Sintomer: Tirage au sort et démocratie délibérative

An article by Yves Sintomer discusses, among other things, reasons for the avoidance of sortition by 18th century revolutionaries. English translation by John Zvesper.

Bernard Manin first raised the question of why with modern revolutions sortition disappeared from the political scene. His answer was based on two observations: first, the founding fathers of modern republics wanted elective aristocracies, and for this reason they rejected random selection, which Plato and Aristotle had connected with democracy. Second, the theory of consent, deeply rooted in theories of natural law, was so widespread that it seemed difficult to legitimize any political authority that was not formally approved by the citizenry.

Both of these arguments are important, but they do not explain everything. […]

The unavailability of the statistical concept of the representative sample (even though probability calculus was already well developed by the time of the American and French Revolutions) is the key to understanding why political sortition seemed useless in modern democracies, whose size – as almost no political writer in this period failed to point out – made it impossible to have self government similar to that of the ancient democracies. In this conceptual world, drawing lots meant arbitrarily giving power to someone. Lacking the idea of the representative sample, the proponents of descriptive representation were forced to choose other tools to advance their ideals.

11 Responses

  1. For their time, it might be a shame that they refused a regularly elected one-man leadership wielding the powers of an “imperial presidency” and/or Latin American presidency during his term in office.


  2. Although Bernard Manin claims that the natural rights theory of consent accounts for the “triumph of election”, his book does not contain a single citation from the contemporary literature in support of his claim. He was a little surprised when this was pointed out to him at the Paris meeting, referring to the Putney Debates as an example. However the debate between Rainsborough and Ireton was over extending the franchise, not the principle of preference election: if the English parliament had been appointed by sortition (but with a limited franchise), then Rainsborough’s arguments would have been exactly the same. It’s also the case that at the time of the birth of representative government, natural rights theory was in sharp decline, under the attack of Jeremy Bentham and others.

    The contextual evidence Manin does cite (from Harrington, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Madison, Sieyes, Constant, de Coulanges and Glotz) suggests that political competence was the prime consideration: sortition was ‘bizarre’, ‘absurd’, and a ‘manifestly defective method of selection’ for all the reasons made clear by Socrates (choosing pilots and architects by bean). However, as Yves makes clear in his article, cognitive diversity is essential for sound decision making, and this is the reason that crowds are wiser than homogeneous elites. But, as is the case with Yves’ argument for statistical representativity, this is only true at the aggregate level (diversity and representativity are group properties), hence the need to insist that sortive assemblies can only have a collective judgment role. This also has the benefit of avoiding most of the pitfalls of deliberative democracy that Yves describes, and the reason that the DP model is the one that we should privilege when designing sortive institutions.


  3. Keith,

    You can’t have your cake and eat it too (unless you use the special trick I describe below). You note that good decision making is helped by cognitive diversity…but for this diversity to play a role the individuals exhibiting this diversity must speak and share their diverse perspective with other members. the diversity benefit in problem solving is forfeited if one only aggregates, as you insist is required to honor statistical representativeness.

    Thus there is a dilemma…We NEED to have the diverse members speak to share their diverse cognitive insights, but if they do they are distorting the statistical purity.

    The solution …to eat and keep this cake …is to have two bodies… both selected by lot. One engages in give and take deliberation (exercising their cognitive diversity) to generate a good solution to the problem, and the other body listens to a pro-con debate on the resulting proposal and votes by secret ballot without discussion.

    Proposal and Disposal by two different bodies using different methodologies.


  4. Terry, I can understand (and am sympathetic to) your argument, but I don’t think it would work in practice. Firstly it would be hard enough to get support for one sortive chamber, organised along one principle (disposal), let alone two (although I’m glad to see this is a substantial numerical reduction from your earlier model!). The value of cognitive diversity in aggregate judgment is well established, for all the reasons given by Surowiecki, Page, Estland, Landemore etc and it would be comparatively easy to make a convincing argument to establish a sortive assembly for the disposal role.

    But it’s a much greater challenge for the proposal role. First of all there are all the reasons that Yves supplies regarding the difficulties in ensuring equality of speech acts. IMHO these difficulties cannot be overcome, notwithstanding the efforts of deliberative democrats to establish equitable procedures. Secondly in my conversations with Manin and Urbinati I was shocked by the emphasis that political theorists place on the relationship between democratic consent and the will of the individual. Nadia described my “sociological” perspective as entirely at odds with that of political theorists. Even though mass elections are a piss poor way of realising the individual will, at least the principle is being acknowledged. Although you would retort that the place for equality of willing is in the disposal role, nevertheless you can’t escape the fact that in your model the options for disposal are proposed under conditions that fail to respect the democratic fundamental of equality in willing. Granted that elections are not equal — as they privilege those with the best resources — this is all the more reason to redouble our efforts to open up the proposal stage by combining elections with direct democratic initiative and by making every effort to level the playing field in terms of money and media. This is not an insuperable challenge, if you compare for example the tight restrictions on campaign finance in the UK compared to the US. I know you’ve been through the mill yourself in elective politics, but I think you’re over-reacting and are throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

    The bottom line is that ALL citizens should have a way of recording their will (uninformed preference) before passing on to the considered verdict of a representative sample of their peers. This is an EXACT analogy of the development in 4th century Athens, when the role of the Assembly was limited to willing or vetoing proposed legislation, leaving the considered judgment (disposal) to the legislative courts. What you are suggesting is akin to proposals going straight from the council to the legislative courts. The Athenians would have considered this entirely undemocratic (even though most of them would have served on the council) and so should we.

    I think you also ignore the (anticipatory) feedback element — if proposers are aware that disposers are to be an informed subset of the whole population then they will make proposals that are likely to be favourably disposed of. This was Harrington’s wisdom in the story of the division of labour between the cake cutter and she who chooses the first slice. At the moment elites both propose and dispose so there is no correction mechanism (from a cybernetic perspective).

    So let’s keep it clear and simple:

    Function Mechanism Principle
    Propose Election and direct democracy Willing
    Dispose Sortition Judgment
    Execute Appointment Competence

    Three functions, three mechanisms, three principles. Why would you want to mix them up? (In fact the proposal stage should be subdivided into the original proposals [based on the principle of distinction] and the popular votation [based on the principle of willing], but for the time being let’s keep it trinitarian).


  5. That last bit should have been a table with three columns, but it didn’t format correctly. It splits before the capital letters.


  6. Function | Mechanism | Principle
    Propose | Election and direct democracy | Willing
    Dispose | Sortition | Judgment
    Execute | Appointment | Competence


  7. Keith,

    The benefits of cognitive diversity go far beyond the narrow use of aggregation. You are correct that folks like Surowiecki explain how preventing members of the group from discussing an issue before secretly voting is essential to maximize the group competence by avoiding unhelpful feedback that suppresses some individuals’ unique information.

    However, there is ANOTHER benefit to cognitive diversity in problem solving, discussed by the likes of Scott Page of Michigan, that can ONLY be realized by the sharing of information and insights among group members. (If one member has a flash of insight at how to solve a difficult problem, the group won’t benefit, unless that information is shared through a speech act. Mere aggregation forfeits this benefit of diversity.)

    It largely comes down to the distinction between finding the “correct” answer on one hand, and finding an optimal solution to a problem on the other hand. A good legislative process should enable BOTH of these benefits of diversity. But they cannot both be achieved within the same group using one set of procedures. If the proposers are elected, they will tend to lack the desired diversity, and the proposals that reach the allotted disposers will be poorer than they should be.


  8. OK, but if equality of willing is important, then in between the proposing and disposing ACs you need a public votation. Although the introduction of rational ignorance might be seen as a mistake epistemically, it’s essential from an equality perspective. Otherwise what you are suggesting is like going straight from the boule to to the nomothetai and that just doesn’t cut the democratic mustard. And the output of the proposing AC would have to be one item on the votation ticket (alongside direct democratic and party initiatives) if the preservation of equality of willing of ALL citizens is important.

    Although brainstorming in a small and diverse group of people may come up with the optimal solution to a problem, this doesn’t make it a democratic process (I’ve had this argument many times with Helene Landemore, whose thesis was based on Scott Page’s work). In fact if cognitive diversity (rather than representativity) is the criterion then it’s not at all clear that sortition is the best way of achieving a proposing chamber. Why not simply invite all the relevant civil society associations to nominate a member? Sortition is essential in order to ensure proportionality (or to eliminate partiality) but it’s unclear why it would be the best way to ensure cognitive diversity. Stratified sampling would be the best way, and the random element would just ensure impartiality (rather than representativity). Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t believe many epistemic democrats advocate sortition (Helene is, if anything, the exception that proves the rule, and even in her case it’s a late conversion).


  9. Keith,

    Could you clarify your term… “epistimic democrats?” and maybe name a few well known ones, so I get the idea.


  10. David Estlund: Democratic Authority
    Helene Landemore: Democratic Reason: Politics, Collective Intelligence, and the Rule of the Many
    (I’m leaving out psychologists like Page and Tetlock)

    The distinction that I’m trying to make is between normative theorists who advocate democracy for inherent reasons (political equality); and epistemic democrats, who make the consequentialist argument that cognitive diversity is the best way to get the “right” answer. The former approach is quantitative, the latter qualitative. There is no reason to rely on sortition or election to achieve cognitive diversity, the best approach might be some kind of stratified sample.

    The AC with the disposing role would pass both of these tests (because it’s both cognitively diverse and descriptively representative). The proposing AC would only pass the test of cognitive diversity as the reliance on individual wills contravenes representative equality. This is why (from an egalitarian perspective) such a body could only be one element in the proposing scheme, with the output of the proposing bodies undergoing a public votation stage prior to deliberative scrutiny.

    Multiple proposing ACs (followed by a public votation) would also work, if you’re dead set against elections and citizen initiatives, but you’d need quite a lot of them and I’m not sure how it would work in practice (choosing between the various proposals at the votation stage). Elections and citizen initiatives would be much simpler, and would preserve cognitive diversity so long as the entry and campaign expenditure thresholds were set at a low level. This is particularly true in an age of free electronic communication where all citizens can (in theory) have a public voice. Given the political will it would be perfectly possible to break up media monopolies to help level the playing field.

    Democrats have to ride both quantitative and qualitative horses if they believe in a) the equality of willing of all citizens and b) that democracy is the way to get the “right” answer.


  11. PS I think it would be fair to say that proposing is an act of (individual) will and that disposing is an act of (collective) judgment. It’s quite easy to make the democratic case for sortition in the latter case, but more of a challenge in the former.


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