Detox democracy through representation by random selection: Reprint

As Troppodillians may know, I occasionally use the comments section of Troppo to minute notes to myself — often references — to which I may wish to return some day. So I can use this thread in that way, I’m reproducing something I first published a while back on the Mandarin. It was an attempt to enumerate all the ways in which selection by lot could complement our ailing electoral system.  By all means ignore it if you’ve seen it, but if you haven’t, if you’ll pardon the fact that it’s quite long, I hope you find it of interest. Of course contemporary comments on it are also welcome. (Apologies that footnotes take you to actual footnotes, but on the Mandarin version of the essay if you click on them — or below if you want to just scroll down manually.)

Part one. Part two is here.

As Western democracy degrades before our eyes, (President Donald Trump wasn’t really imaginable even a few years or so ago and is still hard to fully comprehend) we need to remember the choices that were made as modern democracy was founded, at the time of the American and French Revolutions. Democracy was a dirty word!  Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws repeated Aristotle’s claim that “Voting by lot is in the nature of democracy; voting by choice is in the nature of aristocracy”.1

With great anxiety about democracy degenerating into mob rule, Montesquieu’s ideas were taken up as the best chance for the new republics of the United States and France. There was much concern to ensure that republican government mobilise a “natural aristocracy among men”, one of “virtue and talents” as Jefferson put it expressing a widespread sentiment which went out rather more slowly, though no less comprehensively than poke bonnets.  Elections seemed far more promising than selection by lot. 2 The Roman Catholic priest Abbé Sieyès “one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution” was more unequivocal insisting that “In a country that is not a democracy (and France is not a democracy), the people can only speak and can only act through representatives.” 3

However, a second method of representing the people was far more common at the time in many cities in Europe stretching back from early modern times to ancient Athens: Sortition or the selection of citizens at random from the citizenry as in the Athenian boule and was far more common.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century parliaments were about establishing checks and balances between popular electoral democracy and upper houses intended to represent the aristocracy or some new world simulation of it via property franchises — with different houses of the legislature representing these two poles. Likewise, I would argue that today we should be seeking to balance representation by election with representation by sortition as occurs, in juries by random selection from the citizenry. I’ll elaborate more on this in a subsequent essay.

In any event, in this essay, I itemise under subject headings firstly how various problems with our current system of electoral democracy manifest themselves, and secondly, how sortition based representation could help detox our democracy.


Careerism is a central thread that enables political power — wielded both within political parties and bureaucracies. The signal achievement of the Australian Parliament that first assembled in 2013 was to abolish the carbon pricing regime which had emerged from the bipartisan consensus for carbon pricing that had been forged with great difficulty over the previous 15-odd years. A majority of parliamentarians voted for something that an overwhelming majority of them understood to be against the public interest. 4 Why did they vote against their consciences? They did it because they were careerists. Of course ‘careerism’ is a pejorative, but I’m not using it in that way. The centrality of one’s career is an indispensable building block of modern life in politics as elsewhere. If you’re to make a success of yourself as a politician — for yourself, but hopefully also for the things you believe in — you need to build your standing. And rocking the boat within your party will generally set-back your career.

There’s nothing like random selection to take these kinds of considerations out of contention. There’s certainly nothing one can do to increase one’s chances of being (randomly!) chosen to participate in a citizens’ jury or citizens’ deliberative chamber. One can’t completely guard against people currying favour with the powerful in their participation in a deliberative chamber, but one can criminalise making and/or taking bribes and other inducements to such people both before and after their service and one can also specify that accepting a position in the people’s chamber disqualifies one from traditional political office either forever or for some period of time. It has also been normal throughout history for there to be limitations on the extent to which someone can continue or repeat their service on deliberative bodies. 5

There’s something else also. In addition to the privilege which those randomly chosen almost all feel and their desire to honour that privilege by doing their best, the evidence we have from an odd experiment in Australia whereby for a substantial period the vagiaries of our preferential system chose what I call the ‘randos’ in the Senate, people with vanishingly small primary votes like Ricky Muir of the ‘Motorist Enthusiasts Party’ for instance, or Jacqui Lambie and Glenn Lazarus is that they don’t seem to be easily manipulated by career incentives. When their immediate self-interest in reelection was threatened by the reform of the system that gave rise to the ‘preference whispering’ that saw them elected, they were not swayed in their vote — against the expectations of the hard heads of politics and journalism. In other words, acting in your own career interests over and above your political principles is largely a learned behaviour on which political careers are predicated.

Superficiality, sensationalism, expression

This is a terrible problem for our current democratic institutions as political debate is conducted through the media. And the media is a finely honed machine to arouse and entertain, rather than to inform. And arousal, it turns out, is much more easily stoked for all kinds of destructive emotions — envy, disgust, resentment, contempt and hatred than it is for more salutary ones — like affection, respect, care and love.

Our legal institutions show some understanding of this in the way in which they seek to insulate juries from the media and the eyes of the outside world so that they can deliberate in their own way in their own time. One couldn’t insulate citizens’ juries or chambers on political matters from the media nearly as comprehensively, but at least the whole process is far calmer with people making decisions after being given time to think, consider and deliberate with others (see ‘Deliberation’ and ‘Polarisation’ below). Indeed, I rather like the idea of naming what I’m calling for, ‘slow democracy’.


Except in the very unusual circumstances of conscience debates or on the cross-bench, as John Dryzek puts it:

“Australia’s federal parliament is today … not a deliberative assembly in Burke’s sense [but] rather a theatre of expression where politicians from different sides talk past each other in mostly ritual performance. Party politicians do not listen, do not reflect and do not change their minds.”

This has been highlighted recently by the independents in the lower house during the Gillard Government and the crossbench randos in the Senate each of whom tend to judge the merits of the case by (amongst other things) listening to the various sides of the argument in parliamentary debates.

By contrast, on citizens’ juries and in people’s chambers, the whole point is to facilitate joint deliberation by citizens. Overwhelming majorities feel the process is fair and that it helped inform them on issues as for instance with this jury. Jurors often report their (already low) opinion of the media sinking further precisely because they realise they’ve been misled about the issues.


In the 1940s Joseph Schumpeter proposed thinking of electoral democracy analogously to markets with politicians being the producers and voters being the consumers. In fact, since then politics has come to resemble such a market more and more with ideological differences narrowing along with participation in politics by the community. As membership has plummeted, the parties have become dominated by brand management techniques — and in my opinion a surprisingly large amount of the public’s disenchantment with politics gets down to the dissonance this creates. On the one hand debate is conducted using high blown moral rhetoric, but the actual words used are equivocal, evasive, scripted and transparently inauthentic. To change the metaphor, politics is now a spectator sport.

Aristotle’s idea was that it was intrinsic to democracy that people took it in turns to govern and to be governed and that rotating responsibility for government was not only the best way to arrange this, but also the best way to educate the populace to the virtue necessary to do this well.6

Modern social science finds something similar. Participants in citizens’ juries almost unanimously report it as having been a very good experience in which they felt keen to give of their best and privileged to be invited to participate. 7 As it turns out, random selection of citizens for juries provides the ideal test bed for generating causal data about the effect of jury duty and there’s good evidence from the US that participating in just one jury is a powerful form of civics education producing subsequent increases in voter turnout of as much as 7% with that increase in the average being disproportionately from those with previously low voting turnout. Likewise in the recent Melbourne City Council citizens’ jury, of less than fifty participants chosen at random from the community, at least two stood for council at the next opportunity.

Polarisation: competitive and unitary political institutions

Modern liberal democracy operates in a way that would have horrified most of the architects of modern government in the 18th and 19th century. Where they warned gravely against the spirit of ‘faction’ infecting the polity, the spirit of faction is more or less institutionalised today. I remember when I was young thinking that having an official Opposition to the Government was weird. I still do. Of course, I understand the purposes it and the party system more generally serve as a means by which voters can project their will into the political process by expressing broad ideological and programmatic sympathies in their vote. Moreover, division and contest ideally serve to clarify and sharpen disagreement and that might help forge more considered resolution on the floor of the legislature.

Even so, opposition for opposition’s sake really is weird. People talk about polarisation in politics, but it’s a weird kind of polarisation because other than in the USA where policy differences between mainstream parties have arguably grown, in the rest of the Anglosphere polarisation has intensified as policy differences have narrowed. If one looks at what they do in office rather than their rhetorical positioning, each mainstream party, whether of the right or left want a large state of at least a third of the economy, relatively free markets, a strong welfare state, substantial government underwriting of health and education services and standards and regulation of clear market failures — for instance for the environment and public and workplace safety. We’re all in favour of the mixed economy now.

Yet for all manner of reasons, Oppositions are rewarded by making life as difficult as possible for governments (though I suspect this is truer for centre-right than centre-left parties). We saw this in Australia in the years of Tony Abbott’s leadership of the Opposition. In the US, even Republican voters think the Republicans were much less prepared to compromise to reach solutions — even though they thought they should. But it’s unclear how many changed their vote on a thing like that — in my experience, people don’t tend to vote on such abstract things. This is their one chance to express their beliefs. See eg this report containing this table.

Indeed, US studies suggest that reality comes to be interpreted not through experience of the world but through party affiliation. Responding to the same report, Andrea Campbell, professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology had this to say. “I was not surprised party affiliation influenced people’s opinions of the Affordable Care Act, but I was surprised that partisanship trumped personal experiences with our health care system. Personal experiences, like being denied health insurance for a pre-existing condition, have little effect on public support for the law. Instead, support is largely based on political party affiliation and beliefs about the likely impact of the law in the near future.”

Ideally, democracies need both adversarialism and consensualism to function well, just as Aristotle and others championed the idea of mixing elements of different constitutions – aristocracy and democracy for instance. In her book Beyond Adversary Democracy, Jane Mansbridge contrasted Unitary versus Adversary Democracy. Unitary democracy focuses on getting to a compromise consensus – or near-consensus position. As I’ve argued previously I think the beauty of the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Australian Government and its unions (and informally its business community) was that it mobilised the forces of unitary democracy to offset the forces of adversarial democracy sitting back in Parliament in Canberra. The search for consensus often identified politically viable means of making policy progress while addressing the concerns of major interest groups. And once policies had been broadly agreed, the partners to the process then helped sell the sometimes difficult messages that emerged like the need to rein in expenditure, reduce real wage costs, protection and means test benefits.

Thus, where particular difficult positions had been arrived at through the Accord, for instance, unions agreeing to wage restraint in return for expansions in the social wage and removal of some tax loopholes for business, the business representatives participating in the Accord would then pressure the right-leaning Liberal-National Party Coalition not to obstruct the policy progress to which the Accord had contributed.

Compare this with the way in which, in parliament, progress is constantly re-litigated wherever there’s scope for political advantage. The institutions of deliberative democracy — citizens juries and people’s chambers– likewise embody the dynamic of unitary democracy. As with a jury in a legal case, the task of the body is to make progress and if it can’t do so, everyone has failed. And progress isn’t some bare majority — which would be divisive — but a broad (if not necessarily unanimous) consensus. All the evidence I’ve seen of citizens juries backs this up. Participants almost invariably comment on their relief that they’re not presented with the self-righteousness of activists, but are rather discussing things with ‘ordinary people’.8

The balance of emotions

It is a commonplace that the emotions drive political debate and political campaigning. Yet it is only recently that political thinkers have given much attention to the role of emotions in guiding decision making both in our private and our political lives. As Nussbaum puts it “All political principles, the good as well as the bad, need emotional support to ensure their stability over time.” Embracing the importance of emotions in politics, Nussbaum suggests there are, broadly speaking, two alternative paths. In the first the focus is on shared identity. The two most important pronouns on the African Savannah were “us” and “them”. And so, one way of holding a polity together is to emphasise its shared identity. And there’s no better way to cement those emotions of solidarity – of togetherness – than against an external ‘other’. That’s why “we decide who comes here and the terms on which they come” was such devastating politics for John Howard in 2001. These are the emotions of nationalism.

To some extent these emotions of shared identity are inevitable, necessary and healthy in a political community – which must have some sense of a collective identity to function. But in a diverse, liberal society there’s a problem with too heavy emphasis on identity. Unleashing these kinds of emotions transforms our politics into competing witch-hunts against ritualised ‘others’ whether they’re fat cat bosses, ‘elites’, tax cheats or dole bludgers. The worst is routinely assumed of others. There’s little real debate between different perspectives, and lots of shouting down. This is true not just on “shock jock” radio but in ‘quality media’ such as the ABC’s Q&A which orients itself around conflict, not on the, less immediately compelling task of forging some common understandings between people with different perspectives.

Nussbaum talks about the two roles of the emotions in her imagined, alternative liberal society. The first role is to inspire to worthy collective projects requiring effort and sacrifice from national defence to protecting the poor and weak. Nussbaum continues:

The other related task for the cultivation of public emotion is to keep at bay forces that lurk in all societies and ultimately, in all of us: tendencies to protect the fragile self by denigrating and subordinating others. .… Disgust and envy, the desire to inflict shame upon others  – all of these are present in all societies, and, very likely, in every individual human life.

There is a gender dimension to all this as well. In interpreting Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro Nussbaum contrasts two worlds. The world of the men of the ancien regime, whether exalted or lowly are status hungry participants in a zero sum world in which one person’s status gain is another’s loss. The women meanwhile are the cooperators. An ethic of care is central to their sensibility.

This contrast between masculine and feminine emotions seems worth pondering. One set associated with competition and aggression and looking outward from a group to defend against or attack enemies, the other with building cooperation and care within the group. These constellations of emotions even have their own hormones – testosterone and oxytocin. Vox pop democracy is so drenched in testosterone, so full of aggression and the instinct for division that it’s deranging us. Our polity is becoming like a punch drunk boxer lurching from one dimly comprehended drama to the next.

And we can see how testosterone crowds out other ways of being. On the day that gave rise to the infamous events associated with the “children overboard” allegations, Naval Commander Norman Banks gave a phone interview to Channel Ten from the deck of the HMAS Adelaide fresh from rescuing the children whom it was later infamously alleged were thrown into the sea for a photo op. In it he said “[i]t was quite a joy to hold the little kids’ hands and watch them smile”. Compare that expression of care – rapidly shunted off the stage of our vox pop democracy – with the combative, macho sound bite which dominated the campaign and still rings in our ears today. “We decide who comes here and the terms on which they come”. Since then it has been axiomatic that asylum seekers must be kept away from the media lest they be humanised.

Emotions within citizens’ juries

It is notable how much citizens within citizens’ juries tasked with arriving at political decisions are eager to compromise, rather than compete their way to some conclusion. Here’s what one juror said in a citizens’ jury deliberating on the question of how to keep Adelaide’s nightlife safe and vibrant. “I’m a man, I’m six foot two, I have no considerations for my safety in Adelaide. Then being with other people: older, smaller, females, you learn that their experiences are very different”. Contrast this with the way the issue would have been presented for our entertainment with a spokesperson for the hoteliers facing off against some opposing left-wing activists, playing to their base. There’d be plenty of ideology and name calling. The hotelier might anathematise the nanny state, the activists ‘free market capitalism’.

Here are two more typical quotes from the same citizens’ jury.

I know more how it is now – I have a broader perspective of it and there is a lot more happening than I realised.

My political views haven’t changed. But my opinion about how you move things forward, yes. But to be in the process of really having something that you want, and having to allow it to not come out in exactly the way you want, but nevertheless having some contribution to it, I suppose that’s the essence of democracy

Electoral campaigning as road rage

In many ways, the impersonality involved in mass campaigning for elections, and the various media (including social media) strategies to arouse interest and engagement encourages something akin to road rage. Media outlets stoke people’s contempt for others, their sense of entitlement and resentment towards others (even identifying individual people as hate objects). Politicians tend to be more circumspect about individuals, focusing instead on misrepresenting the policies and motives of their political opponents.

You know those occasions where you express or get close to expressing road rage only to find that your target is someone you know? If you’re like me it brings you up short. What was I thinking? Well, something similar occurs in mass democracy as we practice it now. Compare this to the human scale of deliberative groups – even relatively large groups. (It’s probably one reason why those in the elite get on with each other and show such solidarity. They mostly know each other, bump into each other in the Captain’s Club, in the corporate boxes etc.) In addition to the anecdotal evidence I’ve presented above, Sally (1995) reports that “A meta-analysis of over 100 experiments found that face-to-face communication in social dilemma games raises cooperation by 40 to 45 percentage points.9 That’s huge!

Interdicting oligarchic power

Sortition or selection by lot also offers a powerful bulwark against the power of elites and interest groups. Indeed, this has very often been one of the major reasons it was adopted, both in Athens and in European cities since the Rennaissance. Athens’ political mechanisms were self-consciously developed as antidotes to the ever-present danger of Athens’ aristocratic families fighting between themselves and/or plotting to re-install oligarchy. Likewise in Renaissance Florence and Venice, selection of bodies by sortition was chosen to moderate rivalry between great families.

A creative renaissance?

I make no claims to science here, but of the one or two handfuls of great creative flowerings of civilisation, it’s rather remarkable that two to three of them (I’ll take Venice as a half of one) occurred in the very few examples we have in history of cities with constitutions that made extensive use of selection by lot.

  1. Though Montesquieu regarded democracy as a scary prospect, he respected the constitution of ancient Athens as protected by the richness of its checks and balances and the way it was mixed with aristocracy. “The people’s suffrages ought doubtless to be public and this should be considered as a fundamental law of democracy. The lower class ought to be directed by those of higher rank, and restrained within bounds by the gravity of eminent personages.” The secret ballot used to be called the Australian ballot after Australian innovation on that score in the 19th century. 
  2. In Madison’s words:

    “Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. … [A]s they will have been distinguished by the preference of their fellow-citizens, we are to presume that in general they will be somewhat distinguished also by those qualities which entitle them to it, and which promise a sincere and scrupulous regard to the nature of their engagements.”

  3. Wikipedia . See this reference for an elaboration of his four reasons for his assertion. 
  4. Amongst coalition parliamentarians I would expect well over half thought carbon pricing was in the public interest. (If I’m wrong make it a third or a quarter – it doesn’t really affect the argument). 
  5. For instance in Athens 
  6. “It has been well said that ‘he who has never learned to obey cannot be a good commander.’ The two are not the same, but the good citizen ought to be capable of both; he should know how to govern like a freeman, and how to obey like a freeman – these are the virtues of a citizen.” Aristotle. This idea of participation as ‘civics’ education is something that Tocqueville took up in Democracy in America:

    “[H]owever great [the jury’s] influence may be upon the decisions of the courts, it is still greater on the destinies of society at large. … The jury contributes most powerfully to form the judgement and to increase the natural intelligence of a people, and this is, in my opinion, its greatest advantage. It may be regarded as a gratuitous public school ever open, in which every juror learns to exercise his rights, enters into daily communication with the most learned and enlightened members of the upper classes, and becomes practically acquainted with the laws of his country, which are brought within the reach of his capacity by the efforts of the bar, the advice of the judge, and even by the passions of the parties.” 

  7. For instance in this jury, “all (17) jurors indicated that, if given the opportunity, they would participate in another citizens’ jury”. 
  8. Here are some quotes from this report of a citizens’ jury run by The Australian Centre for Social Innovation.
    “Not just the young activists”
    “I was expecting the blue-rinse set from the Eastern suburbs. I was delighted to find that wasn’t the case”
    “Even if you have an open forum, you get the polar views there, you don’t get people in the middle who don’t… have to have their way. Here you get the average person and that’s really good”.
    “I’m a man, I’m six foot two, I have no considerations for my safety in Adelaide. Then being with other people: older, smaller, females, you learn that their experiences are very different” 
  9. Sally, D. (1995). Conversation and Cooperation in Social Dilemmas: A Meta-Analysis of Experiments From 1958 to 1992. Rationality and Society, 7, 58-92. See also Ostrom, E, Lin, 2003. Trust and Reciprocity: Interdisciplinary Lessons for Experimental Research, p. 31 ff.  


Up next: What deliberative democracy could look like at the political level

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11 Responses to Detox democracy through representation by random selection: Reprint

  1. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Further to my ‘road rage’ point:

    Hall, in 1976, showed how concepts of sympathy and empathy tend to be rooted in this identity transference, assuming or necessitating a sameness of culture. In disembodied communication, sympathy and empathy are not about engaging with difference.

    Why Thinking about the Tacit is Key in a Digital Age

  2. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    I agree with a lot of what you say about the problems we are now facing, as well as that random selection offers an important toolbox for how to get out of the mess we are in. Agreeing on the problems, the outcome we roughly want, and the nature of the tools available is a very good basis for common deliberation!

    I have mulled this stuff over at great length the last 12 months because of the worsening of politics in our countries (yes, the Netherlands too: I have no ‘sane home country’ to boast about!). Let me add some additional elements to your description of the problem that make things so much harder.

    One major problem is that laws, bureaucracy, and technology have become incredibly intertwined such that it is near impossible to understand what is going on and even harder to ‘atomise’ any major problem. The impossibility of atomisation matters because it means there is very little in terms of issues that one can have a referendum, citizen jury, or citizen parliament for. There is simply no way one can pose a simple question to them.
    A great example is tax law. Not merely is the tax code and associated ‘additional explanations’ several tens of thousands of pages, but tax is furthermore subject to dozens of international treaties and (sometimes hidden) international courts and tribunals. Furthermore, the practice of what truly gets taxed is not really in any of those ‘traceable institutions’, but also bound up with what can fruitfully be challenged, ignored, or changed after the fact by the super-rich. That ability to stall, ignore, and overturn involves the legal system, the distribution of legal knowledge, the secrecy of information inside the bureaucracy, many former politicians and their networks inside the country, and a whole constellation of international networks. It is, truly, a Gordian knot. That knot for instance makes it nigh impossible to change much about the tax code in a country even if one has unanimous and fanatical support within a single country: one would still need cooperation of international entities (such as, for instance, to collect tax from internet transactions or financial flows between banks) that have a huge interest in preventing meaningful tax reform on a wide range.

    This problem of interconnectivity of technique, laws, politics, and institutions is so enormous now that I basically do not see how participative democracy inside a country will help sort out issues: juries and parliaments will neither be able to attain the expertise required, nor the power to truly do much. One wouldnt even be able to pose them any meaningful questions (except in a few areas, like gay marriage or cannabis legalisation).

    Interconnectivity is but one of the deeper problems. Another is of course the huge inequality that distorts everything. Yet another is the structure of the media, the way the next generation is being educated to be compliant, the enormous hollowing out of the expertise within the public sector that has occurred the last 30 years, the monoculture of the top layer of politics and the public sector (they basically all have the same skills, meaning the system lacks the intelligence that comes from diversity of skills), and a few others. One has to let those problems wash over one’s mind to get a sense of the enormous difficulties we now face. Not to despair, but to come to terms with the challenges and opportunities afforded by the situation.

    The key insight I came to is that the reform movement should start with those changes that bring more capacity to reform further and that have the immediate effect of reducing the stranglehold of special interests. That meant one should probably not start with issues, because they require international reform and an enormous overhaul of society for one which needs a huge fire-power that would need long-run investments to attain. Instead, I came to the conclusion that one should start with people and with the system that might help with the issues (the public sector). One should think of how random selection can help improve the personnel that we have in the system.
    Because of the interconnectivity, the people that matter is the whole layer of enforcers and leaders of institutions that deal with the interconnectivity. Hence my proposal to have that layer appointed by citizen juries: it seemed the practical place to start so as to get round a couple of the problems (careerism, special interests, monoculture).

    Where I am still struggling with my thinking at the moment is the next key step: how to reform the system that leads to the top politicians and how to tackle the key problems of the international intertwining, particularly when it comes to the capacity of the state to do anything, ie taxation of international companies. It is actually not that hard to see what should be done (I have already published blue prints for that), but it is hard to see how it can be done: one basically needs an international coalition of enough countries that are like-minded to break the stranglehold of the current international Western networks. My current front-runner is then the thought that one needs enough of a combined population (say around 200 million) worth of richer countries that are essentially willing to walk away from nearly all international agreements and their own national regulations at the same time. That is what needs to happen: a large mass of people and their leaders simply walking away from the interconnected mess, ditching it entirely, then rebuilding a different system.

    The political trajectory at the moment, on all these matters, is pretty much in the opposite direction. The international network is strengthening its stranglehold and somewhat openly attacking national forces that would move the other way. But, in a strange twist of fate, the covid era is reawakening national crowds. Also, our countries are diminishing rapidly in many ways (mentally, culturally, economically) which can for instance end in a total fading of the light or a Re-enlightenment.

    • ianl says:


      … to have that layer appointed by citizen juries”

      And who appoints the appointers ?


      … a large mass of people and their leaders simply walking away from the interconnected mess, ditching it entirely, then rebuilding a different system

      Oh, like Build Back Better ? So first, of course, we have the party – then we consider if we do some actual, difficult work. The left never fails to put things about-face.

      And please, none of that academic patronising. Just answer the questions, thanks.

      By the way, the actual, and direct, answer to ng’s wish to keep the hoi polloi out of the loop is: Aus 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019. Now tell them they don’t deserve a say …

      I realised long ago when I briefly considered a career in the academy that there is a reason those academically minded are herded into universities. It is not what one may think, perhaps.

      • paul frijters says:

        Ian, on (1) (how to find citizens for juries): whatever system would work best. I think the Electoral Commission would be well suited to do regular random selections, perhaps in the open using a visible method. I am told that in Italian city states, blindfolded boys drew slips of paper out of large containers with the names of everyone. Something similar should work again.

        On (2), no not build back better. I am more thinking of several countries deciding together they will no longer recognise any existing international agreement, but quickly set up less entangled and less complex new ones. Not easy at all, but ‘build back better’ so far in the UK means ‘screw the poor’.

        I see you have great disdain for intellectuals. Understandable. Yet, intellectuals are also what gave our societies the separation of powers, the system of cabinets and departments, the system of schooling, etc. Much of the system around you was dreamed up by intellectuals. I am afraid you will need some of us to devise better systems to the one you have now. Even more now than centuries ago, given how very complex stuff is now. Sorry. No ‘quick bash, done’ solutions on offer.
        But you might be interested to know that one of the co-authors on our book thinks similar of academics as you.

      • Nicholas Gruen says:


        Until you start making a larger contribution here, you should behave better.

        By all means be as direct as you like. But not snide. Snide is no good here. Snide is for the other seventy quintillion web pages available to you.

        I haven’t noticed Paul being academically patronising.

  3. paul frijters says:

    [part 2: how to reform the system leading to politicians]

    When it comes to reforming the system that leads to politics, I have come to several ‘preliminary beliefs’ that determine what I think is the optimal way to go. Let me just state those preliminary beliefs, which form a system in the sense that I hold them to be true as a package rather than as stand-alone beliefs.

    Preliminary belief 1: replacing the current parliament, cabinet, or the major parties by another set of people will do nothing on its own. The next bunch would be coerced by paid-for media, inequality, the security apparatus, the myths, and the international situation to behave just the same. I hence have no faith in ‘a saviours’ that the population can vote for that will get us out of this.

    Preliminary belief 2: no change in laws or new institutions will on their own make the slightest difference. I think this is true because the coalition of politicians, media, courts, public institutions, and super-rich will simple circumvent or sideline any supposed law or institution meant to curtail them. I hence see transparence, lobby rules, and federal ICACs as distractions. The current set of ‘maffiosi’ will simply make it very difficult for reformers to get those things and then work around them in a second if they actually come through. Its a total waste of reformist time and energy.

    Preliminary conclusion from 1 and 2: what one needs is a broad reform movement. One basically needs tens of thousands of people to be oriented towards reform. One needs those people and the ideology that binds them in order to be the reformers inside politics, courts, ministries, councils, etc. Any simple ‘vote X or reform Y’ is useless, but a thousand reforms and reformers can make an impact. Its essentially the Big Push argument. Reform comes in cycles precisely because a Big Push needs big motivation, which in turn only comes from an accumulation of lots of problems combined with the emergence of an ideology that binds the would-be reformers. The internal reform ledger is full. What is needed is a movement.

    Preliminary belief 3: the movement must motivate a population that would have some power if mobilised with promises that can be done. This is a simple question of how group formation works. The implication is that the reform movement must be national and initially focus on the reforms that can be achieved nationally. Whilst many of the major problems are international, national reform can at least tackle things like the media, the inequality, the rorting, local environment, the public sector, education, health, etc. So there is something to promise and work towards. Moreover, a national reform movement means there are many different roles and specialist reform-questions in different areas (ie child care, primary school, dentistry, pharmacies, etc. etc.: many different areas so many different roles for reformers).

    Preliminary belief 4: the international reforms that eventually need to happen will need like-minded reform movements in other countries. This seems a no brainer, but has huge implications. It means some notion of coordination between reform movements is needed, as well as basic affinity between the populations involved.

    Preliminary belief 5: if the media and the public sector is sorted out, the current system for finding politicians would not be so bad. This means sortition mechanisms are mainly there as an ‘ice-breaker’ role. Then the question is what ice-breaker would be useful and whether the push needed to get to those ice-breakers is possible.

  4. Nicholas Gruen says:

    Thanks for your thoughts Paul.

    I broadly agree with you on the magnitude of the problem. I think your idea of the entanglement of everything is a very powerful one. (In a way this is a delicious comeuppance for the Enlightenment itself with its notion that things are build up from foundations which can be understand. In fact, as things complexity, everything becomes part of everything else and we then need a place to stand.)

    And its corollary that single issues may not be the way to introduce sortition. I’ve always been thinking along similar lines — and much more interested in building in sortition as a way of working — and as a check and balance on the current system than as a demonstration project sitting on the outside.

    I do like your idea of starting with trying to build some degree of independence into the public service.

    I have no faith in your ‘big bang’ aspirations of 200 million people cutting themselves adrift. It’s implausible and (to quote Lady Bracknell), reminds one of the worst excesses of the French Revolution. That is, it is dedicated to the revolutionary idea of the clean break and not only does that rarely work out if someone manages to get it to happen, but the only way one could campaign for that in our current system is with the kind of rhetorical hyperventilating and “words mean anything I want them to mean” of the Brexit campaign. And look at the personnel in charge of it.

    Some of my own thoughts on this are
    * Sortition has as much or more legitimacy than elections in our system — owing to its time honoured nature in our history and our legal system and its appeal to the ordinary.
    * It is a system that does not point up to an apex of sovereignty — it simply performs acts of the people’s sovereignty whenever and wherever called for. This is hugely cleansing to the layer of counterfeiting (bullshit) we’ve built into the system.
    * The task is therefore to insinuate it pretty much anywhere one can in the system.
    * If we take sortition seriously, it isn’t a single technique but a whole other orientation towards democratic legitimacy. Thus we should be trying to think of ways of building our experience and the culture of sortition to develop institutions that honour merit and distinction. I’ve mentioned this mechanism previously, but via that mechanism and ones like it and the development of new institutions one can address one of the great weaknesses of sortition, (electoral democracy has a very similar weakness), which is honouring knowledge and excellence within democracy.

  5. paul frijters says:

    Hi Nick,

    thanks. Yes, I get your basic orientation, which is that you see local uses and gains from the position we are now in, and you also some notion of where that can grow into in terms of orientation. That is a very important lens because it suggests how things can start ‘small’ and also how sortition can then ‘prove itself’ towards a population. It also has a disadvantage though, which is that powers-that-be can easily pervert and thwart it to their ends, taking that legitimacy away. A nice example of such thwarting is how grand juries have been abused in the American legal system by having them ‘guided’ by insiders. A prosecutor once famously boasted that he could get a grand jury to indict a ‘ham sandwich’ if he so wanted. The deeper point is that the ‘powers that be’ cannot be ignored. They will not just allow a competitor to grow in its midst.

    My perspective, as you know, is more from the system as a whole. I try to grasp the many forces and interest as best I can and then work out what kind of dynamic might lead us to better outcomes. I do also try to see the perspective ‘from the ground’ in many areas (including that from the politicians) but my orientation is always to ‘get’ some notion of how it roughly fits together. I think one needs both your perspective and mine: the low-hanging fruit close-by and the systemic vision on what route to take for society as a whole. That is also how we got many of our institutions: local changes combined with grand visions. Of course most local changes and grand visions turn out to be useless or even counter-productive in the longer run, but that is to be expected: some of both the local and the grand does get adopted and taken forward.

    So I see our perspectives as complementary, not truly rival unless they cannot be joined up in ‘the middle’. I dont see that as such a clear danger because my actual proposals are in the same direction as yours (and vice versa). The main problem with using sortition at the local level for issues is that problem of entanglement: there is just nothing clear to decide. So how is going to sweep away the bullshit? If there is nothing really to decide, it would just lead to other bullshit. The main problem with my main suggestion is that it would require a huge shift in political power to enact, precisely because it is designed to take away power from the incumbents. In truth though, both our proposals need a huge shift: before you would be allowed to do small sortition things that would not be perverted by the system you also need that big shift.

    I do get why you fear big shifts. They are unpredictable and can work out disastrously for small and large groups. Yet, I tend to see large disruptions (like revolutions) or at least the threat of them as part of the renewal system of humanity. Whether you or I like it or not, that is (so far) has it has gone. As the historian Scheidel remarked, great inequality has hardly ever been reversed in societies without great upheaval. It essentially took WWI and WWII to truly break the strangehold of aristocracy and the super-rich in Europe (and Australia!) of 1910. Its a horrible thing to have to acknowledge, but I hold it to be true. Equally importantly, that is not the direct motivation of any of the major players in those wars: it was the roundabout way for the whole system to discharge the energy put into it by inequality. I see that same build-up right now in Victoria and Australia. The build up is slow and it is possible to deflate before it gets to explosion-levels, but its there.

    You should hence read my ‘break away from current treaties’ suggestion not as a call to physical violence but as the minimum needed threat required to get true reform in that international web. Its the old truism of any negotiation: if you are not willing under any circumstance to walk away, you will be the one to lose the bargaining.

  6. paul frijters says:

    It is also useful to mull over the great advantage elections have had, locally and nationally, over sortition mechanisms. We might be nearing a situation where that advantage has basically been eroded by social and physical technology.

    The great advantage of elections involving a whole community is that it ‘takes people along’. An election is where key issues can be discovered and then a judgment on all of them is made at the same time. Because they have to vote, members are somewhat forced to take note of the issues, make up their minds about them, and then make tradeoffs between issues. That is why you even see elections inside juries, namely for jury leader and for making the eventual decision. That is also why you see the use of elections in very local settings, such as leader of school committees and sports clubs.

    Sortition mechanisms do not take the community along with them, but are a device for having a small group do what the large group does not have the time for. That has the advantage of being able to reach a higher level of expertise and understanding than the group as a whole can do (and thus better able to see through bullshit and manipulation). But it has the disadvantage that the whole community is not forced to discover things themselves. A jury might explain their decision to a whole community, but that community is unlikely to want to read that decision, so its left behind in terms of understanding, meaning it is still easy for vested interests to fool them in terms of how things are. So a sortition system used for appointments and issues would still also need to be flanked by an ‘explanation system’, which is the secret of the Swiss referendum system: alongside the frequent referendums, specialised institutions have arisen that give populations the perspectives from different interest group views (including consumer groups, etc.). They advise how to vote, giving simple explanations. It is that combination that forces the Swiss population to be somewhat more on top of issues.

    I think this matters more for your issue-oriented proposals than my ice-breaking jury-appointment proposal (mine does not need either juries or the population to understand issues: its just a way to get out of the hold of politicians and uses the ability of small groups to be good at judging people). It matters a whole lot though for more extensive ideas on how to get to appoint top politicians, ie things like citizen parliaments and grand juries to judge sitting politicians. It suggests combinations of elements that need time to co-evolve and that perhaps would be too complex to be able to think up at the outset but that might indeed only arise from an evolution.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      I agree, except that it’s not complexity that’s the constraint — but public acceptance. But once you have citizens’ juries injected into the political process — for instance with a strong majority of a people’s house having the power to impose secret ballots on other houses where they disagree with the house’s public votes — it will gain its own kind of legitimacy and acceptance. People will start calling for citizens’ juries for various things.

  7. Moz of Yarramulla says:

    By sheer coincidence I just saw this one (ie it popped up in my rss feed). I assume Nick knows the author but some of you other non-illuminati might appreciate it.

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