Can sortition help fend off the threat of “broader prosperity and rising wellbeing”?

“Democracy Rules”, a recently published book by Jan-Werner Müller, Roger Williams Straus Professor of Social Sciences at Princeton University, is another contribution to the “democratic crisis” genre:

They do not all look the same; plenty of differences are obvious. But group them together and they clearly make up one political family: Orbán, Erdogan, Kaczynski, Modi, undoubtedly ex-president Trump, perhaps Netanyahu, but Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro for sure. It is imperative to understand what is often described as a global trend in authoritarianism.

According to a review of the book in Financial Times, Müller is concerned about “performance legitimacy”:

As exemplified by China, that is the undemocratic bargain in which illiberal, one-party control is put up with in return for broader prosperity and rising wellbeing. Its appeal stirs fears that there are other attractive norms on offer and that history may not be cheering liberal democracy on.

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Defending Democracy

Anthoula Malkopoulou (Lund University) and I just published a paper in Constellations entitled “Allotted Chambers as Defenders of Democracy.” Here’s the first paragraph:

In this paper, we identify a problem—the problem of which actors should serve as defenders of democracy—and propose a solution to that problem—the creation of randomly selected citizen bodies, or allotted chambers (hereafter ACs). Having in place institutions that are tasked with democratic self-defense, is, we argue, a critically important pillar of democratic government, but its importance has often been neglected. This neglect is exacerbated by the evasive nature of the task that these democratic defense institutions are called to perform. Part of the problem is that the task of democratic self-defense is often mistakenly conceived as an ad hoc response to an occasional problem, rather than a routine task to which democracies should devote regular attention. Once the task of democratic self-defense is properly specified, the advantages of assigning this task to ACs, rather than courts or legislatures, become evident.

You can read it here:

Two New Articles on Citizens’ Juries

Read two interesting articles on Citizens’ Juries today. The first, entitled “The Wisdom of Small Crowds: the Case for Using Citizens’ Juries to Shape Policy,” was written largely by researchers affiliated with the Brookings Institute.

The emphasis in the article is on the epistemic advantages of citizens’ juries (with, say, 12-24 members) and not on the descriptive representation provided by citizens’ assemblies or deliberative polls (with hundreds of members).

That article led me to another one, “Respect: A New Contract with the Middle Class”, also from Brookings researchers.

The emphasis in this article, in contrast to the previous one, is on citizens’ juries as a respectful way of involving citizens in the political process.

In scholarly circles, Citizens Juries are seen as an example of “participatory action research.” To us they are a tangible expression of partnership between state and citizen, and of democratic respect. To date, they have been the result of largely voluntary and philanthropic efforts, and patchy in terms of quality. We believe that Citizens Juries should be seen as an important part of the standard policymaking process.

Okazaki: Appointment and Sortition

Seiki Okazaki, Professor of political theory and comparative politics at Kyushu University, Japan, has written to share a summary of his new article, “Appointment and Sortition,” pubilshed in Law and Philosophy journal, No. 7, pp. 31–56.

I have recently published an article titled “Appointment and Sortition” in Japanese. It is one of the five contributions to Law and Philosophy, No. 7 (June 2021), which discuss ‘Just Lotteries’. Here I will summarize the arguments of my article.

As is well known, sortition has been generally discussed within the framework of ‘election and/or sortition.’ While I agree that the framework is still relevant, I am concerned that it limits the potential of sortition: Sortition tends to be applied mainly to the legislature and is mainly evaluated in terms of its contribution to democracy. If we liberate the concept of sortition from the framework, we can recognize two potentialities of sortition. First, the field of application is not limited to legislature: Sortition can be applied to administration and to the judiciary. Second, we will see that it has a liberal potential as well as a democratic potential: Sortition can contribute not only to citizen participation in power, but also to the restriction of political power (Oliver Dowlen’s book is important in this respect).
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A hit-piece against Lottery admissions

Prof. Jonathan Turley is an American legal scholar. In an article on his blog, he sounds the alarm regarding proposals to admit students to U.S. universities at random.

“Just Blind Chance”: The Rising Call For “Random Selection” For College Admissions

Random selection is not generally an approach that most people opt for in the selection of doctors or even restaurants or a movie. However, it appears to be the new model for some in higher education. Former Barnard College mathematics professor Cathy O’Neil has written a column calling for “random selection” of all college graduates to guarantee racial diversity. It is ever so simple: “Never mind optional standardized tests. If you show interest, your name goes in a big hat.” She is not the only one arguing for blind or random admissions.

Blind selection is the final default position for many schools. Universities have spent decades working around court decisions limiting the reliance on race as an admissions criterion. Many still refuse to disclose the full data on scores and grades for admitted students. If faced with a new decision further limiting (or entirely eliminating) race as a criterion, blind selection would effectively eliminate any basis for judicial review.
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Confessions of a Traitor to the Cause: Some reflections looking back from John Burnheim

As I struggle with my ninety-fifth year, I would like to beg forgiveness from the true believers in sortition.

Nearly forty years ago, in 1985, I published the book Is Democracy Possible? with the subtitle The Alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. The sortitionists believed that the alternative could only be to reject the electoral system and replace it by sortition. The will of the people could be expressed only by the people themselves, so they assumed I must support that view.

In fact what the book advocated was something different, but it was so far outside the mainstream that it attracted little attention. There is no point in offering answers to questions people, apart from a few anarchists, don’t ask. Everybody assumed that democracy was a matter of ensuring that the power of the state is invested in the nation’s people. Anybody who denied that was a traitor to democracy.

My contention was that the real problem was the concentration of all public goods in the powers of the state. Those who agreed with me on that point usually assumed that the only alternative was to manage the power of money to protect the rights of the owners of property — radical capitalism. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), claimed that the public goods that the state did not provide could be provided on a moral basis by the rich. This was hardly a prescription for democracy. Clearly public goods are very important to human life. Many public goods are conventions that evolve from the interactions of people as unplanned byproducts. Our languages are the obvious example. However in complex technological societies, many of the goods we need to have at our disposal must involve rational choices between different possibilities that are accepted by all those who need them.

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Lottocracy: Lectures by Alex Guerrero

Prof. Alex Guerrero – a long time sortition advocatehas three lectures on sortition as part of a Coursera course called “Revolutionary Ideas: Borders, Elections, Constitutions, Prisons”. The lectures about sortition are titled:

  1. The Lottocracy
  2. The Promise of Lottocracy
  3. Concerns About Lottocracy

The lectures present Guerrero’s proposal which centers around single-issue-specific allotted bodies but also contain discussions that address questions that are relevant to other forms of sortition-based governance. The total length of the lectures is about 1 hour and they seem to have in mind an audience that is similar in terms of interests and attitude to political science undergraduate students.

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 13/13

Landemore concludes her book in chapter 9. Looking at this chapter and looking back at the entire book’s narrative, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book’s promise was not lived up to. By this point it seems that not much remains of the book’s original radical spirit. Gone in this conclusion is the most subversive part of Landemore’s narrative – the hints that the status quo, the elections-based system produces terrible outcomes. Also gone is the radical insistence on political equality. Other than some non-committal language about “an open door” connecting representatives and society at large, in the conclusion “open democracy” seems to boil down to three institutions – allotted bodies, popular initiative processes and delegative voting. Landemore writes that “open democracy” means that ordinary citizens “have access to power”. But of course it may be argued – and conventionally it is argued – that voting is also a form of “access to power”. Why is voting in the initiative process or though vote delegation a better form of “access” than conventional voting?

The concluding chapter is mostly concerned with issues that are only tangentially related to the topics discussed in the book. A concluding chapter can be expected to contain some “future directions” – ideas that were not explored in the book but which are somehow relevant to the topics that were discussed. These future directions, however, should stem from a concise summary of the conclusions that were drawn from the preceding discussion. The conclusions should position the reader at a new vantage point from which the future directions can be pursued. Unfortunately, such a new vantage point is missing. In particular, Landemore devotes a fair amount of space in the chapter to a discussion of the role of nation-states in governance, the inclusivity of the demos, and other sites of power such as corporate power. This discussion, however, does not build on previously discussed topics and does not go beyond the standard claims and arguments made. The claim, for example, that “there seems to be a logic to democracy that is conducive to universal inclusion” and that “[t]his logic eats away at the closed borders of a nationally defined demos and cracks them open” (p. 210) is a questionable commonplace, rather than an idea that builds on the main arguments of the book.
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An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 12

The final objection to “open democracy” which Landemore considers in chapter 8 of her book is that a non-electoral system would be too demanding on people’s time and effort. Landemore does not explicitly do so, but it seems useful to differentiate between the demands made on the population in total, or on average, and the demands made on specific people. A system may be problematic if it requires the average citizen to invest more time and effort than the average citizen sees fit. But even in cases where the demand on average is low, there may be problems if some citizens (even a small number) are asked to put in more time and effort than they are willing to put in.

Landemore rightly emphasizes that “it is essential to consider citizens’ time and attention as scarce resources that must be used wisely”. The notion that it makes sense, or even commendable and serves some ideal of citizenship or democracy, for citizens to show up to mass meetings or mass political events of any kind must be firmly rejected. This is not “participation” but exploitation. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for other forms of powerless “participation”, quite a few of which Landemore “makes room for” (p. 206) in her let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach. Spending time on a “crowdsourced platform” (p. 206), for example, or even sitting on an “agenda-setting” or “proposal review” body which is one of thousands of such bodies, meaning that its output is diluted thousands of times, is also a meaningless, exploitative anti-democratic ritual.
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