Constitution of Venice 1268

We have discussed the use of sortition by the Republic of Venice that evolved until it was stabilized in 1268. However, although we have commentaries on it from authors like Krag and Adams, it would be useful to have the text of their “constitution” of that time. The problem is that this consists of a number of statutti mixed with other legislation, and I have not yet found anywhere that the relevant ones have been extracted and collected into some semblance of a constitution as we tend to understand the term.

If anyone has a knowledge of 1268 legal Italian and access to the statutes, it would be a useful scholarly effort to gather the relevant ones into a single document we can put online. Anyone up to the job?

The Jury’s Still Out

I recently completed jury service and wanted to share with this forum how it has affected my faith in the potential of randomly-selected legislative juries. I was impressed by the overall impartiality of the system – three sortitions in total (initial random selection from the electoral role, sortition from the jury pool (c.40) to a particular trial, followed by sortition from 20 potential jurors to the panel of 12 in the courtroom itself). I was pleased (and surprised) when the trial judge informed us that we were the judge of the facts, his job was merely to instruct us in the law. I was also impressed by the sample of citizens selected — it struck me as a reasonable cross-section of the general public, a wide variety of ages and backgrounds and a good level of general intelligence (much higher than I anticipated).

What about the deliberations and the verdict? The defendant was a director of a failed company who was accused of intent to defraud his creditors. Complex fraud trials are challenging for randomly-selected juries but this one only required a basic understanding of accounting terminology (balance sheets, trading P&L, solvency etc.). The jury deliberations, however, lasted for a couple of days and in the end we delivered a majority verdict which did not achieve the level of consensus required (10:2), so the judge stood us down, leaving the prosecution to decide whether or not to institute a retrial (at considerable public expense).
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Sortition on BBC4 Radio PM programme

Today (27 Nov 2013) in a series about reforming democracy, a listener proposes picking MPs by lot. A panel of Bogdanor, Runciman and Clare Fox sympathise but don’t think it would solve anything.

It starts at 25 mins in, and runs for about 5 mins at:

[BBC sometimes does not allow access outside UK]

Madison on mass politics and on the dangers of a representative chamber

The Federalist Papers, No. 48:

In a democracy, where a multitude of people exercise in person the legislative functions, and are continually exposed, by their incapacity for regular deliberation and concerted measures, to the ambitious intrigues of their executive magistrates, tyranny may well be apprehended, on some favorable emergency, to start up in the same quarter. But in a representative republic, […] where the legislative power is exercised by an assembly, which is inspired, by a supposed influence over the people, with an intrepid confidence in its own strength; which is sufficiently numerous to feel all the passions which actuate a multitude, yet not so numerous as to be incapable of pursuing the objects of its passions, by means which reason prescribes; it is against the enterprising ambition of this department that the people ought to indulge all their jealousy and exhaust all their precautions.

Interests, ideas and idealism

In a recent post Terry Bouricius argued that democratic politics is all about establishing a ‘congruity of interests’ between representatives and the represented. This has been an oft-repeated trope on this blog, for example Yoram’s affirmation of Terry’s post:

representatives who naturally, without external incentives, seek to represent the interests of constituents because they are congruous with their own . . . [=] alignment of interests

Since Marx’s inversion of Hegelian idealism (aided and abetted by Freudian psychology and neo-Darwinist biology), it has been fashionable to reduce ideation to (economic) interests, unconscious mental processes and ‘selfish’ genes. Beliefs and other ideational factors are all just so much epiphenomenal froth, that can be adequately explained in terms of interests alone. This is particularly true in the field of politics, where elected representatives only represent the interests of the rich and powerful; ideologies are just the systematic aggregation of interests and the notion that politicians might even be motivated by ideals (changing society for the better, irrespective of their own interests) is just plain naive. The existence of an autonomous field of enquiry called ‘political theory’ is equally laughable. Or so the story goes.
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EPSA Call for Papers–Political Theory

The call for papers has gone out for the 4th Annual General Conference of the European Political Science Association. It will be held in Edinburgh, Scotland, on June 19-21, 2014. This is the first year that the conference has had a political theory category for proposals. I have been asked to serve as head of the political theory section, and so I am anxious to see political theory make a big splash at the conference. Obviously, I don’t think the conference will be amenable to ten sortition-related panels, but one sortition-related panel is a different matter…

The proposal submission deadline is December 13, 2013. For further details, or to propose a paper and/or panel, please visit And if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask. Let’s talk.

Accountability and Sortition

In some sense, sortition side-steps the entire issue of “accountability,” in that none of the “legislators” on an allotted jury have any constituents to hold them accountable. For legislators, “accountability” assumes a division of interests or preferences between constituents and legislators, typically with elections (and the threat of removal) being used like a leash to keep the legislators in line, and prevent them from straying too far.

Jane Mansbridge of Harvard, who became president of the American Political Science Association in 2012 and authored the book “Beyond Adversary Democracy,” points out two approaches to accountability. The first is the “sanction” model of accountability (the dog leash). The other is selection of representatives who naturally, without external incentives, seek to represent the interests of constituents because they are congruous with their own.

Sortition expressly seeks to prevent “accountability” of legislators to the rationally ignorant, ill-informed, and fleeting preferences of the general population, while also preventing accountability to political and monied elites. I want my legislators to act as I would act if well informed, not as my current superficial understanding may suggest. So, with regards to legislative performance, sortition needs a different term than “accountability,” as a measure of its performance.

However, I think accountability absolutely IS the appropriate term for discussing the performance of the executive functions of government. But the accountability should be to allotted juries that are well-informed, rather than merely to an ill-informed and media-manipulated citizenry. Here sortition can play an important role in constituting juries for constantly monitoring the performance of government, with the job of hiring and firing executives.

Russell Brand doesn’t vote

A small media disturbance has been caused by Russell Brand‘s anti-voting message. Jeremy Paxman scolds him on TV with the usual threadbare formulas of electoralism. Robert Webb re-joins Labour. Brand has even found the occasional supporter.

I particularly like this:

I know, I know my grandparents fought in two world wars (and one World Cup) so that I’d have the right to vote. Well, they were conned.

I only wish that when Paxman asked Brand what his alternative to the current system is, he would have replied: “sortition!” It seemed like Brand himself wished he had something concrete to say. Please consider writing to Brand to tell him what he has been missing. He could be the high-profile champion sortition needs.

How could Sortition fix any of this?

An excellent piece in today’s (London) Independent on Sunday on the impotence of not just citizens, but politicians and even Prime Ministers in the face of global economic power

So what is the point of replacing powerless politicians with citizen’s juries?