Why I am not a kleroterian

That is because I don’t think equality of power is the supreme objective or that sortition alone is sufficient to achieve it, or many other important objectives.

If we go back to my 1985 book, most of it was devoted to exploring many problems which have only tenuous links with sortition. All that other stuff was ignored, fair enough, and a group formed with “a passionate belief in sortition” as its bond. I, in the other hand have always emphasised that having good people in positions of power is not enough to ensure good outcomes. Everything depends on the procedures and processes by which those outcomes are produced. In particular, where collective decisions are arrived at by following certain procedures, the logic and dynamics of those procedures are just as important to the outcome as the input fed into them.

Moreover, I want to insist that while we can best understand the logic of such procedures, by studying simple models, the dynamics are always a matter of what works under what conditions and on what scale. For instance decision procedures depend on information flows, which depend on technologies of recording, storing, retrieving and circulating relevant information rapidly enough and in such quantities as the time available demands. What “ought to work” often doesn’t, as we all know.

Even in the best logical models, there may be hidden assumptions and omissions. There are rarely decisive arguments in such matters. Where I part company with the kleroterians is that I think that in many cases they ignore the critical problem of what decision-procedure a representative body is to follow, or, in other cases, propose unsatisfactory procedures. They seem to me to neglect certain important considerations, mainly because they are insufficiently critical of some aspects of current democratic practice.

In particular, the widely shared assumption is that when it comes down to practical decisions on complex matters requiring collective action, the rational procedure is to accept a majority vote. Everybody recognises that where the social dynamics of a community are such that almost every issue is framed in terms of religious, racial, geographical, and economic or other such considerations, majority rule is a recipe for majority tyranny, and often civil war.

On the other hand, it can work peacefully and more or less satisfactorily where the community is made up of many minorities and the majorities that rule from time to time by joining temporary coalitions with others that change in response to changing circumstances. Democratic communities that manage this feat undoubtedly have a more satisfactory form of decision-making than any of their predecessors. But it does have a basic flaw. It works satisfactorily only where getting a good decision on most matters is less important than just getting some acceptable decision expeditiously. That may often be the case where the matters requiring collective decision are largely agreed or don’t matter very much.

A lot of decisions are made because of the ways in which various coalitions happen to come about, not because of any serious assessment of the merits of the case. It suits a polity in which there is little scope for deliberately chosen public goods and people accept that politics is just a matter of “who gets what”. As powerful groups exploit the system ever more ruthlessly, those assumptions are overturned and the political order comes under extreme pressure.

When it comes to decisions that have massive consequences there is no substitute for near unanimity. A genuine public good needs to be seen as good by nearly everybody, and when it comes to imposing burdens or restrictions on every body, near unanimity about their acceptability is necessary if they are to be obeyed. In the context of adversarial politics this near unanimity is usually unattainable, even on matters of great importance. Our present party systems, based on electoral politics have certainly generated such a situation, not because of the faults of politicians, but because of the logic of the struggle for power. Everybody has to engage in the power struggle if they are to have any influence on the outcome.

Undoubtedly the kleroterians are right in thinking that substituting choice by lot for legislative office would remove the worst of these pressures. But I have come to think that as long as majority rule is the framework in which important policy decisions are made, the same problems will emerge, even in the absence of political parties and careers. There will still be a strong temptation for “right-thinking” people to gather together to get sufficient votes to beat the rest, without any serious engagement with their various concerns. The dynamics of majority voting are, I think, very strong. But, of course I may be proved wrong in practice. There is no empirical evidence.

My other misgiving is that even if I am wrong, similar doubts may occur to others. More importantly the symbolism of the vote is very deeply entrenched in democratic theory and practice. People are very reluctant to give up their vote to randomly chosen fellow citizens. Introducing sortition as a practical proposal will require a long familiarisation process in which it is shown to be effective in small doses.

More radically, I want to remove the process of policy discussion and opinion formation from counting heads or any other procedure based on power to decide. In stead I look to institutionalise fully public debate in depth, the outcome of which may be a near unanimous public opinion on some particular question.

14 Responses

  1. Would this be consensus after the Occupy model?


  2. You’ve just made an argument for Plato’s pilot, and the problem of how we get to true expertise with intellectually and informationally inadequate human beings. The alternatives seem to be to find an elite group of wise men and follow them, or stop trying to manage the future leaving it to the operation of the marketplace, if there is time, which there usually is not. Forget the nonsense about the wisdom of the crowd, which is seldom wiser than its wisest members. A random sample of ignorance is till ignorant.

    Other proposals are to turn over human governance to superintelligent machines, but the most intelligent of machines are still limited by available reliable information. Quantum computing might partially overcome such limitations, but that can only take us so far.
    The standard solution of nature is to have many scattered colonies of a species, which try various strategies, most of which will fail, leaving perhaps one survivor. It is natural selection that offers such hope as we have, but not on one planet. We need to become a starfaring species.


  3. Protest movements like Occupy have their role in community life, but the sort of consensus model at issue in my proposals is institutional and mainstream, if you must pigeon-hole it.


  4. constitutionalism

    The same molecules of H20 make up ice, water, steam and clouds, depending only on the pattern s in which their natural, constant powers are arranged to interact.

    The people who give us science are just like the rest of us, but working in rational roles. You don’t need superior beings to do extraordinary things, just appropriate forms of organised interaction.

    The fundamental flaw in Western thinking that springs from Plato is the belief that if a complex has properties that its components do not have on their own, it must be because the complex acquires that property from some superior source.

    In fact the emergent properties arise from the pattern in which the components are organised.


  5. RE: …’emergent properties arise from the pattern in which the components are organized.’

    I am reminded of:
    *A Pattern Language* by Christopher Alexander, et al (in the field of architecture and the built environment)
    *Homo Ludens (Playing Man)* by Johan Huizinga (a study of the play element in culture).

    It seems to me that to get the full benefit of evolutionary play — encouraging maximum field testing of the ‘sports’ — we would want ‘everybody in’. Thereby allowing the most successful pattern to emerge.

    But I resonate strongly to John’s concerns about majoritarianism. Statistical representation does not solve that.


  6. Statistical representation does not solve the problems of majoritarianism, but it can radically reduce the amount of manipulation in a decision-making system. Then the question is how to make best use of the citizens we have randomly selected.

    From around the world over the last 45 years we have available hundreds of examples of randomly selected American-style citizen juries (“policy juries”), Canadian-style citizen assemblies, Danish-style consensus conferences, German-style planning cells, Austrian-style civic councils, and other such citizen deliberative councils. These strongly demonstrate the capacity of 10-160 ordinary people in small well-facilitated ad hoc groups to become well informed and deliberate on public issues with high quality recommendations. Many experiments also suggest ways to engage the broader public (who do not have the benefit of the informational and facilitative services provided to these “mini-public” councils) before, during, and after a citizen council’s deliberations (see http://bit.ly/1S4lSEL for a remarkable example even prior to social media – an initiative that actually spread vicarious experience of such a process to millions of Canadian citizens).

    Some of these initiatives use various forms of voting, some supermajorities, some consensus, and some move beyond ordinary consensus to evoking co-creative “aha!” realizations. There are variations of all these. My favorite consensus processes clarify and address the concerns and/or the deep needs (not wants) of all parties involved. Every year more powerful ways are developed to move such councils creatively over, under, and/or through their conflicting views and even creatively use the energies and information contained in those conflicts to generate greater wisdom and possibility.

    I see it as a sad waste of energy to debate sortition versus consensus versus majoritarianism, etc. when we could be exploring together the gifts and limitations every approach brings to the search for the capacity to generate group wisdom in our social affairs, and what role each approach would best play in a system designed to further that capacity. There are tremendous opportunities here for learning, discovery, and development. My own work in this field I call “co-intelligence” and “a vision of wise democracy”.

    Regarding the relevance of Christopher Alexander’s “pattern language” to this topic, I encourage anyone interested to check out the GroupWorks pattern language card deck at http://groupworksdeck.org.

    Tom Atlee


  7. John,

    > That is because I don’t think equality of power is the supreme objective or that sortition alone is sufficient to achieve it, or many other important objectives.

    This seems somewhat of a strawman since (I believe) equality of power is usually conceived by democrats as means to an end – good outcomes. I think I have already referred you to my argument for sortition as “an extension of self-representation”.

    Could you respond to this argument?


  8. who?

    We need everybody in there.

    Yes, particularly at the beginning and as offering criticisms of what is going on at every stage, but decisions do have to come down to manageable group.


  9. Tom Atlee

    Thanks for a constructive piece, with which I mostly agree. It suggests a few comments
    The first is that it is a puzzle why, after so many successful instances all over the world, the movement has made little difference to public opinion or normal practice
    I suggest the following interconnected reasons.
    1. Lack of coordinated ,strongly resourced promotion. Solution: a well-resourced, dedicated foundation. There is no great demand for them, and when politicians propose them the public suspects they are dodging their responsibilities.
    2. The juries are usually set up in conjunction with governmental bodies. Those bodies seek their aid only because they don’t know what to do, want to put the onus for an unpopular decision on to somebody else, or get endorsement for what they would do anyway. The governmentals treat the “consultation” as just that, and pick and choose what suits them in recommendations. There are locally valuable results, but no momentum.
    Solution: break away and initiate inquiry into problems we identify as important. Tell the politicians what thoroughly infomed and deliberated public opinion wants them to do.
    3. Although the sortition for the jury is open, the public feel that they do not have any input into its deliberations. It seems just like any other behind-closed-doors committee that may accept submissions, but is not open for debate.
    Solution: Start with an open forum on the internet, where every intervention is up there for anybody to contest. Have professional editors sort the posts by content and star those that seem best to express certain relevant considerations. Follow up the general debate with a suitable attempt to draw a practical conclusion from it.


  10. Yoram >a theory of sortition, part 2

    1. I heartily agree with everything you say in this par. I would add that such groups normally try to identify what considerations lie behind people’s preferences. That enables them to suggest ways in which those considerations might converge towards a common conclusion, instead of taking people’s initial preferences as final. Failing that, it at least paves the way to wards a fair compromise based on mutual understanding that is short of agreement.

    2. Again, I largely agree. Having often spoken in terms of interests, I’m now inclined to talk of considerations rather than interests, for several reasons, some of which relate to my earlier remarks about getting down to the considerations underlying preferences. Another reason is that interests tend to be defined in terms of opposites and that may occlude the ways in which from other points of view the competing interests have common interests. Also any scheme of categorising people by interests is likely to be oversimplified. We all have multiple and multi-dimensional interests. So I want the question of which considerations are relevant to a problem to emerge out of an open debate in which various people press the case for the considerations they see as important.

    That being said, I’m still inclined to give those most substantially affected the last say when it comes to settling on a practical conclusion. I do fear that in open discussion theorisers, amateur and professional, may lose sight of the nitty gritty.

    I emphasise again that the point of politics is always some public good to be created or encouraged or some public evil to be averted. If the good is to be appreciated or the restrictions on liberty needed to avert evils are to be accepted, there must be general agreement about them, at least for practical purposes for the time being. But it is desirable that public goods be seen in a more positive light. The most fundamental of them are a very important part of one’s identity. From that point of view part of self-representation they are one’s own concerns, not just some compromise we are forced to make.

    Conclusion. I’m again in agreement, but would have many comments to add, which can be gleaned from my book. So I’ll call a halt here, but remain open to further discussion, of course.


  11. Kleroterians: You explain “a group formed with “a passionate belief in sortition” as its bond.”

    Well not quite. There is another strand — Distribution of prizes like university places, jobs and housing (look under the ‘About’ tab above)

    I share John Burnheim’s disquiet about the effectiveness of Sortition, but I might add ‘I am not a Philosopher’ so I’ll leave it at that!


  12. John,

    >We need everybody in there.

    And how might that be possible?


  13. Conall,

    Are you arguing that sortition has only to do with the political potential of the lot? My understanding was that the political was only a subset (hence the title of Dowlen’s book). If that’s the case then you are also passionate about sortition as an impartial means of distributing scarce goods.


  14. John,

    Given that Yoram’s reference was to representation I’m puzzled why you find it to your taste, given that you have no interest in the topic. You’ve said several times that demarchy is designed to discover good public policy and has nothing to do with political representation.


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