Rennix and Nimni: Alternatives to judges

In the June 2018 issue of Current Affairs magazine, Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni discuss the horrors of the judicial branch of the Western system of government, where professional judges each rule their “tiny fiefdoms and everyone who enters must cater to their whims”.

[A] lot of seemingly “impartial” legal standards—like the famous “what would a reasonable person do” standard—are inherently subjective, so that it’s hard to say what an “impartial” application would even mean. The law is full of attempts to determine what “reasonable” behavior would be in a particular situation. It should shock no one (except lawyers) that people often have wildly divergent views of what “reasonableness” means in any given situation. For courts, the “reasonable person” standard has a disturbing tendency to align with whatever best suits the positions of those in power. Think of all of the police officers whose shootings of unarmed black people have been deemed “reasonable”—and then say you want a judicial system run by “reasonable” or “impartial” judges.

At the end, they consider some alternatives. The first among their “more radical solutions to the judge problem” is “no more judges”:

But how can you have a legal system without judges, you say? Well, in Ancient Athens (immediate chorus of boos) no, hear me out (boos continue) look, I am not proposing ancient Athens as a civilizational ideal, I am just exploring an alternative institutional design (boos increase in volume) IN ANCIENT ATHENS, judges were essentially administrative functionaries, with no real decision-making power. Cases were decided entirely by enormous juries of 201-501 people, who were assigned to cases by random lottery and received a small fee for their services. A simple majority vote, without deliberation, determined the verdict. In the words of legal historian Adriaan Lanni, “the Athenians made a conscious decision to reject the rule of law in most cases, and they did so because they thought giving juries unlimited discretion to reach verdicts based on the particular circumstances of each case was the most just way to resolve disputes.”

Sortition Foundation’s selection & stratification services: how do they compare to the standards?

There was some discussion on Equality-by-Lot recently about developing allotment standards for sortition-based decision making bodies. Among other issues, the question of stratification got some attention. It turns out that Sortition Foundation, which is engaged in such activities, has a document (PDF) describing their procedure. It could be interesting and useful to compare the procedure laid out in the document with proposals for standards which were discussed. I invite readers to do so in the comments below or by contributing a post.

Criteria for a representative citizens’ assembly

Given the high profile of some recent (UK) proposals for allotted citizens’ assemblies — including Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart’s Brexit assembly and Extinction Rebellion’s global warming assembly — there is an urgent need to initiate an informed conversation on the requisite criteria to ensure that the assembly design is compatible with principles of democratic legitimacy. As we have been debating this topic in depth on this forum for many years, this looks like a good place to start. The underlying assumption of this post is that the legitimising principle is ‘stochation’ — i.e. an assembly that is a portrait in miniature of the population that it seeks to ‘describe’ and that the goal is to increase the fidelity of the representation, subject to cost and other practical constraints. I would suggest the following criteria:

Criteria for the acceptability of the allotment procedure
The criteria for an impartial random-selection algorithm have been covered by Yoram Gat’s recent post. Terry Bouricius has also argued that the need to be seen to be fair might require some sort of public ceremony, as in pre-modern applications of sortition.

Selection pool
Should the same criteria of citizenship be used as for the electoral role, or is there a case to open it to all affected interests? However the Athenians were less inclusive, requiring a higher age for lawmakers than regular citizens along with swearing the heliastic oath.

Voluntary or quasi-mandatory participation?
Athenian legislative juries were drawn from a pool of volunteers, but the 6,000 citizens were a very substantial proportion of the citizen body and there was strong normative pressure for all citizens to serve (those who didn’t were ho idiōtēs).  However the modern take-up of sortition invitations has been in the region of only 4%, so it might well be argued that voluntary participation would generate an atypical sample. If so, should participation be a civic duty (as in jury service) or will incentives and support suffice, bearing in mind that the relevant principle is the representation of the beliefs and preferences of the vast majority of citizens who are not included in the allotment?

Size of the allotted sample
Modern examples of sortition have been for bodies ranging from only twenty to several hundred, and some statisticians have argued that 1,000 is the minimum size for a reasonably accurate representation (Athenian juries ranged from 501 to 5,001). What is the connection between sample size, decision threshold and confidence interval? How big could the sample be before the onset of rational ignorance?

Length of service
On the one hand a citizens’ assembly would need time to gain adequate knowledge on the issue under consideration, whereas on the other there is the danger of participants ‘going native’ and thereby ceasing to adequately reflect the beliefs and preferences of their (virtual) constituents. Should assemblies be convened on an ad hoc basis (as with 4th century Athenian lawmaking), or is there a case for permanent bodies with rolling tenure for members?
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Paper: No Stratification Without Representation

One fascinating aspect of sortition is that it treats all groups in the population fairly: If a group constitutes x% of the population, the group’s share in the panel will be x% in expectation (that is, on average over many random panels). Furthermore, it is unlikely that, in a random panel, this percentage will deviate much from x%; this event becomes ever less likely the larger the panel is. Unfortunately, there are practical limits to how large sortition panels can get, which means that a certain variance remains. Had the Irish citizens’ assembly been sampled without consideration for gender, for example, a gender imbalance of at most 45 women against at least 54 men would have happened in about 15% of random panels.¹

One way around this problem is stratified sampling. For example, one could fill half of the seats with random women and half of them with random men. As Yoram wrote in an earlier post on this blog, one can still guarantee that every person is selected with equal probability, and thus, that every group will get its fair share of the panel in expectation. Stratification by gender will obviously ensure accurate representation to the genders. But what happens to the representation of other groups?

My collaborators — Gerdus Benadè and Ariel Procaccia — and I studied this question in a paper that we recently presented at the ACM Conference on Economics and Computation. As Mueller, Tollison, and Willett argued as early as 1972,² stratification can greatly reduce the variance in representation for groups that highly correlate with the feature we stratified on. This is good news since correlation is everywhere; for example, stratifying by gender will help to represent opinion groups related to military intervention, gun control, and healthcare.³ We show that there is no real downside to stratification: Even in the worst case, stratification cannot increase the variance of another group by more than a negligible amount. These results hold up to very fine stratifications, where each seat is filled by a random member of a dedicated stratum. This suggests that we should indeed make extensive use of stratification. In a case study on a real-world dataset, we show that stratification can reduce the variance in an opinion group’s representation by a similar amount as an increase of panel size by multiple seats — even if the stratifier does not know the opinion in question!

The main technical difficulty in the paper is working with indivisibilities. For instance, if we split the 99 seats of the Irish citizens’ assembly proportionally by gender, women should get around 50.66 seats. To ensure that every person is still selected with equal probabilities, we need to randomly “round” the seat assignments, giving women sometimes 50 and sometimes 51 seats. This process is somewhat delicate — rounding introduces new variance, which might lead to some unfortunate group becoming much less accurately represented than without stratification. If one uses the rounding procedure suggested in our paper, this is not the case.

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The Uses and Abuses of Sortition

Given that sortition is finally beginning to be taken seriously by politicians, academics and the mainstream media, some of us on this forum have expressed concerns about potential abuse. André has drawn our attention to the risk of politicians and public intellectuals using sortition to provide a patina of legitimacy to undemocratic practices — examples include Emanuel Macron’s ‘Great Debate’ — and there has been the usual concerns about the rich ‘n powerful using sortition to paper over the cracks of the electoralist oligarchy.

My own concerns are over the willingness of sortition advocates to assume that small stratified samples, in which participation is entirely voluntary, can represent the beliefs and preferences of all citizens. Leaving aside the size issue (most statisticians insist on a minimum of several hundred or even 1,000 for a representative sample) my principal concern is that the voluntary principle will significantly over-represent activists, “progressives” and those who want to change things, as oppose to the ‘silent majority’. The decision of the 2004 British Columbia Constitutional Assembly to change the voting system was overturned in the subsequent referendum, but this might well have been anticipated as only 4% of the original random sample opted for selection, thereby generating an unrepresentative sample (Warren and Pearse, 2008). My assumption here is that the decision not to participate might well be a sign of a conservative (small ‘c’) disposition.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a UK climate-change group which has gained a lot of publicity recently on account of its civil disobedience campaign, which brought much of  central London to a standstill in April. Their goal is zero carbon emissions by 2025, which would mean the banning of air transport and the removal of 38 million cars (both petrol and diesel) from the roads. In addition, 26 million gas boilers would need to be disconnected in six years.
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Schulson and Bagg: Sortition needs to become part of mainstream U.S. political discourse

Michael Schulson is a journalist who has written before about sortition. Schulson and Samuel Bagg, a democratic theorist at McGill University, have a new article about sortition in Dissent magazine. Here are some excerpts.

Give Political Power to Ordinary People

To fight elite capture of the state, it’s time to consider sortition, or the assignment of political power through lotteries.

Our broken campaign finance system is a longstanding target of progressive ire. And as Republican state legislatures have made increasingly aggressive moves to entrench minority rule, many people are beginning to see a broader defense of democratic integrity as a crucial part of any left agenda. Yet most of the attention of reformers has been limited to the electoral process—perhaps because we tend to assume that getting “our people” into office will solve the problem.

It won’t. Elite capture of the state extends far beyond the influence of large donors on elections.
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Sortition in the New Yorker

Another step in the thousand mile march: Sortition is positively featured in the second paragraph of Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker. The oligarchical nature of elections is rather matter-of-factedly asserted:

The concept of democracy rests on the premise that any citizen is a potential member of government. The ancient Athenian choice of sortition—the selection of government by lottery—was based on the understanding that elections would inevitably favor the aristocracy, and in a democracy the government should be a mirror of the governed. The American system has proved the Athenians right. Access to our electoral system is determined by the candidates’ ability to attract financial contributions. The contest itself is rigged in favor of the white, the highly educated, and the privileged—those who reproduce the class, race, and style of their predecessors.