Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.

11. An allotted body can produce good government because it can create an Ideal Speech Situation (ISS). Supposedly an allotted body would be a forum where arguments are presented and evaluated based on reason alone, thus producing conclusions and outcomes that are “good” by some objective sense.

The notion that an objective good exists and that it may be understood and realized through “rational” analysis is so obviously wrong it is pointless to refute. The fact that such positions can be seriously presented and discussed is an indication of the thoroughly elitist ideas that pervade our society and the academic circles in particular. However, even if an objective good existed and even if the ISS was the institutional tool to achieve it, the argument does not explain why sortition is required for ISS. By assumption, or by definition, once in the ISS, any group of people would reach the same outcomes – those that follow inexorably from the application of reason. Indeed, this argument seems to use sortition as a mere default when rejecting elections, which are considered antithetical to the required setup due to their inherent partisanship. Presumably other non-elective ways would do as well, and it does seem like this argument would tend toward exclusive selection procedures favoring more “rational” discussants.

Sortition seems to be more compatible with a conception of the good that is subjective and is thus a notion whose understanding depends on the composition of the group that is involved in its formulation or negotiation. This also does away with the fantastic notion that the understanding of the good must be “purely rational” in some Socratic objective sense.

12. Mirroring: Democracy is about what the people want. The decisions of the allotted, due to the statistical represenativity of the body, would replicate what the people as a whole would decide if they were (able) to do so.

For the mirroring argument to work, there needs to some object for the mirror to reflect. However, the notion of a group of thousands (or even millions) of people making decisions together is so unrealistic, so remote from actual experience, that imagining such a situation, if possible at all, would require a set of highly arbitrary and counter-factual assumptions. Thus, it would be impossible to understand what decisions would come out of this artificial imaginary situation.

Thus, arguing that decisions by allotted bodies would approximate the decision of “the people as a whole” is meaningless and is not useful in guiding the application of sortition. Instead, the value of decisions by allotted bodies, and of the particular institutional arrangements of those bodies, should be assessed based on how they serve (or would likely serve) to produce outcomes which are perceived positively by the population in the long term.

4 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    You again set up straw man arguments to knock down. The blind break is a feature that in the right circumstances can be helpful, and not a sole reason for sortition.

    In another example, you write:
    “The notion that an objective good exists and that it may be understood and realized through “rational” analysis is so obviously wrong it is pointless to refute. The fact that such positions can be seriously presented and discussed is an indication of the thoroughly elitist ideas that pervade our society and the academic circles in particular.”

    I have never heard of a single academic who has made this argument for real-world implementation. More typically they argue that even if IDEAL speech situations are unrealistic, BETTER speech situations can improve outcomes. if the participants do not have hidden agendas, (such as demonizing political opponents to improve re-election chances in the next election cycle), the improved chance of more rational deliberation is likely to improve outcomes, etc. It is not an either/or situation.

    Regarding the mirror statistical representation argument, it is easy enough to imagine (or even implement) a community of 1,000 that make some decisions as a whole with good process, and compare such decisions to those of a random group of 100 of those members. Then it is merely extrapolation of the confirmed (or disproved) principle.

    Even if each of your objections in these four linked posts were sound, such that none of these arguments ALONE are sufficient to promote sortition (which is what you argue by taking them one at a time in isolation), as building blocks that COMBINE they can be powerful argument for sortition.

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  2. Wrong headed thinking from someone I doubt has ever organized such an event. The idea and practice show that people who do not have “reasons” to be there that are in a sense “hidden agendas”, including the desire to hear themselves influence others, are better and more neutral listeners to the other deliberators. If you’ve actually seen it work, you realize that some “outliers” due to the random method, would NEVER have been in the decision making body, but there presence becomes major just by virtue of their backgrounds and personalities. TB

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  3. Anon:> people who do not have “reasons” to be there that are in a sense “hidden agendas”, including the desire to hear themselves influence others, are better and more neutral listeners to the other deliberators.

    Yes indeed. And that accords with the Argumentative Theory of Reasoning that suggests distinguishing between proposers (who have explicit agendas) and disposers (neutral listeners, better able to evaluate the proposals). The trouble with deliberative democracy is that it conflates these two categories (and some randomly selected people are more desirous of hearing themselves than others).

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  4. Hi Terry,

    > The blind break is a feature that in the right circumstances can be helpful, and not a sole reason for sortition. […] Even if each of your objections in these four linked posts were sound, such that none of these arguments ALONE are sufficient to promote sortition (which is what you argue by taking them one at a time in isolation), as building blocks that COMBINE they can be powerful argument for sortition.

    It seems to me that mixing together several weak arguments usually does not create a good argument. Rather it is usually either the result of sloppy or lazy thinking that avoids analyzing each argument in detail, or a deliberate attempt to mask the deficiencies of the various arguments by making things more obscure. This kind of rhetoric is good for propaganda, and unfortunately it is standard fodder in newspapers and political science journals, but it is cannot be considered a valid argument.

    > More typically they argue that even if IDEAL speech situations are unrealistic, BETTER speech situations can improve outcomes

    Introducing this nuance (“better” rather than “ideal”) does not address my refutation. My point is that those “ideal/better speech situations” have little to do with sortition, and to some extent they are antithetical to sortition because they rely on the notion that “reason”, rather than self-representation, is how good policy is made.

    > it is easy enough to imagine (or even implement) a community of 1,000 that make some decisions as a whole with good process

    I wholly disagree. It is not only not “easy enough”, it is impossible. Whatever “good process” is involved would be determinant of the outcomes. And unless the “good process” relies on sortition, it would not be a democratic one.

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