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.

5 Responses

  1. Citizen Governance

    Ancient Greek democracy selected government officials by sortition. Sortition randomly selects office holders from a pool of voluntary citizens. Sortition political assignment, as opposed to balloting, administered correctly, assures mathematically equal representation in government of all political fault-lines. That is, it guarantees equal representation of gender, ethnic, economic, religious, and political viewpoints.

    The upside is mathematically perfect democratic representation in a sort of “Gilligan’s Island” governance. The concern is a “grass roots” of “inexperienced” government officials. The sortition elect may need serious “mentoring”. After all, they must integrate into a functioning government team. Sortition is not bias toward “experience”, “education”, “intelligence”, “beauty”, or “charisma”. The sortition elect decides the importance of these qualities.

    Not to worry, sortition senate seats are filled over a staggered schedule. This assures a quorum is never completely made up of new members.

    Not to worry, sortition senators have “experienced” senators to “mentor” them. Outside “mentors” are cheap, plenty, and volunteer. There are thousands of lobbyists in washington “mentoring” senators at this very moment. The new “sortition” senator has ample mentor help.

    Not to worry, the new “sortition” senator teams with a house of representatives that really cranks out legislation. Right now the house has hundreds of bills piling up for senate approval. These bills cover important and vital issues of governance.

    If republicans are lucky, sortition might select a Lincoln, Palin, or Limbaugh. If democrats are lucky, sortition might select a Roosevelt, Kennedy, or Clinton.

    The senate is broken. If the senate can “filibuster”, the senate can “sortition” open senate seats. Over time, sortition will guarantee accurate political representation in the senate.

    Citizen is coach to team democracy. Coach is responsible for success. It’s your call, coach.


  2. My above contribution suggests a mixed system, partially elected and partially by sortition.

    This is politically, practically impossible, at this time.

    We may be talking constitutional amendments.


  3. Hi Ronald,

    Thanks for visiting and for your comment. Are you aware of the Phillips/Callenbach proposal for a sortition-based House of Representatives? It is quite similar to yours, I believe.

    By the way, how did you become aware of the idea of sortition? It is not, I believe, taught in civics lessons nor discussed in the mass media.



  4. I’m a statistician by bachelor degree.
    It is natural I be aware of randomness in different forms.
    I stumbled on a sortition definition at wikipedia.
    I am finding the sortition discussion close to the heart of our governments current challenges.

    I’ll check out your suggested link.


  5. I am finding the sortition discussion close to the heart of our governments current challenges.

    I wholeheartedly agree. Again, welcome. If you want to contribute posts to this blog, please let me know.


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