The false choice: Should the passengers fly the airplane or should the pilots?

There’s a new illustration (January 2017) from a New Yorker cartoonist that depicts a man standing up on an airplane and saying: “These smug pilots have lost touch with regular passengers like us. Who thinks I should fly the plane?” The crowd of passengers all raise their hands.


This cartoon has received over 35,800 likes and 19,600 retweets on Twitter and sparked coverage and a debate in USA Today, “‘The New Yorker’ mocks Trump voters and triggers a debate on (smug) experts.”

This simple illustration captures the false dilemma that is perpetuated in more complex and subtle ways in global culture, scholarship, media, international development, and other channels. The false dilemma is between supposedly letting the masses rule (and ending up with Trump, Brexit, or worse) or having the most qualified, the experts rule (presumed to be the “rational” option). In viewing this cartoon, you only have two options: either you’re irrational and support Trump (or his equivalents) storming the cockpit and grabbing the controls or you’re rational and support expert rule, experts flying the plane. There is no alternative question to be asked here. This limits the debate to deciding between one or another oligarchy. The only question then is which oligarchy is the least worst?

I modified the image caption and tweeted it back at the author:

Pilots - Democracy.jpg

The answer to the riddle in this cartoon is that either way you answer the question posed, you’ll end up with oligarchy, elite capture, disempowerment of the people. The answer to the riddle is that you lose either way. The real question here is not who should fly our airplane (whether experts or the angry demagogue backed by the mob should rule), but who should decide where we are all headed. Should we all decide democratically (using sortition)? Or should one or another oligarchic set of leaders decide?

To use this cartoonist’s own metaphor, pilots don’t decide to fly the plane wherever they feel like it; they fly to the destination where all the passengers want to go, where they bought tickets for. Doing otherwise is called hijacking.

Notably, it’s a Twitter user who explains what’s wrong with this cartoon. Udayan Majumdar (@yudi15) responds: “@WillMcPhail @NewYorker then again politics have no fixed qualification unlike pilots. So dis satire is stupid…

People at large generally seem to feel and know that something is wrong with these two choices; there is an intuition that the “only” two choices (this or that oligarchy ruling) are both bad. But the problem in this debate is that other options do not come up. This false dilemma has such a stranglehold that it is impossible even to imagine other options. The immediacy of a perpetual dire threat dictates that one must always choose sides between oligarchies right now.

Udayan Majumdar’s tweet that “politics have no fixed qualification” sounds just like Jacques Rancière (discussing Plato): “the distinguishing feature of politics is the existence of a subject who ‘rules’ by the very fact of having no qualifications to rule.”[1] “What thus characterizes a democracy is pure chance or the complete absence of qualifications for governing.”[2] The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning seems rarely to be drawn in either popular debates or political theory. Daniel Bensaïd is one of the few commentators on Rancière that I have seen who goes all the way. He states: “Hence the drawing of lots is the logical conclusion” of Rancière’s arguments.[3] But Bensaïd seems skeptical of sortition.[4] (Why doesn’t Rancière, a radical democrat, explicitly explore the potential of sortition in depth? When asked at the “Pedagogics of Unlearning” workshop at Trinity College Dublin in 2014, Rancière did say sortition is something that should be tried out.[5])

Majumdar does not raise sortition in his further tweets. Nowhere in the debate over this cartoon is anything like sortition mentioned (besides my one tweet at the author).

This cartoon makes me wonder about one key question: When there is such widespread dissatisfaction with both the pilots (expert, technocratic rule) and the carefully managed “democratic” processes for mass participation (that also result in oligarchic rule), why is it so difficult for sortition to gain traction? It seems like sortition ought to be an easy and obvious sell in such an environment. Why isn’t it? Why don’t people go all the way to the logical conclusion of democracy? Why do people keep resigning themselves to supporting the least worst oligarchy … and then often pretending it’s democracy?

What are the anxieties of sortition? I’d be very interested to hear the thoughts of others, and I’m working on some thoughts of my own to post.


[1] Jacques Rancière. “Ten Theses on Politics.Theory & Event, vol. 5 no. 3, 2001.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Daniel Bensaïd. “Permanent Scandal.” In Giorgio Agamben et al. Democracy in What State? Columbia University Press, 2011, p. 38.

[4] Bensaïd asserts: “The radical alternative to the majoritarian principle, the drawing of lots, is no more than a ‘least-bad’ option. It is not surprising that the idea should be bruited about once again, if only in mythical form as a symptom of the crisis of our current democratic institutions. … The straightforward substitution of sortition for representation would thus signify not only the abolition of the State, but of politics in the sense of deliberation out of which may arise proposals and projects to be accomplished.” (Ibid., pp. 37–38.)

[5] As reported by a workshop participant.

24 Responses

  1. @Jonathan: Why isn’t it? Because like in your dilemma both these options in their standard form demonstrably have serious disadvantages. No need to go over these again.

    What is missing in the discussion is … progress. The debate keeps comparing ancient tools like the hammer (elected representative democracy) with a screwdriver (sortition democracy). The use of the Kleroterion metapher on this site is proof to my point.

    Instead, we must develop a modern power-tool to reflect the advances in information technology and behavioural sciences.

    The challenge is to try these innovations out in practice (1% inspiration, 99% perspiration), fail and learn, and improve till we have a winner.

    For example, the current Vienna model for New Demarchy combines four tools. Two for information gathering from citizens, of which one specialised for diagnostic and one for prognostic fielding. Two for decision making: a knowledge-weighted sociodemographic deliberation process for policy decisions and decision control, and traditional general elections to legitimise the demarchic party’s innovative process vs. that of traditional oligarchic parties.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jonathan,

    >To use this cartoonist’s own metaphor, pilots don’t decide to fly the plane wherever they feel like it; they fly to the destination where all the passengers want to go, where they bought tickets for.

    That’s a pretty exact analogy for electoral democracy — airlines/political parties offer a choice of destinations and passengers/electors buy tickets/vote. As you can’t buy a ticket to a destination that has not been offered, you are putting the cart before the horse.

    >The real question here is not who should fly our airplane (whether experts or the angry demagogue backed by the mob should rule), but who should decide where we are all headed. Should we all decide democratically (using sortition)?

    In the sortition model a sub-set of all citizens makes the choice, but the equivalent in your analogy is a subset of all passengers sitting down and examining the airline brochures, comparing the safety record and making a more informed decision than most passengers have the time and inclination. Of course some sortinistas reject the market analogy, but you don’t appear to, judging by the above.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. @hjhofkirchner: That sounds fascinating. Is this the best description of this model: Is there more material about this that you would recommend reading?

    Specific to your point, my question is more along these lines: Is the Vienna model for New Demarchy gaining widespread support in Austria and elsewhere? If so, that’s wonderful. If not, why not? What are the concerns or anxieties that people have that prevent widespread acceptance of the Vienna model for New Demarchy? Why does reluctance to adopt the Vienna model for New Demarchy persist despite the obvious failures of the dominant alternatives?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Keith,

    Thanks for helping to clarify things. Yes, that analogy is problematic and can be interpreted in ways I wouldn’t agree with.

    I was thinking the “smug pilots [who] have lost touch” are the rulers, the airplane is the polity (e.g., the country), the passengers are the demos, and the destination is public policy. The choice presented in the illustration is for the demos to decide whether public policy will be determined by either the expert rulers or a non-expert ruler who is fed up with the experts. There is no option to change the system of oligarchic rule and instead have the demos itself determine public policy — with input from experts as the demos determines. To make the analogy better, yet still imprecise, this could be viewed as a chartered plane, rather than a commercial airline route. But I don’t mean to make a market analogy.

    It’s probably better to jettison this whole analogy. But I was trying to gesture at a way out using this airline illustration.


  5. Jonathan,

    >There is no option to change the system of oligarchic rule and instead have the demos itself determine public policy — with input from experts as the demos determines.

    That sounds good, but I’ve yet to encounter a workable proposal to put it into practice, for the simple reason that with sortition it’s not the “demos” that determines policy but a tiny number of randomly-selected persons — in other words another form of oligarchy, but one in which the demos is denied a choice as to who should represent them. Whilst it’s fair to say that (under certain strict conditions) the aggregate judgment of a randomly-selected microcosm is a surrogate for what the majority of the target population would choose under good conditions, the principle does not apply to individual speech acts, as the law of large numbers does not apply. And the market is also a pretty good way of aggregating judgment, hence it being the model for Surowiecki’s Wisdom of Crowds.

    It’s also the case that there is no historical precedent for such a proposal (including 5th and 4th century Athenian democracy), so it is little more than a pipe dream. And of course Socrates anticipated this cartoon 2,500 years ago, when he opined that we would not want to select pilots “by bean”.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. The funny thing is that the cartoon reuses the same example as Plato used when critizicing (ridiculing) the Athenian democracy 2500 years ago (well, he talked about a different vessel: a ship not an airplane)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Jonathan,


    Just like Socrates, whom the cartoonist knowingly or unknowingly paraphrases, the cartoon is radically anti-democratic rather than anti-sortition. The argument is that the people are too stupid to know what’s good for them (or at least the 46% who voted Trump – presumably Clinton is a certified pilot), thus elections produce transparently bad results and power should be held by aristoi rather than depend on the whims of the fickle hoi polloi.

    This argument is, in fact, a more consistent one than the argument that is more common today – that the hoi polloi should select the rulers via elections, but should not be given political power via sortition.

    As for the “no fixed qualification” argument: I think that misses the point, because the Socratic argument fails even if there were a “fixed qualification” for being a good ruler. For if there was such a clear cut qualification, then it would, being clear cut, be recognized by all (or at least by an overwhelming majority) and only people who meet this qualification would be elected.

    Now, this argument applies to a sortition-based system as well. If a clear cut qualification exists, the allotted would always follow the advice of people meeting the criterion. And in fact, the allotted are in a much better situation than the electorate as a whole to realize and follow the criteria relevant for recognizing whose advice should be followed in each individual case.

    Finally, regarding the resistance to sortition. I think the first and most formidable obstacle is not about sortition but about rejecting elections. Such a rejection goes against a lifetime of indoctrination. As David Van Reybrouck says: We depise the elected, and we venerate elections. Yes, to reject elections an alternative has to be offered, but any alternative that would not involve voting would come up against the electoral indoctrination.

    Yes, other obstacles are sortition specific – or to be more accurate, are obstacles that specific to democratic proposals. The dominant ideology is officially democratic, but it has elitist undercurrents. Those undercurrents used to be much stronger, but they still exist – the cartoon is a manifestation of such ideas, and they have been on relatively open display in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and the Trump election.

    That said, I think it is a relatively fragile wall we face. Electoralism is on a decades-long slide and it is reaching crisis situation. It is likely that the electoral indoctrination will loosen its hold. Reversion to openly elitist ideas are a part of this process.

    We should not be optimistic and self-assured enough as to believe that “what electoralism produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of democracy are equally inevitable”, but it does seem that the contradictions inherent in electoralism are a strong force that the elites are finding hard to handle, and that we, sortitionists, have an opportunity to help bring down the former and build up the latter.

    Liked by 4 people

  8. @ Jonathan – “Is the Vienna model for New Demarchy gaining widespread support in Austria and elsewhere?”

    The weblink you found is correct, it summarises the latest concept. There is also a meetup to it, as the Vienna Circle these days is more backward looking and not a good forum for this endeavour.

    We are now working on the first reality test of these Twelve Rules with an entrepreneurial mindset, i.e. find a real user, execute and then see if it makes them (and the citizens) happy or what to improve. We are pursuing two paths: One is inviting a few local governments to give it a try, pretty much like New Democracy Foundation does in Australia. The second path is more ambitious, we are talking to two political party organisations, one in Austria and one in Germany to try adopt the process internally.

    While this is still confidential, I do see a good chance that the second path will yield fastest practical results. All parties today are oligarchical, however some are philosophically quite compatible to sortition and root democracy.

    As you speak Dutch, I can send you the German language presentation we used to explain the method and toolset to these two parties if you wish.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Keith: “the demos is denied a choice as to who should represent them”

    There is a fallacy hidden in this statement. If we assume (just assume) that the average citizen lacks the knowledge to decide on a specific policy proposal, then them deciding on who should do it “for them” is just as uninformed. (Apart from some further disadvantages of such delegation, see Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge”.)

    Ergo: A working future sortition system will not entail such a choice. It needs a process to improve the likelihood of a more knowledgeable person being chosen, knowledge-weighted sortition. Vienna Rule §6 addresses this problem.


  10. Yoram Gat>: “What electoralism produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of democracy are equally inevitable.”

    Karl Marx>: “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 1848)

    Yet I was admonished by Peter Stone, the founder of this forum, for pointing out the close parallel between Gatism and Marxism. Yoram’s focus on the “contradictions” in, and need to “bring down”, electoralism along with his repeated emphasis on “indoctrination” (aka “false consciousness”) would appear to have a similar provenance. Unfortunately some of us “sortitionists” have no wish to be part of the revolutionary vanguard as we would prefer to introduce incremental improvements to our existing political arrangements, as past efforts to change society via revolutionary means have been disastrous.


    >If we assume (just assume) that the average citizen lacks the knowledge to decide on a specific policy proposal, then them deciding on who should do it “for them” is just as uninformed.

    Not so. In any case of expertise various heuristic shortcuts exist to distinguish between competent and incompetent persons. In professional life these are generally accreditation, whereas in democratic politics its more often a case of past record. It’s certainly the case that a political party that demonstrates incompetence is likely to be out of office for a decade or more until (it is assumed) they have learned from their mistakes or the other guys mess up even worse. One of the reasons Oakeshott fell out with Hayek was on account of the latter’s focus on rationalism at the expense of lived experience:

    “This is, perhaps, the main significance of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom—not the cogency of his doctrine, but the fact that it is a doctrine. A plan to resist all planning may be better than its opposite, but it belongs to the same style of politics.” Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics


  11. Sutherland wrote

    > Yet I was admonished by Peter Stone, the founder of this forum

    This is a good opportunity to remind readers once again that Sutherland is an admitted habitual liar who lies repeatedly and unabashedly even regarding the simplest, most easily verifiable matters and no credence whatsoever should be given to any assertion he makes.


  12. Peter certainly told me that he founded the forum and that Yoram agreed to administer it. And he admonished me for pointing out the clear parallels between Gatism and Marxism. Not that it really matters because Yoram has just acknowledged it himself (by changing just one word in the Marx and Engels citation).


  13. Sutherland wrote

    > Peter certainly told me that he founded the forum

    Again, it is worth remembering that nothing that Sutherland claims should be given any credence. Sutherland regularly attributes various ideas and statements to various people without any basis in fact. When confronted on his lies he flatly says that he has no time to substantiate his claims.


  14. >he has no time to substantiate his claims

    It was a private conversation (during a walk on the banks of the Seine if I remember correctly), not a sworn affidavit. It’s only of relevance if Yoram is claiming some sort of proprietorial droit de seigneur, allowing him to pollute a forum devoted to the study of sortition with antediluvian Marxist dogma.


  15. Your despicable attempts to police speech on this blog are a good match to your authoritarian proposals. You are such a wretch.


  16. Yoram,

    >You are such a wretch

    Wretched or not, my concern — as always — is that our hard work towards implementing sortition in the real world will be undermined by cod-Marxist student-revolutionary rhetoric. This is particularly important now that Google places our blog No.2 in a sortition keyword search.

    >your authoritarian proposals

    My proposal combines a free-market approach to representative isegoria with a statistically-representative approach to isonomia. Why is that authoritarian?


  17. Just to be clear: if “our” is meant to include both you and me, then there is no “our work” here. Your goals, ideas and methods have nothing to do with mine or with those of any person who is interested in democracy, or who adheres to basic intellectual honesty.


  18. I think we will have to leave that to the judgment of our (sic) peers. Note that I’ve never questioned your personal integrity, merely seeking to point out the intellectual provenance of Gatism (I can’t think of a generic term for your dogmatic aleatory fundamentalism).


  19. Jonathan,

    By way of background to this cartoon it is worth remembering that those pilots whom we are supposed to rely on have a record of killing hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq (among other places) with the The New Yorker cheering them on. With a record like this, it is hard to imagine that a random passenger would do any worse.


  20. Fast forward three years to a global pandemic, and all of a sudden this cartoon gains new relevance. Except everyone thinks they are epidemiologists and infectious disease control specialists now.


  21. Or maybe it’s the other way around?

    It seems that the pilots have again showed themselves completely incapable of managing any bit of turbulence in the air and thus show that the supposed professional competence they claim justifies their position of authority, as well as their significant privileges, is simply self-serving propaganda?

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Yoram,

    Why do you think that a random sample of citizens would have done any better?


  23. This cartoon compares the politics to a pilot, the Society to the plane and the people to passengers, who would be nothing more than a passive and waiting mass, in charge of the elite… This is completely fallacious

    The pilot is a specialist who manages a machine and then that’s it, which is a specific and technical function. Politics is not comparable to that, because it is in charge of more global, abstract things, and must deal with questions of values, legitimacy, law, justice, human relations, and power.
    Society is not a well-oiled machine and individuals are not passive, but active. And the result of their actions is what makes the Society.

    This cartoon says a lot about the conception that a certain urban elite has of society and of people. And it’s weird.

    Liked by 1 person

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