The Scottish Citizens Assembly recommends creating a House of Citizens

Back in January, the Scottish Citizens Assembly has concluded its work and published its report. One of the sections in the recommendations chapter (PDF) is called “How decisions are taken” and contains various proposals involving the use of allotted bodies for political decision making. One of those recommendations is to

set up a ‘house of citizens’ to scrutinise government proposals and give assent to parliamentary bills. Membership should be time-limited and representative of the population of Scotland, similar to the way this CA was selected.

Having a permanent allotted body with oversight powers over government and (it seems) binding veto power over legislation is, I believe, an unprecedented proposal from an official constitutional reform body. Of course, the Scottish CA itself was merely advisory, so the adoption of its recommendations by the elected government is very far from certain.

A discussion of the report was held in the Scottish parliament in February. In the discussion John Mason of the Scottish National Party responded to the proposal:

The start of the members’ introduction says:

“We, the people of Scotland, present this report” to Government and Parliament. That is a big statement, suggesting that the assembly is either more representative of, or more in touch with, the general population than elected MSPs are. We should take that kind of statement seriously. The assembly is a cross-section of society, but it is not elected, so are we questioning democracy if we follow that logic?
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Confessions of a Traitor to the Cause: Some reflections looking back from John Burnheim

As I struggle with my ninety-fifth year, I would like to beg forgiveness from the true believers in sortition.

Nearly forty years ago, in 1985, I published the book Is Democracy Possible? with the subtitle The Alternative to Parliamentary Democracy. The sortitionists believed that the alternative could only be to reject the electoral system and replace it by sortition. The will of the people could be expressed only by the people themselves, so they assumed I must support that view.

In fact what the book advocated was something different, but it was so far outside the mainstream that it attracted little attention. There is no point in offering answers to questions people, apart from a few anarchists, don’t ask. Everybody assumed that democracy was a matter of ensuring that the power of the state is invested in the nation’s people. Anybody who denied that was a traitor to democracy.

My contention was that the real problem was the concentration of all public goods in the powers of the state. Those who agreed with me on that point usually assumed that the only alternative was to manage the power of money to protect the rights of the owners of property — radical capitalism. Robert Nozick, in Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974), claimed that the public goods that the state did not provide could be provided on a moral basis by the rich. This was hardly a prescription for democracy. Clearly public goods are very important to human life. Many public goods are conventions that evolve from the interactions of people as unplanned byproducts. Our languages are the obvious example. However in complex technological societies, many of the goods we need to have at our disposal must involve rational choices between different possibilities that are accepted by all those who need them.

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The Swiss Council of States rejects sortition for judges

SwissInfo reports:

Like the National Council, the Council of States has rejected the initiative that would replace the selection of judges by election to their selection by sortition.

Submitted by the entrepreneur Adrian Gasser, the initiative “Appointment of federal judges by sortition” aims to make judges more independent. The candidates have to attain their high position based solely on their qualifications, even if they do not have a political network, according to the text of the initiative.

Selected by a a commission of experts, the judges would then be allotted in a way that the official languages would be fairly represented. They would be able to serve five years beyond the normal age of retirement.

Democratic legitimacy

The senators have implicitly rejected the text. The initiative contradicts the Swiss practice where judges are elected and enjoy democratic legitimacy, a principle that is incompatible with a random process, declared Beat Rieder, a member of the judiciary committee.

The existing system has proven itself. Andrea Caroni, the president of the commission, the idea must be “voting rather than rolling the dice, democracy rather than lottery”. Sortition would in no way guaranty more independence and more fairness, added Thomas Minder.

The choices of the members of the commission of experts would not be neutral either, added Carlo Sommaruga. And it would not necessarily be the best that would be designated due to chance, concurred Karin Keller-Sutter, the Minister of Justice. According to her, the initiative introduces a “foreign element” into our institutions.

A different proposal that was also discussed would have judges elected for life rather than facing periodic re-election. In practice, however, non-re-elections are very rare. This proposal was rejected as well. According to article, Andrea Caroni thinks that “parliament knows how to protect the judiciary institution”.

Lottocracy: Lectures by Alex Guerrero

Prof. Alex Guerrero – a long time sortition advocatehas three lectures on sortition as part of a Coursera course called “Revolutionary Ideas: Borders, Elections, Constitutions, Prisons”. The lectures about sortition are titled:

  1. The Lottocracy
  2. The Promise of Lottocracy
  3. Concerns About Lottocracy

The lectures present Guerrero’s proposal which centers around single-issue-specific allotted bodies but also contain discussions that address questions that are relevant to other forms of sortition-based governance. The total length of the lectures is about 1 hour and they seem to have in mind an audience that is similar in terms of interests and attitude to political science undergraduate students.

Consent of the Governed

A recent conversation with a friend about sortition illuminated for me a stumbling block in making the case for lotteries–at least for advocates in the United States. This friend was adamantly opposed to lotteries. We argued back and forth for some time. In exasperation, I finally asked her what was so special about elections. She said, “Because elections are the mechanisms by which we the people express our wishes.” It was problematic for her that random selection allowed her no say in who would be chosen to be on a given panel.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote of certain unalienable rights (life, liberty, etc.), arguing “… that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men [sic], deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed …”

By this Jefferson meant that the people give permission to their representatives to rule over them. The disconnect for most of us is that our representatives often give preference to their donors over voters, making a mockery of consent. But to argue that elections provide only the illusion of consent does not answer the concern that a randomly selected policy making body would give people no say in who’s making the rules.

One answer to the concern would be a referendum wherein voters approve the creation of a randomly selected policy-making body. The Michigan redistricting commission—a thirteen-member body selected by lot—was established by a 2018 referendum amending the state’s constitution. The commission has the power to re-draw district lines, and it was created by popular consent—60% of Michigan voters approved the amendment: they removed power from an elected group (the state legislature) and entrusted it to a group selected by lot.
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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 13/13

Landemore concludes her book in chapter 9. Looking at this chapter and looking back at the entire book’s narrative, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the book’s promise was not lived up to. By this point it seems that not much remains of the book’s original radical spirit. Gone in this conclusion is the most subversive part of Landemore’s narrative – the hints that the status quo, the elections-based system produces terrible outcomes. Also gone is the radical insistence on political equality. Other than some non-committal language about “an open door” connecting representatives and society at large, in the conclusion “open democracy” seems to boil down to three institutions – allotted bodies, popular initiative processes and delegative voting. Landemore writes that “open democracy” means that ordinary citizens “have access to power”. But of course it may be argued – and conventionally it is argued – that voting is also a form of “access to power”. Why is voting in the initiative process or though vote delegation a better form of “access” than conventional voting?

The concluding chapter is mostly concerned with issues that are only tangentially related to the topics discussed in the book. A concluding chapter can be expected to contain some “future directions” – ideas that were not explored in the book but which are somehow relevant to the topics that were discussed. These future directions, however, should stem from a concise summary of the conclusions that were drawn from the preceding discussion. The conclusions should position the reader at a new vantage point from which the future directions can be pursued. Unfortunately, such a new vantage point is missing. In particular, Landemore devotes a fair amount of space in the chapter to a discussion of the role of nation-states in governance, the inclusivity of the demos, and other sites of power such as corporate power. This discussion, however, does not build on previously discussed topics and does not go beyond the standard claims and arguments made. The claim, for example, that “there seems to be a logic to democracy that is conducive to universal inclusion” and that “[t]his logic eats away at the closed borders of a nationally defined demos and cracks them open” (p. 210) is a questionable commonplace, rather than an idea that builds on the main arguments of the book.
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An in-depth study of the “Irish Model” by Dimitri Courant

In “Citizens’ Assemblies for Referendums and Constitutional Reforms: Is There an “Irish Model” for Deliberative Democracy?” Dimitri Courant analyzes the recent Irish citizens’ and constituional assemblies in a nuanced and contexuatlized way. This must be one the better treatments of the subject for anyone intersted in the “trans-localization” of the model itself and for those intersted in the design issues for citizens’ assemblies. To me it is a sober evaluation of the “Irish case” and gives us much food for thought on what might happen going forward.

Among democratic innovations, deliberative mini-publics, that is panels of randomly selected citizens tasked to make recommendations about public policies, have been increasingly used. In this regard, Ireland stands out as a truly unique case because, on the one hand, it held four consecutive randomly selected citizens’ assemblies, and on the other hand, some of those processes produced major political outcomes through three successful referendums; no other country shows such as record. This led many actors to claim that the “Irish model” was replicable in other countries and that it should lead to political “success.” But is this true? Relying on a qualitative empirical case-study, this article analyses different aspects to answer this question: First, the international context in which the Irish deliberative process took place; second, the differences between the various Irish citizens’ assemblies; third, their limitations and issues linked to a contrasted institutionalization; and finally, what “institutional model” emerges from Ireland and whether it can be transferred elsewhere.

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Landemore: Open Democracy, part 12

The final objection to “open democracy” which Landemore considers in chapter 8 of her book is that a non-electoral system would be too demanding on people’s time and effort. Landemore does not explicitly do so, but it seems useful to differentiate between the demands made on the population in total, or on average, and the demands made on specific people. A system may be problematic if it requires the average citizen to invest more time and effort than the average citizen sees fit. But even in cases where the demand on average is low, there may be problems if some citizens (even a small number) are asked to put in more time and effort than they are willing to put in.

Landemore rightly emphasizes that “it is essential to consider citizens’ time and attention as scarce resources that must be used wisely”. The notion that it makes sense, or even commendable and serves some ideal of citizenship or democracy, for citizens to show up to mass meetings or mass political events of any kind must be firmly rejected. This is not “participation” but exploitation. It is important to note, however, that the same is true for other forms of powerless “participation”, quite a few of which Landemore “makes room for” (p. 206) in her let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom approach. Spending time on a “crowdsourced platform” (p. 206), for example, or even sitting on an “agenda-setting” or “proposal review” body which is one of thousands of such bodies, meaning that its output is diluted thousands of times, is also a meaningless, exploitative anti-democratic ritual.
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Pew poll asks about citizen assemblies, finds widespread support

A Pew Research poll conducted in November and December 2020 asked people in France, the U.S., the U.K. and Germany about their attitudes toward the political systems in their countries. As usual, there was a lot of dissatisfaction. It turns out for example that in France and the U.S. about 20% of those polled think that the political system in their country “needs to be completely reformed”.

Interestingly, the poll had a question about “citizen assemblies”.

In all four countries, there is considerable interest in political reforms that would potentially allow ordinary citizens to have more power over policymaking. Citizen assemblies, or forums where citizens chosen at random debate issues of national importance and make recommendations about what should be done, are overwhelmingly popular. Around three-quarters or more in each country say it is very or somewhat important for the national government to create citizen assemblies. About four-in-ten say it’s very important.

Surprisingly, in my opinion, support for such advisory bodies is somewhat higher in all countries than support for binding referenda.

(Thanks Paul Gölz.)

Landemore: Open Democracy, part 11

This continues the review of Landemore’s treatment of objections to “open democracy” which makes up the last chapter of her book.

3. Tyranny of the majority

“For some readers”, Landemore says (p. 199),

the undemocratic, or at least counter-majoritarian, aspects of electoral, liberal democracy (aka representative democracy) are intended and desirable features, not problems to be solved.

Those readers

fear that promoting a purer democratic regime against electoral democracies risks undoing the minority rights protections built into the liberal core of the latter.

Landemore sees such fears as “legitimate”, but argues that

it is also entirely possible that, by starting with a liberal rather than a democratic framework, the founders of our modern “democracies” have turned the screw too tightly on the elements of popular rule that they have also tried to incorporate (while compounding that mistake by locking the design and throwing away the key with almost impossible-to-revise constitutional entrenchments. (p. 200)

Josiah Ober is then credited with a “recent attempt at drawing a clearer distinction between democracy and liberalism” and approvingly described as having “thus begun to challenge the view that the tradition of political liberalism, and consequently representative government as its central emanation, is the only ideology or historic system that can protect at least certain individual rights and freedoms.” “Pre-liberal, non-representative democracy” – Landemore reassures her readers – “was not all that unstable or even as terribly ‘illiberal’ on the substance […] as is often feared.”
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