Wang Shaoguang: Representative and Representational Democracy, Part 1

As a powerful state which is not electoralist, it is not surprising that China produces political theory which rejects the equation of democracy with elections. It is characteristic of the weakness of Western political science that it makes no serious attempt to explore and engage with this theory.

Wang Shaoguang is a prominent Chinese political scientist. His article “Representative and Representational Democracy” was originally published in the Chinese language social science journal “Open Times” in 2014. A translation to English of the article appears on the website “Reading the China Dream” which regularly translates articles by Chinese establishment intellectuals. The article makes several intertwined arguments regarding democracy and elections. While focusing, naturally, on the Chinese system as an alternative to the Western electoralist system, Wang does make a mention of sortition as well.

In the following excerpts Wang first notes the crisis of the Western government system and makes the straightforward observation, often avoided in the West, that the Chinese system enjoys more popular support than most Western governments. Rather surprisingly, it seems to me, instead of translating this fact to a frontal attack on the Western system, Wang then makes the apologetic (and fairly familiar) multi-culturalist argument that democracy is perceived differently in different cultures. Wang asserts that while the formality of elections is a main feature of the Western or American conception of democracy, in the East “substantive” aspects are considered essential.

Today, even though Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative” and Fukuyama’s “End of History” have already become standing jokes in academic and intellectual circles, their variants proliferate and circulate constantly. Though most people no longer use these particular expressions, many still firmly believe that the “today” of Western capitalist countries is the “tomorrow” of other countries (including China).
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Rotation; The Stabilizer of Random Selection

This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3.

Barbara Goodwin’s main concern in Justice by Lottery is to examine how a purely sortition-dominated economy, in the form of what she calls a “total social lottery”, might aid in establishing greater justice and equality. However, she does introduce another technique that grew up at the same time as sortition did in Ancient Athens, that of rotation. Rotation of positions there was assured by default, it seems, simply by establishing term limits and stipulating that a given post can be only held once by any given citizen in their lifetime. Goodwin treats sortition and rotation as so closely compatible that she sometimes treats them as a single process, sortition-rotation. Whereas sortition, run by the cleroterion device, assigns posts at random, rotation assures that all the necessary bases are covered. She explains,

Rotation is not the same as pure chance: it pays some attention to people’s desire for a guaranteed supply of certain things. By contrast, the lottery is based on the idea that surprise and risk are themselves a major part of what people desire. But there could be room in a transformed society for both principles, and they could operate in harmony – unlike, say, rotation and the principle of entitlement. If we could ensure that people’s basic needs were securely satisfied and that highly specialized jobs (which carry their own rewards in terms of work satisfaction) were appropriately filled, there would be sound reasons for distributing non-specialized jobs and scarce goods above a guaranteed minimum via a modified lottery system or by rotation, especially in the case of scarce luxuries. This would add to the spice of life. Such a system would mitigate the two major kinds of social injustice which the ineradicable inequalities in the structure of advanced capitalist societies, combined with the inelasticity of supply of some goods, produce – for example:
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Advantages and Disadvantages of Sortition

This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here.

At the start of Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin gives an overview of the history of sortition, which in the beginning was bound up with war and religion. Victory in war meant division of the spoils and since most warriors were full time farmers in their day job (professional soldiers were an innovation of Phillip of Macedon), land grants (hence “lots” of land) to veterans for their service served as a sort of pension.

Tangibles as well as intangibles like power have been distributed by lot since early times. God instructed Moses to order the Jews to divide up tracts of land by lots, and this method of distribution is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Land in Athenian colonies was distributed by lot to cleruchs (veterans), and the Romans also parcelled out landholdings for veteran soldiers by lot, to ensure that the most fertile land was impartially distributed: this too, presumably, was God’s reasoning in the case of the Jews.

The Greek word for veteran, “cleruch,” was bound up with clerisy or random distribution. It is also the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries, but later the clergy disapproved and the practice was restricted to heretical outliers, such as the Gnostics. In Hellas, random choice was not primarily religious, as Goodwin points out. “Despite the Greek predilection for giving political rituals a religious gloss, it appears that no divine weight was accorded.” It was also a Roman tradition, though in different form.

In Rome, the augurs had special responsibility for supervising lots as well as for reading entrails, and they adopted as their symbol the urn, from which lots were drawn. But the reasoning behind their usage of the lot also seems to be common-sense and secular: the lot was chiefly used as a convenient means of determining which of various necessary tasks would be performed by officers of equal rank, such as the two consuls.

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Levinson likes Sortition

Noted American Constitutional scholar Sanford Levinson seems to have recently read David Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections. He is full of praise for the book and for sortition in general. His main concern about elections is apparently about rational ignorance, so he focuses on the idea of elections by jury. Displaying an interesting mix of elitist and democratic sentiments, Levinson makes the following comments:

We could obviously discuss at length the degree to which the restricted list generates truly “representative” candidates, given the role played by money or well-located interest groups. That’s the subject for other postings. Rather, let’s assume for the moment that the candidate-selection process is acceptable, and we’re concerned only with how we should structure the choice by the citizenry of who should occupy the offices in question.

I am assuming that any and all trained social scientists would agree that a well-chosen representative sample will produce more “representative” outcomes, whether one is testing the distribution of public opinion or, as in the hypothetical case the selection of a president, than does the baroque process by which we conduct elections. The laity, on the other hand, I suspect would be appalled at this suggestion because we have built up over the years a true mystique about elections per se. Continue reading

Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice By Lottery

This is the first post in a series dealing with the book Justice by Lottery by Barbara Goodwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery is a classic overview of sortition, covering its practical applications and the many speculative proposals in literature and political theory. The book begins with a headpiece, a quotation from King Lear. Since this play was written while Shakespeare was confined in quarantine, it rings differently now that virtually every nation in the world is in lockdown. King Lear planned for a gradual, honourable retirement, but is rejected and enters into a sudden isolation that dislocates and impoverishes.

The scene in question has the former king, betrayed by two of his daughters, in a homeless state, beginning to perceive what his ascendancy had blinded him to. He asks Gloucester, who recently had been brutally blinded for loyalty to Lear, whether he can see how this world goes? Gloucester ruefully answers that he “sees it feelingly.” That is, he understands by touch, not sight. This cartoon depicts how he “sees feelingly,”

Lear then says (and this is Goodwin’s headpiece),

What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi)

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Lafont: Democracy without shortcuts

Cristina Lafont is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University whose research is about normative questions in political philosophy concerning democracy and citizen participation, global governance, human rights, religion and politics.

Lafont is the author a new book, Democracy without shortcuts, devoting a fair amount of attention to allotted citizen juries.

This book articulates a participatory conception of deliberative democracy that takes the democratic ideal of self-government seriously. It aims to improve citizens’ democratic control and vindicate the value of citizens’ participation against conceptions that threaten to undermine it. The book critically analyzes deep pluralist, epistocratic, and lottocratic conceptions of democracy. Their defenders propose various institutional “shortcuts” to help solve problems of democratic governance such as overcoming disagreements, citizens’ political ignorance, or poor-quality deliberation. However, it turns out that these shortcut proposals all require citizens to blindly defer to actors over whose decisions they cannot exercise control. Implementing such proposals would therefore undermine democracy. Moreover, it seems naïve to assume that a community can reach better outcomes “faster” if it bypasses the beliefs and attitudes of its citizens. Unfortunately, there are no “shortcuts” to making a community better than its members. The only road to better outcomes is the long, participatory road that is taken when citizens forge a collective will by changing one another’s hearts and minds. However difficult the process of justifying political decisions to one another may be, skipping it cannot get us any closer to the democratic ideal. Starting from this conviction, the author defends a conception of democracy “without shortcuts.” This conception sheds new light on long-standing debates about the proper scope of public reason, the role of religion in politics, and the democratic legitimacy of judicial review. It also proposes new ways to unleash the democratic potential of institutional innovations such as deliberative minipublics.

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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 2

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1.

(i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)

Starting with the governed, let’s see, point-by-point, how elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters:

1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic

The greatest political thinkers have long known what we have now forgotten:

Aristotle (332 BC): “Elections are aristocratic and non-democratic: they introduce an element of deliberate choice, of selection of the best citizens, the aristoi, in place of government by the people” [Politics IV, 1300b4-5]. This quote is spurious. EC has requested that it be replaced with the following quote.

Aristotle (332 BC): “It is thought to be democratic for political offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic” [Politics IV, 1294b].

Montesquieu (1748): “Sortition is natural to democracy. Elections are natural to aristocracy” [The Spirit of the Laws].

Cornélius Castoriadis (1996): “It is the Greeks who have invented elections. It is an established historical fact. They may have been wrong to do so, but they have invented elections! Who was elected in Athens? They did not elect political officers. Those were selected using sortition or rotation. For Aristotle, you should know, a citizen is someone who is able to govern and be governed. Everybody is able to govern, and therefore sortition is used. Why? Because politics is not a business for experts. There is no science of the political. That was the conventional knowledge among the Greeks” [Post scriptum on Insignificance].

So, the word aristos means the best in Greek. Elections, which by definition aim to choose the best, are by construction aristocratic. The promise of democratic equality is therefore not kept. The elected representatives and the voters are not on equal footings: the elected dominate the voters, the few control the many. We should therefore suspect that the common good would be threatened as the elected come to serve personal interests rather than the general interest.

In contrast, sortition selects indiscriminately. It is therefore the only procedure that respects the foundational promise of democracy – political equality between citizens.
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 1

Background about this essay and its table of contents can be found here.

What follows is a comparison of elections and sortition. The essay is divided into two parts. In part I, elections and sortition are compared in terms of general principles. In part II, they are compared in terms of different possible applications.

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

Let us start by a general comparison of elections and sortition in democracy, taking Paul Ricœur’s definition of democracy as our starting point:

A democracy is a society which recognizes itself to be divided, that is, containing conflicts of interests, and which has committed itself to endow each citizen with an equal part of the expression of these conflicts, of their analysis and of the deliberation of those conflicts with a view of arriving at a resolution.

That is, the definition of the common good is by construction relative, variable, debatable, conflicting, and therefore political. It rests fundamentally on the question of sovereignty: who is the legitimate communal decision maker? Who weighs the needs of the social body? Who decides? Who evaluates the decisions? The people themselves or their representatives? Do we even need representatives?

And if the scale of our societies indeed necessitates appointing representatives, what type of representatives? Because the word “representative” is ambiguous: are they the masters or the servants of the common good?

And above all, who is the legitimate decision maker regarding basic rules, the meta-rules?
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap

What follows is the table of contents of a 2016 essay by Étienne Chouard, which Chouard describes as “my most recent methodical comparison between election and sortition”. I will publish my translation to English of the essay in several parts. The original French version is here.

Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good: Breaking out of the electoral trap
A comparison between election and allotment of representatives
Étienne Chouard, 2016
(Original in French, translation to English by Yoram Gat, 2020.)

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

  • (i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)
    • 1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic
    • 2. By definition, elections are an abdication, a renunciation of the exercising of one’s sovereignty oneself, it is delegation, it is the renunciation of legislation, whereas sortition is the assertion of sovereignty
    • 3. Elections infantilize, strip of responsibility, dissuade from doing what is right, and distance the people from politics and the common good, whereas sortition encourages, and promotes responsibility for, doing the right thing
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