Samarajiva: Sortition, How Could It Be Worse?

Indi Samarajiva, a writer living in Colombo, Sri Lanka, writes:

Abolish Politicians — Why We Should Just Put Random People In Office

Even the Athenians had elections for certain positions, like generals, jobs requiring expertise. Then the question is, doesn’t being a modern legislator require expertise? Look, it certainly wouldn’t hurt, but look around. Are we ruled by experts? This hypothetical is really not how things have worked out, and we’ve tried it for decades.

Today we elect the children of past rulers, which is straight feudal, and the people that scream the loudest, which is straight demagoguery, and people who simple have enough money to run, which is straight oligarchy. The only people that get there by pure merit are hard-working criminals and a few excellent speakers and true leaders. We act like the latter is the rule, when in fact it is the exception. We’re literally sending our worst.

The arguments against sortition are that we need educated, experienced people in Parliament, but these are fundamentally classist notions.

The whole idea of ‘education’ or qualification is based on the idea that a third-generation Harvard fuckboi is a better person than a plumber. It’s based on the idea that rich criminals must be doing something right, so why not run for office? It’s the idea that stay-at-home moms are dumber than lawyers, or that a poor person cannot possibly contribute to our democracy. The ancients would say yes to a lot of this, but they would do it at the citizenship level. Because they weren’t hypocrites. We need to drop the hypocrisy and look at our actual values, and if we’re living up to them.
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Changing Equality-by-Lot’s subtitle

It has been suggested that the current subtitle of this blog (“The blog of the Klerotarians”) is esoteric and may be both discouraging for potential readers and detrimental to the blog’s search engine ranking (specifically, when searching for “sortition”).

Several alternative subtitles have been suggested – listed below. If you have other ideas, please add them in the comments. (Please no more than 2 per person.) In a week I will create a post asking readers to vote for their preferred proposal.

While we are discussing this, maybe we should consider changing the banner image as well? The kleroterion is a bit of a cliché at this point, in my opinion, and it may not be the most attractive piece of graphics to represent sortition. Any ideas about a new banner?

Proposals for subtitles:

  • The blog of the Klerotarians (i.e., keep the subtitle as is.)
  • The political potential of sortition
  • Sortition as a democratic tool
  • No democracy without sortition
  • Because you can’t have democracy when you don’t have sortition
  • The democratic potential of sortition

Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer on sortition

A 2019 hour-long discussion on sortition at Shandong University with Wang Shaoguang and Yves Sintomer was recently published by its moderator, Daniel A. Bell.

This is a rather wide ranging discussion, and its lack of focus is somewhat of a flaw, in my opinion. Ideas on various matters are expressed. Many of those are well-hashed ideas, and the discussants are content to simply repeat them rather than examine them critically.

One idea that I think is relatively novel is briefly offered by Sintomer toward the end when Bell asks for proposals for applying sortition:

I would give the power to citizen juries randomly selected to judge politicians, when they are accused of misbehavior. Because I don’t trust other politicians to do this, as in Brazil or in the USA, where the impeachment is voted by the Congress. I think it’s a bad setting. And I don’t trust judges for judging politicians. Because judges are a very specific, professional body, and very often, a highly conservative body. I trust more randomly selected citizens to judge politicians when they are accused of misbehavior.

2020 review – statistics

Below are some statistics about the 11th year of Equality-by-Lot. Comparable numbers for last year can be found here.

2020 Page views Posts Comments
Jan 3,223 7 28
Feb 3,008 6 21
Mar 3,562 8 41
Apr 4,368 10 106
May 4,507 7 156
June 3,481 13 67
July 3,828 11 100
Aug 3,898 12 123
Sept 4,773 21 201
Oct 4,733 16 106
Nov 4,005 15 165
Dec (to 26th) 1,989 10 54
Total 45,375 135 1,168

Note that page views do not include visits by logged-in contributors – the wordpress system does not count those visits.

Posts were made by 15 authors during 2020. (There were, of course, many other authors quoted and linked to.)

There are currently 449 email and WordPress followers of this blog. In addition there are 483 Twitter followers (@Klerotarian) and 67 Facebook followers.

Searching for “distribution by lot” (with quotes) using Google returns Equality-by-Lot as the 2nd result (out of “about 307,000 results”). Searching for “sortition” does not show Equality-by-Lot until the 6th results page (out of “about 253,000 results”) – a dramatic demotion compared to previous years.

Happy holidays and a happy new year to Equality-by-Lot readers, commenters and posters. Keep up the good fight for democracy!

Senior: The tyranny of the credentialed

Jennifer Senior writes in the New York Times:

95 Percent of Representatives Have a Degree. Look Where That’s Got Us.

All these credentials haven’t led to better results.

Over the last few decades, Congress has diversified in important ways. It has gotten less white, less male, less straight — all positive developments. But as I was staring at one of the many recent Senate hearings, filled with the usual magisterial blustering and self-important yada yada, it dawned on me that there’s a way that Congress has moved in a wrong direction, and become quite brazenly unrepresentative.

No, it’s not that the place seethes with millionaires, though there’s that problem too.

It’s that members of Congress are credentialed out the wazoo. An astonishing number have a small kite of extra initials fluttering after their names.

According to the Congressional Research Service, more than one third of the House and more than half the Senate have law degrees. Roughly a fifth of senators and representatives have their master’s. Four senators and 21 House members have M.D.s, and an identical number in each body (four, 21) have some kind of doctoral degree, whether it’s a Ph.D., a D.Phil., an Ed.D., or a D. Min.

But perhaps most fundamentally, 95 percent of today’s House members and 100 percent of the Senate’s have a bachelor’s degree or higher. Yet just a bit more than one-third of Americans do.

“This means that the credentialed few govern the uncredentialed many,” writes the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel in “The Tyranny of Merit,” published this fall.
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Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 2/2

The second part of an article in Telos by Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council. The first part is here.

2. The choice of those of those responsible for the organization of the discussions, for informing the people convened by selecting the “experts”, for helping them to form an opinion, for writing and disseminating the conclusions must meet specific conditions as well. Who will select the people in those roles and what will be their legitimacy for making choices which may guide the conclusions of the deliberations? On this issue, it is important to distinguish clearly, when organizing the deliberations, between testimonies of scientific experts and those of other actors – activists, representatives of the state, trade unionists and business people. A distinction must be made consistently and meticulously between objective data – even if it is controversial – and opinions or beliefs which are a matter of ideological or political convictions or personal or group interests. Such a distinction is necessary so that the members of the conventions would be able to form judgement which is as informed as possible, especially in an era where mistrust of science has increased dangerously.

The members of this type of conventions can make political choices, but when they do so, they must be fully aware of the reasons for their choices and of their full implications. It is also necessary to shield them from pressure and influence that they may be subject to by activists and lobbies outside the convention. The experience of the CCC seems to show that risk is very real. A trial jury must be protected from outside influences in order to make its judgement impartial, but how can “a citizen convention” be protected against pressures originating from activists and interest groups?

3. However, the most decisive is the definition of these “conventions”, which are unmentioned by the constitutional texts and the democratic tradition: except for their makeup and their function, what is their purview, what is their legitimacy?
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Varoufakis on democracy

An excerpt from a 2019 discussion between Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek economist and politician, leader of the MeRA25 party, and Caroline Lucas, the only Green Party UK MP.

CL: Your country is seen as the birthplace of democracy. In your opinion has there ever been a really good democracy we can look at and say, ‘That was when it was working well’?

YV: Democracy is always unfinished business. It is imperfect by design, especially in societies with vested interests vying for domination. But the merits of studying ancient Athenian democracy, which only lasted a few decades, is that it was the first and last time the poor controlled the government. Which is, interestingly, Aristotle’s definition of democracy. It was a remarkably radical idea that control over the instruments of the state should be independent of wealth.

CL: How did it work?

YV: Back in the times of the grand debates at the Pnyx, which was the parliamentary space in ancient Athens, there were two opposing parties: the Aristocrats and the Democrats. The Aristocrats hated democracy with a passion – but all the great philosophers we now eulogise like Aristotle and Plato were on the side of the Aristocrats. Nevertheless, the Aristocrats, who hated democracy, supported elections. And the Democrats did not.

CL: That sounds very paradoxical.

YV: The argument was that the Aristocrats could afford to buy influence in an election, so elections were an enemy of democracy. Democrats supported a lottery – sortition, as it is called today. Every official position in Athenian democracy was elected by lottery, including judges. Their terms were confined to six months. The only posts not sorted by lottery were the general, who had to know how to conduct a war, and bankers. The officials responsible for minting the money and for quality control of products like wine were slaves. Why? Because citizens had the right not to be beaten. Slaves did not. The idea was that bankers had to fear that they would be beaten up if they messed up the finances of the city. I think this is a splendid proposal for the City of London!
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Sortition in 2020

Continuing the series of yearly reviews appearing on this blog every December since 2010, in this post I review the 2020 sortition-related events that appear to me most significant or interesting. I invite readers to add their own reviews in posts or comments.

The most prominent sortition-related development of 2020 was without a doubt the work of the French Citizen Climate Convention. This body of 150 allotted citizens started its work in back in 2019 and has published its report in June. It received significant media attention in France even before it published its report, but public attention has intensified over the last 6 months. In fact one commentator was alarmed that discussion of sortition in France has reached pandemic proportions.

In the face of the expected pushback from elite groups, the French public has shown significant support for the CCC itself and for its recommendations. Toward the end of the year warnings have been raised about what appears to be the government’s attempts to abandon or water-down the implementation of the Convention’s proposals. In late breaking news, Macron has indicated that he is aiming to put constitutional changes aligned with the Convention’s proposals up for a referendum.

The work of the CCC and the aftermath of its report received scant coverage in the English-speaking media (with the sole exception of Equality-by-Lot).

At the same time, sortition made more modest progress in other countries as well. It was implemented or discussed in multiple contexts in Germany: 1, 2, 3, 4. Sortition was also implemented or proposed in Switzerland, Belgium, Greece, the United States, and Scotland.

In the United States, sortition got some fairly high profile exposure by Malcolm Gladwell (1, 2). On three different occasions sortition was proposed by undergraduate students as a replacement for the electoral system. It was also proposed as a way to achieve citizen oversight over the police.

Finally, two sortition-related books of interest were published this year. One is a hefty report published by the OECD on “Innovative Citizen Participation”. The report makes a historical summary of hundreds of cases of citizen participation in government, draws its conclusions and makes recommendations. The second book is by notorious sortition activist Paul Rosenfeld. In stark contrast to the OECD publication, Rosenfeld’s book, a combination of an autobiography and a sortition manifesto, makes for an easy and entertaining afternoon read.

Galland and Schnapper: Citizen conventions and representative democracy, Part 1

Olivier Galland, sociologist at the CNRS, and Dominique Schnapper, researcher at the EHESS and an honorary member of the Constitutional Council, write in Telos.

Parliamentary institutions are the only legitimate institutions for enacting legislation and for government oversight. Under what conditions could those institutions be complemented by the involvement in the public space of groups of citizens which would work for a period of time in order to come to know in an informed and open-minded way the dimensions of a political problem and which would publish the results of their deliberations?

This question is part of a general ambition for some form of democratization to which the institutions of the Republic are responding poorly at the moment. Dominique Rousseau advocates a “continuous democracy” while Rosanvallon advocates for a “counter-democracy”. But neither of them poses the problem in a way that appears to us just or practicable.

It may be accepted that low turnout rates are an indicator of the weakening of the legitimacy of the parliament and of government, or, put differently, that we are experiencing a crisis of representation. It is thus not out of the question to reflect on forms of citizen consultation which would inform the public discussion between elections. These would share the space that is now left solely to the media, to social networks and to unaccountable citizens who are not particularly informed and who make their opinion known, for example, wherever information is transmitted or even through the device of opinion polls.
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Call for 2020 review input

This is the yearly call for input for the year’s end review. As in previous years, I would like to have a post or two summarizing the ongoings here at Equality-by-Lot and notable sortition-related events over the passing year. Any input about what should be included is welcome – either through comments below or via email. You are invited to refresh your memory about the events of the passing year by browsing Equality-by-Lot’s archives.

For previous years’ summaries see: 2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010.