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.