Bagg: Citizen oversight juries

Samuel Bagg is a democratic theorist, soon to be at the University of South Carolina. In 2019 he co-wrote with Michael Schulson an article about sortition in Dissent magazine. In a paper just published in the American Journal of Political Science Bagg elaborates on the ideas in Dissent magazine. The elitist notions that were hinted at in the 2019 article (and that are unfortunately standard among academics who discuss sortition) are now full fledged as Bagg offers a proposal for a strictly curtailed role for allotted bodies. The proposal seems very much along the lines the proposal made by Ethan Leib almost 20 years ago (of which Bagg seems unaware), but with a more limited range of application.

The paper’s abstract is as follows:

Sortition as Anti-Corruption: Popular Oversight against Elite Capture

Random selection for political office—or “sortition”—is increasingly seen as a promising tool for democratic renewal. Critics worry, however, that replacing elected and appointed officials with randomly selected citizens would only exacerbate elite manipulation of political processes. This article argues that sortition can contribute to democratic renewal, but that its genuine promise is obscured by the excessive ambition and misplaced focus of prevailing models. Casting random selection as a route to accurate representation of the popular will, most contemporary proposals require randomly selected citizens to perform legislative tasks, whose open-endedness grants substantial discretion to elite agenda setters and facilitators. The real democratic promise of sortition-based reforms, I argue, lies in obstructing elite capture at critical junctures: a narrower task of oversight that creates fewer opportunities for elite manipulation. In such contexts, the benefits of empowering ordinary people—resulting from their immunity to certain distorting influences on career officials—plausibly outweigh the risks.

The notion of oversight is rather broad and could imply bodies with wide anti-corruption purview that could create a real source of independent political power by drawing and enforcing radical rules about the connections decision makers (and in particular, elected officials) may or may not have with the powerful bodies in society and politics. However, this is not at all what Bagg has in mind.

COJs [Citizen Oversight Juries] would be convened over the course of a few days or weeks at most, and participants drawn randomly from the population would be required to serve for the entire process, so as to minimize the distortions of self-selection. As in civil and criminal trials, crucially, the role of jurors would be to make a judgment about a narrow, binary question, whose parameters are fixed in advance, after hearing arguments from designated adversarial representatives on both sides.

Thus, just like Leib’s proposal, Bagg’s proposal is for ad-hoc, short-term bodies, whose rules, agenda and information are dictated by elite bodies. It is only within the framework of these restrictions that Bagg feels that “citizen oversight bodies could plausibly make use of those advantages [of sortition] without incurring excessive risks”.

The expandable meaning of “democracy”

Traditionally, the word “democracy” has been used in Western political philosophy as a pejorative term. This use has been dominant for about 2,800 years – since the time of the Old Oligarch and Plato up to and including the time of the American and French revolutionaries. Those latter groups have adhered to this pejorative sense of the word “democracy” and have strenuously insisted that the systems they are constructing are “republican” rather than “democratic”.

The dominant pejorative meaning has been replaced by the by-now familiar celebratory meaning during the 19th century under the pressures of electoralism. As Francis Dupuis-Deri recounts the story of the word “democracy”, it was Andrew Jackson, who was the first U.S. presidential candidate who described himself as a “simple democrat”. This was, Dupuis-Deri writes, his winning campaign tactic in 1828, after having lost his bid in 1824 in which he still ran, like the other candidates in that race, under the banner of “republican” (Dupuis-Deri, Democratie, Histoire politique d’un mot, p. 320). Dupuis-Deri claims that the U.S. politicians of the 19th century were very conscious and deliberate about their adoption of the term “democracy” as a powerful marketing term. He cites the 1844 campaign booklet “Democracy” by Calvin Colton which opens with the following anecdote:

A Member of the House of Representatives, in Congress, a friend of Mr. Van Buren, met a Whig Senator, in a steamboat, in the early part of the Presidential campaign of 1840, when the former said to the latter, “Your Log Cabin and Hard Cider is a no go. We shall beat you.” “How so?” asked the Senator. “Mr. Van Buren,” answered the Member, “relies upon the words DemocracyDemocrat–and Democratic. We all rely upon them, as a party. While we wear this name, you can not beat us, but we shall beat you.” [Even though, in fact, Van Buren was more democratic candidate, t]he Member of the House was right, and the very reason he gave prevailed on the other side.–Mr. Van Buren was beaten.

An interesting parallel of the application of the word “democracy” to systems whose democratic credentials are far from solid is described by Angelos Chaniotis in his article “Illusions of Democracy in the Hellenistic World” (Athens Dialogues. 2010. Democracy and Politeia. Period Two). Chaniotis writes:
Continue reading


The number 1,000 seems to have some kind of charm when it comes to allotted bodies. There is of course the G1000 – “a Belgian platform for democratic innovation” backed by the renown of David Van Reybrouck. But more generally, there is somehow the notion that 1,000 is a good size for an allotted body. Supposedly, 1,000 is how big a body has to be in order to be “representative”. This intuition may be to some extent reinforced by the fact that opinion polls often use (or claim to use) samples of a similar size. There is also the fact that when one is surrounded by 1,000 people there is a feeling of being in the presence of a crowd and one becomes an anonymous, insignificant point in that crowd – and maybe that seems to reflect what membership in a mass community is about.

In fact, the number 1,000 is completely arbitrary. Its use in opinion polling is rather coincidental, and there is certainly no reason to use it when allotting political bodies. Indeed, the feeling of being lost in a crowd of 1,000 people is a strong indication that 1,000 is too many.

As is generally the case when considering the design of allotted bodies (and when thinking about sortition on the whole) it is most fruitful to consider the issue of body size via the model of extending self-representation. For the decision-making body to make policy that represents the interests of the people, two things have to happen:

  1. The body has to be internally democratic. That is, there has to be an equality of political power within the body.
  2. The membership of body has to reflect the population in the sense that its values and world view match those of the population.

Those two conditions generate two conflicting considerations: since large groups of people tend to generate spontaneous inequalities within the group, the first condition implies that the size cannot be too large. The second condition implies that the makeup of the body has to be statistically representative, so that it should not be “too small”.
Continue reading

Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.
Continue reading

Sortition in Vox

In another manifestation of sortition making progress in the English-speaking world, the U.S. news website Vox has an article about this idea. The author is Dylan Matthews.

[I]f you want to know what Congress will do in 50 years, seeing what ideas are percolating in the academy can be surprisingly informative.

That’s why I’ve been struck by the growing popularity, among academics, of a radical idea for rethinking democracy: getting rid of elections, and instead picking representatives by lottery, as with jury duty. The idea, sometimes called sortition or “lottocracy,” originates in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of assigning positions to citizens by drawing lots.

But lately it’s had a revival in the academy; Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you’re a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The broad sense that American democracy is in crisis has provoked an interest in bold ideas for repairing it, with lottocracy the boldest among them.

It is worth noting that the article talks explicitly about “getting rid of elections”, rather than “complementing elections”, or employing some other vague phrasing regarding the future use of the electoral mechanism.
Continue reading

Dikastic Thorubos

All the other powers are naturally in a man’s own control, but the power of speaking is blocked if there is opposition from the audience. Hear him as a scoundrel, bribe-taker, and as one who will say absolutely nothing true. (Dem. 19-340)

Cited in V. Bers, ‘Dikastic Thorubos’ in Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P.A. Cartledge and F.D. Harvey (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1985)

Recent outbursts of mud-slinging on this forum have implications for the design of sortition-based assemblies, especially if isegoria (equal speech) is the norm. This is the guiding principle of deliberative democracy, as it was in the Athenian democracy (unlike Sparta). However in both the ancient and modern cases only a tiny number of participants exercised the ho boulomenos (anyone who wishes) principle. It took some cojones to address the Athenian assembly and unpopular speakers were shouted down by the other participants (as we saw in the quote from Demosthenes). Whilst such prophylactics can work in direct democracies, large modern states resort to the exchange of insults between political parties, each one hoping to increase its share of the vote in elections. Jaw-jaw is certainly better than war-war, hence the fact that the illocutionary factions in the House of Commons are separated by two swords’ lengths.

The mud-slinging on this forum appears to be primarily between two “camps” — in the one corner Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland and in the other Yoram Gat and Liam Jones. As Alex recently commented, the two groups appear to be “on different planets”, impervious to the (Habermasian) exchange of reasons.

There is no good reason to believe that a sortition-based assembly would be any different — especially if participation is voluntary, as this would attract those who like the sound of their own voice, which may or may not map to the voices of those in the target population that the randomly-selected group is intended to “describe”. This would suggest that ho boulomenos can do little to support the isegoria rights of the vast majority of citizens who fail to be included in the sortition.

Continue reading

Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

Continue reading

Sandel: “Summon Chance to Chasten Meritocratic Hubris”

Millions of YouTube viewers will be familiar with Michael Sandel of Harvard University’s lectures on Justice. He has been described as “a philosopher with the global profile of a rock star”, so it is greatly encouraging when in his book The Tyranny of Merit he emphatically endorses the use of lotteries for admission to elite universities.

His condemnation of actual existing Meritocracy is well worth a read, not least the societally damaging effects of hubris and self-worth among the elite ‘winners’; and the despondency and nihilistic voting for Brexit and Trump by the ‘losers’ and indeed all the non-credentialled.

In Chapter 6 makes a heartfelt and extended plea for the extensive use of lotteries for admission to not just Ivy League, but all selective colleges and universities. This Sandel says would “summon Chance to chasten Merit”.

I’m sure most readers are familiar with the American S.A.T. (Standardized Attainment Test), a sort of IQ test inflicted on 18-year-olds. This, Sandel suggests, could be used to establish a threshold for entry into the selection lottery and nothing else. This level of ‘Merit’ should be no more onerous than that imposed when the SAT was originated in the 1940s.

From this device Sandel argues that winners will be saved much  stress and avoid much of the (wasted?) effort of working towards the impressive list of activities that fills out their application form. Losers will gain too. No more rejections, and being made to feel  inadequate, despite losing narrowly. Much more psychologically healthy all round!

Continue reading

Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 3)

Part 1 Part 2.

The arguments below make a case for sortition that is based on a general, rather vague sense of a need for change.

6. Elections are an 18th century technology. We need to modernize democracy by adopting new, modern ideas and institutions. Sortition is one such new idea and is enabled by new technologies.

This argument is obviously false factually. Sortition was practiced in Athens some 2,500 years ago. Drawing lots could easily have been implemented at the end of the 18th century instead or in addition to tallying votes. Furthermore, this perpetuates the standard distortion of the historical record regarding the ideology and the objectives of the creators of the Western system. Elections were not an 18th century democratic technology, but rather an age old oligarchical mechanism. They were deliberately adopted in the 18th century for this reason. Thus there is no democracy to be modernized. There is an elections-based oligarchy that needs to be replaced by a sortition-based democracy.

7. Democratic fatigue: voters have grown tired of the elections. New institutions we need to be introduced in order to revitalize democracy.

A prominent spokesman of this argument is David Van Reybrouck:

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.

Van Reybrouck explains that “the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected”. This is a wholly unsatisfactory “fundamental cause”. Why are elections producing such poor despised officials? Why and when have we “become electoral fundamentalists”? What was the situation before that?

As an argument for sortition this is also rather weak. Why sortition rather than any other alternative to elections? Maybe elections can be fixed? If they used to work in the past, maybe they can be made to work again? Maybe we can have sortition together with elections? And/or together with many other new institutions? How do we know which institutions can be expected to work? If “relentless media scrutiny” is a problem, why would sortition fare any better than elections?
Continue reading

Neutralizing Self-Selection Bias in Sampling for Sortition

Bailey FlaniganPaul GölzAnupam Gupta, and Ariel Procaccia, Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (2020).

Yoram recently drew our attention to this sortition paper which was highly ranked by the Google search engine. It’s interesting to see that engineers and computer scientists take the problem of self-selection bias more seriously than political theorists and sortition activists.

Abstract: Sortition is a political system in which decisions are made by panels of randomly selected citizens. The process for selecting a sortition panel is traditionally thought of as uniform sampling without replacement, which has strong fairness properties. In practice, however, sampling without replacement is not possible since only a fraction of agents is willing to participate in a panel when invited, and different demographic groups participate at different rates. In order to still produce panels whose composition resembles that of the population, we develop a sampling algorithm that restores close-to-equal representation probabilities for all agents while satisfying meaningful demographic quotas. As part of its input, our algorithm requires probabilities indicating how likely each volunteer in the pool was to participate. Since these participation probabilities are not directly observable, we show how to learn them, and demonstrate our approach using data on a real sortition panel combined with information on the general population in the form of publicly available survey data.

Citing statistics from the Sortition Foundation:

typically, only between 2 and 5% of citizens are willing to participate in the panel when contacted. Moreover, those who do participate exhibit self-selection bias, i.e., they are not representative of the population, but rather skew toward certain groups with certain features.

To address these issues, sortition practitioners introduce additional steps into the sampling process.

Continue reading