Burnheim and Gruen on the path toward sortition

An exchange between John Burnheim and Nicholas Gruen on the way to introduce sortition into contemporary political systems.

Burnheim:

Scrap attempts to reforming politics as a whole. From a practical point of view attempts to do so by legal constitutional change have no possibility of succeeding from a theoretical point of view, it is folly to assume that if we agree broadly about principle and are motivated to act we will reach a practical agreement. As soon as you analyse the range of possibilities that emerge once one envisages ways of putting all those abstract principles into practice, the more one runs into a host of incompatible proposals.

IIUC, Burnheim argues that the political system either fails to recognize “known and recognised needs” or fails to recognize that established policy does not address those needs. Bodies that are supposed to recognize and address the needs “operate primarily in the interests of those who have power […] rather than the public interest”.

My view is that while it’s no panacea, [there] is likely to be a very effective role for specialised committees of citizens chosen by sortition. I also think that sortition for very specialised tasks is the way forward for many public activities. Don’t concentrate on what juries can’t do, but on instances where they are likely to do something useful.

Gruen:

There are three ‘poles’ of democracy. Direct democracy is one way to do democracy – but it’s both impractical and ill-advised even as an ideal in my view. This leaves representative democracy and I can think of two very different ways of selecting representatives. Competitively through elections and via sortition.

My entire program revolves around finding whatever ways might be possible to inject the latter into a system dominated by the former – whether those ways are large or small.
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 1

As a powerful state which is not electoralist, it is not surprising that China produces political theory which rejects the equation of democracy with elections. It is characteristic of the weakness of Western political science that it makes no serious attempt to explore and engage with this theory.

Wang Shaoguang is a prominent Chinese political scientist. His article “Representative and Representational Democracy” was originally published in the Chinese language social science journal “Open Times” in 2014. A translation to English of the article appears on the website “Reading the China Dream” which regularly translates articles by Chinese establishment intellectuals. The article makes several intertwined arguments regarding democracy and elections. While focusing, naturally, on the Chinese system as an alternative to the Western electoralist system, Wang does make a mention of sortition as well.

In the following excerpts Wang first notes the crisis of the Western government system and makes the straightforward observation, often avoided in the West, that the Chinese system enjoys more popular support than most Western governments. Rather surprisingly, it seems to me, instead of translating this fact to a frontal attack on the Western system, Wang then makes the apologetic (and fairly familiar) multi-culturalist argument that democracy is perceived differently in different cultures. Wang asserts that while the formality of elections is a main feature of the Western or American conception of democracy, in the East “substantive” aspects are considered essential.

Today, even though Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative” and Fukuyama’s “End of History” have already become standing jokes in academic and intellectual circles, their variants proliferate and circulate constantly. Though most people no longer use these particular expressions, many still firmly believe that the “today” of Western capitalist countries is the “tomorrow” of other countries (including China).
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The OECD: Innovative Citizen Participation and new Democratic Institutions: Catching the Deliberative Wave

A newly published document from the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development draws on data collected from nearly 300 case studies from 1986 to October 2019. Its 200 pages cover randomly selected Citizens’ Assemblies, Juries, Panels and ‘other representative deliberative processes’.

This research and proposals for action fit within the organisation’s work on innovative citizen participation, which seeks to guide countries on the implementation […] of the 2017 Recommendation on Open Government.

The acknowledgements include many regular participants on the Equality-by-Lot blog.

The Canadian organization MASS LBP and the OECD will be launching the publication with a 60-minute Zoom event on 15 July 2020 at noon.

The Potential of Weighted Sortition

This is the 5th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previously published parts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Sortition is hiring without human intervention using random rather than reasoned criteria. Weighted sortition, though, is a statistical narrowing down of randomly chosen job candidates to the more ready among workers available. In Barbara Goodwin’s words, they are “lotteries where some people get extra chances of winning according to their personal characteristics or qualifications.” More broadly, the chances of “winning” a position can be micro-managed to take in any number of other factors beyond qualifications, such as need and desert, both personal and social, both present and future.

Goodwin’s “Justice by Lot” introduced to me the idea of weighted sortition. True, she dismisses it as “impure” compared to completely random sampling of the entire population, but the idea has intrigued me ever since I encountered it here. Admittedly, playing with percentages increases the complexity of choices, but complexity, in an age of supercomputers, data mining and artificial general intelligence (AGI), is not the obstacle it was even ten years ago. A weighted lottery allows for intriguing possibilities never imaginable before. It can factor into every hire whatever evidence-based social science deems well grounded, including experience, aptitude, personal choice and even broader social goals. The difficulty is that the advantages of sortition itself have to be clear to a broad proportion of the population before weighted sortition comes into play, as Goodwin points out,

Only by participation, which is a continuous process, would people acknowledge the authority of a social lottery [p. 71].

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Feertchak: The Citizen Convention for the Climate does not meet with unanimity

With the Citizen Convention on the Climate publishing its report, Alexis Feertchak writes in the Le Figaro about early reactions.

The Citizen Convention for the Climate does not meet with unanimity
June 20th, 2020

The 150 allotted citizens are voting this weekend for as many environmental proposals. But since its introduction, reactions to this body have been mixed.

“Involve citizens in the governance of transportation at the local level as well as at the national level.” The “technical” tone of this proposal makes it sound more like a recommendation in report of the state bureaucracy than a conclusion of a citizen assembly chosen by lot. It is one of the points that are regularly made on the social networks: if we involve citizens directly in democratic deliberation, we should have been able to get more original results than that one.

Rather than being original, the 150 proposals or so, showing a leftist slant economically, seem quite familiar. Responding to the proposal of reducing the work week to 28 hours (a proposal that was eventually not presented), increasing the minimum wage, taxing dividends, etc., Philippe Bas, senator for [the center-right party] Les Républicains and head of the laws committee, twitted: “The results of the so-called citizen convention are a disappointment: a rehashing of the hymn book of the environmental lobby, (…) economic ignorance, total lack of legitimacy. Sortition exposed as a democratic deception!”
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Massol: Participative democracy: a job for professionals

Nicolas Massol writes in Liberation.

Participative democracy: a job for professionals

The growth of citizen participation initiatives, such as the Climate Convention, has been made possible thanks to a lot of organizational work by specialized businesses.

Participative democracy is not a business for amateurs. To be convinced of that, it is enough to have a look at the sophisticated organization of the Climate Convention. All this beautiful engineering was designed and put together by professionals of citizen participation. For them this unprecedented experience is going to usher in a profession of a future. It is a future which has been in the making for 20 years in which, from participative budgeting to a Grand national debate, initiatives for directly involving citizens in political decision-making have been growing, with the support of the authorities. “Municipalities account for 80% of the initiatives”, estimates Alice Mazeaud, co-author of “The market of participative democracy” (2018). The Convention, on the other hand, was financed directly by the Prime Minister’s office, to the tune of over 4 million Euros. Not enough to speak of a real “participation business”, but still enough to create a small ecosystem.

And so, the organization of the Convention was handed to a consortium of businesses: The Harris Interactive polling institute carried out the allotment, Eurogroup Consulting set up the database available to the citizens, and for moderating the discussions, Res Publica and Missions publiques – two consulting firms for participative democracy – were hired. “My profession is to make sure the collective discussion advances”, says Gilles-Laurent Rayssac, the president of the first of those. A technical role, according to Judith Ferrando, the co-director of the second one: “Our moderation techniques promote the success of deliberation, but we stay in the wings, a little like in the theater.”
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Rotation; The Stabilizer of Random Selection

This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3.

Barbara Goodwin’s main concern in Justice by Lottery is to examine how a purely sortition-dominated economy, in the form of what she calls a “total social lottery”, might aid in establishing greater justice and equality. However, she does introduce another technique that grew up at the same time as sortition did in Ancient Athens, that of rotation. Rotation of positions there was assured by default, it seems, simply by establishing term limits and stipulating that a given post can be only held once by any given citizen in their lifetime. Goodwin treats sortition and rotation as so closely compatible that she sometimes treats them as a single process, sortition-rotation. Whereas sortition, run by the cleroterion device, assigns posts at random, rotation assures that all the necessary bases are covered. She explains,

Rotation is not the same as pure chance: it pays some attention to people’s desire for a guaranteed supply of certain things. By contrast, the lottery is based on the idea that surprise and risk are themselves a major part of what people desire. But there could be room in a transformed society for both principles, and they could operate in harmony – unlike, say, rotation and the principle of entitlement. If we could ensure that people’s basic needs were securely satisfied and that highly specialized jobs (which carry their own rewards in terms of work satisfaction) were appropriately filled, there would be sound reasons for distributing non-specialized jobs and scarce goods above a guaranteed minimum via a modified lottery system or by rotation, especially in the case of scarce luxuries. This would add to the spice of life. Such a system would mitigate the two major kinds of social injustice which the ineradicable inequalities in the structure of advanced capitalist societies, combined with the inelasticity of supply of some goods, produce – for example:
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Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 1

Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, is a long-time advocate for citizen power, especially as it concerns control of science-related issues. His work in this area stretches back decades. In 2002 Testart co-founded the Association for Citizen Sciences. In a 2017 interview (Le Comptoir, Part 1, Part 2), parts of which are translated below, Testart discusses democracy, public debate, and citizen control of science.

Science, such as economics, could be a carrier of truth because of its neutrality. However, among other examples, the basic axiom of the Work Law forced through, against the opinion of millions of workers affected, rests on a certain “scientific” concept of economics. This law is a good demonstration that this supposed neutrality which economics maintains is in fact such in the eyes of the minority in power alone. When the social contract is under stress, when the decision-makers prefer Capital over the people, it may be necessary to try and consider about how it is put together, in order to be able to improve democracy. Jacques Testart, formerly a research biologist and “father” of the first French test-tube baby, now devotes his time to this goal, notably through the Association for Citizen Sciences. With this in mind, he has recently published “Rêveries d’un chercheur solidaire“, “L’humanitude au pouvoir – Comment les citoyens peuvent décider du bien commun” and “Faire des enfants demain“. We went to meet him. In the first part we discussed the collapse of democracy, in which the flag barriers of Truth are thoroughly involved. The means for making democracy work are discussed in the second part.

Le Comptoir: We hear here and there that democracy is experiencing a “crisis” of representation. Due to the professionalization of politics, the elected are no longer (if they ever were) really representative of their voters, but are rather members of a political-media-financial oligarchy. What do you think?

Testart: That is obvious, yes. The problem is knowing if those who occupy the leadership circles are leaders or representatives. They consider themselves to be leaders because they are elected, and therefore have popular support. But originally, the rules of the game were aimed at – and things must get back to this – them being only representatives. They ability to initiate during their term should be limited by their initial mandate, accounting for unexpected developments. In no case should they be allowed to take decisions that do not conform to the promises for which they were elected. I believe this is a really fundamental point. It is this which dispirits a lot of people, politically, and leads them to abstain. It lead to the rise of the “everything is corrupt” attitude on which the extreme right prospers.

Le Comptoir: May we say that this crisis of representation is also due to an appalling lack of debate regarding issues regarding which there is a consensus among experts in media? I am thinking specifically regarding assisted reproductive technology and the barrage of articles published daily about new “advanced” technologies, presenting all manner of gadgets and announcing “revolutions” to come, from self-driving cars to the bionic prostheses.
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The French citizen convention on the climate: the endgame


Florent Gougou and Simon Persico write in La Vie des idées about the approaching culmination of the French citizen convention on the climate and how its work should be translated into policy. They find the use of a referendum particularly appealing. Also included in the article is the useful chart above comparing along several dimensions the makeup of the French National Assembly to that of members of the convention (which were selected to reflect the makeup of the French population).

Deciding together: The citizen convention on the climate and the democratic challenge

Now that the citizen convention on the climate is drawing to a close, how should the proposals of the allotted citizen be made into policy within the framework of the a democratic process? What place and shape should a referendum take within the political decision-making?

In the weekend of June 19 to 21, the 150 citizens allotted to the citizen convention on the climate will meet for the last time in order to conclude their work. Two essential points will be on their schedule. The first is finalizing the list of proposals that they will hand to the executive, and more broadly to the French people. The second is choosing the legal mechanisms by which a decision would be made regarding those proposals: executive orders, legislation or through a referendum.
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Reginald Walter Macan: early sortition advocate

The February 1892 issue of The Classical Review (vol. 6, No. 1/2) has a review by Reginald Walter Macan of James Wycliffe Headlam’s Election by Lot at Athens which was published the year before.

Macan talks approvingly of Headlam’s analysis of the rationale behind the use of sortition in Athens:

The Lot was used in the Athenian democracy for two main purposes, as Mr. Headlam explains clearly enough: to constitute bodies, that represented the sovran people, or were committees, commissions of the same (p. 161); to secure rotation of office (p. 94) — both these purposes being subordinate to the supreme end, the sovranty of the whole people.

However, in regards to the representation function, Macan is radically reinterpreting Headlam. The “representation” discussed in page 161 of Headlam’s book is that of carrying out technical, apolitical functions which require no judgement and which any Athenian would have performed in the same way.

The inspectors, then, were appointed by the people to act as stewards or bailiffs. The people was the owner of a large business establishment; the inspectors had to do the work of superintendence over the workmen which the owner had not time to do himself. They were a committee of the Assembly, or council, who were appointed by lot because they represented the whole people. The whole of the demos could not go together to the dockyards to see that the new ships which had been ordered were properly built, so they deputed a few of their number to do so, and as a matter of course, as in all such committees, made the appointment by lot.
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