Sortition and Legitimate Coercion

In an address called “What is Political Science For?” at the 2013 American Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting, APSA President Jane Mansbridge mentioned sortition as one of the new areas being studied for grounding legitimacy. She referenced Fishkin & Ober in her footnote to the statement. The thrust of her talk is that political scientists (democratic theorists especially) should turn their focus away from preventing tyranny and towards creating “legitimate coercion” because the world is facing rather formidable collective action problems that cannot be solved otherwise. Together with Waldron’s “Political Political Theory” article it leads me to believe that there is some movement in the field towards the questions that we often discuss here on Equality by Lot. Below are some excerpts from the full article found here.

This address advances three ideas. First, political science as a discipline has a mandate to help human beings govern themselves. Second, within this mandate we should be focusing, more than we do now, on creating legitimate coercion. In a world of increasing interdependence we now face an almost infinite number of collective action problems created when something we need or want involves a “free-access good.” We need coercion to solve these collective action problems. The best coercion is normatively legitimate coercion. Democratic theory, however, has focused more on preventing tyranny than on how to legitimate coercion. Finally, our discipline has neglected an important source of legitimate coercion: negotiation to agreement. Recognizing the central role of negotiation in politics would shed a different light on our relatively unexamined democratic commitments to transparency in process and contested elections. This analysis is overall both descriptive and aspirational, arguing that helping human beings to govern themselves has been in the DNA of our profession since its inception.

Compared to our needs, we know very little about how to govern ourselves. We don’t know how to coerce ourselves into giving up what we need to give up in order to stop global warming. We don’t know how to stop nuclear proliferation. We don’t know how to transition from autocracy to democracy without descending into violence.Closer to home, we don’t know how to tax ourselves sufficiently to keep our infrastructure from crumbling or how to pay for the rising medical costs of an aging population. We don’t know how to produce laws in a polarized Congress or how to reduce that polarization. We don’t know how to keep ourselves from drifting into greater and greater inequality. At this moment of great need and relative ignorance, political science is the one academic discipline explicitly organized to study how we make our collective decisions on these matters, and how we can make them legitimately.

[C]ollective action problems have become much more central to human life in the last hundred years. As we increase in number, free-access goods that were earlier supplied by nature (clean air, clean and sufficient water, fish in the sea) require more and more human action to maintain or produce them. As human beings also produce more complex goods and develop more refined demands (like blueberries in the winter), we become more and more interdependent. And as we become more interdependent, we require more free- access goods, such as contract enforcement and certain forms of reliable knowledge. To get these free-access goods, we need more legitimate coercion.

The Best Coercion Is Legitimate Coercion
Many studies have shown that people are more likely to obey a law they consider legitimate. The more legitimate they think the coercion is, the less often sanctions need to be applied. Thus the best coercion is legitimate coercion. Less legitimate coercion throws sand in the cogs, the system begins to grind more slowly and less well, and the product becomes more expensive—sometimes too expensive to compete.

Negotiating to Agreement
We have learned a great deal in the last fifty years about the legitimacy-inducing power and shortcomings of democratic mechanisms such as unanimity and majority rule, deliberation, and many forms of electoral representation. Recently we have even begun to understand better the legitimacy that can be based on representation by lot.22
One legitimating mechanism, however, has been surprisingly neglected both empirically and normatively, namely negotiation to agreement.

All of the subfields in political science are involved in the process of trying to improve the processes by which we govern ourselves. We need to explore the ideals we have—or think we have—about how we should govern ourselves. We need to explore the polity we know most intimately, whether it be the United States of America or another polity, to understand it in greater depth. We need to compare existing governments to one another, to ferret out their greatest strengths and weaknesses. We need to understand better how states and other entities relate to one another and how they can do so more productively.

9 Responses

  1. Great article Ahmed, thanks for drawing it to our attention. I think Mansbridge is right in arguing that the key focus of political science/theory should not be “preventing tyranny” but “how can large, highly interdependent structures produce sufficient legitimate coercion to solve their collective action problems?” I’m surprised though that she attributed the former (mis)focus to the social contract tradition. Legitimate or “authorised” coercion was Hobbes’s overriding concern and all Rousseau did was to alter the numerical composition of the coercer from one to all of us (forcing each of us to be free). The only prominent social contract theorist who was interested in preventing tyranny was Locke.

    Mansbridge’s focus on “negotiation to agreement” will clearly appeal to both John Burnheim and Naomi, but it strikes me as little different from pork trading — “allowing each side to trade its low priority items for higher priority items that matter less to the other side” (p.12). And if representative bodies selected by lot were to do the negotiation, would they secure the two forms of legitimacy — “empirical” and “normative” (theoretical) (p.11) — that she specifies? To some on this forum it is sufficient to demonstrate the representativity of the group by logical inference from the [supposed] ability of each adult individual to represent her own interests, but this fails the theoretical criterion for reasons that we have discussed at length on this forum (and I don’t think the man on the Clapham omnibus is much impressed by syllogistic logic).

    Regarding “empirical” (perceived) legitimacy, it strikes me that the argument for legitimacy has to fulfil Rousseau’s strictures on self-government. Given that representation is essential in the sort of large highly-interdependent structures that Mansbridge is addressing, then the decision output of the representative sample has to be consistent — to the extent that it makes no difference which empirical individuals are included in the sample. The collective will can only be my will if each sample (in which I may or may not be included) comes to the same conclusion, otherwise there is no way of knowing whether or not the will is general. This is likely to impose significant constraints on the type of deliberation that the sample engages in (that would almost certainly preclude “negotiation to agreement”), as such negotiations are highly unlikely to be “invariant across sample”, as John Garry puts it in a paper forthcoming on this forum.

    PS Mansbridge has previously opined on the necessary steps to institute DP style sortition as a form of legitimate coercion in the symposium on Fishkin’s last book: Mansbridge, J. (2010). Deliberative Polling as the Gold Standard. The Good Society, 19, 55-62.


  2. > “The collective will can only be my will if each sample (in which I may or may not be included) comes to the same conclusion, otherwise there is no way of knowing whether or not the will is general.”

    Agreed. If it doesn’t matter who gets drawn into the sample… my exclusion is inoffensive. It literally makes no difference whether I participate or not. If it does make a difference — if the personalities of those drawn into the sample matter — my exclusion is problematic. Instead of democracy you have political power being divvied out in a lottery. Which, while fair, is not exactly democratic.

    >”This is likely to impose significant constraints on the type of deliberation that the sample engages in (that would almost certainly preclude ‘negotiation to agreement’), as such negotiations are highly unlikely to be ‘invariant across sample'”

    Right. The sampling will be representative of national-level policy preferences only and it will be representative of those preferences in plain voting only. In the US we have 20,000 municipal governments. The representation of local interests (to give one example) will be purely random. Every single human being alive has interests which would be nonrepresentative in a sample of a few hundred. Of course, there’s no dividing line between representative and nonrepresentative interests. Someone can trade their vote on a national-level issue to, for example, get a proposed highway rerouted around their home town. Which would screw with the representivity of the national-level decision and force the people living in the neighboring towns (who would presumably have no recourse) to live with a highway they don’t want. I don’t see how we could consider their coercion legitimate. I don’t imagine they would. We have to sequester nonrepresentative interests and deprive them leverage.

    As long as trades are subject to the approval of a representative sample, I don’t imagine there will be a problem. The general idea is that a trade makes both participants (representing a majority of the people) happier. A trade that makes that makes a majority of the people happier should stand the test of the sample. In fact, trade should still happen in a unicameral framework. The groups represented in the sample will be represented in the advocacy process. Negotiations will surely occur between advocates. They will want to increase the odds their proposals will pass. It’s the same basic setup, but the whole process is sanitized by the need to get and retain the support of the sample (and future samples as well) all along the way. I have a feeling things should trend toward the same ideal equilibrium.

    Everyone on this blog seems to be in agreement that politics is basically a more civilized form of warfare. Different factions in a war must be allowed to come to a negotiated settlement. If we can find a negotiated settlement between political factions instead of telling one side ‘you lose,’ we ease the strain on our institutions and minimize the magnitude of the conflict between factions in society. Perhaps from an epistemic standpoint we’d be better off scrutinizing every detail and voting them up or down on their own merits. But this goes back to what I said to Jon. When my interests and your interests are mutually exclusive, a purely epistemic focus makes little sense. Such a focus can’t tell us whose interests are somehow ‘right’ in an objective sense. A legislature must decide not only the objective merits of a proposal but also on what goals and values should be furthered. And these are not questions that can be resolved objectively. If we can find some sort of accommodation instead of telling an important subdivision of the population to shove it… then that’s exactly what we need to do.


  3. Naomi,

    >Everyone on this blog seems to be in agreement that politics is basically a more civilized form of warfare.

    Actually I think this blog is divided between the view that a) politics is a way of civilising warfare and b) political conflict is a product of “electoralism” and the elites that it generates. And I think this disagreement is the fuel behind the flames that we have witnessed here over the years. Fundamental anthropological disagreements over human nature (or “human nature”) are notoriously difficult to resolve.


  4. >Fundamental anthropological disagreements over human nature (or “human nature”) are notoriously difficult to resolve.


    It has become obvious to me by now that I have little business on this blog. A modest course of self-improvement does not turn a laborer into a college professor. But before moving on I just wanted to admonish whoever is listening; please come down from the Ivory Tower periodically and venture forth to rub elbows with the great unwashed. This subject is too important to remain cloistered.

    I doubt if it will be much fun, but there is an obligation to propagate these ideas whenever, wherever and in whatever form the public is capable of receiving them. If you’re already doing this then thank you, but if you aren’t I hope you’ll consider it.


  5. Naomi,

    It’s not so clear cut that politics must be the civilized form of war between mutually exclusive interests. Some times, but far less often than politicians make out. Sometimes win/win solutions can be found (but rarely within an electoral framework where demonizing the enemy is a good campaign strategy). While the market analogy suggests trading votes on separate issues can leave both sides better off, this can also end with all sides worse off, depending on the particulars. Representatives of town A agree to appropriate money for an unnecessary road in town B, if town B representatives will do likewise, a similar deal is struck between towns A and B and town C, and between town C and D and E, etc. until a huge amount of money is committed to inefficient infrastructure leaving everybody poorer and in total worse off. Such “trades” are also often called corruption. Evaluating each road ON ITS MERITS would be better for society.


  6. Paul,

    I’ve greatly enjoyed and benefited from your postings and would greatly miss your contributions (which strike me as equally well-argued as anyone here with an academic interest in sortition). As for propagating ideas, I think we need first of all to come to some sort of agreement as to what we are propagating, and we haven’t made a lot of progress on that to date.


  7. Terry,
    This sort of problem (road trading example) is a failure to coordinate properly. It’s a lot like the unscrupulous diner’s dilemma.

    In the sort of system Keith and I have been discussing, a member with policy-proposal powers would simply introduce a proposal to strip out the funding for all the unnecessary roads. Since most people are left worse off by the unnecessary spending, it’s safe to say the proposal would pass comfortably. There would need to be a consensus between all those with proposal-making powers to preserve the disequilibrium. On the other hand, a trade which genuinely leaves most people better off should be preserved by future statistical samples.

    If there exists a consensus in the body politic regarding the big-picture… then great. Policy should reflect it. In that case we only need to work out the details and a merit-first approach would make sense. If not… we have to make up the difference with instutional methods. If there is a genuine division in society, then a majoritarian winnowing process will give the majority a complete victory every time on every detail. They can do anything they’d like. In such a situation the only things tempering them would be fear of revolution and the kindness of those drawn into the winnowing panels. There would be no institutional incentive to find win/win options. There would be no room for readily achievable big-picture accommodation if policies can only be addressed individually.

    There’s no need to go. I too have found your posts interesting and well-argued.


  8. Well I didn’t necessarily mean that I would totally disappear. But I am very conscious of my educational deficit. Mostly I’m going to be here in the role of spectator. What I have to say I’ve already said.

    I see my role primarily as that of an agitator. I wish to push the view that Sortition has an essential role to play in any legitimate, sustainable government. The precise place of Sortition within the larger context of existing procedures and institutions is clearly going to be a major ongoing question (to put it politely) but I’m not going to try to answer that. My goal is to see Sortiton recognized as a reasonable subject of conversation in the U.S. (And not some sort of lunatic fringe madness). If that happy day should ever come then we’ll see which way the conversation turns. Because as I see it there are probably multiple solutions. I’m open to any, just so long as the proponents are realistic in their view of human nature.


  9. Paul,

    That sounds like a good division of labour, but we would all encourage you to pitch in to the debate whenever you see fit. In fact most of the commentators here are just regular guys rather than politics students/professors (Naomi is a chemist and Yoram is a software engineer). In terms of what sort of approach you might want to take as an agitator, I think the Melissa Schwartzberg video that Yoram uploaded would be a very good starting point — there’s little there that any of us would disagree with.


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