Un-vote for a new America

A 1976 book named Un-vote for a new America by Ted Becker, Paul Szep and Dwight Ritter* offers, among other ideas for political reform, the idea of using sortition for selecting half the members of the U.S. Congress:

[I]f the reader makes even the most superficial survey of the world’s “democracies” particularly zeoring in on the national legislatures, it will be obvious that they are all dominated by elites, business or political. All of them claim to represent the people; obviously they don’t. They merely represent the elites’ view of what is in the “public interest” and we are told, correspondingly, that what they decide to be the public interest is, ipso facto, the public interest.

The big question is whether there is any system imaginable that would permit the people to be represented in proportion to their true numbers in the population. For example, there are ethnic minorities in just about every nation, and almost all of them are either unrepresented in the national legislature or very poorly represented. Thus, they get the bones and feathers. Nowhere are women closely represented to their true numbers in the population. Thus, many laws favor men over women. Young people are represented nowhere near their weight in the population. They fight the wars the older folks declare and profit by. Workers, the honest to goodness blue-collar kind (not union leaders), rarely find themselves in national legislatures. Radicals are gerrymandered into insignificance everywhere. And so forth, and so on, ad infinitum.

[…] The only way the American people will have their truly proportionate viewpoints represented in their national legislature will be by a system of selecting their representatives–a good number of them–in a national lottery. Choose Congress by lot? Have a random house? You bet.

Why is it that important life and death decisions can be made by the people serving on grand juries and petty juries, but decisions on how much money should be spent on child care centers and defense spending are reserved for their “representatives”? Are the people really incapable of deciding whether to invade Angola or whether or not America ought to really consider drastic methods of conserving energy? Are people too stupid to determine whether or not corporate taxes should go down while Social Security taxes go up? Oh, come now.

What this comes down to is whether the American people are going to keep swallowing the line that 50 to 60 percent lawyers, 20 percent millionaires, and a clique of professional pols really grasp these problems better than the average American. It’s high time for the worm to turn. We believe, along with Alvin Toffler, that “you don’t have to be an expert to know what you want.” We believe that somewhere between 50 and 60 percent of the American Congress should be chosen at random from the American people in much the same way they are pressed into military service through drafts when they are deemed necessary.


The remaining 40 to 50 percent of Congress would still be elected. This would allow the Elite to maintain an important say in what policies emanate from the national legislature. […]

[…] We might also stagger both processes [sortition and election] like we do at present in the Senate so that one-third of the random half and one-third of the elected half are chosen every two years. To help guarantee their incorruptibility, our new Congresspeople out to be paid very well, more than the present salary schedule permits. Moreover, there should be a one-year pre-office period for on-the-job study and training. The newcomers can take courses, sit in on various committees of their interest, and get to know their way around the bureaucracy in Washington before assuming their new roles.

* I learned of this book from Peter Stone’s introduction to Callenbach and Phillips’s A citizen legislature.

25 Responses

  1. I cannot say I am overly impressed with this idea, I still contend that any system of government grounded in sortition needs to be designed from the bottom up. Using it as a band-aid on existing systems is a recipe for failure.


  2. Agree. Rather than just saying let’s have some elected reps and some allotted reps, or one house elected and the other allotted (as in O’Leary and C&P), it’s much better to think seriously as to what each mechanism does and allocate each one to the various functions of democratic representation. The primary functions that Hanna Pitkin locates in her book are “acting for” and “standing for” and these map pretty well on to what election and sortition are, respectively, capable of doing. Only persons can perform speech acts (the currency of legislative bodies) and the only democratic mandate that a statistical process like sortition could possibly deliver applies at the collective level. What you would end up with, otherwise, is the modern equivalent of the Tower of Babel.

    On top of this you would have the practical problem that the elected representatives would claim a popular mandate, so you would end up with the paralysis that characterises upper chambers selected by patronage and/or heredity. Allotted persons could not claim a mandate as, individually, they only stand for themselves. Collectively they stand for the whole nation, so their aggregate votes could indeed claim a popular mandate.


  3. Yoram,

    Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I will probably track down a copy. This is reasonable, creative thinking. I disagree with Robert and Keith. I am not one for all or none solutions. There is a greater possibility of enlisting people to a cause when change is gradual rather than extreme. Nonetheless should such a system be adopted in the US it would be a dramatic improvement for the better.


  4. […] Un-vote for a new America (equalitybylot.wordpress.com) […]


  5. >I am not one for all or none solutions.

    Neither are Robert or myself, (I advocate a mixture of sortition, election, direct democracy and appointment on merit). All we were suggesting was the need to think through the proposal properly, in order to see what sortition could bring to the table. There is a tendency to view sortition as simply an alternative method to election for appointing political officers, but that’s clearly not the case (although it may have been true in antiquity). Election is a choice mechanism, whereby the most popular candidates (for whatever reason) are selected. Sortition (in large modern polities) is completely different, because it mirrors the existing society and no preferences are indicated. This has huge entailments for the role that sortition can play, so it doesn’t make sense to say let’s just have some elected and some allotted representatives as this is comparing chalk with cheese. As to whether or not it would be a “dramatic improvement for the better”, the truth is we have no idea.


  6. Interesting! Do you know who the author of the article is?


  7. > any system of government grounded in sortition needs to be designed from the bottom up.

    Designed by whom? What procedures would the designing body use? Who would design the procedures of the designing body?


  8. >Designed by whom? What procedures would the designing body use? Who would design the procedures of the designing body?

    My (entirely predictable) response is that it should be designed by people who know what they are talking about (political theorists, constitutional experts etc) and then subjected to the approval of our existing democratic institutions. Needless to say the suggestion that expert knowledge cannot be reduced to elite interests will run foul of the sub-Marxist epistemology implied by your three question marks.


  9. Sub-Marxist this or super-Marxist that, you are not addressing the issue – the need for bootstrapping the rules.

    According to you, the rules of decision-making are crucial – starting from the wrong rules, there is no way to proceed toward the correct rules. But if the rules matter so much, and the current rules are not serviceable, then what set of rules will be used when setting the correct rules? What rules, for example, will be used to make the decision that a certain set of experts will design the rules?

    It appears that there is just no way to get from here to there without making a leap of faith that relying on the current rules there is one way or another to reach the correct rules. But if we make this leap of faith, then allowing the allotted delegates to set the rules themselves is at least as well motivated as any other procedure. In particular, if you can convince the public that we should rely on a certain set of experts to design the rules, then you should be able to convince a sample of the population that this is the right thing to do.


  10. Political institutions evolve on the basis of existing practice (through the usual channels) and expertise is assessed by peer review. The public (or a sample thereof) has no part to play in this process but, given democratic norms, all proposals are subject to the approval of the majority of their elected representatives (even if the end result is constitutional arrangements in which they play a diminished role). This is not without precedent, remember that the first Athenian democracy voted to abolish itself.

    That’s how it works, I know you don’t like it because you view all elected representatives and experts as poodles of shadowy elite interests, hence your wish to start from ground zero. Putting it the other way round, you are seeking to allow an all-powerful allotted chamber (your preferred end product) to determine the rules of its own existence before the case for such a chamber has been democratically approved. This is what the philosopher Dan Dennett would describe as a skyhook.


  11. > That’s how it works

    Appealing to existing practice contradicts your own position since it is you (and Robert) who are claiming that current procedures must be changed.

    Let me rephrase the difficulty: according to you, we must set new rules somehow. Yet, according to you, the current rules are so inadequate that they cannot be used in order to set new rules. How then are new rules to be set if not by a procedure using the existing rules?


  12. “works” is not a binary concept (except, perhaps to a software engineer or a diehard revolutionary). Even if rules are sub-optimal, nevertheless they are the basis for ongoing evolutionary change.

    >How then are new rules to be set if not by a procedure using the existing rules?

    That is precisely my point. Nowhere have I claimed that current rules are so inadequate as to be of any use in setting new rules. Robert’s view (if I understand it correctly) is that serious thinking is required to understand the best way of combining election, sortition and appointment on merit. By analogy, this is the scientific approach to cooking as opposed to Jamie Oliver’s chuck in a bit of this, a bit of that and bish-bosh you end up with the perfect meal.


  13. In 1776 the people of Pennsylvania were fed up with a government that ignored their needs and wishes. What did they do? Four thousand of them gathered in the State House courtyard and began organizing a shadow government. Soon the shadow government overtook the established government. A new constitution was written.

    There was no pushing and shoving, no lying and manipulation. Not a shot was fired. There were no leaders, “famous” people, no “experts” overseeing the unfolding of events. It was a democratic process that established a new government, the most democratic the North American continent has yet to see. Experts are anathema to democracy. They are the handmaidens to oligarchy.


  14. If it were to be a “democratic” process then the modern equivalent of your 4,000 citizens would be hundreds of millions. I don’t think they would all fit into the state house courtyard. Of course what you really mean by democratic is a small number of activists.


  15. If the rules are a usable starting point, then the allotted can simply start with those and then redesign the rules as they see fit. They will surely be in a better position than we are to do it right.


  16. Arthur,
    Can you give me a link to a summary of this PA history? I’ve never heard of this event. (though I know some exciting stories about the armed rebellion and competing governments under two different constitutions seeking recognition as the legitimate government of Rhode Island in 1841-2).


  17. Yoram,

    >They will surely be in a better position than we are to do it right.

    Not sure who “we” refers to. As you know my view is that “we” should be people who know what they are talking about, as opposed to folk who have absolutely no experience of constitutional design (although the final outcome should be subject to approval by the representatives of the demos). Your job (I believe) is the design of computer systems and software, do you believe that this would be better achieved by a randomly-selected minipublic as opposed to highly-trained software engineers (such as yourself)? Computers and constitutions would both qualify as complex systems and those of us who work in the latter field get annoyed by the double standards that are being applied to different fields of systems engineering. If I were to opine on some arcane aspect of computer systems design my views would be rightly greeted with contempt by you and your peers, so why do you refuse to reciprocate in the case of those of us who have spent decades labouring away in some corresponding field in the humanities or social sciences? You always scare-quote “experts” in the latter, do you apply the same standards to your own knowledge domain? Would you have randomly-selected people redesign the rules of some programming language “as they see fit”?

    (NB: I still consider a randomly-selected minipublic as the best way of determining the outcome of debates on everyday political decisions [where ordinary people can bring their experience to bear]; what we are discussing here is the operating system.)


  18. Terry,

    The only summary I know of is Chapter 11 of my book, “Democracy Affirmed: The People of Pennsylvania Write a Constitution.” My primary resource was J. Paul Selsam, “The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy.” I hope this is helpful. I think this is a very important episode in American history for those of us looking for recent examples of democracy at work.


  19. As always, Keith, you keep making arguments that have been refuted over and over.

    In addition, as is often the case, your arguments, are not only wrong, they would be useless even if they weren’t. For you are still not addressing the issue of bootstrapping: what procedure is going to be used in order to authorize your chosen group of experts to set the rules?


  20. >what procedure is going to be used in order to authorize your chosen group of experts to set the rules?

    Our existing representative institutions (parliament, congress etc). That’s why I continue to entreat you not to call elected politicians a bunch of self-seeking scumbags (and also to retain an important role for them in your Brave New World).


  21. So, according to you, the existing rules are a good starting point for elected officials to design the rules of an allotted chamber, but they are not a good starting point for the allotted chamber to design its own rules.

    Unsurprisingly, it turns out then that the whole discussion about rules is a red herring. Your concern is not about the rules at all. Rather, it is about who holds power. As always, your argument is simply a rationalization of the fact that, under any conditions and any rules, you trust the existing political elite more than you trust a representative sample of the population. And therefore, as always, your proposals are aimed at arranging things so that any allotted body is in effect controlled by elite institutions.


  22. Yoram,

    There are different forms of bootstrapping. My concern is how to get from where we are to where we want to go without taking to the barricades. As a Burkean conservative, I view our existing political institutions, that have evolved over hundreds of years, as more legitimate than an imagined set of institutions derived from a philosophical first principle (in this case the principle of arithmetical equality). I don’t think our current arrangements are optimal (if I did then I wouldn’t waste my time on this blog), but they are all we (currently) have. Living in large political groups necessitates representation (on this we agree), but representation takes a variety of forms (on this we disagree). Election may well invoke the principle of distinction but elected officials are our representatives in that the majority of voters have expressed a preference for the judgment/beliefs of certain persons over those of others. As such elected officials have to be the final arbiters of any proposals for constitutional change, having taken advice from a wide range of expert opinion in political theory and constitutional practice. This is taking a realist approach to the issue of who holds power, but conservatives like myself do assume a loose correlation between power and legitimacy (unlike Marxists who view political power purely in terms of economic factors — the rich’n powerful 1% oppressing the 99%).

    The reason I refer to your preferred bootstrapping procedure as a skyhook is because you are using your pre-defined telos (an allotted assembly) to determine its own existence. This is a form of causality that made sense to Aristotle, but has been out of favour since the time of the scientific revolution (Marxism, as a secularised form of Christian teleology, being the obvious exception).


  23. One bootstrap method: Not likely, but theoretically possible and legal.

    Some U.S. states allow for constitutional amendments by means of a petition initiative to hold a referendum on a single amendment. It would be legally possible for a group of activists to imitate a petition drive at a point in time when politicians are held in particularly low esteem, that required periodic constitutional conventions using a lottery, rather than election, to fill the seats of the convention. If this amendment passed the referendum, that first allotted constitutional convention could call on experts to assist in writing a constitutional amendment that replaced an elected legislature with an allotted one, which would then go to a referendum.

    In other words, there are legal routes, using existing rules that completely side-step all elected legislators.


  24. Terry,

    Although that might be theoretically possible in some US states, this still strikes me as something of a skyhook. Why do you assume that a randomly-selected constitutional convention might seek to replace election with sortition (as opposed to a myriad of possible political reforms)? I’m also puzzled that sortition is frequently used for formal and technical issues (such as framing a constitution) that are far removed from people’s day-to-day experiences, unlike the bread-and-butter issues that legislators deal with on a regular basis, where collective wisdom has a far more obvious role to play. And why do you assume that elected representatives would be implacably hostile to the introduction of sortition as part of a balanced constitutional settlement (particularly if their own vocation were held in low esteem at the time)? I believe your own experience in Australia would contradict this.

    I’d still like Yoram to explain the difference, in principle, between engineering a constitution and engineering a computer operating system. Both processes require both hands-on experience and expert knowledge of multiple knowledge domains. In the latter case the public has a clear choice between competing offerings — OSX, Windows, Android etc., just as in the former case the public (or, strictly speaking, its elected representatives) had a clear choice between competing Federalist and Anti-Federalist visions. What’s the difference?


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