Realpolitik — according to the economists

The death of James M Buchanan, the notorious Public Choice Theory economist has sparked some interesting discussion on ‘Crooked Timber’, my fav. intellectual blog.

I found myself nodding in vigorous agreement with the following

 “To a certain extent theories of government are self-fulfilling prophecies. If it is generally accepted that democratic politics [he means electoral politics] is nothing more than a battleground for competing interest groups, then reality will come to resemble the model. An example arises with conscious attempts to manipulate the so-called political business cycle (a strategy closely associated with the idea of extended terms of office). The basic idea is to seek election on the basis of electorally attractive policies. On gaining office, these policies are dumped in favor of a program which is supposed to be economically correct. As the next election approaches, the rigor of this program is relaxed, and if all goes well, reelection is secured on the basis that conditions are improving. The adoption of this strategy implies a degree of contempt for the electorate which arises naturally from the interest group model’s view that the electorate is ‘ignorant and greedy’ (the characterization is from Mueller’s survey Public Choice, and is taken from Bagehot’s attack on proposals to enfranchise the working class).

An important part of this strategy is the making of election promises with the conscious intention of abandoning them after the election. Indeed, the refinement of targeted election campaigns, notably by the Hawke and Greiner governments, is such that, even as promises are made, code words are given out to assure elite groups that the promises will not be fulfilled. The untrustworthy nature of political promises has long been proverbial. However, the interest group theory makes a positive virtue of dishonesty. Since election promises are merely bribes to interest groups, they should be broken whenever possible.”

For the full article see:

So I am driven to ask: What can Sortition do to improve governance in the face of the economists’ world-weary acceptance of self-interested behaviour by powerful elites?


23 Responses

  1. Sortition of some kind is the only method that has ever been found to at least partially reduce the public choice problem: that those with the greatest stake in how public decisions are made will disproportionately and successfully invest in influencing those decisions. However, if the selection pool is composed of too many who are rent-seekers, or ignorant, biased, or easily manipulated, then decision by randomly-selected juries may not be much of an improvement. It works best when the selection pool is mainly composed of mature, educated, middle-class, self-employed professionals. It can get a bad reputation if the selection is from mainly adolescent unemployable drop-outs or government employees or entitlement beneficiaries.

    In other words, sortition gets juries of those who represent the population from which they are drawn, and the special interests have gone a long way in recruiting support from among the general population of voters. That’s why the campaign messages they buy are so successful in electing their candidates, or why they get so many of their minions placed in key positions of power.

    So while sortition is a critically needed reform, it is not a complete solution. If special interests can’t reach the juries after they are selected, they will try to reach the jury candidate pool. To counter that will require better civic education and a kind of cultural revolution.


  2. Surely you mean “my second fav. intellectual blog”, Conall!?


  3. > What can Sortition do to improve governance in the face of the economists’ world-weary acceptance of self-interested behaviour by powerful elites?

    I am not sure the economists are really saying in the passage you quote that the electoral elites are self-serving. All they are saying is that in order to get elected one has to lie to the electorate. It seems they are not insisting that the post-election policies are “wrong”. In fact, they are conceding that at the very least breaking those campaign promises is “supposedly economically correct”.

    Be that as it may, putting the economists aside, sortition can surely do one thing: push those electoral elites out of parliaments. That takes us out of the rut we’ve been stuck in for the last decades.


  4. Jon – I just fished your comment out of the spam bin again. Sorry – I have no idea why the wordpress anti-spam system singles your comments out for quarantine.


  5. I am all for civic education, but I find your ideas about exclusions repugnant. The notion that you should delegate some people into second class political status is offensive and, of course, anti-democratic.

    In fact, it is probably the greatest achievement of the electoral era that through the mechanism of granting-the-vote it enabled various oppressed groups to achieve first class citizen status – at least formally. The last thing we want is to tie the campaign for sortition to the reactionary notion of reversing this trend.


  6. I agree with the author regarding the common provenance of both Public Choice and Marxist-Leninist theory. From the full article:

    “In articles on the economic analysis of political processes, it is customary to begin with the claim that there are two schools of thought concerning these processes. The first, described as the ‘public interest’ theory, is said to hold that political actors are motivated by benevolence and a desire to promote the public good. No representatives of this school are ever cited. Attention is turned to the ‘private interest’ theory, which is based on the assumption that political actors pursue their own self-interest.”

    This strikes me as a false dichotomy (idealism vs materialism). It’s equally plausible that citizens are motivated by both factors (as Mill argued) and that political actors are motivated by a desire to promote the public good, but cannot do so without first winning elections. This requires telling voters what they want to hear (that’s why the likes of Bagehot and Main were alarmed by mass democracy). Leading on to Conall’s question:

    > What can Sortition do to improve governance in the face of the economists’ world-weary acceptance of self-interested behaviour by powerful elites?

    If I’m right in the above, then this simplistic question, derived from Marxist-Buchananite dogma, should be reformulated:

    “What can Sortition do to improve governance by helping to reconcile the public and private interest?”

    Answer: only as part of a mixed system of government, which brings interests into the spotlight (via the exchange of reasons between competing advocates), ensures government competence by technocratic means, protects the interests of unborn generations (not sure how!) and places legislative judgment in the hands of a representative group of informed citizens who will decide on the basis of BOTH aggregated preferences and concern for the general good.

    This is, of necessity, somewhat complicated and not reducible to simplistic dichotomies, pace Marx, Lenin (and Buchanan).


  7. Jon

    The restricted franchise you are suggesting would involve a cultural revolution of Maoist proportions. Whatever its merits, it’s not going to happen — the best you can hope for is a clear separation of interests/advocacy and allotted judgment (under universal franchise). It’s not beyond the wit of humankind to devise a system of advocacy to counterbalance special interests and rent-seekers; as to who would win the resulting argument, then I’m afraid it’s simply a case of getting the government we deserve. But given the right institutional design and procedural decorum (including a modern version of the Heliastic Oath) I’m not as pessimistic as you that ordinary folks can’t get it right — although I don’t share the mystical view that this will automatically be the case (in any non-tautological sense), once The People are (magically) freed from elite tyranny. I share your wish to exclude all those who take the King’s Shilling, and have also proposed an IQ test and minimum age, but judging from the flack this generated, I don’t think there’s a snowball-in-hell’s chance of that happening. We should follow Aristotle in advocating the constitution that is realistically, rather than absolutely, the best and this involves compromise all round.

    Interestingly the sort of demarchic committee you are suggesting is quite close to John Burnheim’s perspective. What puzzles me is why John believes self-selection is a viable way of producing the candidate pool for allotment, see


  8. I think the concept of rational ignorance is very important for proponents of sortition. It is crucial to explaining why elections don’t work nearly as well as intended.Rational ignorance just says that it doesn’t make sense for you to study a topic carefully if the expected returns from doing so are very low, either because it’s not very important or because you cannot affect the outcome. This implies that most people should pay much more attention to private matters than public matters. The expected return of figuring out which refrigerator is best is much higher than the expected return of figuring out the best Middle Eastern foreign policy.

    Public choice theorists sometimes imply that people are simply selfish, but I think the above argument provides a better way of thinking about it. People care about both self interest and the common good. But they cannot do very much to advance the common good, and so it makes sense for them to concentrate their efforts in areas where they can make a difference, which just happen to be the areas of most concern to them from a self-interested perspective (i.e., buying a new fridge). I think one of the things proved by juries is that, when people can make a difference, they are quite capable of setting aside self-interest and considering the common good. Sortition is supposed to expand those opportunities.

    Where public choice theory goes wrong, as the article above points out, is to assume 1) that elites are somehow immune from the temptations of self-interest and 2) that ordinary people cannot rise above self-interest (through juries, etc.) once rational ignorance is no longer a problem. Gordon Tullock (James Buchanan’s longtime collaborator) has said some ridiculous nonsense attacking juries (in the interest of so-called “tort reform,” one of the favorite pet causes of the corporate fascists in the U.S.). Those remarks make it very hard for me to take him seriously, whatever the validity of the more general theoretical concerns he has raised.


  9. OK Yoram, Crooked Timber, my 2nd fav. blog!

    Peter: I am surprised and delighted at your use of ‘Corporate Fascists’! It’s good to know who the enemy (of sortition) really is; I would add GoldmanSachs to the top of this list as the apex of the Corporate-Financial Nexus.

    Would they really let a Citizens’ Jury democratise the issue of our money??

    Note that the PSA Conference in Cardiff on March 26th, the Sortition session includes ‘The Great Betrayal – Democracy and the Money Supply’ by Ivo Mosley. Perhaps we are getting close to the touchstone issue for democracy?


  10. Ivo Mosley appears to be the grandson of Oswald Mosley, leader in the 1930s of the British Union of Fascists. Now this becomes more interesting!!


  11. Needless to say Imprint Academic are the publishers of Ivo’s new book (of which his Cardiff paper is an extract). The book is a defence of sortive democracy (and an attack on electoral representation) but includes a chapter on the money supply as the key issue in need of democratising. The book will be in stock at Amazon etc shortly. Ivo is well known to many people in the sortition world, having attended a couple of the Paris workshops (and commented on this blog).


  12. Yoram, I would find what you call “exclusions” to be repugnant as well had I not had as much experience observing actual trial juries being selected in the U.S., and those from among voters who are already self-selected (71% of those eligible to vote are registered), and in a criminal trial all they have to decide is whether the defendant is guilty. In a civil trial involving subtle judgment of liability and damages the results are not as good as they were in ages past, based on a study of court records. The level and quality of civic education has declined dramatically over the course of my lifetime, and it wasn’t that good at the beginning of it. There has also been a dramatic increase in the educational demands of many public decisions. (When I worked as a volunteer on Capitol Hill I was often the only person in the room who had even an elementary understanding of the issues being discussed.) The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a hard enough time regulating nuclear plant safety, and they are supposedly experts in the field. There is a reason the Venetians used a multi-step process in which sortition was interleaved with election. The most successful uses of sortition have been in such processes, and we need to learn from what has worked.

    One can get a sense of the descent of civic education by reading newspapers from the early Republic. The level of literacy they presumed on the part of their readers was far higher than for newspapers printed today. John Adams once boasted to a European acquaintance that illiterates in the U.S. were rare. That certainly can’t be said today.

    As a regular candidate for public office who campaigns among a cross section of the public, I have to say it is amazing that the country has survived this long, given the state of civic education. I support sortition in part because it is one way to overcome a lack of education. But it cannot overcome a lack of talent or antisocial attitudes.


  13. Jon, I think you are conflating the need for expert knowledge amongst policy-makers/advocates and the ability of ordinary people to judge issues on an aggregate basis. Whilst it would be ideal if all citizens were better informed in advance of the debate this isn’t going to happen; ditto with your earlier proposal for disenfranchising those lacking in education and virtue. It’s up to the elite policy advocates conducting the debate to ensure that the jury can understand the issues, then we just have to hope that the Condorcet theorem works and that the resulting decision will be, more often than not, the right one. If we want wise, virtuous and knowledgeable policy advocates then we need to use the aristocratic mechanism of election (along with the meritocratic principle of appointment); if we want the final judgment of their proposals to be conducted on democratic principles (clearly you don’t!) then we need to use the principle of allotment. Aristocracy, meritocracy and democracy are distinct selection mechanisms and should be used to select political agents on the basis of the particular job description in each instance.


  14. Jon,

    I don’t share your fall-from-grace view of US citizenry. I know it is part of a narrative which is standard in some circles, but I am not aware of any evidence to support it, boasts by American revolutionaries notwithstanding. In any case, even if I did believe in it I would be very far from supporting the anti-democratic measures you are proposing.

    As for the supposed sorry state of modern-day Americans, have a look, for example, at this clip, showing a sample of Oregonians recruited for the Citizens’ Initiative Review. Nothing to be embarrassed about:


  15. As the CIR sample is based on 800 volunteers out of an initial random selection of 10,000, it’s not really typical of the average American. The CIR organisers really need to make greater effort to ensure that everyone selected participates if they want to ensure representativity, but this will entail a reduced level of knowledge and motivation, hence the need to limit the mandate to a judgment-only role.


  16. This may be too much of a tangent, but I have long pondered the issue of opting out and volunteerism…Is it only fully democratic if everybody in the random sample attends, even if the reluctant ones sit and read a magazine and refuse to participate or vote?

    Imagine a small society of 100 stranded ship-wrecked adults. If they form a direct democracy where all can participate, surely we would not dismiss their effort as undemocratic if 5 members simply refused to vote or debate. Allowing people to opt out seems legitimate. What if 50 out of 100 voluntarily opted out? Might “democracy” (whether direct, electoral, or sortition) necessarily incorporate the concept that it is rule by the people WHO CARE TO PARTICIPATE, so long as there are no obstacles that prevent the participation of any?


  17. Descriptive accuracy will always be an approximation (no picture is an exact image), but the voluntary principle will produce a very distorted sample as those who choose to volunteer for political service will be atypical (800 “anoraks” out of the 10,000 in the CIR example). This would not be the case if a handful out of several hundred “conscripts” chose not to pay attention. If the concern is to represent the views and interests of those who fail to be selected then the voluntary principle has to be abandoned, even though the resulting sample will include the lazy, the stupid, the feckless and those who would put their own interests before the general good. In your direct-democracy example all shipwrecked adults are free to participate, so the problem of representation does not arise.

    Needless to say the organisers of the sortition will adopt stratified sampling of the volunteer pool in order to ensure accurate representation of a limited number of factors (gender, age, education, party affiliation, socio-economic class etc), but who can say what psychological or attitudinal factors are relevant for political decision making?

    Athenian jurors were selected from a pool of volunteers, but it comprised around 1/5 of the total citizenry. Even so, the criticism was that the old, the poor and those who lived in the city were over-represented. The problem or representativity in large modern states would be much greater, hence the need to ensure that as many as possible of those selected actually attend (as in the case of the DP).


  18. Keith,

    I agree that people should be virtually conscripted 9and have to get a deferment….after all, a person who might not ever actively volunteer, might have just the insight the community needs in some debate, or might suddenly learn that she loves participating, though she never considered it, etc. And approaching descriptive accuracy is good…And while I agree that inducements are appropriate to get as many people to accept service as possible, that doesn’t address the deeper quandary.

    WHO are the people that democracy empowers? Not toddlers, right? Maybe the criminally insane, but probably not. What about those who actively REFUSE to participate? If 50 members of my hypothetical direct democracy refuse to participate, and DECIDE to abstain…leaving all decisions to the other 50. Is that a democracy? I think so. What if they appoint 25 members by lot to govern, and only the 50 who are willing are in the pool. Then the sample should closely reflect the 50 who are willing to participate (be in the pool)…we can multiply everything by ten to get higher statistical accuracy.

    My question is “If a representative body, however selected, accurately reflects the diversity, cognitive style and preferences of ALL members of society that would be willing to participate, but NOT those members of society who would refuse to participate, is that democratic?” That is absolutely the system Athens used, and they named it “democracy.”


  19. I agree that participation in Athens was voluntary, BUT:

    1. The difference in scale with large modern states makes it a case of chalk and cheese — most eligible Athenian citizens would have served on the council at some time in their life and all would have known serving members. Everyone could participate in the assembly and huge numbers (most?) volunteered for jury service. All of this is impossible in large modern states.

    2. There was very strong social and moral pressure to participate, probably on account of the connection between citizenship and military service. The same citizens who voted to go to war had to fight them. Not participating put you well beyond the pale; nowadays political participation would make you a bit of an oddball.

    Going back to your direct-democratic example, if 50 of them choose to abstain then, sure it’s a democracy. If the 50 participants choose to allot 25 of their own to govern then it’s still a democracy because the 50 abstainers did so through their own choice. But in the CIR case, my concern is for the x million citizens who didn’t receive one of the 10,000 letters — they were not given the option to participate, so it’s vital that they have the appropriate number of proxy participants. The law of large numbers will only ensure this if it is quasi-mandatory.

    I suspect much of our disagreement is because your concerns are primarily epistemic — “might have just the insight the community needs in some debate”, whereas I’m more concerned with democracy as an intrinsic goal — majority rule, preference aggregation, wisdom of crowds, etc. “Insights”, in my view, are the business of the advocates, it’s up to the citizen jury to decide as to whether the initiative proposed is a genuine insight or a flight of fancy. If someone has an insight then she just needs to gain the 100,000 signatures necessary to get the insight on the votation ticket and thereby convert it into a policy proposal.

    Note that words such as “conscription” are in scare quotes as no-one is suggesting the sortive equivalent of the Australian compulsory voting system, only that participation is the default response and every effort should be made to ensure that this is possible in the vast majority of cases.


  20. Mandatory service is a horrible idea. On the contrary: it should be made very clear that service is voluntary and that anyone who takes on the job does so willingly and is supposed to justify their membership in the body by doing the best job at it that they can.

    Having a subset of members that are there unwillingly would be corrosive to the whole allotted body. First, of course, it would not, in any meaningful way, improve the representativity of the body, since unwilling members are unable to represent anyone. In addition, it would be a group of people who would wield a lot of power, would be unaccountable and would have a legitimate grievance against the system. This would demotivate the rest of the members, could be disruptive to the workings of the body, and would very likely lead to corruption in various ways.

    Furthermore, being able to force people into the body would make it easier to avoid making sure they want to join. This is the standard situation in the jury system. Thus not only will mandatory service not increase meaningful participation, it will likely decrease it.

    In short – this is an extremely bad idea that serves no useful purpose – not even the purpose it is nominally supposed serve. It would be a disaster.


  21. Yoram, you have chosen to ignore the scare-quotes around the word “conscription”. Allotment in Athens was not compulsory but there were very strong social and moral pressures to ensure that everybody performed their civic duty. The challenge is how to create such an ethos in large, alienated societies — it would involve according a very high status to those selected and establishing a dignified decorum that included the modern equivalent of the Heliastic Oath. And once members learned that they had real political clout, most would rise to the challenge. Putting the problem the other way round, if service is voluntary how do you ensure an accurate sample of the public? — essential if the allotted assembly is the legislature for the nation.

    BTW, unmotivated members are not a problem in a jury-style assembly (so long as they turn up and don’t fall asleep), but I can understand that they would not be of much use in an assembly performing an active political function. However an allotted assembly that authorised individual speech acts would have no representative mandate anyway, and the problem is only exacerbated if it is composed of volunteers. Those of us who believe in democracy would not be able to support such a proposal, as there is no way of ensuring that policy outcomes reflected the considered judgment of the entire citizen body. But I’m getting a creeping sense of deja vue, so probably best not to pursue this any further.

    Changing the subject, I really would appreciate some feedback on my democracy ancient and modern paper — I’ve had a positive response from a professor of Greek history, but total silence from sortinistas.


  22. That’s the problem with scare-quotes, one never knows what the word quoted is supposed to mean.`


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