Sunday, December 31, 2023

The merits and limits of lottocracy

A friend of mine strongly recommended that I read the book “Against Elections. The Case for Democracy” written by David Van Reybrouck. As the title suggests, the main message of the essay is that elections and democracy are not the same thing. And that to preserve the value of democracy, we have to reduce the scope of elections, and fill it with lotteries to select public jobs.

This was done in classical Athens, as well as in some medieval and Renaissance institutions in Venice, Florence and the Crown of Aragon (“insaculatio”). After the American and French Revolutions, the mechanism was discarded because the elites wanted to keep the new liberal systems elitist and aristocratic through the election of the theoretically “best and brightest,” which were supposed to naturally belong to the upper classes.

I should have read it earlier, because it is a suggestion with which I sympathize (as I tell my students when we talk about de sub-discipline of social choice, between economics and political science). The author dyagnoses a “Democratic Fatigue Syndrome”. And lotteries would be a better remedy than populism, technocracy or direct democracy. They are fair and democratic and they would legitimize the peaceful transfer of power not less than free elections. They would reduce the distance between those that govern and those that are governed.

Canada, Iceland, and Ireland have recently tried different mechanisms, using randomly selected citizen assemblies as part of the public decision making process. In Ireland, one of these mechanisms led to the historical approval of gay marriages.

In Spain, there have been some proposals and experiences only in the margin of the political system (for example, with the Citizens Assembly for Climate Change), but popular juries and presidents of ballot stations are selected by lotteries and the results have been very positive.

The imperfections of electoral democracies have been well known by some of the best social scientists such as Kenneth Arrow and Larry Bartels. Amartya Sen argues that these difficulties should not lead to pessimism or desperation, but to exploring how to improve the existing systems. This can be done accompanying them with tools of deliberation, like those of citizens’ assemblies.

There is little doubt that existing institutions are a very small subsample of all possible institutions, but we are often locked in inefficient evolutionary outcomes because of inertia, vested interests and switching costs.

Of course, there are no panaceas, and following the lessons of Arrow, the perfect mechanism of aggregating individual preferences in a democracy does not exist. The main problems of a lottocracy, beyond the existence of vested interests that stop it, are how to make it compatible with the mobilization of discriminated constituencies (workers and women), and with the political skills (managing alliances and the corridors of power) necessary to push for fair reforms or social transformations.

Workers rights, women rights, green parties: would they have emerged without fighting and mobilization of massive groups? Perhaps lottocracy in the form of citizens’ assemblies is better adapted to solving current challenges such as ethinc conflict and diversity.

Would Ireland have delegated the issue of Gay Marriage to a citizens’ assembly without the fight of the LGTB community through (mainly leftist) political parties in countries that took the step previously? Would women be even accepted in citizens’ assemblies without the previous fight of the sufragettes and the (left wing) parties that promoted female voting?

Doesn’t lottocracy take for ganted many freedoms for which people had to fight through movements, trade unions and political parties? Can we afford to spend massive resources in promoting lottocracy in front of the urgent task of democratically stopping Donald Trump and Marine le Pen?

Elections and political parties will remain necessary for a while, but it is worth exploring the expansion of sortition to new arenas (starting with sports clubs and universities?). Elections and political parties need serious reforms.  These are difficult, but not impossible. When reforms happen (as with secret voting in Chile, or electronic voting in Brazil), the results can be encouraging. Take Chile: citizens’ assemblies by sortition could have helped or complemented the constitutional assemblies that failed to produce a new Carta Magna, but perhaps also would (complementarily) the reliance on traditional parties that had experience in reaching broad-based agreements –and that were marginalized in the constituional process.

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