Democracy, sortition and inequality

I was a little crestfallen when, after my public lecture on democracy and sortition at King’s College London was filmed with a view to producing a video, the contractors informed us that the recording was hopelessly corrupted. So I was pleased that when I gave another presentation on democracy to the Communities in Control conference in Melbourne a few weeks ago its recording appears to have remained uncorrupted. The presentation was similar to the Kings College lecture, though the King’s College lecture was longer and focused on Brexit whereas this one focused on inequality.

Anyway, reactions are, of course, welcome.

10 Responses

  1. Hi Nicholas,

    Thanks for the video.

    It seems to me that you are aiming at some sort of “sensible” middle class that is unhappy at seeing its liberal ideas being rejected by the public. And it seems that you are offering them a fix. Sortition is a way to make people see sense, i.e., to see things their way. So with sortition life and politics are supposed to mostly stay the same, while getting rid of those annoying problems like Brexit or Trump.

    Am I misinterpreting you? Is this really how you see things? Or are you expecting a more radical change in society?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicholas,

    At 30:14 you say that election is recent, at least compared with sortition.

    I know you are referring to the modern party system, but election in itself is as old as time. It is the most trivial method to choose a chief.

    Sortition is a much more advanced system. In this sense, we can say that we have “regressed” since the 4th century B.C.

    In exactly the same way that the couple mallet-chisel is used by anthropologist as an indicator of the level of technological development of a society, the use or ignorance of sortition could be use to gauge the political-institutional development or any human group.

    If an alien civilisation were to contact us, they would consider our election-based political system a primitive trait. They themselves will for sure use sortition if they have managed to avoid extinction before completing inter-stellar travel.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thanks Yoram,

    A good question – or set of questions – which draws out some interesting things.

    First, contemporary thinking about how to get things done is very instrumental in its focus on a ‘vision’ which then feeds down to activities and an outcome which one wants as close as possible to the vision. I think that’s grandiose.

    I am but a grain of sand. I’m offering some thoughts about how a simple and compelling thing – institutions constituted by sortition – could detox some central things that most people can see are going badly wrong in our system of government. No more vision need be implied than that. And indeed, I might have a vision of a society where everyone helped little ladies across the street and did other good things, but if I’m not offering a means of doing so, I just Whistling Dixie.

    So that’s the base vision and in that sense pretty simple and modest – detoxing a system most people think is broken. And I guess in a speech to a middle class audience aghast at Trump, Brexit and Pauline Hanson in Australia (our Marine Le Pen) you’d expect me to highlight those things.

    But you’ll notice a ‘values base’ from which the speech comes that embraces isegoria – or equality of speech. So that’s a big idea and I place on it some larger hopes that it will lead to substantially better politics than we’ve had before.

    Simply in terms of nice middle class values of having government that works better, I think sortition could unblock a whole lot of issues that are stuck right now. They are stuck because politicians can’t tackle them without providing their political oponents with either
    i) easily exploited opportunities to misrepresent them and/or
    ii) mobilise the veto power of vested interests against them.

    In the former category I’d include
    * moving ilicit drug policy towards harm minimisation
    * moving other aspects of corrections towards harm minimisation
    * tax, welfare and micro-economic reform more generally (employment rights for instance)
    * lots of bits of social policy that are driven by politicians’ appeals to the electorate’s gut instinct rather than by the evidence, like ‘work for the dole’, and ‘income management’ in Australia and job placement assistance in most countries which governments feel under an obligation to fund to be seen to be doing something but which achieves little

    In the latter put
    * climate change and energy policy
    * congestion charging
    * sugar taxation

    So that’s not just fixing Brexit and Trump.

    I’d also hope that the growing isegoria one could mobilise in one’s democracy through sortition would lead to lots of other changes, in political culture and policy – though some would take time and who knows if I’m right.

    I’m thinking that the electorate would acquire new faith in the capacity of people to make responsible decisions, a new preparedness to mobilise almost everyone’s inherent desire to improve their own lives and cooperate more with others than they do, rather than to demonise ‘the other’ as tends to happen in our current inherently competitive system. And a new egalitarianism and community spirit in which people would become more protective of the economic and social assets they held in common and more prepared to make individual sacrifies. (I provide some evidence for this in my presentation.)

    But those are just my own (no doubt excessively fond) ideas, and none of them are necessary for me to support sortition for its immediate de-Brexiting and possible de-Trumping potential.

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  4. Hi Nicholas,

    Yes – I should have included with Brexit and Trump some more chronic and less acute “good governance” complaints such as the ones you enumerated.

    But my point is that current government is very much busy serving elite interests. It is true that those elite interests are those of the top 1% or even fractions of that top 1%, but still serving those interests is to some extent aligned with the interests of the top 10% or 30%.

    A democratic system can be expected to introduce major changes in the type of goals pursued by government. What is going to be the manifestation of those changes is of course hard to know. There is however the risk, for the top 10% or 30% of society, of significant loss of privilege.

    There could be impact on material comfort. For example, at the short term there could be diversion of public resources toward objectives that are less important to people in the upper deciles of income. Also, climate change policy could involve very high taxation on flight tickets. In the longer term there could be higher labor cost for various services which the better-off rely upon.There could also be an impact on prestige and social status. The upper deciles could be seeing some values and norms that they admire – say, deference by workers to management and to customers – come into doubt and eroded.

    I was wondering to what extent you see such radical impacts of democratization as possible (and legitimate) outcomes of moving authority from elected bodies to allotted bodies?

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  5. Yoram:> It is true that those elite interests are those of the top 1% or even fractions of that top 1%, but still serving those interests is to some extent aligned with the interests of the top 10% or 30%.

    Presumably by this you mean the (singular) socio-economic elite, rather than any competing (cultural, academic etc) candidates? This is unsurprising in the aftermath of the cultural turn in left-wing thought, as one would not wish to attack the privileges of one’s own tribe.

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  6. *** Keith is right : in our Western polyarchies there are different elitisms. We can describe the more important ones as corresponding to the « business and money elite », and the « culture and creative elite » (both elite phenomena being layered).
    *** But these elites are now with at least a moderately strong connection. A wide part of the culture and creative elite is not poor, a small part is rich. Most of the business and money elite is rather high on the culture scale.
    *** Therefore if a political mutation towards dêmokratia leads to ask for « sacrifices » from one of the two main elites, the other one will be affected likewise, at some extent.
    *** In case of very strong requests of « sacrifices » from one or the other elite, there is a risk of open oligarchical endeavor and subversion of the dêmokratia.

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  7. Yoram

    Everything is relative. I think it’s accurate to say that our current governance gives the wealthy much more influence than the less wealthy, but it’s still government for all in the sense that our politicians live in fear of the dissatisfaction of the people because they must court their votes.

    One reason the wealthy have done well in the last few decades – though all Western developed countries retain tax and welfare systems that are strongly redistributive – is that it’s cheap to give the wealthy what they want. There aren’t many of them.

    I see it as possible under sortition and as legitimate if its democratically decided but I doubt it will be all that aggressive. Anti-democrats have always feared how much democracies would redistribute wealth and disappropriate the wealthy and some democrats have expected it. But it’s never happened.

    I’m hoping that sortition produces stronger support for equity, and I argued in my presentation that the evidence suggests that it does somewhat. It certainly seems to produce more ‘community mindedness’.

    I think on balance of what I’ve seen sortition leads to more egalitarian decisions being made on distributional issues, but there are exceptions – there was a PWC sponsored citizens’ jury in the UK on tax which didn’t do that as I recall.

    And Athens’ democracy didn’t go too strongly after the money of the aristocratic families.

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  8. Andre,

    > in our Western polyarchies there are different elitisms. We can describe the more important ones as corresponding to the « business and money elite », and the « culture and creative elite. But these elites are now with at least a moderately strong connection

    Both the existence of multiple values producing multiple elites, as well as the linkage between those different elites seems the normal situation rather than peculiar to the Western system, no?

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  9. Nicholas,

    > Anti-democrats have always feared how much democracies would redistribute wealth and disappropriate the wealthy and some democrats have expected it. But it’s never happened.

    Well, we don’t have many historical examples of democracies, so saying “it’s never happened” doesn’t say much. It’s true however that Athens tolerated high levels of wealth inequality. I am not sure about other Greek democracies. Maybe Andre knows.

    However, through their legislative and judicial power the Athenian masses did enforce their norms on the upper echelons of society – while in the modern West it is the other way around.

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  10. Thanks Yoram,

    Anti-democrats include those offering this dire warning about extending the franchise. They were wrong about that, and to the extent we have examples of sortition they’re wrong about that. There are plenty of examples of sortition in pre-modern European cities – and the extent to which those bodies had power differs, but it would be interesting if anyone could point to any of them coming to strongly redistribunist conclusions.

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