The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on Academia.edu, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’

The framing wars: Have the elites gone off on frolics of their own unsupported by the community?

Are you pro-choice or pro-life? Language like this shows us how fundamental framing has become to political combat. Political debate isn’t just ‘dumbed down’ or simplified. There’s a geography to the ground on which it’s fought and those with an eye to victory head for the high ground.

There’s much talk these days about the divide between political elites and ‘ordinary folk’. It’s tearing western democracies apart. I think that the elite lack respect for the hoi polloi and their view of the world. Hence my frequent reference to the ancient Greek political principle of isegoria or equality of speech.1

In Sam Roggeveen’s response to my review of his essay Our Very Own Brexit (which I recommend by the way), he isn’t the first to argue that I do my cause no favours by “aligning it so closely with causes that our political elites would endorse (e.g. welcoming of immigrants and refugees; against Brexit)”.2 This is definitely sound political advice if one ventures among the red meat folk at Quillette.

But for the record, while I think Brexit makes lousy economic policy and statecraft, I wouldn’t just respect the will of the British people if they chose the course they are embarked upon with open eyes. I’d be awestruck with admiration. I’d think it was a fantastic development in which people decided that there were more important things than money and power to live for. But I don’t think any of that. I think they’ve been sold on a particular framing of the story in which the EU is an elite project gone mad, and so something which is coming after their nationhood and something on which they can heap their rage.

Roggeveen’s response goes on:

The problem I identified in the book is that the party-political class in Western democracies has become a separate caste with few connections to a social or economic base; Brexit shows what happens when the policy preferences shared by that caste runs too far ahead of the public.

I’ll call this the ‘frolic’ school of analysis. The elites have just kept doing what elites do – pursuing various hubristic agendas until the inevitable Wile E. Coyote moment comes and they realise that they have, in their zeal, arrived at a place where there’s no ground underneath them. Now it has to be admitted that the EU has major flaws. It seemed to me that its treatment of Greece was and continues to be a disgrace, and even if you disagree with that – as Paul Frijters does – the whole Euro project was ill-conceived and devastating.  Continue reading

Blok: Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy

Prof. Josine Blok, a classicist from the University of Utrecht, will be giving a talk titled “Sortition and democracy: equality, justice and the challenge of present-day democracy” at the University of Dresden on Feb 5th, 2020.

It turns out that Blok has been interested in sortition for some time. In 2014 she has published a paper called “Participatory Governance: The Case for Allotment” in the journal Participation. The paper is viewable and downloadable here.

In the paper, Blok hypothesizes that sortition was legitimated in Athens by the custom of using the lottery to allocate shares of inheritances among the heirs. Other parts of her discussion are interesting and original as well.

Fienberg: Randomization and Social Affairs: The 1970 Draft Lottery

A 1971 Science article by Stephen E. Fienberg, professor of statistics at the University of Chicago, deals with the problematic 1970 draft lottery and places it in a wider context of randomization in social affairs.

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens George Tridimas

Here’s the abstract of a recent article by George Tridimas in the Journal of Institutional Economics:

Democracy without political parties: the case of ancient Athens

Political parties, formal, durable and mass organizations that inform voters on public policy issues, nominate candidates for office and fight elections for the right to govern, are ubiquitous in modern representative democracies but were absent from the direct participatory democracy of ancient Athens. The paper investigates how the political institutions of Athens may explain their absence. The arguments explored include voter homogeneity; the conditions at the start of the democracy, characterized by single constituency configuration of the demos, simple majority voting and lack of organized groups; the irrelevance of holding public office for determining public policy; appointment to public posts through sortition; and voting on single-dimension issues. The paper then discusses how in the absence of parties voters became informed and how political leaders were held accountable by the courts.

I’ve not yet read it. If you want to email me on ngruen at gmail, I might be able to help you out with access to the article.

A Citizens’ Assembly on climate change is the coward’s way out

Interesting article by Melanie McDonagh in The Spectator on citizens’ assemblies. In response to the demands of Extinction Rebellion, letters inviting 30,000 households across the UK to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change were sent out last week by an alliance of six Commons select committees, chaired by Rachel Reeves. The author (an Irish Catholic) has some alarming claims to make regarding the citizens’ assembly on the repeal of the eighth constitutional amendment (on abortion). It’s a short and interesting piece, so I won’t bother to post extracts.

All the comments posted after the Spectator article are critical of the design of such deliberative assemblies which (IMO) run the danger of bringing the entire sortition movement into disrepute.

Procaccia: Lotteries Instead of Elections? Not So Arbitrary

Ariel Procaccia, an associate professor in the computer science department at Carnegie Mellon University, has an opinion piece in Bloomberg News advocating sortition. Some excerpts:

Have you ever thought that 535 random people off the street would do a decidedly better job than the duly elected members of the U.S. Congress? If so, you’ve been scooped by a few millenniums; the idea of selecting government officials at random, known as sortition, is neither as outrageous nor as original as it seems.

In the fourth and fifth centuries BC, some of the central organs of the Athenian government were populated by selecting random volunteers. For example, the members of the Council of 500 — whose responsibilities included developing legislation, overseeing the executive branch and managing diplomatic relations — were selected at random for one-year terms.

During the Renaissance, sortition was all the rage. For centuries it played a key role in the process of selecting the Doge of Venice, as well as in populating the branches of the Florentine government. It was also employed widely throughout the Kingdom of Aragon, which is part of modern-day Spain. [King Ferdinand II of Aragon spoke highly of the virtues of sortition. Unfortunately, he also established the Spanish Inquisition and ordered the expulsion of practicing Jews from his kingdom, so he is hardly an authority on governance.] Sortition actually endured as a system of government into the 20th century: San Marino’s two heads of state were selected at random from 60 councilors as recently as 1945. [The two heads of state constitute a non-negligible fraction of the minuscule country’s population.]

Procaccia mentions in quick succession David Van Reybrouck, Terrill Bouricius, citizens’ assemblies, Ireland, and the German-speaking Community of Belgium, and finishes off with:

Admittedly, even the Belgian initiative is still a long way off from a Bouricius-style sortition utopia — and the jury is still out on whether we’d want to go that far. But it’s comforting to think that the best fix for our political chaos may be a bit of randomness.