Buchstein: Democracy and lottery: Revisited

Ten years ago Hubertus Buchstein pinned some high hopes on the application of sortition in government (“Reviving Randomness for Political Rationality”, Constellations 17(3), 2010):

[T]he horizon for further development of randomly selected councils boils down to two options. One can either stay on the beaten path and continue working with the experiments and projects described above with their non-binding status. That would amount to supporting commendable projects instructive about democracy, which admittedly remain mere ornaments of the political system’s routines, projects that participants expect to have little tangible influence, thus engendering the problems of motivation. Or the standing of randomly selected councils could be reinforced; their integration in existing institutional arrangements with a clearly defined and binding set of competencies would form the culminating point of such a reform policy.

There is much to be said for the fact that random selection, if used wisely, could prove a useful complement to the procedures in place until now. And if we have the courage to make such changes, there is reason to believe that judicious integration of components of lotteries in modern democracies can contribute to a reform policy model, relevant beyond nation-states and the example of the EU, for coping with the institutional demands of the spatial transformation of democracy beyond the framework of the nation-state currently on the agenda. Resorting to chance in such a program of policy for democracy is not an expression of resignation or fatalism, but instead of democratic experimentalism striving to increase democracy’s potential for rationality.

A decade later, Buchstein is singing a very different tune (“Democracy and lottery: Revisited”, Constalleations 26(3), 2019). Buchstein now opens his article with some accusations directed toward sortition advocates and with some skeptical questions:
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Americans support constitutional amendments replacing voting with lotteries

The chart below is excerpted from the results of an opinion survey conducted for “of by for” – an organization working “to get past parties and politicians and put everyday people front and center”. The organization has high profile sortition advocates such as Lawrence Lessig, James Fishkin and Jane Mansbridge as advisors.

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

Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 4

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

It remains to examine the different applications of sortition in politics:

Part II. Comparison of different applications of sortition

Having seen how poorly the common good is served by elections and how well it is defended by sortition, we can ask (i) what are the principal applications of allotment for appointing representatives, and (ii) how could this procedure become part of a constitutional, institutional structure.

(i) Principal applications of sortition in politics

Elections among candidates are generally used to award privileges, whereas sortition is used to assign duties.

In addition, to fill a post or carry out a function we elect a single person for an extended duration, during which time there is little or no control over that person. With sortition, a group of people are allotted for a short period, during which time they are closely monitored.
Here are three notable models for the use of sortition in politics (keeping the most important one for the end):

1. Sortition for appointing oversight bodies

It is often asserted in the literature of political philosophy how important it is for citizens to closely control all forms of political power. Here is Montesquieu:

It is the universal experience that any man who carries power comes to abuse it. He abuses it up to the point where he finds his limits. Even virtue needs to have limits! In order to prevent abuse of power it is necessary to match power against power [The Spirit of the Laws, Book XI, Chapter IV].

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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 3

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

(ii) Elections put the worst in power (whereas sortition does not)

Regarding the rulers, by accepting that we need “representatives” we observe often that election among candidates brings into power the worst qualified – the exact opposite of that which it claims.

There are 7 inherent characteristics of elections that lead to this disastrous result – which are the mirror image of 7 opposite characteristics of sortition which would prevent such results.

1. Elections give power to those who desire it (whereas sortition does not)

It has been known for 2,500 years that giving power to those who desire it must be avoided.

Plato: “The worst of maladies is when power is in the hands of those who desire it” [Cited by Jacques Rancière].

Alain: “The most noticeable characteristic of the just man is not wishing to govern others but rather governing himself alone. Everything flows from that. That is, the worst will rule” [Alain, On Power, Dec. 10th, 1935].

Upon reflection, we see that it is true that the worst will rule, but only if we grant power to those who desire it (because the best do not desire power). Indeed, sortition avoids this crucial trap and grants power to the “others”, and in this way does not condemn us to the tyranny of those who desire power to decide for others.

It is a bad idea to grant power to those who desire it enough to gain it because the abilities and the motivations that are necessary in order to gain power (that is, to win the electoral match) are surely not those that are necessary in order to exercise power – exercise it in an attempt to promote the common good.

2. Elections encourage lying and favor the liars

By relying on the choice of the citizens to appoint the actors, elections give fraudsters, whose entire skill is exactly in misdirecting peoples’ choices, an opportunity. In a way, elections give power to the liars: it is he who lies best who will be elected every time. Therefore, by construction, elections encourage lying: first, lying before the vote in order to get elected, followed by lying after the vote in order to be re-elected. Scientifically, mechanically, consistently, elections among candidates promote lying.

(Again: “The worst rule”, said Alain.)
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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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Schnapper: Extreme democracy and democratic extremists

Dominique Schnapper is the director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) (retired) and a former member of the French Constitutional Council. This is a translation of Schnapper’s articleExtrême et extrémistes de la démocratie” published in April 2019 on the Telos website.

The Gilets Jaunes movement fights under the banner of “real” democracy and it risks contributing to the destruction of the only democratic regime that has ever existed, namely representative democracy.

Democracy always had two dimensions: a democratic one and an aristocratic one. Democratic because the rulers submit to elections by the ruled and are rewarded or punished through the vote.

The dream of direct democracy

The aristocratic dimension was always a source of disagreement. The dream of direct or total democracy has accompanied the history of democracy. But it is today all the more present in the idea that entrusting decision making to others is contradictory to the conception of the sovereign democratic individual doing things himself, and being the source of all legitimacy and competence. He brings his own legitimacy. He feels fully qualified to express himself directly by himself without the intervention of a representative.

Democrats like neither mediation nor distinctions. Every type of distinction – and in particular the distinction between voters and elected – every hierarchy is perceived as discriminatory. The elites are easily denounced as responsible for all our failures. For there the ideas of direct democracy and ideas inspired by direct democracy regain their power. Protesting activists become actors of a “counter-democracy” [Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre démocratie, 2006], they speak about the foundational principles of democracy and the liberation from electoral rhythm in order to exercise daily surveillance on the actions of the rulers.
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