Loïc Blondiaux on a citizen senate


A France Insoumise rally at the Place de la République in Paris, July 3rd 2017, Thomas Samson/AFP

La Croix has a short interview with Loïc Blondiaux on the idea of a “citizen senate”. Original in French here. My translation, corrections welcome.

What could a citizen senate look like?

Compiled by Béatrice Bouniol, Sept. 22nd, 2017

On the eve of the senate elections, Loïc Blondiaux, professor of political science specializing in participative democracy, discusses the idea of citizen senate and the questions it raises.

La Croix: Why does this idea of a “citizen senate” come up in political debates?

Loïc Blondiaux: The idea of a citizen senate indicates two major developments. First, the return to consciousness of the idea of sortition, which was suppressed for centuries. More and more political players and thinkers are considering the possibility of using it in different ways: citizen juries in a more-or-less ad-hoc setting, citizen assemblies aimed toward an institution change or a new sortition-based institution. Secondly, we witness today an increase in proposals that aim to modify the workings of government bodies, to open them more toward civil society and toward discussion with citizens.

What are the differences between these proposals?

L. B.: They have to be examined according to how radical their nature is. An institution based exclusively on sortition, an assembly with a mixed composition and a third chamber are all very different. The first proposal, the most radical, creates, it seems to me, a conflict of legitimacy between elected citizens and allotted citizens. In order to avoid this crisis of legitimacy I am more of a supporter of mixed systems where we start giving to allotted institutions power which has no equivalent in the two existing chambers. With others I also promote the creation a third chamber, a citizen chamber, the chamber of the future which will replace the existing Economic and Social Council.

What will an allotted citizen senate change?

L. B.: It all depends on the powers that it is given. If the allotted citizen senate is awarded true legislative powers, and sanction powers, that will constitute an a reform that raises several questions. Among those, the modalities of allotment, the potential hardships that can be inflicted on certain allotted members, the possible presence among the members of political activists, the ways in which expert assistance is provided to the assembly, the length of the term of the citizen senators, and the compensation provided for putting their professional activities on hold… Like is often the case, the devil is in the details and putting in place such an assembly will surely be very complicated.

Above all such a body would pose the central question of political philosophy: the question of responsibility. What will be the capacity of citizens who are not allotted to control, to influence, and finally to challenge the decisions taken by the assembly? Because these new representatives will not seek another term, how can citizens have sway on them?

11 Responses

  1. Above all such a body would pose the central question of political philosophy: the question of responsibility. What will be the capacity of citizens who are not allotted to control, to influence, and finally to challenge the decisions taken by the assembly? Because these new representatives will not seek another term, what how can citizens have sway on them?

    These are important questions that cannot be dismissed via logical syllogisms on the representativity of small groups. I agree with Blondiaux that this will inevitably mean a mixed system of governance.

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  2. Keith, I don’t understand what Blondiaux’s concern is in the passage you quote.

    The virtue of jury assemblies is of course that they are a representative cross-section of the public, and that they are not accountable for their decisions (do not face re-election, nor the need to raise campaign funds and have the backing of a party and special interests). A fair and democratic process designed to ensure an informed decision is called for, but not options for lobbyists, busybodies, political parties and political activists to “control,” “influence” and “have sway” over the jury’s decisions, (other than by the force of their arguments and evidence in the context of fair and democratic procedures designed to ensure an informed decision by the jury).

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  3. Simon,

    Blondiaux implicitly assumes that there is necessarily a conflict of interests between the delegates and the public. This is of course indeed the case for elected delegates, but is largely not the case for allotted delegates. Thus in electoral system the voters are supposed to have some sort of a leverage over the elected or they would not serve the public interest. Rather absurdly, that leverage is supposedly the fact that elected may be re-elected.

    Of course, as you point out, this view of things does not match the reality of a sortition-based system. One might as well ask what sway does the public of the future hold over the public of today. If no such sway exists, how can we allow the public of today to make decisions that affect the public of the future?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Simon,

    I’m sure Blondiaux would endorse the norms governing deliberative democracy, the difficult problem is designing political institutions to realize these norms.

    Yoram:> a conflict of interests between the delegates and the public

    They are not delegates as they have no imperative mandate, they are randomly-selected persons who (according to you) will follow their own interests.

    >One might as well ask what sway does the public of the future hold over the public of today. If no such sway exists, how can we allow the public of today to make decisions that affect the public of the future?

    That’s a very good question — arguably the Achilles’ Heel of democratic governance. Hoppe uses it as an argument in favour of hereditary monarchy, as freeholders in general like to pass on their personal estate in good order to their descendants (the inverse of the tragedy of the commons).

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  5. Yoram, he does seem to suggest a conflict of interest between the allotted and the public, as you say. I’ve no idea why he does so. In a well-designed jury assembly system there of course won’t be, which is exactly one of the reasons for such assemblies, as you know. (Yes, of course due to statistical variation of random samples there could sometimes be some divergence between the interests of the majority in a jury assembly and the majority of the public, however this is far far less of a problem than the conflict of interest problems with popularly elected assemblies. Also, such relatively minimal conflict of interest problem as there may be is at least on a basis of political equality, specifically the equal chance and right of everyone to be randomly selected, rather than on the basis of the heavily skewed playing fields characteristic of electoral democracy.)

    Keith, yes good design is of course needed, and bad design could of course create a conflict of interest between an allotted assembly and the public (such as perhaps allotted legislators who serve five year terms, and receive much higher than average rate of pay plus fat pensions and perks after their five years of service). “Going native” is a real concern, as you have noted, that good design needs to prevent.

    Keith: Hoppe, really? He’s not exactly a good example of reason and evidence based thinking, nor a supporter of democracy, as far as I know. I’ve not read the argument of his you mention, but it does sound promising as unintended entertainment. Despots typically serve their own interests and sometimes that of their heirs, not those of the people. The owners of the slave plantations in the Old South no doubt wished to pass them on to their children in good order, maybe with even more slaves and land, and many of them were no doubt pleased about poor whites being used as canon fodder to defend slavery.

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  6. Simon, I introduced Hoppe as at least he attempts to answer what is, as Yoram pointed out, an extremely difficult question. If people always vote for their own interests, there is no good reason to believe that they will pay much due to the interests of future generations. As to whether or not his work is evidence-based, he would cite the fact that owner-occupiers tend to look after their property better than tenants, and seek to extrapolate the principle to the nation state. And here today, gone tomorrow politicians are content to run up huge debts which will have to be repaid by future generations. I think you are also wrong to conflate monarchy and despotism.

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  7. Owner-occupiers have not been noted for looking out for the best interests of their serfs, peasants, slaves, tenant farmers and labourers, which is analogous to whether monarchs who rule can be expected to care about the common people they rule over. Unsurprisingly, monarch-rulers have not been noted for looking out for the best interests of the common people, some of who have been their serfs, slaves, peasants, and so on. Does it not occur to the Hoppe that the interests of monarch-rulers are in conflict with those of the common people, just as those of an owner-occupier are in conflict with the landless labourers, tenant farmers and slaves who may work on their estate?

    We of course agree that the focus of popularly elected politicians on winning the next election is one of the problematic features of electoral democracy.

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  8. Simon,

    >We of course agree that the focus of popularly elected politicians on winning the next election is one of the problematic features of electoral democracy.

    I would describe it more as a mixed blessing, the shortcomings of which need to be addressed by extra-democratic checks and balances (to which I devote half a chapter of my thesis). I find the argument for a mixed constitution persuasive, and monarchy (not dictatorship) could have a significant role to play. It’s not particularly helpful to introduce feudal characters (serfs, peasants, slaves etc) into a serious discussion of our current political malaise. Note also that Hansen puts the power of modern elected monarchs (the examples he chooses are Bush and Blair) on a par with Louis XIV, who claimed that l’état, c’est moi. So don’t kid yourself we’ve put an end to the era of monarchical power — the only difference being that modern monarchs can screw up and then walk away from the problem. It will be interesting to see what happens during the reign of King Charles III, as he certainly does seem to be passionately concerned with long-term environmental issues.

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  9. […] Croix has recently had an interview with Loïc Blondiaux about the idea of an allotted senate. A few days later, La Croix published two more pieces on this […]

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  10. Keith:>It’s not particularly helpful to introduce feudal characters (serfs, peasants, slaves etc) into a serious discussion of our current political malaise.

    You introduced Hoppe’s argument for the feudal idea of hereditary monarchy, based on the claim that owner-occupiers take good care of their estates. I’m simply pointing out that owner-occupiers are not noted for serving the interests of those they have power over, and neither were hereditary monarchs when they ruled.

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  11. […] Bouniol has been showing some interest in sortition in her stories at La Croix. Last November, on the occasion of the publishing of a new […]

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