Beaudet: Let us push the frontiers of democracy

Thierry Beaudet is the President of the French Economic, Social and Environmental Council (CESE), the body which organized the French allotted bodies which discussed environmental policy and end-of-life policy. He has now published a book in which he advocates the use of sortition as a tool of democracy. The book is described by the publisher as follows:

The trappings of our democracy are falling apart: elections are no longer adequate for the task, and there is general distrust toward every authority and every power. Facing this crisis, new political practices assert themselves, practices which engage and refer to the citizen body. Citizen participation, still in its beginning in our country, must develop, through sortition, the exercising of collective deliberation, the systematic collaborative construction of public policy. Thierry Beaudet, the President of the Economic, Social and Environmental Council, proposes that we learn how to remake democracy and to discuss together substantive issues rather than keep rehashing divisions in a vacuum.

“A Random Group of People” editorial in Seattle and town hall on Citizens’ Assemblies

the Stranger, perhaps Seattle’s most widely read newspaper, has recently published an editorial by Ansel Herz, a former Congressional staffer in DC, now serving as communications director for Democracy Next, recently founded by Claudia Chwalisz (of OECD & Parisian Citizens’ Assembly fame).

In fact, this is what “democracy” actually is. In the 5th century B.C., the Greeks of ancient Athens coined demokratia to describe their carefully designed lottery system, under which any citizen was able to serve in parliamentary, administrative, and judicial bodies. Demokratia is not politicians, elections, and parties; the Greeks would have abhorred those, as many ordinary people—perhaps even you—do to this day.

“Their greatest gift was their passion for democracy,” observed the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James in his 1956 essay, “Every Cook Can Govern”. The Athenians believed that elections were undemocratic; Aristotle called them “oligarchic.” It’s common sense that when only a handful of people can hold power, corruption is likely.

The Greeks recognized that whoever runs for elected office in the first place usually projects a peculiar power-seeking personality type. Having spent a lot of time around candidates who’ve won and lost, let me tell you: the Greeks were right.

After introducing sortition, Herz mentioned America in One Room, the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, and Brussels’s recent introduction of its own permanent CA.

In 2019’s “America In One Room”, for example, Stanford researchers organized an assembly of 526 Americans to deliberate for a long weekend. The group did not combust from anger and tension, nor did the participants retreat to their bubbles and cling to their beliefs. They found common ground around issues of trade, wages, immigration, and more. Democrats reported a 13-point increase in positive feelings toward Republicans; Republicans felt 14 points more favorably toward Democrats. Ninety-five percent of participants said they “learned a lot about people very different from me,” and 98 percent said they found the experience “valuable.”

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The Trans-Atlanticist Podcast Features Sortition

Antoine Vergne (of Mission Publique) and I were invited guests on the American cultural center Hamburg’s podcast for two episodes over the last two weeks.

The discussion was much too short to be anything new to regular readers of EbL, but I wanted to post it as another sign of the mainstream acceptance of the idea of sortition. Another disclaimer, the Amerikazentrum is a propaganda outfit for the US & German foreign ministries. So, as expected, the framing of the show starts with cliched talking points about Brexit, Ukraine, autocracy v. democracy, etc…

I think the discussion went slightly beyond the “representation” argument. In particular, Antoine made some interesting points about the non-adversarial nature of assemblies as compared to referenda. Quite interesting for me was his story about how he happened upon “Stochacracy.” As an undergraduate, I believe, he wrote a research paper that ended with the line: “Stochocrats of the world unite!”

My own intervention was not particularly interesting but I tried to reference a variety of literature including democratic critiques of allotted minipulbics in the show notes.

Part 1:

Part 2:

Let me know your thoughts, and perhaps we could crowd source a list of recent podcasts & videos on sortition.

Luebwick: How democratic is democratic innovation?

Patrick Luebwick, Professor of Political Philosophy at the University of Antwerp and Visiting Professor at the University of Ghent, critiques sortition in general and more specifically what may be called “the citizen assembly process”, i.e., the way allotted bodies are being employed nowadays within the existing power structure. Some excerpts are below. [The text seems to be an automatic translation of an original text in French(?) and contains some dubious phrases, which I tried to correct.]

Betting on direct civil democracy is not an innocent game

Belgium jumps on the bandwagon of democratic renewal. The elected representatives of the people increasingly seem to desire direct assistance through the insights and advice of ordinary citizens. There is a project under way in the German-speaking community where commissions drawn up by lot can provide input to Parliament. The federal government has just completed an online citizen survey inviting us to share ideas about the future of Belgium. The Vivaldi government itself also has a bill ready to allow bodies in which citizens selected by lot can engage in dialogue with each other, politicians, experts and civil society to formulate policy recommendations for state reform.

Various arguments are used to support these types of initiatives. Politicians present it as a good sign to increase political participation and citizen participation. Civic democracy as a means of bridging the gap with citizens and promoting democracy. Proponents often assume that citizen paintings drawn by lottery can speed up and improve political decision-making.

[However, the use of sortition relies on the idea that i]f we inform citizens adequately and allow them to reasonably discuss with each other, we can track down the will of the people. This assumption is problematic. First, the outcomes of the allotted body may reflect what citizens see after deliberation about a particular political topic. But the rest of the population may not be convinced. The use of citizens’ committees thus runs counter to the idea that democracy is a form of self-government. After all, the well-thought-out judgments made by allotted citizens do not match what the what the population thinks or wants. Democracy as autonomy is not served by a participatory shortcut that is taken over the heads of the majority of citizens. Rather, the strength of deliberative democracy lies in the attempt to involve the whole of society in political opinion and decision-making, particularly through open debate in the public sphere and through diverse civil society and civil society.
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Sortition for worker-owned firms: a conversation with Simon Pek

The video above is a recording of a conversation I recently had with Simon Pek.

Simon is a professor at the University of Victoria, Canada. He has recently published a paper called “Drawing out democracy: The role of sortition in preventing and overcoming organizational degeneration in worker-owned firms” in the Journal of Management Inquiry. In the conversation we discuss this article, the notion of “organizational degeneration” which is central to the paper, as well as how and why Simon became interested in sortition, and related matters.

Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 2/2

Part 1 is here.

The alternative

The alternative to the path of low commitment, with all its inevitable implications that undermine the democratic potential of sortition, is to expect, indeed, to demand, high level of commitment by the allotted to the political process. In short, political decision making should be seen, both by society and by the allotted, as a full time job. It should be a well compensated, intellectually demanding undertaking. The following attributes should be part of the design of any high powered allotted chamber, such as an allotted parliament:

  1. Service terms should be measured in years – say four years.
  2. Personal initiative and collaboration with other members of the allotted body would be expected. Unless special circumstances exist, frequent physical presence at the workplace would be expected.
  3. The activity of the members would be overseen by an allotted body, with which the members would be expected to cooperate. The oversight body would produce reports about the activities of the members. In cases of clear dysfunction the oversight body could sanction members. The body would refer cases of suspected malfeasance to the courts.
  4. The details associated with the design and the work processes of the allotted chamber, as well as budgets and member salaries, would be determined, and adjusted on an ongoing basis, by the chamber itself or by a different long-term allotted chamber such as the oversight body.
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Another round in the Herefordshire citizen assembly controversy

A previous post mentioned a letter to the editor of the Hereford Times expressing objections and distrust of the process around the Herefordshire Citizens’ Climate Assembly and in particular asking what the cost of the process was.

Councillor David Hitchiner, Leader of Herefordshire Council, has now responded to the letter. Hitchiner reports that the total cost was £70,000, with Sortition Foundation receiving £8,456 plus VAT and Impact Consultancy and Research, receiving £30,000 (which, Hitchiner emphasizes, is a bargain).

The letter also asked Hitchiner whether he “subscribes to the view that our politics are in fact broken and, if so, what the council has been doing about it?”

Hitchiner answers:

Thankfully we live in a country with a democratic system. I do not consider that it is perfect.

Too few people do not [sic] exercise their democratic right to vote, and the elected are not even close to being a cross section of our society by age or socio-economic groupings.

For this reason consultation in decision making is especially important.

My hope is that more people in Herefordshire will respond to our consultations, and also decide to vote at the next election in response to the way in which this administration has gone about discharging the faith placed in us at the last election.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the commenters, both of them, are not impressed. One of them, letmehelp, writes:
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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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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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Large Scale Secure Sortition Part 1: Generating Randomness Collectively with In-Person Gatherings

Matthew Gray is a Mathematician, Software Engineer, and Theoretical Computer Scientist currently teaching at Renton Technical College after working at Microsoft Norway. His primary research interests are in Secure Multiparty Computation, Quantum Cryptography, and Coding Theory. Over the last year he has been researching how sortition can be conducted in secure and trustworthy ways.

Judging from the aftermath of contested elections around the world, if large numbers of people question the fairness of a sortition selection there could be dire consequences. Our current systems for generating the randomness needed for selections are not secure enough to silence those questions, especially when used to select national representatives. The current systems are all centralized and non-participatory, some are vulnerable to local cheating, and all are vulnerable to sabotage from well-resourced malicious actors, such as state security services. This article proposes a new option. It lays out a specific decentralized and participatory method of selecting representatives by explains how two people can go about fairly choosing one of them to be selected and then showing how the method can be scaled up for larger selections. It also touches on some of the mathematics surrounding these methods.

Current systems for generating the randomness needed for drawings fall into two main categories. First are physical systems such as dice, floating balls, or names in hats. These work better in small communities where every member can show up and observe. But even in those spaces, if people distrust their neighbors, they will worry about the dice being weighted or someone sneaking extra copies of their name into the hat. Second are digital systems that take some outside sources of randomness and process them to get some final randomness. These outside sources of randomness include stock market indexes, lava lamps, or cameras whose lenses have been painted over. 

Digital systems tend to involve math that is fairly complicated, don’t feel that random, and aren’t interesting to look at. Also, because of the complicated math involved, there’s a chance that these processes aren’t actually random after all. Neither category produces systems that involve citizens or are particularly resilient to sabotage efforts. Weighting dice or hacking a computer is easy. Manipulating the stock market is hard but may not be beyond the abilities of a state security service. However if we include everyone in the process of generating the randomness we can create systems that have no single point of failure.

To introduce the ideas used by the system I am about to propose, let’s imagine that the team captains (Luka and Hugo) in the last FIFA World Cup didn’t trust the coin that was going to be used at the start of the match. One way they could generate the “coin flip” together is for both captains to bring their own coins and flip them simultaneously. If both coins land on the same side (i.e. both heads or both tails) then France wins the coin toss, if they land on different sides (i.e. heads tails or tails heads) then Croatia wins. What is important to note here is that even if one coin is weighted, as long as the other one is unweighted, then the overall “coin flip” is fair. 

Figure 1. The odds of each possible result when one captain brings an 80/20 coin, and the other brings a 50/50 coin.

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