The best possible system of representation and democracy we can imagine

Reddit user subheight640 has a post presenting an uncompromising argument in favor of sortition:

Why randomly choosing people to serve in government may be the best way to select our politicians

So I’m a huge advocate of something known as sortition, where people are randomly selected to serve in a legislature. Unfortunately the typical gut reaction against sortition is bewilderment and skepticism. How could we possibly trust ignorant, stupid, normal people to become our leaders?

Democracy by Lottery

Imagine a Congress that actually looks like America. It’s filled with nurses, farmers, engineers, waitresses, teachers, accountants, pastors, soldiers, stay-at-home-parents, and retirees. They are conservatives, liberals, and moderates from all parts of the country and all walks of life.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 10

In the final chapter of her book, Hélène Landemore addresses a few potential objections to her proposals. I’ll skip over the objections regarding ways in which the Icelandic setup (which supposedly serves as an example where an “open” process functioned well) is atypical of other political situations (e.g., because Iceland is supposedly small or homogeneous). These are not of much interest both because they lack any real merit and because the Icelandic setup is not a particularly good example of a democratic process to begin with. The remaining objections are fairly well known and are generic enough to be aimed at any democratic, counter-electoral proposals rather than specifically at Landemore’s:

  1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers,
  2. Manipulation of the unelected decision-makers by unelected professionals,
  3. Illiberal policies may be supported by a majority,
  4. Systemic unaccountability,
  5. Demands on the time of the citizens.

Most of these objections have been discussed repeatedly on this blog in one way or another. (In particular, all of these objections have been addressed briefly in the series of 4 posts titled “Short refutations of common objections to sortition”.) The comments here relate to how Landemore responds to these objections.

1. Incompetence of unelected decision-makers

Landemore puts this objection as follows:

[G]iven the increasing complexity of the world, it is irrational to want to increase the level of openness to ordinary citizens of our central political institutions. In the face of increasing complexity, what we need is increased specialization and division of labor, not putting amateurs in charge (p. 191).

Landemore offers two answers to this argument. The first is that experts should be used as advisors to the amateurs. The second is response the “competence through diversity” argument. But the first argument gets no more than a single paragraph, while the several pages that make the rest of the section offer highlights of the “vast empirical literature” that shows that “political processes and bodies that involve ordinary citizens […] actually outperform processes and bodies that include only experts” (p. 192).
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Why Proposers and Disposers need to be kept distinct: The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning

The ‘argumentative theory of reasoning’ (conceptualized by Dan Sperber and developed with the evolutionary psychologist Hugo Mercier) hypothesizes that reasoning serves two distinct survival-related functions: a) convincing people and b) evaluating the arguments of others – ‘thereby allowing communication to proceed even when trust is limited’ (Landemore, 2013, p. 126). The theory – developed as an evolutionarily-plausible alternative to the classical (Cartesian) model of reasoning as a way of updating and correcting one’s own beliefs – is based on the distinction between performing speech acts and evaluating the performative utterances of others:

According to this theory, individual reasoning works best when used to [a] produce and [b] evaluate arguments during a public deliberation. It predicts that when diverse opinions are discussed, group reasoning will outperform individual reasoning. (Mercier & Landemore, 2012, p. 243)

‘Exposing people to disagreement and debates increases their ability to entertain different opinions . . . either by witnessing a debate or by being part of one’ (ibid., p. 252). The important factor is not participation in speech acts so much as ‘the presence or expression of dissenting opinions in deliberative settings’ (ibid., p. 254, my emphasis). (Mercier & Sperber, 2017) also point out that as a species we are much better at evaluating reasons than producing them – I may not be able to see the beam in my own eye, but I can find the mote in yours. Laboratory studies indicate that we are better able to find the flaws in our own reasons when we believe those reasons to have been produced by someone else, thereby supporting the case for the division of labour between persuaders and evaluators, as it’s very hard to change one’s mind about one’s ‘own’ (i.e. indigenous) convictions.

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Proposing and disposing in the real world

A flow chart of the citizens’ jury process for determining compulsory third party insurance in the Australian Capital Territory.

Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland have written some interesting things on the importance of separating the process of proposing policies and that of deciding which ones are implemented. I’ve not thought as much as I clearly should have about this myself, but I’ve certainly noted it as something I should think more about, and as a fertile and possibly indispensable idea in trying to introduce more sortition into our politics.

But, as readers of my posts will know, I’m also keen to leaven theoretical considerations with the question of how we get there. In that regard I’m interested in approaches to this question that are being tried by practitioners in the field, tied as they are to their own practical and political exigencies. So I was interested to read this case study by my friends at of their participation in helping the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government solve its problem of how to .

The essence of what happened is in the diagram above, though you need to read the case study to fully understand the way things were done. Of course this isn’t life according to the strict logic that I’ve seen proposed. For instance the proposer and the disposer are the same citizens’ jury. But I still think what was done was an interesting step forward in articulating practical options in seeking to inject more sortition into political decision making. I’ll be interested in what comments it attracts from this highly informed community.

My Turn: On citizens’ assemblies

Dennis Merritt, a resident of Shelburne Falls, writes in the Greenfield Reporter (keeping Franklin County informed since 1792!):

Judith Truesdell’s letter on immigration reform [“Illegal immigration”, April 24] made me think more about a friend of mine’s opinions on citizens’ assemblies, a form of sortition.

What’s sortition? It turns out the Athenian Greek democracy did not elect representatives. Instead they were chosen at random from the population. That’s sortition.

For some, the very fact that we elect our representatives is at the core of the problems with our government today. They argue that if Congress were made up of randomly selected individuals, who are demographically representative of the country, rotating through fixed terms, then a lot more would get done, and get done better.

Why? Because the representatives would focus on the issues, not the visibility of the issue and how it affects their fundraising and chances for re-election.

That’s clearly not going to happen any time soon, but there is a variation on the idea that is happening in places and could happen on a national level. It’s called citizens’ assemblies.

A citizens’ assembly is a group of randomly selected, demographically representative individuals brought together to address one particular issue, hopefully to make law, but at least to make recommendations. These could be relatively large groups. They would take input from various stake holders and experts. After making their decision, they would disband.
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