Democracy, participation and sortition

A letter I wrote to Dave Meslin:

Hi Dave,

My name is Yoram Gat. I recently viewed your TED talk “The antidote to apathy” and found it relevant to my own political thoughts and activity and wanted to see if I could interest you in those.

To start with, I share what may be called your democratic outlook: contrary to conventional wisdom people are not inherently apathetic, selfish or lazy. People respond to the situations in which they are. If they have no effective ways to make an impact, they will not bother making silly gestures pretending that they are meaningful. This manifests itself as “rational ignorance” or “rational passivity”. Such behavior is then being misrepresented as apathy.

However, I don’t think the remedy that you are offering is realistic. Making government announcements more readable and letting newspaper readers know what the URLs of the websites of politicians are would be good but it would not make significant change in politics. The effort of reading the uninviting announcement or of finding the website by going to a search engine is only a very small part of the overall effort involved in making any kind of impact. Thus making that first step a little easier would not significantly reduce the effort involved in having political impact. In fact, due to simple arithmetic considerations, the average person can only have a small impact on any policy that affects many people – we can’t all be high powered decision makers. This disproportion between the effort of trying to make an impact and the expected result is inherent in large scale politics and this will unavoidably turn most people away from getting involved in most issues.

It is therefore inevitable that power would be concentrated in few hands. The only question is whether those few hands will represent the general population or narrow elite interests. Our society relies on elections to select decision makers and this mechanism by its competitive nature guarantees that government will serve elite interests. Democratizing government must involve moving away from elections.

The democratic alternative to elections is sortition: selecting government officials (e.g., parliament members) as a statistical sample of the population. This way government will really be by the people and therefore for the people. When decision makers are a statistical sample of the population then they can be expected to pursue public policy which represents their ideas and their interests in the same way that when decision makers are members of the elite they represent the ideas and interests the elite.

I hope you find this idea intriguing and I would be very interested in your response.

Best regards,

6 Responses

  1. Hi Yoram, I was very inspired by your reply to Dave. So much so that I used your reply as the basis for my next letter to the editor in support of reforming the Canadian Senate by selecting Senators by sortition (you can read my letter titled Where Do You Stand at: Below is first draft of my next letter.

    I believe in democracy and contrary to conventional wisdom people are not inherently apathetic, selfish or lazy. Rather all humans simply respond to their situation and surrounding circumstances.

    In our current nation based political system the impact of any one voter is steadily decreasing. In serving only the nation the system performed reasonably well from 1945 to 1980. It is however becoming increasingly irrelevant in addressing the complex challenges of our new global world. A system designed to support nation building cannot be expected to solve problems with solutions that require action beyond its boundaries and jurisdiction.

    The average voter has already figured out that their vote in fact cannot make a difference and this realization may appear as ignorance, passivity and apathy. Like an unsatisfied customer “voting with his feet” voters are increasingly not coming back to the polling booth. This is not ignorance, passivity or apathy but rational behaviour in light of the voter’s new situation and surrounding circumstances.

    Voters are demanding a brand new system designed to respond to the challenges of the new global world. They aren’t interested in spiffy new versions of an old system that was designed for a world that no longer exists.

    The average person can only ever have a small impact on any policy that affects many people – we can’t all be decision makers. The dissonance created in the futile effort of each individual trying to make an impact and the expected result is inherent in a nation based system faced with global challenges.

    In a global world power must be concentrated in even fewer hands than a nation building world. The only question is who will those few hands represent. The current system employs elections to select decision makers. But this mechanism simply by its exclusive, expensive and competitive nature guarantees that the few hands chosen will inevitably come from a distinct subset of the general population – those with the interest, aptitude and means to get elected.

    A global based democratic system would randomly select decision makers from a statistical sample of the population. Randomly selected decision makers can be expected to make public policy that represents the ideas and interests of their group (general population) in exactly the same way that decision makers elected primarily from members of their subset of the population represent the ideas and interests of their group.

    Yours in justice,
    Kevin Mooney


  2. Hi Kevin,

    Thanks for sharing your draft. Any responses to previous letters?


  3. Hey Yoram. Just one and it was supportive. I intend to keep pushing this and may even run in next federal election just to get this our there for discussion. Your comments and the Equality by Lot blog have been very helpful to date and I am sure will continue to be a great resource going forward. Thanks, Kevin


  4. Best of luck! Keep up the good fight and don’t forget to let us know how things go.


  5. Etienne Chouard arguing for real democracy and sortition at a debate in Marseille with 4 politicians! Fun!


  6. Hi Eddie – thanks for the link.

    Since I don’t speak French, I don’t get much of what’s going on. I did catch the woman on panel saying something about “démocratie athénienne”. Do you know who she is? What is she saying?


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