Yamaguchi: Lottocracy: Considerations on Representative Democracy by Lot

Akito Yamaguchi is a second-year doctoral student at the University of Tokyo, Japan, specializing in political philosophy, especially lottocracy. This is the author’s summary of a paper by Yamaguchi published in the Japanese Journal of Political Thought (May 2020).

Lottocracy: Considerations on Representative Democracy by Lot

This paper aims to examine the relevance of “lottocracy” as a lawmaking system. Lottocracy is the idea of a representative system in which representatives in the legislature are appointed by lottery rather than by election. This paper compares lottocracy and electoral democracy in terms of instrumental value, i.e., the value of the outcomes of these procedures. It assesses the value of both systems in terms of the interests of the people: how well do the systems promote the interests of the people?

To assess the instrumental value of the electoral and lottocratic systems, I use two methods. First, I use two criteria to assess the interests of the people: the criterion of equal reflection and the criterion of competence. The criterion of equal reflection is a criterion for assessing the extent to which the system equally reflects the will of the people. The criterion of competence is a criterion to assess for assessing how competent a legislator is in terms of lawmaking.

Second, I assess the electoral and lottocratic systems in both an ideal condition and a non-ideal condition. In the ideal condition, I assess each system in the condition in which it functions best. In the non-ideal condition, I assess each system in the real world in which we live.

Section 1 assesses both systems in the ideal condition. In the ideal condition, the electoral system is superior to the lottocratic system. This is because representatives who are superior to others are elected in the electoral system and so the electoral system is higher in terms of the criterion of competence.Section 2 assesses both systems in the non-ideal condition. On the one hand, the lottocratic system is superior to the electoral system in terms of the criterion of equal reflection. On the other hand, the electoral system is superior to the lottocratic system in terms of the criterion of competence. However, there are serious flaws in both systems.
In terms of the criterion of equal reflection, the biggest flaw in the electoral system is the over-representation of the affluent. The affluent have electoral advantages because they have the opportunity to gain prestige and develop their oratorical skills (the aristocratic effect). Also, the affluent can bribe their electoral representatives to enact policies that are favorable to them (oligarchic effect).

In terms of the criterion of equal reflection, the main flaws of the lottocratic system are sampling bias and manipulation by interest groups. The composition of the representative assembly may be biased in some way if candidates selected by lottery have the option to decline to serve. Also, like elected representatives, representatives of the lottocratic system may be vulnerable to manipulation by interest groups.

In terms of the criterion of competence, the biggest flaw of the electoral system is the inability of voters to effectively control their representatives. First, because voters are indifferent to politics and do not monitor their representatives sufficiently, electoral representatives don’t work for the interests of their constituents even if they are competent. Second, even if voters monitor their representatives, it is difficult for voters to have complete control over their representatives. This is because representatives do many things but the only thing voters can do is vote in elections.

In terms of the criterion of competence, the biggest flaw of the lottocratic system is the competence of citizens as representatives. First, representatives selected by lot are less competent than electoral representatives because they lack political experience. In particular, in the lottocratic system, by eliminating elections and depriving people of the opportunity to vote, citizens become less politically literate and thus less competent as representatives. Second, eliminating the room for official, elected political parties makes politics dysfunctional. Political parties consolidate the views of citizens to set the appropriate agenda and further represent conflicting views in the Assembly. The lottocratic system without political parties lacks a proper decision-making mechanism and has to rely on bureaucrats and experts to supplement it. The result is the dominance of bureaucrats and experts.

Therefore, both the electoral and lottocratic systems are seriously flawed and should be improved.

Section 3 considers how to improve both systems in the non-ideal condition to approximate to them in the ideal condition. On the one hand, the electoral system should be improved by tightening regulations on campaign finance and political contributions and introducing mini-publics as advisory committees to eliminate elite bias and more equally reflect the preferences of the public. On the other hand, the lottocratic system should be improved by introducing an electoral chamber to enable more competent decisions to be made. Therefore, instead of introducing a genuine electoral system or a genuine lottocratic system, a mixed system should be introduced.

11 Responses

  1. Responding to my query, Akito Yamaguchi wrote that sortition is rarely discussed in Japan, but following the publication of the Japanese translation of Van Reybrouck’s “Against Elections” a few papers on sortition were published. Yamaguchi himself two additional sortition-related papers that will be published in the near future.

    The bibliography of the paper summarized above is here. Apart from one paper, it is entirely non-Japanese.

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  2. To be fair, I have not read the actual paper, only this summary… but it strikes me as a pretty superficial analysis. As one example:

    >”representatives selected by lot are less competent than electoral representatives because they lack political experience.”

    Obviously we need to define and have some metric for “competence” both as individuals and as a body. I would suggest the electoral campaign experience makes ELECTED officials uniquely LESS competent at group problem solving (and there is research that supports this contention.)

    This is followed by the assertion that under a lotocratic system, with the lack of electoral campaigning and voting
    >”citizens become less politically literate and thus less competent as representatives.”
    Or do citizens become MORE competent if they haven’t been subjected to endless campaign smears and simplistic slogans? Confirmation bias and team loyalty supplants rational analysis among partians.

    The one point that I agree merits deep thinking is the problem of comparing an idealized sortition system to a real-world electoral system. We don’t know for certain what glaring failures might surface in a sortition system, while we are abundantly aware of what failings dominate electoral systems.

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  3. Terry,

    I agree that the article seems to belong to what may be called the “square one” genre. Its arguments are based on common intuition and conventions and does not really build on previous discussion in a fruitful way or engage with the arguments against elections made by sortition advocate.

    For example, the competence-vs-representativity (Yamaguchi uses “reflection” instead of “representativity”) discussion could have been more fruitful, IMO, if it engaged with the arguments I made here. Of course, engagement may very well be criticism rather than agreement, but simply ignoring previously made arguments makes the “square one” articles much less useful or interesting than they could be.

    > electoral campaign experience makes ELECTED officials uniquely LESS competent at group problem solving (and there is research that supports this contention.)

    No: I think the association of competence with experience and of representativity with inexperience is indeed the fruitful way to frame the issue. Life long careers in politics make elected politicians very competent in promoting their own interests, but very unrepresentative. What you call “group problem solving” may be useful for the population but is simply not useful for elected politicians.

    > do citizens become MORE competent if they haven’t been subjected to endless campaign smears and simplistic slogans? Confirmation bias and team loyalty supplants rational analysis among partians.

    Yes – in the framework I offer in the post I link to above, this is the negative effect of electoralism on “background competence”. Electoralism also has a negative effect on “background representativity”.

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  4. On the question of competence, Hélène Landemore has made the very good point that a diverse roomful of ordinary people is often epistemically more competent than a less-diverse roomful of individually more competent political elites. And, as she also pointed out, the French CCC demonstrated that allotted citizens really are capable of writing legislation. Without access to the paper in English, of course, I don’t know whether Yamaguchi engages with these points.

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  5. > a diverse roomful of ordinary people is often epistemically more competent than a less-diverse roomful of individually more competent political elites

    This claim is somewhat of a democratic cliche, but it really makes no sense and is in fact anti-democratic. It implies that group A (the less-diverse group) is better off having its business managed by group B (the diverse group). The notion that people and groups of people are the best representatives of their own interests is a basic tenet of democracy, and rejecting this principle leads directly down the elitist, paternalistic path justifying an oligarchical guardianship.

    No – the “non-diverse” group is just as good at managing its business as any other group. The problem with the elite group is not that it is not “epistemically competent” but rather that it is effective at promoting its own interest even if that comes at the expense of others.

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  6. > “This claim is somewhat of a democratic cliche, but it really makes no sense and is in fact anti-democratic”

    Social epistemology doesn’t have to comform to democratic norms! It’s a happy accident of modern societies’ composition that a representative sample of the population will tend to be more diverse than an elected chamber of elites. You’re quite right that, if competence at problem-solving were the only goal, it would make more sense to overrepresent social minorities of all kinds, with the ‘minorities’ in question individuated from the mass by the distinctness of their life experiences, rather than their being oppressed or what have you. But the point of making the diversity-leads-to-competence argument here is not to /motivate/ sortitional democracy, but to defend it against the criticism that a sortitional chamber will be less competent than existing elected chambers. We don’t have to deny the findings of social science (Hong & Page 2004 etc.) to advocate for egalitarian sortition.

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  7. > But the point of making the diversity-leads-to-competence argument here is not to /motivate/ sortitional democracy, but to defend it against the criticism that a sortitional chamber will be less competent than existing elected chambers

    It does really matter why you present this argument. The argument is anti-democratic for the reason I laid out above. Furthermore, this argument also makes no sense because it implicitly makes the assumption that the non-diverse group aims to achieve the same goals as does the diverse group. (Or as Socrates’s analogy implies, they all agree on what good flute-playing sounds like.) When of course in reality this is very far from being the case.

    In fact, the diversity-leads-to-competence cliche is simply the mirror image of the standard guardianist argument. Instead of claiming that a competent elite group can represent the incompetent hoi polloi, in the mirror image the claim is that the hoi polloi (as a group) are more competent than the elite (as a group) and therefore it is better for the elite to be represented by the hoi polloi. Both of the original guardianist argument and the diversity-leads-to-competence argument make the same assumptions about unity of purposes and about the epistemic inferiority of one group relative to the other.

    Regarding the inverse-guardianist argument itself: used as a general statement, as Landemore does, it is of course silly. No one is suggesting, I hope, that oppressed minorities (say, Blacks) should not self-manage their own communities but rather should have their communities run by “more diverse” bodies in which the members of the oppressed minority are the minority. Believing that “social science findings” prove that “diversity-leads-to-competence” is really quite naive.

    As for “defending” an allotted chamber against claims of incompetence: the coherent argument is that competence only matters in the context of representativity. It is much better to have a not-so-competent chamber working to promote your interests than to have a very competent chamber working to promote narrow interests at the expense of yours. That – being representative of the general interest – is the strength of an allotted chamber.

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  8. Yoram,

    Oliver has it exactly right. While it is essential for democracy that a group have its own members representing their own interests (and this does indeed trump the competence concern), from Plato on down through the framers of the U.S. and French constitutions, to the present day, there has been a myth that “philosopher kings,”or an elite “natural aristocracy,” or expert technocrats should govern society. The fact that such elites tend to be fairly homogeneous in certain aspects is inherent in this myth. A significant amount of research has found that quite the opposite to be true… that for many sorts of problem solving (which IS a part of governance… beyond only representing interests), homogeneous groups of the “best” problem solvers perform WORSE than a more diverse group of non-star problem solvers. This is not a pro or anti-democratic argument… it simply is a fact of human psychology. As Oliver notes, it is a happy coincidence that this fact lines up well with the argument for sortition: allowing a more diverse and more representative group (rather than merely an “expert” elite subset) make decisions is BOTH more democratic AND more competent.

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  9. I see I had a typo in the opening sentence of my comment above. It should be: “It does *not* really matter why you present this argument.”

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  10. Terry,

    We seem to be in agreement that the “competence through diversity” argument is the mirror image of the guardianship argument. Yes – they present opposing views on the direction of association of diversity and competence. But underlying this opposition there is fundamental common ground. Both arguments assume implicitly (again, like Socrates) that governance is about largely about “problem solving” where those problems are transcend interests. Thus quality of governance is primarily about “competence” of the problem solvers, where that competence, like the problems it solves, transcends interests.

    The democratic view is that competence is only useful in the context of group interests and that each person and each group is uniquely competent to represent its own interests. According to this view, comparing the competence of two groups with very different interests is thus not useful and to a large extent meaningless. Asking whether a diverse group is more competent than a homogeneous group is like asking whether person A is a better flute player than person B is a ship’s pilot.

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  11. Yoram,

    Where the diversity-produces-competence argument comes into its own is against people who claim that through some means or other a governing elite can be made to pursue the interests of the whole society. It lets us argue that, quite aside from the infeasibility of that proposal (which you rightly emphasise), the competence with which such a government would rule even if it could be achieved would not be any improvement on the competence of a reasonably well-put-together sortitional-democratic system. And the upshot of /that/ is to undermine the main selling point of government by elite – that, at least in those areas where their interests align with the public’s, they’ll do a better job than would a sortitional setup.

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