John Burnheim: To Reason Why

The recent publication of John Burnheim’s autobiography by Sidney University Press (Burnheim, 2011) coincides with improved availability of his 1985 work, Is Democracy Possible? (Burnheim, 2006). Although SUP republished the book in 2006 they have only recently made it available on John very kindly sent me copies of both books, even though he knew that I would not be the most sympathetic reviewer, as we have always disagreed fundamentally on the potential of sortition in our offline exchanges.

John divides his adult life into three two-decade periods during which he moved from the priesthood through philosophy to retirement, pausing en route only to (assist in) blowing up the Sydney University philosophy department (1973) and publishing an attempt to torpedo democracy in its modern incarnation (1985).
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Comment on CJs in Ireland

Interesting observations by a randomly selected barrister (lawyer) on Citizens’ Assembly experiment in Ireland. The organisation behind it,  ‘Wethecitizens’, is non-governmental, and looks excellent. For non-Irish: Oireachtas is Government, Seanad is the Upper House, like the House of Lords. It is sad to see that this exercise did not recommend Sortition for the Seanad.

Need to work out what a citizens’ assembly is before deciding to have one

Thu, Jun 30, 2011

OPINION: I was selected to take part in the citizens’ assembly – but what exactly is the aim of the experiment?

LAST WEEK, I was selected randomly to participate in an experimental citizens’ assembly. It met over a day and a half last weekend at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham (originally to be the seat of the Oireachtas in 1922).

I met lots of people who were engaged and pleased to be selected. The event was run by the “We the Citizens” project, funded by Atlantic Philanthropies, the organisation founded by Chuck Feeney.
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Karatani on sortition

Kojin Karatani writes in his book, Transcritique (2001, translated by Sabu Kohso, p. 182ff):

There is one crucial thing we can learn from Athenian democracy in this respect. The ancient democracy was established by overthrowing tyranny and equipped itself with a meticulous device for preventing tyranny for reviving. The salient characteristic of Athenian democracy is not a direct participation of everyone in the assembly, as always claimed, but a systematic control of the administrative power. The crux was the system of lottery: to elect public servants by lottery and to surveil the deeds of public servants by means of a group of jurors who are also elected by lottery. […] My point is that the core of the system invented to stop the fixation of power in Athenian Democracy lay not in the election itself, but in the lottery. Lottery functions to introduce contingency into the magnetic power center. The point is to shake up the positions where power tends to be concentrated; entrenchment of power in administrative positions can be avoided by a sudden attack of contingency. It is only the lottery that actualizes the separation of the three powers. If universal suffrage by secret ballot, namely, parliamentary democracy, is the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, the introduction of a lottery should be deemed the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Disappointingly, Karatani steps away from sortition, without providing a real reason – off-handedly blaming “the people” for not being ready for a radical solution:

Can we choose all representative by lottery in all elections? That is not realistic; the system itself would be too arbitrary to gain the trust of the people.

Instead, he offers a lottery among top vote getters, claiming it will reduce factionalism, and making a vague unexplained promise that such a mechanism will “free the power center from fixation in the long run”:

[W]hat is preferable to us would be to choose the most crucial post by lottery: namely choosing three candidates by secret vote (three in one choice) and then finally electing one by lottery. Because the last and most crucial stage is determined by contingency, factional disputes or conflicts over successors would not make sense.

More on the going-ons in Syntagma Square

I recently linked to a WSWS story about the Indignants in Syntagma Square. The Kathimerini newspaper has a story as well. As can be expected, the tone is much more equivocal.

In Syntagma Square, some see the dawn of a new politics

As Indignant protests enter second month, opinions divided about nature and future of the movement


Costas Douzinas, a law professor at Birkbeck, University of London, recently penned one of the most flattering profiles of the Indignants in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper, after being invited to speak in Syntagma. For him “this is the most political movement we have had in Greece, and perhaps in Europe for the past 20 years. It is totally political and in a way it changes our understanding of what politics means,” he says.
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Query regarding a reading list

I’m wondering if anyone has a recommended reading list. In particular what are opinions about either of the following regarding relevance to the promotion or understanding of sortitional selection?

U.S. presidential elections: a perpetual cycle of disappointment

The Wall Street Journal has a chart illustrating the pattern of high approval rating for incoming U.S. presidents followed, almost invariably, by disappointment. Bill Clinton seems the only clear exception to this pattern since WWII.

Prof. Fishkin is keeping busy

A deliberative poll for California’s future:

What’s Next California is an unprecedented attempt to bring the people into the process in a new way—one that is representative and thoughtful. A scientific random sample of the entire state will be transported to a single place for a weekend of face-to-face discussions, in small groups and in dialogue with competing experts. In California’s first statewide “Deliberative Poll,” the people will be supported by factual information and will consider the critical arguments on both sides of issues, then will articulate their priorities for fixing the state. A number of Deliberative Polls have been conducted at the national and local levels in sixteen countries around the world, including Britain, Australia, Denmark, and the United States. The deliberations will take place in Torrance on the weekend of June 25th. More than 300 citizens representing every region of the state will spend the weekend working in small groups and posing questions to public officials and policy experts. These in-depth discussions will likely range over legislative representation, taxation, whether local governments should have more autonomy and control over public services, and the initiative process.
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Indignant, fumbling, drawing lots

The WSWS has a critical report about the “indignants” movement in Greece:

Greece: The Syntagma Square movement—no real democracy

It is not easy to report on the “Indignants”, the protesters in Athens’ Syntagma Square. We spent almost an hour trying to find someone responsible who could tell us about the goals and character of the movement, without success.


There was no one willing to provide information about the objectives and purpose of the movement, and take responsibility for this. This game of hide and seek is not a coincidence. It is justified by reference to the principle of “genuine” or “direct” democracy, according to which the people take decisions directly, without the mediation of political representatives or parties. In fact, it serves to hide the real political objectives of the Indignants.
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Mickey Edwards: Fill congressional committee vacancies by lot

One of the six steps that Mickey Edwards offers for “fixing Congress” is to fill congressional committee vacancies by lot.

Edwards’s critique of elected government starts promisingly enough:

Angry and frustrated, American voters went to the polls in November 2010 to “take back” their country. Just as they had done in 2008. And 2006. And repeatedly for decades, whether it was Republicans or Democrats from whom they were taking the country back. No matter who was put in charge, things didn’t get better. They won’t this time, either; spending levels may go down, taxes may go up, budgets will change, but American government will go on the way it has[.]

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Amish Lotteries

Kleroterian David Grant has posted a short video about the casting of lots by the Amish (doubtless with religious intent):