Sortition and multiple authorities

There are often powerful considerations in favour of having distinct authorities with distinct jurisdictions and constitutions and procedures to address certain problems that are not well treated if approached from the point of view of the state, whether that word refers to nation-states or members of a federation.

An obvious case is that of a river system that impinges on many states in a long chain from the sources of the various streams that contribute to it to its final discharge into the sea, if it gets that far. What each state does or permits in the light of its own interests often impinges on many of the others, particularly those nearer to the end of the chain. One solution where all the states in question are part of the same federation is simply to hand the problems of conflicting interests over to the feds, who should be able to take an impartial view.

In practice that is often unsatisfactory. It may reduce the riverine interests to pawns in federal politics. It may lead to federal meddling in the whole range of state interests in land management to the detriment of those interests. Different federal authorities may intervene in ways that are influenced more by a desire to have a uniform policy on some matter across the federation than by attention to the particular problems of that river system. So it seems most desirable to have an authority that is focussed on arriving at good solutions to the complex problems, ecological, commercial, recreational and developmental that it throws up. In ensuring a balanced input into the decision processes of such an authority sortition on various bases is likely to give better results than standard voting practices. It is not just a matter of the divergent interests of the states, but of balancing various ecological considerations against each other and against a variety of commercial or consumer interests. I’ll return to this point below.

Different patterns of representation will be appropriate in other supra-state matters that have no particular geographical basis, such as the regulation of the international monetary system, or intellectual property and a growing host of things in the increasingly complex problems we set ourselves.

The great objection to the multiplication of authorities is that it means multiplying agencies with power. Power inevitably tends to get abused. Multiplying sources of power is to multiply sources of oppression and of struggles for power. Leaving them uncontrolled is a recipe for disintegration, putting them under a single supreme authority a recipe for tyranny.


These objections depend on two assumptions:

1. That they increase the scope and impact of punitive authorities.

2. That their social effects are mainly to add to the sum of prohibitions that reduce people’s freedom.

Both assumptions are unwarranted. In both cases sortition can ensure that these dangers are minimised.

1. It is neither necessary nor efficient for each specialised authority to have its own means of enforcing its decisions. In a case such as that of the river basin it would be normal practice for each of the states involved to agree in signing a treaty setting out the limits of the riverine authority’s jurisdiction to agree to incorporate the new authoritiy’s regulations into its own legal system. So any breach of those regulations could be prosecuted in the courts, either as a criminal matter or, more usually, as a suit for damages of one sort or another.

That would increase neither the scope of what was regulated nor the enforcement needed, but just make both more effective and efficient., removing a chaotic mass of state regulations in favour of better ones.

Why would the states agree to do that? Sometimes because of widespread public concern about the river and the many problems that have emerged about it. Sometimes for an easy life, unloading thorny problems in regard to which they are likely to fail on to others. Sometimes because their bargaining position, e.g. at the end of the chain, is weak, and they are much more likely to get an acceptable deal from an independent authority than from a round of bargaining.

In many important matters it is not necessary for there be any such legally binding agreement. An international authority that sets standards of safety for certain consumer products may set generally recognised standards. The result will be that it is generally assumed that responsible manufacturers and retailers will find it easiest to conform to those standards, if only to protect themselves against possible litigation for damages, and the serious consequences for their reputation that can follow such publicity.

2. The salient aspect of authorities in day-to-day experience is that they stop people doing things that they want to do. Sometimes that is welcome protection against harms that others might inflict onus. Sometimes it is an irksome restriction on our own freedom. The extremes are familiar, ranging from the tough self-reliant type who can “look after himself” and resents anybody else interfering with that, to the timid souls who want to be protected against anything that upsets them. There is no foolproof procedure for striking an ideal balance between the restrictions that increase our net freedom by making it possible to do things easily and securely at little cost to good citizens and restrictions that impede certain legitimate activities or enable some villains to misuse them. Unfortunately it is easy to notice the unpleasant restrictions, while taking for granted the protective situation they underpin.

More positively, when it comes to deliberately constructed public goods, the quality of those goods is expressive of our identities as members of the relevant communities. A great part of one’s personal identity consists in having one’s own personal attachment to many such goods, shared with different but overlapping groups of people. Such groups usually have open boundaries, ranging from lovers of certain kinds of entertainment or recreation to services that are vital to one’s way of life. The benefits of particular arrangements to produce or protect such goods in their various circumstances are impossible to quantify precisely, because public goods by definition have no market price. But they do have costs of production, most of which do have clear market prices, and we have to come to an agreed assessment about whether their benefits outweigh the costs, and about how the costs are to be met.

It is much the same with our obligations to posterity. Most people would like to think that they are handing on to posterity a world that is at least as good as they inherited. The hard-nosed responses: What has posterity ever done for me? or just: What’s in it for me? are not just inimical to community, but impoverish the people who adopt them, imprisoning them in a world of their own making that cuts them off from most of the things that make life worth living. Even the most self-satisfied need at least the illusion that others acknowledge the worth of what they do.

On the other hand our needs for public goods are easily and regularly exploited by those who insist that there is just one right answer to what our various communities need. That answer can be ensured only by a single power with the capacity to regulate whatever it sees as necessary to give effect to its judgements. Not only dictators, but many who think of themselves s democrats, think of the nation-state in this way. Whatever the people decide by an allegedly democratic procedure, such as a majority vote, is right. Hence the interminable problem about circumscribing the range of matters the people can decide and justifying the title of various procedures to be what Rousseau called “the General Will”, as distinct from the mere aggregate of “the will of all” or the will of the majority.

There is a great deal to be said for conferring on a single well regulated body the monopoly of the legitimate use of organised violence to punish breaches of important arrangements. What I want to claim is that it is not necessary to entrust all decisions about those arrangements to the institution that is charged with enforcing them. To some extent that is already generally recognised. Most modern democratic constitutions make some effort to separate legislative from enforcement agencies. They also provide a means whereby individuals and organisations my make binding arrangements among themselves; independently of any endorsement by the legislative authority and rely on the enforcement institutions to enforce those arrangements.

Unfortunately, our narrow concentration on the nation-state as having the exclusive right to decide on any matter of general concern has led to a rigid dichotomy between such matters and matters that are purely private. As I tried to show above, there are plenty of public goods that cannot be dealt with in terms of that dichotomy. The community is not a machine dedicated to a single purpose. Nor is it simply an aggregate of individuals, but an ecosystem of great complexity. However, the suggestions I would make for the use of sortition to set up independent authorities on a large scale are a long way from such practical politics as we have at present. So I’ll attempt to give a practical real life instance where it might be a practical way out of an impasse in a small matter, where change may be possible.

Not far from where I live there is a derelict complex of hospital buildings situated in a large and very pleasant waterfront park. The suggestion has been made that the buildings might provide emergency accommodation for refugees from the Middle East. The buildings have become derelict because the local council insists that they ought o be demolished and the site harmonised with the park. The state government, which owns the site, would like to sell it to provide public funds. The federal government, which has responsibility for refugees, does not want either to buy the land or to refurbish the old buildings for the benefit of the state. A stalemate.

If there were an independent authority charged with the project of using those buildings for a limited time to provide emergency accommodation for refugees until a more satisfactory solution was available, it might well be able to negotiate around these various differences and bring in a lot of support for the project from other sources. So it might allow both the state and the local municipality time to arrive at some compromise. So they would provide the necessary authorisations or leases. Without committing itself to an expensive program, the Feds might be ready to contribute to the project what it costs them to provide for refugees on a per capita basis. Other donors might be happy to support such an authority financially and in other ways where they would not want to give either to the feds. It all depends on the authority being seen as needed, but as making no demands beyond what is needed.

It is unlikely that a purely private body would receive the cooperation of governments in such a matter, but a well-organised body fully open to scrutiny, and on which they had some representation, might well be more acceptable to them. They would probably insist on appointing representatives rather than having them chosen by lot from a suitable panel, but could be persuaded that the other members of the governing body of the enterprise could be chosen by lot from various groups with the relevant kinds of experience that seems desirable in coming to decisions about the different aspects of the enterprise. That would include, of course, some chosen from the refugees. In my kind of scheme I would hope that it was emphasised that the people so chosen are not there to represent anybody, but because of what, particularly in virtue of their experience, they ought contribute to the good management of the enterprise. Both their peers and the people who choose to follow or contribute to their fully public deliberations would judge their performance in that perspective.

The standing of such specialised authorities with the general public will depend on conventions that grow out of experience, establishing certain ways of dealing with common problems as best practice. Sortition in most circumstances makes collusion to abuse power very much more difficult to institute in the first place and to cover up as new members are fed into the governing body one by one instead of all at once. There can also be independent bodies, appointed by sortition, that scrutinise the claims of other bodies to complete transparency and evaluate their performance. In these ways it seems possible to build up an ecosystem of authorities of different kinds, with limited lifespans and evolving functions that have just so muck authority as they need to perform their functions, acting without any great plan for the whole, but coordinating their activities where desirable with other cognate bodies.

Such a vision does not assume any change in human nature, but only many changes in the roles, incentives and knowledge that constitute the opportunities that people have to indulge and develop their drives. Some institutional practices offer seductive opportunities for greed, violence and cruelty. Others can render those temptations much less attractive.

11 Responses

  1. John,

    >In ensuring a balanced input into the decision processes of such an authority sortition on various bases is likely to give better results than standard voting practices. . . .The great objection to the multiplication of authorities is that it means multiplying agencies with power.

    Now I’m completely confused. I thought demarchic councils only existed to refine and enlarge public opinion, with no formal constitutional role at all. Now they appear to be “authorities” and “agencies with power”. Please clarify.

    PS strongly recommend keeping your posts shorter and more pithy — I really don’t get the impression anyone else is reading them.


  2. Keith> confusion

    You have no right to be confused. You have read the introduction to TDM, where I set out a whole range of matters I think need to be addressed. I emphasise that they do not constitute a unified program, and that while I use demarchy as a convenient label for my particular proposals, I would hope that it will come to be used to characterise a broader movement to remedy the defects of democracy as we have it. I then present a practical program to address the particular problem of policy formation, emphasising its status as a suggestion that deserves to be tried. Many of the suggestions in the second part of the book address different problems and suggest more particuar uses of sortition, but in more tentative way.

    My long post on Sortition and Multiple Authorities was intended as a serious contribution to discussion about the uses of sortition in important problems other than the one I addressed in the book. If people ignore them simply because they are not debating points in another matter, too bad. At least it may show people I am not entirely myopic! I hope from time to time to
    post similarly serious examinations of other uses of sortition in the hope that somebody out there may appreciate them.


  3. John,

    Thanks for the clarification. If you’re proposing demarchy for governance roles (as well as public opinion), this introduces serious challenges from the perspective of democratic equality that would be difficult (impossible?) to overcome. I, for one, would be chary about being subject to an authority that I had no say whatsoever — either directly or via stochastic proxy — in appointing (or, more importantly, dismissing).


  4. Keith >authorities.

    You are thinking, of course, of who exercises sovereignty You obey a host of authorities, especially conventions and international and professional authorities, though you can’t do anything about them, except express your opinion. But, although many of them can penalise disobedience in vatious ways, they can’t lock you up or even expel you. Sovereignty is neither necessary nor, on the whole, desirable, but we are stuck with it, and need to do our best to minimise the abuses to which it gives rise.

    It flourishes on fear of being crushed by the organised violence that other sovereign states can unleash against them. Suppose that when they come to take over we let them in to avoid all the absurd horrors of war. So they come and pronounce themselves our liberators and start ordering us around. Quietly and stubbornly we resist. So, as in Eastern Europe of old, “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us.” These pretences are no way to run an economy. The rulers invest enormous resources in the likes of Stasi, which only makes it worse. Eventually they realise it is all costing more than its worth. So they pack up and go home! As everybody knows, it’s much cheaper to buy coal on the open market than to “mine it with bayonets”. I hope the day is not too far off when governments will come to see that and act rationally. Perhaps even the “good” countries like us will cease to believe in our right to “liberate “others by wars that destroy them. Perhaps we might come to understand why they hate us.

    It is fascinating how dictators find it necessary to spend such huge resources on controlling what people think and blotting out any suggestion that anybody, other than malicious enemies, has the slightest doubt about their wisdom and benevolence. It is not just that they want people to obey willingly. They need it for their self-belief. The leader who can no longer sustain and project an unquestioning self-belief and make it look that it is accepted by all right-thinking people is doomed. In the modern world it is only in a very narrow range of circumstances that “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. Guns are great for destroying things, but the power that matters is power to construct things.


  5. John,

    >Sovereignty is neither necessary nor, on the whole, desirable. . .

    Yes that’s a fundamental principle of anarchism, of which demarchy appears to be a variant.

    >but we are stuck with it, and need to do our best to minimise the abuses to which it gives rise.

    And democrats would claim that the best way of doing this is by ensuring that all citizens have a say (direct or indirect) in political decisions and/or who gets to make them. This is unimportant to you, so long as the decisions that are taken are reasonable ones. Most advocates of epistocracy, aristocracy, meritocracy and theocracy would agree with your criterion, but would claim that their way of arriving at this is better than random-selection from a self-nominating pool. All these systems, however, exclude the vast majority of citizens from any say (direct or indirect) in the laws that govern them, hence my claim that in your view democracy is neither possible nor desirable.


  6. Keith >systems

    Still imprisoned in the old unitary view of polities and failing to get the point of my ecological analogy, you persist in thinking of all authority in terms of unitary systems. But authorities are of many different kinds and there is no right way of structuring explicitly organised authorities. It all depends on what they are supposed to decide and what degree of compliance is necessary for practical purposes.

    So sound organisations in scientific, scholarly and some aesthetic matters are necessarily meritocratic. they involve a minimum of enforcement, mainly to punish fraud. They rely on the good sense of people to recognise their authority.

    Revealed religions are inevitably theocratic in their own affairs. They should claim to enforce decisions only on the faithful and permit exit without penalty.

    Aristocracy had advantages over democracy where the aristocrats had access to information and discussion that were crucial to good decisions, but were not available to the plebs, given their lack of access to those things.

    Democracy became preferable once such access became easy for all.It has developed agreement to resolve by majority vote many questions that were previously decided by force of arms. We agree that there may be better ways of deciding many of those matters.

    Various forms of meritocracy outside of epistemic matters are simply variations on aristocracy.

    Monarchy had advantages in polities threatened by the armies of various internal organisations, and where prompt response was required to militaty threats. It is unfortunate that the shape of many of our democratic institutions has developed from attempts to supplant monarchies, including traditional forms of sovereignty, which are rapidly becoming more and more inadequate to dealing with the problems we face.


  7. John,

    I thought we were discussing political governance (although I appreciate “governance” is not a word that anarchists like to use); my reference to theocracy was to the organisation of a state (not a religion), ditto with meritocracy (not science) etc. Most people nowadays consider that political governance should be organised along democratic lines, as counting strong right arms is better than fighting.

    >Aristocracy had advantages over democracy where the aristocrats had access to information and discussion that were crucial to good decisions, but were not available to the plebs, given their lack of access to those things.

    That sounds like a reasonable portrait of demarchy in practice, in that you have claimed it would lead to good decision making by good people (the best presumably being a bit of a stretch). Whether aristocracy is possible in a demotic age is a moot point.

    It’s an interesting observation that classical democracy was the child of oligarchy and modern democracy the child of monarchy. But if (as some claim) modern democracy (or “democracy”) is oligarchy in sheep’s clothing then it might well evolve along classical lines. But I can’t think of any historical examples of oligarchy evolving into aristocracy, as it’s generally the other way round.


  8. Keith

    There are no pure types in practice. The Spanish Inquisition did not claim secular power. Having condemned the miscreants for heresy or apostasy it handed them over to the secular am, but with the injunction that it was the supreme duty of the state to protect the true religion by getting rid of such dangerous people.

    No oligarchy fails to claim that it is in some relevant respect an aristocracy, jst as no dictator fails to claim that he represents the people and that heir willing support for him is virtually unanimous.

    What I am thing to argue is that here is no such thing as the people wno share a rouseauian General Will. There are only complexes of overlapping communities that are based on particular concerns and activities, but interact and adapt to each other in different ways to from ecosystems that are interdependent in various matters.

    States have claimed the right to regulate everything necessary in a certain territory in virtue of their monopoly of legitimate force in that circumscription. That is both inadequate and excessive. I have tried to point to other possibilities.


  9. A noble aspiration. My concern is which, if any, of the possibilities have a chance of working in a non-aristocratic age.


  10. John,

    I wanted to read your new book before sticking my oar in, but I’ve been waiting for a fortnight and no sign of it, so I hope you’ll pardon some naive questions.

    Reading “IDP?” made me think that the Murray River would be a good place for a demarchic body, and I suspect that it’s your first example. But the Murray is a special case because at the end of the day, the Commonwealth holds the purse strings, and can enforce civilised behaviour on the states. What about rivers that cross national borders where the upstream state can dam or pollute at will, and there’s very little, short of war, that the downstream nations can do to get either a treaty or a demarchic council with teeth? You – or they – could have an informal one, but it could well be just another NGO impotently wringing its hands over the wickedness of the world.

    In the case of the second example, you seem to assume that temporary use of the buildings for refugee accommodation would be accepted or could be imposed. But the local council is likely to say “No reffos in our backyard”, and might well be supported by state or federal pollies for all the usual reasons. If the Commonwealth caved in the demarchic council would be left hanging in the air.

    Could you explain what happens at the edges of your (IDP style) demarchic councils? I mean zones where their remits overlap or don’t quite meet. Example: Suppose Australia decides to build a new ship for Antarctic research. I imagine you would have a council for shipbuilding, and/or industry generally, one for science, one for Defence and/or the Navy (hydrological and oceanographic research is important to them), one for employment or labour relations, and so on. You also have a bunch of universities and the CSIRO which would want to have a say. How do you manage all that? How do you stop mutually incompatible decisions without a central authority? And do you arrange your councils in a hierarchy, so that the Navy council would be under the defence council, and so on?

    Even with the Murray River, where do you fix the boundary? Is the demarchic council to have authority (moral or real) over the whole catchment area? If not, it cannot control water quality. If it does, then it’s going to be handling every building approval, zoning, and every industry in that area. It will be at loggerheads with farmers, local councils, miners, conservation bodies, etc etc. I realise that this happens now with the MVA, but there are overriding authorities (courts and federal government) which can break logjams.

    What is the genesis of demarchic groups? How are they set up? Who decides that from tomorrow there will be one on, say, skateboards or trout fishing?

    Given that you think those most interested or affected should dominate, would it not be possible for the councils to become effectively industry lobbies with authority, either moral or real? eg If agricultural policy is controlled by farmers, would they not implement what every farmer knows to be sound policy, ie massive government subsidies? If a demarchic council were set up in America tomorrow on violence, say, what would prevent the enthusiastic gun-lovers of the NRA swamping it and making the carrying of guns mandatory at all times by everyone over six years of age?

    Again, suppose that on the continent of Australia (whether or not there is a nation-state of that name) there is a demarchic council for electricity generation. One could imagine that management and employees of power companies, coal miners, energy-intensive industries (aluminium smelting… ) and civil engineering companies would be eager to be on the council. So also would the greenies. If few “ordinary” (not-very-interested) citizens put their names forward, you could have two blocs, irreconcilably and diametrically opposed. If the pro-industry members are the majority, you might see huge investment in new, very polluting, brown coal plants. You point out that nation states are not very satisfactory; I can only agree. But in this case since the emissions end up in the atmosphere, those who are “slightly” affected are not only all the citizens of the world, but every member of every living species. They won’t be represented, since presumably you don’t admit the Kiribati islanders or the Inuit (or the polar bears!) to the council. Is this any better than what we have with nation-states? On the other hand, if it’s the greens who dominate, you might find them shutting down conventional plants before substitutes have been found. So in one case you get policy driven by greed and economics, in the other by ideology.

    If you’ve already answered these questions elsewhere, please excuse me and give a link. Thanks

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Campbell,

    >Given that you think those most interested or affected should dominate, would it not be possible for the councils to become effectively industry lobbies with authority, either moral or real? eg If agricultural policy is controlled by farmers, would they not implement what every farmer knows to be sound policy, ie massive government subsidies? If a demarchic council were set up in America tomorrow on violence, say, what would prevent the enthusiastic gun-lovers of the NRA swamping it and making the carrying of guns mandatory at all times by everyone over six years of age?

    Yes indeed, the council will only have a dozen or so members, selected by sortition from a pool of volunteers, so if the farmers, NRA, Tea Party swamp the selection pool they will dominate the council. (PS in John’s model the councils don’t have political power, only informal influence.)

    >If few “ordinary” (not-very-interested) citizens put their names forward, you could have two blocs, irreconcilably and diametrically opposed.

    Exactly. Compromise is generally driven by the need to get things done, make sure the trains run etc. Demarchic councils don’t get things done, they merely seek to influence the political process via the medium of public opinion, so there would be no obvious motivation to compromise.


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