Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.
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The classical unities

According to Wikipedia, it was Italian Renaissance philosopher Gian Giorgio Trissino who came up with the “classical unities” as a prescriptive theory of dramatic tragedy. The three unities are:

  • Unity of action: a tragedy should have one principal action.
  • Unity of time: the action in a tragedy should occur over a period of no more than 24 hours.
  • Unity of place: a tragedy should exist in a single physical location.

When considering how sortition (and elections) can be conducted in a way that would be resistant to manipulation, such unities are crucial, argues Trent Clark in an article in the Idaho State Journal.

Ancient Athens was home to one of the world’s first democracies. The Greek orator and reformer Cleisthenes initiated citizen “voting” in 508 BC. His solution: Give every voter one black stone and one white stone. On each decision, whether to go to war, accept a treaty, send trade delegations, etc., the citizens would cast a stone (white for “yes,” black for “no”) into a jar. The contents of the jar determined the policy of the city. As many as 6,000 Athenians would participate.

In early Athens, serving in government was a civic obligation, like jury duty today. Military assignments were based on skill with weapons and history as a soldier. But other posts were randomly drawn, a process called “sortition.” Tokens with a citizen’s name, or pinakia, were arranged across a large flat tablet or kleroterion. Multi-colored dice were used to select rows and columns, pointing to a random name for each open position.

Cleisthenes found it essential that all this occur at a known location, at a designated time, in public. Citizens needed to see that the process was not rigged or “fixed” by the city’s tribal bosses.

Presentation at Democracy Without Elections meeting

On Sunday I presented the presentation above at a meeting of Democracy Without Elections. The presentation was followed by a lively discussion. There was some interest in the “call to action” I make in the next-to-last slide (namely, resisting the oppressive convention of calling countries where the political system is elections-based “democracies”). A proposal was made that we – sortition activists – draw up a list of possible actions that we could engage in, as individuals or in groups, to promote sortition. I had to admit that I have made no such list, and that as far as I know no such list exists. I’ll draw up a list of ideas I have (it may unfortunately be a rather short one) and share it in a future post, and we could collectively extend and improve it.

It was great to meet this group of enthusiastic sortition activists. I thank those who participated and in particular Owen Shaffer for inviting me, and I warmly congratulate all those involved. It is great to see such activity which I think was unimaginable on a decade ago.

Sortition in Vox

In another manifestation of sortition making progress in the English-speaking world, the U.S. news website Vox has an article about this idea. The author is Dylan Matthews.

[I]f you want to know what Congress will do in 50 years, seeing what ideas are percolating in the academy can be surprisingly informative.

That’s why I’ve been struck by the growing popularity, among academics, of a radical idea for rethinking democracy: getting rid of elections, and instead picking representatives by lottery, as with jury duty. The idea, sometimes called sortition or “lottocracy,” originates in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of assigning positions to citizens by drawing lots.

But lately it’s had a revival in the academy; Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you’re a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The broad sense that American democracy is in crisis has provoked an interest in bold ideas for repairing it, with lottocracy the boldest among them.

It is worth noting that the article talks explicitly about “getting rid of elections”, rather than “complementing elections”, or employing some other vague phrasing regarding the future use of the electoral mechanism.
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What If We Made Democracy… More Democratic?

In These Times Editors on 4 Jan.:

When politicians seem increasingly out of touch with the average person, perhaps the average person should make decisions instead.

sor•ti•tion

noun

  1. the appointment of political positions by lottery, rather than election

Aren’t elections kind of what ​“make” democracy, though?

Not according to the ancient Athenians. In fact, these early democrats worried elections would inevitably favor the wealthy and powerful sound familiar? The city-state functioned instead by having citizens randomly selected annually to serve in public office, with duties ranging from monitoring public finances to deciding foreign policy and participating as one (of 6000) jurors on the People’s Court. Women and enslaved people, among others, were excluded, so Athens might not be the best example of a full-fledged democracy; still, they had a point about elections. In the United States, wealthy donors have more impact on policy than public opinion, and Congress is far whiter, richer, older and more male than the overall population.

You can read the rest of this short editorial here.

Austria’s Climate Citizen Council: Broken from the Get-go

Suspicious decisions and coincidences surround the preparations for Austria’s planned “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) hosted by Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy. Worrisome information emerged regarding the award of the organiser’s role and the choice of scientific experts.

Some background: Austria’s Ministry for Climate Protection, Environment and Energy is headed by Leonore Gewessler, a Green Party nominee within Austria’s coalition government of conservative ÖVP (People’s Party) and environmentalist minority partner “Die Gruenen” (Green Party). Their business lobbying sub-branch is called “Gruene Wirtschaft” (“Green Economy”) with its offices located at Seidengasse 25, in Vienna’s 7th “bobo” district.

As an aside, Austria now has the third Chancellor in quick succession since the 2019 elections due to a scandal surrounding fake citizen surveys which boosted the first Chancellor’s political ascent. SMS conversations revealed that a powerful boulevard newspaper was “incentivised” with government funds under the influence of said Chancellor to publish these fake surveys prominently. This matter is currently under investigation by Austria’s Anti-Corruption Agency. My readers will know that easily manipulated and biassed traditional surveys capture the Madness of Masses instead of Wisdom of Crowds, thus acting as a clandestine cause of corruption and many democratic ills in Austria (and other countries with a political party system).

With this background in mind: Gewessler answer to a parliamentary inquiry (the protocol is here) about the preparations to the “Klimabürger*innenrat” (Climate Citizen Council) stated that bids for independent organisation and moderation of the Klimarat were accepted throughout the EU and its 27 countries. Strangely, the Minister received only one single application by a consortium of three partners, PlanSinn GmbH, PulsWerk GmbH, and ÖGUT. PulsWerk is located at ​​Seidengasse 13. What a coincidence! Just six houses up in the same street as Gruene Wirtschaft. PlanSinn is – surprise! – also located in Vienna’s 7th district, in Zollergasse, a five minute walk from Gruene Wirtschaft. According to the Minister’s response, this single consortium’s offer luckily fulfilled all her quality criteria exactly and was thus awarded the contract.

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Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 3)

Part 1 Part 2.

The arguments below make a case for sortition that is based on a general, rather vague sense of a need for change.

6. Elections are an 18th century technology. We need to modernize democracy by adopting new, modern ideas and institutions. Sortition is one such new idea and is enabled by new technologies.

This argument is obviously false factually. Sortition was practiced in Athens some 2,500 years ago. Drawing lots could easily have been implemented at the end of the 18th century instead or in addition to tallying votes. Furthermore, this perpetuates the standard distortion of the historical record regarding the ideology and the objectives of the creators of the Western system. Elections were not an 18th century democratic technology, but rather an age old oligarchical mechanism. They were deliberately adopted in the 18th century for this reason. Thus there is no democracy to be modernized. There is an elections-based oligarchy that needs to be replaced by a sortition-based democracy.

7. Democratic fatigue: voters have grown tired of the elections. New institutions we need to be introduced in order to revitalize democracy.

A prominent spokesman of this argument is David Van Reybrouck:

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.

Van Reybrouck explains that “the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected”. This is a wholly unsatisfactory “fundamental cause”. Why are elections producing such poor despised officials? Why and when have we “become electoral fundamentalists”? What was the situation before that?

As an argument for sortition this is also rather weak. Why sortition rather than any other alternative to elections? Maybe elections can be fixed? If they used to work in the past, maybe they can be made to work again? Maybe we can have sortition together with elections? And/or together with many other new institutions? How do we know which institutions can be expected to work? If “relentless media scrutiny” is a problem, why would sortition fare any better than elections?
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Sortition in 2021

Equality-by-Lot’s traditional yearly review post.

The most significant piece of sortition-related news of the year was, in my view, the findings of an opinion poll run in four Western European countries – the UK, France, Italy and Germany – regarding the place of sortition in government. The survey found that 27%-30% among those asked support using allotted bodies to systematically complement the work of parliament.

As always, sortition has been most prominent in 2021 in the Francophone world. Early in the year, Macron’s administration in France formed an allotted panel monitoring the Coronavirus vaccination campaign. Not much has been heard of it since. The utilization of allotment by the Macron administration has become frequent enough to merit condemnation as well as ridicule. Sortition’s political presence is such that it draws regular criticism from elite writers, but also some support. The journal Raisons politiques devoted a large part of an issue to sortition. In Switzerland, a proposal to select judges by lot among qualified candidates failed at the polls.

However, sortition had some presence elsewhere as well in 2021. An allotted assembly was convened as part of the COP26 UN climate change conference. In Bosnia and Herzegovina a citizen assembly was called to express its opinion on constitutional and electoral questions. Scotland’s Citizen Assembly published its report. One of the recommendations in the report was to use allotted bodies to scrutinize government proposals and parliamentary bills. An allotted assembly about the climate was discussed in Austria as well. Ireland held a citizens’ assembly on gender equality. Washington state allotted a climate assembly. In the wake of the protests following the murder of George Floyd, allotted police oversight commissions were discussed in California. A CS course at Harvard dealt with sortition and an algorithm for quota sampling from unrepresentative volunteers made it into Nature.

The Japanese journal Law and Philosophy devoted an issue to “Just Lotteries”. Hélène Landemore, Yale political science professor and author of the book Open Democracy, has promoted sortition in an interview in The Nation magazine and in an article in Foreign Policy magazine. The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College held a conference about sortition.

Sortition was proposed as a way to create a governing body for the Internet, as tool to counter the allure of the Chinese system, as a way to save the UK and to stop popular but “undemocratic or illiberal” leaders from getting elected, and as a way to appoint public servants. A paper discussed sortition with a focus on India. In Massachusetts a letter to the newspaper introduced its readers to the idea of allotted citizen assemblies. A new book asserted that sortition is the only way to achieve a demcoratic system, while an article claimed that sortition is unable to address the biggest problem of the existing system, citizen apathy.

Sortition: An Ancient Remedy to Heal the Organized Community’s Wounds

Christopher Tripoulas writes in The National Herald, a publication aimed at the Greek American community:

For months now, the Federation of Hellenic Societies of Greater New York has been embroiled in an ugly dispute between rival sides. As the coordinating umbrella organization for local Greek societies, its primary function is to organize the annual Greek Independence Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

Despite any criticism regarding its subdued presence in other issues of vital importance for the Greek-American Community or the manner in which it organizes the parade, the truth is that with the exception of Holy Week, it handles perhaps the largest and most recognizable collective Greek Community activity in America. This alone constitutes the resolution of the present dysfunctionality an immediate priority.

The organization of a parade, without clear objectives and messages, negates its very purpose. Although the parade takes place in a prime location and is covered live by a large metropolitan area broadcaster, there are still glaring issues. Whether it’s the lack of a stricter dress code for participants to promote uniformity and aesthetic beauty, or the failure to properly showcase student-marchers, considering that our Greek parochial schools are interspersed with no rhyme or reason, as if Hellenic Paideia was not one of the most critical issues for the survival of Hellenism, there are serious issues that need to be examined through public discourse, and not just in the anterooms of the Federation.

Ultimately, either the Greek-American Community will manage to prioritize certain common values around which it will work in unison and strategically to upgrade the institutions that express them, or it will come apart, because the ‘tropos’ or manner of its distinct otherness will no longer be discernible, leading to withering and dissolution.

This column proposes that the present administrative crisis can be overcome through the application of the ancient democratic practice of sortition; that is, distribution of offices via a lottery system. In his work ‘Rhetoric’, Aristotle notes that “a Democracy is a form of government under which the citizens distribute the offices of state among themselves by lot” (1365b-1366a). Hence, if the Federation leadership invokes democracy as a defining quality of its mode of governance, then there should not be any problem with accepting the distribution of offices according to its signature trait.

On the contrary, the revival of this ancient element of democracy would serve as a sterling example for other organizations, while showcasing an essential aspect of democracy that is frequently overlooked in contemporary society. And while this trait may escape popular attention, it is not altogether absent from modern democratic polities. Two characteristic examples from the United States regarding the contemporary use of sortition include the selection of jurors for trials, and the draft, which is currently not in use, but still a legal requirement laid out in the selective service system. Now, if many of us just happen to view the former as an imposition and waste of time, and ward off the latter, it’s worth questioning just how democratically minded we truly are…
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Landemore in Foreign Policy

Prof. Hélène Landemore has a hard-hitting new article in Foreign Policy magazine. From the outset, Landemore’s subtitle aims right at the heart of modern democracy dogma:

Democracy as it was envisioned was never about real people power. That’s what needs to change.

This radical attack on the electoralist system keeps on coming, paragraph after paragraph. Landemore seems ready now to finally correct the conventional terminology (the unwillingness to do away with this convention was a huge burden for her in Open Democracy):

The systems in place today once represented a clear improvement on prior regimes—monarchies, theocracies, and other tyrannies—but it may be a mistake to call them adherents of democracy at all. The word roughly translates from its original Greek as “people’s power.” But the people writ large don’t hold power in these systems. Elites do.

Representative government, the ancestor of modern democracies, was born in the 18th century as a classical liberal-republican construct rather than a democratic one, primarily focused on the protection of certain individual rights rather than the empowerment of the broader citizenry. The goal was to give the people some say in choosing their rulers without allowing for actual popular rule.

The Founding Fathers of the United States, for example, famously wanted to create a republic rather than a democracy, which they associated with mob rule. James Madison, in particular, feared the tyranny of the majority as much as he disliked and rejected the old monarchical orders.

Another important attribute of the article is that Landemore is making it explicit that exclusion from government is not merely a matter of making people “feel involved”, but rather translates into unrepresented interests:
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