On what the Council of 500 did and did not do

By Mirko Canevaro

[Editor’s note: this post is a response to comments on the post Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theina and should be read together with the original article.]

There is a need to distinguish between decree-making and law-making (nomothesia). In decree-making, roughly 50% of fourth-century decrees found on stone are decrees of the Council (probouleumatic) ratified by the Assembly without discussion (unanimously). The other 50% were proposed directly in the Assembly, either because the Council enacted an ‘open probouleuma’ (invitation to discussion but with no actual proposal), or because the proposal of the Council had failed to be ratified in the Assembly.

I, for one, don’t see the Council as an ‘administrative magistracy’. Alberto Esu has a great chapter forthcoming showing just how important the Council was in ‘deliberating’, and how it actually had vast powers of decision on its own. And Ober, in Democracy and Knowledge, has made a powerful argument for the role of the Council in collecting and synthesising diffused knowledge through deliberation. (See also my piece on majority rule and consensus, about how many decrees were enacted by the Assembly without the debate, on the force of the deliberation that had been carried out in the Council, with the evidence for it. I argue that deliberation was possible and went on as a matter of course – the paper is controversial, but some have already agreed, e.g. Ober, Luraghi, Harris, even Hansen, and we don’t agree on much else… Let’s see how the debate proceeds.) It was not that central in nomothesia, but it was very central in decree-making, as a proper deliberative body.
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Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theinai

Many of us who argue the case for the implementation of sortition in modern lawmaking like to base their arguments on fourth-century Athenian practice. In my PhD thesis on the topic I argue (on the authority of Hansen and Blackwell) that there were eight stages involved, and a new paper by Mirko Canevaro (who disagrees with many of Hansen’s claims) argues that it was even more complicated. The following stages are from page 73 of his paper:

In fourth-century Athens, to pass a law,

[1] the demos first acted in the form of the Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot. The Council set the agenda for the Assembly and could be persuaded to put lawmaking (as the production of new laws – general permanent rules) in the agenda of the next Assembly.

[2] At that point, the Assembly (composed potentially of the whole demos, and in any case very rarely of fewer than 6,000 people) held a preliminary vote not on new law proposals, but on whether laws could be proposed at all. The institutional setup was such that the first vote in the Assembly was not on a particular solution, but on whether the demos recognised that there was a problem that needed solving through legislation.

[3] If the vote was successful, then volunteers could propose new laws, which had to be widely publicised for a month.

[4] At the end of the month, the Assembly would set a date for the meeting of the nomothetai to enact new laws.
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The Gilets Jaunes: what are the prospects for sortition?

An article in RTL by Laure-Hélène de Vriendt and AFP (original in French, Dec. 29, 2018):

Gilets Jaunes marching in Montmartre

Perspective: Some among the Gilets Jaunes propose using citizen participation via sortition in order to create a list for the European elections.

To be used in “the great debate” by the government, proposed by some “gilets jaunes” for the European elections, citizen participation via sortition is riding high, despite some limits emphasized by researchers.

Its detractors fear a “talk-shop where legitimacy is only up to chance”, undermining the foundations of elections. Its supporters praise “the equality of chance to participate in the debate” which sortition makes possible, a specialist in democratic systems working at the Paris VIII university.

In any case, the method has the support of the government: within the framework of “the great debate”, to be held in January and February as a response to the Gilets Jaunes movement, meetings of a hundred allotted citizens in each region will be held in order to give their opinion on the grievances mounting everywhere in France.

“The idea is to make sure that the Frenchpeople who are not necessarily those most involved in public life and public conversation can give their ideas about the debate and the proposals”, explained PM Édouard Philippe last week in Haute-Vienne.

“A much more diverse representation”
For prof. Loïc Blondiaux, a specialist in those matters in Paris I university, “it is a response to the crisis of representation”. Sortition “guarantees a much more diverse representation” because “if we look at the social makeup of Parliament, there are very few workers and wage earners, as opposed to the Gilets Jaunes and to the future assembly members of the “great debate”, emphasizes the researcher. “The representatives will not speak instead of the citizens but as citizens, it is a different voice”, he asserts.

Until now, civic participation via sortition never went above the local level in France. After an experiment during the summer with a national debate for the 5-year energy plan, it “reaches for the first time the national level, with the demand coming from below”, emphasizes Yves Sintomer.

Although citizens councils and participative budgeting using sorititon already exist in municipalities, he observes, “the only institutionalization of sortition at the national level is in trial juries”, going back to the revolution.
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Right-wing support for sortition

A paper has just been uploaded to Academia.edu entitled Instituting a Democratic Sortition in America. The author, Terry Hulsey (who hails from the Abbeville Institute, which lauds the culture of the Confederacy and the “Southern tradition”), offers a libertarian (anarcho-capitalist) critique of social democracy and is no fan of equality (as currently conceived):

A second large group of political scientists writing about sortition are those who, dismayed that over 95% of the elective oligarchy of legislators are white males – and about half of them lawyers – seek equality in the form of proportional representation for women, for minorities currently based on race, and for unspecified protean “disadvantaged” factions. Hugo Bonin, Ernest Callenbach, and Michael Phillips are typical of this group. All of them embrace “diversity” while being curiously blind to the fact that diversity is the opposite of equality. They seek equality for the various factions that are assembled not for their diversity, but for their adherence to a prevailing ideology. What were the unequally represented factions of a century ago? They were the factions of class: Worker, bourgeois, and landlord. Clearly the factions are assembled according to political considerations, and not according to measurable benefits for the society as a whole. For how will those who are half black and half Latino be represented? Would they not be doubly represented? How many legislators will represent the Frisian immigrants? And how many will represent the left-handed Frisians with a limp? All such schemes that embrace sortition from egalitarian motives fail because they are based on arbitrary groupings formed by the fashionable watchwords of the day.

Personally I’m encouraged that sortition is now appealing across the political spectrum, and would encourage posters and commentators to try to keep their partisan views to themselves in order to help enlarge the sortition community.

2018 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2018.

Sortition received some increasing attention in the English-speaking world in 2018. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has announced the creation of the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition. Richard Askwith and Tim Dunlop published books advocating for sortition. Selina Thompson put on a sortition-themed play and organized a sortition-themed workshop. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington Post. Canadian scientist and environmentalist expressed interest in drawing politicians from a hat.

Brett Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the Italian electorally successful Five Star movement. Another spike of interest in sortition followed media reports about the arrest of a sortition advocate who allegedly planned to blow himself up in an attempt to draw attention to the idea.

Late in the year, sortition was on the agenda of two mass-action movements: UK’s Extinction Rebellion and France’s Gilets Jaunes.

Earlier in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition to improve citizen behavior. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made a similar suggestion in the context of Brexit. The Ireland abortion referendum that approved the recommendations of an allotted chamber was held as an example to emulate.

Reports about sortition being used or advocated at local government appeared in the press. An initiative for appointing judges by lot is under way in Switzerland. Charlie Pache, a Swiss sortition activist, promotes single issue allotted citizen panels. Academic conferences about sortition were held in Belgium and in the US.

In France, the discussion has moved beyond the initial stage of unfamiliarity into some substantive discussion of the details of applications of sortition. A member of La France insoumise who was allotted to its electoral committee expressed disillusionment with the process. Other FI activists claim that “so far, the allotted have had no real power”. Michel Quatrevalet, a power industry professional in France, complains that the so-called participatory democracy process that was part of the process for the creation of a French multi-year energy plan was a sham.

EPSA

The 2019 Annual Meeting of the European Political Science Association (EPSA) will be held on 20-22 June in Belfast next year. I’m organizing the Political Theory panels for this meeting. I know there are plans afoot to organize one on sortition and related democratic institutions, as well as another democratic theory panel (on epistemology and democracy). Unfortunately, the deadline is a bit tight–17 December. (I meant to post about this earlier, but was distracted by other matters. Apologies.)

If you might be interested in joining one of these panels, please drop me a line ASAP. (Or just go ahead and propose a paper–I can add you to a panel later.) The website for the meeting is at

http://www.epsanet.org/conference-2019/

Thanks!

Citizens’ chambers: towards an activism of selection by lot

In a paper, previously linked to on this blog, James Fishkin identifies some potential shortcomings of citizen’s chambers which justify his own preference for ad hoc, and temporary citizens’ panels. I think he makes some good points. I think his arguments need further exploration which I do in the first half of this post before articulating a more general unease at where Fishkin and many protagonists of sortition are coming from.

His central concerns with a citizen’s chamber are that it might:

  • have insufficient technical expertise
  • be susceptible to corruption and
  • not maintain the high quality “conditions for deliberation” that have been achieved in more ad hoc citizens’ juries.

These are legitimate concerns. But they have a ‘theoretical’ ring to me. Firstly Fishkin doesn’t provide much evidence that these problems would arise or if they did how bad they’d be. Secondly, he also fails to compare the likely problems with existing similar problems in the existing chambers. I’ll go through these arguments regarding each of the claims in a little more detail below before proceeding to my more general concern.

Technical expertise

If someone can suggest a means by which one or two hundred people can represent the polity and not lack expertise in all the functions of government, I’ll be interested to hear it. Perhaps a random selection from the great unwashed will be less technically expert than elected representatives. For instance, in wealthy countries today, over 90 percent of elected political representatives are university educated compared with around half the population. But that greater level of education comes with its own blind spots as we’re discovering. Moreover, a university graduate in law or psychology won’t be much help in steering fiscal policy and in that regard, the people’s elected representatives often rely in such matters on delegation to independent experts and being advised by experts. But this comes with the territory.
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