Consent of the governed

A few months ago I offered the following operational definition 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.

This definition is (quite close to being) an objective operationalization of the notion of democracy, I claimed. (It is not a full operationalization since the method by which people’s opinions about the regime are collected still needs to be fully specified. That, however, is an open-ended research program, so it cannot be fit into the space of a blog post.) It is certainly much more specific than the “essentially contested” literal “people power”. It is also more specific and less open for subjective interpretation than procedural definitions such as Schumpeter’s or Dahl’s, as well as having the advantage of not making quite absurd a-priori assumptions about the value of elections (or any other institutional procedure).

The proposal garnered some mixed reactions. Along with some support, there was a lot of criticism. Several commenters were concerned that this metric would indicate that China, Russia or other rivals of the West are more democratic than the West itself, a notion which they found patently absurd, it seems. Another objection was that an outcomes-based criterion for democracy cannot be satisfactory because any outcome can be produced by a dictatorship. It was also argued that according to this definition those who expose corruption in government and thus reduce trust in government could be blamed for destroying democracy. Occasionally the tone was that such a definition was a revisionist innovation and that whatever the definition of democracy is (no real alternative was offered, I believe), this obviously does not come close.

This seemed to lead the discussion to a dead-end. Yes, Prof. Wang Shaoguang has a pretty similar definition for what he calls “substantive democracy” and a survey he cites shows that this idea has wide support in China and its surrounding. But Prof. Wang and the Chinese are Chinese, so clearly they have nothing to teach Westerners about democracy (or maybe these are not even their true opinions and they are merely saying whatever they are saying in order to please whoever is eavesdropping). Moreover, even Prof. Wang still leaves room for “formal democracy” that would be defined differently.

It is only with great and inexplicable delay that I have recently realized how solid and respected is the pedigree of the proposed definition. Continue reading

Rothchild: “Ancient wisdom” in MI’s new redistricting process

John Rothchild, Professor of Law at Wayne State University, writes approvingly in The Conversation about Michigan’s new allotted electoral redistricting commission. Rather naively, Rothchild seems to believe that democratic redistricting could result in the selection of “representatives who truly reflect [citizens’] political preferences”. Alas, this is more than mere redistricting can deliver, however well done.

How, then, should Michigan’s decision to assign unskilled members of the public the job of drawing nonpartisan election districts be evaluated?

Redistricting is a complex task. Michigan’s Constitution says that the districts must be drawn in compliance with federal law. That includes a requirement that voting districts have roughly the same population. It also requires that the districts “reflect the state’s diverse population and communities of interest,” and “not provide a disproportionate advantage to any political party.”

Dividing the map to meet all of these criteria is not likely to be within the capabilities of a group of randomly selected citizens.

There are several reasons to think that the redistricting commission will nevertheless prove adequate to the task.
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Cirone: Lotteries in Political Selection

A 2019 paper by Alexandra Cirone, Assistant Professor of Government at Cornell University, is titled “When democracy is broken roll the dice: Lotteries in political selection”.

There is a long tradition in political science and law that analyzes the benefits of lotteries in political selection (Manin 1997; Elster 1989; Engelstad 1989; Dowlen 2009; Duxbury 1999; Ober 1993 among many others). Most readers will be familiar with selection by lottery – also called sortition – where individuals are randomly chosen for political office.

The element of chance in a lottery has always captured our imaginations. Yet from a policy perspective, lotteries are now being proposed in various forms to address democratic deficits. Lottery-based selection of high-ranking politicians have been suggested for the national parliaments of the UK and France, as well as for the supranational institutions of the European Union. Citizens assemblies have been implemented in a wide range of countries, at both the local and national levels (Fishkin 2011).

However, lottery-based political selection is no panacea. There are a number of shortcomings to these processes. First, no matter which selection rule, it is likely that elites can still be disproportionately involved in politics, and lotteries don’t insulate all democratic institutions from partisan or corrupt pressures. Second, politics benefits from investment in expertise and career politicians; the uncertainty inherent in random selection of permanent institutions could disincentivize potential candidates from acquiring skills or experience. Alternatively, problems with recruitment and attrition from selected citizens will always be an issue with lottery-based selection; and randomly chosen officials might lack democratic legitimacy, which could impair their ability to do their job well. Third, even implementing lotteries in the form of temporary citizens assemblies require time, resources, and careful design of the process. Lotteries are also difficult to endogenously implement, particularly at top levels of governance — political parties and other groups are too invested in current systems of selection, so it is unlikely we will see a return to the pure sortition of ancient times.

Still, there is distinct promise to the use of lotteries in political selection, to help include more citizens in the democratic process. By examining unique institutional experimentation in the past, and by adapting democratic initiatives based on more recent instances of lottery-based selection, it may be possible to alleviate current democratic shortcomings.

Knowing your arse from your Albo: how political parties might access the ‘blind break’ to get better leaders

Herewith a brief post I wrote for my (mostly Australian) audience sketching out one possible use of sortition within a political party rather than the political system itself. As those reading this blog with any attentiveness will know, this is part of my own approach to sortition as one of a number of ‘hacks’ that can help unpick some of the pathologies of oligarchies of various kinds both specific and systemic.

A lottery is a defensible way of making a decision when, and to the extent that, it is important that bad reasons be kept out of the decision.
Peter Stone

Left of centre parties have been serving up seriously, obviously bad candidates for years now. That happened at the last election in the US and will happen at the next one. It’s happened at the last two elections in Australia and looks like happening at the next one. This nearly happened to the Liberal Government in Australia when they nearly acquired Peter Dutton as leader.

Why?
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Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 3/3

Part one, part two.

Wang’s skeptical evaluation of the Western conception of democracy and of the arguments for elections as a democratic tool are in fact merely a segue to his main topic which is the “Mass Line”. According to Wang, the Mass Line is the basis for decision making by the Chinese system of government. Wang describes the Mass Line as an ongoing process by which decision makers interact with the population in order to become informed and shape public policy. Wang quotes Mao Zedong as follows:

In every aspect of my party’s practical work, if leadership is to be correct it must come from the masses and go to the masses. This is to say, we must collect the views of the masses (disparate and un-systematic views) and, through study, turn them into collective and systematic views, and then we must go back to the masses to disseminate and explain them, turning them into the masses’ own views, enabling the masses to persevere, and to see these views implemented in practice. From the practice of the masses we must conduct examinations to determine whether these views are correct. We then must once again collect the views of the masses, and once again go back to the masses and persevere. This endless cycle will each time be more correct than the last, richer and more vivid than the last. This is the epistemology of Marxism.

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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.)

Shaw: A transfer of power from the elite to the masses

Ethan Shaw advocates sortition in International Policy Digets:

Voter reform in America aims to increase turnout in elections, however, this focus dismisses the glaring weaknesses of the American democratic process. Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, and you have probably heard the phrase “Congress is not doing their job” countless times. The problem is not about the accessibility to the ballot box; it is the inconsequentiality of voting that keeps people home on election day. So how does one solve the systemic issues with Congress that promotes voter apathy? By going back to the birthplace of democracy.

A Civic Duty to Legislate

The United States should have mandatory legislative service. Ancient Athenian citizens were randomly selected to serve a 1-year term in a legislative assembly. This process is known as sortition and has been purported by democratic reformists across the globe. In the American political discourse, sortition has never been fully discussed as a viable replacement to the current legislative infrastructure. Many individuals scoff at the idea, worried that random selection will create a legislature full of inept buffoons.

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Kleroterion 2.0; Our Once and Future Escape Key

This is the third 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 and the second post is here.

There are mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States and around the world against racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was recorded being choked to death by a police officer while in custody. Among his last words, “Please, I can’t breathe” are now a slogan repeated and sung around the world, a metaphor for the stifling nature of racialized oppression. Here in Ontario — the Toronto-Niagara Golden Horseshoe region is the most racial and ethnically diverse in the world, a place where immigrants are popular and in Toronto  are actually the majority –there have still been large street demonstrations against deaths-while-in-custody of certain Black and Indigenous people who were suffering from mental illness. Why is it, Toronto activists ask, that money meant to alleviate problems in poor neighbourhoods is directed away from local social workers and towards force, armed police and other arbitrary measures? In the Canadian Parliament, Elizabeth May, leader of the opposition Green Party, summarized a large part of the problem,

She urged an inquiry to weed out white-power groups in Canada and make sure they are not infiltrating police forces. `Because if there is one thing scarier than a white supremacist with a gun, it’s a white supremacist with a gun in uniform.’ (1)

Mr. Floyd’s plea for air resonates so universally because none are guarding the guardians. Clearly, bullies in uniform tasked with enforcing social distancing laws are targeting and persecuting visible minorities, worsening the climate of fear that visible minorities already suffer under. The democratic institutions that depend upon justice, especially but not exclusively the police, to uphold the rule of law are blocking reform and accountability and stifling the very purpose for which they exist, to serve the social good, protect the vulnerable and assure the safety, order and security of everyone, not just the privileged. So, these are the questions of the hour: How can democracies end the perilous insularity of the police? How do we reinstate badly degraded trust in authority? Why is the guardian branch of governance so prone to corruption, bullying and infiltration by sociopaths? How do we end the vicious cycle of escalating violence, reaction and oppression?
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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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Taylor: The principle of distinction at Athens

A 2007 paper by Claire Taylor (“From the Whole Citizen Body?”, Hesperia 76, 2007) explores the composition of elected and allotted bodies in Athens.

From the Whole Citizen Body? The Sociology of Election and Lot in the Athenian Democracy

Abstract: In this article the author examines the sociology of selection procedures in the Athenian democracy. The role of election and lot within the political system, the extent (or lack) of corruption in the selection of officials, and the impact of the selection procedure on political life are considered. A comparison of selection procedures demonstrates that the lot was a relatively democratic device that distributed offices widely throughout Attica, whereas elections favored demes near the city. The reasons for these different patterns of participation are examined.

Taylor’s findings, which rely on deme-membership statistics of holders of various Athenian state offices, confirm the theoretical expectations: elections favored city demes while sortition did not.
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