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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Buchstein: Democracy and lottery: Revisited

Ten years ago Hubertus Buchstein pinned some high hopes on the application of sortition in government (“Reviving Randomness for Political Rationality”, Constellations 17(3), 2010):

[T]he horizon for further development of randomly selected councils boils down to two options. One can either stay on the beaten path and continue working with the experiments and projects described above with their non-binding status. That would amount to supporting commendable projects instructive about democracy, which admittedly remain mere ornaments of the political system’s routines, projects that participants expect to have little tangible influence, thus engendering the problems of motivation. Or the standing of randomly selected councils could be reinforced; their integration in existing institutional arrangements with a clearly defined and binding set of competencies would form the culminating point of such a reform policy.

There is much to be said for the fact that random selection, if used wisely, could prove a useful complement to the procedures in place until now. And if we have the courage to make such changes, there is reason to believe that judicious integration of components of lotteries in modern democracies can contribute to a reform policy model, relevant beyond nation-states and the example of the EU, for coping with the institutional demands of the spatial transformation of democracy beyond the framework of the nation-state currently on the agenda. Resorting to chance in such a program of policy for democracy is not an expression of resignation or fatalism, but instead of democratic experimentalism striving to increase democracy’s potential for rationality.

A decade later, Buchstein is singing a very different tune (“Democracy and lottery: Revisited”, Constalleations 26(3), 2019). Buchstein now opens his article with some accusations directed toward sortition advocates and with some skeptical questions:
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Grandjean: Sortition is apolitical and in-egalitarian

An op-ed in LaLibre.be by Geoffrey Grandjean, teaching fellow at the University of Liège and director of the Institut de la Décision publique. Original in French. Published 03/12/2019.

Forming a citizen assembly using sortition in order to reinvigorate democracy is a fashionable idea. Nevertheless, it appears to me to be erroneous. There are preferable alternatives.

Sortition has come back into fashion. Political representatives, sways by a series of experts, are now seeing sortition as a way to reinvigorate democracy and maybe, for some, to finally realize the democratic dream through statistical sampling. Instrumental reasoning will win over ideological debates because an allotted assembly – or even a partially allotted assembly – is synonymous with democracy.

However, recourse to sortition as a method for selecting assembly members is profoundly apolitical and in-egalitarian idea. There are three reasons for this.

More than a link of trust

First, behind sortition there are mistaken, and even dangerous, assumptions about the functioning of democracy. On the one hand, in critiquing the existing representative system, the advocates of sortition respond to a sentiment of general distrust by proposing a mechanism that does not rely on trust. The electoral link of trust between represented and representatives is replaced by a probabilistic selection technique of cold calculation. In this regard, in Les @nalyses du CRISP en ligne, Vincent de Coorebyter asserts that the tendency to create citizen parliaments consists of “an abandonment, pure and simple, of sovereignty in favor of an assembly selected without us”.

On the other hand, when we look at the different proposals for allotted assemblies, they are often designed as having short terms. In fact, citizens are convened for a single day, or a week at most. This type of proposal translates to short-termism and the ephemerality, unless the allotted citizens become full-fledged parliamentarians. Taking a public decision takes time, even in our digital societies. Fundamentally, the advocates of sortition drain away, through the procedure of selection of assemblies, what is the heart of political decisions – the depth and intensity of debate of ideas which requires trust and requires time. Therefore, sortition reveals itself as apolitical.
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Kerlouan: Macron treats the allotted citizens like children

Philippe Kerlouan writes in Boulevard Voltaire.

Citizen Climate Convention: Macron treats the 150 allotted citizens like children…

One may ask oneself how can 150 citizens, selected by lot in order to create proposals for addressing global warming, be “France in miniature” and represent “all the significant sections of French society”, as the co-president of the governance committee of the Climate Convention asserted they are. One must believe that the allotment was balanced according to some statistical measurements. But nevermind! The Athenian democracy at the time of Pericles designated numerous officials using a lottery. Chance is maybe the most effective way to turn equality for all and social-professional diversity into a democratic system.

We should also have confidence in the people so selected and not consider them second class citizens. As they met on Friday, January 10th for another weekend of work, they were able to pose questions to Emmanuel Macron, who attend in person for the occasion. No doubt he had nothing better to do in these troubled times. One of the participants, quoted by the Le HuffPost, observed that it is “scandalous that he chose this date in order to clown around in front of the Convention whereas he would have done better to take care of the pensions”. But our president must have had his reasons.
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Schnapper: Extreme democracy and democratic extremists

Dominique Schnapper is the director of studies at the School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences (EHESS) (retired) and a former member of the French Constitutional Council. This is a translation of Schnapper’s articleExtrême et extrémistes de la démocratie” published in April 2019 on the Telos website.

The Gilets Jaunes movement fights under the banner of “real” democracy and it risks contributing to the destruction of the only democratic regime that has ever existed, namely representative democracy.

Democracy always had two dimensions: a democratic one and an aristocratic one. Democratic because the rulers submit to elections by the ruled and are rewarded or punished through the vote.

The dream of direct democracy

The aristocratic dimension was always a source of disagreement. The dream of direct or total democracy has accompanied the history of democracy. But it is today all the more present in the idea that entrusting decision making to others is contradictory to the conception of the sovereign democratic individual doing things himself, and being the source of all legitimacy and competence. He brings his own legitimacy. He feels fully qualified to express himself directly by himself without the intervention of a representative.

Democrats like neither mediation nor distinctions. Every type of distinction – and in particular the distinction between voters and elected – every hierarchy is perceived as discriminatory. The elites are easily denounced as responsible for all our failures. For there the ideas of direct democracy and ideas inspired by direct democracy regain their power. Protesting activists become actors of a “counter-democracy” [Pierre Rosanvallon, La contre démocratie, 2006], they speak about the foundational principles of democracy and the liberation from electoral rhythm in order to exercise daily surveillance on the actions of the rulers.
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An interview with a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention

In January, Le Télégramme interviewed Denis Boucher, a member of the French Citizen Climate Convention:

How is the convention organized?

We are 150 citizens of all ages and walks of life, including some who are younger than 18 and others who live in overseas France. There is great diversity and I believe that we represent French society quite well. We gather one weekend each month for a session of three days. We work around five themes dealing with the objective of reaching a 40% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030: food, transportation, housing, consumption, and production. I am part of the housing theme. The allocation to themes was by sortition – that is the principle of the convention. We reject expertise from the outset and it is normal citizens who express themselves, whoever they may be. It is an altogether original organization which really embodies direct democracy. It is a little like the citizens of Ancient Greece would discuss the issues of the city in the agora.

Where are you now in the process?

We are in the fourth session and we just finished the latest weekend of work. After 4 months during which we heard numerous speakers and understood the climate and the objectives we are now entering into the thick of it. We are going to propose measures that will become bills of legislature, decrees or constitutional amendments. That is not going to be easy!
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Comments by members of the French Citizen Climate Convention

Thomas Baïetto of Franceinfo has talked to 9 members of the French Citizen Climate Convention and reports their comments about their work.

Sylvain, a 45 year old Parisian marketing manager, says that before he was allotted he used to be “a cynical Parisian” rahter than an environmental activist. He does not hide his enthusiasm about this assembly of “citizen superheros, somewhere between Jaurès and Léon Blum” and about its complex mission.

“I was skeptical at first. I was thinking that these 150 people, if there were as ignorant as I am , that is going to be difficult,” says Grégoire, 31 year old from Caen. The first months of work, spread over a several weekend sessions in Paris, have convinced him that there is a possibility of formulating proposals that are “strong, powerful and acceptable by the population.”

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