Testart on democracy, democratic debate and citizen power, Part 2/2

This is the second part of a translation of a 2017 interview in Le Comptoir with Jacques Testart, a prominent French biologist, and long-time advocate for citizen power. The first part is here.

Le Comptoir: Citizen juries have so far been employed in a consultative role. Can you explain what those procedures are and within which frameworks they do they work?

Testart: The democratic procedures for citizen juries or assemblies are very vague. The principle is always to ask a group of allotted people to express their opinion on a certain problem. Citizen conferences, which are the most well-formed model, were invented by the Danish parliament in the 1980’s, perhaps because the Danish MPs are less conceited than ours. They noted that they were unqualified to politically manage technological and medical problems.
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Democracy according to Richelet

The Richelet dictionary, edited by César-Pierre Richelet and first published in 1680, was one of the first dictionaries of the French language. The dictionary defines “Democracy” as follows:

Democratie: Gouvernement populaire. État populaire. Forme de gouvernement où les charges se donnent au sort.

Or, translated to English:

Democracy: Popular government. A popular state. A form of government where offices are distributed by lot.

(Thanks to Arturo Iniguez for noting this historical fact.)

The Potential of Weighted Sortition

This is the 5th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previously published parts: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Sortition is hiring without human intervention using random rather than reasoned criteria. Weighted sortition, though, is a statistical narrowing down of randomly chosen job candidates to the more ready among workers available. In Barbara Goodwin’s words, they are “lotteries where some people get extra chances of winning according to their personal characteristics or qualifications.” More broadly, the chances of “winning” a position can be micro-managed to take in any number of other factors beyond qualifications, such as need and desert, both personal and social, both present and future.

Goodwin’s “Justice by Lot” introduced to me the idea of weighted sortition. True, she dismisses it as “impure” compared to completely random sampling of the entire population, but the idea has intrigued me ever since I encountered it here. Admittedly, playing with percentages increases the complexity of choices, but complexity, in an age of supercomputers, data mining and artificial general intelligence (AGI), is not the obstacle it was even ten years ago. A weighted lottery allows for intriguing possibilities never imaginable before. It can factor into every hire whatever evidence-based social science deems well grounded, including experience, aptitude, personal choice and even broader social goals. The difficulty is that the advantages of sortition itself have to be clear to a broad proportion of the population before weighted sortition comes into play, as Goodwin points out,

Only by participation, which is a continuous process, would people acknowledge the authority of a social lottery [p. 71].

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Rotation; The Stabilizer of Random Selection

This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3.

Barbara Goodwin’s main concern in Justice by Lottery is to examine how a purely sortition-dominated economy, in the form of what she calls a “total social lottery”, might aid in establishing greater justice and equality. However, she does introduce another technique that grew up at the same time as sortition did in Ancient Athens, that of rotation. Rotation of positions there was assured by default, it seems, simply by establishing term limits and stipulating that a given post can be only held once by any given citizen in their lifetime. Goodwin treats sortition and rotation as so closely compatible that she sometimes treats them as a single process, sortition-rotation. Whereas sortition, run by the cleroterion device, assigns posts at random, rotation assures that all the necessary bases are covered. She explains,

Rotation is not the same as pure chance: it pays some attention to people’s desire for a guaranteed supply of certain things. By contrast, the lottery is based on the idea that surprise and risk are themselves a major part of what people desire. But there could be room in a transformed society for both principles, and they could operate in harmony – unlike, say, rotation and the principle of entitlement. If we could ensure that people’s basic needs were securely satisfied and that highly specialized jobs (which carry their own rewards in terms of work satisfaction) were appropriately filled, there would be sound reasons for distributing non-specialized jobs and scarce goods above a guaranteed minimum via a modified lottery system or by rotation, especially in the case of scarce luxuries. This would add to the spice of life. Such a system would mitigate the two major kinds of social injustice which the ineradicable inequalities in the structure of advanced capitalist societies, combined with the inelasticity of supply of some goods, produce – for example:
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Reginald Walter Macan: early sortition advocate

The February 1892 issue of The Classical Review (vol. 6, No. 1/2) has a review by Reginald Walter Macan of James Wycliffe Headlam’s Election by Lot at Athens which was published the year before.

Macan talks approvingly of Headlam’s analysis of the rationale behind the use of sortition in Athens:

The Lot was used in the Athenian democracy for two main purposes, as Mr. Headlam explains clearly enough: to constitute bodies, that represented the sovran people, or were committees, commissions of the same (p. 161); to secure rotation of office (p. 94) — both these purposes being subordinate to the supreme end, the sovranty of the whole people.

However, in regards to the representation function, Macan is radically reinterpreting Headlam. The “representation” discussed in page 161 of Headlam’s book is that of carrying out technical, apolitical functions which require no judgement and which any Athenian would have performed in the same way.

The inspectors, then, were appointed by the people to act as stewards or bailiffs. The people was the owner of a large business establishment; the inspectors had to do the work of superintendence over the workmen which the owner had not time to do himself. They were a committee of the Assembly, or council, who were appointed by lot because they represented the whole people. The whole of the demos could not go together to the dockyards to see that the new ships which had been ordered were properly built, so they deputed a few of their number to do so, and as a matter of course, as in all such committees, made the appointment by lot.
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Advantages and Disadvantages of Sortition

This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here.

At the start of Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin gives an overview of the history of sortition, which in the beginning was bound up with war and religion. Victory in war meant division of the spoils and since most warriors were full time farmers in their day job (professional soldiers were an innovation of Phillip of Macedon), land grants (hence “lots” of land) to veterans for their service served as a sort of pension.

Tangibles as well as intangibles like power have been distributed by lot since early times. God instructed Moses to order the Jews to divide up tracts of land by lots, and this method of distribution is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Land in Athenian colonies was distributed by lot to cleruchs (veterans), and the Romans also parcelled out landholdings for veteran soldiers by lot, to ensure that the most fertile land was impartially distributed: this too, presumably, was God’s reasoning in the case of the Jews.

The Greek word for veteran, “cleruch,” was bound up with clerisy or random distribution. It is also the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries, but later the clergy disapproved and the practice was restricted to heretical outliers, such as the Gnostics. In Hellas, random choice was not primarily religious, as Goodwin points out. “Despite the Greek predilection for giving political rituals a religious gloss, it appears that no divine weight was accorded.” It was also a Roman tradition, though in different form.

In Rome, the augurs had special responsibility for supervising lots as well as for reading entrails, and they adopted as their symbol the urn, from which lots were drawn. But the reasoning behind their usage of the lot also seems to be common-sense and secular: the lot was chiefly used as a convenient means of determining which of various necessary tasks would be performed by officers of equal rank, such as the two consuls.

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Levinson likes Sortition

Noted American Constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson seems to have recently read David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections. He is full of praise for the book and for sortition in general. His main concern about elections is apparently about rational ignorance, so he focuses on the idea of elections by jury. Displaying an interesting mix of elitist and democratic sentiments, Levinson makes the following comments:

We could obviously discuss at length the degree to which the restricted list generates truly “representative” candidates, given the role played by money or well-located interest groups. That’s the subject for other postings. Rather, let’s assume for the moment that the candidate-selection process is acceptable, and we’re concerned only with how we should structure the choice by the citizenry of who should occupy the offices in question.

I am assuming that any and all trained social scientists would agree that a well-chosen representative sample will produce more “representative” outcomes, whether one is testing the distribution of public opinion or, as in the hypothetical case the selection of a president, than does the baroque process by which we conduct elections. The laity, on the other hand, I suspect would be appalled at this suggestion because we have built up over the years a true mystique about elections per se. Continue reading

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice By Lottery

This is the first post in a series dealing with the book Justice by Lottery by Barbara Goodwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery is a classic overview of sortition, covering its practical applications and the many speculative proposals in literature and political theory. The book begins with a headpiece, a quotation from King Lear. Since this play was written while Shakespeare was confined in quarantine, it rings differently now that virtually every nation in the world is in lockdown. King Lear planned for a gradual, honourable retirement, but is rejected and enters into a sudden isolation that dislocates and impoverishes.

The scene in question has the former king, betrayed by two of his daughters, in a homeless state, beginning to perceive what his ascendancy had blinded him to. He asks Gloucester, who recently had been brutally blinded for loyalty to Lear, whether he can see how this world goes? Gloucester ruefully answers that he “sees it feelingly.” That is, he understands by touch, not sight. This cartoon depicts how he “sees feelingly,”

Lear then says (and this is Goodwin’s headpiece),

What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi)

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Lafont: Democracy without shortcuts

Cristina Lafont is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University whose research is about normative questions in political philosophy concerning democracy and citizen participation, global governance, human rights, religion and politics.

Lafont is the author a new book, Democracy without shortcuts, devoting a fair amount of attention to allotted citizen juries.

This book articulates a participatory conception of deliberative democracy that takes the democratic ideal of self-government seriously. It aims to improve citizens’ democratic control and vindicate the value of citizens’ participation against conceptions that threaten to undermine it. The book critically analyzes deep pluralist, epistocratic, and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. Their defenders propose various institutional “shortcuts” to help solve problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation. However, it turns out that these shortcut proposals all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy. Moreover, it seems naïve to assume that a community can reach better outcomes “faster” if it bypasses the beliefs and attitudes of its citizens. Unfortunately, there are no “shortcuts” to making a community better than its members. The only road to better outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. However difficult the process of justifying political decisions to one another may be, skipping it cannot get us any closer to the democratic ideal. Starting from this conviction, the author defends a conception of democracy “without shortcuts.” This conception sheds new light on long-standing debates about the proper scope of public reason, the role of religion in politics, and the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. It also proposes new ways to unleash the democratic potential of institutional innovations such as deliberative minipublics.

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Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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