On what the Council of 500 did and did not do

By Mirko Canevaro

[Editor’s note: this post is a response to comments on the post Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theina and should be read together with the original article.]

There is a need to distinguish between decree-making and law-making (nomothesia). In decree-making, roughly 50% of fourth-century decrees found on stone are decrees of the Council (probouleumatic) ratified by the Assembly without discussion (unanimously). The other 50% were proposed directly in the Assembly, either because the Council enacted an ‘open probouleuma’ (invitation to discussion but with no actual proposal), or because the proposal of the Council had failed to be ratified in the Assembly.

I, for one, don’t see the Council as an ‘administrative magistracy’. Alberto Esu has a great chapter forthcoming showing just how important the Council was in ‘deliberating’, and how it actually had vast powers of decision on its own. And Ober, in Democracy and Knowledge, has made a powerful argument for the role of the Council in collecting and synthesising diffused knowledge through deliberation. (See also my piece on majority rule and consensus, about how many decrees were enacted by the Assembly without the debate, on the force of the deliberation that had been carried out in the Council, with the evidence for it. I argue that deliberation was possible and went on as a matter of course – the paper is controversial, but some have already agreed, e.g. Ober, Luraghi, Harris, even Hansen, and we don’t agree on much else… Let’s see how the debate proceeds.) It was not that central in nomothesia, but it was very central in decree-making, as a proper deliberative body.
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Athenian Constitutionalism: Nomothesia and the Graphe Nomon Me Epitedeion Theinai

Many of us who argue the case for the implementation of sortition in modern lawmaking like to base their arguments on fourth-century Athenian practice. In my PhD thesis on the topic I argue (on the authority of Hansen and Blackwell) that there were eight stages involved, and a new paper by Mirko Canevaro (who disagrees with many of Hansen’s claims) argues that it was even more complicated. The following stages are from page 73 of his paper:

In fourth-century Athens, to pass a law,

[1] the demos first acted in the form of the Council of Five Hundred, selected by lot. The Council set the agenda for the Assembly and could be persuaded to put lawmaking (as the production of new laws – general permanent rules) in the agenda of the next Assembly.

[2] At that point, the Assembly (composed potentially of the whole demos, and in any case very rarely of fewer than 6,000 people) held a preliminary vote not on new law proposals, but on whether laws could be proposed at all. The institutional setup was such that the first vote in the Assembly was not on a particular solution, but on whether the demos recognised that there was a problem that needed solving through legislation.

[3] If the vote was successful, then volunteers could propose new laws, which had to be widely publicised for a month.

[4] At the end of the month, the Assembly would set a date for the meeting of the nomothetai to enact new laws.
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Newly elected Congressperson: Public office must be earned

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a newly elected US Congressperson from NY who is considered somewhat of an anti-establishment progressive having unseated a long-serving Congressperson in the Democratic primary. Interestingly, although not surprisingly, she seems to be very much in favor of the standard notion of a competitive struggle for power. She recently made the following comment (a-propos the power of the party machine):

That broken mentality, that public office is something you wait in line for, instead of earning through hard organizing, is exactly what voters want to change.

“Waiting in line for public office” is largely what a sortition-based system is about.

Instead of the Popular Initiative, let’s try the democracy of chance

François de Closets writes in l’Opinion.

The Gilets Jaunes, the coalition, the opposition, everybody seems to support the Popular Initiative (référendum d’initiative citoyenne, or RIC). This mechanism for popular participation would offer both a renovating reform of our republic and a way out of the crisis. Wouldn’t it, however, be a false solution? Wouldn’t it be embraced more because it is in the air rather than through thorough reflection? Wouldn’t it be masking a real solution? “Let the people speak”, who can object to that? No one, and it is for this reason that we must not give in to moral terrorism.

Popular sovereignty, the foundation of democracy, struggles with the question of the government. Beyond the scale of the city, even beyond that of a village, collective power is no longer operative. Representative democracy must be utilized. Every nation has arrived at this conclusion. That is, popular sovereignty does not mean governing but appointing and recognizing rulers. It also means that the citizens see themselves as being represented by those who speak and act in their name.

Despite this delegation, the people remain the ultimate source of truth, their word being superior to that of their representatives. In particular, their word must be imposed through referendum when it comes to the supreme law: the constitution. Representative democracy is therefore a compromise due to the impossibility of the ideal of direct democracy.

A crutch. In practice the system risks the formation of an enclosed political class which usurps power from the people. Conversely, direct democracy can be used by manipulators who under the pretext of “letting the people speak” impose their point of view on the majority. Real democracy, that of the general will, is therefore a historical construction which must fend off both of those perversions. The RIC should be examined from this perspective.
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Pressure for Brexit Citizen’s Assembly increases

Message from Compass:

Only a few weeks ago, many had not even heard of the idea. But now, the use of a Citizens’ Assembly to break the Brexit deadlock is a real possibility.

Compass, working as ever with others, has helped get an answer to Brexit on the political map and found a way to rebuild our broken democracy.

The demand is simple: if Parliament can’t decide, then a representative sample of the people must take over. Chosen by lot and filtered to be representative of class, geography, gender, race and views on Brexit, they would decide between which of the three options on the table to recommend to Parliament: Deal, No Deal or a Second Referendum.

A Brexit Citizens’ Assembly would take ten weeks. During this time it would set up, present the evidence, allow people to deliberate and then recommend a way forward to Parliament. A short extension of Article 50 would be needed. It is doable.

Lisa Nandy and Stella Creasy, now backed by dozens of MPs from across the spectrum, have submitted an amendment for Parliament to set up such as an Assembly.

The amendment is likely to be debated next Tuesday. It’s called ‘Amendment H’.

Whoever your MP is, lobby them – write, email or turn up at a weekend surgery. You are not asking them to take a side on Brexit, just to support a better process to reach an answer.

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Last night in Westminster, a packed room heard the case for a new politics. In times of crisis we look to the ideas lying around us – the best idea is a Citizens’ Assembly. It is time to get out of the Brexit stalemate and deepen our democracy by trusting the people.

Please do all you can to ensure the country has the option of a Citizens’ Assembly.

Our deepest thanks,

The Compass Team

Sortition in Madrid

An article about the political activity of Pablo Soto in Madrid is mostly devoted to a popular initiative mechanism, but the last few paragraphs deal with an allotted body:

This month Madrid plans to launch Mr Soto’s most far-reaching reform yet – an “observatory” of 57 citizens selected at random to advise the city’s 57 councillors.

Mr Soto explains that an algorithm will ensure that observatory members will be representative of Madrid’s social diversity, with a one-year mandate and access to expert assistance to reach well-informed decisions.
Image caption A selection of the citizens’ proposals (translated from Spanish) featured on the platform in early January

The concept was inspired by the ancient Athenian practice of choosing citizens to form governing committees, and by more recent examples where governments have asked the people to decide on single issues to break political deadlock.

In Australia, a “citizens’ jury” was asked about the construction of a nuclear dump.

“The idea is as old as democracy itself,” he says. “A group of people chosen at random – if they have the time and capacity to study the issues in depth – can take very representative decisions.”

International Sortition Network Second Annual Meeting

[This is a repost from www.sortitionfoundation.org]

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From Wednesday January 16 to Friday January 18 the international network, Democracy R&D, whose first principle is the use of “sortition (random selection) to assemble representative groups of everyday people“, will be meeting for the second time, this year in Paris.

Three directors of the Sortition Foundation will be attending, along with members of around 21 organisations and several “guest participants”. This year sees the network growing, with the inclusion of Involve, DemSocthe RSA, DeliberaBrasil and Génération Nomination, alongside many of the participants from last year’s meeting in Madrid.

The meeting will also discuss the “Great National Debate” in France — a series of regional sortition assemblies — in response to the Gilet Jaunes protests.

It will also be very interesting to hear from the participants from Madrid, who were instrumental in that city becoming the first in modern Europe (and possibly the world?) to institute a sortition body (called “The Observatory”) alongside an elected assembly. The Observatory (which has 57 members, the same number as the elected city council), will have significant power to allocate funds to popular projects taken from Madrid’s online citizen proposal platform.

Sortition is finally moving in from the fringes, and the Sortition Foundation is excited to be a key participant in the Democracy R&D network, which is an integral part of that movement.