The call to abolish elected chambers all together began to spread like wildfire

Modern Ghana publishes a short futuristic piece by Brett Hennig (falsely mis-attributing it to other writers).

The End Of Politicians: Time For Real Democracy

It all started in the small countries of north-western Europe. The movement began way back in 2011-12 when one of them went without a government for almost 2 years. But it wasn’t until 2020 that the first regional parliament there instituted a second chamber of randomly selected citizens to review legislation. That made other governments around the world takes note. Then, after the global crisis of 2023-25 people hit the streets, leaders paid attention, and randomly selected, representative “citizens’ chambers” began to flourish. Canada replaced its Senate with a citizens’ chamber and, finally – after years of campaigning – the House of Lords in the UK was also replaced with a representative, randomly selected “House of the People”. It wasn’t long after that – when people began to realise that these assemblies work well and make good, fair, trusted decisions – that the call to abolish elected chambers all together began to spread like wildfire.

Then it happened. After the political crisis in north America in 2039 a couple of US states responded to the crisis by completely replacing their elected legislature with a citizens’ chamber. First it was Oregon, and then the big one: California. Now, in 2050, some countries have followed suit. Among the early adopters were Belgium and The Netherlands in Europe. Who would be next was hard to predict: The depth and breadth of the political movement depended crucially on the local conditions and historical context of each country. Yet the movement continues to grow: Slowly, politicians are becoming a thing of the past. They are now commonly seen as a bizarre historical artefact of that brief period in the 1900s, between the time when parliaments elected by universal suffrage became the norm across half the planet, and the 21st-century spread of the new sortition democracy based on universal, representative random selection.
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Urgency and hypocrisy

Content warning: This post contains messages that may be traumatizing to some audiences. Reader discretion is advised.

The attitude expressed, explicitly or implicitly, in much of the political discussion in the West, and in particular in academic discussion, is that the existing political system is essentially, at its core and in its principles, benign. While some room for improvement surely exists, we must not act rashly. The great danger that must be guarded against when considering any changes to our political system is that we might very well end up with fewer of the great benefits that the current system bestows upon us. “Us” in this usage is supposed to cover essentially all of society, rather than just the author and their select audience.

This attitude is deplorable. The situation of the world is dire. It is sometimes said that we are living in the best of times humanity has known thus far. This may or may not be true, but in any case it is irrelevant. Even if previous times were worse, the situation is appalling. The world is full of misery that can be relatively easily alleviated simply by having public policy which is aimed at such a goal, rather than public policy that is aimed at very different goals.

Outraged rhetoric about atrocities, real, exaggerated, or fabricated, of official enemies is prevalent in the West and so is hand-wringing about the misfortune, real, exaggerated or imagined, of inhabitants of non-Western countries. Yet, even ignoring misery inflicted by Western countries worldwide, misery is rampant in the West itself, misery that can be drastically reduced by appropriate political action.
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Rangoni and Vandamme: Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?

“Is deliberative democracy a hopeless ideal?” is the title of a recent books review by Sacha Rangoni and Piere-Étienne Vandamme on the Social Europe website. The review deals with three books discussing “deliberative democracy”:

  • Le tournant délibératif de la démocratie, Loïc Blondiaux and Bernard Manin (eds), Sciences Po, 2021,
  • Deliberative Democracy, Ian O’Flynn, Polity Press, 2021,
  • Deliberative Mini-Publics, Nicole Curato et al, Bristol University Press, 2021.

The books, to the extent the review reflects their contents, seem to largely cover well-trodden group. We again meet the standard “for” and “against” arguments regarding “deliberation” and allotted bodies. Those presented in the article are:

  • “[W]e should all exchange arguments before we reach the best collective decision, and that ideal lies at the heart of the deliberative conception of democracy.”
  • “[This is], some critics have argued, a hopeless ideal, founded on a naïve and unappealing understanding of politics, in which people do not have strong political convictions and would prefer consensual decisions over conflict.”
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Thomas and Pollack: Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy

A distinction is sometimes made between democracy as a system in which citizens are politically equal and a system in which the “right” decisions are made. In “Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy”, a paper published in the Michigan Law Review in 1992, George Thomas and Barry Pollack argue, in the context of juries, that the two concepts may be theoretically indistinguishable. It is interesting to weigh the strength of their argument and see to what extent it is applicable to citizen judgement in the case of policy making. Thomas and Pollack also go further and use this argument to reason about jury size, an argument which may be interesting and relevant in public policy making as well.

It may be obvious, but it is worth noting anyway, that the arguments made are also relevant to very wide epistemological questions about what is truth, what are facts, the analytical/synthetic distinction, the fact/value distinction, internalism vs. externalism, etc. It turns out that a theory of democracy may require a workable epistemological theory, or at least a part of such a theory.

The purpose of a mechanism for deciding guilt is to impose punishment only on those who deserve it. This goal raises two questions. First, who decides? Second, how can an observer evaluate whether the decisionmaker was right or wrong?

Although citizen juries played a role in the English criminal process at least as far back as 1201 A.D., their role initially was limited to screening cases, much like the present-day grand jury. Thus, a jury would decide whether to hold the accused for the guilt-determining phase, which might be battle or ordeal. Battle on an accusation of felony ended in death for the accused if he lost – the offender would perish either in the battle or from immediate hanging. Ordeal consisted principally of trial by fire and water, which required the accused (and sometimes the accuser) to walk through fire, carry red-hot iron, plunge his hand or arm into boiling water, or be thrown into a pool of water.

The premise underlying both battle and ordeal as guilt-determining mechanisms was that “God would always interpose miraculously to vindicate the guiltless.”

With the dawning of the Renaissance, however, Western culture gradually ceased seeing the hand of God or Satan in every physical event, and the role of citizen juries was extended from screening defendants for trial to determining guilt. As long as God was making the decision, believers did not accept the possibility of error. Once the ultimate decision rested in the hands of citizens, however, error became possible. The difficult, and usually unappreciated, question is how error can occur.
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Buge and Vandamme: The CCC as a case study on the legitimacy of sortition

A new paper by Eric Buge and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, published in the Journal of Representative Democracy [Full text, PDF], has the following title and abstract:

Conflicts of Legitimacies in Representative Institutions: The Case of the French Citizen Convention for Climate

Conceived as an alternative form of democratic representation, the random selection of citizens for a political task comes in tension with the logic of electoral representation. The idea, carried by random selection, that anyone can be a good enough representative challenges the assumption that we need to choose the most competent among ourselves. And the fact that citizens’ assemblies are sometimes tasked to draft legislation may undermine the authority of elected representatives. This article tests this hypothesis of tension between competing forms of representation on a recent case: the French Citizen Convention for Climate (CCC) in 2020. Drawing on parliamentary hearings and questions as well as public political reactions to the CCC, we find indications that elected representatives may feel threatened in their legitimacy even when most randomly selected citizens do not see themselves as representatives. This may be due to the fact that the CCC was seen by some as stepping on the prerogatives of the Parliament. This suggests that future experiments of the sort could benefit from a clearer functional division between the two forms of representation.

This repeats a commonly asserted notion that sortition rests on different positive assumptions about political competence from those upon which support for elections does. Supposedly, while sortition advocates assert equal political competence among all citizens, advocates of elections assert that the elite is politically more competent than the rest of the population. In fact, analysis shows that the claim that this is the crucial difference between the positions is rather questionable. Continue reading

Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.
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Marcel Monin: What about sortition?

Marcel Monin is a doctor of law. He writes the following in the French website AgoraVox.

What about sortition?

The substance and the goals of decisions made – which elude the people, and the conduct of the elites with regards to the people, especially over the last 5 years, lead sometime to doubt that we are still living in a democracy. Who wants government of the people, by the people, for the people, when those same elites are those standing for election?

The considerations made 2,500 years ago regarding the respective merits of sortition and elections and regarding their practice are again in vogue. Some advocate replacing elections with sortition.

Sortition, it appears, has advantages.

From a technical point of view:

  • It eliminates professionalism and thus the the submission of the elected to the internal rules of attaining and maintaining office (with its implications on the elected-electors relationship).
  • It eliminates the dependence before the elections in groups of financial backers who finance the electoral campaigns and which manipulate the voters through the media they own. (See the ideal-type example of this phenomenon with the candidate Macron.)
  • It overcomes the obstable of campaign cost which keeps the poor away from being candidates, somewhat similar to how things were when only the rich had the vote. The presidential elections show this effect in accentuated to an absurd degree.
  • Statistically, humble people would have less of a chance of being under-represented.

However, still from a technical point of view there are disadvantages. Among them are:
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A terrible admission of weakness

Lenny Ferretti, a law student at the University of Mons in Belgium, writes the following in the Carte Blanche section of Le Vif:

In Belgium there are elections every five years. There are directly elected assemblies and others, which are elected indirectly. The Senate, which is the second chamber of the Federal Parliament has been elected indirectly since the Sixth Reform of 2014. Today, some tell us that it is useless and that it should be eliminated and replaced by allotted citizens.

First, it is good to recall that the Senate creates bicameralism, that Belgium is a federal state (article 1 of the Constitution), and that no federal state in the world is unicameral.

Sortition is profoundly anti-democratic and would require training for the relevant citizens which would imply additional costs… On the other hand, citizen panels can and should be convened. Their work can guide our elected officials, but we must distinguish consultation from decision-making itself. It is a question of representativity and of legitimacy and hence of democracy.

Such an idea constitutes a terrible admission of weakness on the side of the political system and particularly on the side of the members of parliament. It implies shifting the responsibility onto the citizens of what they should be expecting, and what they have the right to expect: effectiveness, and thus the creation of a decent and secure life, to the extent possible, for their children. If we have elected officials, it is so that they assume the responsibilities that we have vested in them through elections by all!

It is not by proposing original and/or complex ideas such as those described here that the political system is going to bring the citizen back in and produce the expected results. The political system must assume its responsibilities, and address the fact that the nation spirit has been eroding within the political class.

Finding Genius Podcast

I’ve been meaning to post about this, but sadly the end of term proved rather hectic for me. I was interviewed in April about sortition for the Finding Genius podcast. It was a good interview–wish I’d seen the interview with Simon Pek beforehand, as the topic of sortition inside of firms came up. The picture they found of me is ten years old, but I’m not going to complain about that! The podcast can be accessed here: Revolutionizing Democracy – The Benefits Of Sortition and Selected Citizens Councils with Dr. Peter Stone.

Sortition and feminism

Through a pingback to a 2013 post of mine on this subject, I became aware of two pieces on the issue of sortition and feminism. The first is “Random Voting and the Path to Gender Equality”, a recent post by Mariam Nasser on the website of the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship at the American University of Beirut. Here is an excerpt:

We desperately need women in politics. Through sortition, no candidate is at an unfair advantage that usually breeds sexism and/or different forms of discrimination. Women no longer have to fear biased public opinion or the inability to procure campaigning funds due to a lack of bank and corporation backing, with sexist political justifications, of course. The corporations need the candidate to push their agenda, and if the voters are not supporting the female candidate, the corporations lose their money on a failed campaign. Women no longer have to fear misogynistic “she only got there because she slept around” remarks from others. They become free to exercise their political rights in a positive, engaging environment that fosters communication and wants what is best for society as a whole.

Nasser’s post cites a 2015 paper by Arina Antonia Iacob from the National University of Political Science and Public Administration, Bucharest, Romania:

A feminist perspective on political sortition

Abstract: In this paper, I will try to analyze the extent in which feminists might take part in the political comeback of sortition. In the first section I will discuss the political implication of this mechanism and the arguments raised by those in favor of a political lottery. In the second section there will be an emphasis on the importance of descriptive representation in general, focusing on the feminist perspective, while talking about the idea of implementing gender quotas. Also, I will put forward a discussion surrounding various empirical studies that revealed the effects of gender quotas. At last, in the third section, I will try to point out the negative effects of gender quotas and the manner in which these can be avoided by using sortition, by referencing the basic principles of this random mechanism which can be used in association with the feminist principles.