Shallit: The Sortition Solution

Mathematician and professor of computer science Jeffrey Shallit has a post on his blog in which he advocates for sortition. Some excerpts:

The US political system is clearly broken. … Proportional representation is often proposed as a solution to some of these problems. … But this doesn’t resolve the corruption and tribalism problems…

My solution is exotic but simple: sortition, or random representation. Of course, it’s not original with me: we use sortition today to form juries. But I would like to extend it to all legislative bodies.

Here is a brief outline of how it would work. Legislators would be chosen uniformly and randomly from a universal, publicly-available list; perhaps a list of all registered voters.

In each election period (say 2-5 years), a random fraction of all representatives would be completely replaced, perhaps 25-50%. This would allow some institutional memory and expertise to be retained, while insuring that incumbents do not have enough time to build up fiefdoms that lead to corruption.

Sortition could be phased in gradually. For the first 10 years, sortition could be combined with a traditional electoral system, in some proportion that starts small and eventually completely replaces the traditional electoral system. This would increase public confidence in the change, as well as avoiding the problem of a “freshman class” that would be completely without experience.

I suggest that we start with small state legislatures, such as New Hampshire, as an experiment. Once the experiment is validated (and I think it would be) it could move to replace the federal system.

Advantages

The new legislative body would be truly representative of the US population.

Issues would be decoupled from parties.

Difficult legislative choices will become easier: balancing the federal budget — traditionally one of the most difficult tasks in the existing system — turns out to be a brief and relatively trivial exercise for non-partisan citizen groups.

One significant motivation for corruption — getting donations for re-election — would essentially disappear.

A diverse elected body would be able to consider issues from a wide variety of different perspectives. Effective action could be taken where there is widespread public support (e.g., gun control).

Shallit concludes:

Sortition should be seriously considered.

21 Responses

  1. It is fun how people like to say that sortition is their idea (so many of them :), learned to be happy about it and humbly searching at the people who had the same idea a long time ago.

    On a more serious note, another proposal to apply sortition for the legislative power. I think that legislative is not the sector where sortition should be first applied. Executive power seems to me a better target than the legislative. To execute a decision you don’t need long studies whereas making a law requires a lot of skill and knowledge.

    Plus the exectuive power (in France) does everything to weakens the legislative (assemblée nationale et sénat) power. It seems that the executive power could use sortition to further weakens the legislative power (like it did recently with APB on the entrance to university).

    P.S: The sortition blog has now a twitter channel! read my last post about merit (pure auto-promotion here ;) https://twitter.com/Sortition_blog_ about the post http://www.stochocratie.org/2018/02/05/merit/

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  2. Romain,

    From your post:

    meritocratic ideas infest our societies

    Well put. It is a mental infestation. In our liberal world, merit is the last refuge of the elitist.

    Regarding using sortition for the executive: democracy is needed when political choices are made. If implementing legislation is mechanical and does not require judgement then it does not require political representation.

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  3. Yoram,

    Yes, but, as you regularly note, executive action DOES need democratic OVERSIGHT…. so some sort of review minipubllic needs to periodically be drafted to assess executive performance (including fealty to the the legislative intent), with power to remove the executive.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Yoram:> If implementing legislation is mechanical and does not require judgement then it does not require political representation.

    But it does require competence, in the same way that some flute players, pilots (and company executives) are more talented than others. Ordinary language would suggest that competent persons gained their role through their merit (in a particular domain), and the top echelon of such persons is generally described as an elite. And if executive governance does not require political representation then what is the rationale for selecting government executives by sortition (given that rotation is impossible in large states)?

    It worries me that if a tiny minority of commentators on this forum continues this visceral attack on competitive meritocracy then sortition will come to be viewed as a form of utopian social engineering rather than a serious programme for the improvement of democratic governance.

    Terry:> executive action DOES need democratic OVERSIGHT

    Absolutely. But this is entirely compatible with delegating executive tasks to those most competent to undertake them. Socrates’ objection to selecting flute players by bean is just as relevant today as it was 2,500 years ago.

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  5. Keith,

    But Socrates also argues that the professional flute player (just as the professional man of letters – author) are not the proper ultimate judges of their quality… but rather the people.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Keithsutherland > And if executive governance does not require political representation then what is the rationale for selecting government executives by sortition

    Because “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Sortition enables a way smoother rotation than election. It is natural (and mandatory) to think of a way out for people in charge when one uses sortition whereas this seems almost ludicrous with elections. Yet the demos constantly watches the executive power in a system using sortition, because it can take it away from the representatives (much more difficult in an elective system).

    Keithsutherland > It worries me that if a tiny minority of commentators on this forum continues this visceral attack on competitive meritocracy

    Why? You think meritocracy is a good system?

    Machine learning uses randomness, it uses it extensively. Speech recognition (if you speak to your phone) or self-driving car (the one that will bring your kids back from a party) use random number generators. Alphago zero, a recent IA, beat the world GO champion last year. It also uses randomness as its core like crazy. As a computational neuroscientist It makes me smile when one says that randomness isn’t a source of skills.

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  7. Romain,

    > Sortition enables a way smoother rotation than election

    Elections are an oligarchical mechanism and have no place in a democratic system. It seems to me that in a democratic system the executive should be professional, but accountable to an allotted body. This body should appoint the executive, monitor it closely and decide whether and when it needs to be replaced.

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  8. Keith is focused on the statistical representativeness sortition allows, and is uninterested (or dismissive) of the other beneficial uses of random selection. Some of the anti-corruption uses in the Italian City Republics (though replacing the aristocratic filter with some “qualification” filter) might be useful in selecting an executive. Even if it is to undercut the ego-mania fed by being purposely selected (whether by popular election or by a minipublic) as the “best” choice… adding a randomness element can restore a modicum of humbleness in the executive.

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  9. Terry:> the professional flute player (just as the professional man of letters – author) are not the proper ultimate judges of their quality… but rather the people.

    Absolutely. That’s why I support your argument (which now seems to be endorsed by Yoram) that the executive should be held to account by an allotted body, as in the Athenian democracy. It’s worth pointing out that most of the prosecutions were instigated by other elite actors as classical-era Athens was an intensely competitive society.

    Romain:> the demos constantly watches the executive power in a system using sortition, because it can take it away from the representatives.

    Once again I agree, but this is in no way incompatible with executives appointed on merit. In my proposal, political executives are not elected (a poor way of discovering competence), the shortlist is drawn up by head-hunters with the final selection made by an allotted body.

    >You think meritocracy is a good system?

    Yes I do when what we are seeking is competent persons. I don’t see the relevance of your examples from computational neuroscience —
    unless you are suggesting that we hand over the executive power to machines.

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  10. Terry,

    I’m more concerned about drawing a clear distinction between the (1) prophylactic (Blind Break) and (2) representational (Invisible Hand) functions of sortition. I’m glad we all now agree on the need for a “qualification filter” (even though this is just another word for meritocracy) but would prefer to see the final choice of candidates made according to the 2nd principle. I’m not sure that the first principle would invoke humbleness, or the ad agency for the National Lottery would be out of a job: http://www.richardolliveanimation.co.uk/css/images/lottery1_big.jpg

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  11. Yoram > Elections are an oligarchical mechanism and have no place in a democratic system.

    Vote takes place even in a jury system. Getting rid of elections seems like a daunting task.

    keithsutherland > Yes I do when what we are seeking is competent persons.

    So as a pure product of the french meritocratic system (classes préparatoire and école d’ingénieur, BTW I am promoting my research blog https://romaincaze.wordpress.com/ ;) you would think that I am more competent to decide than a lambda person. No need to read my research blog but I encourage you to read my post on merit (http://www.stochocratie.org/2018/02/05/merit/).

    I know that to succeed in such a system you need to answer questions as people expect you to, In other words, to follow the rules and be obedient to them. Machine learning people love randomness because it allows their algos to find unexpected solutions.. Our current meritocratic system fight against these outliers. But outliers could save us one day because they will find solutions nobody thought of.

    keithsutherland > unless you are suggesting that we hand over the executive power to machines.

    No I don’t, this is to say that researchers in machine learning use randomness because it works amazingly well. Where the most sophisticated deterministic learning algorithm fails miserably by repeating its mistake, simple stochastic algos do amazing things by innovating. This highlight another strength of sortition that is the introduction of novelty.

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  12. Romain:> So as a pure product of the french meritocratic system you would think that I am more competent to decide than a lambda person.

    The polity that Terry and myself are advocating presupposes a categorical distinction between deciders (the sovereign minidemos) and those who implement the decisions (government executives). Rousseau expressed this as a distinction between the moral and physical elements of governance. Efficient governance presupposes the selection of the most competent persons for the latter role, whereas the former will average towards the lambda person (collectively, but not individually). Head hunters (recruitment agencies) use a variety of metrics to determine domain-specific competence, not just what school you went to.

    >outliers could save us one day because they will find solutions nobody thought of.

    Agreed. That’s why I include a role for public initiatives, competitions (think the discovery of the solution to the longitude problem), and other innovative approaches. But this is openness, not randomness, and deals with the third aspect of governance (policy proposals). I think you are misguided to base your political proposals on your day job in cognitive neuroscience, especially as the epistemic benefits of randomness you are advocating have no connection to democracy. It’s also the case that a lambda person parachuted into a role that requires specialised knowledge and skills would be more likely to play safe by following the advice of the bureaucrats than someone who had been selected on the strength of her past merits in a relevant domain. This is one reason why the chief executives of successful corporations are not selected by lot (why do I get the impression I’m just stating the obvious?).

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  13. Romain,

    By elections I mean mass elections, not voting in a small body. Mass elections are inherently oligarchical. Majority voting in a small body is a democratic mechanism.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Yoram:> Majority voting in a small body is a democratic mechanism.

    What is the threshold between a small and mass body? In the past you have stated that the Athenian council was democratic, but not the assembly, so presumably it’s somewhere between 500 and 6,000. And what if there are charismatic and high-status people in a body of (say) 500 persons who seek to persuade their colleagues to vote in a certain way? What is the difference between this and electoralism?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. A largely sensible blog post it seems to me.

    I don’t agree with long terms of service for juries that decide laws, nor that the power to decide many laws be concentrated in one jury.

    I believe that public officials chosen by jury can play useful roles, such as politicians and law reform commissions chosen by jury, that can formulate and propose laws for juries to decide. (Using juries to choose public officials is far better than popular election, in particular because it is far more conducive to public officials being chosen on an informed basis from an open field of candidates on a level playing field that is not skewed by moneyed interests, political parties, celebrity status and the media.)

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Simon:> public officials being chosen on an informed basis from an open field of candidates

    Who is to compile the longlist of candidates for the jury to choose from, or does “open” mean they get to nominate themselves? If the latter then presumably some kind of qualitative/quantitative filter will be necessary? Or if the jury gets to propose the candidates then how would they know who has the relevant qualifications? The notion of a jury holding an office to account (i.e. removing occupants for malfeasance or incompetence) is easier to understand than a jury being in charge of appointing officials.

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  17. Yoram > By elections I mean mass elections

    OK, btw, thank you for reading my blog :)

    keithsutherland > What is the threshold between a small and mass body?

    I like this question, would be curious to know the limit I guess it also depends on the rule of this assembly (e.g. no cheering).

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  18. Romain,

    > What is the threshold between a small and mass body?

    I have been writing about this point for a while.

    The short answer is that a small body is – by definition – a body that can handle its own business to its own satisfaction by itself (i.e., does not require delegation of power).

    The number this criterion translates into would be different in different circumstances, but other than in very unusual circumstances, would never be more than a few hundred people.

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  19. Yoram:> A small body is – by definition – a body that can handle its own business to its own satisfaction by itself.

    By this definition the Athenian assembly was democratic — magistrates in the classical era were largely selected by sortition, only a tiny number were elected by the assembly. And by this definition the Athenian council was not a small body, as it’s prime function was as secretariat for the assembly.

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  20. Keith >Who is to compile the longlist of candidates for the jury to choose from, or does “open” mean they get to nominate themselves?

    It is analogous to a popular election. Anyone who could run in a popular election could run. Jurors would be in a much better position to choose candidates on an informed basis than popular election voters, and there would be far more of an open field of candidates and level playing than in popular election.

    See my following articles for the basic details:

    https://dissidentvoice.org/2016/08/why-americas-judges-should-be-chosen-by-citizen-juries/

    https://dissidentvoice.org/2016/08/should-citizen-juries-choose-americas-president-congress-governors-and-state-legislators/

    http://nationalpost.com/opinion/simon-threlkeld-select-senators-by-jury

    https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2015/11/08/threlkeld-democratizing-public-institutions/

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  21. Simon:> Anyone who could run in a popular election could run.

    OK, say if the job vacancy is Chancellor of the Exchequer (Treasury Secretary) and anybody could run, how many applicants would there be: 10,000? How would the jury winnow this down to a manageable shortlist? Chances are that those animals with a high public profile, or access to money and media power would be a lot more equal than the average Joe (or Jenny). Does this remind you of anything?

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