On theory and pragmatics

For some time the sharp disagreements — often ending up as slanging matches — between different members of this forum has intrigued me. If we are all part of the tiny community that is interested in, or even believes in, sortition, then why do we so often come to blows and indulge in name-calling? This post is an attempt to unpack this issue and, hopefully, help us deal with disagreements better in the future. That’s not to say that we should seek consensus, only that we should understand why others might find our own views difficult to stomach.


Let’s start with the name of this blog — Equality by Lot. Equality is a mathematical abstraction (“no equality without equations!”), which morphed, over time, into a normative ideal. The first philosopher to develop a normative understanding of equality was Plato, but his treatment of equality appears very strange to modern sensibilities. Plato distinguished “mere” arithmetic equality from equality of value, in which each person should receive according to his desert (geometric equality). This has some parallel in Christian thought via the Parable of the Talents (“For to everyone who has will be given, and he will have abundance, but from him who doesn’t have, even that which he has will be taken away.”) However modern Christian sensibilities privilege the (alternative) biblical view that we are all (arithmetically) equal in the eyes of God. This is the view that Jefferson adopted for the first draft of the Declaration of Independence, but that wily old fox Franklin argued that a secular version would be better (“we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”). Of course this is complete nonsense as all the evidence points to the differences (biological and environmental) that we inherit at birth. But no matter, the transition was made from a religious gloss on a mathematical construction to a secular normative ideal.

Modern egalitarianism is mainly concerned with the redistribution of economic goods and the opportunities to acquire them in an arithmetically-equal fashion. One way to distribute scarce goods (and/or onerous tasks like military service) is by drawing lots, as everyone would have an exactly equal chance of drawing the golden ticket. Barbara Goodwin’s book Justice by Lottery (Imprint Academic, 2005) is a vision of an utopian society called Aleatoria, in which everything is distributed according to a total social lottery. The principal advocate of social lotteries on this blog — in particular lotteries for the egalitarian allocation of scarce educational resources — is Conall Boyle, but his posts rarely attract comments.

This is probably because most commentators on Equality by Lot are interested in political equality — hence the logo incorporating the Athenian kleroterion machine on our masthead. The Athenian demos was prepared to tolerate wide economic inequality, so long as everyone had an equal say in their political arrangements. This is the model that theorists and activists — Yoram Gat being the prime example — have adopted as a template for political equality in modernity, and have often quoted Montesquieu in its defence (“The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy; as that by choice [preference election] is to aristocracy”). This being the case, the way to create equality in modernity is to replace election with sortition. Given Montesquieu’s view (elaborated by Bernard Manin in his book) that election is an aristocratic principle, it can have no place in modern democracies.

The other principal theory-derived position is outlined in Oliver Dowlen’s book The Political Potential of Sortition (Imprint Academic, 2008). Dowlen starts off by looking for the unique feature of the lot, and concludes that it is the “blind break” that occurs at the throw of the dice. There is no way of knowing in advance which way the dice will fall, or which individuals will draw the golden ticket. The distinctive feature of all lotteries is the total break in causality — there are no reasons connecting the input to the output. He then looks around for a practical application for his “lottery principle” and observes, correctly, that it can act to preserve the political system from factionalism and ex-ante corruption . Dowlen then offers a historical overview of how sortition has been used over the last 2,500 years, interpreting the use always in terms of his theoretical starting point. Any other use of sortition (statistical representation, for example) is described as “weak”.

Given that both the blind breakers and the advocates of equality-by-lot are seeking to implement a theoretical project or an egalitarian ideal, it’s understanding that they are inclined to view other approaches through the lens of their own project and to put a premium on theoretical consistency.


The other category of frequent posters on this forum is made up of those who merely seek to improve some of the deficiencies of our current political arrangements and are happy to make use of whatever tools they can find to hand. I would include myself in this category and if you take a look at Robert Gauthier’s blog profile, this would appear to be his primary motivation. My interest in politics can be traced back to (UK) Labour’s 1997 election victory which struck me as a political confidence trick. This led me to write an article for a right-wing magazine calling for a return to constitutional monarchy as literally understood. During a drunken exchange at a party a friend pointed out to me that this was a tad on the reactionary side, so why don’t I incorporate a randomly-selected legislative jury into the equation. This struck me as a good idea, but as my motivation was, and still is, entirely pragmatic (making sure the trains run on time) rather than the pursuit of a normative or theoretical goal this makes me quite flexible as to how to go about it. But it does require a study of political theory (in the analytic Aristotelian/Oakeshottian sense, rather than the modern normative school) in order to understand what we mean by concepts like representation, consent etc and the constraints imposed on praxis by the theoretical understanding of what bodies selected by lot can and cannot do (hence my return to university three years ago, to do a PhD on sortition). Whilst I doubt if Robert shares my conservative inclinations, I think his willingness to change his mind is a result of a similarly pragmatic starting point.

What about other frequent posters? Terry Bouricius is an interesting case because, as a former elected legislator, one might anticipate a similarly pragmatic perspective. Yet his comments are much closer to Yoram and he finds no place at all for elections. Is this a case of the gamekeeper turned poacher? I can understand the attraction of a Damascene conversion to someone who has spent years frustrated by his labours in the cesspit of partisan pork trading. Peter Stone is another intriguing example — he told me once that his interest in sortition was on account of needing a topic for his PhD and chancing on a newspaper article on sortition. Although his own position is in the blind break camp (“representation” doesn’t even figure in the index to his book) it’s hard to understand what he really thinks about the proposals for descriptive representation via sortition as his presence on this blog is so erratic.

I would be keen to hear whether those mentioned on this post agree with my classification and how others not listed would categorise themselves (I’m unsure how to place Andre and Ahmed, although Campbell and Martin appear close to Yoram’s starting point). I should emphasise that a theoretical starting point, such as the pursuit of equality, does not rule out a burning interest in improving our political arrangements. It’s just if your starting point is a normative goal (equality) this will always be the guiding light, as opposed to pragmatists like Robert and myself, who are only concerned about what works. I think it’s also the case that campaigners for normative ideals tend to apply this perspective to others, so that pragmatism and realism are often viewed as a defence of the status quo.

24 Responses

  1. That is a fair description of my position on the subject of sortition. While I am not driven by any egalitarian ideology per se one of the things that does attract me to it is that it would force the participation of a wider cross-section of citizens in the political process, diluting (one would hope) the influence of special interests and making people be aware of those decisions that will impact them.

    One of the things I learned during my time holding elected office it that while everyone seem to hold strong opinions on just about any subject my committee was deliberating, getting people out to the public meetings in numbers large enough to make a difference was almost impossible; unless of course their kid’s school was scheduled for closure. Then there was all sorts of people showing up to complain in a state of surprised outrage having apparently forgotten that I had been warning them for months that this was possible and that they should show up at the monthly public assemblies if they wanted it stopped before the decision was made by the board.

    So I see sortition not so much as a tool that permits wider participation in politics as one that forces it.


  2. >So I see sortition not so much as a tool that permits wider participation in politics as one that forces it.

    Yes that’s a good way of putting it. Just like jury service, participation should be quasi-manditory (anything less would reduce the representative accuracy of the allotted sample).


  3. My approach to this subject may be characterized as an effort to maximize a social utility function that may be summarized as “the greatest good for the greatest number, over the long term, that is not excessively unjust or risky”. That reformulation of Bentham’s creed brings us into consistency with the ideals of constitutionalism, especially as conceived in the American model.

    For this purpose, the value of sortition is to make more likely the selection of decision-makers who are likely to make better decisions. But there are several competing design elements.

    “Diversity and representivity” serve mainly to avoid unjust distribution of burdens and benefits, but do not necessarily serve to make more likely wise decisions about the complicated issues we face, especially today. Representivity may help constrain how public goods are distributed, but not how well decisions are made to actually produce desirable outcomes, from anyone’s point of view. In the real world unintended consequences are an ever-present danger, and a random sample of unwise and untalented people is likely to result in unwise and untalented decision-makers. We might naively hope that ordinary people, if given sufficient information and a chance to deliberate, will have have enough talent and virtue to become wise in the ways they make decisions, but talent and virtue are important and not equally distributed, nor can the lack of information always be overcome in the time allowed for deliberation. The decision-makers need at least enough expertise to know who the experts are who should be consulted, and we find most actual decision-makers lack even that much wisdom.

    Readers are reminded of my proposed epitaph for Humanity: “They were smart enough to create problems for themselves they weren’t smart enough to solve.”

    So a wise use of sortition is in combination with other methods that make more likely the emergence of wise leaders and not just representative ones.


  4. I may be in the same category as “constitutionalism”, as indicated by the title of my 2012 book EMPOWERING PUBLIC WISDOM empoweringpublicwisdom dot us. “Public” in that title refers to a legitimate inclusive “We the People”, of which there are two primary manifestations – the population as a whole and microcosms (“minipublics”) who are cross-sections of the population as a whole. Minipublics are best selected by some form of random selection. To generate “legitimacy” it is usually desirable to use a stratified sampling (randomly selecting a large pool and then selecting demographically from that pool so that the desired final minipublic embodies a fair representation of society’s diverse demographic characteristics so that observing citizens can see “their kind of person” fairly represented in the selected group, generating its “legitimacy” in the eyes of those citizens). These minipublics then deliberate to find solutions to public issues, approaches that would have broad appeal and value.

    But that’s just the “public” part of the vision. The “wisdom” dimension is another vital factor. For my purposes I’ve defined wisdom as “taking into account what needs to be taken into account to generate long-term broad benefit” – which is very similar to constitutionalism’s “the greatest good for the greatest number, over the long term, that is not excessively unjust or risky”. Extensive know-how about how to achieve this exists in fields like deliberative democracy, collective intelligence, systems science, cognitive psychology, ethics (philosophy), knowledge systems, informatics, communications theory, etc. Unfortunately, little work has been done researching how the insights, practices, and possibilities in these fields might be integrated with the minipublic logic in the previous paragraph to enable small groups – a dozen to several hundred people – to dependability generate demonstrably wiser decisions than our current system does. (My own meager contributions to this effort are described in my book and center on well-tested citizen deliberative councils that offer a good foundation for this exploration.)

    (I feel that individual talent, virtue, and wisdom, while important, aren’t nearly as key as assumed by “constitutionalism”, as long as the quality of the deliberative process is very high. That process dimension has been a particular focus of my work.)

    The final factor is “empowerment”. Even if small councils of randomly selected citizens are able to generate public wisdom, there remains the question of what impact that wisdom will have on actual policies, budgets, system structures, collective behaviors, etc. Most existing exercises of this type are merely advisory to existing powerholders (as with Denmark’s Consensus Conferences) or to the electorate (as in Oregon’s Citizen Initiative Review). I have not yet found examples where a random citizen body has actual decision-making power, as have been envisioned in various proposals for “citizen legislatures” (including one of my own in the above book, as a replacement for the U.S. House of Representatives). It is also possible that empowerment would better be envisioned as vast networks of citizens (informed by citizen deliberative councils) talking and taking action in a massively distributed forms of implementation, rather than through government machinery. Both approaches are potentially useful.

    My concern in all this is that we face potentially extinction-level issues that are being horribly mishandled by our current system. I’m trying to take seriously the need to have wise action routinely being taken by many individuals, groups and sectors in society – and asking how we might actually accomplish that. I believe that progress with that would not only salvage our collective future, but constitute the next evolutionary leap in democratic politics and governance and, indeed, civilization itself. And sortition is a fundamental aspect of that.


  5. Constitutionalism:

    >The decision-makers need at least enough expertise to know who the experts are who should be consulted, and we find most actual decision-makers lack even that much wisdom.

    That’s clearly true, but the argument for the wisdom of crowds (WoC) only pertains to aggregate judgement. In a law court we do not ask the jury to select their own expert witnesses or to prepare and present the case for the prosecution and defence. Information and advocacy are provided endogenously and this is the model that I am proposing for law-making. Of course securing “balanced information and advocacy” is a non-trivial problem, but we seem to manage more or less OK in the judicial system, so this would suggest that importing the same adversarial approach into the legislative system is the right approach. Our current political arrangements are adversarial but the system is corrupted, as Madison predicted, by combining the proposing and disposing function within the “same body of men”. The WoC literature would suggest that, given adequate information and balanced advocacy, the resulting decision will be no worse than that arrived at by experts or elected representatives. Given the prevailing democratic norms that’s about as good as it gets as our current method of selecting wise and virtuous political leaders doesn’t work. The need for a strict separation between the proposing and disposing function would suggest that sortition could only ever be one element in a mixed constitution.


  6. Tom,

    Might it be the case that the reason citizen juries are only advisory is on account of the need for representation? Whilst a stratified sample might *look* more like America than the current bunch of middle-age white male lawyers, everyone knows that small groups tend to be dominated by even smaller vocal minorities. This is particularly problematic when the groups are randomly selected from a non-volunteer pool (essential for a representative sample). This is why randomly-selected minipublics cannot be seen as “legitimate”, notwithstanding their (superficial) demographic appearance — in this case seeing is (quite rightly) not the same as believing. Elected representatives can at least claim that the majority of voters in their (gerrymandered) constituencies chose them, and so are perfectly entitled to treat randomly-selected deliberative groups as advisory focus groups. (It’s interesting to note that the ONLY example that I’m aware of where the decision of the allotted group was rubber-stamped and implemented was Fishkin’s infrastructure DP in Zegou, China. The Communist Party is the biggest commissioner of public opinion polls in China, so you can understand its enthusiasm for a well-informed deliberative poll.)

    If we want the decisions of randomly-selected groups to be implemented then we need to ensure that they are representative, and stratified random sampling is not enough. The representativity criterion would require selecting multiple samples of the same population to decide on a given issue and requiring that they each return the same outcome (otherwise which outcome would be deemed to be representative?). This has entailments for the design of the deliberative group — a minimum size (running into several hundred) and, more controversially, constraints on its deliberative mandate. The law of large numbers indicates that multiple samples of the same population would return the same outcome iff the factors that introduce variance (primarily differences in information and advocacy) were reduced or (ideally) eliminated. This would suggest that the deliberative role of randomly-selected citizens be limited to the silent weighing of arguments (the derivation of the word “deliberation” that Fishkin privileges). Although this might disappoint deliberative theorists, I can’t think of any other way to ensure that the deliberations of the microcosm will be an accurate surrogate for what everyone would think if adequately informed. The representativity requirement trumps “mere” epistemic factors in large societies, assuming that democracy is still the sine qua non.

    As for your appeal to the know-how of systems science, cognitive psychology etc, this is firmly within the realm of advocacy as none of these knowledge domains can claim a god’s-eye perspective on human affairs. One man’s “wisdom” is another man’s crock of ****. Just look at the paradigm shifts that have occurred within scientific psychology over the last century — why should we believe that cognitive psychology is any better than its behaviourist antecedents? By all means let’s have (competing) advocates from all the relevant fields of expertise, but we shouldn’t confuse this with the decision outcome. If it were possible for informatics to come up with the answers (the C.S. Pierce solution?) then we wouldn’t need to bother with tiresome distractions like politics.

    PS Looking back on your comment again, perhaps I’ve misunderstood your case for insights from the various knowledge domains. Are your perhaps referring here to the design of deliberative minipublics rather than affecting the decision outcome? If so could you let us have some more information as to how such insights can improve the epistemic wisdom of the minipublic without affecting its representativity? Would you agree that the latter function is important in order to secure the democratic consent of the vast majority of citizens who are (effectively) disenfranchised by the allotment procedure?


  7. Tom,

    To put it slightly differently, a deliberative group is really just a black box — there are no rules governing what the output is going to be. This may be an advantage (from an epistemic perspective) if the group is structured well and sufficiently cognitively diverse, but it cannot be representative, as every black box has the potential to deliver a different outcome, depending on which individuals happen to be included in the sample. This is the reason that minipublics with a full deliberative mandate can only be advisory focus groups; not so with a citizen jury with a mandate that is closely modelled on the trial jury. So you have to take your pick between a rich deliberative exchange and representativity, you can’t have your cake and eat it.


  8. I have started writing my two cents, but that became somewhat lengthy so I’m postponing that and for now I’ll just briefly make a few points, the first two being important, the others trivial: (1) “Whatever works” is an ill defined stance. Who is to decide what counts as “works”? (2) The only non-oligarchical response to “what counts as works” is that everybody’s interests (i.e., informed and considered opinions) count equally, which takes you to the “egalitarian ideal”. (3) That is exactly the reason that, and the extent to which, I hold the “egalitarian ideal”, since my personal point of departure was in fact “pragmatic”. (4) You recently were very interested in examples of my position changing following discussions in this forum. The transition from a naive “whatever works” position to a position that is explicitly based on an egalitarian principle was forced upon me by discussions here (thanks to all those who were involved). (5) I presume that Goodwin’s book that you are referring to is “Justice by Lottery”?

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  9. Yes, it is Justice by Lottery that I was referring to. [Fixed. -YG]

    I agree that “whatever works” is ill-defined; and also agree that the only way to operationalise it is by ensuring that everyone’s informed and considered opinions count equally. However in large modern societies this is impossible, on account of the problem of scale, hence the need to resort to representative samples and to vest all decision making in their hands. But this very equality will be compromised by individuals within the sample giving verbal expression to their opinions, because some opinions will have more “clout” than others and this will compromise the equality of those who have forfeited their suffrage via the allotment process. This does not bother deliberative democrats because their concern is the sovereignty of reasons, but it should be the principal concern of all those (including you and me) who are concerned about the representation of interests. I’m glad to see that we are showing signs of agreement on this issue. I’m also relieved to see that your ultimate goal is pragmatic (maximising the flourishing of each individual) as opposed to equality per se.

    The only issue that appears still to divide us is how to give voice to opinions in such a way as not to compromise equality. I would like to think that my approach is mathematical — that a vector 5 argument in favour of x should be counterbalanced by a vector 5 argument against x and that the role of the allotted sample is to judge between the two. If the judges are equal (one vote per person) and the advocates are also equal then this should be a procedure that appeals to egalitarians, especially as everybody has an equal vote in the appointment of advocates and equality of opportunity is also secured by making ho boulomenos as easy as possible. So however you approach it — pragmatically or ideally — you end up with the same conclusions.


  10. > I agree that “whatever works” is ill-defined; and also agree that the only way to operationalise it is by ensuring that everyone’s informed and considered opinions count equally.

    The long essay contrasting “whatever works” with “a theoretical project or an egalitarian ideal” seems to have no point, then.

    As for the formula that every issue has two sides I will refer you, again, to Alexander Cockburn’s Tedium Twins.


  11. Unless you let us read your essay, we are unable to judge whether it has any point. Regarding the Tedium Twins, nobody is seeking to argue that the dialectical approach to balanced information is not crude and reductive; the problem is how to find a better way. Relying on the a priori knowledge of a randomly-selected group of citizens on topics that they may not have even considered before is unlikely to be a way of securing balanced information. A group is perfectly entitled to self-inform in an imbalanced and ignorant manner if it so chooses; not so if that group is seeking to represent the vast majority of people who are disenfranchised by the process.


  12. Heh – I was referring to your own essay at the top of this page.

    As for “self-informing”, this is not a matter of formality, of entitlement. It is a matter of self-representation, of “pragmatics” as you call it. If it is accepted that small groups are better at representing their own interests than are outside elements, then allowing outside elements to impose their agendas and proposals on the allotted chamber implies a reduction in the ability of the chamber to represent its own interests, and, by extension, represent the interests of the population from which it is drawn.


  13. Yoram,

    >If it is accepted that small groups are better at representing their own interests than are outside elements

    No I don’t accept that, but then I only believe that well-informed adults who pass a minimum threshold of mental competence are better at representing their own interests than professionals with the relevant knowledge base. We all know loads of people who self-destruct and none of us are immune from mistaken judgments, otherwise there would be no such thing as regret. Representing interests (at individual, small-group and societal levels) involves a complex mixture of knowledge and judgment and the issue certainly cannot be resolved by a syllogism. Philosophical logical is a useful tool for deconstructing bad arguments but tells us nothing whatsoever about the state of the world, only the words that we use to describe it.

    >The transition from a naive “whatever works” position to a position that is explicitly based on an egalitarian principle was forced upon me by discussions here.

    That’s interesting, given that you have always been the strongest advocate of this position. Who were the correspondents who “forced” this on you and when did this Damascene event occur? For once I’d be happy to follow up the inevitable archival link as I can’t say I have any memory at all of the old pragmatic Yoram prior to his self-acknowledged conversion to dogmatism.


  14. There is a difference between complexity and complication. A well-structured system, no matter how complex, can be understood as a deterministic mapping between a set of stimuli and a set of responses. On the other hand, a complicated system, no matter how simple the task it performs, defies analysis and often produces unexpected results.

    An argument that I often seem to hear is that because the needs of our society are necessarily complex, our political systems are necessarily complicated, and a special class of person is needed to navigate the pathologies of politics in order to avoid unsatisfactory results. I, of course, disagree and propose that our political systems can be structured in such a way to maximize the probability that most people will make a satisfactory decision on a given issue.

    I think we were all created equal insofar as none of us asked to be born, and most of us are equal insofar as we go through life being treated as if we did. That aside, I don’t think Jefferson meant to say that all people are born with equal attributes, but rather they are born with an equal right to justice. And, as Samuel Butler said, “To embarrass justice by a multiplicity of laws, or to hazard it by confidence in judges, are the opposite rocks on which all civil institutions have been wrecked, and between which legislative wisdom has never yet found an open passage.”

    I’m not saying that our political systems and our laws can be made simple, but I believe they can be made uncomplicated, and therefore comprehensible to the majority of citizens, and so I believe that people of unequal qualities can wield equal political power, not only without all hell breaking loose, but with better outcomes than our current systems.


  15. Regarding which camp within this forum I would put myself, I do not know whether I would be more on the conservative or the radical wing, or even that I could paradoxically be more conservative and more radical than any of the stated positions.

    Firstly, what pulls me towards sortition is its simple consistency. If one believes in political equality, the most consistent position is to advocate for direct democracy or allotted assemblies–of course direct democracy is unworkable or undesirable on other grounds. That said, I remain open in theory to an aristocracy with elections, so long as candidates satisfy high qualifications of a “meritocracy,” e.g., only trained lawyers in good standing, with demonstrated knowledge of sociology, economics, geography, international relations, over 10 years of residence in the district they represent, over 50 years of age, and vouched for by 200 people for social empathy. Barring such a high standard, then an allotted assembly is the (second) best option or the best one if equality is the point of departure.

    Secondly, probably more than others on E by L, I would emphasize the economic justifications for allotment. Here I mean economic REASONING based on transaction costs, asymmetric information, adverse selection, and externalities (private gain vs social cost.) Briefly, the high transaction costs (time, money, policing, vetting) of elections, asymmetric information regarding what candidates will do once elected and faced with the temptations of power, and relatively long term in office (compared with an allotted body) create a dangerous situation of adverse selection. The same reason you cannot provide health insurance on a voluntary basis, is the same reason we ought not allow politicians to nominate themselves or run for office. Economists of all stripes are in agreement on this. The last economic-theoretic reason against elections is the concept of externalities. Given the high cost of reaching, let alone influencing, elected officials, only those with the most to gain/lose on an issue, e.g. a pork barrel project, can afford (are willing) to shout loud enough long enough to get their way. But the costs of such projects are born by a very large number of people each of whom pays relatively little of the price of the windfall for the special interest. Moreover, the loudest, most passionate are not always those with the common interest in mind.

    Lastly, I have 3 criticisms of this forum, two that are taken for granted and one which ought to be.
    Issue 1: majority rule. Why must it be the threshold? When we make decisions regarding anything of even moderate importance in our personal lives, we do not follow majority opinion of a survey of our friends but demand a higher standard. A mundane example illustrates the point. Say I am about to buy a product (a book) on Amazon and I only have the reviews to go by. I don’t make a decision based on a mere majority of reviews, but rather trust only those with an overwhelming recommendation from a sufficiently large sample. Perhaps here the statisticians can jump in with 1/sqrt(n). Likewise, a jury does not condemn a person, or find one liable, without a high standard of consensus. Why would an assembly (allotted or not) run according to a low and fickle standard?

    Issue 2: judicial and executive branches. Why restrict ourselves to a legislative assembly if the aim is to address “democratic deficits” or “political inequality”? After all, Athens had popular controls on both magistrate/administrators and on the courts.

    Issue 3: regarding initiation/proposal. The Gat/Bouricius camp should win this hands down. Let me quote Dryzek for the reason,
    “[D]iscourses in the Foucauldian sense do exist; so discourse in the Habermasian sense cannot wish them away.”
    If political parties, the media, well-funded interest groups are allowed to frame the issues, they will be dictating the discourse no matter the dispositive/amendment powers the citizen jury has in theory.

    Those are my thoughts for now, and I am grateful that an open, fertile discussion goes on here on Equality by Lot.


  16. Eric,


    I also tend to think that much of the complication of Western government is in fact an artifact of the system rather than a necessary result of the scale and sophistication of society. An oft-repeated example is the tax code, but this is probably just as true about other parts of the law which most citizens usually do not get exposed to as often. Beyond the usual suspects – the influence of narrow interests which stand to make a profit by various arcana in the system – the professionalization of government (in all its branches) promotes such complication.


  17. Ahmed,

    Regarding majority rule – the only alternative seems to be minority rule, which seems clearly inferior.

    Regarding popular control of the judicial and executive branches: what arrangements do you have in mind?

    For the executive functions, I believe that having officials hired, fired and monitored by an allotted body (as they nominally [but only nominally] are today in many parliamentary systems) is a democratic arrangement.

    For the judicial branch, I believe moving to something along the lines of the Athenian jury system is the way to go.


  18. Eric,

    >I propose that our political systems can be structured in such a way to maximize the probability that most people will make a satisfactory decision on a given issue.

    Are you referring here to persons (singular) or people, in the aggregate sense? If the former then what evidence would you bring to bear to support your claim? The wisdom of crowds literature only applies to the latter sense of “people”, and that is the literature that advocates of sortition rely on. Added to this, the word “satisfactory” (implying a good epistemic outcome) is insufficient for democrats (and difficult to operationalise outside of a democratic context), so the additional, and non-trivial problem is the design of a political system that puts the power in the hands of “most people”. This would, indeed, be the claim of majoritarian liberal democracy, but how do we achieve that via sortition? IMHO this requires us to make a number of distinctions — primarily between policy initiation/advocacy (the work of persons) and judgement (the work of people). Sortition is applicable to the latter, but the former requires other mechanisms. This may appear to be introducing an unnecessary level of complexity but it is a factor in every political system, not excluding classical Athenian demokratia.

    Aside from that I agree regarding the need to make our laws comprehensible to the majority of citizens. And whatever we may mean exactly by equality, the practical challenge is to design a political system that maintains the equality of all persons — including the vast majority of citizens who fail to be elected, irrespective of the mechanism (voting or allotment).


  19. Ahmed,

    >Regarding which camp within this forum I would put myself, I do not know whether I would be more on the conservative or the radical wing, or even that I could paradoxically be more conservative and more radical than any of the stated positions.

    I’m inclined to think that conservativism–radicalism and theory–pragmatism are independent axies (or whatever the plural of axis is). Although I count myself as a political conservative I took great pleasure on Friday at the University of London sortition workshop in lambasting the Blind Breakers (Dowlen, Stone et al.) for their conservative and weak use of the lot to prop up the stinking carcase of electoralism. Although conservatives like to see themselves as pragmatists, Yoram has criticised me in the past for adhering to electoral “dogma”, so it’s clearly not a case of a single axis. I suppose if I can offend radicals and conservatives at the same time I must be doing something right (and this would place me in the same camp as you).

    As for your proposal for aristocratic meritocracy, do we really want to (continue to be) ruled by lawyers? Surely there are better ways of uncovering merit. And I think we can make intrinsic and consequential arguments for allotment, rather than just relying on the need to reduce transaction costs. The intrinsic case for allotment is freedom and equality, but this (paradoxically) introduces severe constraints on the mandate of the allotted group (in order to preserve the freedom and equality of the excluded majority). The consequential argument is for the aggregate crowd-wisdom of a cognitively-diverse sample. Despite my appeal to fundamental norms like freedom and equality, this is still a pragmatic approach because, as Berlin pointed out, there are always trade-offs involved between any two social goods.

    >Why would an assembly (allotted or not) run according to a low and fickle standard?

    Majority rule is only a low and fickle standard because it is usually associated with rational ignorance, but this is the result of large-scale preference elections, not the majoritarian principle. If we want to adopt a higher standard then this refers to the quality of the advocacy, not the decision mechanism. If we want a higher standard then we need to ensure better advocacy, and this is the role of the meritocracy that you (rightly) praise. Given that the role of the allotted assembly is to represent the informed judgment of the whole political community, it’s hard to see how this can be done in any other way than via a simple majority vote.

    >After all, Athens had popular controls on both magistrate/administrators and on the courts.

    But we do have popular control of the courts, as it’s the jury that decides whether or not to convict. Added to that most of us advocating allotment for the legislature agree that the executive should be held to account by the sovereign legislature, via the means of the censure/no-confidence motion.

    Regarding Issue 3, I don’t understand Dryzek’s reference to Foucault, perhaps you could explain. We are all aware of the danger of the proposal mechanism being hijacked by elites, that’s why I would now support Robert’s case for a low e-petition threshold combined with Terry’s suggestion for allotted agenda councils. I’m puzzled also how you can combine Dryzek’s view with your earlier statement regarding the need to keep the proposing and disposing functions distinct.


  20. Eric,

    I appreciate your distinction between a system that is inherently complex, but unnecessarily complicated…But these words are generally used as synonyms… Is this distinction something that is accepted within some particular academic field, or your own concept.


  21. Terry,

    I did my best to begin by definitions, so that my argument would stand or fall on its own.


    I thought I was pretty careful to state my beliefs as beliefs and to make proposals, rather than claims.


  22. Eric,

    OK, but Terry and myself were just asking you to clarify some of those proposals and the words that you use — in Terry’s case your claim that there is a difference between complexity and complicated and in mine whether you were referring to persons (plural) or people (in aggregate) and how we ascertain what is “satisfactory” in politics.


  23. *** Keith Sutherland distinguishes among the motivations of the kleroterians the pragmatic ones, and two theoretical ones: one founded on (political) equality, another one founded on the advantages of « arationality ». I will quote at least another one : the idea of collective liberty.
    *** Speaking of the idea of collective liberty, we must evidently mention Rousseau. Rousseau was thinking only of small States and quasi-static societies ; for him collective Liberty (= the rule of the General Will) was assured by the legislative power of a People’s Assembly (sortition being eventually used for judicial and executive offices). In modern states, even with tele-democracy, it is impossible to give the legislative function to general voting, because the legislative task in complex and dynamic societies would require (with serious deliberation) more time than 24 hours/day. Sortition is the one solution.
    *** Cornelius Castoriadis (dead in 1997) was a recent philosopher elaborating upon the idea of collective liberty, and democracy as « the self-institution of the collectivity by the collectivity ». He favored sortition, but, as far as I know, without going up to a model founding the people’s sovereignty on sortition. This can be linked to his neglect of the Second Athenian Democracy and its institutional progress. But sortition is often positively quoted in his texts, and it is only one step to a full model of democracy-through-sortition.
    *** For persons of the 21st century, used to the concept of « representative sample », going from the ideal of dêmokratia as collective liberty to a political system of democracy-through-sortition will be very natural, and I am convinced that most minds in this line of thought will end « sortitionist ».
    *** Let’s note that in the one global theoretical text written by an an Athenian democrat that we possess, the speech of Theseus in the « Suppliant Women » by Euripides (v 399-462), the principles of (political) equality and (political) liberty are both quoted as bases for dêmokratia, actually in interwined way.
    *** I will add that I am not sure there is always a clear divide between « pragmatic » and « idealistic » points of view . Let’s consider a person who is deeply shocked by the weight of lobbies pushing for narrow interests and preventing any coherent policy. Is this « pragmatic concern » ? or « idealistic model of a sovereignty able to develop a rational policy » ?


  24. Nicely put Andre, pragmatic- and theory-driven approaches are clearly only ideal types. An example of the latter approach is “the lottery has a certain unique property (arationality, equality — take your pick) so how can we implement this unique property”. By contrast the starting point of pragmatists is the case you outline in your last paragraph (the deeply shocked citizen) and I note she is shocked by a variety of things (narrow interests and lack of coherence) rather than starting from a doctrinaire theory of equality or arationality.

    Perhaps a better way of putting it would be pluralism rather than pragmatism in that a number of theoretical properties are involved, including impartiality (arationality), epistemic outcomes (coherent policy), equality (narrow interests) and collective liberty (the one I forgot!). My reading of the Social Contract is that Rousseau preferred an elected judicial/executive, but was certainly prepared to consider sortition for this role. Although he didn’t consider sortition for the people’s assembly but did make a throwaway remark regarding the possibility of geographical rotation for larger states than the likes of Corsica or Geneva.

    It’s interesting to speculate as to how he would have viewed sortition for the legislature if the idea of the representativity of a statistical sample were available at the time (NB: his stricture was against representatives [persons] not representativity per se). Would it be possible to stretch his argument for collective self-rule to the decisions of a statistical sample? If the role of the sovereign assembly is to identify the general will this is a cognitive function and could equally well be done by a small group of people (or, in principle, even one person). I think his argument against this would be the (pragmatic) need for all citizens to assume “ownership” of all decisions — in particular laws they happened to vote against (the alternative being a police state). But this is not possible in practice in large poleis, hence the need for statistical representation via sortition.

    But if you had multiple samples that all reached the same decision, would not all citizens consent to this discovery of the general will (in the sense that it would make no difference to the outcome whether or not they were personally included in the sample)? Rousseau was deeply pessimistic regarding the practical feasibility of his project, so those of us with pragmatic concerns have a duty to find a way of achieving collective liberty that might actually work, even if this is at the expense of a strict adherence to Rousseauvian principles. His argument for the enslavement of the English is that they alienated their freedom to other persons (representatives), but reliance on a process (statistical representativity) is slightly difference. That’s why I insist that allotted persons are not representatives, representativity being an aggregate property of the collective (the appropriate level for collective liberty.


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