Sortition in the Netherlands

The very useful Dutch sortition-focused blog Tegen Verkiezingen reports about a new bachelor’s thesis at Leiden university in the Netherlands titled “Lottery as a democratic instrument?”. The thesis was written by Max Van Duijn, who is the leader of a local political party in the Katwijk municipality named DURF. DURF, which is the biggest party in the municipal council, advocates the application of sortition at the municipal level.

Tegen Verkiezingen provides the following translation of an excerpt from the thesis:

In essence ‘representative democracy’ is not democratic. It’s something fundamentally different. It would be more justified to label it ‘elective aristocracy’. In that sense the contrast between classical and representative democracy is a false one. In fact what we’re talking about is a contrast between democracy (sortition) and aristocracy (elections).

Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).
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Thomas and Pollack: Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy

A distinction is sometimes made between democracy as a system in which citizens are politically equal and a system in which the “right” decisions are made. In “Rethinking Guilt, Juries, and Jeopardy”, a paper published in the Michigan Law Review in 1992, George Thomas and Barry Pollack argue, in the context of juries, that the two concepts may be theoretically indistinguishable. It is interesting to weigh the strength of their argument and see to what extent it is applicable to citizen judgement in the case of policy making. Thomas and Pollack also go further and use this argument to reason about jury size, an argument which may be interesting and relevant in public policy making as well.

It may be obvious, but it is worth noting anyway, that the arguments made are also relevant to very wide epistemological questions about what is truth, what are facts, the analytical/synthetic distinction, the fact/value distinction, internalism vs. externalism, etc. It turns out that a theory of democracy may require a workable epistemological theory, or at least a part of such a theory.

The purpose of a mechanism for deciding guilt is to impose punishment only on those who deserve it. This goal raises two questions. First, who decides? Second, how can an observer evaluate whether the decisionmaker was right or wrong?

Although citizen juries played a role in the English criminal process at least as far back as 1201 A.D., their role initially was limited to screening cases, much like the present-day grand jury. Thus, a jury would decide whether to hold the accused for the guilt-determining phase, which might be battle or ordeal. Battle on an accusation of felony ended in death for the accused if he lost – the offender would perish either in the battle or from immediate hanging. Ordeal consisted principally of trial by fire and water, which required the accused (and sometimes the accuser) to walk through fire, carry red-hot iron, plunge his hand or arm into boiling water, or be thrown into a pool of water.

The premise underlying both battle and ordeal as guilt-determining mechanisms was that “God would always interpose miraculously to vindicate the guiltless.”

With the dawning of the Renaissance, however, Western culture gradually ceased seeing the hand of God or Satan in every physical event, and the role of citizen juries was extended from screening defendants for trial to determining guilt. As long as God was making the decision, believers did not accept the possibility of error. Once the ultimate decision rested in the hands of citizens, however, error became possible. The difficult, and usually unappreciated, question is how error can occur.
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Buge and Vandamme: The CCC as a case study on the legitimacy of sortition

A new paper by Eric Buge and Pierre-Étienne Vandamme, published in the Journal of Representative Democracy [Full text, PDF], has the following title and abstract:

Conflicts of Legitimacies in Representative Institutions: The Case of the French Citizen Convention for Climate

Conceived as an alternative form of democratic representation, the random selection of citizens for a political task comes in tension with the logic of electoral representation. The idea, carried by random selection, that anyone can be a good enough representative challenges the assumption that we need to choose the most competent among ourselves. And the fact that citizens’ assemblies are sometimes tasked to draft legislation may undermine the authority of elected representatives. This article tests this hypothesis of tension between competing forms of representation on a recent case: the French Citizen Convention for Climate (CCC) in 2020. Drawing on parliamentary hearings and questions as well as public political reactions to the CCC, we find indications that elected representatives may feel threatened in their legitimacy even when most randomly selected citizens do not see themselves as representatives. This may be due to the fact that the CCC was seen by some as stepping on the prerogatives of the Parliament. This suggests that future experiments of the sort could benefit from a clearer functional division between the two forms of representation.

This repeats a commonly asserted notion that sortition rests on different positive assumptions about political competence from those upon which support for elections does. Supposedly, while sortition advocates assert equal political competence among all citizens, advocates of elections assert that the elite is politically more competent than the rest of the population. In fact, analysis shows that the claim that this is the crucial difference between the positions is rather questionable. Continue reading

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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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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Landa and Pevnick invoke the magic of electoral accountability

A 2021 article by Dimitri Landa and Ryan Pevnick of New York University titled “Is Random Selection a Cure for the Ills of Electoral Representation?” is another indication that sortition may be slowly becoming a political option that needs to be fended off, even in the conservative Anglophone political science academia. The short answer of the paper to its own title is of course a resounding “No!”.

The second paragraph of the paper starts by saying the following:

Our goal in what follows is to develop considerations that have been largely overlooked in conversation regarding the merits of sortition-based proposals, and that should inform our assessment of the viability of those proposals as corrections and alternatives to electoral mechanisms. At the core of those considerations is the analysis of incentives facing citizens and public officials under different institutional schemes.

It turns out that this is a long winded way of saying that sortition is deficient because, unlike elections, it does not provide decision makers with counter-incentives to the inevitable tendency for corruption – i.e., using their political power for their personal benefit. Over and over, in various guises, the article makes the same argument: election provide some mechanism for motivating officials to please the population (namely, their wish to be re-elected), even if in reality this mechanism does not seem to function very well. Sortition on the other hand just lets officials do as they please. The supposed shortcomings of sortition are accentuated by the assertion that empowering an allotted body to make decisions reflects an ideology of “deference” toward that body, which certainly sounds like an anti-democratic, even authoritarian, mindset. In contrast, elections, the authors say, is based on a principle of “accountability” – which, is obviously as democratic as apple pie.
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1,000

The number 1,000 seems to have some kind of charm when it comes to allotted bodies. There is of course the G1000 – “a Belgian platform for democratic innovation” backed by the renown of David Van Reybrouck. But more generally, there is somehow the notion that 1,000 is a good size for an allotted body. Supposedly, 1,000 is how big a body has to be in order to be “representative”. This intuition may be to some extent reinforced by the fact that opinion polls often use (or claim to use) samples of a similar size. There is also the fact that when one is surrounded by 1,000 people there is a feeling of being in the presence of a crowd and one becomes an anonymous, insignificant point in that crowd – and maybe that seems to reflect what membership in a mass community is about.

In fact, the number 1,000 is completely arbitrary. Its use in opinion polling is rather coincidental, and there is certainly no reason to use it when allotting political bodies. Indeed, the feeling of being lost in a crowd of 1,000 people is a strong indication that 1,000 is too many.

As is generally the case when considering the design of allotted bodies (and when thinking about sortition on the whole) it is most fruitful to consider the issue of body size via the model of extending self-representation. For the decision-making body to make policy that represents the interests of the people, two things have to happen:

  1. The body has to be internally democratic. That is, there has to be an equality of political power within the body.
  2. The membership of body has to reflect the population in the sense that its values and world view match those of the population.

Those two conditions generate two conflicting considerations: since large groups of people tend to generate spontaneous inequalities within the group, the first condition implies that the size cannot be too large. The second condition implies that the makeup of the body has to be statistically representative, so that it should not be “too small”.
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Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 4/4)

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3.

I conclude this series of posts by refuting three “philosophical” arguments. These arguments purport to provide theoretical bases for the use of sortition.

10. “The Blind break”: The trouble with elections is that it appoints decision makers based on bad reasons – connections, wealth, ambition, etc. Sortition selects decision makers at random, thus for no reasons at all, and in particular for no bad reasons.

Taken at face value, this argument is rather weak. Would having decision makers that were not selected due to bad reasons be enough for producing good policy? Relatedly, this argument provides little guidance for how the decision making body should be set up. For example, what size should be body be? After all, each institutional parameter that would be set would be set due to some reason. Would those reason be good or bad?

Finally, even the claim that selecting at random is selection that excludes reasons is hardly convincing. Having an equal-probability lottery is not a natural default. It is itself a procedural choice which is made for some reason – the very convincing reason that all group members are political equals. If one rejects this reason, one could very well argue that sortition should be rejected.
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