Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.

This is the idea of “sortation,” of replacing ordinary electoral democracy, in which the great mass of people cast their ballots, with more specific rule by specially — or randomly — selected citizens.

The idea will soon get a treatise in “The Keys to Democracy,” originally written by the late classicist Maurice Pope and turned down by his publishers for being too utopian. The book has been lovingly retyped and edited by his sons Hugh and Quentin, and will appear early next year.

Interestingly, however, what was once be dismissed as an exercise in magical thinking and rank historicism now has some wind behind it. In France, for example, President Emmanuel Macron made citizens’ assemblies a key part of his reformist pitch — just as he convened councils of local mayors to form an assembly to judge his response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the like.

Meanwhile, in Britain, climate activists — perhaps cognizant of how deeply unpopular their more radical “degrowth” plans really are — are demanding that parliament, the voice of the people, be replaced by a ”citizens’ assembly” to decide national policy. Something which, no doubt, they hope could be shaped to be more open to deindustrializing than the population and its elected representatives.

Snell offers a blend of mostly familiar, although vaguely articulated, arguments against sortition. In the paragraph above it seems he implies that allotted bodies could be manipulated (“shaped”) by extremists. Snell also seems to assume that the allotted bodies will be made up of unrepresentative activists. Then there is the standard lack-of-accountability argument. Finally, Snell offers the idea expressed in the title of this post about sortition leading to being inward looking and self-obsessed, which, he warns, would interfere with Joe Biden’s attempt “to build a global coalition of democracies to save the world”.

Maybe it was always inevitable, but it seems we are now just a short step away from having sortition named as Russian disinformation disseminated in order to undermine the democratic institutions of the West. “Pope, Putin puppet” has a nice ring to it.

8 Responses

  1. “…he implies that allotted bodies could be manipulated (“shaped”) by extremists. Snell also seems to assume that the allotted bodies will be made up of unrepresentative activists”.

    As well he might. That would NEVER happen within our existing open, transparent, and well-informed governance system.

    ;-)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. James Snell’s principal objection is to sortition bodies with voluntary participants as they:

    . . . hold their opinions more firmly and with more fanaticism than the general public. They have a stronger vanguardist impulse, and hate their enemies more than most people care about anything. The risk is that the nutters will dominate — self-selecting, even if selected by lot — because everyone else has things to do on the weekends.

    The problem with socialism, as Oscar Wilde — a political radical himself — said, is that it takes up too many evenings. That’s the problem with the citizens’ assemblies too. For example, supporters of former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — who was, no matter what Twitter says, considered politically extreme by most of the public — were caught on video saying his leadership gave them a reason to get up in the morning. But the average person doesn’t require motivating in that way. They’ve got football to watch or children to look after or dinner to cook. In a representative democracy, those are the people who tend to win.

    When he finally gets to read Maurice Pope’s book (we will send him a pre-publication review copy), he will see that the author is in complete agreement, at least for assemblies with decision power. Although Pope was a classicist, the book contains an excellent chapter on statistical theory for sampling and opinion polling, concluding that allotted assemblies need to be large and with quasi-mandatory participation in order to accurately represent the target population. This makes the book unique in the sortition literature and I will suggest to his son Hugh that he emphasises this in his own essays and posts. (Unfortunately Maurice is more relaxed about small advisory bodies, a la Terry Bouricius, and this muddies the water a little.)

    We are publishing The Keys to Democracy on March 7th as part of our Sortition and Public Policy series: http://books.imprint.co.uk/collection/?collection_id=3 The book includes a foreword by Paul Cartledge and an introduction by Helene Landemore.

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  3. *** Yoram Gat says that “Snell offers a blend of mostly familiar, although vaguely articulated, arguments.” OK. But the article’s main line is that allotted bodies will not mirror the civic body. I said that without conscription this will be a powerful line of criticism, with this post Yoram Gat adds evidence to my stance.
    *** An interesting sentence in Snell’s article is “while the United States President Joe Biden is trying to build a global coalition of democracies” “countries obsessed with sortation are likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed”. It is not silly at all. The elites of the Anglosphere and West Europe are much more interlinked that the common citizenries of these countries, and part of these elites tend to some kind of post-modern Imperium, whereas true dêmokratias in the area would be probably less prone to join it.

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  4. It’s hard to respond to James Snell’s article in detail, given that my late father Maurice Pope’s book The Keys to Democracy is still two months away from being published. Still, by any name, sortition or sortation, it was nice to see our topic get such a prime new platform for discussion!

    Keith is of course right that in the forthcoming book, my father did argue that random selection would not serve its purpose of mirroring society unless it was mandatory and properly paid for. He also underlines how much better managed the selection system will have to work than the sieve-like systems currently used for the selection of juries in a number of mostly English-speaking countries.

    The Keys to Democracy also anticipates or answers other points James Snell (and others) raise in regard to sortition. For instance, rather than a haven for politically obsessed weekenders, my father’s ideal state of affairs made sortition-based assemblies a local and national civic duty that would become a normal part of every citizen’s working life.

    Another important issue that my late father addresses is the question of scale and the mistaken ease with which critics dismiss the Athenian experience as tiny, amateur meetings in the agora, or, as James Snell puts it, “parish councils”. Here is one of the counter-arguments that Maurice Pope makes:

    “Equal face-to-face discussion between all members begins to break down as a form of government when the size of a community grows beyond twenty or thirty members, as we have seen when considering participation. To suppose that Athens was governed by an assembly of this sort is as naïve as to suppose that the United Kingdom is ruled by a king or queen because a king or queen has to sign all the laws. In connection with this argument, it is worth noting how perverse it would have seemed to Aristotle. His view was quite the opposite: that for small communities it was natural to have a single ruler, for medium-size ones an oligarchy, but that for large communities the only suitable form of government was a [sortition-based] democracy!”

    Towards the end of the The Keys to Democracy, my late father also floats the idea that sortition might indeed form the only conceivable workable basis for a world government. But for that, I’ll let this fascinating book speak for itself in a few weeks’ time!

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  5. >my father’s ideal state of affairs made sortition-based assemblies a local and national civic duty that would become a normal part of every citizen’s working life.

    One of the points my co-author Alex Kovner stresses in our forthcoming book Superminority: Sortition and the Democratic Diarchy is that democratic participation is a civic obligation, not a right. The starting point should be the needs of the polis, rather than the (liberal) focus on human rights (such as the equal chance to participate in the allotted assembly). In this respect we are seeking to put the clock back to the time before Benjamin Constant’s essay on ancient and modern freedom. Military service may no longer be mandatory, but that should not apply to political obligations. How that is achieved will involve a judicious balance of the stick and the carrot, but the state should not have to resort to bribery in order to service its needs.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. André,

    > the article’s main line is that allotted bodies will not mirror the civic body. I said that without conscription this will be a powerful line of criticism

    The claim that an unrepresentative body would be perceived as illegitimate is not in dispute (well, maybe by some, but not by me). My point is that a conscripted body would also inevitably be perceived as illegitimate because it would inevitably be perceived as dysfunctional.

    > while the United States President Joe Biden is trying to build a global coalition of democracies” “countries obsessed with sortation are likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed”. It is not silly at all

    It is silly, not because it asserts that a change in policy may be expected if decisions are made by allotted bodies, but because against all evidence it implicitly assumes that Western regimes are “democracies”. As a corollary, it deduces that the policies pursued by the Western elites (essentially those of the US elite which all other Western governments humbly serve) are what any right-thinking person would want to see pursued.

    Note, then, that this is not an argument about the unrepresentativity of the allotted body. Quite the opposite: this is about the idea that the majority of citizens are not right-thinking, but rather are “inward looking and self-obsessed”, and should therefore not be allowed to set policy.

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  7. *** Yes, these two criticisms by Snell are not very coherent. That reveals that the argument of “mini-populus packed with extremists” covers a basic rejection of mini-populus. And that explains why Snell avoided the idea of mandatory allotment, as for criminal juries.
    *** I said that the criticism of mini-populus not mirroring the populus will be a powerful argument, I did not say that it will never be disingenuous.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. > I said that the criticism of mini-populus not mirroring the populus will be a powerful argument

    Right. And I agree with this point. We both believe that if the allotted bodies are not representative in their makeup then their decisions would likely be perceived as illegitimate (and, in my opinion at least, will likely indeed not represent the public interest). My point is that the cure of “fixing” low acceptance rates by conscription is a very poor cure, which is likely to be as destructive as the disease both in terms of perception and in terms of the substantive pursuit of public interest.

    I would also note that the conscription cure will not always be proposed in good faith either. This device could easily be deployed as a ploy to avoid making service accessible, meaningful, rewarding and appreciated enough to entice the large majority of citizens to accept offered seats.

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