Modern citizen assemblies are an affront to Athenian democracy

The burgeoning media interest in citizens’ assemblies (it was the lead discussion on the BBC R4 Today programme last Saturday) prompted me to contribute my own article to The Spectator, explaining some of the underlying political theory and the (spurious) claims for their origins in the fourth-century Athenian nomothetai. Again it’s a short article so best to read it on the Spectator blog. It will be interesting to read the comments.

A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Roslyn Fuller: Don’t be fooled by citizens’ assemblies

Highly recommended post by Roslyn Fuller on UnHerd.com:

I believe that the biggest threat to democracy is the belief among the current societal elite that what they want and what democracy is are the same thing – and that tweaking the rules of the game to get what you want is therefore right, just and somehow unto itself democratic.

This trend that sees democracy as a set of particular decisions, rather than just as a method for making decisions, has been well under way for some time and tends to divide the world between ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions, and ‘uninformed’ ‘incorrect’ decisions. ‘Correct’ decisions are automatically democratic; ‘incorrect’ ones are not.

One of the ways that is currently in vogue for ensuring ‘informed’, ‘correct’ decisions is to hold so-called citizens’ assemblies, a democratic ‘innovation’ that many leaders currently feel assured will bring them the results that they want.

This is followed by a nuanced (and sceptical) examination of the use and abuse of randomly-selected citizens’ assemblies, focusing on (wilful) misunderstandings of Irish CAs:

British politicians and intellectuals apparently feel themselves entitled to just blithely repeat these myths as a justification for holding such assemblies on all manner of decisions in Britain.

Criteria for a representative citizens’ assembly

Given the high profile of some recent (UK) proposals for allotted citizens’ assemblies — including Conservative leadership candidate Rory Stewart’s Brexit assembly and Extinction Rebellion’s global warming assembly — there is an urgent need to initiate an informed conversation on the requisite criteria to ensure that the assembly design is compatible with principles of democratic legitimacy. As we have been debating this topic in depth on this forum for many years, this looks like a good place to start. The underlying assumption of this post is that the legitimising principle is ‘stochation’ — i.e. an assembly that is a portrait in miniature of the population that it seeks to ‘describe’ and that the goal is to increase the fidelity of the representation, subject to cost and other practical constraints. I would suggest the following criteria:

Criteria for the acceptability of the allotment procedure
The criteria for an impartial random-selection algorithm have been covered by Yoram Gat’s recent post. Terry Bouricius has also argued that the need to be seen to be fair might require some sort of public ceremony, as in pre-modern applications of sortition.

Selection pool
Should the same criteria of citizenship be used as for the electoral role, or is there a case to open it to all affected interests? However the Athenians were less inclusive, requiring a higher age for lawmakers than regular citizens along with swearing the heliastic oath.

Voluntary or quasi-mandatory participation?
Athenian legislative juries were drawn from a pool of volunteers, but the 6,000 citizens were a very substantial proportion of the citizen body and there was strong normative pressure for all citizens to serve (those who didn’t were ho idiōtēs).  However the modern take-up of sortition invitations has been in the region of only 4%, so it might well be argued that voluntary participation would generate an atypical sample. If so, should participation be a civic duty (as in jury service) or will incentives and support suffice, bearing in mind that the relevant principle is the representation of the beliefs and preferences of the vast majority of citizens who are not included in the allotment?

Size of the allotted sample
Modern examples of sortition have been for bodies ranging from only twenty to several hundred, and some statisticians have argued that 1,000 is the minimum size for a reasonably accurate representation (Athenian juries ranged from 501 to 5,001). What is the connection between sample size, decision threshold and confidence interval? How big could the sample be before the onset of rational ignorance?

Length of service
On the one hand a citizens’ assembly would need time to gain adequate knowledge on the issue under consideration, whereas on the other there is the danger of participants ‘going native’ and thereby ceasing to adequately reflect the beliefs and preferences of their (virtual) constituents. Should assemblies be convened on an ad hoc basis (as with 4th century Athenian lawmaking), or is there a case for permanent bodies with rolling tenure for members?
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The Uses and Abuses of Sortition

Given that sortition is finally beginning to be taken seriously by politicians, academics and the mainstream media, some of us on this forum have expressed concerns about potential abuse. André has drawn our attention to the risk of politicians and public intellectuals using sortition to provide a patina of legitimacy to undemocratic practices — examples include Emanuel Macron’s ‘Great Debate’ — and there has been the usual concerns about the rich ‘n powerful using sortition to paper over the cracks of the electoralist oligarchy.

My own concerns are over the willingness of sortition advocates to assume that small stratified samples, in which participation is entirely voluntary, can represent the beliefs and preferences of all citizens. Leaving aside the size issue (most statisticians insist on a minimum of several hundred or even 1,000 for a representative sample) my principal concern is that the voluntary principle will significantly over-represent activists, “progressives” and those who want to change things, as oppose to the ‘silent majority’. The decision of the 2004 British Columbia Constitutional Assembly to change the voting system was overturned in the subsequent referendum, but this might well have been anticipated as only 4% of the original random sample opted for selection, thereby generating an unrepresentative sample (Warren and Pearse, 2008). My assumption here is that the decision not to participate might well be a sign of a conservative (small ‘c’) disposition.

Extinction Rebellion (XR) is a UK climate-change group which has gained a lot of publicity recently on account of its civil disobedience campaign, which brought much of  central London to a standstill in April. Their goal is zero carbon emissions by 2025, which would mean the banning of air transport and the removal of 38 million cars (both petrol and diesel) from the roads. In addition, 26 million gas boilers would need to be disconnected in six years.
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Representation: An ideological and legal fiction

I’ve spent the last few days at an international workshop on ‘Representation in Historical and Transcultural Perspectives’ organised by the Centre for Political Thought at Exeter University. On the final day it was suggested that representation was an ‘ideological and legal fiction’ and none of the participants disagreed. Yves Sintomer gave the final presentation and suggested that his fieldwork comparing Chinese and French systems of representation showed little difference between the two and that the lack of effective representation was an existential crisis for democracy. I had a question for Yves, but we ran out of time, so will ask it here (and draw it to his attention):

One system of representation that would clearly be non-fictional is delegates with legally-binding instructions but this was rejected at the time of the American and French revolutions. Trustee representation (with free mandate) may have worked for a time but didn’t long survive the extension of the franchise and is now rejected by the populist uprising in Europe and America. Virtual representation in Burke’s sense was always fictional due to the dissimilarity between voters and the political class. This would suggest that the only form of non-fictional democratic representation would be when final decision power is vested in a statistically-representative minipublic. Concerns might be raised both about the accuracy of the descriptive representation and the epistemic consequences, but such a system would be non-fictional so long as the microcosm retained ongoing descriptive representation vis-a-vis the target population. This would require large juries, quasi-mandatory participation, short-term service, balanced (exogenous) information and advocacy, and silent deliberation and secret voting, but the representation would not be fictional if it could be demonstrated that multiple samples of the same population generated closely-matching decision outputs. Might such a system be the only way of establishing genuine political representation?

Were 4th century nomothetai selected by lot? Mirko Canevaro responds

By Mirko Canevaro

[This post is a response to a post by Keith Sutherland and to the discussion that followed in the comments thread.]

Dear all,

Thank you very much for your interest in my work! I’m afraid I’ve come here after too many messages, and although I’ve skimmed through all of this, it seems impractical to reply to everyone. But I hope by replying to the first three questions posed by Keith, I’ll offer some clarification.

Given that your claim (from the perspective of the sortinistas on this forum) is analogous to Holocaust denial, have I misunderstood you?

You haven’t — your presentation is basically accurate. I see that some find it strange that the same body would just be relabelled — yes, but not unparalleled. We have even an example of a city Assembly (in Halaisa, Sicily) that for particular purposes relabels itself (with the same numbers and procedures) as the Association of Priests of Apollo (and just yesterday I attended a Edinburgh Classics Departmental Meeting that mid-way through, for particular purposes, relabelled itself Board of Studies, to go back to Classics Departmental Meeting for the next item on the agenda).

Note also that even according to Hansen’s reconstruction (as he believes the decree of Teisamenos is authentic — I don’t), at the end of the fifth-century the Assembly did indeed choose to call itself nomothetai for the specific purpose of lawmaking. Ultimately, I think the long continuity of a nomothetic ideology (as I argue in a long piece of 2015) made sure that even when lawmaking (as making nomoi) was ‘democratised’, still they had to keep, nominally but also ideologically, a distinction between lawmaking and decree-making, because traditionally nomoi were made by nomothetai, not by a random assembly, as it were.

That said, my argument is that this is the most economical interpretation of the evidence, not that it’s safe. I think there is no evidence whatsoever that the nomothetai were selected by lot from those who have sworn the Heliastic Oath, and some evidence that they might be a relabelled Assembly. Lambert (doyen of Greek epigraphists), for instance, agrees on the first proposition, and finds the second possible and even likely, but notes that the nomothetai could also potentially be a subcommittee of the Assembly (selected god knows how) — he’s right, that’s also possible, if a bit less economical.
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