Daniel Baron: The Power of the Lot: Are People Obliged to Participate in Political Lotteries?

Daniel Baron of the Institute of Sociology, RWTH Aachen University introduces his article, The Power of the Lot: Are People Obliged to Participate in Political Lotteries? as follows:

While empirical research in the field of aleatoric democracy usually focuses on the deliberative outcomes of these procedures (Fishkin & Luskin 1999; Fishkin et al. 2000), theoretical approaches mainly ask whether political lotteries, compared to traditional ways of recruiting political personnel (esp. elections), are just or not (Stone 2007, 2009). Further discussions broach the subjects of political representation, equality or input- and output-legitimacy (Buchstein 2009a). Down to the present day, a key question to ask when focusing the problem of legitimacy of aleatoric democracy has been most widely ignored: whether laypersons chosen by lot should be compelled to participate in the committee where they have gained a seat, or whether sortition should be founded on the principle of voluntariness.

Baron opposes obligatory political service, and I could not find a coherent argument in favor of obligation in the paper. To my mind, obligating service is a very poor idea. Obligatory voting is silly, but then voting is silly anyway so not much harm is done. Obligatory political service in a high-powered position, on the other hand, is destructive both to the motivation of the allotted and to the prestige of the institution and thus is potentially of grave consequences.

In any case, getting high participation rates should be easy if the compensation (in material and honorific terms) is high enough, so what is the point of having the service mandatory? Is the objective saving some money? The same question arises in the context of jury service – the nominal obligatory nature of jury service (which is mostly a sham anyway, at least in the U.S.) would be completely unnecessary if the jurors were paid fairly and were treated with respect.

15 Responses

  1. The key phrase is “Leaving the discussion of the problem of mirror representation aside” (p.5). Many of us on this list would argue that mirror representation is the primary (modern) function of sortition and, for this to work, the default position has to be that all those selected should participate. Whilst prescriptive service would be illiberal, it does presuppose that everything possible should be done to encourage those chosen to serve (it would also require stratified sampling, to ensure that a refusenik would be replaced with another similar person). It would certainly rule out volunteering. Most of this paper is dealing with arguments derived from republican theory, which is not concerned with democratic representation.


  2. I have one point about history and one about the value of service.

    Baron makes two questionable assumptions about Athenian service. (Though these may cancel each other out). He claims that service was sufficiently honorific (or citizens were so public-minded) that nearly everybody wanted to serve. I don’t think we know this to be true. There were at least some “idiotes” who disdained public matters.

    On the other hand he mistakenly believes that the “dokimasia” or pre-service examination was an “aptitude test.” This is only true in the sense that someone with unusual mental incapacity might be excluded. It was more about assuring the person had proper citizenship, and didn’t have any bans applied for past crimes, etc. The dokimasia did not limit service to of average and below average citizens.

    As to the value of service…While I agree that there should be some deferment process…I don’t think people should be asked to proactively volunteer to serve. We WANT people who don’t currently THINK they have anything to offer to participate. They can’t KNOW if they have something to add unless they are present. Society benefits from the diversity of participation (broader knowledge base). Also, participation may change participants for the better. This is an ancient republican argument about the value of public life…but it may be true. Even if it doesn’t make people into better citizens (though evidence suggests it does), at the very least it may cause some malcontent to realize the hard work that goes into making public policy, and thus be more respectful of society.


  3. Terry,

    I agree that people should be encouraged to participate, and one way to do so is indeed to turn the process into an opt-out process rather than an opt-in process.

    It is important, however, that it would be understood that by agreeing to serve (and receive the generous compensation) one does take upon oneself significant commitment – the commitment to do one’s best effort to understand the interests of the public and to serve the interests of the public as one understands them. Making service obligatory makes it impossible to demand such commitment.


  4. Agreed. We would need a dikastic oath, including a modified version of “Thus do I invoke Zeus, Poseidon, and Demeter to smite with destruction me and my house if I violate any of these obligations, but if I keep them I pray for many blessings.”



  5. Oaths I have little faith in. If you’re not in the habit of telling the truth, making an oath does not cause you to do so.

    Official oaths like this suggests a double standard for truth, one for everyday use and one for special occasions – something rejected by many Christian groups in reference to Matthew 5:34-37. Instead of strengthening the system, you weakened it by excluding some highly conscientous groups, Keith.

    It would be enough to impress upon people the importance of the job, and remind them to speak freely without fear of repercussions.


  6. This was intended to be a lighthearted suggestion, but the serious point is that the general decorum surrounding the job needs to be orchestrated in such a way as to make an appeal to civic obligation and virtu. Yoram is right to argue that salary, expenses and self-interest is not sufficient. In practice a number of measures will be needed to achieve this, but the swearing of oaths should not be ruled out as most similar examples across time and place have included one, along with the appropriate ceremonial decorum (just look at the Venetian republic!). I’m sure it would be possible to phrase an oath using the language of civic humanism alone, so there is no reason for it to exclude anybody.


  7. On oaths…
    They may have some value, on an unconscious level, as recent experiments on “priming” have shown. (Subjects who were asked to recite as many of the ten commandments as they could remember, were then less likely to cheat on a follow-up test, than those who weren’t primed this way.)

    But this priming effect is very transitory.

    A little anecdote about oaths in legislative situations…I recall one time when I was sworn in as a Vermont state legislator, taking an oath to uphold the state constitution. I, and a dozen other members were then appointed to a special committee to canvas the state vote for governor. The committee met shortly after our oath-taking. The Vermont Constitution has a very specific procedure (involving elected legislators delivering packets of ballots sealed by their home town constables, to the capitol, and sorting and counting them as a committee), which hasn’t actually been followed since about 1815. Nobody on the committee cared that we weren’t abiding by the constitutional mandate we had just taken an oath to uphold. Common practice and custom easily trumped the oath…so we just listened to the tally the secretary of state had compiled and rubber-stamped it.


  8. I think that rather than a binary choice between mandatory and compulsory service, there is a continuum of options, with absolute mandatory service at one end, and opt-in voluntary service at the other end. The more “mandatory” options have the advantages of better mirror representation (that’s why Ethan Leib advocates mandatory participation in “Deliberative Democracy in America: a Proposal for a Popular Branch of Government”) and developing people’s capacities to participate in public life (as Terry suggests). The more “voluntary” options have the advantages of less restrictions on people’s freedom, and avoiding the potential problem of having important decisions made by people who aren’t highly motivated to do the necessary work.

    Personally, I’m inclined to favor something on the more “mandatory” end of the spectrum, such as an opt-out process, combined with paying people at a median salary level, so that there is a relative incentive for poorer people to participate, and a relative disincentive for wealthier people to participate.


  9. > The more “mandatory” options have the advantages of better mirror representation

    I think the opposite is true. Having some sort of a coercion mechanism would allow the authorities to hide a situation in which effective representation is not occurring behind a veil of a formal claim of representativity. This is the existing situation with jury duty.

    On the other hand, compensating people generously (again, not only in monetary terms) should allow and motivate people to not only physically attend but also to spend the time and effort needed to carry out their intended function.

    > paying people at a median salary level, so that there is a relative incentive for poorer people to participate, and a relative disincentive for wealthier people to participate.

    I think this is not a good idea for several reasons. Ungenerous salary is likely to reduce the prestige of the office, demotivate the representatives, and encourage corruption. In addition, low salary will actually make it more likely that the middle class (rather than the upper class) will opt-out since for the the middle class the financial burden of serving would be highest. The rich could forgo salary altogether. Service used to be unpaid both Athens and in the UK, and in both cases the introduction of pay was a progressive cause that was proposed deliberately in order to allow the average citizen to serve rather than have service reserved to the wealthy.

    In general, the terms of service should be set so that only a small minority would choose to opt out.


  10. I agree with Yoram about compensation. A median wage is way too low, as that means half of all citizens would have to take a pay cut to serve. Compensation needs to be generous. In states like New Hampshire, where legislators are paid relatively poorly, the chamber is filled with retired people (with their own pensions) and relatively well-paid professionals…with a distinct lack of working middle-income people. Of course, legislatures in states with high compensation are filled with upper income professionals — because of the elective filter.


  11. Now that I’ve read these two posts, I think you are right about compensation.

    Yoram and Terry, are you both favoring an opt-out process, in order to encourage people who might otherwise not participate, while not coercing them?


  12. > Yoram and Terry, are you both favoring an opt-out process, in order to encourage people who might otherwise not participate, while not coercing them?

    I do. This, together with a generous compensation, educational campaigns, and other devices, should be used to make sure that only a small minority turns down allotments.


  13. I think we’ve managed to find something that we’re all pretty well agreed on. David is right to point out that mandatory and voluntary are simply opposing poles on a spectrum. UK jury service is mandatory but quite easy to avoid, so there’s not much difference in practice between weak mandatory and strong encouragement to participate. What none of us want is volunteering and opting in, the mechanism used in most deliberative forums (although Terry is comfortable with volunteering for policy-making assemblies, as these guys are advocates, not judges).

    The principal disagreement now (for those of us who accept the necessity for a temporal gap between the advocacy and judgment phases) is how to get from one to the other, with Terry advocating a supersortive assembly, whereas I would argue for a public votation. Apart from the democratic theory objection to the supersortive option, I think Terry’s proposal would be both a tough sell to voters, who would be, a la Madison, totally excluded from any share in the government (and an impossible sell to the political class) and is somewhat Byzantine in its complexity. The juxtaposition of advocacy/election and judgment/sortition does have the merit of simplicity along with consonance with democratic theory (both ancient and modern). Yoram is right to point out that it has the same drawbacks as other liberal institutions, but a mix of republican and liberal institutions looks to me like a workable compromise between idealism and real world, where commitment to the common good is laudatory in theory but somewhat patchy in practice.


  14. The Athenians encouraged participation in the Assembly and volunteering for the positions chosen by lot by paying people for doing these things.

    We can do the same, and can use the mechanism of payment to achieve another of the Athenians’ objectives, preventing or at least minimizing corruption. And that by using another of the Athenians’ mechanisms, namely, audits.

    If we choose by lot 500 or so members of a lower legislative house, we could offer them some such sum as $2 million paid in installments over, say, five years. (Obviously, any of these numbers could be adjusted.) The installments would only be paid after the present or past member had undergone an audit for the year.

    There would still be those who refuse to participate, but they would be few, and most of them would be rich, i.e., people who already otherwise have power within the system.

    Any resulting deviation from perfect representativeness would, I submit, be tolerable, and better than the alternative of forcing people to serve. After all, that would not only be an arguably undesirable limitation of personal freedom, but we could not count on people who do not want to serve actually serving responsibly if they are forced to serve.


  15. lysias,

    I think that $2 million is too much. $2 million is as much as a typical U.S. household makes in 40 years.

    Offering such an over-generous reward to delegates would break the connection of representativity between the population and the delegation by creating a clear divergence between the financial situation of the average delegate and the financial situation of the average citizen. Due to a divergence in situations, a divergence in interests and in worldview may be created. Thus, such a large reward may reduce the motivation (and even the ability) of the delegates to create policy that serves the population as a whole.

    We are looking, I think, for a golden middle – a reward that is not so large as to make the delegates very rich, but not so small as to diminish their motivation and opportunity to participate effectively in decision making.

    As a rough figure, I would say that setting delegate pay at 4 times the median household income (=$200,000/year) + reasonable expenses seems reasonable.


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