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.

The analysis of the trouble with elections in the article is conventional, and not particularly good:

In theory, representative, electoral democracy allows citizens to select authentic representatives of their interests. But in practice, this mission is undermined by the corrupting influence of campaign donors; the racial, gender, and other biases of voters; voter ignorance about which politicians and policies will best pursue their values; and on and on.

It appears the author hasn’t done enough of a literature search on this issue. The more interesting part, however, is the one where the author offers three objections to sortition.

One is that the seeming incorruptibility of the lottery might be a function of it existing as an ideal, not a heavily contested, actually existing body like Congress.

[No corruption has emerged in allotted assemblies so far, b]ut those assemblies have typically been tasked with proposing policies that a legislature or electorate then must ratify. Ireland, as a whole, voted in a referendum on whether to legalize abortion. The citizens’ assembly’s view was not binding.

If a citizens’ assembly were given binding power to determine billions in public spending, private interests would have a massive incentive to influence the design of the lottery, what briefing materials are given to the amateur representatives, which experts get to testify before them, etc. In other words, they might be plagued by precisely the problems of representative democracy that lotteries are designed to curtail.

In her book Open Democracy, Landemore deals with this objection in depth. For one thing, in her proposal (unlike Guerrero’s), citizens’ assemblies would only propose changes that would then go to a public vote. But she also cites her experience observing the French citizens’ assembly on climate change and arguing that “ordinary citizens, once empowered, are very protective of their prerogatives and will actively and vocally resist perceived attempts at manipulating them.”

That may be, but not all manipulation is overt. Much lobbying takes the form of lobbyists providing useful information to lawmakers, albeit information framed so as to invite conclusions amenable to the lobbyist’s client. That process seems likelier to work on randomly selected citizens, who have a lower level of baseline political knowledge than people who self-select into running for Congress.

Landemore ultimately concedes that “any system would need to rely on additional accountability mechanisms, including laws regulating the role of money in politics.” That’s true enough — but it should give one pause about how likely a captured citizens’ assembly is to outperform a captured Congress, in terms of producing effective, broadly popular policies.

Second, a lot of the proposal’s effectiveness depends on being able to actually enlist the participation of a random subsample of the country. Guerrero proposes “considerable” financial incentives and providing relocation expenses and protection against firing for people chosen to serve. That would help ensure greater participation than, say, jury duty. But so long as participation is voluntary, self-selection will bias who winds up serving.

To give the lottocrats their due, such bias seems likely to be milder than any bias present in electoral democracy, which also requires would-be participants to self-select into service, along with self-selecting into fundraising, a grueling campaign schedule, etc.

Finally, I worry a bit about lottery selection increasing citizen alienation from the political system. One of our society’s deepest problems right now is a broad decline in public trust in other citizens and in institutions — a sense that government, business, and civil society do not work for ordinary people and that activities like voting do not help.

If citizens feel like that now, imagine how they’d feel if they were given literally no choice in who represented them.

Yes, random selection means that the whole public is represented in a general, statistical sense. But this process deprives individual voters of any sense that their own actions can influence political outcomes, which could in turn worsen trust in government.

Faced with this objection, Landemore has responded that in her view, lottocratic assemblies should mostly be tasked with coming up with proposals that would then be put up for a public vote, meaning the public retains a strong say. This eases the problem, but opens up the possibility of mass corporate spending to sway those referendum results; recall Uber and Lyft’s successful $200 million campaign to pass a proposition in California to reduce their labor costs.

I find that these objections are all reasonable, fairly presented, and merit addressing. It seems to me that Landemore could have done a better job at refuting those objections. In particular relying on ratification of decisions of allotted bodies by mass votes, as she does, does nothing to inspire confidence in sortition. One could after all propose that this device would be added to the elections-based system.

2 Responses

  1. Matthews’ objections to the Landemore project — lobbying, voluntarism and participation — are plausible and persuasive. At the launch event for Jeff Miller’s book, Daniela Cammack opined that one of the principal virtues of Athenian democracy was that all citizens could participate in the Assembly and witness the hands raised. A modern sortitional democracy would need to some sort of analogue.


  2. Landemore’s reliance on referendums, as described above, seems very mistaken to me.

    Referendums are highly unsuitable for ensuring informed decision-making by representative portions of the public on a level playing field. They are a method of deciding laws in a poorly informed way, by unrepresentative portions of the public, on a playing field that is heavily skewed in favour of the rich powerful and against outcomes that the rich and powerful do not want.

    In sharp contrast to this, civic juries are well-suited for ensuring that laws are decided in an informed manner by representative portions of the public on a level playing field independently from political and economic elites.

    Part of a well-designed system of civic jury lawmaking is ensuring that it is designed in an informed and democratic manner independently from political and economic elites. This can be done by having civic juries make the design decisions based on the proposals and options worked out by a jury-chosen design commission.

    Liked by 1 person

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