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AHE Conference 2021

Updated: Dec 10, 2021

Roslyn Fuller speaking at the 23rd Annual Conference of the Association for Heterodox Economics


Thank you to the organizers for setting up this conference, and also special thanks to Rajani for putting together this panel.

Today, I’m going to talk about a topic that may not be widespread in the mainstream yet, but has gained particular relevance in my field, and that is the use of sortition as a means of conducting politics.

As many of you will know, sortition means selection via lottery. And in this particular context it means selecting political actors via lottery. In other words, one acquires political agency not by birthright but via the lottery. Those who are selected have this agency, those who are not selected don’t.

There are many different categories and aims of sortition in this political sense.

Some advocate for sortition to be used only to select people to act in an advisory capacity to government, but other, more extreme versions, aim for it to replace all forms of public decision-making. The motivations behind sortition are also varied, but include a wish to prevent corruption among politicians, to increase representation of ordinary citizens in the political process, to prevent ‘uninformed’ decision-making, and to break gridlock in politics. One of the key arguments often made in favour of sortition is that it is based on the ancient Greek form of democracy in which ordinary people had a meaningful share in ruling.

What all forms of modern sortition have in common is that they advocate selecting small numbers of citizens to participate. These are usually called citizens assemblies or citizens juries. The members of these juries are, like conventional trial juries, called to meet together at a specific place, usually over multiple weekends. There, the selected members are presented with information by selected experts and advocates of various causes, they discuss these options (generally in facilitated groups), and then vote on various recommendations. Some advocate that these recommendations should be binding on the general population. Even less extreme versions of sortition are, however, deeply flawed, and cannot, even theoretically, lead to the many goods its advocates hope to achieve.

I will outline some of the most important here and why we should be concerned about this development from a democratic perspective.

For one thing, modern sortition does NOT find a historical precedent in ancient Greek democracy and there are good reasons for this. For a group of people allegedly concerned about misinformation, modern sortitionists fail to distinguish between legislative, executive and judicial functions both in the ancient and modern world.

Legislating is not, and never was, a trial process based upon the examination of what sortitionists believe to be ‘evidence’ (rarely hard evidence). The purpose of a trial and the reason it is often conducted by jury in English-speaking countries is that trials involve an attempt to guess the unknowable. Trials are not conducted on the basis of certainty, they are conducted on the principle of proving something (usually guilt) ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. Juries attempt to weigh evidence regarding whether a specific, discrete event (such as a murder) occurred in the specific manner that it is said to have occurred. Because - no matter how much evidence is adduced - this is something no one can KNOW with absolute certainty, one doubter is often enough to obtain an acquittal. In the ancient world trials were also about determining whether the person on trial had violated the traditions and customs of the society.

Legislation, on the other hand, is not about weighing evidence to guess WHAT HAPPENED. Legislation is about determining the future rules of society. Courts may ask ‘what happened?’ or at most ‘is this in line with our pre-agreed rules’, but legislation asks: ‘How should things be?’ This is a matter that is to a much higher degree about opinion, personal interest and approximate forecasts about the future. It is of a much wider scope than the particular, limited PAST events that juries examine. A legislature may determine that killing may be permitted in cases of self-defence, for example. A jury may only examine if the PRECISE defendant WAS indeed defending themselves when the again PRECISE crime occurred. This is a completely different level of decision. The ‘power’ exercised by juries, if very important to the defendant, is societally extremely limited to specific well-defined tasks. This is not an original power, but a delegated power. This is important, because it means that the original power continues to reside with ‘the people’, who are able to use it on at least a formally equal basis.

Relatively small numbers of Greek citizens were also not randomly called to do ANYTHING in ancient democracies, except to serve as magistrates. Modern sortitionists (again curiously for people so concerned about misinformation) believe these officials to have been the same as officials today. Again this is incorrect. Ancient ‘officials’ had only minor powers to execute decisions made by the Assembly, where every citizen had a vote. Moreover, their actions were regularly reviewed and examined in Assembly. This use of sortition – for near-powerless executive tasks – was indeed an important component of ancient Athenian democracy. It is, however, entirely different than the proposed use cases of modern sortition which revolve around making or at least influencing legislation.

Ancient sortition gave people duties rather than power. Modern sortitionists propose (to varying degrees) that those selected by lot be given political power. In fact, they often try to entice people to participate in these exercises with laudatory praises of how important and powerful they will be.

This is a problem. When an official in Athens was selected by lot to help e.g. keep the streets clean or collect on public bills, this did not deprive any other person of the opportunity to table or vote on legislation describing how this should be done or to bring a complaint about how the magistrate was fulfilling their duties. The purpose was never to prevent people, either individually or collectively, from controlling said magistrate.

Modern sortition is, however, focused on exclusion. Modern sortitionists often explicitly refuse to make use of technology that would allow a wider group of citizens to participate, insisting it be limited to a small group of people, typically between 100 and 500 participants. This is usually less than one-ten-thousandth of the population entitled to participate. While this is particularly concerning when assembly decisions are intended to be binding, it is also problematic even in cases where only recommendations are made. It is a cornerstone of democracy that each citizen has AN EQUAL RIGHT to participate in politics. If a citizen is not given a spot on an assembly, they are deprived of that right.

Sortitonists seek to argue that citizens must only have an equal CHANCE of participating politically. After all, people running for office are not guaranteed to win their seats, we strive only to keep their CHANCES fair. This, however, is a false argument. While politicians are not guaranteed to win their seats, citizens are guaranteed to have the opportunity to vote. A politician’s ‘chance’ does not depend on fate, but rather on the will of these citizens. Indeed, there is no ‘chance’ at all, involved in this process. People who run for office may feel at times that they are engaged in a form of gambling as they experience uncertainty while they are waiting for votes to be counted, but this is merely the uncertainty of not knowing what is going on in voters’ minds. Indeed, the discourse of ‘chances’ and ‘gambling’ is largely invented by the media in order to sensationalise the electoral process. In reality, voters are legally guaranteed a vote (that is a right to determine who their representative should be), and representatives are forced to compete with one another for those votes. All voters also have the legally guaranteed right to run for office. They merely do not have the right to force other voters to choose them. Moreover, citizens have all kinds of other rights at their disposal, which they would lose under a sortition process.

Sortitionists thus propose to replace multiple kinds of legal right to participation with one ‘chance’ at participating (which is itself extremely low) on a completely unaccountable body. There ARE huge problems with equality and effectiveness of modern political participation, which I have detailed more than anyone, but getting rid of these EQUAL RIGHTS and replacing them with the CHANCE TO BE A TYRANT isn’t going to make things better.

This privileges the participation of some ‘chosen’ citizens over others, and thus – no matter how banal the matter at hand – is a complete negation of the principle of political equality and one-person, one vote. This is even more confounding as it comes at a time when many equality-based methods of participation are on the rise, from digital participation to referenda, and easier and cheaper to use than ever. As I have documented in numerous publications, these methods are accountable, productive and have no need of the exclusionary, limiting and intensely controlling processes proposed by sortitionists.

Perhaps worse than this, sortition is not intended to be majority rule. It is a core component of sortitionist philosophy that the public is misinformed on a wide variety of issues. Only by deliberation under the careful guidance of experts can ordinary people come to realize their own true interests. Sortitionists thus generally celebrate when citizen assemblies come to different conclusions than the general population and view this as ‘proof’ that they work. Citizens are to be told – in the epitome of patriarchy – that they would inevitably agree with the assembly results if only they were properly informed and guided. This deeply contravenes the concepts of human dignity and self-determination and seeks to force citizens to blindly obey what they disagree with on the basis that their thoughts and needs are unworthy.

Needless to say, centralizing decision-making in such small bodies – in many cases smaller than current parliamentary bodies – will facilitate corruption. In fact, one of the key components of sortition is to disallow more than 99% of citizens, that is natural persons, from participating, but to invite lobbyist groups and NGOs – which rightly do not have the right to vote – into the process. Humans are out and organizations are in. This is particularly concerning, considering that a large percentage of NGOs are funded by only a few wealthy individuals and super-organizations. Although they often pose as grassroots movements, they are anything but. It is no surprise to find that sortition is immensely popular among civil society organizations.

Sortition is not designed to empower people – it involves, after all, almost no people. It is designed to disempower them.

Sortitionists often take issue with whom they call ‘the usual suspects’ – people and grassroots groups who push themselves forward to participate.

For example, an anti-nuclear group may constantly protest the building of a nuclear power plant in a certain area and dominate public participation processes on this point. It is, of course, fair to ask if such a group truly enjoys popular support and to seek to engage the entire population in such decisions. However, it is also easy to see how special interests would benefit from a process that prevents such groups, sometimes composed of deeply-interested local citizens, from organizing against their preferred policies, by insisting on random public participation instead.

Sortitionists often pride themselves on including completely politically disinterested citizens. Those citizens, however, are, of course, starting from a very low, sometimes non-existent base of knowledge. They may be unaware of the previous history of an area, including previous deals or broken promises. The few weekends of discussion time allowed by sortition are completely insufficient to make up for a lifetime of disinterest and non-participation.

Sortitionists, in other words, often seek to include the most easily manipulated citizens in their exercises, people who due to their lack of involvement in politics up to this point, often aren’t in the best position to judge the adequacy of policy in a short space of time or to catch political tricks. This is not to say that such people do not have the right to participate, or the ability to participate or that they should not be encouraged to participate, it’s merely to say that this is a process that celebrates the inclusion of the most uninformed people they can find and the exclusion of what are often the most informed people. And it does so in a very negative way, by continuously telling such participants that they are special, superior and more informed than others who disagree with them. In fact, the fact that they disagree with them is proof of their lack of information. These participants also have no means of ascertaining the long-term reputation and reliability of their advisors. Experts and advisors are necessary in any society, but given as they ARE fallible, the only way for a non-expert to determine their reliability is to observe them over a relatively lengthy period of time, and determine what they turned out to be right about. Sortition deprives them of this possibility.

Citizens’ assemblies are a beloved ‘solution’ of billionaires to the ‘crisis’ of democracy and serve as a vehicle for oligarchy by ensuring that oligarchs need only deal with a tiny set of the population at one time with a privileged position for civil society organisations they can fund. As such it should come as no surprise that sortitionist bodies are often limited in what they can debate, frequently to band-aid solutions that do not address the structural issues of society. By limiting discussion to small numbers of people and short timeframes, it can be assured that only small, piecemeal ‘solutions’ are ever resolved upon, as the ability to think across multi-dimensional issues or demand solutions contingent upon other solutions does not exist.

These are only a few of the shortcomings of modern sortition as a political process. However, it is very concerning that such a deeply anti-democratic and inegalitarian process that is based on so much misinformation has become so beloved of political commentators and academics who seek to prevent outcomes they dislike from materializing by any means necessary.

It is also notable that sortition has been so strongly backed at a time when increased participation by the population is not only more feasible due to technology, but actually already unfolding, with large increases in referenda, participatory budgeting, digital ideation and access to information around the world. Many political candidates, most notably in Italy, but also in the United States, Iceland, Germany and Ireland have run successful campaigns to increase grassroots decision-making. It’s unfortunate to see so much academic and quasi-academic debate turn against these empowering exercises and instead embrace a deeply flawed, anti-humanistic and power-serving form of democratic ‘innovation’ while resolutely ignoring the people and organizations that have created so much publicly-used infrastructure.