A terrible admission of weakness

Lenny Ferretti, a law student at the University of Mons in Belgium, writes the following in the Carte Blanche section of Le Vif:

In Belgium there are elections every five years. There are directly elected assemblies and others, which are elected indirectly. The Senate, which is the second chamber of the Federal Parliament has been elected indirectly since the Sixth Reform of 2014. Today, some tell us that it is useless and that it should be eliminated and replaced by allotted citizens.

First, it is good to recall that the Senate creates bicameralism, that Belgium is a federal state (article 1 of the Constitution), and that no federal state in the world is unicameral.

Sortition is profoundly anti-democratic and would require training for the relevant citizens which would imply additional costs… On the other hand, citizen panels can and should be convened. Their work can guide our elected officials, but we must distinguish consultation from decision-making itself. It is a question of representativity and of legitimacy and hence of democracy.

Such an idea constitutes a terrible admission of weakness on the side of the political system and particularly on the side of the members of parliament. It implies shifting the responsibility onto the citizens of what they should be expecting, and what they have the right to expect: effectiveness, and thus the creation of a decent and secure life, to the extent possible, for their children. If we have elected officials, it is so that they assume the responsibilities that we have vested in them through elections by all!

It is not by proposing original and/or complex ideas such as those described here that the political system is going to bring the citizen back in and produce the expected results. The political system must assume its responsibilities, and address the fact that the nation spirit has been eroding within the political class.

9 Responses

  1. He is in favour of an evolution towards “democracy” ;-) https://www.lesengages.be/notre-projet-de-societe/regeneration-de-la-democratie/des-referendums-citoyens/ I don’t know his definition of “federal state” but as far as I know Switserland and Nebraska are unicameral. To name two.

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  2. 1) It seems to me as if the author is saying “only certain people are qualified to make decisions”. In a democracy there is not ‘citizen’ and ‘decision maker’ as two separate camps. The concept of a “decision making specialist” doesn’t exist. Sound to me like this person implicitly supports the creation of such a role which is indeed prfoundly undemocratic.

    2) All elected houses are citizen assemblies. The only thing sortition changes is how we pick the people in our representative decision making body. In other words picking one or both houses by lot wouldn’t change the bi-cameral nature (or otherwise) of the overall system.

    3) I don’t believe that elected people go through special training to enable them to make decisions? And if they do, then people selected by lottery can also go through such training? Either way there’s no cost differential due to preparing people for office with sortition or election. And even if there is no training for electeds, and we feel the need to train allotteds then I’m not against it

    4) The difference between people chosen by lottery or election is that one asks to stand and the other is asked to stand.

    3) If resource is the issue, most of the time spent by electeds is spent getting-re-elected. A sortive group can spend 100% of their time focussing on issues without

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  3. Sorry hit reply too soon! Can’t delete?? This is what it should have been.

    1) It seems to me as if the author is saying “only certain people are qualified to make decisions”. In a democracy there is not ‘citizen’ and ‘decision maker’ as two separate camps. The concept of a “decision making specialist” doesn’t exist. Sounds to me like this person implicitly supports the creation of such a role which is indeed profoundly undemocratic.

    2) All elected houses are citizen assemblies. The only thing sortition changes is how we pick the people in our representative decision making body. In other words picking one or both houses by lot wouldn’t change the bi-cameral nature (or otherwise) of the overall system.

    3) I don’t believe that elected people go through special training to enable them to make decisions? And if they do, then people selected by lottery can also go through such training? Either way there’s no cost differential due to preparing people for office with sortition or election. And even if there is no training for electeds, and we feel the need to train allotteds then I’m not against it. Maybe we should train electeds too!

    4) The difference between people chosen by lottery or election is that one group asks to stand and the other is asked to stand.

    5) If resource is the issue, a huge chunk of the time spent by electeds is spent getting-re-elected. A sortive group can spend 100% of their time focussing on issues without having to worry about who comes next.

    6) I feel like this article is trying to move the debate in a direction it doesn’t need to go. We need to choose a subset of people to make choices. The debate could be about which method of choosing a subset leads to wiser decisions that work for the greater proportion of the population, or which method ensures a wider range of voices in the decision making process. One can separately discuss the “democraticity” of choosing a subset rather than having full participation. A vote, I guess, allows everyone to participate in an extremely limited way. We need a kind of benchmark of democraticity to compare different systems. What are the dimensions of democracy?

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  4. Would you rather be led by someone who asks to stand or someone who stands when asked?

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  5. good question. Is someone who volunteers for sortition “standing when asked” or “ask to stand” ?

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  6. I don’t think you can’t volunteer for sortition. You can only refuse when asked. I mean if you’re a voter your hat is in the ring already.

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  7. That should be: *I don’t think you can volunteer for sortition….

    I wish there was an edit/delete facility here!

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  8. It seems odd that a law student could write something so superficial. Essentially: 1. Democracy necessarily means election of elite rulers; 2. Sortition does not use competition among would be elite rulers; 3. So sortition is “undemocratic;” 5. Elite rulers may “consult” with assemblies for advice if they choose. (adding an irrelevant tangent about federalism).

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  9. Yes, the argument is incoherent, but I don’t think this is surprising that a law student would make such and argument. Isn’t law substantively all about keeping the status quo, and methodologically all about bending logic and facts to fit your pre-fabricated conclusions?

    That said, the author does make some good points. First, the point that I used as the title of this post: the discussion of sortition is indeed a “terrible admission of weakness” of the electoralist system. As long as that system functioned reasonably well (“the wonderful thirty years”) and even for a decades later, the idea of using sortition remained completely marginal (almost non-existent).

    Secondly (and relatedly), Ferretti says that the citizens expect of their government to be effective and to provide a decent and secure life for their children. This is again a valid point. And again, as long as the citizens felt that this was happening, any ideas about replacing the existing systems remained marginalized. It is the fact that the system does not provide those outcomes that generates the interest in sortition. (Ferretti qualifying the expectations of the citizens from the government for security and prosperity with “to the extent possible” is rather darkly amusing, BTW.)

    Ferretti’s insistence that sortition is illegitimate, unrepresentative and undemocratic relies on a mistaken (but self-serving) legalistic idea that a system’s value – legitimacy, representativeness, democraticness – stems from formalities – the law, the Constitution, etc. In fact the value of a system (and the support of the people for the system) all depends on those outcomes (security and prosperity) that the current system does not provide. Sortition, or any other alternative to the status quo, is judged based on the outcomes it is expected to provide.

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