Sortition for a constitutional assembly

Nikita Malo proposes selecting the members of a constitutional assembly using sortition:

Why constitution, why sortition?

Constitution is central to political systems; it is mainly aimed to define power. Who make the new laws? What powers have citizens? How are chosen deputies? What are their obligations?

We do not know yet what the new constitution will be (even though it could be possible to define a new constitution first, and then to support and empower it), but what is crucial is that a constitution has not to be written by the politicians, or they will write their own rules, and so be able to take advantage of the situation. That is why sortition is supported in this article, as a way to avoid conflicts of interests. On that question, I recommend this video.

62 Responses

  1. There is a good way to use a multi-stage form of sortition to select the members of a constitutional drafting convention and constitutional ratifying conventions, but such a method would have to be carefully designed to meet the severe skill requirements needed for constitutional engineering. To competently design a good constitution is a challenge similar to that of designing a Mars mission, a supercomputer, a chemical processing plant, or any other large. complex system with thousands of interacting components that must operate in a dangerous environment in which thousands of things can go wrong over an operating timespan of hundreds of years with catastrophic results.

    There are more competent engineers for a mission to Mars than there are competent constitutional engineers who can design a good constitution for a country that can withstand hundreds of years of efforts by clever people to subvert, misconstrue, or misapply it. I estimate there are less than 200 on the planet, and almost none of them are to be found in either the ranks of elected or appointed officials or among the academic community. Interestingly, one is most likely to find persons with the talent in the lobbying community, but even they would need to dedicate themselves to becoming top constitutional engineers over a period of at least 20 years, and they would need to have a way to make a living while they were doing that.

    The way sortition could be used would be to first randomly select one or more panels to interview and screen applicants for doing constitutional engineering. Then have a round of random selection from among those found to qualify, to select another panel of interviewers and screeners, and so forth until one finally got a convention of perhaps 50 top individuals. Then have the convention meet repeatedly over a period of years, alternating drafting and deliberation with holding hearings of citizens to get comments on their work thus far.

    When the drafting convention was sure it had thought of everything, the proposed constitution would be submitted to one or more ratifying conventions, selected with alternating random and filtering rounds.

    Finally, after passing the ratifying conventions, it could be submitted to the people for a final ratifying referendum.


  2. I think putting an emphasis on constitution making (as the author here does, and as Chouard does) is a mistake – rules are only as good and only as bad as those people who get to interpret or enforce them are.

    As a practical matter, the rules of the political process should be determined in the same way that all other public policy is determined – as an ongoing process, not as a one-time event. Of course, this ongoing process should be controlled by an allotted chamber, not by a group of “experts”.


  3. Yoram,

    I want to convince you that there is value in SEPARATING the creation of rules for an allotted body from the body itself (as with a constitution). While of course you are right that the key is who gets to interpret the constitution or rules…never the less the PRESENT allotted body has a built-in bias or “corruption” that needs to be leashed. Just as the PRESENT me wants to eat a chocolate bar even though I shouldn’t, it is helpful if the PAST me declined to buy chocolate bars at the store, or at least hid them away out of sight in anticipation of the desires of future (now present) me.

    As an example, a rule might say that a proposed law needs to be published and not go into force for a week after passage to give another body a chance to review it for unintended consequences, etc.. But a current allotted chamber might decide they know best, and if not restrained by some external rule (made by another allotted body) they might decide to put it into force immediately. Of course rules can usually be suspended in exceptional cases…but only by a super-majority.

    My point is that building in some distance between rule-making and decision-making (whether temporal by the same body, or preferably by a separate body) makes for better process and better decisions.


  4. Jon,

    Even granted the essential role of expertise in constitution drafting, the law of unintended consequences would suggest that the principle that evolution is better than intelligent design doesn’t just apply to biology. Recommend Gene Callahan’s book Oakeshott on Rome and America in this respect.


    Agree on the need for distance, both spatial and temporal. But battling unintended consequences and present interests would need a longer gap than a week or so, and we have still to tackle the need to protect the interests of future generations. But at least we agree, pace Yoram, that we can’t just appoint an allotted chamber and rely on klerotocratic alchemy to ensure a good oucome.


  5. Terry,

    You are barging into a door that is mostly open. I have no problem in principle with having different representative bodies with differentiated purviews, including for example having one body regulating the work rules of another.

    What is a mistake in my opinion is thinking that writing a constitution should be seen as (essentially) a one-time event of crucial importance. This is a dangerous distraction, I think. What matters is day-to-day politics, not a formal commitment to a document with some high-sounding principles or with various mechanical rules.


  6. Yoram >What matters is day-to-day politics

    But what about long-term and non-majoritarian interests (that constitutional safeguards are designed to protect)? Are you just going to leave it to future allotted chambers to clear up the mess resulting from the decisions of their predecessors, or are you going to accept that there are other factors to consider other than the immediate interests/fashions/prejudices of current members of society?


  7. Yes, Keith. I am well aware that you think that you (or some experts that you will appoint) can take better care of the long term interests of the population than a representative sample of the people can.

    As I have pointed out before, your claims suffer from a foundational contradiction. Even if your claims to superior wisdom were much more convincing than they are, the appropriate route to go would be to take your arguments to the representatives and convince them, on a case by case basis, that they should follow the policy recommendations that you offer. Having to force your opinions onto the representatives, rather than rely on persuasion, indicates that your wisdom is not widely accepted, and if it is not, what would be the justification for granting you privileged status?


  8. Yoram,

    I’m puzzled why you choose to personalise this issue — “some experts that you will appoint”; “your claims to superior wisdom” etc. All I did was to draw your attention to the regular arguments as to why constitutional issues are foundational, and not just a matter for the changing whims of the legislature (elected, allotted, or whatever). I prefer to see this through Burke’s eyes, but you could equally well take a human rights perspective. There is nothing quirky, egotisitical or idiosyncratic about the points I’m trying to make, it’s just regular constitutional theory.


  9. Pretense and pretensions aside, your arguments (which are a rehash of standard dogma, I agree) are egotistical: they are about privileging certain people, certain institutions and certain populations.


  10. My arguments would only be egotistic if I wished to privilege myself. However I’m just a political theorist, and have no personal wish to participate in the political process. It’s not going to help you in your attempt to change the paradigm to, in effect, accuse the entire political theory establishment of dogmatic thinking and to imply that they are motivated by egotism. This sort of language is normally only adopted by activists talking amongst themselves and it would be a shame if this public forum degenerated into some sort of cabal.


  11. There are decisions that can be made as well or better by a random sample of the population, provided they are made in a structured setting that compels them to deliberate for long enough and provides them with all the evidence and arguments they will need. But there are other decisions of a highly technical or complex character that requires expertise, and for which a random sample of the population would be inadequate.

    What a random sample of the population is good at is judging people, their truthfulness and reputation. They are not good at performing highly technical skills. However, most operational decisions in today’s world do require advanced skills. Therefore, the role of sortition is not for single rounds of random selection, but in multi-stage processes in which random selection is alternated with screening for merit. Single-stage sortition is suited for only a few kinds of situations. For the vast majority what is needed is multistage.


  12. Your proclamations of objectivity are comical. One would have to be totally blind not to see that the main occupation of the political theory establishment is (and always has been), in fact, providing justification for the privileges of power.

    As for you personally, you are, in fact, very busy privileging yourself first by appointing yourself to the supreme position of law giver and then by using this position to grant privileged position to those people, institutions and groups that you consider worthy.


  13. In a democracy, the role of experts is to advise, rather than decide… even in highly technical matters. In the 20th century many theorists raised this same concern… that society was now so complex that only technocrats could manage it. In many cases this has resulted in the off-loading of vast areas of public policy onto undemocratic entities (WTO, etc.). A difficulty is that often nearly all experts in a particular policy area have a common interest that is different than the general public’s. It doesn’t matter if we use sortition if most of the experts who have knowledge of Wall Street investing in the pool. A multi-stage sortition will still end up with a group that has expertise, but ALSO has interests that are different than the people’s. I could support a multi-stage process you describe so long as it was to develop ONE set of inputs for a fully representative body to consider, but did not restrain the body from seeking other input.


  14. >the political theory establishment is (and always has been), in fact, providing justification for the privileges of power.

    and I suppose parliaments are just committees for managing the iterests of the bourgeousie. If we are going to get beyond exchanging slogans we need to stop accusing those that disagree with us of blindness, dogmatism, egotism etc. As someone working in the field of political theory I have to assume that my colleagues are motivated by scholarly concerns as opposed to propping up the exploitative institutions of the state. In fact I seem to remember not so many years ago that social science departments were accused of exactly the opposite.

    Needless to say I agree with Jon as to the merits of random sampling and the need to ensure that the aggregate judgment of an allotted group is properly informed.


  15. Malo’s proposal reminded me of a simple “apportionment” method used by grade school children to fairly divide a cake in two: “I cut you choose.” I wonder how much mileage one can get out of such a simple example or intuitive notion of fairness.


  16. Ahmed

    The cake-dividing model is apposite — it’s the one that Harrington used in his 1656 book to describe the relationship between the two chambers of a bicameral legislature. It’s a self-regulating system and this led me, in my own book, to described Harrington as the founding father of second-order cybernetics.


    Does your fatwah against political theorists as establishment lickspittles [and/or useful idiots] include Ahmed; or Peter Stone (who recruited you to run this blog)? Peter is the only political theorist at Trinity College Dublin, or perhaps all political scientists are included in your blanket condemnation of our profession.


  17. To state the obvious, Keith, individuals can lend themselves to serving establishment ends with full stamina and internal conviction, as you do, or they may choose to pursue other ends, or they may even choose to resist, go against the grain, and risk infuriating the powers that be and suffering the consequences.

    BTW, your tendency to assert baseless fabrications is on full display today. Peter didn’t “recruit me to run this blog” any more than he recruited you to write rude, senseless, self-important comments on this blog.


  18. My book was described by an eminent political theorist as an attempt to “blow up the British constitution”, so not sure how that qualifies me an establishment lickspittle. A training in political theory teaches you to take a careful analytic approach regarding (for example) what sortition can and cannot do. Naturally we get a litle upset when accused of dogmatism and “providing justification for the privileges of power”. Peter’s work on the political potential of sortition would certainly not provoke the above reaction as he views sortition purely as a means to protect the existing system from corruption, as opposed to a radical form of political representation (the term doesn’t even appear in the index to his book). So not sure who best qualifies as going against the grain.


  19. Jon,

    > Single-stage sortition is suited for only a few kinds of situations.

    No one is proposing that an allotted chamber would have to make its decisions while being locked in a windowless room. If the allotted chamber feels that it should consult with experts, or even that it should rubber stamp expert opinion, then it would be able to do so.

    Therefore, the real question is not whether an allotted chamber is good at making technical decisions, but whether you, or whoever is writing the constitution, should be allowed to over-rule the decision making procedure that seems appropriate to the representative sample and force the public to use a decision making procedure that is deemed by the representative sample as an inferior one.

    What would be the justification for such an anti-democratic system? And who would occupy the privileged positions?


  20. Yoram,

    >If the allotted chamber feels that it should consult with experts

    And if they decided instead to proceed on the basis of ignorance and/or prejudice then that would be OK? Not only would this be disastrous from an epistemic perspective it would also breach democratic equality as there is no reason to think that every allotted sample would choose to operate in such a manner. And if they did decide to consult with experts, there is no reason to believe that each sample would choose the same experts, so the decisions of each allotted group would differ. As such there is no way that the decision of each sample could be seen as a proxy for what everyone would decide under ideal conditions. This is why Jon is right to argue the need for constitutional juries to deliver their verdict “in a structured setting that compels them to deliberate for long enough and provides them with all the evidence and arguments they will need”.

    If that you accept the argument that different samples deliberating in the way you propose might well come to very different decisions, why then do you insist that full-mandate sortition is the only democratically-acceptable form of political decision making?


  21. The way to avoid a single random sample from taking a wrong path is to start with many random samples in geographic subdivisions, such as a ward or election precinct, who each select the wisest from among themselves to become the pool for random selection at the next level, the county, who then select the wisest from among themselves to become the pool for random selection at the next level, the district, and so forth to the state or province, and thence to the nation. Such consolidation counteracts idiosyncrasies. This is what I have proposed in several constitutional amendments. See

    The main benefit of sortition is to dispel rent-seeking, the public choice problem, in which those with the greatest stake in public decisions invest the most, usually with some success, in influencing those decisions. Used well, a sortition system can leave special interests with no other way to influence public decisions than to influence public opinion generally, where they will have to contend with opposing views.


  22. It is not enough to use a random panel of laity choose from among a few options presented to them, if the formulation of the options is controlled by special interests. Those could be the special interests represented by professional groups of experts. That means it is not enough to “consult” experts, especially when jt is unclear who the experts are, or even whether there are any experts. Much of decisionmaking is of a technical character that requires knowledgeable persons just to decide what the alternatives are. That is why a well-designed sortition process does not just organize random samples of laity, but facilitates the emergence of expertise from within the ranks of the random samples.


  23. Jon,

    There are serious problems with your proposal that local allotted groups “select the wisest from among themselves to become the pool for random selection at the next level, [etc.]” The notion that a body of the “wisest” is desirable is mistaken. This process (not unlike elections) will produce a relatively homogeneous group, (probably 90% male, and 90% of the dominant race and religion, as well as high social status) and you will lose the benefits of diversity of cognitive styles and backgrounds. Scott Page has shown that diversity can trump ability…in that a diverse group can solve problems better than a group made up of only the best performers. Also, rather than actually picking the “wisest,” the final body will tend to way over-represent smooth talkers, ego-maniacs, power-grabbers, and sociopaths who can effectively trick people.


  24. Scott Page was not examining random samples of ordinary people, whose average educational level in the U.S. is now about that of a fifth grader (and far lower than it has been in the past). He was discussing diverse collections of experts, and sortition would be more likely to produce such diversity than alternative systems, such as HR departments filtering by words on resumes.

    Some decisions do require superior wisdom, and unfortunately, wisdom is not randomly distributed in a population. The wisest do tend to gain status. So do sociopaths. A political culture can be characterized by the kinds of people it elevates to critical decisionmaking positions. A healthy culture will elevate the wisest. An unhealthy one will elevate crooks, fools, and sociopaths. There are limits to what any system like sortition can do to overcome a pathological culture. Sortition can only work if the culture is basically healthy, with a pool of wise and educated citizens. It can make a positive difference if the culture is marginal, with some filtering and a little luck. If the population is composed of idiots you get an idiocracy, no matter what system is used.


  25. Jon,

    I guess it comes down to a difference of opinion about the nature of “political decisions.” Are they generally more like technical matters, say building a bridge, or more like questions of values and goals, where expertise isn’t that applicable? You seem to subscribe to the Platonic idea that governing is a skill like piloting a ship or playing a flute, where it makes no sense to pick people by lot alone. I think politics is mostly a question of values and goals…In the bridge example, it makes no sense to ask a group of expert bridge engineers WHETHER a bridge should be built from point A to point B as compared to spending that money on child care or fighter jets. Those experts can be employed AFTER (and if) a decision is made to build the bridge. Even the poorly educated can contribute to political decision-making (though a sortition society would probably put a higher priority on universal education).


  26. In today’s complicated world there are almost no decisions concerning “goals” or ‘values” that can be competently made without a strong background of knowledge and analysis. Indeed, we may have passed the point where expertise is possible for many of the decisions that will determine the life or death of civilization.

    Consider the financial sector. It hires the best and brightest mathematicians to design ever more complicated financial instruments that only the designers understand, and even they may never be able to understand in how they will interact in the financial system as a whole. As a mathematician myself I have examined some of those instruments, and found that they are designed to bring down the entire financial system, causing mortal misery to millions of people, and perhaps the very end of civilization. We have considered the danger from malicious individuals developing deadly plagues, or other doomsday machines, but we don’t need suitcase nukes set off in our cities. A single complex derivative in the financial sector can cause as much damage.

    The point is that none of these people know what they are doing.

    Go back to those decisions on “goals” or “values”. Try to find one such decision in any political forum today that does not require advanced technical knowledge to make competently. You will find decisions ordinary people are asked to make on the basis of trust in “experts” who in most cases have their own agendas that are not in the public interest. They need to deliberate long enough to develop their own expertise to counter that.


  27. Jon,

    Aren’t you effectively arguing for my point here? It was the “smart” guys (the type of people who would rise to the top in your multi-layer sortition/selection system) who designed the derivatives time bomb. The goal and value they chose to pursue was maximizing short term profit potential for a select few. What if these same smart experts had the assignment from an allotted assembly of designing a plan to provide full employment, or whatever. It was ALL about goals and values. No random sample of Americans would have decided to have the experts design methods to facilitate a financial system based on gambling, miss-representation and likely financial disaster for the general population.


  28. In a sense what we have now is a system in which almost everyone, who are directly or indirectly invested in the financial sector, has hired those “experts” who are behaving so dangerously. The difference is that it was a hiring process, in which the ones hired were motivated by commissions and bonuses, rather than a sortition process, in which the ones elevated are either unpaid or not paid very much, and that not based on short-term profits. The hope is that with a sortition process more skeptical experts would be elevated than speculators, who might be expected to avoid service because it doesn’t pay. There have been plenty of skeptics who have been warning of the dangers, but they have been ignored because they didn’t offer their patrons the prospect of insane profits.

    Sortition can only work if the random panels of deciders serve only once, for a short period of time, not long enough to be “got to”, are paid little if at all, and have no career path from their service.


  29. Jon

    I think most of us would warm to your vision but are concerned that your “hope with a [multi-layered] sortition process” might well be wishful thinking. I agree that “almost everyone” was complicit in the financial bubble as the illusion of wealth-creation by cheap borrowing went all the way down to the sub-prime level. But if this is the case then surely a sortition process would simply reflect this delusion? I would hold out more hope for your original proposal for “a structured setting that obliges [an allotted jury] to deliberate for long enough and provides them with all the evidence and arguments they will need”. I think there is more hope that ordinary people would come to sensible conclusions when obliged to listen to the arguments, but I’m still unsure how best to ensure that the interests of future generations are protected. I don’t hold out much hope for the emergence of wisdom via a multi-layered combination of sortition and election, I think it’s more practical to take the adversarial approach to expert advocacy that characterises the judicial system. This would provide a guaranteed platform for the sceptics that were warning of the dangers of the financial bubble. One could imagine a similar scenario for (say) climate change, the UK’s relationship with the EU and other controversial issues that generally lead to calls for a public referendum.


  30. The longest successful example of multi-stage sortition was that of Venice.

    In the heyday of their republic, the Venetians selected their lifetime leader, the Doge, by a complex system involving lot-drawing. The system had developed through the Middle Ages, becoming ever more complex to avoid manipulation, before being codified in 1268. The procedure consisted of a series of ten ballots that alternated between sortition and election. All participants had to belong to the Great Council, which included several hundred members of the most prominent families. The steps were as follows (Dahl 1994, 14-16):

    1. The ballottino, a boy chosen at random, draws thirty names by plucking balls out of an urn, thus setting the process in motion with a blind draw.

    2. Those thirty are reduced to nine by a blind draw.

    3. Those nine put forward forty names, each of which needs at least seven of the nine possible votes.

    4. Those forty are reduced to twelve by a blind draw.

    5. Those twelve put forward twenty-five names.

    6. Those twenty-five are reduced to nine by a blind draw.

    7. Those nine choose forty-five new names, each of which needs at least seven of the nine possible votes.

    8. Those forty-five are reduced to eleven by a blind draw.

    9. Those eleven choose forty-one, who must not have been included in any of the reduced groups that named candidates in earlier steps.

    10. Those forty-one then choose the Doge.

    The Venetian system seems devised to make it impossible for any individual, family, or coterie to plant candidates or exercise undue influence. However convoluted the procedure, it supported a republican government that lasted a thousand years, until 1797.


  31. > it supported a republican government that lasted a thousand years, until 1797

    I am not sure what you mean by “republican”, but the government was certainly not democratic (and was not meant to be).


  32. Agree. The crucial distinction is whether you want sortition to establish statistical representativity or whether you want to use it as a prophylactic against factionalism and corruption. If the former then it’s hard to see how it can be combined with election. My preference is to respect the distinction between advocacy and judgment and to use election for the former, and sortition for the latter. There is no evidence that ancient and medieval uses of sortition had anything to do with representative democracy, this is a distinctly modern requirement.


  33. Venice was only undemocratic because participation was limited to the Great Council, making it what John Adams called an “aristocratical republic” in his three-volume work, Defense of the Constitutions of the United States. However, in the American republics participation was limited to about ten percent of the population, after eliminating children, women, and men without property. Since no polity we call a republic today includes children, and they typically comprise half the population, it comes down to what percentage of the population has to participate before one can call it “democratic”, with those qualified to vote “virtually representing” the rest.

    If the Great Council of Venice had been expanded to include as many as were included in the American states, then I submit we could call it democratic enough. The same method of selecting the doge would have worked for such larger participation. with perhaps larger numbers in the intermediate panels.

    However, the doge was a lifetime position and it might be better to limit it to some number of years, such as four or six. It might also work to select members of a legislative branch and a judicial branch in a similar manner, that would achieve representativity as well as reduced rent-seeking and superior judgment. There is no reason why a well-designed procedure cannot achieve all three. But it won’t be through merely a single stage of sortition.


  34. When the goal is to select a single person (or tiny number of people), such as a chief executive, I agree that a multi-step sorititon and election process is reasonable…since the single executive cannot possilby be descriptively representative of the entire population and there is a premium on competency. However, the role of a legislative body is completely different. We want the body as a WHOLE to be competent…. but that requires cognitive diversity that is enhanced by having some members with little obvious competence, but unique perspectives to share. For legislative bodies descriptive representativeness and diversity are important…both to democracy and to good decision making. So while multi-stage sortition/election may be useful for selecting an executive, that process is counter-productive for selecting a legislative body.


  35. Some of the comments indicate a lack of experience with actual elected legislative bodies and their members. I have spent many years working with the U.S. congress and the legislatures of several U.S. states, especially California and Texas, and with members of the parliaments of the UK, Germany, France, Mexico, and a few other countries. There is no substitute for direct experience.

    One of the insights from this experience is that any “unique perspectives” come not so much from the members themselves as from communications from their constituents and from lobbyists. The overwhelming workload of legislative bodies in session, combined with, in the U.S., the need to divide one’s time between actual legislative work and campaign fundraising, results in an environment in which thought and real deliberation are largely excluded. Such deliberation as does occur largely precludes more than about five “perspectives” being able to get any attention at all, and usually it is only about one or two. It makes little difference how many legislators comprise a body, other than that bodies of more than about 300 become increasingly unmanageable, or even how they might be elected. The same constituent forces are at play on the members no matter what their party or ideology, so almost all of them will tend to converge on the path of least resistance left by those pressures.

    The best opportunity for “unique perspectives” is not within legislative bodies, but in lobbying organizations, where they can formulate legislation for the members to introduce and vote on, and build constituent support for. The members won’t understand what they are voting on. They will have to adopt legislation to find out what’s in it, and probably not even then. Their votes will depend mainly on the balance of constituent forces, not on merits.

    Going to a sortition process for selecting legislators could be expected to have a complicated effect. Gone would be the constituent pressures, but also would be the need to raise funds for re-election, and no re-election, and much of the influence of lobbyists, except their expertise. The members would have more time to listen to the many demands on them. The intellectual capacities of the members would be critical, and speedreading would be an essential skill. It would be less important to have unique perspectives than to be able to comprehend the unique perspectives of others. They would not have much time, and having only one term means they had better bring advanced skills with them. They would not have many years to develop subject-matter expertise, and most issues will be of the kind that require decades of experience for even the most brilliant of minds.

    I have actually worked reviewing and drafting legislation, and for a modern government, it really is more complicated and technical than sending a manned mission to Mars. Far, far more. Well beyond the intellectual capacity of any human beings.

    I have also helped manage a congressional hearing in which I was the only person in the room who had even a rudimentary understanding of the issues. None of the members, staffers, or witnesses did.

    We are all lighting matches for light in a dark explosives factory. No one, and I really mean no one, knows what we are doing, and a single mistake could cost the lives of billions.

    Forget about “goals and values”. Those and a buck will get you a cup of coffee. Totally worthless for making real decisions.


  36. > Venice was only undemocratic because participation was limited to the Great Council

    What’s the evidence that the Venetian system was democratic for the subset that was formally fully enfranchised? (BTW, how large was that population of the fully enfranchised? How was it defined? By birth? By property?)


  37. Agree with Terry, who has the added benefit of actually having served as an elected member of a state legislature.

    Jon>The best opportunity for “unique perspectives” is not within legislative bodies, but in lobbying organizations, where they can formulate legislation for the members to introduce and vote on, and build constituent support for. The members won’t understand what they are voting on

    This supports my case for the separation of advocacy and judgment. But if we want the members to understand what they are voting on then the advocates need to argue their case in front of the legislature, exactly as in a jury trial. Unlike sending a mission to Mars, legislation is much too important to entrust to experts.


  38. For an insider commentary on the problem for one legislative body see Three reasons Congress is broken


  39. Advocates do indeed argue their cases competitively before most legislative bodies, certainly in the U.S. Both through hearings and in one-on-one contacts with members and their staffs. But the bandwidth of such bodies is narrow, compared to the volume of issues to be considered.

    Consider the problem of managing the manned landing on the moon without the help of computers. It almost certainly could not have been done, because more decisions had to be made in real time than could be made by any combination of human beings, limited by the information and decision throughput of each. There is a fundamental limit on the bandwidth of any system in which human beings are the principal decision units. At some point the only way to exceed that limit is to computerize most of the more urgent decisionmaking. Of course, even computers have throughput limits, which many applications are pushing, and we are developing a critical need for the theoretical increased throughput of quantum computing systems.

    However, down the road we still face limits. The Universe itself, considered as a quantum computing system, cannot predict or manage itself, except within a few islands of predictability that result from quantum entanglement.


  40. Jon,

    I served on two different legislative bodies (a city council and stat legislature) for ten years each. the legislative drafting skill resides in the hired staff, and not in the legislators themselves. Legislators, whether in an elected or allotted chamber only provide guidance on goals and values, with all of the detail work handled by employees. As you point out, the undue influence of lobbyists, campaign donors, and constituency groups can be eliminated by switching to an allotted body. Legislating is NOT rocket science (as the saying goes). I can state with confidence (from experience) that elected legislators do not stand above average citizens in terms of competence or integrity. Simply be being able to focus on policy (rather than fund-raising and public relations), allotted legislators could generally outperform elected legislators.


  41. @Terry

    Having worked with city councils and state legislatures, the complexity of the issues they confront is at least one or two orders of magnitude less than what is confronted by members of the U.S. Congress, whose bad decisions can collapse the entire world economy and trigger global thermonuclear war. Perhaps California or Texas could do that, but most other states could not (and Texas is not likely to do it, whereas California might). Of course, the collapse of several states could produce a domino effect that could bring down the world economy.

    When I have worked with legislators on various levels, I found much expertise among state staffers, barely adequate for their jobs, but not among congressional staffers. One of the reasons I was asked to review and draft legislation for congressmen was because neither their staffers or the Congressional Research Service had the expertise to do it. Members sometimes turned to lobbyists for expertise on issues unrelated to their client interests. They would help on an issue of interest to a member as a way to get access and influence for the issues that were of concern to them. (I did the same thin.)

    In the final analysis, it is not enough for members to have values or set goals. They have to have a lot of their own expertise to understand what the alternatives are.


  42. Jon,

    Ah, but Congressional staffers are hired by the elected members, who puts loyalty, public relations, and fund-raising as top priorities, due to the electoral framework. I suspect the quality of staffers in the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office is far superior when it comes to POLICY matters. A sortition chamber would be able to hire superior experts, without concern for how they would help anybody win re-election.


  43. This “politics is rocket science squared” is of course simply a variant of the Socratic-Platonic “government is for the philosophers”. I don’t think this is the case at all. The problem with current government is not that it is incompetent – it is that it is competently promoting interests that differ from, and are often antagonistic to, the interests of the majority of the population.

    In any case, like all such proposals, this idea faces the foundational paradox: if you manage to convince a majority of the population that some sort of a hybrid system can be expected to produce the best government then an allotted chamber (being representative of the population at large) would naturally use such a procedure of its own accord, instead having to impose it a-priori upon it. If, on the other hand, you cannot convince a majority of the population of the usefulness of your design, then there is no justifiable basis for imposing it.


  44. The CBO reflects the mediocrity of the members. Do you know they still do budgets using Excel? No simulation modeling worthy of the name.

    Yes, sortition would help by eliminating the pressures to get re-elected, but by limiting the tenure of members to one term, it would make staffers even more powerful, and because there aren’t enough staffers to handle the workload, it would also make lobbyists more powerful, not as sources of campaign funds, but for their expertise and ability to take on much of the workload. It could reduce Congress to a bureaucracy in which rent-seeking would operate more on the staffers and lobbyists than on the members.

    I have watched the process in action. The last year I lived in DC it was six blocks east of the Capitol, and I used to hang out at the Hawk and Dove nearby. On any given evening I could overhear staffers meeting with their handlers, who seemed to have usually been operatives of the intelligence agencies.

    For a complete solution, we need to look to some kind of sortition for executive and judicial branch departments.


  45. @Yoram

    It is promoting interests that differ from, and are often antagonistic to, the interests of the majority of the population, but not competently. I found that most of the players, even the top lobbyists, promoted policies that they did not understand and that would not only not bring favorable outcomes, but were often counterproductive. It was more important for then to persuade their clients that the proposals would work than for those proposals to actually work, and when they failed, they always had an excuse that avoided blame for having a bad policy.



  46. Sorry, I find your claim that you are a better judge of the interests of lobbyists and legislators, and the effectiveness of policies for promoting those interests, than the lobbyists and legislators themselves to be implausible (and, of course, somewhat boastful).

    Can you provide objective evidence for your claim of superior judgement?

    Also, can you address the foundational issue that I raised above? Are you going to convince the population that your proposed system is good, or are you planning to force it upon them?


  47. During the course of reviewing legislation proposed by others I often found instances of counterproductive provisions, which, when I pointed out to the framers, they sometimes admitted I was right, after thinking about it. (In most cases, having admitted I was right, they went with their bad provisions anyway, because the client had already been sold on them, and used my input to devise more ways to avoid blame.) But of course none of this is documented, nor is most of the legislative development process generally, for which it seems shredders were invented.

    As for the foundational dilemma, I see no way to make most of our reforms on any but the local level until things get so bad that the Establishment fades as opposition to them. I see global economic collapse as about the only thing that might do that, and history suggests dictatorship is more likely than reforms like ours.


  48. Realistic or not, my question is regarding the mode of adaptation of your sortition-electoral system: do you envision it being by consent or by imposition? If by consent, why won’t an allotted chamber adopt it on its own rather than having to have it dictated? If the system is enshrined in a constitution that cannot be changed by an allotted chamber, what would be the procedure for changing the constitution if the public becomes disaffected with it?


  49. It would need to be done as constitutional amendments. See The main way I would change the amendment process would be to allow state legislatures, as constitutional conventions, propose amendments that would, if identically proposed by 2/3 of the states, go directly to the states for ratification without having to go through Congress first.

    However, my proposals also use sortition for one of the two houses of state legislatures (proxy voting for the other).


  50. The amendment procedure clearly makes it possible for a minority – potentially a very small minority – to impose its will upon a majority. That aside, how do you envision your own system being adopted – through the same constitutional amendment procedure?


  51. As I said, I do not expect it to be possible to make any kind of fundamental reforms unless or until we get a “revolutionary moment”, probably accompanied with intense civil disorder, that will scare the elites into caving in to them. That depends on a strong reform movement with all its proposals lined up, ready to go. Otherwise, expect dictatorship, and with the technology that would be available to tyranny, probably the last political change ever, and a future that makes Orwell’s 1984 look benign.


  52. But having achieved your preferred system of government, you would entrench it using the same method that is now used to perpetuate the existing undemocratic system.


  53. Yoram> if you manage to convince a majority of the population that some sort of a hybrid system can be expected to produce the best government then an allotted chamber (being representative of the population at large) would naturally use such a procedure of its own accord.

    I continue to be puzzled as to why you think the fact that a representative sample would judge a proposal to be optimal would mean such a solution would automatically arise from its internal deliberations “on its own accord”. I’m all for emergent properties but this sounds a lot more like alchemy.


  54. > I continue to be puzzled

    Throwing caution to the wind, let me engage in the hopeless and thankless activity of trying to alleviate this puzzlement.

    The presumed process goes as follows:

    (1) Mr. Roland manages to convince a majority of the population that his proposed government system is best.

    (2) Through the process of sortition, a random sample of the population becomes the legislature.

    (3) According to the law of large numbers, points (1) and (2) imply that a majority of the legislature would believe that Mr. Roland’s system is best.

    (4) The majority in the legislature would act upon their beliefs and employ Mr. Roland’s system when it generates new legislation.



  55. Sorry, I misunderstood you. I thought you were restatitng your usual point (that the speech acts of the microcosm would automatically mirror the interests of the macrocosm).


  56. @Terry, @keithsutherland

    > My point is that building in some distance between rule-making and decision-making (whether temporal by the same body, or preferably by a separate body) makes for better process and better decisions.

    Where is the evidence of this?

    I completely agree with Yoram. Here’s why:

    Political theorists take the “druid” approach, ie the council of wise elders shalt divine an ideal system which the plebs will follow.

    The corollary of this view is that ordinary citizens are incapable of creating & running a political system. It they were, what need would we have for political theorists?

    Such a view demonstrates a fundamental (deliberate?) misunderstanding of the power & utility of sortition. History has shown that it is an incremental & ITERATIVE process.

    The arrogance & folly of the political theorists is that they think they can do better than the collective wisdom of past & future generations.

    Self regulating systems (sometimes of great complexity) evolve from a few simple rules.


  57. @Jon Roland

    > As I said, I do not expect it to be possible to make any kind of fundamental reforms unless or until we get a “revolutionary moment”, probably accompanied with intense civil disorder

    A common misconception.

    All you need is a political party dedicated to sortition or direct democracy.


  58. @Jon Roland

    > Otherwise, expect dictatorship, and with the technology that would be available to tyranny, probably the last political change ever, and a future that makes Orwell’s 1984 look benign.

    Welcome to the present.


  59. @Anonymous

    “All you need is a political party dedicated to sortition”

    No, you need such a party that can win a majority of the voters and of the positions that are needed to enact the reform. But the party is not going to be able to attain that without money to reach an electorate that is better educated and receptive to such a reform than we have now. But the party will not get that money, because that much money will only be donated from special interests who would lose if sortition were adopted. There is plenty of money for systems money can buy, but little for systems it cannot.

    As for tyranny, it can and likely will become far, far worse than what we have now. Imagine a regime that compels everyone to be brainjacked, that monitors every thought, that inflicts intense pain on anyone who even begins to think the wrong thoughts, and who makes everyone suffer, and many people die, just because it can.


  60. Ordinary people, of the kind that get selected for jury duty, are adequate for local government, at the ward or small town level. But the issues become increasingly overwhelming as one moves to a large city, a state, or a nation like the U.S.

    That is one reason why I favor moving more of the functions of government down to the level of the “ward republic”, as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson In the U.S. they could be established by converting the typical voting precinct of about 3000 persons into a township.


  61. Anon.> Political theorists take the “druid” approach, ie the council of wise elders shalt divine an ideal system which the plebs will follow.

    Not so. The role of political theorists is merely to bring a little clarity to the words that we use. For example, what we mean by “statistical” representation. Once we know what the words mean this creates certain constraints as to what it is possible (rather than just desirable) for an allotted assembly to do. Ordinary citizens can create and run a political system but, if we believe in democracy and live in a large political community, the relevant issue is that the ordinary citizens chosen by lot act in a way that represents the interests of us all (or at least the majority of citizens). This is a non-trivial problem. Jon’s concerns are epistemic and consequential (what is desirable), my concerns are purely intrinsic (what is possible, democratically speaking), so please don’t conflate these entirely distinct issues.


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