Matt Kosko invokes Aristotle

Matt Kosko, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, writes a letter to the students’ newspaper, The Pitt News:

To the Editor,

Election season is upon us, and the gatekeepers of respectable opinion at The Pitt News are once again insisting on the “crucial” importance of the SGB election (of course, every election is claimed to be “crucial” by those who fetishize representative government). But if I may, I’d like to dispute the idea that elections have anything to do with students “exercis[ing] their democratic power,” as the editors insist.

All the way back to Aristotle, it used to be understood that elections are a mark of aristocracy, where a few of the “best” people are selected to rule over the undifferentiated masses; free elections in representative systems produce governments that are in fact highly unrepresentative of the population at large in terms of race or class. In contrast, selection by lot is a principle of democracy as in the ancient Greek democracies, where officials were chosen randomly from the population. If we want to make our student government democratic, we would do well to abolish the elected SGB and replace it with a body chosen by lot among the student population.

This body would have no legislative power, just the power to enforce decisions ratified by a majority of students.

Fran Barlow proposes a system of government

[This article was originally posted as a comment by Fran Barlow.]

For me the key question of representative governance turns on the legitimacy question. In what senses, if at all, is the exercise of executive power a bona fide expression of the attempt to meet all of the legitimate and contested claims of the community the sovereign ostensibly serves?

To qualify in this way, it seems to me that the legislature, in its composition, must be and be seen to be rather like the population as a whole in its composition. All of us are far more inclined to suppose that people who are socially like us are more likely to resist doing things we’d fundamentally object to and to be predisposed to serving the interests we see as valuable. That the legislature is like the populace as a whole isn’t a guarantee against them acting recklessly or like tyrants, but it makes it less likely.

On the other hand, we surely know that large sections of the populace aren’t highly informed about policy, even in a big picture sense. This is one of the contextual factors that subverts good policy because career politicians can exploit this ignorance (or complain that it constrains them) to do things that amount to very poor policy. In my view, sortition (or any proposed system of governance) should foster inclusivity and empowerment. We ought to want a better informed and more engaged citizenry. My outline below aims at ensuring that over time, the pool of people who are engaged with policy and have the skills to analyse and develop good policy grows.

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“Representation and Randomness,” Part Three

(See parts one and two in Peter Stone’s review.)

The third paper in the Constellations symposium is “Lot and Democratic Representation: A Modest Proposal,” by Alex Zakaras. This paper has already received some attention here, and so I shall try and approach it from a somewhat different angle.

Zakaras’ “modest proposal” calls for the replacement of national- and state-level senates with randomly-selected legislative bodies. These “citizen legislatures” would not be responsible for drafting legislation. Rather, they would be responsible for approving or vetoing legislation proposed by the second, elected legislative body. They could also compel their elective counterparts to hold floor votes on legislation that is stuck in committee or otherwise stalled. And they would be solely responsible for drawing and redrawing legislative district boundaries (p. 457-458). I particularly like the latter idea. It seems to me that many of the most egregious failings of modern legislatures stem from the fact that they almost invariably get to write their own rules, and enforce those rules upon themselves. That works about as well as most self-policing—it’s better than nothing, but sometimes not by much. I would see redistricting, as well as the creation and enforcement of codes of legislative ethics, as tasks particularly well-suited for a randomly-selected group of ordinary citizens.

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Lecture on Lotteries

Before leaving California, I gave a talk to a local Palo Alto group called the Humanist Community on lotteries. The talk can now be found online:

Law in Action

The armchair constitution-building on this forum has been, for the most part, abstract and speculative, so I’d like to bring it down to earth with a specific case-study. The recession in the UK has been serious and the consensus amongst economists is that any enduring recovery will be export-driven, as the home market is still highly indebted. In the last two years the domestic market in China has grown rapidly and most countries are now targeting their exports in that direction (the UK currently accounts for only 1% of Chinese imports). But China has an appalling human rights record, leading some to say that the UK should have a similar policy to China as with South Africa in the apartheid regime. Thus we have a classical political dilemma, so let’s explore possible outcomes in the light of three constitutional models:

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“Representation and Randomness,” Part Two

After a long hiatus, I’d like to return to commenting on Constellations’ recent symposium on “Representation and Randomness.” (See part one of this review.) To take up where I left off…

Hubertus Buchstein entitled his contribution to the symposium “Reviving Randomness for Political Rationality: Elements of a Theory of Aleatory Democracy.” In this contribution, Buchstein promises to “show that incorporating the factor of chance might…be of interest for contemporary democracies in terms of reform policy and how it could be achieved in practice.” In doing so, he attempts an ambitious array of tasks. The paper begins by “listing five potential functions of the lottery in the realm of politics” (p. 436). It then briefly considers the reintroduction of lotteries to modern politics via the American jury. (Two small historical quibbles: while it is true, as Buchstein says, that U.S. law has required random jury selection only since 1968, the practice was used at various times since the early days of the Republic. Also, the random selection of American military conscripts predates the Vietnam War. It was used in World War II, for example.) Then it addresses some theoretical problems raised in contemporary democratic theory (primarily by Habermas). Then it examines various recent small-scale projects involving randomly-selected citizens (notably James Fishkin’s deliberative opinion polls). Then it considers how random selection might address the problems of contemporary democratic theory that were raised earlier. It concludes with a few additional reform proposals involving random selection that might be worthy of further consideration.

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Compulsory Voting

The latest issue of the British Journal of Political Science features an article by Annabelle Lever on compulsory voting. See–

Lever notes that (pp. 902-903),

Most proponents of compulsory voting believe that voters should have the option to vote for ‘none of the above’, although none of them ever discuss what should happen if that option turns out to have the largest share of the vote in an election, or is sufficient to turn it into the major ‘opposition’ party.

Lever may wish to consider the proposal by Filimon Peonidis made at

In effect, Peonidis proposes that 1) people be permitted to vote “none of the above” and that 2) if “none of the above” wins any legislative seats, those seats be allocated randomly among the eligible population. In effect, those voting for “none of the above” are voting against the candidates offered and for candidate selection via sortition.

Limiting the allotted chamber’s powers – a foundational argument

In our recent exchange (1, 2), Alex Zakaras and I debated whether an allotted chamber should be given the full legislative powers now held by the elected chambers, or be limited to ratifying or rejecting legislative proposals made by an elected chamber. Two main line of arguments were brought up:

  • Most of the discussion revolved around issues of competence – can an allotted chamber be expected to be as competent in drafting legislative proposals as an elected chamber. Zakaras argued that an elected chamber can be expected to be more competent due to the experience of its members. I argued that experience is to a large extent a separate matter from the method of delegate selection.
  • Additionally, there was some discussion regarding representativity. I think that we agree that due to its statistical representativity, the outlook of an allotted chamber would be closer to that of the general population than the outlook of an elected chamber is. Zakaras, however, asserted that, due to both formal and substantial considerations, an elected chamber has the advantage of being accountable to the public while an allotted chamber is not. I argue that the electoral accountability is a purely formal (or mythical) notion, which is absent in reality and self-contradictory even in theory.

Here, instead of pursuing those same lines of argument I would like to develop a different point by arguing that, in fact, there is no situation in which the public should rationally bar the allotted chamber from initiating legislature – even if Zakaras’s arguments become accepted, and it is widely agreed that an allotted chamber should generally avoid such a role.

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Citizens’ Constitution of Czech Republic

I don’t believe that this blog has previously discussed the proposed Citizens’ Constitution of Czech Republic, which would introduce both citizen assemblies and referenda into the Czech Republic on a massive scale. The proposal can be found at

The proposal is not always clearly worded, but judging by Article 53A, the idea seems to be to select ten citizen commissions which will meet in parallel for five days, before getting together to submit a single joint set of recommendations (presumably chosen by majority or plurality rule). Interestingly, the proposals of the commissions are meant to be advisory only (with the final say going to either the elected legislature or a referenda) UNLESS the commission is dealing with the salaries of government officials. One might wish to expand this a bit to include, say, the ethical rules that officials must follow regarding lobbyists, transparency laws, etc.

This proposal would surely lead to a great many referenda being held. I am unsure that even a small country like the Czech Republic could make so many referenda work. But if one wants citizen participation, and one is not willing to let randomly-selected bodies make binding decisions against the will of elected legislatures, then I suppose one has little choice.

A New Book on Lotteries

Not to blow my own horn, but this announcement from Oxford University Press seemed pertinent to this blog…

The Luck of the Draw

The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making
Peter Stone