Justice Everywhere

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A randomly selected chamber? Exploring some challenges

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In reaction to the contemporary crisis of electoral democracy (marked by decreasing turnouts to elections, marginal party affiliation and general distrust towards politicians), there is a growing interest (from scholars, activists and politicians) in the idea of using random selection for selecting representatives, as was the case in ancient Greece and several Italian Republics in the Middle Ages.

Random selection cannot replace elections altogether. Despite all their shortcomings, elections are a very important democratic tool, in particular because they offer a space for wide participation to self-government, whereas active participation through random selection is limited to a very small section of the population. What is more, randomly selected representatives are not accountable to a constituency. This can have interesting effects in shifting decisions from the preferences of the median voter and reducing the short-termism inherent to elections. Yet it also dangerously impairs legitimacy if a government is not accountable.

For these reasons, the most plausible idea is to have only one chamber of representatives selected by lot (the other and the government remaining elected). What I want to do in this post is to identify the main challenges that such proposal faces. And I count on you to tell me whether you think that there are decisive or not, and if there are other important challenges that I’ve failed to consider.

The first challenge is epistemic: lay citizens lack the expertise to judge important political issues. Obviously, they would need time to grasp all the stakes and understand the technicalities of the questions they would be asked to consider. Yet the task might not be insuperable if they are asked to give an advice only on some issues considered as particularly important. What is more, selected representatives might show more humility and eagerness to learn than elected representatives: they know that their selection cannot be attributed to their merits, and this creates a better incentive to listen to experts. Another frequent argument is that the diversity of the perspectives gathered through random selection might overall improve the epistemic quality of decisions, whereas elected politicians often come from the same background and can show a tendency to think alike and in a distorted way on several issues.

The second challenge is motivational: who would accept to serve in such assembly given the public exposure and demandingness of the task? Unless participation is mandatory (which would be excessively coercive), there will probably be a selection bias. As a result, the chamber would not be statistically representative of the population at large. Yet this challenge is not decisive, in my view, because the increased diversity allowed by sortition would be enough to outperform elections in terms of social biases. What is more, participation can be incentivized with a high wage, a guarantee to get one’s job back, or through secrecy.

The third challenge is independence: how to avoid the corruption or intimidation of selected representatives? Why should this worry us more than in the case of elections? Because party discipline in voting has this desirable side effect of making corruption more difficult: on most issues you will have to buy the whole party’s allegiance. With sortition, if votes are public, it would be easier to identify the pivotal representatives and try to buy their allegiance. Yet sortition also has a major advantage regarding independence: people do not need to raise funds for a campaign and are thus not accountable to campaign contributors. In order to minimize the other risks of corruption, secrecy is once again a potential solution. You could either hide the very identity of the SR or let them deliberate and make all their decisions behind closed doors. Other possibilities are a very high wage, a denunciation reward for selected representatives reporting attempts at corruption or an oath taking with high sanctions in case of breach.

The last challenge is the lack of accountability mentioned in the introduction. Because they would not be chosen by the people and not face the prospect of reelection, selected representatives would have more or less free rein (within constitutional constraints). Would there not be a risk of misbehavior (and an increased risk of corruption)? My view is that this challenge justifies giving only an advisory function to this new chamber. This would reduce the stakes and the temptation to misbehave. For the rest, we might count on public exposure and social pressure to incentivize appropriate behavior. This creates a trade-off between publicity and secrecy (the latter being valuable for increasing participation and reducing corruption), yet I do not see it as insuperable.

I’m currently doing a PhD in political philosophy at the University of Louvain (Belgium). My main research interests are theories of justice, democratic theory, education, social rights and socialism.

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6 Comments

  1. An interesting and thoughtful post. I think I share your view (if I’ve understood you) that the challenges are not insuperable.

    I wonder whether the institution of trial by jury can help inform our view on some of these questions. For example, why are not worried about the epistemic capabilities of juries, who make equally important decisions?

    I think there is an interesting link between the epistemic challenge and the participation issue. To overcome people’s epistemic limitations, they will more or less explicitly, be trained in host of critical skills, and develop political knowledge. I wonder what the overflow effects of such an experience might be – firstly, whether it benefits those called up to service in their private life, and secondly, whether their skills and experiences benefits those around them, by raising the level of discourse (particularly in communities largely excluded from the mainstream political debate).

    • Thank you Aveek. The link with jury trials is interesting, yet I see two reasons to avoid comparing the two situations. 1) In a jury trial, randomly selected people have not their interests at stake, so it’s easier for them to build an impartial judgement. 2) In order to make a good judgment in a jury trial, you need to think hard and consider the case from various perspectives, but you don’t need the skills in social sciences that are necessary to make a good decision in politics.

      I think your suggestion on the educational effect of representation through sortition is well taken. It is still a minority that would benefit from this practice, but a larger one than if you focus on randomly selected people only. So your point gives more weight to the educational argument for sortition.

  2. Very nice post. I think it’s important to talk about randomization mechanisms because our democratic imagination is very limited, and the focus on electoral politics in public discourse is to its detriment. I think you raise some very important ideas about a randomly selected house but I think it’s unfortunate you only consider randomized selection in regard to the same template of organized politics. If you consider mini-public, deliberative polls, participatory budgeting and other forms of participation that are not limited to voting – the concerns that randomly selected bodies of citizens are less participatory and overly demanding are much reduced. In my opinion, those are instances where sortition is more appropriate.

    • Thank you for this comment. I agree that random selection is less controversial in other devices such as mini-publics. There is already an important academic literature on these participatory experiments. Yet all they can do is bring some additional (deliberative) input into institutionalized politics. They are an addition, not an alternative to electoral representation. An important question is therefore whether representation itself can be improved. And that is my focus.

  3. Very interesting discussion, Pierre-Etienne. I have a few small questions for you:

    1. Regarding the epistemic issues, my sense is that the concern is more pressing in some areas of policy than others. Thus, I wondered what you might think about the extent of the chambers’ remit – i.e., limit it to some areas, and not extend it to the more complex?

    2. Do you see any potential tension between the motivational worry and your suggestion of granting the chamber only an advisory role? That is, the worry that people will be less motivated if their decisions do not carry full weight?

    3. I am interested to know why you would rule out making participation mandatory? I see something in your worry about coercion, but we do not worry too much about jury service being mandatory.

    • Pierre-Etienne Vandamme

      Thank you for these interesting questions, Andrew.

      1. I think it would be wise to limit the chamber’s remit to some areas. Of course, the determination of these areas will be controversial. I would say that the public interest in a topic (as indicated by opinion polls or civil society mobilization) is a good indicator of the importance of consulting lay citizens.

      Alexander Guerrero, in a paper called “Against Elections”, suggests having one citizen assembly per issue (so that people have time to collect information and specialize on it). This makes the proposal less controversial, of course, but seems implausible from a pragmatic viewpoint.

      2. I agree that there is a tension. Yet as the advisory role would also reduce media pressure, it might overall foster participation (especially if the wage is attractive).

      3. In my view, an obligation to serve several years in a political assembly seems much more demanding than participation in a jury. Therefore, an obligation causes both practical and ethical worries. Practically, it is hard to imagine how we could secure acceptance without important sanctions. Given the demandingness of the task, many people might prefer to pay a fine. And if the fine is high, it creates a strong inequality: some people will just be able to refuse the burden thanks to their good fortune.

      What is more, one can express doubts about the supposed obligation to show interest for politics. It is questionable that we would have a moral duty to accept spending one or several years of one’s life in an assembly exposed to public pressure. One can have various legitimate reasons for refusing the task: living too far from the capital city, willing to work part-time to take care of one’s relatives, having no interest in politics or considering oneself incompetent for the mission.

      Finally, one can wonder about the added deliberative value of having non motivated people serving in the assembly.

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