Timo Rieg is skeptical about citizens’ councils

Below is an extended excerpt from a translation of a piece by Timo Rieg (originally in German).

Everything speaks for the drawing of lots – called “aleatoric democracy” as a method of social control, after the Latin word for dice “alea” and known, among other things, from Asterix: “Alea iacta est,” “the die is cast,” or in the classic German phrase “die Würfel sind gefallen.”

But precisely because everything speaks for the democratic drawing of lots, the current hype about citizens’ councils must make one skeptical. For the strengths of aleatory democracy are a frontal assault on the real ruling aristocracy.

In its egalitarianism, the drawing of lots takes no account whatsoever of party careers; it knows no hierarchy, no compulsory factions, no empty election promises. Parties and lobbyists may exist even in an aleatory democracy, but they would forfeit most of their current influence on public life as a whole.

Of course, it is not impossible that professional politicians in particular, some of whom have known for many decades about the insane autonomy of parties, might long for a change of system and therefore be open to experimentation (some politicians and ex-politicians have written entire books about this).

Good lobbyists could be trusted to convince drawn citizens of their positions; good lobbyists do not rely on political backrooms, on covert influence, on strong-arming. But there will be only a very small minority willing to give up their special role for the sake of a fair democracy.

It is therefore to be feared that some advocates of aleatory democratic citizen participation are wolves in sheep’s clothing. After all, hardly any of the protagonists of this new civil rights movement would like to make their own influence or their own (economic) advantages dependent on a lottery, which means: giving up special rights in favor of the general public.
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Understanding the present by listening to the past: Walter Lippmann’s “The Public Philosophy”

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in a post I’ve just put on my own blog on Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy. It does not directly reference sortition, but I think it’s an excellent illustration of the value that sortition can bring — and it provides a corroborative context for the ideas I sketched out here.


One way to get beneath the surface of what’s going on is to read people who were writing about issues as they emerged rather than in more modern times when they’d become the norm and become infused in our commonsense.

I was browsing in one of the few remaining second-hand bookshops around (as is my wont) when I came upon Walter Lippmann’s 1955 book, The public philosophy. Walter Lippmann was one of the great journalists and thinkers of the 20th century. He wrote a series of books that were landmarks in their day, despite uniformly bland titles. Public opinion. The good life. And this one — The public philosophy

Reading part 1. I was shocked to discover a critique of democracy that I had not really crystallised for myself. It comprehends two tendencies both of which are at their most disastrous in the avoidance of war on the one hand and the fighting of wars on the other.

In the first place there’s what I’ll call temporal mismatch. It can take an electorate years to catch up with emerging developments and so public opinion can be a disastrous guide to the exigencies of a particular situation. A further aspect of public opinion is its capacity for wild swings in sentiment which I’ll call temperamental amplification.

Lippmann explains how democracies wildly overshoot. They’re not good at avoiding war by preparing properly for it. It is easy to understand why that is. Wars are very expensive. So preparing for them is expensive too. That means that politicians get the choice between warning the electorate and preparing for war and winning elections. If they call for more military spending their democratic opponent will say that it can be handled without serious financial pain — either because the threat is overblown or because it can be managed via borrowing or some other evasively defined expedient.

Then as war looms larger, far greater sacrifice than would otherwise have been necessary is called for, alongside industrial scale demonisation of the enemy. We’re somewhat familiar with this narrative from WWII, but Lippmann extends it back to the insouciance of war before WWI, the imposition of the Carthaginian Peace of 1919 which in humiliating Germany made Round Two of the Great War all the more likely. (Lippmann became fast friends with Keynes when they were both in Versailles. Coming to terms with the cataclysm of that war and its peace burned itself deeply into both men’s thought.)

Of course, this is directly relevant to today’s circumstances where the economic hangover from both COVID and Europe’s first major war in eighty years is intensifying the scarcity of energy and food, and in so doing undermining living standards. A further demand is to get Ukraine the arms it needs to fight off the Russians — but that’s expensive too.

But how much are our political leaders leveling with their populations? They’re not of course. Because to do so they’d have to say something like “Here’s the plan. We need to reduce living standards compared to what they would otherwise be by 2-3%. Then their opponents will denounce this as the counsel of despair and incompetence and come out and say they can do all they need to do without such hardship.

An extract from Lippmann is over the fold.

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Another Herefordshire citizen council letter to the editor

The Herefordshire citizen council for the climate has been the subject of a couple of critical letters to the editor of the Hereford Times last year. In a new letter, Frank Myers MBE from Ross-on-Wye is critical of the process as well, and in particular is unhappy about the fact that the identities of the members of the council are not made public.

Why won’t Herefordshire Council name Climate Assembly members?

LAST year a Citizen’s Climate Assembly was formed. Some 50 or so members were recruited and each were paid £300 for their participation.

The group was chosen, with the help of the infamous Sortition Foundation, in such a way that almost 90 per cent had preconceived concerns about climate change.

As we approach the local elections I think it is important to know how many of these people have put themselves forward for election for posts where they are paid nothing.

So I asked Herefordshire Council for their names and the council refused to disclose them.

So we are not allowed to know but Councillor Ellie Chowns, the leader of the Greens, who chaired the foundation proceedings, obviously knows their identity and has had the opportunity to share the Green message with them.

Is this democracy?

Varoufakis explains how citizen councils can revolutionize democracy

It was recently noted here that Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and leader of the Greek MeRA25 party, proposed a “monetary supervision jury” for controlling the central bank. It turns out that for Varoufakis citizen councils should serve in similar roles controlling public sector entities across the state bureaucracy.

A short clip on the YouTube channel of the DiEM25 movement shows a segment from a speech by Varoufakis in the Greek Parliament advocating for wide use of citizen councils, “mostly allotted but with elected members as well”. Varoufakis proposes that such bodies should select the managers of public sector organizations and monitor their performance. According to Varoufakis deliberative citizen councils would provide an alternative to both the corruption and inefficiency of capitalism and the corruption and inefficiency of statism by combining “the best of the state with civil society”.

Beaudet: Let us push the frontiers of democracy

Thierry Beaudet is the President of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), the body which organized the French allotted bodies which discussed environmental policy and end-of-life policy. He has now published a book in which he advocates the use of sortition as a tool of democracy. The book is described by the publisher as follows:

The trappings of our democracy are falling apart: elections are no longer adequate for the task, and there is general distrust toward every authority and every power. Facing this crisis, new political practices assert themselves, practices which engage and refer to the citizen body. Citizen participation, still in its beginning in our country, must develop, through sortition, the exercising of collective deliberation, the systematic collaborative construction of public policy. Thierry Beaudet, the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, proposes that we learn how to remake democracy and to discuss together substantive issues rather than keep rehashing divisions in a vacuum.

The Times alarmed about the radical proposals of the Sortition Foundation

The Times writes:

Group that wants to abolish MPs wins government cash

Even Extinction Rebellion believes the Sortition Foundation’s ideas are too radical

The taxpayer has been funding a group that campaigns for the end of parliamentary democracy and which even Extinction Rebellion considers to be too radical.

The Sortition Foundation has provided recruitment services for parliament and other governmental bodies, helping them to organise “citizens’ assemblies” that are used to inform decision makers on issues such as climate change.

Participants are paid to take part and chosen through a process of “stratified random selection” so that assemblies, made up of between 20 to 200 people, are representative of communities in the UK and can be used to guide government policy.

The not-for-profit company was awarded £26,000 by the Department for Environment, was among the beneficiaries of a £120,000 contract from the House of Commons and received £10,000.

Yanis Varoufakis proposes a Monetary Supervision Jury

Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 party and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens, writes:

Imagine that the central bank provided everyone with a free digital wallet, effectively a free bank account bearing interest at the central bank overnight rate. Given that the current banking system functions like an anti-social cartel, the central bank might as well use modern digital, cloud-based technology to provide free digital transactions and savings storage to all, its net revenues paying for essential public goods. Freed from the compulsion to keep their money in a private bank, and to pay through the nose in order to transact using its system, people will then be free to choose if and when they wish to use private financial institutions offering risk intermediation between savers and borrowers whose monies will, however, live in perfect safety on the central bank’s ledger.

It is at around this point of my proposal that the crypto brotherhood will feign a fit, accusing me of pushing for a Big Brother central bank that sees and controls every transaction we make. Setting aside their stunning hypocrisy, days after they demanded an immediate central bank bailout of their Silicon Valley bankers, let me point out that the Treasury and other organs of the state already have access to each transaction of ours. Indeed, privacy could be better safeguarded if transactions were to be concentrated on the central bank ledger under the supervision of something like a Monetary Supervision Jury comprising randomly selected citizens and experts drawn from a wide range of professions.

In summary, the time has come to reach an inevitable conclusion: the banking system we take for granted is unfixable. That’s the bad news. But there is good news. We no longer need to rely, at least not the way we have so far, on any private, rent-seeking, destabilising network of banks. The time has come to blow up an irredeemable banking system which only delivers for property and share owners at the expense of the majority.

Coal miners have found out the hard way that society does not owe them a permanent subsidy to damage the planet. It is time for the bankers to make a similar discovery.

Electoral body members selected via sortition in Mexico

A sortition procedure was used in Mexico to select the president and three council members of the Mexican National Electoral Institute, reports Mexico News Daily:

[Guadalupe Taddei Zavala] will replace Lorenzo Córdova at the helm of Mexico’s electoral agency next week after her name was drawn out of a transparent lottery box in the Chamber of Deputies in the early hours of Friday morning.

If that sounds like an unusual way to appoint the country’s electoral chief, that’s because it is.

Party leaders decided to use sortition – also known as selection by lottery and selection by lot – to elect the new INE president and three new electoral councilors since none of the candidates had the support of the required two-thirds of lawmakers in the lower house of Congress.

An agreement between the parties that would have allowed that level of support for four consensus candidates never materialized. As a result, sortition was used to elect an INE president and councilors for the first time.

The Morena party, which along with its allies has a simple majority in the Chamber of Deputies, were likely happy to resort to drawing lots because the majority of the 20 candidates for the four positions – all of whom were nominated by a “technical committee” earlier this month – are close to their party, the newspaper El País reported.

A democratic rock bottom

Guillaume Drago, a law professor at Université Panthéon-Assas Paris II writes [original in French] the following in the Catholic monthly journal La Nef.

A democratic rock bottom

It is the time, it seems, of “participative democracy”, which has been described as “the collection of methods aiming to involve the citizens in the process of political decision making” [L. Blondiaux, on the site vie-publique.fr], and which could be defined as the direct participation of citizens in the creation of rules, and in particular legislation. It surely involves that when it concerns the “Citizen Conventions” for the climate and for the end-of-life question.

The composition of these “conventions” is the product of allotment which is supposed to be representative of the French population. The institution which organizes these conventions is the Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE, pronounced “se-zeh”), with a “governance committee” which, it is easily understood, is there to steer the discussions in the desired directions and an “oversight body”, for the end-of-life convention [The role of the oversight body is defined on the site of the “convention”: “The oversight body is tasked with ensuring respect for the essential principles of the Citizen Convention: sincerity, equality, transparency, respect for the speech of the citizens. The body also verify that the conditions guarantee the independence of the Citizen Convention”.] The assessment of a legal scholar of the use of “citizen conventions” cannot avoid being severely negative, for several reasons.

The first is that these bodies are neither constitutionally nor legally recognized. No provision of our constitution discusses such a device for preparing or for participating in deciding laws or regulations. The law is silent on this type of device and it is unclear why the members of parliament would wish to give up some of their legislative power in favor of the citizens whereas those citizens have duly elected the members of parliament in order to represent them… For those two “conventions”, a simple letter of the prime minister to the president of the CESE is all that justifies their existence. They are then associated with what one of the sites of the “conventions” calls the “third Assembly of the Republic, and a legitimate player acting as an independent constitutional assembly, whose task is to be a juncture of citizen participation”. Good heavens! Such responsibility!
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