Sortition in Vox

In another manifestation of sortition making progress in the English-speaking world, the U.S. news website Vox has an article about this idea. The author is Dylan Matthews.

[I]f you want to know what Congress will do in 50 years, seeing what ideas are percolating in the academy can be surprisingly informative.

That’s why I’ve been struck by the growing popularity, among academics, of a radical idea for rethinking democracy: getting rid of elections, and instead picking representatives by lottery, as with jury duty. The idea, sometimes called sortition or “lottocracy,” originates in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of assigning positions to citizens by drawing lots.

But lately it’s had a revival in the academy; Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you’re a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The broad sense that American democracy is in crisis has provoked an interest in bold ideas for repairing it, with lottocracy the boldest among them.

It is worth noting that the article talks explicitly about “getting rid of elections”, rather than “complementing elections”, or employing some other vague phrasing regarding the future use of the electoral mechanism.
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Dikastic Thorubos

All the other powers are naturally in a man’s own control, but the power of speaking is blocked if there is opposition from the audience. Hear him as a scoundrel, bribe-taker, and as one who will say absolutely nothing true. (Dem. 19-340)

Cited in V. Bers, ‘Dikastic Thorubos’ in Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P.A. Cartledge and F.D. Harvey (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1985)

Recent outbursts of mud-slinging on this forum have implications for the design of sortition-based assemblies, especially if isegoria (equal speech) is the norm. This is the guiding principle of deliberative democracy, as it was in the Athenian democracy (unlike Sparta). However in both the ancient and modern cases only a tiny number of participants exercised the ho boulomenos (anyone who wishes) principle. It took some cojones to address the Athenian assembly and unpopular speakers were shouted down by the other participants (as we saw in the quote from Demosthenes). Whilst such prophylactics can work in direct democracies, large modern states resort to the exchange of insults between political parties, each one hoping to increase its share of the vote in elections. Jaw-jaw is certainly better than war-war, hence the fact that the illocutionary factions in the House of Commons are separated by two swords’ lengths.

The mud-slinging on this forum appears to be primarily between two “camps” — in the one corner Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland and in the other Yoram Gat and Liam Jones. As Alex recently commented, the two groups appear to be “on different planets”, impervious to the (Habermasian) exchange of reasons.

There is no good reason to believe that a sortition-based assembly would be any different — especially if participation is voluntary, as this would attract those who like the sound of their own voice, which may or may not map to the voices of those in the target population that the randomly-selected group is intended to “describe”. This would suggest that ho boulomenos can do little to support the isegoria rights of the vast majority of citizens who fail to be included in the sortition.

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Does Power Corrupt or are the Corruptible Attracted to Power?

The “Crowded Bookcase” reviews Brian Klaas’s new book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us. Ryan Boissonneault writes,

It’s a familiar story: A corrupt leader rises to power, is often willingly allowed to do so, and proceeds to leave a trail of destruction in his wake (it’s usually, but not always, a male). We see this time and time again throughout history and across the globe. But we never seem to learn. How can we account for this?

The conventional answer is to blame power itself, as in the proverbial saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But as political scientist Brian Klaas explains in his latest book, Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, things are not so simple. While power can indeed corrupt, more often bad people are drawn to positions of power in the first place, and pursue these positions within systems that actually encourage bad behavior. To ensure that the right people are placed in power, we have to do more than focus only on individuals; we need to fix the underlying systems that allow them to thrive. As Klaas wrote:

“What if power doesn’t make us better or worse? What if power just attracts certain kinds of people—and those are precisely the ones who shouldn’t be in charge? Maybe those who most want power are the least suited to hold it. Perhaps those who crave power are corruptible.”

Check out Boissoneault’s blog for the rest of the review of the book, and spoiler alert – sortition is mentioned as a possible remedy.

Ideas, hacks, representation by sampling and political theory

https://twitter.com/ockhamsbeard/status/1481137490920882178

In response to an exchange of tweets I wrote what seems like a long post on Twitter — lasting 7 tweets —which is a short post here. In any event it tries to crystalise something I think is important in the way I see things — and in how I see them differently to those who give more weight to political theory than I do.

Seems to be working well in New Zealand. But while such topics occupy the minds of the political ‘thinkers’, that’s because academia in particular is so given to ‘big debates’ with ideal types with long histories in the literature.

I think much more progress is possible by paying less attention to theory and the endless set-piece debates between this and that (say FPTP v PR) and more attention to specific hacks which look like they could make a major contribution

https://www.themandarin.com.au/103093-what-is-a-policy-hack/

In the language I developed in that article, juries are both an ‘idea’ and a ‘hack’ — which is to say they intimate a whole repertoire of possible institutions based on a different idea of what makes someone ‘representative’. (here representation by sampling not election)

And they are the ‘hack’ because they provide a concrete action that can be taken. I think there’s a lot to be said for bringing citizens’ juries into our understanding of checks and balances. Not only are they a different way to do democracy.

They’re time honoured institution. So, in seeking the populace’s support, we wouldn’t be asking them to back some professor’s theory but rather the chain of legitimacy back to Magna Carta and beyond and into people’s trust of their neighbours (and distrust of politicians).

I’d LIKE to think that greater PR here would improve things, but I just don’t know. New Zealand has done some good things since greater PR, but nothing DIFFICULT that I can think of. And the alternative is Italy which doesn’t appeal.

I think we can point representation by sampling at specific problems our system has and, in so doing give ourselves a very good chance of making them a lot better.

What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

sor•ti•tion

noun

  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

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Austria’s Climate Citizen Council: Broken from the Get-go

Suspicious decisions and coincidences surround the preparations for Austria’s planned “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) hosted by Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy. Worrisome information emerged regarding the award of the organiser’s role and the choice of scientific experts.

Some background: Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy is headed by Leonore Gewessler, a Green Party nominee within Austria’s coalition government of conservative ÖVP (People’s Party) and environmentalist minority partner “Die Gruenen” (Green Party). Their business lobbying sub-branch is called “Gruene Wirtschaft” (“Green Economy”) with its offices located at Seidengasse 25, in Vienna’s 7th “bobo” district.

As an aside, Austria now has the third Chancellor in quick succession since the 2019 elections due to a scandal surrounding fake citizen surveys which boosted the first Chancellor’s political ascent. SMS conversations revealed that a powerful boulevard newspaper was “incentivised” with government funds under the influence of said Chancellor to publish these fake surveys prominently. This matter is currently under investigation by Austria’s Anti-Corruption Agency. My readers will know that easily manipulated and biassed traditional surveys capture the Madness of Masses instead of Wisdom of Crowds, thus acting as a clandestine cause of corruption and many democratic ills in Austria (and other countries with a political party system).

With this background in mind: Gewessler answer to a parliamentary inquiry (the protocol is here) about the preparations to the “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) stated that bids for independent organisation and moderation of the Klimarat were accepted throughout the EU and its 27 countries. Strangely, the Minister received only one single application by a consortium of three partners, PlanSinn GmbH, PulsWerk GmbH, and ÖGUT. PulsWerk is located at ​​Seidengasse 13. What a coincidence! Just six houses up in the same street as Gruene Wirtschaft. PlanSinn is – surprise! – also located in Vienna’s 7th district, in Zollergasse, a five minute walk from Gruene Wirtschaft. According to the Minister’s response, this single consortium’s offer luckily fulfilled all her quality criteria exactly and was thus awarded the contract.

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Sandel: “Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris”

Millions of YouTube viewers will be familiar with Michael Sandel of Harvard University’s lectures on Justice. He has been described as “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star”, so it is greatly encouraging when in his book The Tyranny of Merit he emphatically endorses the use of lotteries for admission to elite universities.

His condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not least the societally damaging effects of hubris and self-worth among the elite ‘winners’; and the despondency and nihilistic voting for Brexit and Trump by the ‘losers’ and indeed all the non-credentialled.

In Chapter 6 makes a heartfelt and extended plea for the extensive use of lotteries for admission to not just Ivy League, but all selective colleges and universities. This Sandel says would “summon Chance to chasten Merit”.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the American S.A.T. (Standardized Attainment Test), a sort of IQ test inflicted on 18-year-olds. This, Sandel suggests, could be used to establish a threshold for entry into the selection lottery and nothing else. This level of ‘Merit’ should be no more onerous than that imposed when the SAT was originated in the 1940s.

From this device Sandel argues that winners will be saved much  stress and avoid much of the (wasted?) effort of working towards the impressive list of activities that fills out their application form. Losers will gain too. No more rejections, and being made to feel  inadequate, despite losing narrowly. Much more psychologically healthy all round!

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