Hugo Bonin: Democracy by lottery

The newspaper Le Journal de Montréal has an article by Jacques Lanctôt about Hugo Bonin’s book, La Democratie Hasardeuse [Original in French, my translation].

Games of chance in politics

“With luck, things will turn out well.” Who has not heard this saying at some point? A chance encounter, a decision taken offhandedly, a delay that turned out for the best, any of those may change our life.

Hugo Bonin believes that luck may be beneficial in politics as well even if it is not a magical solution to all our problems of representation. In a well structured essay, well supported by numerous concrete examples stretching as far back as antiquity (Athens and Rome) and where a future that is almost within our reach is imagined, Bonin aims to show that sortition is a hundred-fold better than the so-called representative elections.

Sortition has its limits but its great merit is that it takes no account of distinctions between races, genders, ages or social classes. John and Jane Doe are worth just as much as the elitist clique of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have been governing us for too long a time.

More “egalitarian”
In an electoral regime such as the one know here and elsewhere in the West, the voters vote to elect the supposedly better candidate. While in an allotment system, the notion of “better” does not exist because everybody are equally politically qualified. Thus, this is “an egalitarian and a democratic procedure” where all external considerations are excluded.

Random selection is already practiced here in Québec and elsewhere. We need only consider jury selection in a criminal trial. Made of lay people rather than experts, following the British law, this jury is called upon to analyze the evidence and render a decision after deliberation.

SÉPAQ (The Open Air Society of Quebec) uses a lottery to offer each year vacation spots. A little more to the south, the US government uses the same method to grants about 50,000 green cards annually. “In France and Belgium, university slots in some university departments (medicine, sciences, etc.) are distributed by allotment.” Unlike in the Québécois system quota system, then, being the best is not required.

Opinion polls, which play an increasing role in our lives, are another example of a random mechanism. The respondents are chosen by chance following to the principle of a “representative sample”. As evidence of their political importance, opinion polls are themselves “creating public opinion”. Deliberative polls have also been invented where a hundred or so citizens are chosen at random to discuss a particular topic.

Changing the order of things
The most interesting part of Bonin’s argument consists of imagining governance models (educational, municipal and provincial) that function according to the principle of random selection. In a high school, about 30 youths are chosen at random and undertake to be part of a school council which was up until then elected in the traditional manner. A beautiful example of participatory democracy which prepares young people to take on their responsibilities later after their studies.

At the provincial level, it is the year 2028 and a young nurse receives a phone call inviting her to take part in the first Citizen Congress, a second legislative chamber such as the Senate in the American model, created in order to promote popular participation. The 125 seats are distributed by lot among the population. The experience will be conclusive because the citizens are directly affected [?]. There is no place for career politicians. Of course, all that remains to be shown. There exist few concrete examples of sortition. Answering the question of the viability of this possibility is not a matter of chance, but rather on our will to change the order of things, concludes the author.

One Response

  1. I think that basic democratic principles require that juries have the final say about what laws are and are not passed. In particular the political equality of citizens, informed rule by the people, and the need to for decisions to be made by those who do not have a conflict of interest. Juries are uniquely well-suited for providing these highly desirable things, whereas popularly elected chambers are ill-suited for doing so.

    Any bicameral legislature with a popularly elected chamber and a sortition chamber that does not give the final say in lawmaking to the sortition chamber is in my view contrary to the democratic principles just mentioned (and rather obviously so). (It may be an improvement on what we have now, but is falls far short of what basic democratic principles require.)

    Although the veto referendum and ballot initiative are deeply flawed forms of citizen lawmaking (legislative juries are a much better form of citizen lawmaking), at least they are not subject to being blocked, ignored or over-ridden by elected politicians. If a ballot initiative passes in for example California, it is the law whether the legislature likes it or not (and if it can survive judicial review). If a veto referendum passes, the law passed by the politicians is vetoed.

    What we need is a sortition version of the ballot initiative and veto referendum (as I have long proposed), not a sortition version of a second chamber subject to veto and over-ride by a popularly elected chamber.

    As I have also argued, it is much better that public officials proposing laws to legislative juries be chosen by jury rather than by popular election.

    Liked by 1 person

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