Citizen Assembly for Food Policy in Switzerland

In June Switzerland is going to convene a Citizen Assembly for Food Policy (Assemblée citoyenne pour une politique alimentaire). [Texts quoted below are my translations from the original French. -YG]

With the Strategy for Sustainable Development, the Federal Council has declared its commitment to a fundamental change toward a more sustainable food system in Switzerland. In order to set out strategies for this change, national dialogs have already taken place in 2021. The Citizen Assembly for Food Policy is a continuation of these dialogs with the direct involvement of the Swiss population.

Some details about the process:

The Citizen Assembly for Food Policy convenes 100 allotted Swiss residents who will discuss in an open-forum process what a sustainable food policy in Switzerland in 2030 could look like.

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Micah Erfan: Texas should try sortition democracy

Micah Erfan is an economics freshman at the University of Houston. He writes at the The Cougar, “the official student-run news organization of the university”. Nicely assertive, Erfan draws a direct link from the oligarchical nature of the elections-based system to the deaths of hundreds of citizens in a climate disaster. This is the kind of things one cannot do after having managed to climb a few rungs of the academic ladder.

Texas democracy is immensely broken. Sortition democracy, a government by random selection, might be the best way to fix it.

The idea is that a simple random sample or stratified sample of the population will provide a group that is far better suited to represent the genuine views of residents than a collection of politicians.

In recent years, Texas has become notorious for its anti-democratic policies. Key among them is the state’s rampant gerrymandering.

Even though roughly 60 percent of residents are nonwhite, in Texas’s new political maps, fifty percent of congressional districts have white majorities.

Texas’s elections also suffer from severe voter suppression and the use of majoritarian first past the post voting, a system that has frequently been deemed by political scientists as one of the least representative.

This democracy deficit has come with real costs. In 2021, the failure of lawmakers to prepare the state power grid for extreme weather cost the state 200 billion dollars and over 700 lives.

A graphic novel advocating sortition

A new short illustrated fictional work set 5 years into the future follows Tom, an Architecture student in Marseille, who is allotted to sit on the French National Assembly. The work, written (in French) by Béatrice and Salomé Mabilon, is entitled Nous ne sommes pas en démocratie: Plaidoyer pour le tirage au sort (We are not living in a democracy: a plea for sortition) and is available both in print and as an e-book. Béatrice Mabilon is a professor of education and has written in the past in favor of sortition.

Excerpt (my translation):

Julien [Tom’s assistant, who is also a former allotted representative]: “At the beginning when I was allotted it was like a blank page, I felt like anything is possible. But we had a long way to go. In the previous system, power was arrogated by an oligarchy that formed a closed circle. The representative system was in crisis…”
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The psychological effects of competitive selection vs. selection by luck

One hardly needs to rely on psychological mechanisms when asserting that electoral elites can be expected to be self-serving. On the contrary, it is claims that electoral elites would not be self-serving that need to be well-justified, since it is conventional wisdom, that is usually completely uncontroversial, that any group of people is by its nature self-serving – i.e., using whatever power is in its possession to promote group objectives. Nothing makes more sense than for a political elite – electoral or otherwise – to use its privileged position to promote its interests, at the expense of those less privileged if need be.

It is sometimes asserted that this natural tendency toward self-serving behavior is a problem for allotted decision-makers as well. Those allotted decision-makers, it is claimed, having found themselves in a position of power will then use this power to promote their group interests – again, at the expense of the non-allotted if need be. This argument, however, ignores the fact that the situation of the allotted and the situation of the elected (or of the elite of any other political system) is different in very important ways.
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Bootstrapping a democratic system

Setting up a large-scale democratic system presents a bootstrapping problem. It may be hoped that a large-scale democratic system is stable. That is, that once a democratic system is in place then it continues to function democratically and power does not spontaneously become concentrated leading to an oligarchical system. But even if this is the case, it would not imply that there is a realistic way to create a democratic system starting from an oligarchical one. Contrary to Western dogma, it is clear that large-scale democracy is not a spontaneously occurring phenomenon. Not only are some oligarchical system rather stable (with quite a few instances of the Western oligarchical system having survived for over 70 years), but, more importantly, once an oligarchical system destabilizes, often – in fact, historically, almost uniformly – the outcome is another oligarchical regime. The question then is how can the destabilization of an oligarchical regime, a phenomenon that seems to be happening now in various Western countries, become an opportunity for a transition to a democratic system.

Presumably, based on the historical record, some fairly stringent preconditions are necessary. A popular democratic sentiment is of course required. However, such sentiment is far from sufficient since without some theoretical understanding of the mechanisms that are required in order to set up a democratic system, the sentiment cannot be translated into democratic institutional structure. Specifically, when the misconception that an elected constitutional assembly and more generally elections are foundations of a democratic system is widely held, then it is quite unlikely that a democratic system would be created.

But let us assume that the situation is favorable:

1. There is widespread popular support for sortition,
2. Following some systemic upheaval or destabilization, an allotted body was formed with a mandate for putting in place a new institutional political system.
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The End of Elections?

The convergence of advances in technology and research in emotions coupled to the drive to control the outcomes of elections is exposing a major problem in the United States, and possibly elsewhere. In this article I explain the problem and offer a familiar solution: citizens’ assemblies. Although not covered in the article, it indirectly offers a strong reason why our movement is running out of time.

We are moving toward a world where enough personally identifiable emotion data is becoming available to profile and subtly shape the thinking of a wide range of voters, which would give control of the outcomes of elections to those who own our data. This election singularity is almost invisible and, on the individual level, easily dismissed with a claim that “I won’t be influenced in this way.”

A sortition proposal in Malaysia

Datuk Yong Soo Heong writes in the Malaysian newspaper New Straits Times:

[M]any in the political gamesmanship seem to be brimming with confidence on how to bring that winning formula for themselves and their hangers-on. I’m not so sure what they’ve in mind in terms of wealth-creation for the people because I’ve not heard much about this except that they want to return to power.

Therefore, we often find ourselves in a dilemma.

Who do we vote for? Who could be trusted? Which politicians will not abandon their righteous cause? These are tough questions to answer.
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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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Expectations of commitment by the allotted, part 1

In many discussions and proposals involving allotted bodies it is either implicitly or explicitly assumed that the allotted cannot be expected to invest much effort in their involvement in the political procedure. Then, a whole set design decisions regarding allotted bodies are justified as a consequence of this assumption:

  • Service terms must be short (measured in days, usually),
  • The allotted cannot be expected to gather information independently, to come up with their own agenda, or to design the procedures of their work,
  • The allotted cannot be expected to move to a different location in order to regularly physically attend meetings, so remote meetings are often offered as a substitute.

Even with all these burden-lightening design choices, it is often assumed that only a small minority of those offered allotted seats in a decision making body would take up the offer, so, it is again assumed, either service has to be mandatory or selection of replacements in one way or another has to take place.

All of these design decisions are dramatically detrimental to the effectiveness of sortition as democratic mechanism of decision making. The burden-lightening measures reduce the capacity of the allotted, as individuals and as a group, to make decisions that are independent, considered and informed. They all, in fact, transfer significant decision making power to the hands elite groups that manage the set-up.
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Meeting Tuesday, April 26th, International Network of Sortition Advocates

The International Network of Sortition Advocates (INSA) will have its next meeting Tuesday, April 26, 2022 at 19:00 GMT [20:00 Europe, 21:00 Israel, 14:00 EST (2:00 PM), 6:00 AEDT].

Google Meets Link: https://meet.google.com/qvw-npcr-gaw

Agenda Items Include:

  • Report about Discord channels
  • How we should use Google Workspace
  • Discussion of Overall Strategy
  • Announcement of our platform

*Please note our desire to keep the meetings to 1-hour in length.