Dominic Lawson: We hound today’s politicians but we take them for granted at our peril

This article in the Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the prevailing view on this blog that elected politicians are only in it for themselves. Note the claim from the FT Whitehall editor “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

Various trades are being depleted by an exodus of those willing to do what can be an unpleasant job: we are now seeing this in road haulage and social care. For many workers in these sectors the pain seems no longer worth the gain. For the rest of us — the consumers — there are unwelcome consequences, readily appreciated. But what if the same thing happens to the trade for which the public seems to have least respect? I mean our politicians.

Last week the Financial Times’s Whitehall editor, Sebastian Payne, said on Twitter he was “struck by the number of MPs who have told me they’re seriously considering leaving parliament, following the killing of Sir David Amess”. But it wasn’t just a matter of concern for the physical safety of themselves and their families: “That’s before considering the threats, abuse and hatred that spills in every day.” Defending the political trade as a whole, Payne observed: “There’s almost no one I’ve met in a decade in [Westminster] who isn’t here because they want to help the country.”

That is not a frequently expressed opinion in the traditional outlets of journalism, let alone the sewers of social media. This is the general atmosphere in which the North Devon MP, Selaine Saxby, was appalled to come across a cartoon in her local parish magazine showing a woman in a confessional saying: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. Last night I killed a politician”, and the priest responding, “My daughter, I’m here to listen to your sins, not your community service work.” This was published before the slaughter of Amess; but he was not the first MP in recent years to have been murdered, or stabbed, while, actually, doing his community service work.

Continue reading

It damages society if we keep on calling our politicians cheats and liars

Matthew Syed’s column in the current Sunday Times is a valuable corrective to the widespread cynicism over elected politicians expressed on this blog.

A story caught my eye last week about Priti Patel, the embattled home secretary. It involved Shirley Cochrane, a woman from Essex who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2016 but who felt abandoned by the NHS during the pandemic. She had been seeing cancer specialists every six months but was told last spring to “self-manage” at just the time she thought she felt another lump.

Unable to get through to specialists or generic phone numbers, Cochrane contacted her local MP — Patel — in a state of desperation. “She managed to secure for me a telephone appointment, and that was followed by the mammogram, and thankfully that was OK,” Cochrane told the Commons health select committee. She sounded more than a little grateful.

I mention this because I can’t help noticing how often Patel is demonised in our political culture. Every time I see her on TV, I brace myself for the vitriol, the ad hominem attacks, the questioning of her motives and intellect, a tsunami of nastiness that shames those who indulge in it. This isn’t just limited to social media. You see it in commentary, radio phone-ins and the “most liked” comments on newspaper websites.

This isn’t just about Patel, though. It seems to me that this is part of a more pervasive rush to see the worst in our political representatives. Sure, MPs sometimes bring criticism on themselves, but how often do we acknowledge the other side of the ledger: the dutiful constituency work, the civic-mindedness, the reports of select committees that few notice but that, through the slow accretion we call social evolution, improve countless lives?
Continue reading

Jersey votes to let terminally ill end their lives

Andrew Gregory writes in the Sunday Times:

Jersey is set to become the first part of the British Isles to legalise assisted dying after a citizens’ jury voted overwhelmingly in favour of changing the law.

There is growing evidence that elected politicians are enthusiastic to outsource controversial decisions to randomly selected citizens juries. Here’s the the article (by the Sunday Times’ Health Editor).

A panel of islanders said last week it was in favour of ending the ban on assisted dying after an independent inquiry heard months of expert evidence and personal testimony. The Sunday Times, backed by politicians from all parties, some senior doctors and religious leaders, is campaigning to legalise assisted dying across the UK.

Last week 78 per cent of the citizens’ jury — 18 of the 23 islanders who had been selected at random — said assisted dying should be legal. The jury called for terminally ill islanders to be able to seek help to end their life, subject to safeguards. Eight in ten Britons support having a right to assisted dying, polls suggest.

As a crown dependency, Jersey can legislate on assisted dying independently of Britain. The jury’s recommendations will be followed by a full report in September. Jersey’s Council of Ministers will then lodge a proposition asking the States Assembly, the island’s parliament, to agree that assisted dying be legalised.

Continue reading

Why Proposers and Disposers need to be kept distinct: The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning

The ‘argumentative theory of reasoning’ (conceptualized by Dan Sperber and developed with the evolutionary psychologist Hugo Mercier) hypothesizes that reasoning serves two distinct survival-related functions: a) convincing people and b) evaluating the arguments of others – ‘thereby allowing communication to proceed even when trust is limited’ (Landemore, 2013, p. 126). The theory – developed as an evolutionarily-plausible alternative to the classical (Cartesian) model of reasoning as a way of updating and correcting one’s own beliefs – is based on the distinction between performing speech acts and evaluating the performative utterances of others:

According to this theory, individual reasoning works best when used to [a] produce and [b] evaluate arguments during a public deliberation. It predicts that when diverse opinions are discussed, group reasoning will outperform individual reasoning. (Mercier & Landemore, 2012, p. 243)

‘Exposing people to disagreement and debates increases their ability to entertain different opinions . . . either by witnessing a debate or by being part of one’ (ibid., p. 252). The important factor is not participation in speech acts so much as ‘the presence or expression of dissenting opinions in deliberative settings’ (ibid., p. 254, my emphasis). (Mercier & Sperber, 2017) also point out that as a species we are much better at evaluating reasons than producing them – I may not be able to see the beam in my own eye, but I can find the mote in yours. Laboratory studies indicate that we are better able to find the flaws in our own reasons when we believe those reasons to have been produced by someone else, thereby supporting the case for the division of labour between persuaders and evaluators, as it’s very hard to change one’s mind about one’s ‘own’ (i.e. indigenous) convictions.

Continue reading

Facebook has created an oversight board that includes the former prime minister of Denmark — but how independent is it really?

Matthew Syed’s Sunday Times article led me to think this was a good case for appointment by random selection.

Facebook has long been one of the most powerful actors in the world. It can shut down the communication of presidents, censor information on a network that connects 2.8 billion monthly users, and spread fake news — inadvertently or otherwise — using algorithms that can shift the dynamics of democratic elections. But who controls Facebook?

This is a question that came into sharp focus last month when Donald Trump was shunted off the platform at much the same time that he was dropped from Twitter and YouTube. The companies cited violations of their terms of use and claimed that, as private institutions, they were not bound by First Amendment free speech obligations. Conservatives responded that it was intolerable that judgments on who could access the digital equivalent of the town square were determined by the woke sensibilities of a tiny group of West Coast billionaires.

Continue reading

Some Problems of Citizens’ Assemblies have recently launched Academia Letters, a peer-reviewed journal consisting of short articles that are distributed to a wide audience, and Alex Kovner and I were invited to contribute to the first edition. The Academia Letters article is here (along with the reviewers’ comments). It was edited down rather severely, the advantage being that, according to the analytics, most people who received the notification actually read it, the intention being to introduce new work to a broader audience than the usual recipients. A fuller version is available on Alex’s blog: Part 1 and Part 2. We’re currently working on a new Superminority article to directly address the problem at the heart of the US and other deeply polarized political systems — where half the electorate are effectively disenfranchised — that led to the attack on Capitol Hill.

Only two days left to vote!

The poll for the change to the subtitle of this blog ends on Tuesday, yet currently only .02% of the “electorate” have recorded their preferences. This might seem like a trivial matter, but it crucially affects the range and scope of the posts submitted. The blog was founded by Conall Boyle and others some ten years ago in order to discuss the work of those with an interest in lotteries for equal distribution and social justice — see for example Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery. However the blog soon became dominated by those (like Yoram and myself) exploring the political potential of sortition in reforming (or replacing) electoral democracy. This change of focus seems to meet the needs of most contributors and readers but it would be a tragedy if those working on other aspects of sortition felt excluded by an over-prescriptive sub-title. If you look at the book series Sortition and Public Policy you’ll see that around half of the titles are devoted to the non-political use of lot. And many theorists dealing with the political potential of sortition, for example Oliver Dowlen and Peter Stone are unpersuaded regarding the use of sortition for democratic representation (they focus more on the Blind Break as an arational prophylactic against factionalism). So it would be good if the new subtitle reflected the full range of interest in sortition. If you want to vote, just go to the Online Poll, look at the list of “candidates”, choose your preference(s) and post a comment, it’s that easy!

Getting out the vote

There are twenty-six options to vote for in the poll for changing the subtitle of this blog and, at the time of writing (08 Jan) we have only seventeen voters. Unless we have a large increase in voters (this blog has 996 followers) there is a good chance that the outcome will be random in the pejorative sense, rather than reflecting the preferences of posters and readers. The poll ends on Tuesday 12th, so we would strongly encourage as many people as possible to vote. The voting system is Ranked Choice, so you can include as few or as many choices as you wish. Vote by posting a comment to

Macron’s vaccine ‘citizen panel’ is doomed to fail

A column by Keith Sutherland and Alex Kovner in the The Spectator:

France has a problem when it comes to the coronavirus vaccine. Emmanuel Macron’s administration has so far only given out around 5,000 vaccines, and France has one of the lowest levels of trust in the coronavirus vaccine in the world, with only 40 per cent of the public saying they want to be inoculated. Faced with this trust deficit, Macron has proposed a 35-member ‘citizen panel’ to oversee France’s vaccination programme. The body, made up of a random selection of French citizens, will be responsible for monitoring and advising the government when it comes to the vaccine roll-out.

The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’