“Academic Choice Theory” in Political Science?

There is a rather brilliant satire on the Naked Capitalism blog about how the incentives (positive feedback loops) create a systemic bias among economists to expound theories that support the status quo or the biggest wallets. Sortition and rotation of economists is suggested as a remedy.

What kinds of proposals could help to minimize value destruction by academic economists? You are quite right that from the point of view of the public this issue looms large. Even in most Western democracies, more than half of the total GDP is allocated according to principles promoted by agents subject to Academic Choice dynamics, i.e. economists. One simple remedy to the large negative externalities generated through their academic entrepreneurship could be to shrink the size of the sector of academic economists.

Another approach is indicated by the game theoretic insight that winning strategies in competitive games usually involve a random element. Following this principle, ever since antiquity trials have been decided by juries who are chosen by lot. We should therefore strongly consider periodically repopulating economics departments with people selected at random.

I wonder how many political scientists see a kind of “academic choice theory” in operation in the profession?

How Athenians Managed the Political Unaccountability of Citizens

Recent discussions on this blog have focused on the need for ongoing political accountability in any sortition-based political system, so I thought this article by Farid Abdel-Nour and Brad L. Cook in the current issue of History of Political Thought would be of interest:

Abstract: The political unaccountability of ordinary citizens in classical Athens was originally raised as a challenge by ancient critics of democracy. In tension with that criticism, the authors argue that attention to the above challenge is consistent with a defence of Athenian democratic politics. In fact, ordinary citizens’ function in the Assembly and courts implicitly included the burden of justifying their own political decisions to an imagined authority, as if they could be brought to account. By means of practices that encouraged this self-scrutiny, Athenians marked the challenge of citizens’ political unaccountability as an unavoidable but manageable aspect of their democracy.

The authors argue that ‘one type of practice placed citizens’s political decisions under the external gaze of other citizens, another placed them under the gaze of the gods, and yet another placed them under the gaze of an internal imagined audience’ (p. 445).
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I pester George Monbiot once more

About a year ago I wrote to George Monbiot about sortition. At the risk of becoming a nuisance, I have just written to him again:

Again, sortition

Dear George,

Having just read your article “An Ounce of Hope is Worth a Ton of Despair”, I feel compelled to write to you again about a subject I have written to you about before: sortition.

As you may remember, sortition is the democratic alternative to elections. Instead of choosing decision makers by voting – which inevitably leads to having decisions made by members of an ambitious and well resourced elite – why not select decisions makers as a statistical sample of the population? Why not put some of those people who “consistently hold concern for others, tolerance, kindness and thinking for themselves to be more important than wealth, image and power” in a position where they can set policy instead of forcing them to choose between members of a self-serving elite?
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If the legislature is (at least partly) chosen by lot – how to restructure the executive branch?

Terry Bouricius and I are working on some ideas for reforms to the executive branch that would be compatible with an allotted legislature. We have a paper in peer review on some aspects of this, and we’re working on a second paper that would be more comprehensive.

The sortition literature that we’ve read is mostly limited to the legislative branch. The two main exceptions we know of are Keith’s book “A People’s Parliament,” and John Burnheim’s book “Is Democracy Possible.”  Does anyone here know of other books or papers that deal with the question of “what to change in the executive branch, assuming that the legislature is at least partially selected by lot?”

Politics and gambling lotteries

Nice piece in today’s Financial Times (paywall, so I’m reproducing it below). Interesting fact: The “Yes” campaign in Scotland gets 80% of it’s funding (£3.5 mn) from just one lucky lottery winner.

June 13, 2014 7:03 pm

The whims of the super-rich can turn politics into a lottery

By Gideon Rachman

Courting the rich is both necessary and dangerous for politicians


So this is what the future of the United Kingdom comes down to? Harry Potter versus EuroMillions. On September 18, Scotland will vote on independence. The news that JK Rowling, author of the Harry Potter oeuvre, has decided to give £1m to the Better Together campaign is a welcome boost to the pro-union campaign. Until now, it has struggled to match the financial firepower of the pro-independence campaign, which has benefited from £3.5m donated by Chris and Colin Weir, a couple who won £161m playing the EuroMillions lottery in 2011. All told, the Weirs account for about 80 per cent of the funding received by the Yes campaign.
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Alex Guerrero: Against Elections

Alex Guerrero has a new paper forthcoming: “Against Elections: The lottocratic alternative”.

The paper begins as follows:

It is widely accepted that electoral representative democracy is better — along a number of different normative dimensions — than any other alternative lawmaking political arrangement. It is not typically seen as much of a competition: it is also widely accepted that the only legitimate alternative to electoral representative democracy is some form of direct democracy, but direct democracy — we are told — would lead to bad policy. This article makes the case that there is a legitimate alternative system — one that uses lotteries, not elections, to select political officials — that would be better than electoral representative democracy.

Dahl: Is Minority Domination Inevitable?

In most of the sciences – whether human, social or natural – there is a symbiotic relationship between theoretical and quantitative approaches. Einstein would not have formulated the theory of special relativity had the Michelson-Morley experiment confirmed the existence of the aether wind. The academic study of politics, however, bucks this trend as theorists and political scientists rarely talk to each other. This is primarily because the term ‘political theory’ is generally preceded by the adjective ‘normative’, so a conversation between theorists and polsci professors might well be seen as a contravention of the naturalistic fallacy.

This is self-evidently the case in the field of social theory, dominated by the long shadow of Rawls and still dedicated to the study of ‘57 varieties of luck egalitarianism’ (Waldron, 2013, p. 21). But why should it apply to democratic theory? – common-sense would dictate this should be a combination of normative and descriptive work, as most modern poleis claim to be democracies. Yet the upgrade panel for my own PhD (on representation and sortition) advised me to choose between the theoretical and empirical literature and not to seek to reconcile the two. The recent thread on this blog discussing Gilens and Page’s claim to have disproved the median voter theorem is a good indication of the sharp divide between the two literatures.
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Philo Judaeus advises against sortition

Philo Judaeus was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria, in the Roman province of Egypt, in the first century BC and first century AD. The following passages are taken from Philo’s A Treatise on Those Special Laws Which Are Contained Under and Have Reference to the Eighth and Ninth, and Tenth Commandments.. In them he repeats the competence argument against sortition which Xenophon attributes to Socrates. Philo adds an argument against sortition and in favor of elections from Biblical authority.

XXIX. (151) Some persons have contended that all magistracies ought to have the officers appointed to them by lot; which however is a mode of proceeding not advantageous for the multitude, for the casting of lots shows good fortune, but not virtue; at all events many unworthy persons have often obtained office by such means, men whom, if a good man had the supreme authority, he would not permit to be reckoned even among his subjects: Continue reading

School Prayer by Random Selection

Here’s a case of random selection that I don’t believe has been discussed before. An American school held prayers at its graduation ceremonies. Americans United for the Separation of Church and State objected to this, claiming that the school was endorsing a religious perspective in doing so. It appears that the school had been permitting the student who opened the ceremony to decide whether or not to open with a prayer, but since this student was selected by majority vote (in a west Texas school district), this always led to a vote for some pro-prayer Christian. (Insert remarks about the tyranny of the majority here.) So now the school district will randomly select the student to open the graduation ceremony. The student can still make a personal decision to open with a prayer if s/he wishes. Presumably, the fact that the student choice is random means that the school district cannot be accused of endorsing the religious perspective of the prayer.

ECISD Removes Official Prayer From Graduation Ceremony After Lawsuit Threat

ODESSA – The Ector County Independent School District confirmed to CBS 7 that the Invocation and Benediction will now say “opening and closing” after concerns from American United for the Separation of Church & State.

The District says that the students who lead the opening and closing ceremony will now be randomly chosen and can choose to lead those ceremonies as they wish, including adding the traditional prayers if they so choose.

“The references to Invocation and Benediction give the impression the school or the school district are endorsing religion, which is not allowed. Those references will be changed and student speakers will be randomly drawn, according to policy FNA (Local) page 3 of 4, to give the Opening and Closing remarks at graduation,” Spokesperson Mike Adkins said in a release.

The senior class will no longer vote on whether or not to have prayer during the ceremony because that vote will not be permissible.