A letter to The Newfoundland and Labrador Independent

Democracy and elections

Dear Justin,

I am writing in response to the recent column by Raymond Critch “Why should every vote count?” (Sept. 29th). Mr. Critch describes his feeling of disenfranchisement due to the process that led to the selection of a new Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador – a process not involving public elections.

However, as Mr. Critch himself alludes by quoting John Kenneth Galbraith, elections are in fact not a tool of democracy but rather a way to inoculate the population against the feeling that the government is not theirs.

Mr. Critch also points out that democracy originally did not rely on elections to select political decision makers. In ancient Greece everybody knew that elections are typical to oligarchies, like Sparta, while democracies, like Athens, used sortition. Sortition is the mechanism of selecting decision makers by drawing lots – generating a decision making body that is statistically representative of the entire population.

Modern society is trapped in a situation where we have an elections-based elite-dominated political system and yet we call it “a democracy”. We are unhappy with it, and yet we keep venerating it. Until we free ourselves from identifying elections with democracy we will not be able to start working our way toward what can properly described as democracy.

Only rule by a statistically representative body – a portrait of the people in miniature – can produce a democracy: rule by the people for the people.

Best regards,

Yoram Gat

Not so wise: median estimates around the globe underestimate income inequality

A recent study by Michael Norton and Sorapop Kiatpongsan finds that for all countries studied median estimate of income inequality is much lower than reality:

In their study, Norton and Kiatpongsan asked about 55,000 people around the globe, including 1,581 participants in the U.S., how much money they thought corporate CEOs made compared with unskilled factory workers. Then they asked how much more pay they thought CEOs should make. The median American guessed that executives out-earned factory workers roughly 30-to-1 — exponentially lower than the highest actual estimate of 354-to-1. They believed the ideal ratio would be about 7-to-1.

“In sum, respondents underestimate actual pay gaps, and their ideal pay gaps are even further from reality than those underestimates,” the authors write.

Americans didn’t answer the survey much differently from participants in other countries. Australians believed that roughly 8-to-1 would be a good ratio; the French settled on about 7-to-1; and the Germans settled on around 6-to-1. In every country, the CEO pay-gap ratio was far greater than people assumed. And though they didn’t concur on precisely what would be fair, both conservatives and liberals around the world also concurred that the pay gap should be smaller. People agreed across income and education levels, as well as across age groups.

Voters’ demands for lobbying regulation are unmet by elected officials

Voters don’t trust elected officials. One of the ways this phenomenon manifests itself is by popular support for various forms of regulation of the officials’ political activity. The fact that this sentiment doesn’t get reflected in policy – just like public opinion regarding the salaries of elected officials – is a blunt failure of the electoral responsiveness dogma.

Rhetoric being cheaper than policy, some promises to regulate lobbying do get made:

I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists — and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president. Barack Obama, 2007

This promise was not, of course, translated to policy. But that aside, even as rhetoric this is rather tepid. Hammering lobbyists publicly – one of the only groups of people more widely distrusted than elected officials themselves – should have been an easy way for candidates and incumbents to win votes. But doing so would involve not only offending benefactors who finance the politicians’ campaigns but also offending former and future colleagues who happen to currently be on the other side of the revolving door.

Nick Clegg calls for sortition-based constitutional convention

Writing in the Sunday Times in the aftermath of the Scottish Referendum, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg proposes a citizen-jury based constitutional convention:

I welcome Labour’s decision to embrace the long-standing Liberal Democrat call for a constitutional convention — but it needs a precise mandate, beginning next year and concluding in 2017. It should have a citizen’s jury at its heart, representing every corner of the UK. One area it will need to address is the future of the House of Lords, which, in my view, would better serve people as an elected second chamber, in keeping with federal systems across the world. Ultimately, however, it will not be up to politicians — this process will be led by the people.

It’s often puzzled me that politicians are eager to use sortition as a way to determine complex constitutional issues, but we can’t be trusted to make everyday political decisions (the price of bread, tax rates, invading foreign countries, gay marriage etc). Clegg’s proposal also appears to confuse the notion of a jury (which determines the outcome of a debate) and political leadership — “this process will be led by the people” — reminding one of Ledru-Rollin’s epithet: “there go the people, I must follow them for I am their leader”. We won’t make any progress until the conceptual and practical distinction between these two aspects of politics (leadership and decision-making) is respected. In a democracy, political leaders can propose and advise but they should not determine the outcome — the decision should be in the hands of a statistically-representative microcosm of the citizen body. The problem in this particular instance, of course, is that English citizens would outnumber those of the other nations of the UK by an order of magnitude and the English would be unlikely to accept numerical parity between the nations (i.e. 1/4 of the composition of the citizen jury). So sortition, in this case, would only make the problem worse.

A policy jury is “innovative, genuine democracy”

Noosa Council, Queensland, Australia:

A Noosa Community Jury of 24 randomly selected citizens will be used to consider certain complex and weighty local issues. Council could either ask for a recommendation, or in some circumstances Council may agree beforehand to implement the jury’s decision.

Mayor Noel Playford says the Community Jury will not take over the Councillors’ role, but will complement their work when everyday citizens, given time and access to all the information they need, in independently facilitated forums, can make an informed decision that earns community trust.

A citizens’ jury statistically reflecting the whole community will be randomly selected by an independent agency, not by the Council.

“These are the vital ingredients” Mr Playford said, “random selection, time and access to information and facilitated forums, independent of the Council.”

The Mayor described the jury as “innovative, genuine democracy”.

“In the de-amalgamation battle, our community was not just fighting for the return of their council, but also for a bigger say in local decision-making.”

The new democratic structure in Noosa will be organised in partnership with the newDemocracy Foundation, a respected, national research foundation made up of former leading politicians and academic experts in the field.
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Vernon Bogdanor calls for sortition

The Sunday Times has published a pull-out on the Scottish Referendum and asked Vernon Bogdanor (David Cameron’s politics tutor at Oxford, now professor of government at King’s College London and the UK’s leading constitutional expert) to examine the consequences of the Referendum for the rest of the UK. Here’s an excerpt from his article:

The Next Question: Should England have a new Magna Carta?

Here is one suggestion. The Scottish referendum has released a hitherto submerged civic spirit, especially among younger voters. That spirit could also be tapped in England.

Suppose a small proportion of councillors — say 5% or 10% — were to be selected randomly by lot from the electoral register. Those chosen could refuse to serve, but most would probably do so and would include the young and members of ethnic minorities, groups markedly underrepresented in local government.

Those selected would be genuine independents, deciding what was best for their communities without being beholden to party. They would undergo a valuable form of civic education with beneficial consequences for local democracy. Local government could begin once again to become representative government.

Bogdanor reviewed both of my books on sortition — the first time (The Party’s Over) quietly ridiculing it and the second time (A People’s Parliament) agreeing that sortition is something that should be investigated at the local level.

Sortition insured a fair jury for indictment of Texas governor

A story in the New York Times:

With Governor’s Indictment, Scrutiny of Grand Jury System

AUSTIN — The indictment of Gov. Rick Perry by a Travis County grand jury has put the spotlight on the state’s quirky system that gives judges a choice in how to seat a grand jury.

Mr. Perry’s charges for overstepping his authority as governor came from a type of grand jury that is not the norm in Austin’s criminal courts: one whose members were chosen at random.

Austin courts, like those in many of Texas’ larger cities, typically rely on a so-called “key man” selection process, where judges choose a commissioner responsible for recruiting a panel of grand jurors. The practice was not used to seat Mr. Perry’s grand jury because the judge overseeing the case comes from San Antonio, where random selection is preferred.

The Blind Break, the Invisible Hand and the Wisdom of Crowds: The political potential of sortition

[Update: Commenting was accidentally initially off, enabled now.]

Draft paper:

Abstract: Following (Waldron, 2013), this paper draws a distinction between ‘social’ and ‘political’ variants of sortition, focusing principally on the latter. The two leading theories – the ‘blind break’ and the ‘invisible hand’ of descriptive representation – rely on different principles, focus on different levels of analysis (individual and collective) and have little in common. The attempt by epistemic democrats to bridge the gap via small-group face-to-face deliberation fails on account of the lack of concern for statistical representativity and the lack of distinction between the different roles of advocacy and judgment (proposing and disposing) in political decision-making, sortition only being relevant to the latter function.

This is derived from the paper that I presented at the recent IPSA Montreal conference, where I was encouraged to write it up and submit to a journal. I’d really appreciate comments and criticisms via this forum. Here’s the full draft (click the download button on the right).

‏‎J’ai pas voté

J’ai pas voté is a documentary by Moise Courilleau and Morgan Zahnd. It is “an autopsy of French democracy aiming to create a new opportunity for growth of a new era of political organization”. Among those featured are Loic Blondiaux, Yves Sintomer, Jean-Paul Jouary, Jacques testard, Bernard Manin, Etienne Chouard, and Hervé Kempf.

The film is English subtitled.