Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 1)

Some years ago I wrote a set of posts refuting several standard arguments against sortition (1, 2, 3, 4).

It seems useful, however, to refute some oft-offered arguments for sortition as well. These are arguments that provide a poor foundation for the idea of applying sortition in government. Such arguments are made, and repeated reflexively, by academics, by members of the sortition-milieu, by sortition activists, in the press, and by others who discuss sortition. Often, in addition to being factually or logically unsound, these arguments also lead to advocacy of the application of sortition in ways that are bound to lead to a failure to realize the full democratizing potential of sortition, and in some cases are bound to lead to complete discrediting of the entire notion.

The first three arguments presented (and refuted) here all deal with supposed superior competence of an allotted chamber over an elected one. All suffer from essentially the same flaw. In fact, the advantage of an allotted chamber over an elected one is not that it is more competent but that it is more representative.

1. Allotted bodies would carry out real deliberation whereas elected bodies are the setting for partisan performances and grandstanding.

This argument is a favorite of propounders of “deliberative democracy”. According to this argument, a major reason that public policy is poor is that it is not determined through meaningful deliberation. Supposedly, the elected are too busy electioneering, or are too stubborn ideologically to deliberate with each other and develop good, common sense, widely popular policy. But why would a government with a majority in the legislature avoid deliberating within itself – in public or behind closed doors – in order to produce policy that would make it popular? Are they too stupid? If what they seek is “good policy”, or even if they just seek reelection and if deliberation could produce policy options that would make them more popular and increase their chance for reelection, why would they be unable to engage in such deliberation?

To believe that, we would have to believe that elected officials are irrational or stupid and can’t serve their own interests. This notion itself, that the elected as a group cannot promote their own interests, is anti-democratic, since democracy relies on people being the best positioned to make decisions that promote their own interests. If we reject this notion when we are talking about elected officials, we might as well reject it when we are talking about other citizens. If we do that, we are rejecting democracy altogether.

2. Sortition creates a more diverse group of decision makers. A more diverse group is better at solving problems and is therefore better suited to set public policy.

This is another argument in the “deliberative democracy” line, and it suffers from the same flaw of the previous one. Again, supposedly the elected are unable to produce the policy that they themselves would considered useful. This time it is not due to partisanship but due to homogeneity. But whatever the reason is, it is again asserted that a group of people – the elected – are unable to promote their own interests. Again, this is an anti-democratic argument. The elected, like any other group of people, should be able (given adequate resources) to act in accord with their collective interests and values. Thus, the problem with the elected is not that they are poor decision makers because they do not deliberate or because they are not diverse enough. It is that their collective interests and values – which they promote very effectively and consistently – are often antithetical to those of the large majority of citizens.

3. An allotted chamber will produce better policy because it will be more attentive to the experts than are elected politicians.

Like any group that is in a position to act on its values and interests, the allotted, if in a real position of power, would follow expert advice to the extent that they believe it is useful for their purposes. The same is true for the elected. This extent of following expert advice may range from accepting it completely to rejecting it altogether. But, of course, if we believe that following expert advice is always the right thing to do, then sortition (and elections) can be dispensed with and a government by experts can be established. Thus, again, the problem with elected decision makers is not that they are unable to pursue what is agreed upon by everybody as good policy. It is rather that they pursue policy that they see good (for themselves if for no one else) – and that expert advice is used to promote their narrow interests and values. Similarly, the advantage with allotted delegates is not that they closely follow expert advice but that when they use whatever parts of expert advice that they choose to use, they do so in order to promote their goals, which are goals that are representative of the interests and values of the average citizen.

18 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    Your focus on individual and class interests blinds you to a host of well-known flaws in human cognition, including confirmation bias and groupthink. It’s one thing to reduce all human agency to the machinations of homo economicus but, even if this gloomy perspective (derived from Marx, neoclassical economics and rational choice theory) were true (which it isn’t), we are all capable of making decisions that are demonstrably against our own interests — generally only realized with the benefit of hindsight.

    >the advantage with allotted delegates is . . . [that they] promote their goals, which are goals that are representative of the interests and values of the average citizen.

    That’s a very strong claim. All we can say is that large, quasi-mandatory allotted juries are likely to vote in a way that reflects the informed judgment of the population that it “describes” (presupposing balanced information advocacy).

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  2. *** The parallel made by Yoram Gat between the deliberations of elected polyarchic bodies and of democratic mini-publics, both supposed rational deliberations corresponding to different interests, is not valid.
    *** Let’s suppose an example: the polyarchic political elite considers that a high degree of economic free exchange is good – for the interests of the elites, and for the common interests in the long term (the second point easily accepted as it gives clear conscience). But it is bad for autochthonous workers “at least in the short term”. Difficult to have that accepted by them. Thus the political discourse will be overly optimistic and simplistic. Let’s suppose at some moment some members of the political elite consider that the free exchange goes to far, that it is necessary to control it (for economic, social, ecological reasons). It is very difficult for them to say it, because that seems betraying the elite and questioning its supposed intellectual superiority. Thus, if the official discourse (and policy) changes, it will be late, maybe too late, because the elite deliberation was distorted.
    *** In Plato’s Republic, the philosophers-kings could elaborate “noble lies” for the common people, and at the same time deliberate rationally. But a contemporary polyarchy is not this kind of aristocracy. The political elite deliberations are more or less known by the common citizens, and that is a major factor of distortion from rationality.

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  3. Yoram,

    You have not presented these arguments you seek to dismiss fairly at all. You set up straw men only. I will try to write a more detailed response to each of these some time, but here are a few key points.

    The INTERESTS of elected representatives are to maintain their own position and power. Because the voters have rational ignorance, there is no pressure to generate good public policy to win elections, and good public policy may hurt in the short term and HURT their chances of re-election. When they consult “experts” it is primarily experts in public relations and campaign strategy… not public policy. Mini-publics have no interest in such experts and only interest in consulting actual public policy experts (that politicians largely ignore).

    Elected representatives genuinely do NOT deliberate — (meaning open minded weighing of pros and cons, seeking win-win solutions with open minds allowing for change of views.) Their “discussions” between parties are performance pieces, and not deliberation. Within their party discussions are about what really matters to them… campaign strategy (how can we frame the opposition proposals as stupid or evil).

    Their homogeneity does not actually matter because they do not actually deliberate and have no incentive to deliberate… but if allotted people deliberate, diversity, which sortition generates, can result in much better outcomes.

    I agree that these three are not necessarily the KEY reasons for adopting sortition, but they are important advantages that sortition offers over elections, along with the ones that you (Yoram) assert.

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  4. André,

    I agree that elected officials are to some extent elected officials are pressured not deliberate earnestly in public. I disagree that they are in any real way constrained in their ability to deliberate in private. In fact, the large majority of communication around policy setting happens in private and will never be known to anyone outside of elite circles.

    As an aside, I will also note that your example for a situation in which the elite needs to avoid airing differences of opinion in public is built around an assumption that there is a conflict of interests between the elite and the public (the desire by the elite to maintain an aura of intellectual superiority). This is not a part of the standard argument made regarding the inability of the elites to deliberate, since this argument usually rests purely on issues of competence, not of interests.

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  5. Terry,

    The arguments that I am refuting may appear like strawmen to you (and indeed like strawmen, they are easy to dispatch), but they are repeatedly offered by “deliberative democrats”, so they are not strawmen in the sense that are not my invention and they are not a distortion of the positions of those I am setting myself to refute.

    The arguments that you present – which are in fact just one argument dressed in different suits – are indeed different because yours revolve around the issue of a difference in interests between the elected and the population while the ones I am refuting revolve around the issue of competence. The issue of a difference of interests is indeed the key argument for sortition, so I am in agreement with you regarding their validity.

    > if allotted people deliberate, diversity, which sortition generates, can result in much better outcomes.

    “Better” for whom? That is exactly the issue.

    The elected generate great outcomes – as long as you measure their quality according to the interests of the elected. And to achieve those great outcomes, the elected certainly do deliberate (in private) and they certainly do listen to the experts, and they certainly take account of the diversity of voices in their elite circles.

    Thus, again, the point is not about competence. It is about measuring “better” in a different way.

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  6. Terry:> > if allotted people deliberate, diversity, which sortition generates, can result in much better outcomes.

    There is a strong epistemic case for cognitive diversity in a deliberative setting, but there is no evidence that sortition is the best way to generate it. None of the examples that Landemore provides in her first book — from New Haven neighbourhood committees to French deputies — makes the case for sortition. The exception is Twelve Angry Men, but that’s a Hollywood movie.

    To provide a tiny example of my own — my printing company used to employ one overall manager. He left this year and we decided not to replace him but to promote the chief guys in each department to joint responsibility. As a result we benefit from the diverse perspectives of sales, systems development and production. This didn’t involve sortition, merely promoting the three most competent people to the management committee.

    The only role I can see for sortition in advancing cognitive diversity is the aggregate judgment of large randomly-selected juries. This will provide for both epistemic diversity and the representation of interests.

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  7. Yoram
    *** I agree that there may be some amount of separation between deliberation in the elite circles and their public discourses. But only partial separation, and which is more and more difficult to maintain with modern Internet and involuntary transparency (remember the troubles of US politicians saying different words to donors and electors).
    *** The difficulty, among elite members, to contradict the elite consensus, by fear to appear traitors, leads to lessening intellectual diversity in the elite debates. Thus it adds to the drawback of social homogeneity. The interest of the political class to appear the mouth of truth in front of the uninformed and irrational masses lessens its rational competence.
    *** The argument that the homogeneity of a deliberating group is a drawback for rational deliberation is not a bad argument. But the relationship between political class and common citizens in polyarchies is another factor of lessened rationality.
    *** Maybe that rationalist argument is not the main argument for (ortho-)democracy – it is not part of the democrat discourse in Ancient Greece as we know it – but it may be useful against the elitist discourse stating that the power must be given to the brightest – those with higher QI and more university degrees. The intellectual superiority of individuals may give lack of collective intelligence.
    *** I understand Yoram Gat prefers stressing the difference of interests between elite and common citizens and not giving centrality to the rationalist argument. But I think it is strange to discard an argument which is not bad, and thus to leave space to the elitist discourse.
    *** Yoram’s attitude leaves free space to a discourse like that “Better a smart king, who will give us peace and collective prosperity, even if he diverts too much of this prosperity to his personal pleasures, than a dumb king, perfectly selfless, but who will bring us war, defeat, and collective poverty”.

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  8. Terry
    *** When Terry Bouricius says elected politicians don’t deliberate, he considers the behaviour of elected politicians as individuals, I think we must consider rather the “political class”.
    *** I don’t know about the USA, but in France there is something as a “political class”, more involved into politics than other citizens, a class made of politicians, elected or to be elected, of lobbyists, of high civil servants, of politicized intellectuals, of media people, of NGO people; a class with personal links, interchange of jobs, and intermarriage.
    *** There is real debate inside this political class, and elected politicians appear often endorsing the result of these debates. But, as I said, these debates are rationally flawed because of the problem of the relationship between the political class and the common citizens.

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  9. Andre,

    > The argument that the homogeneity of a deliberating group is a drawback for rational deliberation is not a bad argument

    The reason that it is a bad argument is that it claims to show that a powerful group – the elected – are unable to serve their own interests. This is an anti-democratic argument, since democracy rests on the idea that people and groups are the best representatives of their own interests.

    Your own variant (that the elected are constrained in promoting certain interests because those run against other interests they have) does not suffer from this problem, because it does not present the elected as incompetent but rather as having to balance conflicting objectives. But this version is not the argument that is made by “deliberative democrats”.

    > (To Terry) I don’t know about the USA, but in France there is something as a “political class”

    There is necessarily a political class in every electoralist society. It is the nature of elections that they produce an oligarchy.

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  10. > It is the nature of elections that they produce an oligarchy.

    I think most historians would beg to differ, as power imbalances long pre-date electoral democracy. Counting the number of right (sword-bearing) hands is a better way of resolving power conflicts than leaving them to thrash it out. Do away with elections (for policy proposers) and we’ll be back to square one.

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  11. *** Keith Sutherland writes “There is a strong epistemic case for cognitive diversity in a deliberative setting, but there is no evidence that sortition is the best way to generate it.”
    *** Sure, and a sovereign dêmos, when appointing advisers, could use other ways.
    *** But sortition has a big advantage: at least with conscription, it is not easily manipulated, unlike ad hoc ways of getting diversity.
    *** Practically, the contemporary political thought knows four models of political system : the polyarchy (with strong oligarchizing tendency), the totalitarian system – not much left, but well known from last century – , the modern autocracy as in Continental China, and the (ortho-)democracy which is no more sci-fi or intellectual fantasy – as said Landemore, the CCC is a real-life forerunner (whatever imperfect). Among these models, the last one is which allows greater diversity in the ruling bodies.
    *** it is an advantage, maybe not the strongest advantage, but not to discard.

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  12. Andre,

    There is a fifth model, that Dahl sketched out on the back of an envelope as Polyarchy III. Alex Kovner and I believe that we have developed Dahl’s idea into a working model for a bicameral legislature. The proposing chamber continues to be elected, but Alex’s Superminority Principle ensures that the archons are considerably more polyphonic than at present, and the final decision is left to a large quasi-mandatory allotted jury. The reformed threshold for the electoral chamber ensures a diversity of proposals that better matches the diversity of large modern states and sortition ensures that the demos has sovereignty.

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  13. It is only a variant of the fourth model, with a specific way for generating proposals. But it seems difficult, for an allotted body which embodies and exercizes popular sovereignty, not to be allowed to say: “I don’t agree with any of the proposals of the electoral chamber, and I want to explore other proposals through debate of citizen panels”. Maybe a rare event ?

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  14. I think it’s more like a hybrid of the first and fourth, given that Dahl gives equal weight to the proposal and disposal functions. The democratic sovereign is entirely at liberty to reject all of the proposals, but Alex and I believe that the cybernetic relationship between the two chambers would lead the successful proposer to second guess the aggregate judgment of the democratic sovereign. But for a tiny group to make (and then approve) their own proposals would be oligarchic, irrespective of how the group was constituted. Alex did consider such an eventuality but concluded that there would have to be a large number of independent citizens panels in order for the procedure to be democratically acceptable.

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  15. @ Yoram, Terry, Andre, let me insert myself into what Yoram has terms the “competence” versus “interests” debate. Let me suggest the term “identification with” into this mix.

    I think it might be helpful to ask with WHOM do new and old elected representatives representatives IDENTIFY? Manuel Arriaga takes a similar approach in his “Rebooting” book, when he argues for the use of sortition as a remedy for the PSYCHOLOGICAL identification of elected representatives with elites. I think we can unpack this into conscious and unconscious identification over several different mechanisms.

    Firstly, there several ways the newly elected “representative” will unsciously begin to identify with a new, non-represenative, special group, even one who ran a “populist” campaign, upon entering parliament and confronting a new world, On the one hand, she feels she has a mission for the good of the people who elected her and for some kind of general interest. On the other hand, she sees herself as SPECIAL precisely because she was ELECTED. At the beginning, in order to navigate the new parliamentary world she will inevitably learn the “language” of this new environment and troy to FIT IN in order to carry out her genuine mission. But in this fitting in, learning to be accepted by the “elder statesmen/women” will change her in subtle ways. Her daily life will now resemble those of an elite, her physical location, how she gets around, the circles of people around her, where she lives, where she has offices. Added to that is the very fact of a new economic situation, in the US for example, Congressional pay alone puts a new CM’s into the upper 5% of earned income. Her concerns and her world will be different, the more so the longer she remains in the political class, but the initial change is the most dramatic. Next, the circle of people around her expands to the really wealthy, the donors and their lobbyists. She will be confronted everyday with invitaions and temptations, stated or implied, “you can be one of us now.”

    Secondly, over the long run, unconscious identificaiton becomes CONSCIOUS identification with a new class. In repsonse criticisims from the public, she will have to defend herself and her colleagues from those who accuse government of being incompetent or corrupt. She will inevitably defend the institutions to which she now belongs, her part of the regime, her party. The more she is relected the more “special” she will feel and the more she will accep the idea of meritocracy. She is there becase she is special. She will begin to see the powerful, including the wealthy, as special people who have earned their place, just as she has. She will begin to own a significant amount of shares in the STOCKMARKET and or become a LANDLADY. Her actual life and real economic interests will become those of the 1% or 0.1%. Moreover, she because of the circles she now runs in, she will anticipate donations from and or private sector work in the industries she was elected to “regulate,” and will tend to identify with the economic powers she was elected to counterbalance.

    Both Yoram and Terry could be correct. There is both a divergence of interests (consious and unconsious) and a lack of deliberation (from conssious and unconsious group think). “Unconsious group think” would mean in so far as the actors are not aware they are a homogenous group whose idea of the “common good” is actually quite distorted, conscious group think would be in so far as they are aware they are representing their special group and its concerns.

    So, now @ Keith, it is not that elected representatives are per se “corrupt,” but they come to identify with the social and economic powers that the political system is meant to counterbalance.

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  16. Ahmed,

    I agree with all that, BUT our combination of the Superminority Principle and decision-making by large quasi-mandatory juries will ensure that the winning proposals reflect the beliefs and preferences of the demos. The proposers are professional politicians and if they come up with unpopular and/or unworkable proposals they will condemned to the political wilderness (relegated to the fourth division in terms of Alex’s football league analogy). As Ledru-Rollin put it “there go the people, I must follow them as I am their leader.”

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  17. Ahmed,

    Your description of the process by which the thinking of elected officials changes matches the point that I am making, since your description is all about values and interests. The problem with the elected is not that they are incompetent at promoting the voters’ interests, it is that they are competent at representing their own – which are often antithetical to those of the voters.

    I don’t see how supposed lack of deliberation enters your analysis.

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