A theory of sortition, part 2 of 2

Part 1 is here.

Extension of self-representation

Like many other authors discussing sortition (Dahl, Leib, Zakaras, Fishkin, and others), Stone and Dowlen choose, then, to drastically downgrade sortition from a tool of radical democratic reform (as presented by C&P, or earlier by C.L.R. James) to an add-on to the electoral system. Such a retreat is certainly not warranted by the theoretical considerations discussed in the first part of the article. The claim that sortition can be expected to produce good government can be put on a much more solid theoretical foundation than the faulty intuitive argument provides. An alternative argument works by employing the properties of sampling in order to extend self-representation of the decision-making group into representation of the entire population. It goes as follows:

  1. A small group of people, under reasonably favorable conditions, is able to represent its own interests. This claim is not directly associated with sortition, but is rather a claim about the political dynamics of small groups of people in general. The claim is that when a small group of people, meeting on an a-priori egalitarian basis, has the opportunity to make collective decisions that would promote the interests of the members as they perceive them, then it will tend to do so. This is a situation which most people would be familiar with – group decision making in the family, within a group of friends or with colleagues. “A small group” is taken to be a group in which all-to-all communication is possible. The upper size limit of such a group would depend on the circumstances, but even under the most favorable circumstances a few hundred people seems like the most that would fit the description.
  2. Policy that promotes the interests of a small group of people which are selected as a sample of a larger group will tend to promote the interests of the larger group as well. Since the interests of a group selected as a sample of a larger group are typical of those of the entire group, policy that promotes the interests of the sample would tend to promote the interests of the group. In particular, if a certain policy promotes the interests of a majority of the members of the sample then that policy is likely to promote the interests of a majority in the population. There would be some obvious exceptions to this extension from sample to population. Policy that applies directly to the members of the sample in their role as members – their salaries for example – affects interests for which the sample members are very atypical. In a government by sortition such exceptions would have to be treated separately.

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A theory of sortition, part 1 of 2


In his Introduction to A Citizen Legislature by Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips, Peter Stone commends the authors for doing “an excellent job of presenting the idea of a representative House — a House that will truly be “of the people” — as an inspiring piece of democratic reform.” On the other hand, such inspiring presentation does not meet the philosopher’s standard of a good argument: “Their [C&P’s] efforts to defend their proposal, however, have a number of shortcomings.”

Stone rejects the implied argument that descriptive representation is a desirable end. Descriptive representation is a means, not an end, Stone argues: “descriptive representation is desirable because — and only to the extent that — it contributes to the goal of good lawmaking.” And while some may reject this point of view, and argue that the symbolism of microcosm is indeed an end in itself, I think that would be an evasion of the main point. The essential function of government is to generate good policy – i.e., policy that promotes the interests of the population – and, as Stone asserts, sortition is a useful tool if and only if it can be expected to produce a government that generates good policy. (By “interests” I mean to encompass whatever a person, or a group of people, perceive, upon informed and considered reflection, as important or desirable.)

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Albert Dzur: Twelve Absent Men

The Boston Review recently ran an article by political scientist Albert Dzur on the jury. It appeared on July 22, 2013, and was called “Twelve Absent Men.”

Until the early 20th century, the jury was the standard way Americans handled criminal cases, but today we operate largely without it. It has been supplanted by plea agreements, settlements, summary judgments, and other non-trial forums that are usually more efficient and cost-effective in the short term. In addition to cost and efficiency, justice officials worry about juror competence in the face of scientific and technical evidence and expert testimony, further diminishing the opportunity for everyday people to serve.

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Voting lists: Alphabetic or Random?

Should the name of candidate Aardvark, Al always come before Zizovic, Jo on the ballot paper?

Not in Wallingford, Connecticut, where the names of the candidates are in random order:


There is a twist to this procedure: Republicans and Democrats alternate on the ballot paper.

Q. (for our US readers) Is the randomization of ballot order used widely in the US?

Q. (for the rest of us) Should we copy this practice?

Random Promotion at US Universities?

Perhaps this provides part of the explanation of random promotion policies (equivalent to random wages) used by some universities.

Is this true? Do some US universities really promote faculty staff at random?

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Sortition 2013

Has anyone seen this yet? It appears to be about a week old and be tied to an online petition.


Anyone familiar with Scottish politics, please share your thoughts.

Antoine Vergne’s Thesis in ‘english’

Further to Terry Bouricius’s query below, I have managed a rough translation, in MS Word .docx format.

(It’s in large font which I find easier to read on-screen!)

To read it click:  Vergne 2013 engl trans

Voting is not the answer. Voting is the problem.


Two New Publications

I’ve recently published two articles that might prove of interest. First, I wrote a review essay dealing with the Imprint Academic series on Sortition and Public Policy. It’s just appeared in the latest issue of Redescriptions: Yearbook of Political Thought, Conceptual History and Feminist Theory (volume 16, 2012/2013). It’s been in the pipeline for a while, and so regrettably does not cover the latest offerings in the series (such as Conall Boyle’s interesting book on educational lotteries). The issue is at https://jyx.jyu.fi/dspace/handle/123456789/42047

Second, Comparative Education Review just published a symposium on “Fair Access to Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective” (volume 57, no. 3, August 2013). It contains a paper of mine entitled “Access to Higher Education by the Luck of the Draw.” The paper deals with university admissions in general and the Irish case in particular. It’s available on JSTOR at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/669235, but only if your library/university subscribes.

Sorry to be incommunicado. I’ve been away for much of the summer, and have a very busy term ahead of me, but I hope to rejoin the conversation soon.

Sortition Research

Where is sortition (both its history and potential) being studied?

[Many researchers have been mentioned before on Equality by Lot, and it would be helpful to have a current list in one place.]