Micah Erfan: Texas should try sortition democracy

Micah Erfan is an economics freshman at the University of Houston. He writes at the The Cougar, “the official student-run news organization of the university”. Nicely assertive, Erfan draws a direct link from the oligarchical nature of the elections-based system to the deaths of hundreds of citizens in a climate disaster. This is the kind of things one cannot do after having managed to climb a few rungs of the academic ladder.

Texas democracy is immensely broken. Sortition democracy, a government by random selection, might be the best way to fix it.

The idea is that a simple random sample or stratified sample of the population will provide a group that is far better suited to represent the genuine views of residents than a collection of politicians.

In recent years, Texas has become notorious for its anti-democratic policies. Key among them is the state’s rampant gerrymandering.

Even though roughly 60 percent of residents are nonwhite, in Texas’s new political maps, fifty percent of congressional districts have white majorities.

Texas’s elections also suffer from severe voter suppression and the use of majoritarian first past the post voting, a system that has frequently been deemed by political scientists as one of the least representative.

This democracy deficit has come with real costs. In 2021, the failure of lawmakers to prepare the state power grid for extreme weather cost the state 200 billion dollars and over 700 lives.

A graphic novel advocating sortition

A new short illustrated fictional work set 5 years into the future follows Tom, an Architecture student in Marseille, who is allotted to sit on the French National Assembly. The work, written (in French) by Béatrice and Salomé Mabilon, is entitled Nous ne sommes pas en démocratie: Plaidoyer pour le tirage au sort (We are not living in a democracy: a plea for sortition) and is available both in print and as an e-book. Béatrice Mabilon is a professor of education and has written in the past in favor of sortition.

Excerpt (my translation):

Julien [Tom’s assistant, who is also a former allotted representative]: “At the beginning when I was allotted it was like a blank page, I felt like anything is possible. But we had a long way to go. In the previous system, power was arrogated by an oligarchy that formed a closed circle. The representative system was in crisis…”
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The psychological effects of competitive selection vs. selection by luck

One hardly needs to rely on psychological mechanisms when asserting that electoral elites can be expected to be self-serving. On the contrary, it is claims that electoral elites would not be self-serving that need to be well-justified, since it is conventional wisdom, that is usually completely uncontroversial, that any group of people is by its nature self-serving – i.e., using whatever power is in its possession to promote group objectives. Nothing makes more sense than for a political elite – electoral or otherwise – to use its privileged position to promote its interests, at the expense of those less privileged if need be.

It is sometimes asserted that this natural tendency toward self-serving behavior is a problem for allotted decision-makers as well. Those allotted decision-makers, it is claimed, having found themselves in a position of power will then use this power to promote their group interests – again, at the expense of the non-allotted if need be. This argument, however, ignores the fact that the situation of the allotted and the situation of the elected (or of the elite of any other political system) is different in very important ways.
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Bootstrapping a democratic system

Setting up a large-scale democratic system presents a bootstrapping problem. It may be hoped that a large-scale democratic system is stable. That is, that once a democratic system is in place then it continues to function democratically and power does not spontaneously become concentrated leading to an oligarchical system. But even if this is the case, it would not imply that there is a realistic way to create a democratic system starting from an oligarchical one. Contrary to Western dogma, it is clear that large-scale democracy is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. Not only are some oligarchical system rather stable (with quite a few instances of the Western oligarchical system having survived for over 70 years), but, more importantly, once an oligarchical system destabilizes, often – in fact, historically, almost uniformly – the outcome is another oligarchical regime. The question then is how can the destabilization of an oligarchical regime, a phenomenon that seems to be happening now in various Western countries, become an opportunity for a transition to a democratic system.

Presumably, based on the historical record, some fairly stringent preconditions are necessary. A popular democratic sentiment is of course required. However, such sentiment is far from sufficient since without some theoretical understanding of the mechanisms that are required in order to set up a democratic system, the sentiment cannot be translated into democratic institutional structure. Specifically, when the misconception that an elected constitutional assembly and more generally elections are foundations of a democratic system is widely held, then it is quite unlikely that a democratic system would be created.

But let us assume that the situation is favorable:

1. There is widespread popular support for sortition,
2. Following some systemic upheaval or destabilization, an allotted body was formed with a mandate for putting in place a new institutional political system.
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A sortition proposal in Malaysia

Datuk Yong Soo Heong writes in the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times:

[M]any in the political gamesmanship seem to be brimming with confidence on how to bring that winning formula for themselves and their hangers-on. I’m not so sure what they’ve in mind in terms of wealth-creation for the people because I’ve not heard much about this except that they want to return to power.

Therefore, we often find ourselves in a dilemma.

Who do we vote for? Who could be trusted? Which politicians will not abandon their righteous cause? These are tough questions to answer.
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UK government as seen by UK citizens

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) in the UK has some new data about the opinions of the UK citizens about their government. The findings, showing low levels of satisfaction and trust in the system, are not surprising, but useful in giving some details and in showing that no significant change in the general negative sentiment has taken place.

Contrary to the supposed polarization, there exist a wide consensus regarding the oligarchical nature of the system. UK citizens across the political spectrum see the voters as having little influence compared to party donors, business, media and lobbyists. There is also a widespread agreement that politicians “do not understand the lives” of typical people and that “democracy in Britain does not serve [their] interests”.


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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 2/2

Part 1 is here.

The alternative

The alternative to the path of low commitment, with all its inevitable implications that undermine the democratic potential of sortition, is to expect, indeed, to demand, high level of commitment by the allotted to the political process. In short, political decision making should be seen, both by society and by the allotted, as a full time job. It should be a well compensated, intellectually demanding undertaking. The following attributes should be part of the design of any high powered allotted chamber, such as an allotted parliament:

  1. Service terms should be measured in years – say four years.
  2. Personal initiative and collaboration with other members of the allotted body would be expected. Unless special circumstances exist, frequent physical presence at the workplace would be expected.
  3. The activity of the members would be overseen by an allotted body, with which the members would be expected to cooperate. The oversight body would produce reports about the activities of the members. In cases of clear dysfunction the oversight body could sanction members. The body would refer cases of suspected malfeasance to the courts.
  4. The details associated with the design and the work processes of the allotted chamber, as well as budgets and member salaries, would be determined, and adjusted on an ongoing basis, by the chamber itself or by a different long-term allotted chamber such as the oversight body.
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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 1

In many discussions and proposals involving allotted bodies it is either implicitly or explicitly assumed that the allotted cannot be expected to invest much effort in their involvement in the political procedure. Then, a whole set design decisions regarding allotted bodies are justified as a consequence of this assumption:

  • Service terms must be short (measured in days, usually),
  • The allotted cannot be expected to gather information independently, to come up with their own agenda, or to design the procedures of their work,
  • The allotted cannot be expected to move to a different location in order to regularly physically attend meetings, so remote meetings are often offered as a substitute.

Even with all these burden-lightening design choices, it is often assumed that only a small minority of those offered allotted seats in a decision making body would take up the offer, so, it is again assumed, either service has to be mandatory or selection of replacements in one way or another has to take place.

All of these design decisions are dramatically detrimental to the effectiveness of sortition as democratic mechanism of decision making. The burden-lightening measures reduce the capacity of the allotted, as individuals and as a group, to make decisions that are independent, considered and informed. They all, in fact, transfer significant decision making power to the hands elite groups that manage the set-up.
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Landa and Pevnick invoke the magic of electoral accountability

A 2021 article by Dimitri Landa and Ryan Pevnick of New York University titled “Is Random Selection a Cure for the Ills of Electoral Representation?” is another indication that sortition may be slowly becoming a political option that needs to be fended off, even in the conservative Anglophone political science academia. The short answer of the paper to its own title is of course a resounding “No!”.

The second paragraph of the paper starts by saying the following:

Our goal in what follows is to develop considerations that have been largely overlooked in conversation regarding the merits of sortition-based proposals, and that should inform our assessment of the viability of those proposals as corrections and alternatives to electoral mechanisms. At the core of those considerations is the analysis of incentives facing citizens and public officials under different institutional schemes.

It turns out that this is a long winded way of saying that sortition is deficient because, unlike elections, it does not provide decision makers with counter-incentives to the inevitable tendency for corruption – i.e., using their political power for their personal benefit. Over and over, in various guises, the article makes the same argument: election provide some mechanism for motivating officials to please the population (namely, their wish to be re-elected), even if in reality this mechanism does not seem to function very well. Sortition on the other hand just lets officials do as they please. The supposed shortcomings of sortition are accentuated by the assertion that empowering an allotted body to make decisions reflects an ideology of “deference” toward that body, which certainly sounds like an anti-democratic, even authoritarian, mindset. In contrast, elections, the authors say, is based on a principle of “accountability” – which, is obviously as democratic as apple pie.
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Pek: Sortition as the remedy for organizational degeneration in worker-owned firms

It is undebatable that in Western societies private firms are oligarchical institutions in which power is concentrated in the hands of the few. It is therefore not surprising that it is frequently argued that a major front in the struggle for democratization of Western society is the workplace. It is further argued that the democratic alternative to private firms are worker-owned firms. Such an argument, however, usually focuses solely on the formal issue of “ownership” and ignores the inherent oligarchizing tendencies of large organizations. A paper by Simon Pek in the Journal of Management Inquiry tackles the latter, crucial issue.

Drawing Out Democracy: The Role of Sortition in Preventing and Overcoming Organizational Degeneration in Worker-Owned Firms

Simon Pek

Abstract

Fostering sustainable worker ownership and control of their organizations has long been an aspiration for many. Yet, the growth of worker-owned firms (WOFs) is often accompanied by organizational degeneration: the tendency for a small oligarchy of unrepresentative workers to control democratic structures at the expense of the participation of everyday workers. Prior research suggests that organizational degeneration occurs naturally as WOFs become larger and more complex. Building on and departing from this work, I argue in this essay that an important cause is likely to be current practice around how worker representatives are selected—specifically, the near-universal reliance on elections. As an alternative, I argue that the application of sortition—the use of lotteries—to select worker representatives in major decision-making bodies such as boards of directors and councils could help prevent and overcome organizational degeneration, while also offering additional social and business benefits for workers and their organizations.