Luc Rouban on sortition

Luc Rouban, director of research at CNRS, is the author of the book La démocratie représentative est-elle en crise ? (Is representative democracy in crisis?). In an interview with Vie Publique that took place in March he addressed the idea of sortition along with other reform proposals. An excerpt [original in French, my translation]:

There is a lot of talk about sortition as a way to give all the citizens an equal chance of being chosen to participate effectively in politics. The idea is to revive the ancient concept of Greek democracy at the time of Pericles. But it is necessary to recall that in the Athenian model, the electoral body was composed only of active citizens, sufficiently wealthy to buy military equipment, and excluding women, slaves and metics, that is foreigners who lived permanently in the city which were half the the Athenian population. In addition, this model relies on mistophory, that is the remuneration of allotted citizens for carrying out the charges of office, which allowed the less fortunate to participate in democratic life. It is very evident that such a system would be difficult to generalize in modern democracies, except at the local level, for example in the framework of citizen juries such as those being increasingly used recently to give their opinion to the public authorities on matters of planning projects.

In general, sortition – despite the supposed equality which it leads to – poses a philosophical and judicial problem. In fact, if Article 6 of the Decleration of the Rights of Man states that “all citizens are equally eligible to public offices, places and public employments, according to their abilities with no distinction other than their virtues and their talents”, it is proper that the evaluation of abilities, of virtues and talents of candidates are at the heart of representative democracy. Sortition, by definition, annuls this evaluation, which is taking place by the citizens when they vote. At bottom sortition depends on chance assemblies and cannot lead to the selection of the most commendable citizens. In sum, these risks lead to see sortition as no more than useful for consultation on specific projects at the local level when the purview of decision is well circumscribed. But sortition, just like the referendum, cannot provide good results unless it is associated with procedures allowing to clearly describe the objectives of the debate and allowing the involvement of experts or representatives of organizations.

16 Responses

  1. Luc has a valid point to remind us of the necessity of talent and virtue for allotted offices.

    Two points on this:

    1. The electoral representative system seems to deliver the wrong type of talent. Lead candidates’ key talent is more about impressing superficially with slogans, slick rhetoric and showmanship, emotionalising the public instead of rational decision making for the Public Good. Worse, lower-ranked candidates are mostly party soldiers who will reliably follow party leaders’ authority how to vote.

    2. On the other hand, a statistically representative system can actually be designed to fulfil this criterion, distill talented persons and they weigh allotment by talent. At GILT in Austria, we test for talent by asking for predictions of future developments which are pertinent to the societal decision at hand.

    The theory behind such weighing is that – what Luc calls “commendable citizens” – citizens more knowledgeable in a policy topic and sound of judgement – will get more policy decisions right than a purely random citizen who in all likelihood will know very little and even more superficially than an elected politician about the topic at hand.

    What I wonder: Why are there still sortitionists out who insist on “pure” sortition – i.e. without weighing – despite the clearly stipulated demand and undoubtable necessity for talent and virtue?


  2. There’s no juridical problem with sortition. In citing Article 6 of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man, he ignores the first part of that article: “Law is the expression of the general will. Every citizen has a right to participate personally, or through his representative, in its foundation.”

    The 1793 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen has a standalone right of each citizen to take part in creating law — without any reference to “virtue” or “talent”; article 29 reads in full: “Each citizen has an equal right to participate in the formation of the law and in the selection of his mandatories or his agents.” As a separate issue, article 5 states: “All citizens are equally eligible to public employments. Free peoples know no other grounds for preference in their elections than virtue and talent.” That’s a different issue from law creation.

    Since 1789, there’s a long development of a right of everyone — without qualification — to take part in the creation of law and to participate equally in decision-making that affects one’s life.


  3. His argument struck me as ridiculously abstract. If electoral democracy is in crisis it’s because the ‘meritorious’ it chooses isn’t seen as so meritorious by the people. Sortition offers an alternative means of getting to meritorious decisions by groups of people chosen by sortition, and if one is to choose individuals, one could, for instance use a mechanism such as the one outlined here

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hubertus:> Why are there still sortitionists out who insist on “pure” sortition – i.e. without weighing?

    Because talent and virtue can be selected by other mechanisms, to supplement the role of the allotted jury. We need to take the division of labour suggested by the courtroom analogy more literally.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Meritocracy is the last refuge of the elitist. Socrates has been using this argument 2,500 years ago.

    But of course the question is, “merit” according to whom? If we would all agree on who is meritorious, we would just hand over power to those people and be done. But of course, we don’t. It’s a shame the discussion cannot move beyond the time-worn talking points.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. That’s a great list of refutations of objections to sortition. I think what’s also needed is an investigation of the psychological barriers, something along the lines of the book by Jim Sidanius and Felicia Pratto, Social Dominance: An Intergroup Theory of Social Hierarchy and Oppression. To paraphrase James Baldwin, a key question here is why do people “need” meritocracy? The economic reasons are obvious, but it goes beyond that to psychological reasons, construction of personal identity and subjectivity.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There must be a strong component of indoctrination to the belief in meritocracy. The Athenians, it seems, were not impressed by Socrates’s argument.


  8. Historical references (such as to Athens or revolutionary France) can stimulate our thinking, but we should never defer to them as “authoritative.” The author elevates the 1789 draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man as if it were authoritative on democracy… but of course the group that adopted it largely opposed democracy, favoring instead a republican form of rule by a “natural aristocracy.” Voting in the indirect elections for the revolutionary government of 1791 was limited to a subset of “active citizens” who were males who paid enough taxes to qualify, with the poorer working classes deemed “passive citizens” and prohibited from voting or holding office.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Yoram:> the question is, “merit” according to whom?


    >If we would all agree on who is meritorious . . .

    There is no need for unanimity, a plurality of voters is usually deemed sufficient.


  10. > Voters

    You never tire of this nonsense, do you?


  11. >>Yoram: The Athenians, it seems, were not impressed by Socrates’s argument.
    Let’s not forget: how soon after Athens fell to Rome. From a Darwinistic point of view this is a strong indication that the former system’s leaders may have had a skill problem, just as Socrates said.

    PS: And I was always somewhat disappointed of the Athenian style in this debate: killing Socrates was of course a convincing argument to end the topic, but I hold that it was neither very democratic nor in line with parliamentary house rules.

    >>Yoram: If we would all agree on who is meritorious, we would just hand over power to those people and be done.
    1. I did not – and would never – write such a silly thing as “to hand over power” to anybody. Clearly, even a system which considers knowledge can have a fast rotation, just like the jury system.
    2. There is still quite a large number of people, because this “merit” (not a good word for knowledge and judgement skill) is normally distributed. So we still need a sortition on top.


  12. >> Jonathan: Does it impact your interpretation when we consider more closely whether for the “representative” in Art 6 the “preference” in Art 5 should apply, by logic?

    Liked by 1 person

  13. >Nicholas: Thanks for pointing out this element of the South Australian nuclear jury. It seems they applied a variation of the ancient Venetian election method (which is a fantastic tool). I only miss at least one final reduction round of the “chosen” group, for a final “virtue and talent” boost.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. >>Terry: We need to take the division of labour suggested by the courtroom analogy more literally.

    I respectfully disagree with “literally” and take side for the pursuit of progress, even for better justice system, not only for better sortition.

    To decide the matter, we’d need an experimental investigation between “talent and virtue”-weighted random juries and the current “literally random” ones. The hypothesis to be tested is that the former gets a statistically significant higher number of decisions right than the latter, thus improving (a more just) justice system.

    The same would hold true for the political system.


  15. Sorry, the post before was for Keith.

    >>Terry: Voting in the indirect elections for the revolutionary government of 1791 was limited to a subset of “active citizens” who were males who paid enough taxes to qualify.

    I agree with the criticism, but is this issue really a result of the actual Declaration, thereby reducing its authority? After all, the Declaration says: “Every citizen has a right to participate…”


  16. Hubertus,

    My point was on the division of labour (between skilled advocates and lay jurors). The mistake that pure sortitionists make is not mixing it with other appointment mechanisms.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: