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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Costa Delgado and Moreno Pestaña: Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness

A new book, The Routledge Handbook of Contemporary European Social Movements, has a chapter by Jorge Costa Delgado and José Luis Moreno Pestaña named “Democracy and sortition: Reasons for using randomness”. The authors summarize their chapter as follows:

The use of sortition accompanies the renewal of debates on democracy. In this chapter, following a brief overview of a few general traits pertaining to the political use of sortition, we will study its fundamental contributions on three levels. First of all, we will analyze how random selection can contribute to renewing the debate about the knowledge necessary to participate politically. For that we will develop four logical possibilities following the discussion between Socrates and Protagoras in Plato’s homonymous dialogue, and, subsequently, they will be exemplified through the debate regarding sortition in the Spanish political party Podemos as context for reference. Secondly, we will address the problem of sortition and its double potential to motivate participation and demotivate unwanted behaviour and profiles. In this case, illustrative examples will be taken stemming from the authors’ own ethnographic experience. Lastly, it will be argued that sortition serves to produce a particular moral content within political participation, based on the idea that politics are a civic virtue, essential to the development of human capabilities, that must be stimulated and distributed en masse. This perspective contrasts with logics deeply rooted in activist environments that, often hinder the declared objectives of those who are members of them, specially the alternation, when we think of political participation, between the ideology of the gift and the professional one.

The Democratic Diarchy

Alex Kovner and myself have been banging on for some time about the ongoing necessity for political parties (albeit in a heavily-modified form) for policy proposal and advocacy in a well-functioning democracy (the disposal role being reserved for randomly-selected juries) and this has not gone down particularly well on this forum. We’re presenting a short paper on it at the Association for Political Thought conference at Oxford in January and would greatly appreciate feedback before we go. It’s very short and we’ve put a lot of effort into refining and clarifying the necessary distinctions. The full paper is on Academia.edu, here’s the abstract:

Isegoria (equal speech) and isonomia (equal law), the two norms that constituted classical Athenian democracy, were implemented respectively by the right of every citizen to propose (or argue against) new laws (isegoria), and equal voting rights over their implementation (isonomia). In the fourth century the latter (disposal) function was entrusted to large, randomly-selected juries (nomothetai) that could be viewed as descriptively-representative microcosms of the citizen body. Isegoria rights were restricted to the five citizens elected by the assembly.

Most current models for ‘citizens’ assemblies’, although claiming Athenian provenance, more closely resemble modern parliaments in that the proposal and disposal functions are conflated, the only difference being that citizens’ assemblies are not constituted by preference election. This paper argues that such models result from a conceptual confusion, have no historical precedent and are vulnerable to corruption and domination by the very hegemonic forces that they seek to counter. The paper argues that, whilst the democratic argument for legislative decision-making (disposal) by a large ad hoc representative jury is persuasive, sortition can have no role to play in the proposal function and such sortition-based bodies can only be part of a mixed constitution in which political parties (albeit of a radically different form to their current incarnation) are required in order to implement ‘representative isegoria’.

And here’s details of the conference panel:

‘The Circumstances of Sortition’

  • David Owen (University of Southampton), ‘The Uses of Sortition’
  • Yves Sintomer (Université de Paris 8), ‘The Contrasted Models of Democracy in Sortition-Based Innovations’
  • Alex Kovner; and Keith Sutherland (University of Exeter), ‘Isegoria and Isonomia: Election by Lot and the Democratic Diarchy’
  • Peter Stone (Trinity College Dublin), ‘The Paradox of Sortition’

Sortition in German press, Citizens’ Council website

Just a couple of notable discussions of sortition in the German press from the last couple of months.

The first from the Frankfurter Allgemeine in August is entitled: “Can sortition save democracy?” After mentioning that in Germany, like in many other countries, satisfaction with actually existing democracy has been hovering around 50%, it delves somewhat IN DEPTH into the differences between elections and lot. Not surprisingly, it quotes Aristotle that “sortition” is democratic, while elections are aristocratic. And it discusses historical examples beyond Athens, in particular, the familiar mentions of Florence and Venice. It then discusses both the Irish Citizens Assembly, and the Buergerrat Demokratie citizens’ assembly in Germany–mentioning that the President of the Bundestag supports it and will take its recommendations seriously. It then discusses the Buergerrat Demokratie at length.

The second from the Sueddeutsche Zeitung in September, entitled “An experiment to save democracy,” reports on the new Citizens Council, which amounts to a second chamber of Parliament, in East Belgium. It calls it a “world premier,” and allows readers to vote yes/no to the idea of whether citizens should be able to make laws. So far, the yeahs have it. It emphasizes that David van Reybrouk’s book, as well as the G1000, played important roles in bringing the idea of “aleatory democracy” to that part of Belgium.

Speaking of which, this is the website for the new Citizens’ Council in East Belgium.

Sortition has nearly gone mainstream, and the so-called “Neo-Athenian Revolution” is alive and well.

Minipublics beyond representation

[This serves, in a sense, as my response to the discussion on the French climate assembly post.]

Now that minipublics are no longer limited to local level “experiments” but are regularly involved in consequential political occasions, constitutional amendments (Ireland), long term city planning (Australia, Germany, US), responses to major political crises (France, Iceland, Ireland), institutionalized checks within representative government (East Belgium, Oregon)–to name a few—the question of their “representativeness,” and, more fundamentally, their legitimate democratic role is no longer academic. Given the response rate problem, those who accept invitations to a citizens’ assembly or jury (however scientifically sampled) are different in some respects from those who do not, and the number of participants in any such minipublic will, regardless of sampling, be exceedingly small compared to the population. Sortinistas and participatory democrats have raised the question of how a not entirely representative, unelected minority could legitimately affect political outcomes for the overwhelming majority who do not take part in the minipublic. In contrast to the “allotted citizen,” with the implication of egalitarian empowerment, some would disparagingly label participants in a minipublic chosen by lot an “aleatoric elite”–ignoring the standard implication of non-ephemerality in the term “elite.” But this focus on strict representativity misses the strongest reason for using minipublics chosen by lot in the first place, and it distracts us form their most promising participatory democratic uses.

After summarizing the strongest arguments articulated by both sortinistas and participatory democrats for the strengths and political potential of minipublics, I suggest another dimension on which they can function. Allotted minipublics can serve as unique spaces of political action and contestation, different from the space of electoral struggle, the space of confrontation in protest, or “enclave” spaces within activist groups and political parties. An electoral campaign is mostly fighting, a protest mostly “manifesting” strength or conviction, a party/union/organization meeting mostly strategizing or venting; but a minipublic provides a rare opportunity for the “everyman,” in a time of cognitive and political “bubbles,” to confront or act with a plurality of points of view, no one of which she/he can anticipate.
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