Appointing public officials by sortition: Guest post from Paul Frijters

A friend of mine, Paul Frijters posted the post below on the group blog we share ClubTroppo. It raises an important issue for me which is the potential use of sortition to institutionalise political independence. I reproduce it for readers’ interest here, though there are over twenty comments on his post at ClubTroppo which may be of interest.

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Dear Troppodillians, lend me your critical eye. I ask you to consider the system of citizen-jury appointments I have in mind, and tell me how the vested interests would try to game it, ie why it would not work and whether the system can be improved. Bear with me as I describe what I have in mind.

Suppose that in 10 years time in Australia, there is a citizen-jury-system for appointments for the entire upper layer of the public sector. One jury, one top position. Politicians would still be in charge of policy and Budgets, but juries would appoint all the top people working in the public sector. The system would hold for all large entities receiving significant state funding:

  • Universities
  • large hospitals
  • heads of Government Departments
  • State Media
  • Arts Councils
  • Statistical Agencies
  • etc.

So every year, hundreds of top-positions would be decided upon by juries. Consider how this would go for, saying, the director of the ABC.

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Proposing and disposing in the real world

A flow chart of the citizens’ jury process for determining compulsory third party insurance in the Australian Capital Territory.

Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland have written some interesting things on the importance of separating the process of proposing policies and that of deciding which ones are implemented. I’ve not thought as much as I clearly should have about this myself, but I’ve certainly noted it as something I should think more about, and as a fertile and possibly indispensable idea in trying to introduce more sortition into our politics.

But, as readers of my posts will know, I’m also keen to leaven theoretical considerations with the question of how we get there. In that regard I’m interested in approaches to this question that are being tried by practitioners in the field, tied as they are to their own practical and political exigencies. So I was interested to read this case study by my friends at Democracy.co of their participation in helping the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Government solve its problem of how to .

The essence of what happened is in the diagram above, though you need to read the case study to fully understand the way things were done. Of course this isn’t life according to the strict logic that I’ve seen proposed. For instance the proposer and the disposer are the same citizens’ jury. But I still think what was done was an interesting step forward in articulating practical options in seeking to inject more sortition into political decision making. I’ll be interested in what comments it attracts from this highly informed community.

The role of secret ballots of our elected representatives

Voters-secret-ballot-system-Australian-British-elections-April-17-1880

From Encyclopaedia Brittanica: “Australian ballot: Voters participating in the secret ballot, or Australian ballot, system in the British general elections of April 17, 1880. Hulton Archive”

Though I have a deep interest in and faith in sortition as “the other way of representing the people”, my own view of a good system and of the path of activism to save our ailing democracies is protean, eclectic and pragmatic. In that spirit I offer this recent column of mine published in Australia. It makes a passing reference to sortition, but is focused on another very simple and critical building block of our democracies as they’re currently constituted – the choice between where voting should be by public and open ballot and where the ballot should be secret. The basic principles seem obvious – secret ballots for citizen’s votes and public voting for their representatives. But some artful exceptions could make a big difference to our current travails.

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As an Irish parliamentarian, Edmund Burke once said that he owed his constituents not just his industry but his judgment, and that if he voted according to their opinions rather than his own judgment he would betray rather than serve them.

This failure to flatter his audience helps explain why he’s better remembered today as a philosopher than as a practitioner of politics. But the distinction he made gives us a key to mending our democracy.

Today, when push comes to shove, politicians’ allegiance is neither to their judgment nor their constituents’ opinion, but to their party. (It is worth noting that political parties were in their infancy in Burke’s time.)

It is not uncommon for legislative chambers around the world to have voted against the judgment of the overwhelming majority of their members and even against the people’s wishes — all at the behest of party bosses.

In this category I’d include numerous votes of the UK parliament regarding Brexit and various decisions of US congressmen and women culminating in the failure to find Donald Trump guilty during his recent impeachment trial — despite Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell describing then-president Trump’s conduct as a “disgraceful dereliction of duty”.

That conduct moved Trump’s political opponents to some genuine eloquence rather than the usual play-acting. As Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer put it:

Five years ago, Republican senators lamented what might become of their party if Donald Trump became their presidential nominee and standard-bearer. Just look at what has happened. Look at what Republicans have been forced to defend. Look at what Republicans have chosen to forgive. The former president tried to overturn the results of a legitimate election and provoked an assault on our own government, and well over half the Senate Republican conference decided to condone it. The most despicable act that any president has ever committed, and the majority of Republicans cannot summon the courage, the morality, to condemn it.

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How sortition points beyond all that sound and fury that signifies nothing

Back in the day, (which is to say for most of the 20th century until things began changing in the 1980s), each of the major political parties had a few percentage points of the population as members. In addition to the intrinsic rewards of being part of one’s country’s social and political fabric, the ultimate point of membership was to influence your party’s political platform and through that to influence government policy.

Correspondingly, mass movements such as the civil rights movement would pare back their platforms to the specific issue they wished to highlight. It took Martin Luther King most of the 1960s to come out against America’s involvement in Vietnam because widening his movements platform was seen to compromise the size of the civil rights coalition. 

Since then politics has famously been ‘hollowed out’. The membership of mainstream political parties has plummeted with those left tending to be careerists, the stooges they attract to stack branches and occasional naïve blow-ins. Political parties still go through some of the motions of members determining policy, but senior party professionals understand themselves as a fighting force which will need to improvise its way through the news cycles through to the next election and that makes member determined policy a potential liability.

And something similar has occurred in mass movements. Their campaigning is increasingly focused on people’s expressive side. And policies are increasingly seen through that lens. Thus Black Lives Matter wants to defund the police or says it does. This is a ridiculous slogan, but one treated with great toleration by our media and commentators. Brexit might mean Brexit, but defund doesn’t really mean defund. It means … well something else – reallocating funds to community building and all that stuff. Likewise, the BLM platform plans to overthrow capitalism and all the rest of it. And it turns out that next to none of the coverage that BLM gets is about its policies. So its policies can be aimed at expression rather than the outcomes that those policies might produce.  

I began writing a post on this back in the days of France’s Yellow Vests. They knew they were pissed off, and, for all I know they were right to be pissed off. They knew they didn’t like certain taxes which they felt targeted them. But what did they like? What policy changes were they after? That was less clear. 

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Knowing your arse from your Albo: how political parties might access the ‘blind break’ to get better leaders

Herewith a brief post I wrote for my (mostly Australian) audience sketching out one possible use of sortition within a political party rather than the political system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of oligarchies of various kinds both specific and systemic.

A lottery is a defensible way of making a decision when, and to the extent that, it is important that bad reasons be kept out of the decision.
Peter Stone

Left of centre parties have been serving up seriously, obviously bad candidates for years now. That happened at the last election in the US and will happen at the next one. It’s happened at the last two elections in Australia and looks like happening at the next one. This nearly happened to the Liberal Government in Australia when they nearly acquired Peter Dutton as leader.

Why?
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Trust and the competition delusion: A new frontier for political and economic reform

The Griffith Review has just published a substantial essay of mine that I’ve been working on for some time. It begins with some basic economic ideas, but broadens out to much wider political matters – comprehending our interest in sortition. I reproduce the introductory section below after which you’ll have to hightail it to their website to finish. But it would be good to see you back here for comments which aren’t provided for on the Griffith Review website.

Designing institutions to force (or nudge) entirely self-interested individuals to achieve better outcomes has been the major goal posited by policy analysts for governments to accomplish for much of the past half century. Extensive empirical research leads me to argue that instead, a core goal of public policy should be to facilitate the development of institutions that bring out the best in humans.

Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Lecture, 2009

SINCE ADAM SMITH, economists have marvelled at competition’s capacity to improve our world – not by fostering virtue, but by harnessing the opposing self-interest of buyer and seller in a market. As Smith himself famously suggested, instead of trusting his wellbeing as a consumer to the benevolence of the butcher, baker or brewer, he’d rather rely on their regard for their own interests in competing for his custom.

There’s a lively debate today about how to inject greater competition into Australia’s notoriously oligopolistic industries – like finance, retail, fuel, energy and telecommunications – not to mention our new global digital overlords like Facebook and Google. And there’s a more ideologically charged debate about whether competition will drive better or worse outcomes in sectors where non-market values are important – like health, education and social services.

Having offered some thoughts on those issues elsewhere, in this essay I discuss something more fundamental and, because of that, widely overlooked. We’re falling for the ‘competition delusion’ by which I mean this: In our embrace of private competition as a goal, we mostly pass over a prior issue – which is the terms on which that competition takes place. That’s undermining trust in a remarkably wide range of institutions in our economic and public life.
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Defending independence in the age of deep spin

If you know anything about the latest State of the Union Address, you know that after Donald Trump had handed Nancy Pelosi his speech as if she were his secretary when she held out her hand to him to shake hands, Pelosi tore up his speech. Didn’t look particularly well-judged politically to do that to me but there you go. What would I know?

Trump operatives have now released the video (above) of Pelosi tearing up his speech spliced interleaved with Trump’s comments praising heroes like aged soldiers. Facebook have agreed to take down the video as obviously misleading.

(Only kidding. Facebook wasn’t interested in getting in the way of its profits). On the other hand, Twitter has said that the Tweet violates policy that will be enforced when they’re ready to do so on March 2.

I can imagine it’s a scary call for Twitter to say so to the Gangster in chief. Rage will ensue and Donald Trump has a lot of power including the power of his mob. In those circumstances if I were Twitter, I’d be wanting to distance myself from this process, whilst having a decent approach.

I’d do it with a standing citizens’ assembly. If I were Twitter I’d recruit a demonstrably objective selection of ordinary American citizens using the same kinds of methods we use to recruit juries (in which I’d include random selection and representative random selection of various kinds.)
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The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Language like this shows us how fundamental framing has become to political combat. Political debate isn’t just ‘dumbed down’ or simplified. There’s a geography to the ground on which it’s fought and those with an eye to victory head for the high ground.

There’s much talk these days about the divide between political elites and ‘ordinary folk’. It’s tearing western democracies apart. I think that the elite lack respect for the hoi polloi and their view of the world. Hence my frequent reference to the ancient Greek political principle of isegoria or equality of speech.1

In Sam Roggeveen’s response to my review of his essay Our Very Own Brexit (which I recommend by the way), he isn’t the first to argue that I do my cause no favours by “aligning it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit)”.2 This is definitely sound political advice if one ventures among the red meat folk at Quillette.

But for the record, while I think Brexit makes lousy economic policy and statecraft, I wouldn’t just respect the will of the British people if they chose the course they are embarked upon with open eyes. I’d be awestruck with admiration. I’d think it was a fantastic development in which people decided that there were more important things than money and power to live for. But I don’t think any of that. I think they’ve been sold on a particular framing of the story in which the EU is an elite project gone mad, and so something which is coming after their nationhood and something on which they can heap their rage.

Roggeveen’s response goes on:

The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.

I’ll call this the ‘frolic’ school of analysis. The elites have just kept doing what elites do – pursuing various hubristic agendas until the inevitable Wile E. Coyote moment comes and they realise that they have, in their zeal, arrived at a place where there’s no ground underneath them. Now it has to be admitted that the EU has major flaws. It seemed to me that its treatment of Greece was and continues to be a disgrace, and even if you disagree with that – as Paul Frijters does – the whole Euro project was ill-conceived and devastating.  Continue reading

My review of ‘Our very own Brexit’

In good bookstores everywhere – at a very reasonable price

Here’s a review of a book recently published in Australia on the ‘hollowing out’ of democracy.  Cross-posted from the Lowy Institute Blog.

Instead of munching popcorn at the political theatre, citizens’ assemblies would give the community a chance to reflect.

In what we now see in retrospect as something of a political “golden age” – say from the early 20th century through to the 1980s or so – political parties were the institution through which the political aspirations of different sections of the community were articulated and conveyed to the commanding heights of government. Millions of members joined those parties, which were embedded in the community alongside churches, unions, and business associations.

Yet as Sam Roggeveen has described in Our Very Own Brexit, “hollowing out” has now inverted that process. Senior officers of the parties now comprise a political caste, the majority of whom secured their parliamentary position within their party’s career structure with scant achievements elsewhere.

Each party manages their “brand”, and politics has become a Punch and Judy show. We barrack for our side if we have one – or our point of view in innumerable improvised or staged culture-war skirmishes. We cheer and boo, tweet and retweet.

The governance that emerges from this is an uncanny mix of stasis and instability. Stasis because, at least when seeking their votes, each party hews to a small target strategy on policy while probing for ways to misrepresent and catastrophise their opponents’ policies and purposes. Instability because “we the people” so hate it all.

We tell ourselves that the pollies are only in it for themselves. There’s truth in that. But also evasion. They’re victims too. The lead players in the show could be living much more prosperous, happy lives out of the madhouse. We fancy we deserve better than this as we sit in the stalls munching our popcorn. Indeed we do. Yet our clicks and our tweets – above all our votes – drive the whole system. Ultimately we decide who represents us and the terms on which they do.

The most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus.

Whenever a political party offers a skerrick of leadership – whenever they depart, however cautiously, from their traditional “small target” or “comms” strategies of relentless manipulation and tendentious evasion, they’re easy meat for the scare campaigns and outrage machines of their party political and ideological opponents.

Roggeveen’s definition of what constitutes “a Brexit” for his purposes is situated within his own, and the Lowy Institute’s focus on Australia’s external relations. I would characterise the UK’s Brexit moment and the US’s Trump moment more generally as the point at which the electorate perpetrated some action that the overwhelming bulk of the political class regarded in their heart of hearts as crazy.

If that’s your definition, then just as Australia led the world in various aspects of economic policy – such as income-contingent loans, community strategies on AIDS, and the strengthening and targeting of welfare – our rendezvous with political crazy predates its moment elsewhere in the Anglosphere by three years.

For the most significant achievement of Australian voters’ emphatic decision at the 2013 election was the abolition of carbon pricing, which had taken a decade of political struggle to be absorbed into the apparent political security of bipartisan consensus. It’s demise has plunged our energy sector into crisis and dysfunction. And it’s rarely noted by the commentariat (why am I not surprised?), but it’s also costing our budget more than $10 billion annually and rising.  Continue reading

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.