Participatory Budgeting

Here’s an example that demonstrates that citizens can effectively grapple with the difficult issue of budgeting. The only piece missing, as far as true ‘government by the people’ is concerned, is that the groups convened to make these decisions should be randomly selected. Otherwise, it is only those who have the time and personal interest who ‘solve’ the community’s issues.

Government can’t solve budget battles? Let citizens do it.

To resolve the budget battles tearing apart Congress and state and local governments, politicians should look to a new model of citizen involvement: participatory budgeting.

Conall Boyle on university admittance: (3) who gains?

This is the third and last part of this article. The first two parts are 1 and 2.

In a democratic society university admittance policy would be set according to the informed decision of the members of the society – possibly through a representation by an allotted decision-making chamber. The decision makers would have to consider what would be the advantages and disadvantages of possible admittance policies and attempt to design a system that would create maximum benefit for the maximum number of people. (Indeed, in a democratic society, all aspects of university policy, such as the procedure for setting the curriculum, should also be designed so as to maximize the benefit for society as a whole.)

Two effects of the admittance policy that merit consideration are its impact on slot availability and its impact on the ideological stance of the members of the public regarding the benefits of university education. Both of those considerations indicate that a lottery-based admittance policy has clear advantages over the achievement-based policy. While I think that the long term objective for the university system should be to provide quality education to all who seek it, the advantages of the lottery-based admittance system make it both a reasonable system for societies that cannot afford to provide education to all, and make it a good tool for creating a shared interest in reaching this desirable goal.

1. Slot availability

As Conall Boyle emphasizes, the possibility of employing a lottery emerges when a resource is scarce. If the number of applicants to a certain university course is smaller than the available number of slots, then neither a lottery nor any other filtering method is needed. Why, then, are the university slots scarce? Does this scarcity represent the best interests of society? On the face of it, it seems that the natural response to high demand for university slots would be to attempt generate more slots. Would it be difficult to do so?

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Machiavellian Democracy

John P. McCormick’s new book (Machiavellian Democracy, CUP, 2011) is a fascinating attempt to appropriate insights from Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy (1513-17) in order to moderate some of the worst excesses of modern ‘democracy’ – in particular the Florentine’s advocacy of class-based magistracies to constrain the oppressive ‘humor’ of the grandi (political elite). Machiavelli’s template for this is the institutions of the Roman republic, especially the People’s Tribunes. Roman Tribunes were elected exclusively from plebeian ranks and were charged with popular advocacy; McCormick’s suggestion is that a modern equivalent (for the US) might involve fifty-one tribunes selected by an annual sortition from the whole population (apart from the wealthiest 10% of family households). The powers of the tribunes would be three-fold (p.184):

1.     To veto, by majority vote, one piece of congressional legislation, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision p.a.

2.     To call one annual referendum p.a. which, if ratified, would take on the force of federal statute.

3.     To initiate impeachment proceedings against one federal official from each of three branches of government. McCormick is particularly attracted to the Roman practice of political trials – any citizen could publicly accuse magistrates of malfeasance and this would prompt a hearing in a voting assembly, which could comprise the entire citizenry.

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The Triumph of Election

Why did the American founders ignore the case for sortition? It was well known at the time that sortition was one of the primary mechanisms of Athenian democracy and this explains why Madison and his Federalist chums (who were no democrats) ignored it. But even Antifederalists (who argued the democratic case for descriptive representation) failed to propose sortition as a means to establish a legislature that was a ‘portrait in miniature’ of the whole community. According to Bernard Manin it was philosophy – in the form of the Natural Right theory of consent – that was the principle cause of the ‘triumph of election’ (Manin, 1997, Ch.2). But is this true?

James Fishkin points out that the etymological root of ‘deliberation’ (deliberationem) is ‘weighing’ (2009, p.35), so when a randomly-selected assembly member of an allotted chamber (AC) ‘like me’ weighs up the arguments and judges accordingly then I am descriptively represented. But is it possible to take this further and argue that I thereby consent to the judgment of a randomly-selected assembly? The argument for this further claim would need to take the following lines (paraphrasing Fishkin, 2009):

  1. Someone ‘like’ me would, ex hypothesi, exercise judgment in the same way that I would myself. The argument does not require a definition of the ‘likeness’ criteria (age, gender, occupation, political preferences etc.), as the randomization process in principle reflects the incidence of any quality in the general population.
  2. The number of representatives ‘like me’ in an allotted assembly would be proportionate to the number in the general population. If the sample is not sufficiently fine-grained to accurately reflect the distribution of any quality deemed to be salient to the exercise of political judgment then the sample numbers would need to be increased accordingly: only a relatively small sample would be needed to provide an accurate gender balance, whereas the proportional representation of, say, albinos or molecular microbiologists would require a larger sample. The rapid growth of the polling industry is a testimonial to the accuracy and validity of the probability sampling principle.
  3. Therefore the aggregate judgment of the allotted assembly would represent the considered judgment of the whole population. This was the principle behind the nomothetai (legislative assemblies) introduced in fourth-century Athens.
  4. All electors are currently deemed to consent to the results of a general election, whether or not ‘their’ candidate was victorious; so the same principle should apply to the result of a vote in an allotted assembly (the only difference being the employment of one or other of the two mechanisms – election or sortition – that constitute a ‘ballot’.) Although one might argue that the ‘consent’ involved is at best tacit, hypothetical (or some other form of ‘useful fiction’), the same is true in both instances of the ‘ballot’.

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Pomper: The concept of elections in political theory

In a 1967 paper, “The concept of elections in political theory”, Gerald M. Pomper briefly mentions “election by lot”.

The paper begins with an assertion:

Popular elections are generally assumed to be the crucial element of democratic governments, but the significance of elections is so widely assumed that it is rarely examined. Although studies of voting behavior abound, there are relatively few theoretical or empirical investigations of the effects of voting on the total political system.

This is an overstatement. Schumpeterian theory was well known and widely discussed at least as late as the 1950’s (e.g., Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory) and a part of that theory is an analysis of the function of elections – an analysis that attacks the “classical doctrine of democracy”. Pomper seems to mean that there is little work attempting to defend the “classical doctrine”. His own defense is to a large extent a capitulation. He gives up on the hope of a representative government and is satisfied with the claim that elections “give the voters a means of protection, a method of intervention in politics when their vital interests were being threatened.” Of course, even this modest claim is not obvious and Pomper doesn’t offer a theoretical argument for its plausibility.

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Sortition in Student Government

A Stanford graduate student recently came up with the following thought experiment, part of a sustained tirade against the student government there–

Conall Boyle on university admittance: (2) what merit?

Selecting school entrants by IQ and no other criterion is a good example of a meritocratic system.

Conall Boyle, Lotteries for Education

Conall Boyle sees admitting students to universities based on standardized test scores as being a meritocratic policy. This is so, according to Boyle, since standardized test scores are a good (indeed, the only) predictor of probability of graduation. There seems to be an obvious gap here: it is far from clear why high probability of graduation can be considered “merit”. Boyle rejects “good works” (such as doing volunteer work for good causes), for example, as being “false merit”, because it is not a predictor of probability of graduation. This seems like an unusual use of the term “merit” – a more suitable term perhaps is “potential” or “promise”.

Even then, we are obviously dealing with “promise” of a rather peculiar nature: “promise to graduate”. Boyle sees such promise-based policy as being justified by considerations of efficiency: there is a limited number of slots at the university, the public has an interest to have as many as possible of those slots turn into graduates rather than turn into dropouts. But, again, there is an obvious gap: producing graduates cannot be a good by itself since the university could easily produce more graduates (or fewer graduates) by changing the graduation requirements. The real objective of a university education is something different. Admittedly, an examination of what exactly is that objective would be a rather complicated and potentially controversial task. However, without undertaking this task it would be rather difficult to support the claim that the promise of good grades provides utility for society.

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Kleroterians in Chicago

As usual, there was a Kleroterian presence at the recent annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association. There was a panel featuring one paper by myself and Scott Wentland, another paper by Jan-Willem Burgers, and one more by Melissa Schwartzberg (not sure if she’d call herself a Kleroterian, but she’s definitely sympathetic). Eric MacGilvray chaired the session (ditt0), and we received some excellent comments by Jack Knight. A very successful conference panel, I’d say. We also had an excellent Thai dinner the night before. It was attended by me, Scott, Jan, Eric, and Kleroterian Mindy Peden. I posted a picture of the event on the group’s Facebook page:

The response to the conference paper (which is very much a work in progress) has me thinking that there is a lot more work to be done on the way that randomization can influence political decision-making. Much of that influence comes from the fact that it induces a form of ignorance–it prevents people from knowing something. That can be good or bad; if you select jurors by lot, then you don’t know their race or partisan affiliation, but you also don’t know their intelligence or ability either. The goal of injecting randomness into politics is to ensure as much of the good effects of ignorance while minimizing the potential bad effects.  It could take a lot of work to sort all that out, on a theoretical level at least.

Oh, and my book was for sale at the conference as well. Let’s not forget that. Buy your copy today! [Here -Yoram]

A letter to David Swanson

[Updated below.]

Sortition advocate Richard Ward has pointed me at a televised panel discussion on CSPAN2’s BookTV titled “The Imperial Presidency“. One of the participants in the panel was David Swanson. I have just written the following email to Mr. Swanson:

Dear Mr. Swanson,

I have recently watched the “Imperial Presidency” panel discussion on BookTV in which you took part, and followed that with a visit to your website. I found that I agree with all of what you said in terms of the problems with the current political system.

I did not find, however, that you offered a practicable solution to the problems. You did suggest at one point joining a grass root non-partisan organization (such as RootsAction). While I understand and identify with the line of thinking that leads you to propose this activity, I think further examination would show that there is little reason to hope that it would be effective.

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A semi-direct model for a more participative democracy

Armando Vieira offers a reform program with some of the high-tech participative characteristics offered by Matteo Martini:


Here I propose a new political system that will become possible in a society where all its citizens will be connected to the Internet. Its main philosophy is inspired in the free market mechanism, and I will call it semi-direct democracy. The main points of this model are: i) the substitution of political parties by a set of non-profit political organisations specialized to deal with most aspects of the executive and the legislative power; and ii) the introduction of a constant electronic scrutiny by the citizens of the activities of these organisations. The emergence of this system will be enhanced by the increasing need for more representativity and transparency in public affairs, on one hand, and the increasing incapacity of the actual political system to deal with an increasingly complex society, on the other.


Semi-direct democracy, e-government, e-democracy.
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