Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 5/5

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

(ii) Constitutional workshops, a practical tool for popular education for training a multitude of citizen constitution-writers, guardians of the common good

Representative government (falsely called “representative democracy” – a deceptive oxymoron) is a regime of domination of the voters by the elected, was never willfully adopted and was imposed from the outset by the elected (Sieyes, Madison, etc.). The solution will not come from the elected, who are the problem since they usurp the constitutive power. The solution must come from elsewhere: from the citizens themselves.

The emancipation of the voters, their transformation into citizens, demands the institution of their political empowerment and it should therefore be the voters who practice constitution-writing themselves.

1. A citizen worthy of this name must be vigilant, and therefore a constitution-writer

Vigilance has long been described as an essential quality of a citizen.


When a man will not himself hold office and rule, his chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse [Republic, Book 1, p. 347c].


A man who takes no part in political matters we regard not as unambitious but as useless [Pericles’s Funeral Oration, The Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46].

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Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

Grandjean: Sortition is apolitical and in-egalitarian

An op-ed in LaLibre.be by Geoffrey Grandjean, teaching fellow at the University of Liège and director of the Institut de la Décision publique. Original in French. Published 03/12/2019.

Forming a citizen assembly using sortition in order to reinvigorate democracy is a fashionable idea. Nevertheless, it appears to me to be erroneous. There are preferable alternatives.

Sortition has come back into fashion. Political representatives, sways by a series of experts, are now seeing sortition as a way to reinvigorate democracy and maybe, for some, to finally realize the democratic dream through statistical sampling. Instrumental reasoning will win over ideological debates because an allotted assembly – or even a partially allotted assembly – is synonymous with democracy.

However, recourse to sortition as a method for selecting assembly members is profoundly apolitical and in-egalitarian idea. There are three reasons for this.

More than a link of trust

First, behind sortition there are mistaken, and even dangerous, assumptions about the functioning of democracy. On the one hand, in critiquing the existing representative system, the advocates of sortition respond to a sentiment of general distrust by proposing a mechanism that does not rely on trust. The electoral link of trust between represented and representatives is replaced by a probabilistic selection technique of cold calculation. In this regard, in Les @nalyses du CRISP en ligne, Vincent de Coorebyter asserts that the tendency to create citizen parliaments consists of “an abandonment, pure and simple, of sovereignty in favor of an assembly selected without us”.

On the other hand, when we look at the different proposals for allotted assemblies, they are often designed as having short terms. In fact, citizens are convened for a single day, or a week at most. This type of proposal translates to short-termism and the ephemerality, unless the allotted citizens become full-fledged parliamentarians. Taking a public decision takes time, even in our digital societies. Fundamentally, the advocates of sortition drain away, through the procedure of selection of assemblies, what is the heart of political decisions – the depth and intensity of debate of ideas which requires trust and requires time. Therefore, sortition reveals itself as apolitical.
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Berkowitz: Democratic Revival and Using Lottery in Citizen Juries

On Saturday, April 18, 2020, at 4:00 pm – 5:00 pm EDT/GMT-4 the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College will hold an online discussion by Dr. Roger Berkowitz under the title “Democratic Revival and Using Lottery in Citizen Juries presented”. The event will be accessible through the following link: https://zoom.us/j/182088949.

We require intensive efforts to rebuild faith in democracy. An increasingly talked about idea is citizen assemblies or Citizen Juries that bring together everyday people chosen by lottery to discuss, learn about, and make recommendations upon political questions.

These Citizen Assemblies are based on the old Athenian idea of choosing representatives in a democracy by lottery rather than by election. Around the world, such Citizen juries are being used to foster greater involvement of citizens in policy making which complement representative and direct democracy. These deliberative institutions are not mere focus groups. By bringing non-expert citizens into political institutions, Citizen Juries both breathe energy into representative democracy and nurture virtue amongst citizens. It is one way to address the deficit of democratic participation that plagues modern democracy. Dr. Berkowitz will lead a discussion about Citizen Juries and how they can reinvigorate democracy.

Kerlouan: Macron treats the allotted citizens like children

Philippe Kerlouan writes in Boulevard Voltaire.

Citizen Climate Convention: Macron treats the 150 allotted citizens like children…

One may ask oneself how can 150 citizens, selected by lot in order to create proposals for addressing global warming, be “France in miniature” and represent “all the significant sections of French society”, as the co-president of the governance committee of the Climate Convention asserted they are. One must believe that the allotment was balanced according to some statistical measurements. But nevermind! The Athenian democracy at the time of Pericles designated numerous officials using a lottery. Chance is maybe the most effective way to turn equality for all and social-professional diversity into a democratic system.

We should also have confidence in the people so selected and not consider them second class citizens. As they met on Friday, January 10th for another weekend of work, they were able to pose questions to Emmanuel Macron, who attend in person for the occasion. No doubt he had nothing better to do in these troubled times. One of the participants, quoted by the Le HuffPost, observed that it is “scandalous that he chose this date in order to clown around in front of the Convention whereas he would have done better to take care of the pensions”. But our president must have had his reasons.
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 2

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1.

(i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)

Starting with the governed, let’s see, point-by-point, how elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters:

1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic

The greatest political thinkers have long known what we have now forgotten:

Aristotle (332 BC): “Elections are aristocratic and non-democratic: they introduce an element of deliberate choice, of selection of the best citizens, the aristoi, in place of government by the people” [Politics IV, 1300b4-5]. This quote is spurious. EC has requested that it be replaced with the following quote.

Aristotle (332 BC): “It is thought to be democratic for political offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic” [Politics IV, 1294b].

Montesquieu (1748): “Sortition is natural to democracy. Elections are natural to aristocracy” [The Spirit of the Laws].

Cornélius Castoriadis (1996): “It is the Greeks who have invented elections. It is an established historical fact. They may have been wrong to do so, but they have invented elections! Who was elected in Athens? They did not elect political officers. Those were selected using sortition or rotation. For Aristotle, you should know, a citizen is someone who is able to govern and be governed. Everybody is able to govern, and therefore sortition is used. Why? Because politics is not a business for experts. There is no science of the political. That was the conventional knowledge among the Greeks” [Post scriptum on Insignificance].

So, the word aristos means the best in Greek. Elections, which by definition aim to choose the best, are by construction aristocratic. The promise of democratic equality is therefore not kept. The elected representatives and the voters are not on equal footings: the elected dominate the voters, the few control the many. We should therefore suspect that the common good would be threatened as the elected come to serve personal interests rather than the general interest.

In contrast, sortition selects indiscriminately. It is therefore the only procedure that respects the foundational promise of democracy – political equality between citizens.
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An interview with a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention

In January, Le Télégramme interviewed, Denis Boucher, a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention:

How is the convention organized?

We are 150 citizens of all ages and walks of life, including some who are younger than 18 and others who live in overseas France. There is great diversity and I believe that we represent French society quite well. We gather one weekend each month for a session of three days. We work around five themes dealing with the objective of reaching a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030: food, transportation, housing, consumption, and production. I am part of the housing theme. The allocation to themes was by sortition – that is the principle of the convention. We reject expertise from the outset and it is normal citizens who express themselves, whoever they may be. It is an altogether original organization which really embodies direct democracy. It is a little like the citizens of Ancient Greece would discuss the issues of the city in the agora.

Where are you now in the process?

We are in the fourth session and we just finished the latest weekend of work. After 4 months during which we heard numerous speakers and understood the climate and the objectives we are now entering into the thick of it. We are going to propose measures that will become bills of legislature, decrees or constitutional amendments. That is not going to be easy!
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