The experts making sure that the disadvantaged get heard

Annabelle Lever, researcher at Cevipof and professor of political philosophy at Sciences Po, writes in The Conversation about the lengths into which the organizers of allotted bodies have to go in order to overcome “cultural imperialism” and give the disadvantaged a voice.

Creating a citizens’ assembly that truly reflects society as a whole isn’t so simple, however. In particular, only a very small percentage of those invited to participate actually agree to do so.

To create an assembly that is more descriptively representative of the population – or one that looks more like us – several approaches are used. One is to have an initial phase of unweighted selection followed by a second phase that uses weighted lotteries. Another is to use stratified sampling or forms of stratification from the beginning.

Because citizen assemblies are very small compared to the population as a whole – France’s Convention for the Climate was made up of just 150 people – the descriptively representative character of the assembly can occur on only a few dimensions. Organisers must therefore decide what population characteristics the assembly should embody and in what proportion. Randomisation thus does not preclude difficult moral, political and scientific choices about the assembly to be constructed, any more than it precludes voluntariness or self-selection.

The use of weighted lotteries means that individuals will not have a formally equal chance to be selected to it – nor, of course, a substantively equal one. Assemblies created by stratified random selection offer a much wider set of opportunities to serve than is typical of other deliberative bodies. It is thus important to remember that even when a randomly selected assembly “looks like us”, everyone will not have had the same chance to be selected to it, nor to take up the invitation if they want to.

[D]emocratic equality does not require that deliberative bodies be composed of social groups in proportion to their share of the population.

Trying to ensure that the membership of a small assembly matches that of the population along lines of sex, age, level of education, professional status, geography, means that it is impossible to match them in other ways – for example, in terms of their different beliefs, or in terms of the proportion of women who are farmers rather than bank managers. In short, trying to create a microcosm of the population along certain lines prevents the deliberative representation of the population on others.

Giving the disadvantaged a real voice

As a consequence, political philosophers who are concerned with the adequate representation of disadvantaged social groups often suppose that what we should be aiming for sufficient representation to ensure that their voices, opinions and internal differences are taken seriously in public assemblies, rather than representation in proportion to population. As Anne Phillips puts it:

“The underlying preoccupation is not with pictorial adequacy – does the legislature match up to the people? – but with those particularly urgent instances of political exclusion which a ‘fairer’ system of representation seeks to resolve.”

For example, the over-representation is likely to be important for groups such as the homeless, the very poor, those with limited education, or those who suffer from chronic illness. They may be relatively small compared to the total population, but they also suffer from severe disadvantages that make it difficult to participate in public deliberations, and to be heard and respected as the equal of others. For them, adequate representation will likely require membership that is much greater than their share of the population.

In short, such groups are likely to suffer from “cultural imperialism”, as Iris Marion Young called it. This means that the creation of an assembly that “looks right” is insufficient. Instead, forms of assembly created specifically to maximise their opportunities to be heard may be necessary, even at the cost of underrepresenting members from more advantaged groups, such as university-educated middle-aged men, whose perspectives are likely to figure disproportionately in public discussion.

17 Responses

  1. The points made here seem sensible.

    As always, would the interests of these disadvantaged groups be served better or worse than they are currently?

    Refinement and improvement will always be necessary. We will never achieve perfection.

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  2. > The points made here seem sensible.

    I very much disagree.

    First, I think this argument is self-serving. It is an expert arguing against having a simple, standardized, transparent process which everybody can understand. Instead, the argument goes, the experts should be in charge introducing various wrinkles and arcana into the process.

    The result of such a convoluted process controlled by professionals would inevitably be widespread suspicion – justified or not – of manipulation, and as a result a delegimization of the decision making process. We have moved far beyond the point where expert opinion is trusted as representing the objective common good. (Personally I certainly would not trust the judgement of the experts regarding whose voice needs more amplification and regarding how this should be done.)

    No: the only way for sortition to work is to have the process completely mechanical and transparent. (See more here.)

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  3. *** I agree with Yoram Gat. Only a mini-populus mirroring perfectly the populus will be legitimate, and trusted. The Yellow Vests did support more referendum than allotment because they did not trust the sortition process.
    *** Only mandatory participation will ensure perfect mirroring.
    *** We must distinguish two kinds of allotments. The basic one leads to a mini-populus. But we can consider likewise allotment used to get a representative sample of a specific class. For instance a representative sample of homeless people, with possibility of exchanges between the mini-populus and this sample, allowing the mini-populus to get about a problem voices other than experts or activists.
    *** Mixing the two uses of allotment will be confusing and will destroy trust and legitimacy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. André,

    > *** Only mandatory participation will ensure perfect mirroring.

    You keep writing that, but you never engage with the obvious point that presence (which is the only thing that can be mandated) is a very different from participation. In reality, forcing people to be present in a process in which they do not want to participate will do nothing to promote political equality.

    It is exactly the other way around: the only way to promote political equality is to have a political process in which the large majority of people would freely want to participate.

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  5. I agree with André Sauzeau. Intentional over-representation of selected groups in a decision-making body destroys legitimacy. (As a side note this is what the property-owning white men have historically done with the electoral system – for centuries). Stratified samples, or even over-representing specific groups CAN be defended to achieve diverse perspectives and diffuse knowledge at the proposal development stage, but such a body has no legitimacy for making any final decisions.

    This immediately brings me back to my multi-body design. Longer duration bodies with intense work are problematic for mandatory service, but such groups are necessary for developing detailed proposals. The solution is to allow experimentation with design for proposal development, but insist on pure, transparent lottery selection with quasi-mandatory service for a short-duration jury that gets to approve or reject any proposals developed by these less-representative bodies. The crux of the problem is combining the development and advocacy of proposals with the fundamentally different task of judging those proposals and accepting or rejecting them. These tasks must be done by different bodies with different modes of selection, duration, and level of self-selection bias. My paper on this is here: https://delibdemjournal.org/articles/abstract/10.16997/jdd.156/

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  6. > The crux of the problem is combining the development and advocacy of proposals with the fundamentally different task of judging those proposals and accepting or rejecting them.

    If this is the crux of the problem, then it is up to allotted bodies to face this problem and to resolve it, rather than have their hands tied a-priori with elite-made designs which usurp the right of the people to design their own political system as they see fit.

    Self-selected bodies can always exist. Nothing prevents a group of people from forming a working group and generating policy proposals. They can then advocate for those proposals and try to get the allotted to adopt them in one form or another. In a democratic system, the allotted representative bodies should be fully empowered to decide how to handle those proposals, together with any other sources of information and ideas that they have.

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  7. *** Yoram’s last comment is right, basically. But “any other sources of information and ideas that they have” is dangerous wording, because it seems to consider the point as minor, and therefore could lead to accept a situation where the mini-populus would only choose from ideas and informations coming from organized working groups.
    *** I wanted to underline that an allotted sample of a given class of people is a very interesting political use of lottery, distinct from the basic democratic one, the allotment of a minipopulus. Such a sample may issue proposals which were not supported by any spontaneous working group. And anyway they can give to the minipopulus information about the real range of sensitivities inside this class, which may be misreported by media or by activists or by experts, or by groups claiming to be the voice of this class.

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  8. *** Yoram answers to me “You keep writing that [only mandatory participation will ensure perfect mirroring ], but you never engage with the obvious point that presence (which is the only thing that can be mandated) is a very different from participation. In reality, forcing people to be present in a process in which they do not want to participate will do nothing to promote political equality.”
    *** If a person conscripted to a minipopulus does not want to participate to the debate, because of egocentric propensities, or because God forbids him participation, or whatever any other a-civic reason, he must be allowed to go around the coffee machine and play video. He will represent the a-civic persons in the populus, and thus mirroring will be perfect.
    *** The problem with voluntary participation, in present societies, is other: it will practically lead to self-exclusion of important parts of the citizen body, especially along class lines.
    *** The problem may disappear when we will “have a political process in which the large majority of people would freely want to participate” as says Yoram. Maybe, but sure not immediately. During at least the transitional time the minipopulus would not mirror the citizen body, destroying its legitimacy, and giving way to “corrections” by quotas, which actually induce other distortions. That would have a strong blocking power against democracy-through-sortition.
    *** Lever did develop the idea that with free participation “unweighted lotteries promise tends to result in assemblies skewed to the socially advantaged, the partisan, and those most confident in their practical and cognitive abilities, whatever the reality”, words not quoted by Yoram. Strangely she did not mention the “mandatory” option, whereas she mentioned the “criminal juries”, which in France are mandatory, as this French scholar knows. But the aim of Lever is to discard the idea of a sample mirroring the citizen body, of a true minipopulus.

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  9. Two points.
    1. Yoram suggests a lottery body should decide about design, instead of having their hands tied with “elite-made designs.” Yes BUT. (is my response). I have advocated that ongoing design reform and improvement be done by a lottery selected body, taking advice from “experts” if they wish. However a key point is that this should be done by a DIFFERENT lottery body than one making public policy decisions. By being in a position of power over society by making public policy decisions, those members become automatically unfit to design their own procedures due to the tendency of self-serving power corruption. Using the logic of Rawls’s “veil of ignorance,” optimal design is best done by those who are ignorant of exactly who the deciders will be, and what corrupted interests they may develop. This same dynamic applies to the corruption of existing elected chambers that have their own “rules committees” that inevitably serve to corruptly expand the power and narrow the sources of information of those in power at the time. Giving ALL authority (both design and public policy) to a single group of people, whether selected by lot or other means, is dangerous to society.

    2. To elaborate on André Sauzeau’s response to Yoram’s favoring a self-selection volunteer basis for the lottery selection rather than quasi-mandatory service… Trying to remedy the self-selection bias through quota stratified sampling, is well-intentioned, but probably inadequate means of assuring the body is genuinely representative of the population. But just ignoring the self-selection bias and accepting the volunteers who agree to serve is even worse. It will inevitably over-represent the most privileged elements of society. Yes, as Yoram advocates, providing strong inducements, and eliminating all barriers is important, but will never be sufficient. André makes the exact right point that members required to serve, who decline to take an active part are accurately representing people like them in society. But there are far more people who, if required to serve, will take the work seriously, as proved by the court trial juries.

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  10. André,

    > The problem with voluntary participation, in present societies, is other: it will practically lead to self-exclusion of important parts of the citizen body, especially along class lines.

    How is hanging around the coffee machine playing video games not a form of self-exclusion?

    There are multiple ways in which your proposed form of self exclusion is worse than the one that I am proposing:

    1. It is undeclared and could be hidden from the public, thus claiming that the allotted body is representative when in fact it is not.

    2. It could be used to discredit the system, as in “look at those parasites getting a nice salary for doing nothing”, or, “look at those idiots voting stupidly after having spent their entire time drinking coffee and playing video games”.

    3. It could be used as a tool to control the system, by manipulating the video-game-players into voting in uninformed and unconsidered ways.

    > giving way to “corrections” by quotas

    I have explicitly rejected this idea in the post I linked to above. Slots that were turned down should remain explicitly vacant. It is up to the system designers either to make sure that very few slots are turned down or to handle the public perception repercussions of having a body where many of the seats are vacant.

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  11. Terry,

    1. Personally, I find the oft-repeated arguments for having a final up-or-down vote by a separate body far from convincing, but having a system with multiple bodies with different roles (all allotted) is acceptable, as long as, again, it is part of the design made by a fully empowered allotted body. The notion that you can draw up a-priori arrangements that would be useful for guiding the designs produced by an allotted body having real life experience with an actual system seems questionable to me.

    2. See my response above to André. What you are suggesting is not mandatory participation but mandatory presence serving as a mask for voluntary participation. This arrangement has, as far as I can see, absolutely no advantages but has several severe disadvantages compared to transparent and explicit voluntary participation.

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  12. *** My proposal of conscription is grounded on the hypothesis that, at least at the beginning of democracy-through-sortition, a somewhat big fraction of the citizen body will not volunteer, whereas the real a-civic people will be a small fraction; and therefore most of the unvoluntary conscripted people would participate in the working of the minipopulus. I may be wrong, but if I am right, the drawbacks of conscription will be much lesser than the advantage of a minipopulus perfectly mirroring the populus.
    *** Is my hypothesis wrong ? We could guess from the behavior of conscripted jurors in the countries where criminal jury attendance is mandatory, if we can trust reports about this behavior. But we will be sure only after first experiments of democracy-through-sortition – minipopulus making sovereign choices about important issues.
    *** But if these beginnings are without conscription, there is a very big risk to get citizen juries whose social composition and political sensitivities are different of the voters in referenda, and I am afraid the new system will not withstand such a discrepancy.

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  13. In the original demokratia, political participation was viewed as a civic obligation, on a par with military service. The problem with modernity is that it is viewed as an (optional) human right. If you are allotted to represent your peers, then the state has the right to expect you to do so. Alex Kovner and I attended the session at the Liege conference (Contre le Tirage au Sort?) where Annabelle presented this paper and we were both struck by how most of the participants failed to see this point.

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  14. > a somewhat big fraction of the citizen body will not volunteer, whereas the real a-civic people will be a small fraction

    So the same people who will refuse an offer for an important job with a good salary will take the same job seriously once forced into it against their will?

    > jury attendance

    The jury system is exactly what we want to avoid. This is a system that is deliberately designed to reduce meaningful participation: opaque selection procedures, low pay, low status, wide perception of being guests of the professionals in the system. Mandatory participation is used to mask all of that.

    > first experiments of democracy-through-sortition – minipopulus making sovereign choices about important issues

    You seem to be very optimistic regarding the situation in which those “first experiments” would take place. Those first experiments may very well be deliberately designed by an anti-democratic elite to be no more than a manipulated charade where all the important choices are made by professionals running the show. And those initial arrangements may very well doom the entire endeavor to failure. For the system to be self-correcting, so its experience could serve for later improvements, the starting point has to be close enough to a meaningful democracy so that institutional learning could be in the right direction. If the starting point is not good enough, the system will diverge away from democracy (like the jury system) rather than converge towards it. Thus it is crucial that the initial designers (which are by definition an elite group) would be constrained to set up a system that is hard to manipulate. This is much harder to do if attendance is voluntary, so that the choice to participate or not to participate is explicit and transparent, than in a system where everybody has to attend, and can then effectively not participate.

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  15. *** Sure, the Western criminal jury is not a model of democracy. It was not intended to be one.
    *** But the idea of ordinary citizens entitled to make important choices may be a “germ” of true democracy. This risk may be a factor of the trend in France towards the vanishing of the criminal jury.
    *** Anyway, if I alluded to the French criminal jury, it was from a specific point of view. It seems, if we trust information about things covered by official secrecy, that the French jurors usually do their job in all conscience, even if a part of them did not wish to become jurors.
    *** Well, I think the file is clear about the drawbacks and advantages of conscription in the beginnings of a modern true democracy.
    *** I am not specially optimistic about these beginnings. If we may do serious reasoning about the working of a political model, I believe it is very difficult to guess about the transitional phenomena. Yoram Gat says that the” first experiments may very well be deliberately designed by an anti-democratic elite to be no more than a manipulated charade”. Sure, but this elite may be unable to control the process, this time or later.

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  16. > if we trust information about things covered by official secrecy, that the French jurors usually do their job in all conscience, even if a part of them did not wish to become jurors.

    Since, as you agree, juries are not a model of democracy, reported good behavior of jurors is in no way an indication that a jury-like arrangement of an allotted chamber would be a democratic one. Jurors that remain passive fulfill their role perfectly as far as the judicial system is concerned. All that is needed is for them to eventually vote on a question that was pre-defined by the professionals in the system. And indeed, passive members of an allotted chamber would be great as far as the elite would be concerned. Such passive members can be trusted not to threaten the status quo. If in addition, as would likely be the case, some reluctant members would engage in flagrantly uncooperative behavior, this would be useful for delegitimizing and decisions by the allotted body that would not please the elite.

    > Yoram Gat says that the” first experiments may very well be deliberately designed by an anti-democratic elite to be no more than a manipulated charade”. Sure, but this elite may be unable to control the process, this time or later.

    The elite would very much be in control of process at the outset, since inevitably it would be an elite body that would be designing the process – there would not be a non-elite body available that could carry out the role. If the initial design is poor enough, democratically speaking, this would ensure that the elite remains in control at all later stages as well.

    The only constraints on the initial design produced by the elite body would be the fact that whatever design it comes up with would have to be considered to some extent legitimate by the population at large. Thus only very broad principles can be applied as constraints. The principle of having a voluntary attendance, based on a commitment for good service and on having conditions that encourage participation and that allow anybody to serve if they wish to do so, is one such principle, among a few others.

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  17. […] publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of sortition have been fading in prominence since the zenith […]

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