Cook: Sortition is an element in a war on civilization

Michael Cook, editor of MercatorNet, issues a strong warning against the Extinction Rebellion movement. Here are some excerpts:

Extinction Rebellion’s loopy politics

The movement’s “Declaration of Rebellion”, a pastiche of America’s “Declaration of Independence”, states: “We hereby declare the bonds of the social contract to be null and void, which the government has rendered invalid by its continuing failure to act appropriately. We call upon every principled and peaceful citizen to rise with us.”

Declaring the “social contract” null and void is a radical step – so radical that either the author did not understand it (unlikely) or he thought that no one else would (likely). Stopping traffic? You ain’t seen nothin’ yet. This is a declaration of war on civilization.

There is but one rational, ethical, and spiritual position on climate change. None other is possible. “The ecological crises that are impacting upon this nation, and indeed this planet and its wildlife can no longer be ignored, denied nor go unanswered by any beings of sound rational thought, ethical conscience, moral concern, or spiritual belief,” the declaration says.

In a democracy, questioning an opponent’s sincerity about his convictions is the ultimate offence. Convictions are tested by rational debate, not by smearing people as venal, wicked or stupid. But this is just what XR is doing.

XR demands that countries go “beyond politics”. “Government must create and be led by the decisions of a Citizens’ Assembly on climate and ecological justice.” Why? Because “Political power in the UK is in the hands of a few elected politicians” says the “Our Demands” page on the XR website. This, of course, is true. Putting power in the hands of elected politicians is called representative democracy and it has a long and successful history of defending political and personal freedom.
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Minipublics beyond representation

[This serves, in a sense, as my response to the discussion on the French climate assembly post.]

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.
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Procaccia: Lotteries Instead of Elections? Not So Arbitrary

Ariel Procaccia, an associate professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, has an opinion piece in Bloomberg News advocating sortition. Some excerpts:

Have you ever thought that 535 random people off the street would do a decidedly better job than the duly elected members of the U.S. Congress? If so, you’ve been scooped by a few millenniums; the idea of selecting government officials at random, known as sortition, is neither as outrageous nor as original as it seems.

In the fourth and fifth centuries BC, some of the central organs of the Athenian government were populated by selecting random volunteers. For example, the members of the Council of 500 — whose responsibilities included developing legislation, overseeing the executive branch and managing diplomatic relations — were selected at random for one-year terms.

During the Renaissance, sortition was all the rage. For centuries it played a key role in the process of selecting the Doge of Venice, as well as in populating the branches of the Florentine government. It was also employed widely throughout the Kingdom of Aragon, which is part of modern-day Spain. [King Ferdinand II of Aragon spoke highly of the virtues of sortition. Unfortunately, he also established the Spanish Inquisition and ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from his kingdom, so he is hardly an authority on governance.] Sortition actually endured as a system of government into the 20th century: San Marino’s two heads of state were selected at random from 60 councilors as recently as 1945. [The two heads of state constitute a non-negligible fraction of the minuscule country’s population.]

Procaccia mentions in quick succession David Van Reybrouck, Terrill Bouricius, citizens’ assemblies, Ireland, and the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and finishes off with:

Admittedly, even the Belgian initiative is still a long way off from a Bouricius-style sortition utopia — and the jury is still out on whether we’d want to go that far. But it’s comforting to think that the best fix for our political chaos may be a bit of randomness.

Sortition in Ha’aretz

Ha’aretz is Israel’s elite newspaper. With Israel’s second election day of 2019 coming up in about a month, Ha’aretz published in its latest weekend magazine an article by Hilo Glaser offering readers several reform ideas for the political system. Sortition got top billing. I was interviewed for the article. Below is a translation of some excerpts (original in Hebrew, paywalled).

The method: Sortition (i.e., lottery instead of elections)

The idea: Advocates of sortition note that modern democracy embraces ideas originating from Ancient Greece, but it disposes of the government mechanism that enabled their application. In ancient democracy public offices were appointed by lottery among the entire citizenry. This is how officials, clerics, and even government ministers were appointed.

In 2014, Prof. Irad Malkin published an article in Ha’aretz in which he explained that “the lottery was the most effective tool against the oligarchy of money and government, drawing the citizens into the political activity and allowing them to take part at different levels: in the sovereign assembly, in the high council, and in the courts. This worked well for 200 years.”

Not only historians are calling to revive the lottery mechanism. Yoram Gat, a software engineer and a statistics Ph.D., has recently published an article challenging the mechanism of elections in view of the public frustration with elected institutions and offering sortition as an alternative. He claims that allotment of political office holders will result in optimal representation of the different groups in the population.
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Rennix and Nimni: Alternatives to judges

In the June 2018 issue of Current Affairs magazine, Brianna Rennix and Oren Nimni discuss the horrors of the judicial branch of the Western system of government, where professional judges each rule their “tiny fiefdoms and everyone who enters must cater to their whims”.

[A] lot of seemingly “impartial” legal standards—like the famous “what would a reasonable person do” standard—are inherently subjective, so that it’s hard to say what an “impartial” application would even mean. The law is full of attempts to determine what “reasonable” behavior would be in a particular situation. It should shock no one (except lawyers) that people often have wildly divergent views of what “reasonableness” means in any given situation. For courts, the “reasonable person” standard has a disturbing tendency to align with whatever best suits the positions of those in power. Think of all of the police officers whose shootings of unarmed black people have been deemed “reasonable”—and then say you want a judicial system run by “reasonable” or “impartial” judges.

At the end, they consider some alternatives. The first among their “more radical solutions to the judge problem” is “no more judges”:

But how can you have a legal system without judges, you say? Well, in Ancient Athens (immediate chorus of boos) no, hear me out (boos continue) look, I am not proposing ancient Athens as a civilizational ideal, I am just exploring an alternative institutional design (boos increase in volume) IN ANCIENT ATHENS, judges were essentially administrative functionaries, with no real decision-making power. Cases were decided entirely by enormous juries of 201-501 people, who were assigned to cases by random lottery and received a small fee for their services. A simple majority vote, without deliberation, determined the verdict. In the words of legal historian Adriaan Lanni, “the Athenians made a conscious decision to reject the rule of law in most cases, and they did so because they thought giving juries unlimited discretion to reach verdicts based on the particular circumstances of each case was the most just way to resolve disputes.”

Sortition in the New Yorker

Another step in the thousand mile march: Sortition is positively featured in the second paragraph of Masha Gessen’s article in the New Yorker. The oligarchical nature of elections is rather matter-of-factedly asserted:

The concept of democracy rests on the premise that any citizen is a potential member of government. The ancient Athenian choice of sortition—the selection of government by lottery—was based on the understanding that elections would inevitably favor the aristocracy, and in a democracy the government should be a mirror of the governed. The American system has proved the Athenians right. Access to our electoral system is determined by the candidates’ ability to attract financial contributions. The contest itself is rigged in favor of the white, the highly educated, and the privileged—those who reproduce the class, race, and style of their predecessors.

Bradatan: Today’s democracy favors the the power-hungry, arrogant, oppressively self-assertive political animal

Costica Bradatan, professor of philosophy at Texas Tech University, has a free-ranging essay about democracy in the New York Times. It is a rather incongruous mass of ideas, some more convincing than others. It does mention (approvingly? hard to tell) sortition as one of the fundamental foundations of Athenian democracy.

The institutions of democracy, its norms and mechanisms, should embody a vision of human beings as deficient, flawed and imperfect.

Ancient Athenian democracy devised two institutions that fleshed out this vision. First, sortition: the appointment of public officials by lot. Given the fundamental equality of rights that all Athenian citizens — that is, free male adults — enjoyed, the most logical means of access to positions of leadership was random selection. Indeed, for the Athenian democrats, elections would have struck at the heart of democracy: They would have allowed some people to assert themselves, arrogantly and unjustly, against the others.

The other fittingly imperfect Athenian institution was ostracization.

Bradatan notes how different is the modern system that self-describes itself as “democracy”:
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