Sortition: a summary

This post is in part based on my paper, Political Parties as Corruption Hazards: The Republican Case for Sortition, in the Croatian Journal of Philosophy (Milne, 2020).

In my last long post, I highlighted the inherent corruptibility of political parties, posing an existential problem for electoral democracy. In this one, I set out the alternative.

Sortition is the appointment of office-holders by random lottery from among the whole population of their jurisdiction. It was widely used in ancient Athens, arising through a series of reforms as a result of struggle between the poor citizens and the wealthy elite, although in Athens the eligible population consisted only of male citizens – not women, slaves, or ‘resident aliens’. Right through the early modern period, it was recognised that elections were aristocratic and sortition democratic; the idea that elections are a democratic form of government is a relatively recent invention.

There are a number of functions sortitional bodies may perform. They can set legislative agendas, compose legislation, or vote on whether that legislation should pass; they can oversee executives, whether of the state or of nationalised industries, or carry out other constitutional functions, such as drawing electoral boundaries. The members may sit for a short period or a long one; they may consider multiple issues or just one. In my next post, we’ll look at the two main kinds of sortitional government that have been proposed, their faults and their merits. In the remainder of this one, I shall try to answer the question: why should sortitional bodies be more resistant to corruption than elected ones?

If you recall, in a previous post I set out three of the mechanisms by which corruption takes hold: network formation, normalisation, and corrupt actors’ need to maintain their power. A well-designed sortitional system is much more resistant to all three than an election-based system could ever be.

First of all, any corrupt political network in a sortitional system must re-corrupt the office-holders from scratch every four or five years. This is a huge ongoing risk for the network’s existing members. Approaching an office-holder who’s an unknown quantity and trying to embroil them in a network of corruption of whatever kind is inherently hazardous because you don’t know how they’re going to react. The exchange could easily blow up in your face, endangering you and potentially your allies, too. This is part of why corruption forms networks in the first place: you need trusted people you can deal with.

Nor is normalising corruption as easy as it is within political parties. Rather than the self-selected or even in-group-selected membership of a political party, the would-be normalisers must either convince the entire eligible population that their particular flavour of corruption is normal, or convince each new tranche of allotted office-holders afresh. This is a hugely more difficult task, whether the normalisation in question is proud and ideological or sneaking and hypocritical.

Finally, the disconnect between each successive cohort of office-holders makes it harder for wrongdoers in office to get away with it. Elected members of political parties can call on their comrades in office to protect them and put them back in power later, even if they as individuals run up against term limits or otherwise lose their position in the formal state hierarchy. But jurors selected by lot are very unlikely to have any sense of obligation to protect corrupt strangers from the consequences of their own misdeeds. Indeed, the more corruptly the system behaves in one sitting, the more the random citizens selected to the next are likely to resent the corrupt actors – a factor which also counts against normalisation and increases the risks of network-formation.

So, overall, we can expect well-designed sortitional systems to be resistant to corruption. But how is such a system best designed? In my next post, I’ll take a look at the state of the debate – in particular, the dispute between advocates of deliberative assemblies and proponents of non-deliberative juries.

Bibliography

Milne, O. (2020). Political parties as corruption hazards: The republican case for sortition. Croatian Journal of Philosophy, XX(59), 139–151.

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