An unpublished column on sortition and Brexit

From around January this year I’ve tried to get the column below published – in the Guardian UK where my previous column was published. Unfortunately, and even after endless cajoling via the Guardian at this end, I couldn’t get a reply which is piss poor but there you go. Martin Wolf tried for me at the FT. At least they responded – but with a ‘no’, which is fair enough given the oversupply of articles on Brexit. Anyway as it fades into irrelevance and the Brexit Brouhaha Burbles on I thought I’d pop it up here.

The result of the 2016 Brexit referendum looms over the career politicians assembled in the Palace of Westminster as the black monolith loomed over the apes in the movie 2001.

It’s taken over thirty months of thrashing through actual options – as opposed to the wild partisan imaginings in the campaign – for a ghastly, if entirely foreseeable realisation to dawn. Despite the people’s clear instruction to Leave, any specific way of doing so would command far less than the 48 percent vote for Remain.

In the teeth of the greatest crisis of British statecraft since World War II, the institutional imperatives of political combat ensure the politicians perform rather than deliberate. Not only Corbyn, but extraordinarily enough, May has clung to fantasies about getting a better deal, though the end game will presumably see her change her tune.

How did it come to this? Continue reading

Most Americans do not believe that government policies reflect the views of most Americans

A 2018 opinion poll by the Pew Research Center has quite a few useful findings about the perceptions of government and political parties by American citizens. Some highlights:

Democracy: Most Americans do not believe that government policies reflect the views of most Americans and most say that government is run by a few big interests. Yet most say that American democracy works very or somewhat well.


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Large majorities in most OECD countries believe that government ignores them when setting social benefits

“Risks that Matter 2019”, a new OECD report [PDF], shows a familiar public opinion pattern. Most people in most countries (in this case OECD countries) feel government does not serve their needs and does not take their opinions into account when formulating policy.

Umbers: Against Lottocracy

“Against Lottocracy” (PDF) is a 2018 paper by Lachlan Montgomery Umbers from the department of philosophy at the University of Western Australia.

Abstract

Dissatisfaction with democratic institutions has run high in recent years. Perhaps as a result, political theorists have begun to turn their attention to possible alternative modes of political decision-making. Many of the most interesting among these involve reliance on lotteries in one way or another – as a means of distributing the franchise, selecting representatives, or making social choices. Advocates of these ‘lottocratic’ systems contend that they retain the egalitarian appeal of democracy, while promising improved political outcomes. The aim of this article is to defend democracy (or, at least, universal suffrage and majority rule) against the challenge posed by these proposals. I argue, firstly, that lottocratic systems necessarily involve the establishment of objectionable social and political inequalities in a way that democracies do not. Secondly, I raise a number of doubts with respect to the purported instrumental benefits of these proposals.

The paper is an attempt to formulate a reasoned (negative) response to proposals for instituting sortition-based government as a substitute to elections-based government, and specifically (as its name indicates) to Alexander Guerrero’s proposals. By doing so, the paper represents a significant step forward in the Anglophone academic discussion of sortition. In English-speaking academia proposals for setting up “citizen juries” – i.e., allotted, one-time, limited-purview decision making or (more often) advisory bodies – are discussed at length. So far, however, proposals for setting up sortition-based government were either ignored or summarily dismissed (“Nobody is going to support replacing Congress or Parliament with a randomly selected assembly,” as Helen Landemore put it). As it turns out, Umbers argues for the same reformist academic position. Umbers, however, does break some new ground by devoting his energies to making a detailed argument rather than simply taking sortition-based government off the table at the outset.
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A first article is published by BIRDS

Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition (BIRDS) was recently founded by Jonas Kunz and Hans Kern.

Kunz and Kern have now published a lengthy article in which they offer sortition as a tool for taking action on climate change:

Sortition: The Key to Globally Coordinated Climate Change Action?

Climate change by human industry (anthropogenic warming) has been known to scientists at the highest levels within the U.S. government, at least since 1979. That year, the ‘Charney Report’ — Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment — presented the research of nine atmospheric, meteorological and oceanographic scientists convened at Woods Hole Institute, to the National Research Council. The introduction to this report by Werner E. Suomi pronounces: “If carbon dioxide continues to increase, the study group finds no reason to doubt that climate changes will result and no reason to believe that these changes will be negligible. The conclusions of prior studies have been generally reaffirmed. …[“]

[Natheniel Rich writes in a New York Times article:] “in the decade that ran from 1979 to 1989, we had an excellent opportunity to solve the climate crisis. The world’s major powers came within several signatures of endorsing a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.” To arrive at a clear understanding of what went wrong, we must first do away with the common misconception that big industry is and always has been the main culprit. In fact, as the article reveals, the oil industry was the first, to take due diligence measures, on the dangers of climate change and was preparing to adapt to policy changes. The policy changes, however, never came. Resistance did not come from the outside, it came from within the political structures themselves.

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When is a conversation not a conversation? When it’s a political conversation.

Violence in Bahrain as Democracy Protesters Take to Streets

This essay is cross posted from Quillette

I

It looks like liberal democracy is falling apart. But we can put it back together if we take democracy seriously enough—as seriously as the ancient Greeks.

The chaos of Donald Trump was unimaginable just a decade ago. Brexit was a similar humiliation for Britain’s political class, leading to its bewildered paralysis ever since. How do such things happen? Perhaps because I admire economists’ deployment of very simple ideas to powerful effect, I’ve come to an approach to these problems that I think is simple and compelling.

First, democracy is government by conversation. A political conversation should often be competitive—to sharpen ideas and measure their support. Yet, to remain a conversation rather than a parody of one, it must also be a co-operative search, if not for agreement, then at least for mutual understanding of where positions differ. However, this co-operative foundation for our politics has been largely extinguished by the weaponisation of political communication by professionals operating on the mass media, and, more recently by “trolling” on social media.

Second, where elections bake competition into the operating system of representation, there’s another, even more time honoured way to represent the people. The ancient Greeks built their democracy around it and it hides in plain sight today whenever a jury is empanelled in a court of law. And, whether it concerns legal or political matters, deliberation within such bodies nurtures the collaborative aspects of conversation. Giving citizens’ juries and assemblies chosen by lot a role within our beleaguered democracy could see it renewed.

II

To become a politician you compete for election. You then join party colleagues competing against their opponents. Yet democracy implies limits to competition. We remain safe for now that no substantial political grouping perpetuates extra-legal violence. Yet something more fundamental is afoot.

Though it apes the form of conversation, political communication has become as professionalised, as optimised to the competition to win votes as McDonald’s use of salt, fat, sugar and advertising is to win customers. Meanwhile, responding to similar competitive imperatives, the informational foundations of our democracy were being shorn away by mass media news values long before the internet arrived. Between 1968 and 1988, the length of presidential sound bites on US network news went from 43 to 9 seconds.1
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Lessons of the Australia Capital Territory compulsory third party car accident insurance citizen jury

In March 2018, a citizen jury convened by the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) government delivered its decision regarding the design of a compulsory third party (CTP) car accident insurance system. The government’s Chief Minister Andrew Barr had committed ahead of time to implement the jury’s decision, but there are now significant political forces pushing against implementation, including Barr’s coalition partner. Adopting the jury’s decision would have significant economic implications for various parties, and as can be expected the process has been called into question. A timeline of criticisms of the citizen jury process is laid out below.

While the attacks are no doubt motivated by interests, the claims that the process itself was tainted by interests cannot be dismissed. The important, if unsurprising, lesson for those advocating the use of citizen juries for public policy is that an expectation that the fact that a decision was made by a citizen jury would by itself carry enough power to resolve significant political conflicts is unrealistic. If the citizen jury’s decisions are to have political power, the citizen jury process must be evidently democratic, i.e., representative of the population and free of elite manipulation. In the case of the ACT CTP jury, this does not seem to be the case. As a result, the jury’s decision cannot be taken at face value as being well-informed and well-considered. The “deliberative democracy” process, then, has had very little value.

The ACT CTP citizen jury, a timeline of criticisms

Even before the jury made its decision, the opposition claimed the process was rigged:

Canberra Liberals to call for inquiry into CTP citizens’ jury
By Katie Burgess, February 20, 2018

The ACT Opposition will push for higher scrutiny of the citizens’ jury on a new compulsory third party insurance scheme for the ACT after concerns the process has been undermined.

Canberra Liberals leader Alistair Coe will on Wednesday call for an inquiry into the citizens’ jury on the insurance scheme currently under way.

“The government’s first shot at a citizens’ jury has rightly made Canberrans sceptical of its merits,” Mr Coe said.

“If deliberative democracy is going to become a function of government, Canberrans need to be able to trust that it is conducted in a fair and impartial manner.

“If we can’t trust the process, then deliberative democracy will be nothing more than expensive tokenism.”
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