Advantages and Disadvantages of Sortition

This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here.

At the start of Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin gives an overview of the history of sortition, which in the beginning was bound up with war and religion. Victory in war meant division of the spoils and since most warriors were full time farmers in their day job (professional soldiers were an innovation of Phillip of Macedon), land grants (hence “lots” of land) to veterans for their service served as a sort of pension.

Tangibles as well as intangibles like power have been distributed by lot since early times. God instructed Moses to order the Jews to divide up tracts of land by lots, and this method of distribution is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Land in Athenian colonies was distributed by lot to cleruchs (veterans), and the Romans also parcelled out landholdings for veteran soldiers by lot, to ensure that the most fertile land was impartially distributed: this too, presumably, was God’s reasoning in the case of the Jews.

The Greek word for veteran, “cleruch,” was bound up with clerisy or random distribution. It is also the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries, but later the clergy disapproved and the practice was restricted to heretical outliers, such as the Gnostics. In Hellas, random choice was not primarily religious, as Goodwin points out. “Despite the Greek predilection for giving political rituals a religious gloss, it appears that no divine weight was accorded.” It was also a Roman tradition, though in different form.

In Rome, the augurs had special responsibility for supervising lots as well as for reading entrails, and they adopted as their symbol the urn, from which lots were drawn. But the reasoning behind their usage of the lot also seems to be common-sense and secular: the lot was chiefly used as a convenient means of determining which of various necessary tasks would be performed by officers of equal rank, such as the two consuls.

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Levinson likes Sortition

Noted American Constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson seems to have recently read David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections. He is full of praise for the book and for sortition in general. His main concern about elections is apparently about rational ignorance, so he focuses on the idea of elections by jury. Displaying an interesting mix of elitist and democratic sentiments, Levinson makes the following comments:

We could obviously discuss at length the degree to which the restricted list generates truly “representative” candidates, given the role played by money or well-located interest groups. That’s the subject for other postings. Rather, let’s assume for the moment that the candidate-selection process is acceptable, and we’re concerned only with how we should structure the choice by the citizenry of who should occupy the offices in question.

I am assuming that any and all trained social scientists would agree that a well-chosen representative sample will produce more “representative” outcomes, whether one is testing the distribution of public opinion or, as in the hypothetical case the selection of a president, than does the baroque process by which we conduct elections. The laity, on the other hand, I suspect would be appalled at this suggestion because we have built up over the years a true mystique about elections per se. Continue reading

Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice By Lottery

This is the first post in a series dealing with the book Justice by Lottery by Barbara Goodwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery is a classic overview of sortition, covering its practical applications and the many speculative proposals in literature and political theory. The book begins with a headpiece, a quotation from King Lear. Since this play was written while Shakespeare was confined in quarantine, it rings differently now that virtually every nation in the world is in lockdown. King Lear planned for a gradual, honourable retirement, but is rejected and enters into a sudden isolation that dislocates and impoverishes.

The scene in question has the former king, betrayed by two of his daughters, in a homeless state, beginning to perceive what his ascendancy had blinded him to. He asks Gloucester, who recently had been brutally blinded for loyalty to Lear, whether he can see how this world goes? Gloucester ruefully answers that he “sees it feelingly.” That is, he understands by touch, not sight. This cartoon depicts how he “sees feelingly,”

Lear then says (and this is Goodwin’s headpiece),

What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi)

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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 4

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

It remains to examine the different applications of sortition in politics:

Part II. Comparison of different applications of sortition

Having seen how poorly the common good is served by elections and how well it is defended by sortition, we can ask (i) what are the principal applications of allotment for appointing representatives, and (ii) how could this procedure become part of a constitutional, institutional structure.

(i) Principal applications of sortition in politics

Elections among candidates are generally used to award privileges, whereas sortition is used to assign duties.

In addition, to fill a post or carry out a function we elect a single person for an extended duration, during which time there is little or no control over that person. With sortition, a group of people are allotted for a short period, during which time they are closely monitored.
Here are three notable models for the use of sortition in politics (keeping the most important one for the end):

1. Sortition for appointing oversight bodies

It is often asserted in the literature of political philosophy how important it is for citizens to closely control all forms of political power. Here is Montesquieu:

It is the universal experience that any man who carries power comes to abuse it. He abuses it up to the point where he finds his limits. Even virtue needs to have limits! In order to prevent abuse of power it is necessary to match power against power [The Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter IV].

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Altman: Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

A 2014 paper by David Altman, professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, proposes using citizen juries as part of the intiative/referendum process in a way that goes beyond Citizen Initiative Review.

Strengthening Democratic Quality: Reactive Deliberation in the Context of Direct Democracy

David Altman

Kellogg Institute for International Studies – Working Paper Series #400

Abstract: Acknowledging that mechanisms of direct democracy can fall prey to narrow and egoistic interests (regardless of how legitimate they may be) and that legislatures do not always have the incentives to articulate responses to those narrow interests, I propose a hypothetical reform: any time a popular vote (i.e., initiative, referendum, or authorities’ referendum) is held, representative and direct institutions should be supplied with a stratified random sample of eligible voters convened to advance citizens’ counterproposals. This original institution—which does not exist even in the places where direct democracy is most developed—would discuss, deliberate, and offer an alternative or an improvement to a policy question that is to be decided in the near future; it would refine and enlarge public views on a contentious topic, providing meaningful political choices, and thus strengthening democratic quality. In arguing for this, my research takes insights from two real-world situations—Uruguay’s two 2009 initiatives for constitutional reform—in which citizens’ counterproposals could have played a crucial role in informing public views on a contentious topic and offered an alternative to both sides of the debate.

Lafont: Democracy without shortcuts

Cristina Lafont is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University whose research is about normative questions in political philosophy concerning democracy and citizen participation, global governance, human rights, religion and politics.

Lafont is the author a new book, Democracy without shortcuts, devoting a fair amount of attention to allotted citizen juries.

This book articulates a participatory conception of deliberative democracy that takes the democratic ideal of self-government seriously. It aims to improve citizens’ democratic control and vindicate the value of citizens’ participation against conceptions that threaten to undermine it. The book critically analyzes deep pluralist, epistocratic, and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. Their defenders propose various institutional “shortcuts” to help solve problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation. However, it turns out that these shortcut proposals all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy. Moreover, it seems naïve to assume that a community can reach better outcomes “faster” if it bypasses the beliefs and attitudes of its citizens. Unfortunately, there are no “shortcuts” to making a community better than its members. The only road to better outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. However difficult the process of justifying political decisions to one another may be, skipping it cannot get us any closer to the democratic ideal. Starting from this conviction, the author defends a conception of democracy “without shortcuts.” This conception sheds new light on long-standing debates about the proper scope of public reason, the role of religion in politics, and the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. It also proposes new ways to unleash the democratic potential of institutional innovations such as deliberative minipublics.

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Grandjean: Sortition is apolitical and in-egalitarian

An op-ed in by Geoffrey Grandjean, teaching fellow at the University of Liège and director of the Institut de la Décision publique. Original in French. Published 03/12/2019.

Forming a citizen assembly using sortition in order to reinvigorate democracy is a fashionable idea. Nevertheless, it appears to me to be erroneous. There are preferable alternatives.

Sortition has come back into fashion. Political representatives, sways by a series of experts, are now seeing sortition as a way to reinvigorate democracy and maybe, for some, to finally realize the democratic dream through statistical sampling. Instrumental reasoning will win over ideological debates because an allotted assembly – or even a partially allotted assembly – is synonymous with democracy.

However, recourse to sortition as a method for selecting assembly members is profoundly apolitical and in-egalitarian idea. There are three reasons for this.

More than a link of trust

First, behind sortition there are mistaken, and even dangerous, assumptions about the functioning of democracy. On the one hand, in critiquing the existing representative system, the advocates of sortition respond to a sentiment of general distrust by proposing a mechanism that does not rely on trust. The electoral link of trust between represented and representatives is replaced by a probabilistic selection technique of cold calculation. In this regard, in Les @nalyses du CRISP en ligne, Vincent de Coorebyter asserts that the tendency to create citizen parliaments consists of “an abandonment, pure and simple, of sovereignty in favor of an assembly selected without us”.

On the other hand, when we look at the different proposals for allotted assemblies, they are often designed as having short terms. In fact, citizens are convened for a single day, or a week at most. This type of proposal translates to short-termism and the ephemerality, unless the allotted citizens become full-fledged parliamentarians. Taking a public decision takes time, even in our digital societies. Fundamentally, the advocates of sortition drain away, through the procedure of selection of assemblies, what is the heart of political decisions – the depth and intensity of debate of ideas which requires trust and requires time. Therefore, sortition reveals itself as apolitical.
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Berkowitz: Democratic Revival and Using Lottery in Citizen Juries

On Saturday, April 18, 2020, at 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm EDT/GMT-4 the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College will hold an online discussion by Dr. Roger Berkowitz under the title “Democratic Revival and Using Lottery in Citizen Juries presented”. The event will be accessible through the following link:

We require intensive efforts to rebuild faith in democracy. An increasingly talked about idea is citizen assemblies or Citizen Juries that bring together everyday people chosen by lottery to discuss, learn about, and make recommendations upon political questions.

These Citizen Assemblies are based on the old Athenian idea of choosing representatives in a democracy by lottery rather than by election. Around the world, such Citizen juries are being used to foster greater involvement of citizens in policy making which complement representative and direct democracy. These deliberative institutions are not mere focus groups. By bringing non-expert citizens into political institutions, Citizen Juries both breathe energy into representative democracy and nurture virtue amongst citizens. It is one way to address the deficit of democratic participation that plagues modern democracy. Dr. Berkowitz will lead a discussion about Citizen Juries and how they can reinvigorate democracy.

Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 3

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1, Part 2.

(ii) Elections put the worst in power (whereas sortition does not)

Regarding the rulers, by accepting that we need “representatives” we observe often that election among candidates brings into power the worst qualified – the exact opposite of that which it claims.

There are 7 inherent characteristics of elections that lead to this disastrous result – which are the mirror image of 7 opposite characteristics of sortition which would prevent such results.

1. Elections give power to those who desire it (whereas sortition does not)

It has been known for 2,500 years that giving power to those who desire it must be avoided.

Plato: “The worst of maladies is when power is in the hands of those who desire it” [Cited by Jacques Rancière].

Alain: “The most noticeable characteristic of the just man is not wishing to govern others but rather governing himself alone. Everything flows from that. That is, the worst will rule” [Alain, On Power, Dec. 10th, 1935].

Upon reflection, we see that it is true that the worst will rule, but only if we grant power to those who desire it (because the best do not desire power). Indeed, sortition avoids this crucial trap and grants power to the “others”, and in this way does not condemn us to the tyranny of those who desire power to decide for others.

It is a bad idea to grant power to those who desire it enough to gain it because the abilities and the motivations that are necessary in order to gain power (that is, to win the electoral match) are surely not those that are necessary in order to exercise power – exercise it in an attempt to promote the common good.

2. Elections encourage lying and favor the liars

By relying on the choice of the citizens to appoint the actors, elections give fraudsters, whose entire skill is exactly in misdirecting peoples’ choices, an opportunity. In a way, elections give power to the liars: it is he who lies best who will be elected every time. Therefore, by construction, elections encourage lying: first, lying before the vote in order to get elected, followed by lying after the vote in order to be re-elected. Scientifically, mechanically, consistently, elections among candidates promote lying.

(Again: “The worst rule”, said Alain.)
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