Authoritarians do sortition just like we do but very differently

SWI interviews Su Yun Woo, who is studying processes for citizen participation in decision making in China. Somewhat confusingly, the interview seems to be asserting two conflicting claims. On the one hand it is pointed out that the “citizen participation” processes in China are essentially the same as those in the West and have the same objectives. At the same time it is explaining that, obviously, things in “democracies” are very different as the authoritarian regimes lack “any overarching democratic conviction”.

SWI: How do these participatory budgeting processes [in China] work?

S.Y.W.: The authorities invite the local population to get involved in decision-making on a part of the budget. A group of citizens will come together to form a panel to discuss how to spend money on a project that serves the community – for instance, a library or a communal garden. Wenling’s participatory budget is well known, whereas the example of Chengdu has been less well studied.

In Wenling, citizens are selected through a lottery system. In Chengdu, the participants are volunteers. This explains why mainly older people took part there, since they have more time. In Wenling, random selection works as the participants get paid – just as they do in Switzerland for projects of this kind. They receive the equivalent of CHF7 ($7) and a free lunch for taking part. In Wenling, participatory processes are now an integral part of local budget policy-making.

SWI: So the participants do not have to be Communist Party members?

S.Y.W.: No, they are ordinary citizens. There is no denying, however, that there can be official interference in participatory projects. I was told about some party officials who were supposed to go door to door and ask people their opinions, but instead they just filled out the forms themselves.

SWI: How would you describe the discussion culture during participatory budget debates?

S.Y.W.: Some participants are very vocal in expressing their opinions, while others stay quiet and prefer to take a back seat.

SWI: This sounds rather like participatory budgeting elsewhere.
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Altaf: Getting out of the mess

Dr. Anjum Altaf is an economist and Dean of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. The following are excerpts from an article Altaf recently published in the Pakistani newspaper Dawn.

THE big question Pakistanis must ask is how to get out of this disarray. By now, no one can deny that the country is in a huge mess, which is getting worse by the day. And it is getting worse because of the quality of its rulers. They are interested in nothing beyond their own interests; their only concern, while the country drowns and burns, is who will get to appoint the most important man who, they will then complain, does not allow them to do what needs to be done.

At this stage of terminal decline, there is no possibility of a normal recovery because of the state of the rot and the capability deficit to address it. Only radical solutions offer hope. Ideally, one would hope that the quarrelling rulers would realise the gravity of the catastrophe that threatens everyone and arrive at a consensual response, but that is extremely unlikely. In its absence, only popular demand can force their hand and save the country.

It is no longer possible to revert back to monarchy (though note how intelligently that has been employed in Malaysia) and dictatorship has time and again made things much worse. There is no alternative to popular rule, but we can certainly have a system where governance is truly by the people. There is a model for such an alternative called ‘sortition’, in which legislators are selected by lottery from the larger pool of adult citizens.

In ancient Athens, sortition was the method for appointing political officials and was deemed the principal characteristic of democracy by ensuring that all eligible citizens had an equal chance of holding public office. Unhealthy factionalism, the buying and selling of electables, and populist posturing is eliminated when assemblies are chosen by lottery. These representatives can then engage the experts they need for formulating policies.

This proposal is bound to be met with incredulity and scepticism. I can only point out that even today, in common-law systems, sortition is used to select prospective jurors who have a say over life-and-death decisions. Today, it is a life and death instance for Pakistan, and citizens need to take their governance in their own hands. There is no way they can do a worse job than the motley bunch of uncaring electables and strongmen to whom they have handed over their destiny.

Any extension of the status quo will reduce Pakistan to rubble. By the time the music stops, the lights will be out and there will be nothing to eat next year.

Using Lottery Prizes to Incentivise Covid Vaccine Take-Up

According to the article “Mastering the art of persuasion during a pandemic” in the journal Nature (OUTLOOK, 26 October 2022):

After the first COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out in the United States, local and state officials invested millions in the idea that waving money at people would convince them to get the jabs. Leaders tried straight cash incentives, whereby people collected a set sum for getting vaccinated, as well as lotteries, in which vaccinated people were entered into a draw to win a cash prize.

But the concept often flopped. One study (3) that gauged the effectiveness of vaccine lotteries found that vaccination rates were not significantly higher in lottery states than in non-lottery ones. Guaranteed cash payouts were somewhat more likely to encourage vaccination, a meta-analysis showed (4). Still, the evidence on incentive-based persuasion “is pretty disheartening in general”, Milkman says.

She is now studying a twist on the lottery strategy that might deliver more value for money — a regret lottery. This involves telling people that their name has been entered into a draw to win a large amount of money, but if their name is pulled from the hat and they have not been vaccinated then they will have to decline the reward. When Milkman and her team tried this in Philadelphia (5), vaccine rates in the area increased slightly compared with those in other, similar areas that did not have a regret lottery. “The one data point we have looks promising,” Milkman says, but further research is needed to confirm the finding.

References from the original:

(3) Law, A. C. et al. JAMA Intern Med. 182, 235–237 (2022).

(4) Brewer, N. T. et al. Lancet Reg. Health Am. 8, 100205 (2022).

(5) Milkman, K. L. et al. Nature Hum. Behav. (2022).

Sortition in the U.S. constitution

In a paper in The Yale Law Journal, Bernadette Meyler, professor of law at Stanford, makes the case for having sortition as part of the American democratic (sic) system. In the abstract she writes that she aims at

highlighting the ways in which the Constitution celebrates aspects of democracy that do not fit neatly within the model of majoritarian elections. Focusing in particular on the jury system, the protections for petition and assembly, and the references to the general welfare, this Response opens space for nonelectoral democratic defenses of the administrative state, including agonism.

In the article itself Meyler writes:

While democracy today is often seen as synonymous with majoritarian elections, that was not always the case. Another form of democracy, practiced in ancient Athens and elsewhere, entailed selecting officials by lot, or sortition.32 Although the U.S. Constitution never explicitly mentions this procedure, it was not foreign to the Founders, who arguably incorporated it into our constitutional scheme through the jury. Sortition represents a significant democratic alternative to the mechanism of election, and systems that rely on sortition tend to emphasize different aspects of democracy than those implementing majoritarianism.

[S]election by lot could permit an equal distribution of the “probability of achieving power” and “could promote equality in the distribution of offices.”

Meyler wonders why the U.S. revolutionaries did not consider introducing sortition into the system they were designing, and with Bernard Manin suggests that this has to do with their reliance on the idea of consent. (See here for why this idea is not convincing.)
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AI-enabled deliberative democracy

The proponents of “deliberative democracy” have spent decades dredging a this-but-that argumentative quagmire that has yielded nothing of either theoretical or practical value for democracy. One of the prolific underlying springs of sticky material for the quagmire has been the inherent contradiction between two dicta of “deliberative democracy”: mass participation and deliberation. It is very straightforward that masses cannot deliberate. Meaningful deliberation can occur in groups of at most a few hundreds of people (and even at this scale all-to-all deliberation could occur only under very favorable conditions).

Thus, “deliberative democracy” professionals can develop entire careers stirring, pouring and piling the sands of participation and deliberation without ever managing (or, it could be argued, without ever trying) to build any solid structure. Those of us who would suggest that both mass participation and deliberation are at best tools for good outcomes, rather than sacrosanct goals, are severely chastised for looking for illegitimate “shortcuts”.

Technology is one of the implements that have been routinely used to stir those sticky sands. Over and over again we have been promised that new information technology would allow democracy to go where it has never gone before. Mass education, remote participation, virtual mass discussions, crowd-sourced documents – these and many other unprecedented tools of democracy would be enabled by innovative technology. The fact that such promises go back to the advent of the radio (and probably much farther back) never discourages the prophets of mass participation from promising that the next technological innovation would be the one that would usher in democratic utopia where millions of voices would be heard by millions of people who all make meaningful – equally meaningful – contributions to decision making.

In the spirit of the times (or maybe a bit behind the times), the latest technology recruited to the cause of mass deliberation is Artificial Intelligence. Continue reading

Making research funding a lottery could help tackle ‘status bias’

Interesting article in the Financial Times.

The system of peer review tends to favour established names and institutions

By Anjana Ahujaa. The writer is a science commentator.

Star names wield an outsize influence over research, as well as in sport and entertainment. A recent analysis revealed that a research paper written jointly by a Nobel laureate and a novice was rejected by 65 per cent of reviewers when only the novice’s name was made visible as the corresponding author — but by just 23 per cent if the laureate’s name was used instead.

One might argue that “status bias”, also called the Matthew effect, makes for a reasonable short-cut in decision-making, given that prizes are one benchmark of quality.

But findings like these chime with persistent concerns that established names and institutions are unfairly crowding out newer research talent when it comes to publishing papers and winning grants. Now, two UK funding agencies, the British Academy and the Natural Environment Research Council, will try to counter that bias by awarding some of their research grants by lottery.
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Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

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Sortition in the Netherlands

The very useful Dutch sortition-focused blog Tegen Verkiezingen reports about a new bachelor’s thesis at Leiden university in the Netherlands titled “Lottery as a democratic instrument?”. The thesis was written by Max Van Duijn, who is the leader of a local political party in the Katwijk municipality named DURF. DURF, which is the biggest party in the municipal council, advocates the application of sortition at the municipal level.

Tegen Verkiezingen provides the following translation of an excerpt from the thesis:

In essence ‘representative democracy’ is not democratic. It’s something fundamentally different. It would be more justified to label it ‘elective aristocracy’. In that sense the contrast between classical and representative democracy is a false one. In fact what we’re talking about is a contrast between democracy (sortition) and aristocracy (elections).

Parara: Democracy and the modifiers of modernity

Dr. Polyvia Parara teaches Classics and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Maryland College Park. In a recent article in the English edition of the Greek newspaper Kathimerini, Parara argues that modern Western-system states, conventionally known as “democracies”, are in fact a distortion of the original meaning of democracy, since they do not implement “Isopoliteia” – political equality.

Compared to the original meaning of democracy, it is deduced that modern western societies constitute liberal parliamentary republics protecting individual freedoms and granting rights. They are governed by elected representatives, professional politicians that draw legitimacy by the popular vote. Yet, the citizenry remains limited in the private sphere, not constituting a governing body.

Parara references work of interest by two authors. Continue reading


Update: now has a video of the launch event. There is also a link to an article by Hélène Landemore and Claudia Chwalisz offering sortition as an alternative to the way that the failed Chilean constitutional proposal was generated (and a tweet-thread with a summary in English.)

DemocracyNext is a new organization featuring a “Who’s Who” of the sortition circles. DemocracyNext‘s press release announcing its launch is here. Some excerpts:

DemocracyNext, a new non-profit, non-partisan research and action institute, which announces its foundation this International Democracy Day, 15 September 2022 – aims to actively help this new democratic paradigm take shape and take hold.

“We believe that another democratic future is possible. We want to design and build new institutions where citizens can hold real decision making power,” said Claudia Chwalisz, chief executive of DemocracyNext. “Our point of departure is that the current electoral system is broken beyond repair. An entirely new framework must be based on full participation, citizen representation by lot, and real deliberation.”
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