Kill The Assembly

In the first post of my series on the legislative, I discuss what is wrong with the general assembly (spoiler alert: everything). Nevertheless, in the history of the assembly there are the seeds of new growth. We can get back to a more honest, more productive assembly if we take it apart, honor its historical motivation, and rebuild it with some modern innovations.

11 Responses

  1. An interesting post! I disagree that the *only* difference between a sortitional and a democratic assembly is the members’ preexisting ideological commitments (see my recently published paper for details: ), but your points about the functioning and malfunctioning of legislative procedures are something I’ll have to chew over.

    I think the crucial question this post leaves open is the nature of the ‘external structure determined by ideologically diverse elements from within the existing political order’ tasked with setting the agendas and framing the debates for the juries. I hope in future posts you flesh this element of your proposed system out.

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  2. Oliver:> (see my recently published paper for details: )

    Where can I find it?

    Oliver:> I hope in future posts you flesh this element of your proposed system out.

    I will! This post contains a teaser, as they say ;)

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  3. I also forgot to update my WordPress profile to link to my active blog, for which, apologies!

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  4. Non-legislators often assume that elected legislative bodies engage in deliberation. And a few people even imagine they seek to enact the will of the people. I served in elected legislative bodies for 20 years, and can state categorically, that this is rarely the case. Primarily they perform two functions: they negotiate outcomes based on relative power positions of various politicians or parties, and they engage in performance through mock debate in preparation for the next election cycle. Whatever deliberation DOES occur is among favored lobbyists and legislative staff, almost never among legislators. Finding common ground is actually considered counterproductive, since the goal is to show that the opponents are either evil or incompetent (in preparation for the next election). It is also worth noting that on nearly every issue that comes before the full chamber, only a tiny fraction of members have read the bill, or understand what it entails. Only the members on the committee of reference sometimes know the details, and often even they leave the task of “understanding” to their staff and lobbyists. Elected legislatures are primarily about power, with policy merely being the raw material they use to attack each other.

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  5. I think Terry’s direct experience confirms what we all suspected. It also emphasizes that the drafters of legislation–whether chosen by election, by lot, or by any other method–must be systematically forced to internalize the policy preferences of the general public. I have my method for doing so, which is probably well know to the readers of this blog by now. Nevertheless, even for those who don’t like my ideas, this should be the primary goal.

    I think some naive sortition advocates assume that simply choosing a legislature by lot will bring this about. This is deeply misguided. While a group of randomly chosen citizens may represent the public in a statistical sense, getting such a group to collectively write a bill that reflects public sentiment (to say nothing of whether or not it is an epistemically good bill) is a completely different matter.

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  6. Alex,

    > “the drafters of legislation–whether chosen by election, by lot, or by any other method–must be systematically forced to internalize the policy preferences of the general public”

    As someone who falls on the deliberative-democratic side of the sortition camp, I’m inclined to disagree with this. Obviously if the public don’t end up on board with, or at least acquiescent to, a policy, it’ll fail. But the point of gathering people into juries and letting advocates of all sides of an issue have their say before them is to allow them to make informed, considered decisions. If the results of those decisions are always to be the same as the results of a national poll, why bother with juries at all?

    I agree with you that the structure and procedures of the jury process are critical, but as I see it the aim should not be to match their results to public opinion. Rather, it should be to push them in the direction of humane and farsighted decision-making. A perfect negative example is the reading of victim impact statements in criminal sentencing, which encourages the jury to pass harsher, more punitive sentences on the convicted party. Or consider the legalisation of gay sex in the UK, which was passed in 1967 against the tide of public opinion, which remained solidly homophobic into the 1990s. It’s impossible to say for sure whether a citizens’ jury would have shifted their opinions in a more liberal direction than the public as a whole had they been properly exposed to both sides of that argument, but given that the level of exposure to advocacy of gay rights among the general population circa 1967 was approximately zero, we can at least conjecture that they would not have become *less* liberal – and that this would be entirely to the good.

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  7. Oliver:> If the results of those decisions are always to be the same as the results of a national poll, why bother with juries at all?

    I think this misrepresents Alex’s position. Ideally he would like every shade of opinion in the demos to be reflected in the advocacy process but this would clearly lead to a Tower of Babbling. The number of proposal/advocacy groups would reflect the decision rule in place and I think he believes the optimum is around five. Clearly this will leave any position that has “approximately zero” public support without advocates but that’s where civil society comes into play. Most political theorists would agree that Gramsci’s scheme has been pretty effective in undermining the hegemony of bourgeois public opinion. In terms of the legalisation of gay sex it might have taken a little longer, but I’m afraid that’s democracy for you — and it has the added advantage that everyone would be on board, rather than creating opposing camps in the culture wars. The culture wars are the result of when a few vanguard elite politicians move ahead of public opinion and we need to make sure that small deliberative elites don’t suffer the same fate. I’m not too up on Irish politics but I imagine there must be a certain backlash against the recent constitutional amendments and there is a danger that randomly-selected deliberative groups (however well informed) are viewed as part of the problem by those of a conservative disposition.

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  8. Keith,

    I think your criticisms of my point are apt.

    > “The culture wars are the result of when a few vanguard elite politicians move ahead of public opinion”

    I’m afraid this is a rather optimistic view. Political action may lead or follow public opinion (although it also plays an important role in shaping it) but it’s conflicts of values among the public that produce culture wars. Those conflicts might be between an educated elite and a less-educated class, but they can equally be between the young and the old, the left and the right within the working class, etc. It would be unthinkable for gay rights to have advanced without a culture clash, simply because the struggle was between two incompatible conceptions of right and wrong. And that’s a clash where the initial majority didn’t have anything much economically invested in the outcome. The struggle for Black equality in America, in which wealthy white conservatives had and still have a great deal riding on the oppression of the Blacks, shows how much nastier conflicts of values can become, even when the state drags its feet.

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  9. That’s true. But the conservative backlash on non-economic issues might not have been so strident if the rate of cultural change had been slower. My own life time (b. 1951) spans the period of solid homophobia and one in which sexual preference (and gender identity) is now viewed as entirely malleable. Normally change like that would have required several generations and Margaret Atwood’s work has shown how the pendulum might swing in the other direction. And I do believe change is possible without culture clash — hence my advocacy of sortition as a way to improve our current political practice rather than replace the oppressive system called “electoralism”.

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  10. Oliver:> If the results of those decisions are always to be the same as the results of a national poll, why bother with juries at all?

    I am afraid I am going to disappoint you, since you seem so intent on disagreeing with me, but I don’t think we disagree here. When I spoke of reflecting public sentiment, I did not mean the poll of the day or aggregation of Facebook likes. I meant the considered opinion of ordinary citizens; i.e. what they would think if they had the time and resources appropriate for the task. This is really about convergence; ensuring that the results of the jury reflect what the results would have been if the entire citizenry could participate, within some statistical margin of error. I think my language was a bit sloppy.

    Keith:> The culture wars are the result of when a few vanguard elite politicians move ahead of public opinion…

    This is certainly one way culture wars can happen. There are many other factors, however. More attention should be paid to the role of bad victory conditions. The Electoral College in the U.S. sets out a terrible victory condition, one that has not only resulted in two disastrous presidencies, but also shifts presidential politics to just a few states. It is no coincidence that those states (Florida, Wisconsin, etc.) are states where culture war politics are particularly acute. In addition, winning begets winning. The fact that Republicans have won multiple elections under poorly designed victory conditions has made them stronger, both in resources and followers.

    This leads to some boring, nerdy, but essential considerations. One is the need for juries to have multiple proposals: at least three, and possibly more. Another is the need to use the appropriate aggregation algorithm: always the Schulze method, and never, EVER instant runoff voting. A bad victory condition can ruin an otherwise well-designed system.

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