Voting, sortition and power

Behind debates about forms and procedures of representation in political decision-making are the more fundamental questions about collective power, for what purposes ought coercive power be exercised and by what means. That in turn raises the question: who should have a say in what decisions, and about what constitutes having a say. A lot of discussion of the relative merits of representation by sortition or by voting ignores these questions with unfortunate results.

Historically in our Western traditions of democracies arose from struggles against monarchies and aristocracies in which the vast majority were subjects of the sovereign. Even as late as the First World War, that notion lingered on. Even in Australia the standard form of praise for those killed in the war was that they died “For King and Country”. We were Australian citizens, but subjects of the King of England, our sovereign lord.

One strand of various democratic traditions has seen democracy as the transfer of sovereignty from the monarch to the people. The old sovereign achieved and sustained power by force of arms. Of course wise monarchs tried to win the loyalty of their subjects by adorning their power in various ways and taking good care of their subjects. In return, grateful subjects sang God Save the King with joy and enthusiasm. The central activity of the monarchy remained war, and success in war was so glorious a thing as to override all other considerations. One sort of democracy saw the nation, the people, as the new incarnation of sovereignty and its power. That conception is alive and kicking in Donald Trump and his admirers. Emotionally it is very powerful. It is easily rejuvenated in new trappings to meet the needs of each age and culture.

The opposite development saw democracy as subjecting sovereignty to the rule of law and limiting the scope of sovereignty in the name of freedom of individuals and minority groups, even against the will of the people, where a majority made unjustified demands on individuals and minorities. In such a republic, the supreme deciders were to be reason and human rights. In practice, however, liberal democracy did not break free from the old conception of politics in one important respect.

Replacing raw power with majority voting was in many respects a great improvement, but in others it was most unsatisfactory. Like old power struggles, majority voting divided the nation unto winners and losers, almost always assigning unpopular or despised minorities to permanently inferior treatment. Appeals to ideals of equality were rarely strong enough to counter their lack of voting power. More fundamentally, it was all too easy for voting to fall into war by non-violent means. Struggles for power distorted and obscured substantial issues of well-being and fairness in the name of ideologies, spurious fears and powerful interests.

Votes are no longer expressions of considered views but units of power. Just like the sovereign of old, the voter asked to explain her vote can simply say: because that is my will, how I choose to use my power. People who think that way are very easily persuaded to use their power to support candidates and organisations whose specific promise is to increase their power. Winning, crushing opposition, becomes the supreme achievement. Most of us are thrilled by winning, even in the most trivially contrived games of chance. But in real power games many things of real importance are sacrificed to the goddess of victory.

In sortition by contrast, there is no struggle for power, no teams lined up to do battle, no mobilisation under ideological banners. If there are winners their only boast can be that they have done a good job on behalf of their constituency, which is the community as a whole. If their final decision depends on a majority vote, the winners still need to explain why they deserved to win before they can claim any laurels.

Sortition is not particularly exciting. Can it win the popular vote?

8 Responses

  1. John,

    >Sortition is not particularly exciting. Can it win the popular vote?

    Probably not, for all the reasons that you outline in your thoughtful post. The best we can hope for is that the struggle for power between the advocates of the various camps will be subject to the well-informed and measured judgment of a representative sample of citizens. I think deliberative democrats do need to be a little more realistic — the ideal scenario that you outline in your last paragraph is unlikely to be realised any time soon as the forceless force of the better argument is very hard to communicate to those who did not participate in the deliberative process. We live in an age of mass democracy and the public sphere is subject to all the ravages that Habermas described in his book.


  2. John,
    “Sortition is not particularly exciting. Can it win the popular vote?”
    The question shows that the notion is growing that voting could be the tool to get sortition in by the back door. This is our chosen implementation path in Vienna.

    Some of our fellows here may know prediction markets, it is an uncannily accurate tool to forecast human action like voting and purchasing intentions.

    We are currently using such a system – Prediki – to forecast the likely vote share of four alternative democratic models in an upcoming election: sociocracy, liquid democracy, fractional anarchy, and the Vienna “open democracy” proposal, which combines elements of Popper, Hayek, Mises and Johns first book IDP? to a scientific, falsifiable democracy model.

    We expect final predictions by the end of July but initial results are quite encouraging and indicate that democracy may be possible.


  3. John,
    “the supreme deciders were to be reason and human rights.”

    Human action always originates from individuals. The metaphors cannot act or decide. So by logic, your statement could mean that not a king, not a president, not “the” people must decide, but a specially qualified subset of people who are good at reasoning.

    Would you agree?

    BTW: I really dislike “human rights”. We should rather develop a declaration of “human obligations”.


  4. Yoram

    That last question was a bit of a rhetorical device to shake people up. I don’t think the situation is hopeless. I agree with your speculation about the way forward, but I see it as dependent on open discussion of the sort I ‘m advocation. Sortition alone is not enough.

    HoweverI also think there is another aspect that must not be neglected, namely familiarity. We need to promote sortition in as many contexts as possible, so that it becomes familiar. It is very natural for people to say that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know, and dismiss sortition simply because it’s unfamiliar. Part two of my book, which nobody reads explores this line.

    Where people are familiar with choice by lot in jury service they often see it mainly as a matter of distributing unpleasant work as fairly as possible. Only sadists enjoy sentencing their fellows to prison or death.

    There are many uses for sortition in watchdog roles and in circumstances where the people with an interest in certain matters are scattered and communication among them is poor, so that elections are unsatisfactory, because the candidates are unknown to most potential voters.


  5. Hubertus

    << human action always originates from individuals.

    Yes, but also NO! Individuals rarely originate any of the ideas ir networks of interaction interns of which they operate. Most people in a certain situation with similar ideas and objectives act in the same way, irrespective of differences of talent.

    Differences of talent are often limiyrf to specific activities. that means that tests of succession certain tasks may not be indicative of special talent in others,

    But suppose we do have such test. People who are generally better in a wide range of respects are likely to be very successful in life and take their place in various elites. Those elites have very definite interests, giving them particular perspectives on social issues. It may be important that they are heard and have an educational effect on the less successful, but in common with many other members of the professional elites, I don't think we can be trusted to understand the needs of other members of the community, who may be much better in another respects.


  6. John,

    “in common with many other members of the professional elites, I don’t think we can be trusted to understand the needs of other members of the community”

    Agreed that elites should not decide for all, but it seems I failed to explain the stratification sortition component after the foresight testing.

    A basic fact first: We have found a surprising variety of people who are good at forecasting outcomes in a certain topic. Socio-demographic characteristics were highly distributed, gender, income, surprisingly even education, maybe with the exception of good forecasters having more time (or making more time for a certain topic).

    Hence, sortition weighted by socio-demographics is feasible. Stratified sortition means that the innate desires, believes, wants, attitudes by which the totality of people would decide after similar deliberation, will be represented with a good confidence level in our stratified foresight-weighted sample. Not just that of an elite.

    The only difference between such a sample and the total population is more knowledge and foresight in the subject matter. And that is a very good thing. If somebody were to ask for the opposite that would be tantamount to demanding that the ignorant and shortsighted – the ones who cannot even make good decisions for themselves – get to make the decisions for all of us. This would clearly be grotesque.


  7. For Hubertus

    My apologies. I failed to address your stratified sortition, to which I can see little objection. I’m not sure about how much difference it would make, but it is worth trying in my opinion.

    It could be reassuring to people who doubt the ability of the “average” punter to understand many important issues. Such reassurance could be very important to general acceptance of sortition. As Descartes remarked long ago nearly everybody thinks they have an above average endowment of good sense. If that is so they may believe that sortition subjects them to people who are inferior in that respect, and reject it accordingly.
    I am conscious of the need for empathy as well as predictive skills, but only experience can decide if that is a problem

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Dear John,

    “I am conscious of the need for empathy as well as predictive skills, but only experience can decide if that is a problem.”

    I take it this means we agree that both, empathy and skills, are needed for demarchy or open democracy.

    The empathy requirement should be achieved just as well as in your original demarchy model, at a minimum relatively compared to electoral democracies.

    Our second step, stratified sortition AFTER the foresight pre-test, is designed to give us a well-balanced decision making body significantly more empathic to the population’s values and goals, compared to a decision making body comprised of election-ennobled politicians.

    Here is why: Fiorina & Abrams present evidence in “Disconnect” (2012) for the following conclusion: “In America today, there is a disconnect between an unrepresentative political class and the citizenry it purports to represent. … The political process today not only is less representative than it was a generation ago and less supported by the citizenry, but the outcomes of that process are at a minimum no better.”

    Best wishes,


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