Davis: Follow The Sortition Money

Iain Davis is an anti-establishment blogger. He has recently posted a fairly lengthy article with his views on sortition. He is supportive of the idea in principle, but suspicious of the “sortition movement”. Here are some excerpts from the article:

For it’s staunchest proponents, sortition would create assemblies empowered to make binding decision or set policy. A potential new form of government to augment and eventually replace what they see as a failing party political, parliamentary democratic system. [However, t]he form of sortition proposed will not give the people a stronger voice. It will, in fact, deliver the precise opposite.

I am sure the vast majority of those calling for sortition have the best of intentions. Yet, like most mass movements that suddenly spring from nowhere, such as Extinction Rebellion, there are powerful influences guiding them. Always striving to protect and maintain their power, by exploiting the good will of ordinary people, and always at the expense of the citizen for the benefit of the corporation.

We should be careful to avoid rejection of sortition outright. It is not the principle, but rather its current suggested implementation that is problematic. The random selection of a jury by lot, to deliberate on the operation of the Rule of Law, with the power to annul, is a form of sortition that would actually work. It would empower the people, providing both oversight of the political establishment and limit the nefarious influence of the corporate lobby who determine the policies of the political parties.

This is in stark contrast to the offer of sortition currently planned.

Davis argues that the fact that the actors in the “sortition movement” address their proposals to established powerful interests, and that those interests find favor in those proposals is proof that the proposals on the table are not really about changing the power structure.

In addition to this basic general argument, Davis makes various more specific points.

Corporate ties. Davis points out that a powerful backer of the sortition movement is the Belgiorno-Nettis Foundation, which is based on the Belgiorno-Nettis fortune. Davis deduces: “Quite simply, financial gain appears to be the motivation for their advocacy of sortition. At least, that strong possibility can’t be ruled out.” He points out other sortition advocacy organizations are backed by various corporate sponsors as well. “If the claimed purpose is to give more power to the people, this whole sortition thing is starting to look like an oxymoron.”

A confidence trick. Davis analyzes a piece written by newDemocracy Executive Director Iain Walker and argues that it betrays an attempt to control decisions and deceive people into trusting a corrupt system. For example, Walker writes that “Our democracy has become a large public opinion machine, so we need to counter this with a mechanism which generates informed public judgment.” Davis interprets Walker as saying:

In the world of sortition, public opinion is not to be trusted. It often fails to deliver the desired outcomes. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the Venezuelan people’s refusal to capitulate to neocolonialism are all examples of populist movements which need to be “countered.” So sortition provides a “mechanism” by which public “judgments” can be “informed.” They can be informed any way you like.

Rigging the draw. Davis is suspicious of the random selection process being proposed and used: “There are so many potential control mechanisms inherent to this idea it practically eliminates any possible advantage, provided by truly random jury selection, from the outset.” The stratification system “does nothing to address the problem of jury stuffing, or rigging. It assures, rather than negates, fixing the jury prior to deliberation.” Furthermore, “employing a firm whose entire business is reliant upon contracts from corporations and political parties to ‘select’ your citizen’s assembly”, as was done in the case of the Irish Citizen’s Assembly, does not inspire confidence, Davis argues.

Setting the agenda. Davis’s two last points points are about the fact that both the topic under deliberation and the expert opinions presented to the citizen bodies are controlled by the established powers. Asking people “what direction the EU should take?” assumes that the EU is to exist and that they are to be part of it. Asking people to discuss “ecological emergency that poses an unprecedented existential threat to humanity” assumes that this emergency indeed exists.

Selecting the evidence. As for expert opinion, Davis writes:

There is nothing wrong with providing expert opinion to laymen and laywomen to inform their decision making. However, it is absolutely vital that all aspects of the argument, and there are always at least two sides to every issue, are reflected in that ‘expert opinion.’ […] If the ‘expert’ opinion only presents the consensus or limits access to available information and/or evidence, then corruption of decision making is a certainty.

Davis concludes by offering his own application of sortition:

Yet the random selection of ordinary citizens by lot, fully empowered as jurors in a court, under the Rule of Law, with the indelible united and annexed right to overturn legislation through annulment would deliver true democracy and immeasurable benefits to the people. Global corporations, international banking cartels, multinational industrialists and wealthy investors would gain nothing from corrupting a tiny clique of elected officials. Any legislation politicians pass on their behalf, if found to be unjust by a lawfully convened, randomised jury of ordinary people, would be overturned.

Whether this proposal is as useful as Davis seems to believe is a subject for a different discussion.

16 Responses

  1. Hey Yoram – and Happy New Year. Thanks for posting this – there’s tonnes of material to digest in here and plenty of important points raised.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. employing a firm whose entire business is reliant upon contracts from corporations and political parties to ‘select’ your citizen’s assembly

    This is an accurate description of the Sortition Foundation. Given that they currently appear above EbL (twice) on a Google search for “sortition” it’s imperative that we either change the name of our forum, add a subtitle or do something else to optimise our Google ranking otherwise

    this whole sortition thing is starting to look like an oxymoron.

    Am I the only one who’s even bothered about this?


  3. And Sortition Foundation have the majority of the videos.


  4. Iain Davis writes well, but what he writes is, in large part, gibberish. His comments on the British Constitution are woefully mis-guided.

    So some outfits get money from philanthropic foundations? Nowhere does he say how much! I’ve worked with outfits who received low £1,000s of funding — does that taint them? C’mon.

    His understanding of legal juries is similarly weak, but he does make one good point — juries in Law Courts have the power to decide the Facts (but not the law.)

    I have yet to hear of a sortitional assembly with power to decide anything, only ever to advise. Can someone explain why no power?


  5. Conall,

    My concern is not corruption in the traditional sense (partisan outcomes for cash), but the legitimisation of an undemocratic decision making process. The claims that the tiny voluntary samples used by the likes of NewDemocracy and the Sortition Foundation are “representative” is certainly gibberish from a statistical perspective. This is what will bring sortition into disrepute, as small, stratified samples of volunteers can easily be manipulated to give whatever result the commissioning agency is looking for. I don’t really care who funds the organisations in question, it’s their methodology that is flawed.


  6. An anecdote about why the Belgiorno-Nettis Foundation funds sortition work… Luca Belgiorno-Nettis, the head of this wealthy Australian family that set up the foundation and funds the newDemocracy Foundation got fed up with being hit up for campaign contributions from politicians. Many of us are used to thinking about the problem of money in politics as that of wealthy interests buying politicians. It is interesting to look at it from this other perspective… Some wealthy interests ALSO hate the role of money in politics, but instead see it as a problem of politicians extorting money from them (“Give me a contribution or I will advance legislation that will really hurt you and your company.”) So… how to remove campaign finance and even campaigning from politics? At some point Luca learned about the idea of sortition… the possibility of democracy, but without politicians, and he has been advocating for sortition ever since. Here is a link to a music video he produced many years ago … I really love the music

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks Yoram,

    The piece is ridiculous. I tried to read it but couldn’t get through it. The idea that Belgiorno-Nettis established newDemocracy to profit from it is a hoot.


  8. I find Davis’s suspicions well justified. Whatever you may think about this person or that organization, the fact that what Davis calls the “sortition movement” is highly establishment-connected is highly problematic. For this reason, by the way, the name “movement” is not really appropriate since this is not a grassroot group. Maybe “sortition professionals” or “sortition network” is more suitable.

    These establishment connections cannot be dissociated from the procedures proposed by the sortition network. Believing that those procedures are aimed to fundamentally democratize government is therefore both illogical and contrary to the substance of those procedures.


  9. Yoram:> Maybe “sortition professionals” or “sortition network” is more suitable.

    As for most of us this is a labour or love, “sortition network” is more appropriate than “sortition professionals”. If we want it to become a mainstream movement then we should rename this blog The Sortition Forum rather than the domain of alien creatures from a shadowy cargo cult called the “Kleroterians”. And Equality by Lot fails to acknowledge the epistemic and prophylactic potential of sortition. Not only does the current labelling undermine our google ranking, it also fails to properly reflect the work we are doing.


  10. With all due respect to activists and amateur writers, we are not influential players in the sortition network. The influential actors in the sortition network are professionals (and their benefactors).

    For this reason, I think it is rather appropriate that we call this blog “the blog of the kleroterians” – where people who self-identify as being interested in sortition come to discuss things and be informed – rather than something more formal and with an implied claim to authority. I am not surprised that those with an authoritarian mindset among us feel differently.


  11. >The influential actors in the sortition network are professionals (and their benefactors).

    Yes, that’s why we need to reclaim the territory. Bear in mind that Brett Hennig is a poacher turned gamekeeper (an activist who went on to found a foundation). Why should we cede the high ground to a (spurious) “foundation” given that most of us we were working in this domain when Brett was still in short trousers (or campaigning on something else)? It’s worth bearing in mind that at the Glasgow PSA sortition panel at which the speakers were Brett, Dimitri, Peter and myself most of the audience (primarily political science professionals) thought that Brett was a complete idiot (judging by the questions asked). Names and slick PR messaging count for an awful lot in the modern world and most people who know nothing about sortition would privilege the Sortition Foundation over the Kleroterian cargo cult.

    PS The Sortition Forum would not be an authority, merely a place we discuss things. It’s only a suggested change of name to improve our Google ranking.


  12. I’ll confess I had a solid laugh at this – how often do you get to be in the middle of someone’s conspiracy theory? :)

    We publish the design and the result of every project we run (https://www.newdemocracy.com.au/category/library/our-work/project/) , and Luca’s financial/ investment interests are also public (https://prisma.net.au/ & https://transfield.com.au/investments) . So yeah, if our author can come up with a single example of him benefitting – even tangentially – from a jury decision then that would be a story. As he can’t, maybe our buddy has a bit of a defamation problem to think about.

    Keith: I know you frequently focus on small size and self-selection as two strong objections you hold. I’d like to float a few points for you to think about.

    1. small size is not itself a problem when compared to most parliaments and especially senates. A journalist asked me once to comment on an MP suggesting a 43 person group could never be representative. I thanked the member of the 22-person Upper House for his concern. Small numbers create the incentive for people to read and think and work together which is eroded as the group gets beyond 100.

    2. statistical representation is made up of confidence level and confidence interval. To maintain a high confidence level in a small sample you just need to accept that you are pushing out the confidence interval. In a polling environment seeking to forecast simple majority (50% + 1) political outcomes then +-1% matters a lot so you need 1000 person samples. When we seek >80% support does +-1% accuracy matter the same way? Clearly not. We can live with +- 8% or 10%. We don’t make statistical claims, but the numbers stand up.

    3. There is *a measure of* self-selection in even a compelled activity. For jury duty (compulsory in Australia) anyone who can get out of it DOES get out of it and the ‘random’ samples skew to lower income groups and older people. So even though it is compelled it is not representative. While our samples absolutely have a measure of self-selection, they start from the point that the most-active voices cant simply commandeer a place: no invitation to your (randomly-selected) address means you can’t self-select in. This solves 95% of problems in one step. My point being that self-selection within the non-engaged/ non-active pool is a manageable and minor issue.

    The key sentiment here is to not let the great be the enemy of the good. The randomly-seeded samples with a measure of self-selection are clearly more descriptively representative as a set of people than our parliaments or the active advocates normally heard by governments. Its not perfect, but its clearly better.

    Fortunately, the trial projects tell the story. Either they work in practice or they don’t. By “work” i mean present some common ground agreement with people from all walks of life standing behind a coherent report they wrote themselves which is supported by their links to the diversity of sources they explored. If this keeps happening the increased use is to be welcomed. I sometimes feel your objections are that it only works in practice and it needs to work in theory ;)

    Lastly-ish, Keith, where i agree with you most is on the Brexit topic. Way too much has been written that a Citizens’ Assembly could “fix” this. The starting point anyone who advocates for a process should have is that there are no ‘right’ answers – there are simply answers a given community can live with. But whether the answer was Leave or Remain ticking a box after one sentence seems like the worst possible way to make a decision. But once done you can’t change approaches.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Hi Iain,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful response — I agree that this conspiracy theory is utterly ridiculous. Luca and yourself are doing a good job and I view myself as a sympathetic critic of your project. Forgive my recourse on occasion to polemical language, this is on account of my misgivings regarding the Sortition Foundation. I refused to publish Brett’s book because I believe his “end of politicians” rhetoric is unhelpful, so it’s ironic that his organisation is now working primarily to legitimise the decisions of political and corporate clients. This (I assume) is because they need to fund their operation, whereas NewDemocracy’s sponsorship by Luca’s family trust frees you from the need to prostitute your services to the highest bidder. Of course this is primarily sour grapes, as the Sortition Foundation have the best google rankings (how is it in the antipodes?).

    Regarding your three comments.

    1. Like most sortinistas you are conflating descriptive representation with the active representation of interests (I’ve read Pitkin’s book three times and I think everyone else working in this field should give it the same level of attention). As Hobbes pointed out, it’s perfectly possible for one person to represent the commonwealth — rightly or wrongly nearly half of US voters chose Donald Trump as their representative, as they believed that it was possible for a billionaire property magnate to represent their interests (this included very poor people and evangelical Christians who have nothing in common with Trump). Claims that a randomly-selected group of 43 are “more representative” than an elected group of 22 are simply meaningless as they are conflating two entirely different forms of representation. (I think there is also a cod-Marxist element to this, as some prominent people on this blog appear to believe that it is impossible for human agents to transcend their socio-economic class interests, but that’s another topic.)

    2. In my PhD thesis I go into the relationship between margin of error, decision threshold and sample size and calculate that a 52/48 threshold (as in Brexit) would require a jury size of 6,766 (assuming quasi-mandatory participation and no interaction between the jurors). The only other statistician I know working in this field (John Gary) says he would not even consider a sample of less than 1,000 for a political jury.

    3. According to the Sortition Foundation, typical acceptance rates for citizens’ assemblies are in the order of 3-6%. I make the assumption that this is a statistically significant population parameter and (by definition) no amount of stratification can do anything to address this problem. I agree we don’t want to go for perfection, but my genuine concern is that the unrepresentativeness of small voluntary citizens’ assemblies will only discredit the sortition movement. And yes, I do believe that we need to clarify these issues theoretically rather than just making it up as we go along (this is ironic, as I’m conservative by nature and have a lot of respect for the organic evolution of the [unwritten and unplanned] British constitution).

    I’m glad we agree that it’s too late to “fix” Brexit. As you know in early 2016 I argued for decision by a citizens’ assembly as an alternative to the public referendum: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/can-europe-make-it/brexit-lottery/

    PS what is your view on my campaign to rename this blog The Sortition Forum?


  14. I’d suggest anyone taking this garbage seriously look at the books published by this guy, which charming titles like “Vaccines – The Truth About The Debate” and “False Flag Attacks – Anatomy of Deception.” The list can be found here: https://in-this-together.com/books/. Couple that with the global warming denialism he manages to slip into his anti-sortition screed, and it’s clear that we are dealing with a full-fledged tinfoil-hat-wearing fruitloops here.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Sortition is not a word with any real resonance to politicians, media or citizens… its not a term we ever use. I think the success of a community like this is the core group participating and the nature of the conversation. I wouldn’t worry about the google search stuff too much – people will follow other people and it could grow like that.

    So no strong feelings about name, but i think the status quo is quite clever.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Iain,

    My remarks were triggered by the 2019 review statistics post:

    Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 1st result (out of “about 39,300 results”). Searching for “sortition” returns Equality-by-Lot as the 6th result (out of “about 163,000 results”) – preceded by the sortition entry at Wikipedia, links to Brett Hennig’s Sortition Foundation, and a link to Tim Dunlop’s article in the Guardian.

    Notwithstanding the title of this blog, there is very little material posted here on (equal) distribution by lot — Conall Boyle seems to be the only one interested in this topic. Most of the posts are on the political potential of sortition. The recent flurry of UK media interest in citizens’ assemblies/juries always mentions sortition as the selection principle (in Francophone posts it’s tirage au sort). This strikes me as a persuasive argument to realign the title of our blog with its actual subject matter, and The Sortition Forum strikes me as much more apposite than Equality by Lot: The blog of the Kleroterians.

    >Sortition is not . . . a term we ever use. . . We don’t make statistical claims.

    It seems that the policy and PR of the Sortition Foundation are very different from newDemocracy, so I apologise for lumping you together in the same “basket of deplorables”!

    Does anyone else have a view on whether we should rename this forum? Do we really want to continue being seen as a wierd tribe of aliens?


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