Discussing sortition in Plymouth

Keith Rossiter writes in the Plymouth Herald:

A COMMON cry from some Herald readers is that councillors are corrupt/incompetent/self-serving (delete as you wish), and above all that they should not be paid for their services.


Challenged to step up to the plate themselves, they may say – with some justification – that “it’s all a stitch-up”. You can only get elected with the help of a party machine, and parties only select their pals.

We got the idea of democracy from the Ancient Greeks, and perhaps it’s time to go back to Ancient Greece and borrow the other half of their brilliant concept.

The Athenians used a machine to pick people to hold public office or to do jury duty. The device, called a kleroterion, ensured randomness in allocating important civic positions in much the same way that a lottery ensures randomness in picking the winning ticket. (Of course, we’ve all met conspiracy theorists who claim that’s also a stitch-up.)
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A theory of sortition, part 2 of 2

Part 1 is here.

Extension of self-representation

Like many other authors discussing sortition (Dahl, Leib, Zakaras, Fishkin, and others), Stone and Dowlen choose, then, to drastically downgrade sortition from a tool of radical democratic reform (as presented by C&P, or earlier by C.L.R. James) to an add-on to the electoral system. Such a retreat is certainly not warranted by the theoretical considerations discussed in the first part of the article. The claim that sortition can be expected to produce good government can be put on a much more solid theoretical foundation than the faulty intuitive argument provides. An alternative argument works by employing the properties of sampling in order to extend self-representation of the decision-making group into representation of the entire population. It goes as follows:

  1. A small group of people, under reasonably favorable conditions, is able to represent its own interests. This claim is not directly associated with sortition, but is rather a claim about the political dynamics of small groups of people in general. The claim is that when a small group of people, meeting on an a-priori egalitarian basis, has the opportunity to make collective decisions that would promote the interests of the members as they perceive them, then it will tend to do so. This is a situation which most people would be familiar with – group decision making in the family, within a group of friends or with colleagues. “A small group” is taken to be a group in which all-to-all communication is possible. The upper size limit of such a group would depend on the circumstances, but even under the most favorable circumstances a few hundred people seems like the most that would fit the description.
  2. Policy that promotes the interests of a small group of people which are selected as a sample of a larger group will tend to promote the interests of the larger group as well. Since the interests of a group selected as a sample of a larger group are typical of those of the entire group, policy that promotes the interests of the sample would tend to promote the interests of the group. In particular, if a certain policy promotes the interests of a majority of the members of the sample then that policy is likely to promote the interests of a majority in the population. There would be some obvious exceptions to this extension from sample to population. Policy that applies directly to the members of the sample in their role as members – their salaries for example – affects interests for which the sample members are very atypical. In a government by sortition such exceptions would have to be treated separately.

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