Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).

I will claim that sortition should supplement the current system by first explaining how the democratic process is executed in the Netherlands, whereafter I will point out the flaws of this system by applying Dahl’s (1979) framework [Procedural Democracy. In Laslett & Fishkin, Philosophy, political and society. Oxford Blackwell, pp. 97-133] to assess the quality of a democracy. Then I will explicate three alternatives often suggested to replace the elective representative democracy – technocracy, epistocracy, and the use of referendums – and why each of these are not desirable. Subsequently, I will propose the system of sortition and describe how it handles the defects of the current elective representative democratic system without suffering from the downsides inherent to the other three proposed political systems. Thereafter, I will address three main objections to the system of sortition; (1) the notion that regular citizens are not competent enough to rule, (2) the idea that drafted citizen assemblies are not favorable because they can hardly be held accountable in the case of bad policies, and (3) the notion that citizen assemblies are illegitimate because they are not elected, and rebut them. In the conclusion, I will summarize my claim, briefly go over possible implementations and suggest further research.

One Response

  1. […] Jaunes protest in France. Academics have continued publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of […]


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