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.)

Sortition, on the other hand, by not relying on choice, eliminates opportunities for fraudsters. Even better, sortition discourages lying because it leaves no way in which lies serve to gain power. Certainly, there will be liars in any human society. Of course. But sortition reduces the proportion of liars in power (from 100% to …?). This serves the common good.

3. Elections produce masters, whereas sortition produces equals

Having been designated “the best”, the elected naturally, and quite logically, feel pride, vanity and a sense of superiority. These sentiments naturally lead to feeling legitimately entitled to deciding everything oneself, without having to demonstrate that they are worthy of this role.

Many of the abuses of power and the neglect of the common good find deep roots in these feelings of superiority of the elected who necessarily originate in the aristocratic procedure of elections among candidates.

In contrast, sortition does not offer any reason for a sense of superiority and therefore encourages humility. Not having been selected as “the best”, but as equals, it is necessary for the allotted to show that they are worthy of their position.

4. Elections produce uncontrolled masters, where as sortition does not

Elections rely on trust and place control of the representatives solely at the moment of their election. This choice then blocks any attempt to control the elected during their terms because the claim is made that their election and the threat of not being re-elected provide a sufficient control mechanism. This absence of real control over the elected allows, and even favors, corruption. Elections without other control mechanisms do not protect effectively the common good.

Whereas sortition, which naturally inspires mistrust, shifts the moment of control of the representatives: the allotted are not controlled at the moment of selection (since anybody can be allotted), but rather all the time, during the term of service as well as afterwards – by other allotted bodies. Therefore, allotted representatives are naturally and instinctively much better controlled than elected ones.

This essential difference, regarding the matter of control, leads logically to adopting elections for selecting local representatives (who are known to their electorate, with whom the public rubs shoulders and who are more easily monitored because of their closeness), and adopting sortition (and the associated control mechanisms at all stages) in order to select representatives at the regional, national and federal levels (representatives who are unknown to their electorate and who are hard to monitor because of the distance).

Therefore, elections are a good fit for the selection of municipal officials, but ill fit selection of officials at larger scales, whereas sortition are much better suited for selection of officials at the regional, national and federal levels. The opposite is often erroneously asserted.

5. Elections produce an uncontrollable caste of masters, whereas sortition does not

The same reasons that lead to the elections of a candidate once (the short list of self-selected candidates, their skills of seduction – which they ceaselessly improve, the personality of the voters – which hardly changes from one election to the next) lead to their reelection over and over again. Elections are therefore antithetical to rotation in office and inherently lead to professionalization of politics and to the formation of parties. This phenomenon is observed worldwide and repeatedly over time.

In contrast, sortition enforces rotation in office and prevents the professionalization of politics.

Elections negate political equality by preventing the many from taking political action and leaving such action to the political caste. Sortition, on the other hand, promotes political equality among citizens by preventing the formation of a privileged class.

6. Elections among candidates promote the formation parties, which are necessary in order to win a political war. This war, one camp against another, has a military logic, which requires the activists to obey and requires the mobilization of collective passions. Sortition does not

We vote almost once per year, and a single citizen cannot win an election among candidates. So the permanent electoral campaign which accompanies elections requires the candidates to mobilize an army of activists, rallying around their leader, around a line of thought, a dogma, a discipline, a hierarchy, a hostility toward all other such armies, a sectarian obsession to become the sole power, etc. All this leads to discord.

The common good cannot be pursued when the top objective is to grab power.
Parties’ only objective is to win elections. Nothing else. Parties exist only when there are elections. It is the electoral choice which condemns us to the plague of parties, but obviously there is no need for parties in order to make policy. For this reason, with sortition, parties become useless and naturally disappear.

We now reach the last and worst of the effects of elections:

7. Electoral candidates can be promoted, and therefore elections give power to the richest, whereas sortition does not

It is easy to corrupt someone who owes you everything. Conversely, it is difficult to corrupt someone who owes you nothing.

If a candidate can be promoted, it is certain that those who have the means to do so will, because those candidates who were promoted will necessarily be debtors, and thus servants, of those private interests who did the promoting. They are completely dependent on that promotion for their election and their re-election.

What are the means for promoting candidates? What is needed is to make them highly visible, display them in a flattering light, throw softball questions at them, discredit or obscure their opponents, etc. All this public relations work is accomplished by the mass media (the press, the radio, TV, polling institutes) and their “journalists”, “editors”, and other “experts”. Today, the entire media apparatus is owned by a handful of banks and industrialists and a couple of weapons manufacturers. [See Halimi, Maler, Reymond and Vidal L’opinion, ça se travaille…; Chomsky and Herman, Manufacturing Consent; Geuens, Tous pouvoirs confondus.]

Thus, elections among candidates allow, and even promote, corruption. It is without doubt their gravest, and least excusable, fault.

In elections the richest individuals of society have thus found the sure means for conserving their power for eternity, and for producing a system of laws that serves themselves. This system can be called “capitalism” or “plutocracy” (government by the rich for the rich), but the entire pyramid of institutional powers (parliament, the executive, judges, prisons, police, etc.) rests on the method of selection of legislators. Nothing compels the 99% to prefer elections to sortition. It is the elected themselves who have chosen elections. We can understand them, their own personal interest, but this choice has nothing to do with the common good, and we don’t have to follow them in their choice.

In contrast, sortition does not allow promotion. It is an egalitarian and incorruptible procedure which puts in power the best servants of the common good, incorruptible for not owing anything to anyone for the ascension to power.

So, elections put in power people who protect narrow interests, whereas sortition puts in power people who promote the general interest.

Sure, nothing is perfect and risks of corruption will always exist, in any human society. Yet, elections combine all the vices from the point of view of the common good (not the point of view of the elected, of course, nor the point of view of their wealthy benefactors). We can therefore deduce that sortition would reduce corruption from its current level of 100% to some, yet to be determined, lower level.

Conclusion of the first part:

We have two political experiments on which we can base a political theory: daily sortition in Athens (in the 5th and 4th centuries BC) have allowed the “poor” (the 99%, as we would say today) to govern for 200 years, whereas elections have allowed the rich (the 1%) to rule in the West over the last 200 years (since 1789).

So, in theory as well as in practice, elections give power to the 1%, whereas sortition gives it to the 99%.

This raises the question: “how much longer will the 99% continue treating an infantilizing, aristocratic procedure which paralyzes them as if it is a democratic sacred cow?”

2 Responses

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


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


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