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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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 3/3

Shmuel Lederman: “Representative Democracy”

Lederman’s intervention began with a theme quite familiar to this forum but one that still surprises the general public, probably due to our prevailing Whiggish and/or mythological approach to teaching political history—at least in the US.

Until the 19th century, elections were considered “an anti-democratic or aristocratic form of government.” It was assumed that winners of elections would be powerful or celebrity-like figures, Lederman underscored. The question that he attempts to answer is, “how did elections come to be associated with ‘democracy’ beginning in the early 1800s?” In an upcoming APSR [I think] article he argues that European Imperialism and Colonialism had to do with the recognition of elections as “democratic.” Lederman reasons that one cannot separate—as Western political theorists have—John Stuart Mill’s thoughts on the proper form of government for India (and other “barbarian and semi-barbarian” parts of the world)–tutelage or “enlightened despotism”–from his thoughts on “the only rational form of government” (for civilized Europeans) generally. You “cannot take out the East India Co.” from Mill’s thought and be left with something democratic, insists Lederman.

Rather, Lederman explained, there is a common thread between the “civilizing” trope in regard to the “backward” places on Earth in the 19th century and the “meritocracy” myth behind today’s electoral representative government. “Enlightened despotism” and “representative government” were and remain mutually reinforcing ideas.

Lederman underscores that there were democratic alternatives to representative government at the beginning of the 19th century (and earlier). There were, for example, among workers’ movements schemes for pyramidal council systems that would involve the population as a whole in decision making. The very fact that Mill, like the American founders and French republicans, had to make a case for representative government reflects the fact those alternatives were seen as a threat. [One might add that perhaps humans are not by nature simply willing to let others rule over them; but that might get this blog censored for being “populist.”] Evidence that the council system and freedom as self-government, the themes of Arendt’s On Revolution, were not mere aberrations in her political thinking, Lederman adds, can be found in her letters to her long-time friend and mentor Karl Jaspers. In the letter Arendt expresses her pleasure that the book earned his “approval,” because “every word you wrote strikes at the very heart of what I mean to say… Heinrich’s experience, of councils, to the experience of America.”

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 2

Reporting from Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center Annual Conference by Ahmed R. Teleb

The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College recently hosted a two-day in-person and live webcast conference on sortition on Oct 14-15, which I attended online. Each day of the conference also included a midday break-out small group discussions in person and online. Estimated participants came to about four hundred, who, in my estimation, demonstrated enthusiasm for participatory democracy through sortition, but also a dose of critical awareness of, among other things, organizational and economic/structural difficulties with participation via sortition and in general.

I share here my impressions of the panels I attended and my most significant take-aways. This Conference marks an important step, because the Arendtian perspective on mini-publics and citizen councils has long been missing from the discussion of sortition. As it happens, this is also my area of research. From this perspective, “The meaning of politics is freedom,” as David Van Reybrouck quoted Arendt during his intervention, and not just “better” policy or results. Of course, I see these as going hand in hand. Freedom of people to actively shape the world they live in tends also to create better results from a public perspective but it is a by-product rather than the basis. As Shmuel Lederman put it, “benevolent dictatorship” and “representative government” follow the same logic that has roots in 19th century European colonialism.

P.S. The word sortition was a non-issue for the activists, practitioners, and members of the public who attended—the exception being Peter McLeod who used “civic lottery.” As a nice surprise, the three mayors/managers of the small NY towns who participated in Van Reybrouck’s class all plan to (attempt to) implement some kind of citizen assembly or citizen jury to tackle the issue that each brought to the class as one needing an innovative solution. One, whose town has exactly one traffic light, promised on the spot that she can get a PERMANENT citizens’ assembly approved by the city council and that funding the project would be a non-issue.

Opening Address by Roger Berkowitz: Revitalizing Democracy, Sortition, and Citizen Power

The American Founders, remarked Berkowitz, were “scared of democracy,” at least those identifying themselves as Federalists. He went on to quote from Federalist papers that stressed the instability of “ancient democracies” and “petty republics of Greece,” Fed # 9, 10. They emphasized the importance designing a system in which elites run the government, via an “elective system”. Moreover, they feared “factions,” and thought that an “extended republic” would be THE preventative measure against them, Fed 10, 51, since imposing a unity of will was not practical. Madison thought, we could “replace virtue with size.”

So far, well-known territory, although a bit different than the mythologized version taught in middle and high schools in the U.S. Berkowitz replied that for Arendt, factions are the very reflection of the basic human condition of plurality. He then went on to summarize Hannah Arendt’s assessment of the American system as articulated in her book On Revolution and the “Crisis of the Republic.” But Arendt did praise, for example, the “federal principle,” because its discovery, “was partly based upon an experience, upon the intimate knowledge of political bodies whose internal structure predetermined them, as it were, and conditioned its members for a constant enlargement whose principle was neither expansion nor conquest but the further combination of powers.” This kind of local-based power from the bottom up, Arendt saw as analogous to the council system or the town-hall system, one that permitted just about anyone to appear and act in public.

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Report Back from the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Sortition, part 1

On October 14-15 Wayne Liebman and I (and we presume many other followers and contributors to EbL) attended (online) the HAC’s Annual Conference: “Revitalizing Democracy: Sortition, Citizen Power, and Spaces of Freedom.” We each independently wrote our impressions and comments. Below is Wayne’s overview. Subsequent parts contain more detailed summary and commentary on what I considered the most important of the presentations, where I also attempted to add some US context for international readers, or other context for those not immersed in the world of Arendt studies. That appears in brackets or under the heading “commentary.”

We invite anyone else who attended to correct or complement what we have below. I am sure each of us came from a different perspective and took note of different aspects of the event. And we hope this provokes some discussion of some familiar and new themes. Throughout, I use the word citizen in a POLITICAL not a legal sense, as I believe most speakers do. [P.S. Subjectively, the highlights of the conference for me were the interventions from Akuno and Lederman]. ~ AT

NOTES FROM THE CONFERENCE by Wayne Liebman
Revitalizing Democracy, Hannah Arendt Center, Bard College

“Representative government is in crisis today, partly because it has lost, in the course of time, all institutions that permitted the citizens’ actual participation, and partly because it is now gravely affected by the disease from which the party system suffers: bureaucratization and the two parties’ tendency to represent nobody except the party machines.”

(Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic, 1970)

If you missed the livestream of this year’s Revitalizing Democracy Conference, you can watch the videos online HERE. My subjective (activism oriented) highlights follow.

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