Bootstrapping a democratic system

Setting up a large-scale democratic system presents a bootstrapping problem. It may be hoped that a large-scale democratic system is stable. That is, that once a democratic system is in place then it continues to function democratically and power does not spontaneously become concentrated leading to an oligarchical system. But even if this is the case, it would not imply that there is a realistic way to create a democratic system starting from an oligarchical one. Contrary to Western dogma, it is clear that large-scale democracy is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. Not only are some oligarchical system rather stable (with quite a few instances of the Western oligarchical system having survived for over 70 years), but, more importantly, once an oligarchical system destabilizes, often – in fact, historically, almost uniformly – the outcome is another oligarchical regime. The question then is how can the destabilization of an oligarchical regime, a phenomenon that seems to be happening now in various Western countries, become an opportunity for a transition to a democratic system.

Presumably, based on the historical record, some fairly stringent preconditions are necessary. A popular democratic sentiment is of course required. However, such sentiment is far from sufficient since without some theoretical understanding of the mechanisms that are required in order to set up a democratic system, the sentiment cannot be translated into democratic institutional structure. Specifically, when the misconception that an elected constitutional assembly and more generally elections are foundations of a democratic system is widely held, then it is quite unlikely that a democratic system would be created.

But let us assume that the situation is favorable:

1. There is widespread popular support for sortition,
2. Following some systemic upheaval or destabilization, an allotted body was formed with a mandate for putting in place a new institutional political system.

Under those conditions, what are the prospects for creating a meaningfully democratic system? While this would seemingly be a promising starting point, there are reasons to doubt that prospects are very good. The constitutional body would be required to generate an institutional structure that would reflect an ideology that is very different from the one that is embodied in the existing structure. This would mean that the body would have to perform a large leap of the imagination when they constitute the new institutions. How would they be able to know if a new institutional structure that they are designing would result in a democratic power structure? Of course, the allotted would not be working in a closed room. Presumably the body would hear various ideas about what the institutional structure should be. But how would they be able to evaluate the proposals?

But while the chance that a constitutional body would be able to design an institutional arrangement that would be satisfactorily democratic is low, the objective is – or at least should be – much more modest. Rather than hoping for hitting upon a “good” system by applying a design based on a-priori analysis, the institutional arrangement created should be such that it can self-correct, redesigning itself gradually, on an ongoing basis in a democratic direction. For this to happen the arrangement decided upon by the allotted constitutional body must emphasize adherence to basic democratic principles and within that framework maintain institutional flexibility, empowering future bodies to make changes to the institutions and their internal structures and procedures as they appear necessary. If those reform bodies generally reflect informed and considered public opinion then it may be expected that they would be able to make more informed decisions as the strengths and weaknesses of a functioning sortition-based system become apparent. Over time the system would be able to converge toward more democratic institutional systems and keep amending those indefinitely as needed to address changes in society.

Thus, the aim of sortition promotion should not be to offer detailed designs – which are bound to be faulty and unconvincing, but rather to identify the broad basic democratic principles which should guide any initial design of a sortition-based system and at the same time emphasize that the idea is to have a flexible, self-correcting system – very much in opposition to the rigidity of electoralist systems. This should allow a constitutional body to create a system which would provide a starting point that is close enough to a democratic system for it to converge to (and track) a self-empowering arrangement.

17 Responses

  1. https://www.academia.edu/77916556/The_Psychology_of_Direct_Democracy

    The Psychology of Direct Democracy
    Particracy, Dictatorship and Totalitarianism

    – Conclusion

    Political instruments or technological innovation in the political domain must be tested for their potential to form or destroy social capital.
    The simplicity of this rule makes its application very efficient.
    Continuing to ignore the citizens’ demand for the right to decide encourages frustration due to powerlessness, leaving as the only way out an evolution towards an authoritarian regime.

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  2. ref “Bootstrapping a democratic system: https://equalitybylot.com/2022/05/02/bootstrapping-a-democratic-system/#more-16563

    FOUR GUIDELINES FOR HEALTHY DEMOCRATIC EVOLUTION

    A healthy evolving democratic system would 1. seek to welcome and use diversity, concerns, and disturbances creatively; 2. evoke and engage the wisdom and resourcefulness of the whole polity on behalf of that polity, its descendants, and the more-than-human communities they are part of; 3. give due voice and agency to citizens (residents of the polity) and stakeholders (those impacted by or involved with each issue being considered); and 4. apply these guidelines to itself – its quality, functioning and evolution – on a regular basis.

    Voting, freedoms, deliberation, checks-and-balances, and other democratic principles can be used to further the above four guidelines. But some applications of such principles embody the guidelines more productively than others. So there is much to learn and experiment with here as we evolve.

    Re wisdom: Note in Guideline 3 that the terms “residents” and “those impacted” can apply to more-than-human populations – guiding us towards more embracive and systemically healthy collective self-governance.

    This is a new distillation of a broader vision of “wise democracy” articulated in detail at wd-pl.com.

    Tom Atlee

    >

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  3. The problem with focusing on “broad basic democratic principles” is that they are so easily re-interpreted for elite convenience and ignored (e.g. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,…” comfortably asserted by a slave-owner). Principles are worth devising and asserting for the sake or argument (literally), but concrete procedures are crucial. I suggest the most fundamental one (agreeing with Yoram’s point about the essential need for being “self-correcting”) is that an initial randomly selected constitutional convention should create a rule and expectation that a new such body will be convened every set period of time to review and improve procedures.

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  4. Paul,

    > Political instruments or technological innovation in the political domain must be tested for their potential to form or destroy social capital.
    > The simplicity of this rule makes its application very efficient.

    I don’t see how this rule is simple. The question of the potential effects of political innovations is complex and open for debate. (Even leaving aside the rather questionable term “social capital”.)

    > Continuing to ignore the citizens’ demand for the right to decide encourages frustration due to powerlessness, leaving as the only way out an evolution towards an authoritarian regime.

    If “citizens’ demand for the right to decide” refers to something like the “Oregon system” (a.k.a. “popular initiative”), then it is highly unlikely that this would make any positive change.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Terry,

    > easily re-interpreted for elite convenience and ignored

    I agree. However, my point was not that those principles would be used to constrain a group of elite decision makers. Rather they would be used as guidelines by an allotted body that is trying in good faith to apply them in order to achieve a democratic system.

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  6. I agree that the precise form a sortitional-democratic constitution takes cannot be preordained by theorists, but I don’t think that means there is no point to arguing about the details of what a sortitional constitution ought to look like. Even within the picture you paint, there are two obvious roles for it. First, the authors of any actual constitution are going to look for models they can base their work on, so if the only existing detailed model constitutions are electoral, they will be tilted in that direction. Second, to make a constitution appropriately self-correcting is in itself quite a delicate task that calls for thoughtful design. Sortitional theorists can assist future constitutional assemblies by mapping out best practices and dangerous pitfalls in that process ahead of time.

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  7. Oliver,

    > I don’t think that means there is no point to arguing about the details of what a sortitional constitution ought to look like

    The question here is what kind of “details” we are talking about. The need to distinguish, for example, between formalities (universal suffrage) and substance (equal political power), is essential. How this should be translated to institutional structure should be determined by the allotted based on their own informed and considered understanding rather than be based on a model that has been promoted and entrenched (necessarily undemocratically) beforehand.

    > if the only existing detailed model constitutions are electoral, they will be tilted in that direction

    Could you give an example for how that tilt would be manifested?

    > best practices and dangerous pitfalls

    Again this really depends in my opinion on what you mean by that.

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  8. I concur with the other commenters, I think.

    The key point is that the final paragraph of the argument is a non sequitur. Yes, the political structure of a democratic nation should be able to change if the people in that nation want it. But that does not imply that we shouldn’t propose detailed designs.

    (You also declare that all such designs are bound to be faulty and unconvincing. The former accusation is trivially true: All political designs have faults, because there’s no perfect society. The latter accusation doesn’t make sense, because different people find different things convincing.)

    Beyond that, there are several reasons this imagined transition to sortition needs detailed designs:

    1. The constitutional body and the initial setup both need to follow some pattern. They can’t be constructed purely on the basis of abstract political ideals any more than a car be constructed solely on the basis of “I’d like to get from A to B.”

    2. Principles themselves don’t exist in a vacuum. Specific proposals help elucidate how the principles actually occur in the real world, and arguments about various designs bring to light possible trade-offs, pitfalls, and choices that need to made.

    3. Widespread support for sortition becomes easier when you do have proposals, both because they help convince the skeptical and because discussion around them raises the profile of the idea more generally.

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  9. > All political designs have faults, because there’s no perfect society. The latter accusation doesn’t make sense, because different people find different things convincing

    That’s a bit facile, it seems. Some designs are more faulty than others and less convincing than others. My point is that, due to the huge qualitative difference between where we are now and where we aim to be, any detailed proposals are bound to be so faulty and so unconvincing as to make discussion of their details useless.

    > Specific proposals help elucidate how the principles actually occur in the real world

    > Widespread support for sortition becomes easier when you do have proposals, both because they help convince the skeptical and because discussion around them raises the profile of the idea more generally.

    I disagree – I think discussing principles rather than details would be more useful. I think detailed proposal tend to focus the discussion on matters that are ancillary and away from the main issues. Also, since public discussion in our society is dominated by elite actors, there is no reason to believe that the proposals that would get most traction would be those with the most merit.

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  10. Yoram,

    > Could you give an example for how that tilt would be manifested?

    A great example is the promulgation of model bills by corporate lobbyists. Sometimes those bills are adopted because the lawmakers who adopt them see a potential to make money from their promoters in the future, but often it’s simply because the lawmakers don’t know much about the subject and the promoters put forward a well-researched and credible-seeming proposal. If, at a constitutional assembly, the electoralists put forward proposals that are essentially oven-ready, while the sortitionists are like ‘Here are some general principles, work something out yourselves’, the sortitionists will come across as unserious idealists and their ideas will be correspondingly disdained. To contend on a level playing field with the weight of electoralist tradition, we need to be able to present detailed models that answer all the possible criticisms that might be levelled at them.

    > The need to distinguish, for example, between formalities (universal suffrage) and substance (equal political power), is essential

    It is, and an important part of communicating that is through examples. There is a very strong analogy here with problems of communication between systems designers and lead developers in game development. As a systems designer, I can’t just go to the lead developer (who does both design and coding work) and say ‘Ensure there are multiple viable winning strategies’ (for example) and expect him to get on with it. But neither can I simply write a system specification like you would write instructions for putting an Ikea dresser together – ‘put tab A into slot B’ without any instruction about what the resultant assemblage is for or how important it is – because the lead developer can do what he likes, and will adapt the design I give him to fit with other priorities and other systems. If he does this without understanding how the parts are meant to play into the whole, the system he implements will be flawed. In order to effectively communicate, I need to give a detailed spec and explain what is important about it, what the underlying principles are, how it has to connect to the game as a whole, how it’s supposed to support the game’s themes as part of the whole system, etc. I can’t do this without the detailed spec. The same goes for the relationship between us as sortition advocates and a constitutional assembly. The assembly are the lead devs, and we’re the systems designers. We go to them with our ideas and they take them up, dismiss them, adapt or misadapt them, dependent on the degree to which they understand what we’re trying to propose, see the problems our proposal addresses, and appreciate its merit as a solution to those problems. Thus in the context of the constitutional assembly it’s vital we have model constitutions and explanatory glosses on those models.

    > since public discussion in our society is dominated by elite actors, there is no reason to believe that the proposals that would get most traction would be those with the most merit

    A more obvious obstacle to specific constitutional proposals achieving this kind of ‘public discussion’ is that they’re much too boring and nerdy to get widespread media coverage. The intended audience of specific constitutional proposals is, in the first instance, an activist audience, with the aim being to refine proposals to put before constitutional assemblies or incorporate into party platforms. The process of bringing large swathes of the public into the sortitionist fold is a completely separate activity – it’s a matter of organising people (and bringing existing organisations around to our way of thinking), and then of political education in the radical leftist sense. Only within the milieu thereby created can there be a genuine mass public discussion of sortitional constitutionalism in detail. But thinking of it in this way makes it very obvious that there is a place for both the kind of thought and outreach you want to see, and the kind that Liam, Terry, myself, etc. have been defending here.

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  11. Oliver,

    > If, at a constitutional assembly, the electoralists put forward proposals that are essentially oven-ready, while the sortitionists are like ‘Here are some general principles, work something out yourselves’, the sortitionists will come across as unserious idealists and their ideas will be correspondingly disdained.

    I don’t see things this way. Your argument attributes to the allotted the kind of thinking that is promoted among the population in our oligarchical society: inattention, a-rationality, being impressed by authority, focus on superficialities rather than substance, latching at conventional wisdom and ready-made solutions. This kind of thinking must be shed off before we can expect meaningful democratization. In particular, as part of the general understanding of how society works, the allotted would have to realize that “oven-ready” proposals, and especially those that are backed by think tanks and get media exposure, are a-priori likely to represent elite interests and cannot serve as a legitimate basis for their work. It is this type of political understanding that we, as sortition advocates, should promote.

    > examples

    I am not against using examples and discussing specific issues (say, the size of the allotted chamber, its term length, salaries, etc.). This is not the same as coming up with complete detailed “oven ready” packages.

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  12. Yoram,

    > inattention, a-rationality, being impressed by authority, focus on superficialities rather than substance, latching at conventional wisdom and ready-made solutions

    These are not the particular diseases of oligarchical society, but universal human foibles, by turns lamented and exploited by thoughtful people in every society throughout history.

    > This kind of thinking must be shed off before we can expect meaningful democratization

    So you have added another step to the prerequisites for democratisation: a transformation of the public’s way of thinking so pervasive that the bulk of the allotted constitutional delegates can be expected to have adopted the new way of thinking. And this is to be achieved under oligarchical institutions! Forgive me if I prefer not to wait for this miracle to occur.

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  13. Oliver,

    > universal human foibles, by turns lamented and exploited by thoughtful people in every society throughout history

    This is a thoroughly guardianist, anti-democratic view of humanity. With such a view of people, your position – that “democracy” must be bestowed upon a gullible and easily manipulated public by a benevolent faction of the “thoughtful” elite – is indeed justified.

    > So you have added another step to the prerequisites for democratisation: a transformation of the public’s way of thinking so pervasive that the bulk of the allotted constitutional delegates can be expected to have adopted the new way of thinking.

    No – this is not a new way of thinking. The prerequisite is stopping the suppression of, and giving expression to, an existing way of thinking. The idea of replacing elections with sortition relies on the notion – a fundamental basis of the entire democratic ideology – that the normal citizen is, when given an opportunity, a rational and independent thinker that is generally able to correctly perceive their interests and to effectively act upon this perception.

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  14. Yoram is misunderstanding the obstacles and solution for advancing sortition-based democracy Oliver is examining. The numerous cognitive biases we all exhibit are very real, but can be overcome with good design and in the right situation. This is the opposite of an appeal to guardianship. If anything, elites suffer many additional cognitive biases than randomly selected people. Lots of research has confirmed that the mere process of winning a competition to gain authority makes those people less empathetic, and more likely to behave unethically. However, due to well-documented “loss aversion” cognitive bias, we are all more reluctant to try something new if we fear we may thereby lose something we already have. Elections are a fundamentally flawed tool for democracy, but if people have never heard of or seen a functioning sortition system to show that it can work, they will mostly be unwilling to jettison elections in favor of an untried sortition system.

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  15. > if people have never heard of or seen a functioning sortition system to show that it can work, they will mostly be unwilling to jettison elections in favor of an untried sortition system.

    Obviously, non-familiarity with sortition is an obstacle, and a well-justified reason for caution. Non-familiarity is the main obstacle facing sortition at this early stage. But that is not the issue being discussed here. The question was whether in the scenario where the idea of sortition has gain familiarity and popular support, ready-made detailed proposals would be useful in order to direct institutional reforms toward a democratic system, or should these be avoided in order to focus on broad principles.

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  16. Yoram,

    The subtlety you seem to miss is that both enthusiastic familiarity and cautious unfamiliarity can be expected to be present in the same allotted assembly. There is not a single unified public with one opinion between them, there is a distribution of opinions. If 80% of the allotted have heard of sortition and a third of them come to the assembly already decided in its favour, that’s a situation in which sortition is very well-known and popular – and one in which we still have to overcome a great deal of hesitance and unfamiliarity.

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  17. Oliver;

    I don’t see how the supposed subtlety of the composition of the population of different groups in terms of their perceptions of sortition is relevant to the arguments that I made above (or to the arguments that you made above). It seems to me that none of the groups you mention can make good use of detailed plans. My argument was that detailed plans do not help those who support sortition to create better designs. But in addition, they do not make those who are already familiar with it better informed and they are not a useful way to introduce sortition to those who are unfamiliar with it. All of those functions would be better served by discussing principles rather than details, it seems to me.

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