of the legislators uncomfortably low – especially since many of the people they will be dealing with can be expected to be very rich.

In general, the parameters of a sortition-based system have to be carefully considered. It may be that the two features of the proposal discussed above seem to the proposers to be common-sense measures that would increase the chance of acceptance of the proposal. Such tactics, however, are, in my opinion, counter-productive.

At this early stage advocacy for sortition should be about popularizing the principle, rather than about promoting specific detailed proposals. The time for committing to specific details will, hopefully, arrive, once the principle of sortition is established. In the meantime, discussion of those details should occur in an investigative, open-minded manner.

The Newid proposal

Martin Wilding Davies invited responses to his proposal for a sortition-based government system (as he outlined it in comments to Keith Sutherland’s post on

The main features of his proposal, as I understand it, are:

  1. The system relies on two legislature bodies: the Assembly and the Forum.
  2. The Assembly is chosen as a random sample of the population and serves for a period of “up to 3 months”. Service will be mandatory and will carry some material and honorific rewards.
  3. The method of selection of Forum members is not fully specified, but it is clearly meant to be, at least to some extent, an elite body. Its term of service is not specified.
  4. The Forum will set the public policy agenda by generating legislation proposals. These will then come before the Assembly which will either accept or reject them, but will also be allowed to “amend” the proposals.
  5. Decisions in both the Forum and the Assembly will be arrived at “by consensus”.
  6. Another group with some political power will be “advocates”. These are judges who will “make the case for or against specific actions or requirements, [present] evidence, [call] expert witnesses and representatives of interest groups”.
  7. “Policy will be implemented by a professional executive recruited by headhunters and appointed, scrutinised and where necessary replaced by the National Assembly.”

Here are my thoughts: Continue reading

45% Say Random Group From Phone Book Better Than Current Congress

It turns out that in my recent post about Rasmussen’s “Mainstream voters” I missed the most juicy part. The irreverence of the “childlike” majority may come as a surprise to those who expect that such ideas would gather “zero” percent support. It turns out that a whole lot of people are not only incapable of running a whelk stall – they are also completely unappreciative of the good services rendered to them by the capable few.

We’ve Got Our Work Cut out for Us

Spotted the following quote on a message board a few minutes ago:

“I actually agree with getting rid of re-elections, but as far as sortition, I think there are too many stupid fucks in the world.”

Isn’t democracy fun?

The message board is at

Repair California

Nobody has commented yet on Repair California’s efforts to get referenda on the ballot calling for a state constitutional convention. It may be a bit late to start a discussion on the topic, given that those efforts appear to have fallen apart. But due to the connection with sortition, it might be worth a bit of our attention.

Repair California’s proposal would have selected a constitutional convention partially by lot. A large number of delegates to the convention would be elected by assembly district-level meetings of randomly-selected citizens. That’s complicated enough, but that’s only the procedure for selecting some of the delegates; others would be appointed by elected officials and by Indian tribes.

Ultimately, I think the complexity of the scheme has worked against Repair California. I gather that one of the reasons for going for something so complex–instead of, say, a randomly-selected constitutional convention, as proposed by Joel Parker–was a desire to be “realistic” and not too “radical.” But being radical can be very reasonable if it allows you to express and defend a clearly principled solution to a problem. Repair California’s scheme is so complicated that it’s really hard to say, this is why the proposal is good for democracy. And so being “realistic” can actually lead to nothing getting done.

A related note gets struck by this article–

It notes the difficulty in putting forth a convention plan without any clear sense of just what that convention might do, or what problem it might solve. After all, just because all Californians agree that the “system” is broken, it doesn’t mean they agree as to WHY it’s broken. If you try very hard not to take a stand on this question, the end result is that it’s hard to get anyone excited about inducing change. The same is true if you try too hard to keep the plan “safe” (again, being “realistic”). California’s fiscal woes stem in large part from Proposition 13’s tax restrictions, but Repair California’s constitutional convention would be unable to list Proposition 13 entirely, although it could tinker with it around the edges. This was done because Proposition 13 is regarded as politically dangerous–too many elderly people with absurdly low property taxes ready to defend it–but as a result it’s hard to get people excited who think Proposition 13 is a major part of the problem.

One more comment–there’s still a movement to get a proposition on the ballot lifting the 2/3 majority rule for the state budgetary process. That, IMHO, would go a huge way towards making California less of a fiscal train wreck. It’s well worth supporting.

A Mixed Constitution

Keith Sutherland posts a sortition-related piece on Open Democracy:

Sortition to Fix America’s Broken System

A recent blog posting…

…advocates sortition to select all American federal elective offices–the President, the Vice President, the Senate, and the House. The proposal is a (quite understandable) reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent radical decision to lift all restraints on corporate “free speech” (thereby constraining the free speech rights of everyone else).

The proposal has generated a lot of comments, which is a good thing. I mostly have quibbles about the proposal. For example, I wouldn’t rely upon income tax records for fear that those at the bottom might be underrepresented. Why not rely on voter registration, combined with a much more aggressive effort at achieving universal registration? Also, the proposal calls for curtailing lobbyists from outside the area a representative or senator represents. I suspect such proposal would be ineffective, and that other measures (for example, the restoration of a robust and vibrant media) would be needed here. Finally, I’m not very keen on selecting the President and the Veep this way. In the past, sortition has almost always been used to fill collective bodies. Obviously, this helps to guard against the variances in quality that random selection can induce. Pick one name at random, and you may get an idiot, a nut, or a teabagger (but I repeat myself). Pick 12 names, and you might get 1 or 2 cranks. Pick 435 names (i.e., fill the U.S. House by lot), and the odds of getting a large number of nutters is infinitesimally small (unless a majority of the citizenry are nutters, in which case you have bigger problems on your hands).

Most Americans trust people, not leaders

The Rasmussen Reports polling firm defines “Mainstream Americans” as those who “tend to trust the wisdom of the crowd more than their political leaders and are skeptical of both big government and big business”. This group now makes about two thirds of the American public. The other extreme point in their scale – those who support the political class – make a mere 4%. The rest place themselves somewhere in between the extremes.

More from the findings:

Polling conducted from January 18 through January 24 found that 76% of voters generally trust the American people more than political leaders on important national issues. Seventy-one percent (71%) view the federal government as a special interest group, and 70% believe that the government and big business typically work together in ways that hurt consumers and investors. On each question, a majority of Republicans, Democrats and unaffiliated voters share those views.

The last point – the fact that such views are common across the standard political spectrum – reveals that the stereotypes of groups along that spectrum are misleading. Rasmussen Reports add:

Over time, we have found that those with Mainstream views often have a very different perspective from those who support the Political Class. In many cases, the gap between the Mainstream view and the Political Class is larger than the gap between Mainstream Republicans and Democrats.