Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 1

Background about this essay and its table of contents can be found here.

What follows is a comparison of elections and sortition. The essay is divided into two parts. In part I, elections and sortition are compared in terms of general principles. In part II, they are compared in terms of different possible applications.

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

Let us start by a general comparison of elections and sortition in democracy, taking Paul Ricœur’s definition of democracy as our starting point:

A democracy is a society which recognizes itself to be divided, that is, containing conflicts of interests, and which has committed itself to endow each citizen with an equal part of the expression of these conflicts, of their analysis and of the deliberation of those conflicts with a view of arriving at a resolution.

That is, the definition of the common good is by construction relative, variable, debatable, conflicting, and therefore political. It rests fundamentally on the question of sovereignty: who is the legitimate communal decision maker? Who weighs the needs of the social body? Who decides? Who evaluates the decisions? The people themselves or their representatives? Do we even need representatives?

And if the scale of our societies indeed necessitates appointing representatives, what type of representatives? Because the word “representative” is ambiguous: are they the masters or the servants of the common good?

And above all, who is the legitimate decision maker regarding basic rules, the meta-rules?

In theory, for the last 200 years, those arguing for the election of legislators and governors – a procedure that goes under the name “universal suffrage” – claim to serve the common good, by appointing the best in holding them accountable, all the while freeing the governed to go about their own business. But in practice, for the last 200 years, elections produce a system where the many are dominated by the few.

This type of society was desired since its origin in the 18th century by people like Voltaire (an ultra-rich arms merchant and an important inspiration for the French Revolution of 1789):

The spirit of a nation is always in with the few, who manage the many, by whom they are fed, and whom they rule. Certainly this spirit of the Chinese nation is the oldest pillar of reason which exists on Earth [Voltaire, An Essay on the Mores and Spirit of Nations, Vol. 12, Ch. 155].

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, perhaps the principal founding father of representative government in France, has explicated the program of the 1789 revolution as well:

In a democracy, citizens make the laws themselves, and appoint the public officials. In our plan [representative government], the citizens choose, directly or indirectly, deputies to the legislative assembly. Legislation is therefore not democratic but representative [Sieyes, Some Ideas about the Constitution Applicable to the City of Paris, 1789. Quoted by Rosanvallon, History of the Word Democracy, 1993].

The best way for modern voters like us to understand the application of sortition to politics is to examine, point by point, the effects of elections by contrasting them with the intrinsic qualities of sortition.

We will see that elections (i) paralyze the governed and (ii) grant power to the worst rulers.

4 Responses

  1. […] Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1. […]


  2. […] published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1, Part […]


  3. […] published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2 and Part […]


  4. […] published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part […]


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