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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Dikastic Thorubos

All the other powers are naturally in a man’s own control, but the power of speaking is blocked if there is opposition from the audience. Hear him as a scoundrel, bribe-taker, and as one who will say absolutely nothing true. (Dem. 19-340)

Cited in V. Bers, ‘Dikastic Thorubos’ in Crux: Essays Presented to G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, ed. P.A. Cartledge and F.D. Harvey (Exeter: Imprint Academic, 1985)

Recent outbursts of mud-slinging on this forum have implications for the design of sortition-based assemblies, especially if isegoria (equal speech) is the norm. This is the guiding principle of deliberative democracy, as it was in the Athenian democracy (unlike Sparta). However in both the ancient and modern cases only a tiny number of participants exercised the ho boulomenos (anyone who wishes) principle. It took some cojones to address the Athenian assembly and unpopular speakers were shouted down by the other participants (as we saw in the quote from Demosthenes). Whilst such prophylactics can work in direct democracies, large modern states resort to the exchange of insults between political parties, each one hoping to increase its share of the vote in elections. Jaw-jaw is certainly better than war-war, hence the fact that the illocutionary factions in the House of Commons are separated by two swords’ lengths.

The mud-slinging on this forum appears to be primarily between two “camps” — in the one corner Alex Kovner and Keith Sutherland and in the other Yoram Gat and Liam Jones. As Alex recently commented, the two groups appear to be “on different planets”, impervious to the (Habermasian) exchange of reasons.

There is no good reason to believe that a sortition-based assembly would be any different — especially if participation is voluntary, as this would attract those who like the sound of their own voice, which may or may not map to the voices of those in the target population that the randomly-selected group is intended to “describe”. This would suggest that ho boulomenos can do little to support the isegoria rights of the vast majority of citizens who fail to be included in the sortition.

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Democracy in Crisis: Lessons from Ancient Athens

The book Democracy in Crisis by Professor Jeff Miller will be published on January 6th 2022.

The storming of the US Capitol building in January 2021 focused attention on the multiple threats facing contemporary liberal democracies. Beyond the immediate problem of Covid-19, the past two decades saw political polarization, a dramatic rise in inequality, global warming and other environmental threats, as well as the growth of dangerous cultural and political divisions. Western liberal democracies find themselves in the midst of what political theorists call a legitimation crisis: major portions of the population lack confidence in the ability of governments to address our most pressing problems. This distrust in government and traditional political parties opened the door to populist leaders and a rising tide of authoritarianism.

Liberal democracies face major structural and normative challenges in the near future that require us to look beyond the traditional set of solutions available. Democracy in Crisis points back to the world’s first democratic government, Ancient Athens, to see what made that political arrangement durable and resistant to both internal and external threats. The argument focuses on several distinctive Athenian institutions and practices, and considers how we might reimagine them in the modern world. The book addresses questions of civic ideology and institutions, with extended treatment of two distinctive Athenian institutions, ostracism and sortition.

The launch event is at the annual conference of the Association for Political Thought, St. Catherine’s College, Oxford, but has moved online as a result of the Omicron surge. Details below:

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Short refutations of common arguments for sortition (part 3)

Part 1 Part 2.

The arguments below make a case for sortition that is based on a general, rather vague sense of a need for change.

6. Elections are an 18th century technology. We need to modernize democracy by adopting new, modern ideas and institutions. Sortition is one such new idea and is enabled by new technologies.

This argument is obviously false factually. Sortition was practiced in Athens some 2,500 years ago. Drawing lots could easily have been implemented at the end of the 18th century instead or in addition to tallying votes. Furthermore, this perpetuates the standard distortion of the historical record regarding the ideology and the objectives of the creators of the Western system. Elections were not an 18th century democratic technology, but rather an age old oligarchical mechanism. They were deliberately adopted in the 18th century for this reason. Thus there is no democracy to be modernized. There is an elections-based oligarchy that needs to be replaced by a sortition-based democracy.

7. Democratic fatigue: voters have grown tired of the elections. New institutions we need to be introduced in order to revitalize democracy.

A prominent spokesman of this argument is David Van Reybrouck:

Countless western societies are currently afflicted by what we might call “democratic fatigue syndrome”. Symptoms may include referendum fever, declining party membership, and low voter turnout. Or government impotence and political paralysis – under relentless media scrutiny, widespread public distrust, and populist upheavals.

But democratic fatigue syndrome is not so much caused by the people, the politicians or the parties – it is caused by the procedure. Democracy is not the problem. Voting is the problem.

Van Reybrouck explains that “the fundamental cause of democratic fatigue syndrome lies in the fact that we have all become electoral fundamentalists, venerating elections but despising the people who are elected”. This is a wholly unsatisfactory “fundamental cause”. Why are elections producing such poor despised officials? Why and when have we “become electoral fundamentalists”? What was the situation before that?

As an argument for sortition this is also rather weak. Why sortition rather than any other alternative to elections? Maybe elections can be fixed? If they used to work in the past, maybe they can be made to work again? Maybe we can have sortition together with elections? And/or together with many other new institutions? How do we know which institutions can be expected to work? If “relentless media scrutiny” is a problem, why would sortition fare any better than elections?
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Neutralizing Self-Selection Bias in Sampling for Sortition

Bailey FlaniganPaul GölzAnupam Gupta, and Ariel Procaccia, Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems (2020). https://arxiv.org/abs/2006.10498

Yoram recently drew our attention to this sortition paper which was highly ranked by the Google search engine. It’s interesting to see that engineers and computer scientists take the problem of self-selection bias more seriously than political theorists and sortition activists.

Abstract: Sortition is a political system in which decisions are made by panels of randomly selected citizens. The process for selecting a sortition panel is traditionally thought of as uniform sampling without replacement, which has strong fairness properties. In practice, however, sampling without replacement is not possible since only a fraction of agents is willing to participate in a panel when invited, and different demographic groups participate at different rates. In order to still produce panels whose composition resembles that of the population, we develop a sampling algorithm that restores close-to-equal representation probabilities for all agents while satisfying meaningful demographic quotas. As part of its input, our algorithm requires probabilities indicating how likely each volunteer in the pool was to participate. Since these participation probabilities are not directly observable, we show how to learn them, and demonstrate our approach using data on a real sortition panel combined with information on the general population in the form of publicly available survey data.

Citing statistics from the Sortition Foundation:

typically, only between 2 and 5% of citizens are willing to participate in the panel when contacted. Moreover, those who do participate exhibit self-selection bias, i.e., they are not representative of the population, but rather skew toward certain groups with certain features.

To address these issues, sortition practitioners introduce additional steps into the sampling process.

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