Sortition Essay in Journal of Public Deliberation

An essay I wrote entitled: “Democracy Through Multi-Body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day” was just published in the new issue of JPD. I’m rather proud of it, and think it will be of interest to many readers of this Blog. Here is the link:

Terry Bouricius

14 Responses

  1. Congratulations, Terry!


  2. Terry,

    Nice article, and congratulations on securing publication. Four minor comments:

    1. Your description of classical Athenian democracy as ‘representative’ runs the risk of anachronism. If your claim is that it was viewed as representative at the time then you would need to furnish more evidence than you do on page 4. It was Aristotle, not Hansen, who claimed that (Athenian) democracy should be understood in terms of rotation; he only makes one reference to representation in the Politics, and this is only a thought experiment. If your claim is that the assembly, magistracies and courts were in practice (descriptively) representative, irrespective of how they were viewed at the time, then this underplays volunteerism and the imbalance in favour of the old, the poor and those who lived in, or close to, Athens.

    2. Where exactly in his 2007 paper does Ober claim that the council was more central to the Greeks’ conception of democracy than the people’s assembly? This is a controversial claim, most scholars agreeing that the allotted council was instituted in order to protect the assembly against domination by an aristocratic council. Your claim that the council ‘set the agenda’ for the assembly (p.4, penultimate line) could be read as policy proposals arising out of the internal deliberations of the council, which was clearly not the case. Your argument for (allotted) agenda councils and interest panels is without historical precedent; and although there is an analogy between the review panel and the council, in modern states this role is normally the province of the professional civil service, not politicians.

    3. Whatever Plutarch may have said 500 years after the event (p.2, fn.3), contemporary evidence from Demosthenes etc is that the role of the courts was to establish the sovereignty of the laws rather than men (allotted or otherwise).

    4. Stratified sampling might possibly ensure that the agenda council would resemble the general population in terms of political attitudes, but cognitive styles would be highly skewed by the volunteering principle.

    My main concern, however, is the possibility of making progress towards sortition in the real world of elected politicians and poorly-informed and disengaged citizens. Taken as a whole your proposal might be seen as both utopian and byzantine. Even though you indicate that you are not averse to cherry picking elements, finishing the article with the claim that “democracy might be better without elections” would make most elected politicians suspect that any implementation might be just the thin end of the wedge or a Trojan Horse. This is why it might be better to focus on one area where sortition could make a contribution without generating too much opposition. This would clearly be true of the policy juries, as these benefit from a) ancient historical precedent (nomothetai); b) a modern parallel (the trial jury); c) undeniable normative and epistemic justification; d) practical feasibility (they would simple and cheap to enact and would enable politicians to outsource unpopular tasks). They are also something that all sortinistas can rally behind as a necessary for demokratia, even if some would claim that they are not sufficient. This is why I believe we should unite behind the limited case for policy juries, rather than designing a utopian constitution for the Republic of Aleatoria.


  3. All available indicators suggest that electoral representative democracy is in long-term terminal decline so the pressing challenge is to develop a viable model of non-electoral democracy. For me, this work goes some way towards advancing that goal. Well done, Terry.

    What elected politicians might be prepared to accept is increasingly irrelevant as public trust ebbs away and mandates weaken. Activists will work out strategies to achieve system change once equipped with the blueprints of an alternative model of democracy.


  4. Keith,
    In answer to your question about Ober’s paper and the key role of the boule…

    On page 8 he writes:

    “In terms of making a participatory Greek democracy work, the key institution was a popular deliberative council chosen from the entire citizen body. The Greek recognition of the centrality of a popular council for democracy is underlined by a recently discovered inscription from Eretria. In ca. 340 B.C. the Eretrian democracy promulgated a decree offering rewards to a potential tyrant killer, that is, to anyone who took direct and violent action against those who sought to overthrow the existing democratic government. In a revealing passage, the decree orders all citizens to fight without waiting to receive orders if anyone tries to establish “some constitution other than a Council and a prutaneia (a subset of the Council) appointed by lot from all Eretrians.” (Knoepfler 2001, 2002; translation Teegarden 2007). “


  5. Thanks Terry, my interpretation of Ober’s first sentence is the key role the allotted council made in “making *participatory* democracy work”, i.e. its role in protecting the supremacy of the assembly. A council of 500 citizens out of 30-60,000 would not normally be viewed as an example of participatory democracy. If, however, the council were overthrown then this would threaten the direct rule of the demos. If my interpretation is correct then Ober is taking a similar view to the vast majority of scholars, who consistently argue that the ekklesia was the key institution (this would also be consistent with Ober’s general approach, which considers the demos as the main causal agent in political change). Classical Athens was a direct democracy, not a representative one and to insist otherwise runs the risk of anachronism. I’m surprised the journal’s referees let that go through.

    But my main concern is the radical call to sweep away all of our existing political institutions and replace them by sortition, as shown by Martin’s commentary:

    “What elected politicians might be prepared to accept is increasingly irrelevant . . . Activists will . . .”

    I’m just trying to remember where I heard this sort of argument last — probably at a meeting of the SWP circa 1972. Remind us Martin how many votes your Welsh sortition party got in the only election it fought. But then activists have never been troubled by mundane things like counting votes as they know what the people want better than the people themselves.

    It strikes me as much more sensible to seek to work within the constraints of the existing institutional arrangements. Why take to the barricades when there is a chance of pushing against an open door? The coalition government might well be attracted to the idea of resolving the EU problem via an adversarial judicial enquiry with the final decision in the hands of an allotted jury. But they’re hardly likely to do that if you’re trying to consign them all to the dustbin of history. Who knows, when “the people” see that sortition works maybe they’ll decide to do away with the middle-man (the elected politician). Personally I doubt it, but whatever your long-term goals are, much better to proceed incrementally than to seek to blow the whole thing up and rebuild from ground zero.

    But, as a lone conservative voice in a sea of activists, I suspect I’m wasting my breath.


  6. A well-written, well laid-out reform proposal grounded in experience. Two thumbs up!!
    Once I’ve had a chance to digest the details, I’ll add anything that hasn’t been already mentioned. Again, well done on readability & public education!


  7. Keith, I am amazed. I never would have had you down as a former member of the SWP.

    I’m at a loss to understand why you feel the need to denigrate and misrepresent anyone who challenges your prescriptions. As I’ve told you before, you have a very high opinion of yourself. You can’t even comment on someone else’s work without being condescending.

    On the streets of Athens or Bologna or Seville or Nicosia or Lisbon right now you’ll find anarchist and anti-capitalist agitators and the traditional militant left rejuvenated. But you’ll also find hundreds of thousands of generally conservative, ordinary people who are clamouring for system change, people for whom representative democracy offers no hope and no future. Look at what MoVimento 5 Stelle achieved in the Italian elections on the back of a somewhat incoherent anti-politics, anti-corruption platform. If they had been able to offer an alternative model of democracy they would now be testing it in government. The circumstances and players in Cairo and Manama are very different but people in the Middle East transition countries are finding that representative democracy does not after all fulfil their needs and aspirations. They have ended up with elected dictators that can claim a democratic mandate. There’s certainly a demand for an alternative.

    I’m intrigued to know who in the coalition has expressed an interest in using an allotted jury to decide the EU question?

    Finally, you seem to be suggesting that the Kleroterians limited themselves to what a handful of British ministers might find acceptable. That being the case, there’s not much point in proposing anything that’s evidence-based.


  8. There is no reason to assume that widespread disaffection with existing electoral institutions will automatically convert into support for sortition. This being the case we should build on the body of evidence for what sortition can do, and this would give pride of place to the 20-year research programme on the deliberative poll — now would be a good time to extend the DP into bodies with decision-, as opposed to purely advisory-, power. I agree that we need to build on the evidence base and there is no evidence that I’m aware of — either ancient or modern — for allotted agenda councils or interest panels. My suggestion to Terry is to focus on the body that can claim both ancient and modern provenance — i.e. the policy jury. If this can be demonstrated to “work” as a substitute for a referendum then that would be the time to launch experiments in unproven areas. If this is our goal then we would do well not to deliberately antagonise elected politicians (or dismiss the architects of the DP as pro-establishment poodles).

    As for introducing this to the coalition, I think the best person to approach would be Douglas Carswell.


  9. Thanks Josh, good to know that lawyers have faith in the jury system and that it has the potential to extend to the judgment of legislative issues.

    Anyone know Douglas Carswell? I really do think the UK Coalition Government is up s*** creek on the EU issue and an adversarial judicial enquiry with allotted jury would be a huge improvement on a public referendum. I attended a university seminar on the democratic deficit in the EU yesterday and it is a huge issue in academia as well.


  10. Excellent work again Terry! You’ve written something that’s useful to anyone relatively new to sortition, and an outline for those more familiar with it. The introduction got my attention and the 5 dilemma struck me when enumerated. It would be handy to see the different types of panels tied to the dilemmas more explicitly and earlier in the paper–or perhaps abstracting each to the dilemma it’s meant to address.

    James Madison studied ancient political organizations and some theory, but was no scholar of Ancient Greece nor a political philosopher. But he found lessons in the past and brought a robust proposal to the table that he could “wheel and deal” with. It seems to me that you’re doing here.

    The “elephant in the forum” is that nearly no one here is a scholar of ancient Greece or reads Greek, as far as I know, nor would it be relevant. I say this because most the citations are second or third hand accounts written in modern languages, by a small number of authors. In other words, this is no history forum. But even if we knew exactly what the Greeks did, it would not settle the matter. What settles things is what we want to do today given today’s issues.

    Certain people’s fixation on what was done by the boule or the assembly reminds me of the so-called “originalists” and “textualist” American judges. They end up reading their own values and desires into practices of the past anyway. At any rate, worshiping the past, whether its “the founding fathers” (said in a grave deep voice of course) or “the heroic Greeks” (said in a rising theater voice) is a waste, especially among non-philologists non-historians.

    Enough soap box. “Certain people” are correct about valuing the past, but that should be the recent past. A proposal that breaks too far too quickly from tradition would probably cause too much fear, anxiety, and struggle. Look at what’s happening in Iraq (or even Egypt) where many would welcome a tyrant from the past and trade away “more democracy and representativeness” for some stability and calm.

    This is one reason why eliminating political parties and the current political class could be a bad idea. The other reason is that they’re already here and part of society. That’s my penultimate comment about the article: Your proposal does not mention a role for today’s parties and elites. Do you mean to shut them out?

    Lastly, in America, the Executive and Judiciary are rather “legislative” in nature. Think of the FEC, FDA, EPA, etc., not to mention Federal Circuit (and Supreme) Courts. Any systemic proposal should deal with that issue, either by including allotted bodies within them or giving reason why we don’t have to worry about it.

    An issue that is not a critique but a big question that I do not know the answer to. Helene Landemore (not mentioned in your section on “cognitive diversity” or “crowd wisdom”) distinguished two types of “wisdom of crowds,” one based on averaging independent judgments, the other that is particular to deliberation based on actual thinking together. Keith’s and others’ fears about “charismatic personalities” ignores this distinction. But what do I know?

    I hope you do get to “wheel and deal” your proposal like a modern-day James Madison, one with a healthier respect for “the people!”


  11. Ahmed,
    A few responses:

    1. About Madison and knowledge of Greek democracy: Like many elite youth he studied the classics (while a student at Princeton — then New Jersey University). But none of the Framers really understood Athenian Democracy as well as we do today, thanks to modern archeology and especially the discovery around 1890 of a papyrus copy of Aristotle’s “The Constitution of Athens.” For example, Madison wrote in the Federalist Papers that the Boule was ELECTED.

    2. Of course you are right that obsessing about how Athens functioned is not particularly relevant to what we SHOULD do today (Athens also disenfranchised women, embraced slavery and waged imperialist wars).

    3. On the executive branch…I am currently helping David Schecter with an article he is writing based on my multi-body sortition concepts about appointing and overseeing the executive branch administration and rule making (think of how a city council currently appoints a city manager). The courts would be next.

    4. Helene’s cognitive diversity work is included in a book about sortition that I am writing. I had to edit out HUGE chunks from an earlier version of this paper to get it down to reasonable length. The two mutually exclusive benefits of diversity (wisdom of crowds) : one with and one without discussion are the basis of dilemma # 5 in the paper …Unfortunately I edited it down so much you didn’t even recognize this is what I was referring to.


  12. Excellent, excellent! Keep me posted about your coming projects. You certainly have the attention of a non-expert ally here.


  13. >An issue that is not a critique but a big question that I do not know the answer to. Helene Landemore (not mentioned in your section on “cognitive diversity” or “crowd wisdom”) distinguished two types of “wisdom of crowds,” one based on averaging independent judgments, the other that is particular to deliberation based on actual thinking together. Keith’s and others’ fears about “charismatic personalities” ignores this distinction.

    I’m very aware of Helene’s distinction, having spent many, many hours arguing with her on this very topic. The problem is that the first type is representative, whereas the second isn’t. Helene’s interests are consequentialist (getting the right answer), rather than any concern with the intrinsic need for democratic equality. The second type of wisdom of crowds does not respect the democratic equality of those who are not allotted. Terry accepts this point, arguing that the need for both types of deliberation at different stages in the legislative process, whereas I’m concerned by the degree to which the second type of deliberation distorts representativity.

    Neither of us is ignoring Helene’s distinction.


  14. I stand corrected. “Dilemma 4” certainly brings up the issue. For a general reader or non-veteran Kleroterian some hand-holding to connect that with the multi-body proposal would be helpful.

    Regarding the issue–“subjective v inter-subjective crowd wisdom?”–I have been asking myself: “Would a medium-sized panel with a high quota (supermajority) achieve the right balance?”

    The angloamerican jury of twelve by unanimity and the large parliament by simple majority are somewhat the opposite ends of this spectrum. Sortitive panels need not take one or the other as model.


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