Kovner: The Jurga System

A post by Alex Kovner.

In The Jurga System, I outline a complete democracy centered around citizen juries. At its core is a sharp division of democratic policy making into proposing and deciding. While this is conceptually simple, it is surprisingly difficult in practice. Doing so requires liberal use of the “blind break” to ensure that proposers cannot corrupt the decision process, and vice-versa. The book looks at this dynamic in great detail as it applies to all branches of government.

While the scheme outlined here will not be implemented anytime soon, it is a good thought experiment regarding what a complete political system based on citizen panels might look like. It also suggests a different direction from what we see today: instead of open-ended citizen assemblies tasked with generating grandiose proposals, we should prioritize citizen juries with narrower mandates but binding authority to act. Only this way will sortition become a regular, indispensable feature of democracy.

Full text available to download: https://alexkovner.com/2019/11/12/the-jurga-system/.

25 Responses

  1. “instead of open-ended citizen assemblies tasked with generating grandiose proposals, we should prioritize citizen juries with narrower mandates but binding authority to act.”

    Agreed

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For those without the time to read the full book, Alex’s new blog post is of particular interest: https://alexkovner.com/2019/11/20/sortitionists-think-small/. What I don’t understand is who is making the proposals? In the case of the minimum wage it looks as it if is members of the randomly-selected jurga, but with income tax rates it’s restricted to “legislators” (parties?) who exceed a particular threshold (20% of the legislature). Why the inconsistency?

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  3. Keith: What I don’t understand is who is making the proposals?

    The minimum wage is a single parameter, so there are no proposals. Panel members just submit a number that is within 10% of the previous year’s wage. The result is just the average. Since there is a cap on the amount of variation (plus or minus 10%) the mean is acceptable, although the median would work also.

    Income tax rates require proposals because they are not a single rate, so there is no obvious way to aggregate them. There are non-obvious ways, but even if they work, they will be confusing to most people, which erodes legitimacy. Therefore we must find a mechanism to get discrete proposals. That’s where the 20% of the legislature comes in.

    Of course, I would prefer not to use existing legislatures at all, and instead use new-style political parties as laid out in *The Jurga System*. The suggestion of 20% of the legislature is an attempt to get there from here.

    Using an average of citizen inputs is like guessing the number of jelly beans in a jar. The average will converge toward the social consensus even with a relatively small citizen jury. It also avoids discontinuities in policy making, where a single policy wins over another by a tally that is within a small margin of error. For example, imagine a jury that looked at two proposals for a minimum wage: the first up by 10%, and second down by 10%, and imagine that one of the proposals wins by a single vote of a 1001 person jury. That also erodes legitimacy.

    The first jurgas, therefore, should be convened to set a single parameter that can be computed as an average. That lowers the stakes, and promotes confidence in the result.

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  4. “but binding authority to act” To use sortition in the exectutive branch? If yes, I strongly support the ideao. Otherwise I just support it :)

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  5. Alex, your example of setting simple parameters is excellent. I’ve been frustrated with the amount of wooly ‘vision’ stuff handed over to juries.

    Other parameters include the overnight cash rate for setting the stance of monetary policy, the equivalent for fiscal policy that I set out here.

    One could also set funding for various subsidy systems in health, education, disability and welfare according to hypothecated taxes. That is, a jury could decide on which medicines to have in a pharmaceutical subsidy scheme with each one raising the hypothecated tax to cover its cost – ditto for other subsidies.

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  6. BTW, why is it called the ‘jurga system’? I couldn’t find out from a quick look at the book. I’m generally against jargon in these areas where one has to measure one’s bandwidth to the public against paying customers in syllables

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  7. I agree, there is a lot of low hanging fruit that is ripe for picking with single parameter driven policies. At first, I think the best candidates are policies that the general public already understands, such as the minimum wage. I also think that revenue neutral taxation is promising area. Instead of the French Climate Assembly, I proposed in my blog (https://alexkovner.com/2019/11/20/sortitionists-think-small/) a revenue neutral carbon tax whose proceeds go to a wage subsidy for low wage work. The rate would be set by a citizen jury called periodically; say, once every year.

    Another advantage of the revenue neutral taxation approach is it becomes easier to build coalitions. The carbon tax/wage subsidy could unify Greens with Labor, and they wouldn’t even have to bicker over the tax rate.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I admit it, the term *jurga* is a neologism of my own coinage. Doing that is a bit risky, I know, but I really wanted a new word because the citizen juries I am calling jurgas look very different from the citizen assemblies currently in vogue. I defined the term in a blog post (https://alexkovner.com/2019/03/11/where-does-sovereignty-come-from/). The essence of the jurga is that it is not an assembly in the enlightenment sense, it is just a collection of people who deliberate and then vote on a set of options defined in advance. Procedural success is assured, so long as the jurgors cast a vote.

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  9. The etymology of jurga is a hybrid of the Anglo-American trial jury and the Afghan council. The reason we pulled the print version of the book was because a) it was too detailed for a general readership and b) the title was a bit obscure. But I hope the name catches on, as Alex is writing a pop version of it in the form of a Socratic dialogue! I’d be grateful for feedback on the cover design at http://books.imprint.co.uk/book/?gcoi=71157100751970

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  10. rcase:> To use sortition in the executive branch?

    Yes and no. My proposal for the executive branch is to turn it into a pooled service, similar to the judiciary. The cabinet would be chosen by a citizen panel from among a larger pool of candidates. The choice is not for any particular cabinet position, but for general fitness to serve in the cabinet. The exact positions would be handed out by lot.

    I also think citizen panels have the potential to shift regulatory power back to the legislative branch. So many rules are now made by the executive because legislatures are deadlocked and cannot act. Careful use of the jurga can break this deadlock.

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  11. keithsutherland> I’m pretty confident that the name as currently proposed is a dud. Good things to have in a name are some simple intimation of what you’re on about in the words or the sound and a nice sound at that. This doesn’t have any of that. I also think the word ‘sortition’ is useable if one is trying to communicate with the public. They don’t know what it is.

    I can’t see what’s wrong with “citizens’ juries” or “citizens’ assemblies”. Sure it leaves some more explaining to do, but it at least starts the process of explaining rather than using words your audience has never heard of.

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  12. Nick,

    The trouble is the citizens’ jury is only half of the proposal, the difficult issue is the proposing panels (this is where Terry and myself part company). Alex’s innovation is on the proposing side and we’re hoping he can bridge the divide. It would be great if you had the time to look over the book and let Alex have your feedback.

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  13. If I get time I will. I checked out the first few pages and felt it was well written which is always a welcome sign of thought :)

    But at least from what I understand they’re all citizens’ juries – just ones proposing and others disposing. Isn’t that it?

    I don’t see why this can’t be described as a system of citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies. One could also call it citizens’ juries squared. At least it conveys the idea simply.

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  14. Nick,

    I don’t understand in what sense of the word a jury can make proposals (other than, in some jurisdictions, deciding on sentences after having coming to a judgment on the facts of the matter). That would certainly be unlike current legal practice (from which we derive the notion of a jury). And Alex and I are seeking to distance ourselves from citizens’ assemblies as currently constituted, which are an abuse of sortition for all the reasons that we have discussed recently on this forum.

    I can understand your concern about neologisms, but we do need to be precise about terminology and if existing words have been abused then sometimes you have to come up with new ones. I’m often tempted to junk sortition in favour of stochation (Andre’s neologism for statistical representation), as the shenanigans of the Sortition Foundation will bring the word into disrepute. It bothers me that they are 2 and 3 on google search and all three videos displayed (Brett is a very smart marketing guy).

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  15. Nicholas Gruen:> But at least from what I understand they’re all citizens’ juries – just ones proposing and others disposing. Isn’t that it?

    No. I handle proposing in a radically different manner that does not involve citizen juries at all. The full details are in my book, which—fair warning—others have noted is heavy on jargon.

    I have also outlined the procedure in a couple of blog posts: https://alexkovner.com/2019/03/15/the-political-class-is-useful-for-something/ and https://alexkovner.com/2019/04/03/politics-as-sport-the-npl-national-politics-league/

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  16. Thanks Alex,

    I’ve had a look at the two posts you’ve linked to and both left me cold. I’m all for thought experiments to illustrate ideas and explore for options. But anything that can go into political battle for voters’ hearts and minds needs to hew to the political logic that people understand. People understand the legitimacy of juries. They have promising results alongside the existing incumbent system.

    Deciding that you fancy five political parties and setting up systems of relegation on the model and so on is a nice parlour game. Those systems could have interesting qualities, though none of us knows how they’d work out. But since these ideas can’t participate in any political battle to change minds, they don’t really lead me to want to spend much time on them.

    Thanks Keith>: – I don’t use the term ‘sortition’ in public (though looking it up, it has an interesting and lengthy etymological history . I use expressions like citizens’ jury, citizens’ assembly, or I say “a body composed of ordinary citizens as juries are”. That gets the idea into play.

    My basic messages and strategies in trying to socialise the idea of sortition are messages like this:

    * There are two ways to represent the people – by election, and by representative selection.

    * We pay constant attention to the opinion of the people via constant polls but have no way of understanding what the considered opinion of the people is.

    * At a time when the incumbent system is doing crazy things (like Brexit in the UK, removal of carbon pricing in Australia or tolerating rank impropriety if not criminality from its head of state – in the US), where a strong consensus – in the form of a super majority in a citizens’ jury – can be achieved we should 1) try to make sure it’s socially visible, and 2) over time seek to build a place for it in our constitution.

    * We should develop a whole political repertoire around sortition by which I mean that we should elaborate and try to sell the equivalent of a candidates debate for sortition (in which candidates would spend an afternoon or more with a citizens’ jury appointed to explore an issue – such as health with members of the jury polled before and after 1) they convene 2) they study and deliberate on the options and 3) they hear from the candidates

    * I’m also keen on means of merit selection which interdict self-assertion such as the mechanism outlined here.

    * I also agree with the Alex’s point that citizens’ juries should deliberate on specific things, rather than generate ‘visions’.

    Of course in the background we should be discussing and debating alternatives and mechanisms for advancing the cause and designing robust and benign institutions.

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  17. Nick,

    >Deciding that you fancy five political parties and setting up systems of relegation on the model and so on is a nice parlour game.

    Although the number five is arbitrary, surely the rise and fall of political parties (as a function of voter preferences) follows a similar model and is something that everyone is familiar with? All Alex is doing is formalising existing practice.

    >My basic messages and strategies in trying to socialise the idea of sortition are messages like [the following]

    Sure, but the focus of your bullet points is on representing the considered judgment of the public, where we all agree that citizens’ juries can play a crucial role. Alex’s work is on developing policy proposals, something that is done by individual persons, generally collaborating together as political parties. The challenge that Alex is addressing is how to do this in a democratic manner, and it’s not clear how sortition could have any role to play. At root is the isonomia/isegoria distinction that goes right back to the birth of democracy in classical Greece, and sortition was never used for the latter function.

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  18. Thanks Keith,

    Can you elaborate on your last claim “the isonomia/isegoria distinction that goes right back to the birth of democracy in classical Greece, and sortition was never used for the latter function”.

    I have no idea why the lack of a precedent in Athens is a big deal, but would be interested to know more about the distinction, the history and what we know of the reasoning.

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  19. Nick: But since these ideas can’t participate in any political battle to change minds,…

    Why not? You have five political parties competing for people’s vote. Seems pretty natural. The only changes are 1) people vote for parties instead of candidates, something that is already the case in many countries, and 2) the number of parties is fixed. The fixed number of parties simply allows a manageable number of options for presentation to the citizen jury (jurga).

    The relegation/promotion part just means new blood gets introduced: parties that fail die, and are replaced by new people with a chance to offer new ideas.

    I think you (Nick) agree with me that citizen juries should be presented with concrete policy proposals, rather than being asked to solve vast, ill-defined problems. That begs the question, how do you create that menu? My main argument is that citizen assemblies are poorly suited to that task, for the same reason that elected assemblies are poorly suited to that task. In fact, assemblies in general are not suited to defining a menu of diverse policy choices. So how would you create such a menu?

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  20. Nick,

    Before the term demokratia came into use, the Athenians referred to their system of governance as a hybrid of two different forms of equal freedom — isegoria and isonomia. The former referred to the equal right of all citizens to make policy proposals and to speak to the assembly, and the latter to the equal value of the votes of all citizens to determine the outcome of the debate. In the fifth century isonomia took a representative term with the institution of randomly-selected legislative juries (nomothetai) to deliver a considered verdict.

    Isegoria also took a representative turn, but by the mechanism of election — in that the assembly elected five spokesmen to defend the old laws against the citizens who wanted to change them. But all citizens gave their unconsidered verdict in the assembly as they had to vote whether or not to convene nomothetai.

    Many modern sortition proposals rely on the nomothetai model for isonomia; all Alex is trying to do is to modernise the elective element.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Alex – you write “Why not? You have five political parties competing for people’s vote. Seems pretty natural. The only changes are 1) people vote for parties instead of candidates, something that is already the case in many countries, and 2) the number of parties is fixed. The fixed number of parties simply allows a manageable number of options for presentation to the citizen jury (jurga).”

    It may seem reasonable to you, but you’re defending the outcome as resembling what we have now – so what’s the big deal? The big deal is that parties are an expression of the freedoms built into a democratic political system. The number of parties is a result of general rules, not produced directly by them.

    One might just as easily argue that the normal turnout of elections in the US is almost invariably under 60% so we’ll only count votes up to 60% of the constituency. “What’s the difference?” you could argue – it’s just the way it always has been. But the voter turn out is the product of people’s freedom to vote (And the success or otherwise of voter suppression efforts.)

    We’re a marginal group trying to persuade the electorate of the wisdom of sortition. It seems barmy to build into our offering something as counter-intuitive to the bulk of the electorate as an arbitrary restriction on the number of political parties.

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  22. Keith, I agree that we can look to Athens for inspiration and ideas. I’m not sure why we should be trying to replicate the details of their institutional logic.

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  23. Nick,

    The Athenian institutions reflected a conceptual-normative distinction and changed over the course of three centuries. I think the distinction — between proposing and disposing — is still valid today, so there are good reasons for recognising this in our own institutional design. Given the difference in size between small classical-era poleis and large modern states, the only institution that is open to direct implementation is the nomothetai (all there is to argue over is sample size). When it comes to isegoria , all we can do is accept the principle (election) and then attempt to devise ways of overcoming the problems with modern elections, and this is Alex’s principal objective. Once you accept the distinction, and acknowledge that both principles (isonomia and isegoria) require a representative mechanism, then everything else is detail — and I know Alex will appreciate feedback on that (number of parties etc).

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  24. Nick,

    I think you are missing the forest through the trees, and it is my fault. I made a big deal in my blog post about fixing the number of parties. But actually that is not the core of the system. The real issue is this:

    1) decisions must be made by randomly chosen citizen bodies, using a private deliberation model, answering a single question, expressing a preference from a set of options determined in advance, and

    2) proposals must be made by proposing agents—analogous to contemporary political parties—whose right to propose is proportional to popular support.

    The first condition is the jurga, which I don’t think can be changed much from my original proposal. But there is much more freedom in the second condition. For example, we could have a variable number of parties, with a minimum threshold of support required for ballot access, e.g. 3%. Once a party dropped below that level it would lose ballot access. A new or existing party that did not have ballot access could achieve it by some other means, e.g. signature gathering. At that point it would have a sort of probationary ballot access while it attempted to meet the threshold.

    I personally think fixing the number of parties is the better option. The U.S. is in crisis right now partly owing to the fact that we have only two competitive parties; the lack of more parties is an effect of the Constitution, not an expression of the popular will. Similarly, Israel is in crisis (two indecisive elections, heading for a third) partly because it has too many parties. Again, this is a consequence of the Israeli political architecture rather than popular will in the abstract.

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  25. Thanks Alex, I could quibble with a few things, but we’re a fair bit closer together given your explanation.

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