Grandjean: Sortition is apolitical and in-egalitarian

An op-ed in LaLibre.be 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, swayed 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.

Toward a new elite

Secondly, the proposals to reintroduce sortition leave two issues unconsidered. On the one hand, sortition aims to select results in the selection of a new elite. It is therefore not any more democratic than elections. Bernard Manin has already shown that elections are an aristocratic or oligarchical procedure because it results in the selection of people of distinction that their fellow citizens considered to be superior to others. In this sense, since the 19th century, the succession of representatives in the assemblies has been first that of notables, then of party elites and finally a communication elite.

Sortition will merely replace this latest elite with a new one: those who have the interest, the means and the time. Of course, these three characteristics are unequally distributed within the population, unless some mechanisms are put in place in order to provide substitutes for the allotted in their professional activities, as well as other activities. The process of selection of an elite can be further reinforced if the allotment is set up as a process of self-selection. On the other hand, sortition has historically been conceived within small-scale systems, notably the ancient city-state, where a certain participative culture was promoted.

From this perspective, the federal institutions, being perceived as far removed from the citizens, may not be responsive to future major social changes. If so, could it be that other levels of government would be? Would this include the municipality level, which is closer to the citizen, but which has been strangled financially? Are the advocates of sortition trying to force upon us the belief that all the problems would be resolved by the simple change of the procedure of selection of public decision-makers?

Political equality is not necessarily respected

Third, sortition leads to a vision that is fundamentally unequal. Let’s dispose at the outset of a critique that may be made. Citizens are not incompetent and on this point we are in accord with the sortition advocates. Sortition does not guarantee however that the deliberation process within the allotted assembly will respect, even to a limited extent, the principles of political equality among citizens. Some among the allotted – for example, the current political representatives – will utilise their expertise, the rhetorical skills, or, worse, procedural manipulation, in order to influence the deliberations.

Moreover, it is sometimes asserted that sortition assures the liberty of taking turns at governing. It is not liberty that allows this but rather the implementation of the principle of equality. Setting up the rule of law was made possible by the control of the rulers who are themselves subjected to the ruled. All the members of the political system are supposed to be on the same footing. When using the liberal vocabulary in order to justify sortition, we are again sliding down the slope of legitimizing inequalities. In fact, when allotting, we only look at how power is attained and not at the conditions for its exercise and how it is exercised, except for putting in place a procedure for indictment as was the case in Athens.

The alternatives

There are alternatives that are preferable to sortition. First, let us improve and enhance the lessons in philosophy and citizenship. Such courses would be a powerful means for reweaving the links of confidence among the citizens, including the rulers. Second, let us consider instituting term limits so that representatives cannot be elected to more than one or two terms at the maximum. Third, let us look for original and inspiring initiatives at the level of parliament for tight association with the citizens (such as “a decree by all, a decree for all”). The bottom line is that before introducing sortition, our political representatives have to be sure they want to share power. If this is the case, sortition is not necessary. If it is not, then sortition is useless anyway.

24 Responses

  1. This is a good point: “When using the liberal vocabulary in order to justify sortition, we are again sliding down the slope of legitimizing inequalities.”

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A bunch of interesting arguments against sortition here, but they do not seem to be very well substantiated.

    I find the argument that making decisions takes time the most interesting (and I assume knowledge is also implied here) because this issue seem to plague decision-making in any system. What’s easier? Following the latest fad, or to going through professional research papers? Copying ready-made legislation from lobbyists, or going through numerous drafts and redrafts?

    I wonder if sortition can help with these problems or actually make them worse…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Mr. Grandjean, c’est dommage mais il ne demontre rien. Il ne discute pas du tirage au sort, mais de sa presomption à son regard. Enfin, Mr.Grandjean parle seulement de Mr. Grandjean.

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  4. Sortition will merely replace this latest elite with a new one: those who have the interest, the means and the time. Of course, these three characteristics are unequally distributed within the population . . . The process of selection of an elite can be further reinforced if the allotment is set up as a process of self-selection. . . Some among the allotted . . . will utilise their expertise, the rhetorical skills, or, worse, procedural manipulation, in order to influence the deliberations.

    That strikes me as undeniably true, if the procedure is not very carefully designed to address these problems (and to integrate them with electoral systems).

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Geoffrey Grandjean’s critique is of one limited variant of sortition. In some important ways I agree with his objection to a one-size-fits-all design of a sortition democracy. Short duration mini-publics lack depth of analysis. While a long-term mini-public may solve that problem, it creates a new problem of a kind of new elite.

    All of his objections can be answered by simply using different bodies, with different makeup and characteristics for different portions of the decision-making process.

    The generation of raw proposals should be open to any person who wishes to join a proposal group. Such bodies will be heavily weighted towards a wide variety of interest groups and experts. But this is okay because they are only able to generate raw proposals (not make decisions) that they will want to design with a hope they can pass muster of a genuinely representative large short-duration jury. To avoid shallow issue analysis of these proposals, we DO need some mini-publics that serve for an extended number of years (though with regular rotation to avoid establishing a new elite). These mini-publics (an agenda council and many policy area review panels), while being far more representative than any elected legislature, will still lean towards a certain personality type who are willing to do that sort of work. Therefor, they should only prepare final draft proposals with no power to adopt them. Only a fully representative large, short duration mini-public with quasi-mandatory service (to assure accurate representativeness) should have power to adopt proposed policies. With a vast array of review panels and juries tackling a virtual infinite range of policy decisions at local, regional, national (and maybe even global) scales, most adults would serve on some mini-public at some time.

    Any SINGLE design of a sortition body will suffer from one of the failings Grandjean discusses. By using multiple designs in concert, all of his critiques are answered … depth of analysis, representativeness of a sovereign population, avoidance of a new elite, and political equality.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Without a system for training selected representatives, and without compensating those representatives for both the training period and the service/governing period, sortition will certainly generate a new elite. But if we first prepare for Sortition by widening the selection pool to every citizen not currently interned in prison or a hospital, make that training mostly mandatory, and then select from those trained and able to physically able to serve, we can avoid the worst of a new elite, and increase politically equal representation.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Terry:> These mini-publics (an agenda council and many policy area review panels), while being far more representative than any elected legislature.

    Simply repeating this claim does not make it any less of a canard. Election and sortition utilise entirely different forms of representation (choice in the first case, resemblance in the latter). Rather than adopting byzantine hierarchies of allotted bodies it would be much better to ensure that electoral (policy) choice is a genuine one, with the final decision in the hands of a large statistically-representative jury.

    ShiraDest:> if we first prepare for Sortition by widening the selection pool to every citizen not currently interned in prison or a hospital, make that training mostly mandatory.

    Given the minuscule chance of an individual being selected, there would be no reason for citizens to overcome the rational ignorance that plagues electoral representation.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. ShiraDest,

    > Without a system for training selected representatives, and without compensating those representatives for both the training period and the service/governing period, sortition will certainly generate a new elite.

    Yes. The author’s point about the dangers of short-term service is indeed valid. Those who argue for short term service either have an apolitical view of public life (as the author argues) or are simply manipulative and wish for the allotted to be no more than a rubber stamp for an agenda and decisions made by an elite.

    In order for the allotted to make informed and considered decisions on complex topics the service time must be measured in years. Furthermore, this time must be active study and deliberation time, not calendar time which is mostly spent doing other things (as in a “one weekend a month” scheme). And of course such service must be well paid.

    > every citizen not currently interned in prison or a hospital

    The pool must indeed be as inclusive as possible. I think even the exclusions that you are suggesting are not justified. Excluding prisoners from the allotment pool is anti-democratic – prisoners should represent their own interests. As for hospitalizations: most of those are short-term and should not be a hindrance. Those who are hospitalized for a long-term should be included via the appropriate accommodations.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. *** Grandgean writes about « the depth and intensity of debate of ideas which requires trust and requires time. Therefore, sortition reveals itself as apolitical. »
    *** Here we must distinguish salient issues and not-salient issues. The salient issues are the issues which appear important for the material or moral interests of a big part of the people.
    *** For not-salient issues – which may be very serious ones, actually, which may become salient ones later, maybe too late – it is very easy for the dominant social powers to impose their choices without the ordinary citizens being really aware. Only the mini-populus may bring the power of ordinary citizens into these fields.
    *** For salient issues a kind of political debate will occur, at least in a modern advanced society, when the dominant social powers do not dare, or are unable, to prevent it. The corona virus pandemic is such an issue, in polyarchic France and, I suppose, in authoritarian China even if the system does not allow open debate.
    *** Grandgean’s thesis is that election (polyarchic kind) helps to develop political debate, whereas sortition does not help, and thus is « apolitical ».
    *** Actually election is not necessary : we have a very alive coronavirus debate in France, without next election.
    *** And actually election may confuse the debate, not deepen it. First, because in an electoral campaign all issues are mixed. Second, because personal factors play strongly, in presidential systems but not only. Third, because political or social identities interfere more easily with the scrutiny of the issues.
    *** Furthermore polyarchic elections induce a specific kind of political parties, which raise loyalty feelings, and which reduce the set of active sources of ideas. In many North-Atlantic countries all the main parties were, in the last part of 20st century, for « free-trade » and thus a dramatic historical choice (whatever you think about) was out of the actual mass debates.
    *** Therefore the role in political choices of mass electoral politics do not deepen the debates about salient issues, it distorts and reduces them.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Yoram:> In order for the allotted to make informed and considered decisions on complex topics the service time must be measured in years.

    At which point the minipublic ceases to “describe” its target population, and becomes just a different kind of elite (as Grandjean argues).

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  11. As he so often does, either because he can’t be bothered to read or because he is a habitual liar, Sutherland is again misrepresenting other people’s positions.

    Anyone reading the text above sees clearly that Grandjean’s argument about the allotment elite is about the possibility that only a subset of the population would be willing to accept allotted seats. It is that subset that is Grandjean’s elite. This argument has nothing to do with the divergence argument.

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  12. OK, then drop the three words in brackets if you like. It remains the case that the beliefs and preferences of a long-serving body will likely diverge from those of the population that it describes. The colloquial term is “going native”. This is why Terry and I advocate short-serving decision juries.

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  13. Classic Sutherland: “So I lied. So what? Let’s just move on and seriously discuss my pompous, tired, bad-faith nonsense as if it was not refuted over and over in the past.”

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  14. This oped makes a series of foolish and poorly informed claims, meandering from one to the next.

    G seems to think he is arguing against sortition in general, but does not provide any plausible argument or reason against sortition in general that I can see.

    Anyway:

    1. Trust. He says sortition is “a mechanism that does not rely on trust.” This claim is nonsense. The trial jury enjoys high levels of public support/trust everywhere it exists. The reason the public trust trial juries is largely because they are chosen by lottery. Same reason the Athenians trusted their sortition-chosen bodies to make decisions. Same reason the Mongolian deliberative poll on the constitution was convened and considered credible. And so on. (In addition to sortition, the other reason these allotted bodies have been trusted is having fair decision-making procedures.)

    The reason we can trust minipublics to decide/recommend in the public interest and to express the informed views of the public (the views the public would have were they well informed) is because they are microcosms of the public. G does not even try to argue that we can’t trust microcosms, he just ignores this basic line of thought in sortition, and asserts “does not rely on trust.”

    G says there is an “electoral link of trust between represented and representatives …” No citizen who has a clue trusts politicians and parties to put the public interest and public good ahead of their own self-interest. In the USA everyone who has a clue knows that the Duopoly primarily serves themselves, Wall Street and the bigger donors, not the public.

    2. A new elite. G says “sortition aims to select a new elite.” Are trial juries an elite? Were the Athenian juries/minipublics an elite? Were the Mongolian deliberative poll and the Irish Citizens’ Assembly elites? No they were not.There is no reason why sortition needs to create an elite. (We can imagine lottery proposals that would create an elite, for example choosing the members of the House of Lords for life by lottery, but there is no need for sortition to create an elite, nor did it do so in Athens and so on.) What sortition (or at least any sortition proposal I support) aims to do is to prevent elite rule by placing rule (decision-making power) firmly in the hands highly representative portions of the public.

    Electoral democracy by contrast definitely creates an elite, and is a system of elite rule, with the people entirely excluded and disenfranchised from deciding laws. G pretty much acknowledges this.

    3. Political equality. G says “sortition leads to a vision that is fundamentally unequal. … Sortition does not guarantee … that the deliberation process within the allotted assembly will respect, even to a limited extent, the principles of political equality among citizens.” More nonsense. Were Athenian jury courts, the Boule, and legislative juries “fundamentally unequal”? No they were not. (Now, if G is specifically saying that switching the method of selection for an existing legislative body, such as the British House of Commons, from popular election to sortition, would be problematic and “fundamentally unequal,” well he has a point. But this is not a problem with sortition in general. For example it is not a problem with Athenian legislative juries, nor with possible modern and improved versions of them. G should acknowledge that.)

    Sortition embodies political equality with regard to the method of selection (everyone has the same chance of being allotted, and all portions of public are represented in proportion to their number). As for deliberation after selection, Fishkin does not agree that the deliberative polls he has organized do not “respect, even to a limited extent, the principles of political equality among citizens.” G seems unaware that deliberative democracy (breaking into small groups for discussion) is not even an essential feature of for example a legislative jury (the jury can simply hear the case for and against the proposed law, and then vote by secret ballot without having small group discussions or such).

    Yes, obviously sortition needs to be well designed to be as politically equal as possible.

    Electoral democracy, as it is called, is fundamentally unequal, as G acknowledges.

    Note that all the reasons/arguments G puts forward against sortition are actually reasons/arguments against laws being decided by popularly elected politicians.

    4. The alternatives. Having not at all explored the various options and possibilities of sortition, G then presents “alternatives.” The first one (civics courses or something like that) is not inconsistent with sortition (that is, it is not an alternative to sortition, but rather just some possibly nice thing to have whether we have sortition or not). The second one is “Let us consider term limits.” Let us instead consider how politicians, judges, regulatory boards and other public officials could be chosen in an informed and democratic manner with all those who are interested in public offices being placed on a level playing, which can (so I argue, correctly I think) be done by choosing them by jury. In addition let us consider having the procedures that govern the selection of such officials (whether they are chosen by jury or popular election) being decided by jury in an informed and democratic manner. And let us consider having jury-chosen law reform commissions chosen by jury and able to propose laws to legislative juries, including a law reform commission on the selection of public officials. And let us consider also other sortition possibilities that G seems never to have heard of.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Yoram:> refuted over and over in the past.

    Where/when might that have been? Most people would view the observation that a body recruited by lot would, over an extended period of time, cease to accurately describe its target population as just blindingly obvious. Of course if you deny the problem of rational ignorance and claim that individual persons are just identical tokens for the “corporate” interests that they represent you might not agree.

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  16. Simon

    While I don’t agree with the points made in the article, I don’t think they are foolish and poorly informed. In fact, the author raises several serious potential issues that a good design of a sortition-based system must address.

    1. Since sortition does not rely on the (false) claim that the electoral mechanism makes of making a rational trust-based choice of rulers, it must base its claim for legitimacy on a different argument.

    2. Short-term allotted bodies cannot be expected to produce democratic policy.

    3. Self-selection is a serious problem. The sortition-based system must make sure that there are no practical hindrances to participation in allotted bodies.

    4. The oft-repeated idea of “starting at the local level” is problematic if the local level is dis-empowered by higher levels of government.

    5. Procedures of the allotted bodies must assure political equality within the bodies. This requires careful design and continual refinement of those procedures.

    I do agree with you that the “alternatives” that the author proposes are all very old and very barren ground.

    BTW,

    > “sortition aims to select a new elite.”

    I am afraid that is a mistranslation on my part. It should be: “sortition results in the selection of a new elite.” (Your point still stands.)

    Liked by 2 people

  17. > Where/when might that have been?

    If anyone reading this is interested in discussing the issue of the divergence between the population and the allotted (as opposed to making the same talking points over and over as Sutherland does), there are plenty of relevant discussions on this site. A brief starting point is question #12 here. A longer treatment is here.

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  18. I wanted to make a contribution and sent the following email to yoram_gat@yahoo.com:

    Hello Yoram,
    In Filosofie Magazine was an interview with Josine Blok a Dutch, emeritus prof. on classical Greece history. The article was called (translated): ‘Everybody a Politician’. Is it a good idea that I translate the section about sortition so that you can publish it on de Equality by Lot blog?
    Kind regards
    Ronald de Vries, subscriber of the EbL-blog and co-editor of ATHENE Webtijdschrift voor directe democratie (Athens Webjournal of direct democracy)

    But I got no answer …….?

    Sorry for (mis)using this response space for this message!

    Like

  19. Hi Ronald,

    Sorry for not replying – I did not receive your email.

    I’d be happy to publish your translation. Could you either send me by mail or write here your email address? I’ll set you up as a contributor to the blog so you can submit posts.

    Best,

    Yoram

    Liked by 1 person

  20. ronvries@kpnmail.nl

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  21. André’s note about the salience of issues is often ignored by big thinkers. MOST public policy issues are simply uninteresting, even if vitally important. By the sheer number of decisions needed, we need to delegate most public policy decisions to subsets of the community who will study and examine the options. The only question is whether we want ego-driven elected politicians who receive campaign contributions from special interests, or a diverse subset of people “like us.” to do that analysis and deciding.

    While many sortition supporters are advocates of “deliberative democracy” (as distinct from participatory or electoral), Simon makes an important point that sortition is not welded to the deliberative form. The key component is that a diverse range of people who aren’t beholden to special interests on a topic are charged (and given time, resources and incentives) to become well-informed about a topic before making a decision. Has anyone already coined the term “attentive democracy.”

    Liked by 3 people

  22. Terry,

    Dahl references Gabriel Almond’s concept of an “attentive public” in the section of his book on the minipopulus.

    Almond, G. (1950), The American People and Foreign Policy, NY: Harcourt Brace, pp. 139, 228, 233.

    Liked by 2 people

  23. Yoram, I agree with your points 1, 3, 4, 5.

    Re 2, I think this concern is real but I would not want to over-state it. I think it would be very unwise to rely solely on short-term allotted bodies to work out and propose laws, however, I do not want to exclude such bodies from being able to propose laws to legislative juries. Possibly short-term allotted bodies along the lines of Fishkin’s deliberative polls might make some good proposals.

    But we also need other ways for proposals to be worked out and made to legislative juries. I am in favour of giving law reform commissions chosen by jury for perhaps two year terms by multi-winner ranked-choice-vote, the power to propose laws to legislative juries for a final decision. Each commissioner would have the power to propose to a jury (so that juries would have a broader range of proposals on each topic to choose from than if a majority of the commission had to endorse each law proposed to a jury). I am also in favour of politicians being able to propose laws to legislative juries, including those who are in the minority in the parliament or house of representatives or such (but they should not have the power to decide laws themselves, and it would be much better for them to be chosen by jury than by popular vote). I also would like a jury analog of the ballot initiative, with any public interest group or citizen group that wishes able to propose laws, and to have them qualified by the vote of a qualifying jury (rather than having to qualify them by meeting an onerous signature requirement as is now the case for the ballot initiative and veto referendum), and the right to have qualified laws decided by a legislative jury rather than by the undemocratic and oligarchic method of popular vote (which is used for the ballot initiative and veto referendum). Possibly public funds could be awarded by jury to such public interest groups, or for those who like market thinking, they could perhaps receive funding for more law reform type work each time one of their proposals is enacted by the majority vote of a legislative jury. Possibly public funding could be made available by jury for the kind of voluntary lottery-chosen citizen groups Terry suggests for the working out and proposing of laws.

    What we need is a system of producing very good legislative proposals with a real chance of winning the informed support of legislative juries/microcosms/minipublics after a fair hearing on a level playing field. I doubt that there is “one best” method of producing such proposals, and think it better and wiser to have several good methods in use.

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  24. Simon,

    > I think it would be very unwise to rely solely on short-term allotted bodies to work out and propose laws, however, I do not want to exclude such bodies from being able to propose laws to legislative juries. Possibly short-term allotted bodies along the lines of Fishkin’s deliberative polls might make some good proposals.

    Since nothing prevents any citizen or group of citizens from writing proposals, what would allotted short-term bodies add to other methods of proposal generation? Do we believe that the proposals generated by such bodies would be better than those generated by other methods?

    More generally, generating proposals is easy. The question is how to filter the very large number of proposals that are (either potentially or actually) generated by the public to the very small number of proposals that can be considered in depth.

    Like

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