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].


Because of the conflict of interests and because of collaboration, a source of power will never be (can never be) judged honestly by its peers.

The antidote against conflict of interests is sortition. This is the reason everybody (except for those pursuing their own narrow interests) understand and admit the importance of the first use of randomness in politics: from the point of view of the common good, it is necessary that all oversight bodies of various political power be composed of average citizens, who therefore must be allotted (and trained for their oversight role).

2. Sortition for appointing all or some of the legislators

The issue of appointing legislators through sortition is delicate and therefore controversial. We have for such a long time believed, despite evidence to the contrary, that electing legislators was a good way to serve the common good that today it is very hard to realize that an allotted parliament would in all likelihood promote the common good much better than an elected one.

This particular use of sortition is the one that is most difficult for people to accept. Some will only accept a compromise of having one elected chamber (the Chamber of Parties) and one allotted chamber (the Citizens’ Chamber). I will not pursue this issue here, but it is an open one where there are many interesting and promising possibilities.

If you find this application of sortition to be troubling, you should not reject with it all applications of sortition. You could support some applications (e.g., an oversight body, or a constitutional assembly) while rejecting a different one (e.g., a legislative assembly).

3. An allotted constitutional assembly, without which nothing else will come to pass

The most important application of sortition in politics is without doubt the appointment of the constitutional assembly. It is the most important because it is a precondition for all other applications – the elected will never renounce the procedure which puts them in power.

The constitution is the superior text which institutes all the power within a state, which sets the procedures for the selection of all the individuals to whom power is granted, the bodies which oversee those individuals and the ability of the people to oppose those with power.

We can think of the constitution as a social contract, which can always be revised, and by which a group of people organizes itself by establishing powers which they consent to obey. The constitution must limit those powers in order to protect society against their abuse. Therefore, it must never be that those in power write the constitution – the rules of power. In the process of constitution-writing, those in power are always in a situation of a conflict of interests. Their own interest is contrary to the general interest. They would therefore alway institute their own power and popular disempowerment. It is exactly this that we observe everywhere and at all times.

There is almost no trace of this radical idea in the literature, but I did find it in the writings of Thomas Paine, an Englishman. He wrote in 1791:

[I]t is repugnant to the principles of representative government that a body should give power to itself.

[T]here is no such thing as the idea of a compact between the people on one side, and the government on the other. The compact was that of the people with each other, to produce and constitute a government. To suppose that any government can be a party in a compact with the whole people, is to suppose it to have existence before it can have a right to exist. The only instance in which a compact can take place between the people and those who exercise the government, is, that the people shall pay them, while they choose to employ them.

Government is not a trade which any man, or any body of men, has a right to set up and exercise for his own emolument, but is altogether a trust, in right of those by whom that trust is delegated, and by whom it is always resumeable.

Government has no right to make itself a party in any debate respecting the principles or modes of forming, or of changing, constitutions. It is not for the benefit of those who exercise the powers of government that constitutions, and the governments issuing from them, are established. In all those matters the right of judging and acting are in those who pay, and not in those who receive [The Rights of Man (1792), Chapter 4: Of Constitutions].

A modern phrasing of this idea would be: it is not for the people in power to write the rules of power.

If sortition was never instituted, it is undoubtedly because the constitutional assemblies were always created by election among professional politicians, whose personal interest naturally led them to prefer elections at the expense of the common good.

Therefore, if the people of the world want one day to escape the political trap which disempowers them, they must, without a doubt, have the allotment of the constitutional assembly their top priority. In order to finally institute the right of the people to truly govern themselves, constitutional assemblies must never be elected.

But who is going to carry out this project of a citizen constitutional assembly, if not the citizens themselves?

One Response

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

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