Martin Wolf: Citizens’ juries can help fix democracy

Sortition has found a fairly prominent advocate in the Financial Times‘s Martin Wolf. Wolf was introduced to the idea by Nicholas Gruen and is highly influenced by him. Wolf has written a book offering sortition as a solution to “ailing Western polities”. His prominent position and impeccable institutional credentials make him possibly the most prominent promoter of sortition in the Anglophone world.

Wolf is now repeating his argument in an article in the Financial Times. In particular he is implying that the “failure” of Brexit would not have happened if the decision whether to leave or remain were made by an allotted body. But Wolf goes farther and proposes a permanent allotted chamber with not insignificant powers.

“Brexit has failed.” This is now the view of Nigel Farage, the man who arguably bears more responsibility for the UK’s decision to leave the EU than anybody else. He is right, not because the Tories messed it up, as he thinks, but because it was bound to go wrong. The question is why the country made this mistake. The answer is that our democratic processes do not work very well. Adding referendums to elections does not solve the problem. But adding citizens’ assemblies might.

In my book, The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism, I follow the Australian economist Nicholas Gruen in arguing for the addition of citizens’ assemblies or citizens’ juries. These would insert an important element of ancient Greek democracy into the parliamentary tradition.
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Conley: Let’s Randomize America!

Nicholas Coccoma wrote to point out a recent article by Dalton Conley, professor of sociology at Princeton University, in The New Yorker. The rather lengthy article revolves around randomness in public policy. It starts with the story of the introduction of the draft lottery in the US, then moves on to a proposal (a rather unconvincing one, it seems to me) for handling economic inequality using randomization, and finishes off with sortition and with a general call for using randomization to achieve a fairer society.

For three decades, through three wars, the U.S. military draft was directed by Lewis B. Hershey, a general in the Army. Hershey established the first local draft board in 1941; eventually, there would be four thousand of them. […] The boards, which adjudicated claims for reclassification or deferment on a case-by-case basis, had a distinct character. They were disproportionately white, white-collar, and elderly. According to analyses conducted in the nineteen-sixties, draft boards more often granted deferments to privileged young men, and poor Americans of color made up a disproportionate share of draftees. […] In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a group of experts to study draft reform. They recommended a drastic overhaul to centralize the process, and argued, controversially, for randomizing it. What was needed, they wrote, was a lottery to decide who should fight, in which the “order of call” was “impartially and randomly determined.”

Many people did not find this idea appealing. Detractors argued that haphazardly drafting young men, some of whom were training for critical civilian positions, would be inefficient at best and destructive at worst. Merriam Trytten, a physicist by training, who was the president of the Scientific Manpower Commission—a nonpartisan group set up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to advise the government on issues of scientific personnel—said that, under such a system, “scientific effort in the United States will pay a substantial penalty.” […] A Gallup poll conducted in 1966 found that only thirty-two per cent of Americans favored a lottery system.
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Interview with the Classical Republican

I was interviewed some time ago about sortition for the Classical Republican. It was a wide-ranging conversation that included discussion of this blog. The interview is now on Youtube, and can be viewed here. Note that the Classical Republican has an entire Youtube playlist devoted to sortition which features, in addition to my interview, an extended conversation with longtime sortition advocate Oliver Dowlen and other interesting videos. The playlist can be found here.

Varoufakis explains how citizen councils can revolutionize democracy

It was recently noted here that Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece and leader of the Greek MeRA25 party, proposed a “monetary supervision jury” for controlling the central bank. It turns out that for Varoufakis citizen councils should serve in similar roles controlling public sector entities across the state bureaucracy.

A short clip on the YouTube channel of the DiEM25 movement shows a segment from a speech by Varoufakis in the Greek Parliament advocating for wide use of citizen councils, “mostly allotted but with elected members as well”. Varoufakis proposes that such bodies should select the managers of public sector organizations and monitor their performance. According to Varoufakis deliberative citizen councils would provide an alternative to both the corruption and inefficiency of capitalism and the corruption and inefficiency of statism by combining “the best of the state with civil society”.

Yanis Varoufakis proposes a Monetary Supervision Jury

Yanis Varoufakis, former finance minister of Greece, is leader of the MeRA25 party and Professor of Economics at the University of Athens, writes:

Imagine that the central bank provided everyone with a free digital wallet, effectively a free bank account bearing interest at the central bank overnight rate. Given that the current banking system functions like an anti-social cartel, the central bank might as well use modern digital, cloud-based technology to provide free digital transactions and savings storage to all, its net revenues paying for essential public goods. Freed from the compulsion to keep their money in a private bank, and to pay through the nose in order to transact using its system, people will then be free to choose if and when they wish to use private financial institutions offering risk intermediation between savers and borrowers whose monies will, however, live in perfect safety on the central bank’s ledger.

It is at around this point of my proposal that the crypto brotherhood will feign a fit, accusing me of pushing for a Big Brother central bank that sees and controls every transaction we make. Setting aside their stunning hypocrisy, days after they demanded an immediate central bank bailout of their Silicon Valley bankers, let me point out that the Treasury and other organs of the state already have access to each transaction of ours. Indeed, privacy could be better safeguarded if transactions were to be concentrated on the central bank ledger under the supervision of something like a Monetary Supervision Jury comprising randomly selected citizens and experts drawn from a wide range of professions.

In summary, the time has come to reach an inevitable conclusion: the banking system we take for granted is unfixable. That’s the bad news. But there is good news. We no longer need to rely, at least not the way we have so far, on any private, rent-seeking, destabilising network of banks. The time has come to blow up an irredeemable banking system which only delivers for property and share owners at the expense of the majority.

Coal miners have found out the hard way that society does not owe them a permanent subsidy to damage the planet. It is time for the bankers to make a similar discovery.

Letter to President Zelenskyy

Mr. Volodymyr Zelenskyy
President of Ukraine
11 Bankova St. 01220 Kyiv, Ukraine

Re: A proposal to fight corruption with local citizen assemblies

Dear President Zelenskyy:

First, thank you for your remarkable leadership. I wish you all the best in defending, restoring and advancing the well-being of Ukraine and its brave people.

I am writing with a suggestion that, if adopted, has the potential to advance Ukraine as a leading innovator in democratic governance. The proposal would also counteract the criticisms of American politicians who question ongoing funding for your nation — often citing government corruption as one of the justifications for curbing that support.

Perhaps you are aware of growing European interest in “citizens’ assemblies” whose members are chosen by sortition, a democratic lottery process, rather than by election. Ireland, for example, has successfully used citizen assemblies to resolve some of its most politically divisive issues: abortion, same-sex marriage, climate change. Two of Belgium’s regional parliaments (German-speaking Ostbelgien and the Brussels-Capital region) have established permanent sortition-selected citizens’ assemblies to counterbalance the power of professional politicians in the elected assemblies.

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Maurice Pope’s The Keys to Democracy is now available

Hugh Pope writes:

I’m writing to share details about the publication of the book that has been my special project over the past 18 months: The Keys to Democracy: Sortition as a New Model for Citizen Power, by my late father, the classicist Maurice Pope.

The back story: my dad wrote the book in the 1980s, but, perhaps because it was ahead of its time, his usual publishers wouldn’t take it. We had thought the work was lost well before he passed away in 2019. But two years ago, while sorting through his library, my mother found the typescript.

As my brother Quentin and I edited the text, we consulted several experts and were urged on by messages back telling us that the book was “masterful”, “bold”, “visionary” and more (you can see all their endorsements here). Dr. Hélène Landemore of Yale University and Cambridge classicist Dr. Paul Cartledge generously wrote a preface and an introduction. With many such helping hands, we found a publisher at UK philosophy specialists Imprint Academic. The book went on sale on 7 March.

Back in the 1980s, few others proposed that randomly selected citizens could, after proper information and deliberation, reach better decisions than elected politicians. This open field is perhaps one reason for the book’s unique and accessible combination of the history, mathematics, philosophy and future of sortition. My dad’s ideal – in which random selection could be the decision-making heart of all branches of government – also makes him more radical than most other thinkers writing today.
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“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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Ovadya: Controlling AI via allotted bodies

Hélène Landemore has recently proposed using AI to manage the deliberation of allotted bodies. Aviv Ovadya proposes the opposite:

Technologist and researcher Aviv Ovadya isn’t sure that generative AI can be governed, but he thinks the most plausible means of keeping it in check might just be entrusting those who will be impacted by AI to collectively decide on the ways to curb it.

That means you; it means me. It’s the power of large networks of individuals to problem-solve faster and more equitably than a small group of individuals might do alone (including, say, in Washington). This is not naively relying on the wisdom of the crowds — which has been shown to be problematic — but the use of so-called deliberative democracy, an approach that involves selecting people through sortition to be representative (such that everyone in the population being impacted has an equal chance of being chosen), and providing them with an environment that enables them to deliberate effectively and make wise decisions. This means compensation for their time, access to experts and stakeholders, and neutral facilitation.

Either way, Ovadya is busily trying to persuade all the major AI players that collective intelligence is the way to quickly create boundaries around AI while also giving them needed credibility. Take OpenAI, says Ovadya. “It’s getting some flack right now from everyone,” including over its perceived liberal bias. “It would be helpful [for the company] to have a really concrete answer” about how it establishes its future policies.

Metaverse vs. Democracy

I’ve published an article that explores the current and future challenge that technology and the metaverse brings to elections. I believe I’m the first to explore the connection. I would appreciate any comments and suggestions, as well as collaborators in developing a more in-depth piece.

The in-depth piece would likely have 4 major perspectives:

  • psychology & emotions
  • history & current practices in US elections (possibly looking internationally?)
  • technology & the metaverse
  • introduction to CAs, culminating in nested CAs