Where does sovereignty come from?

All governments assert their legitimacy on the basis of a source; some wellspring, metaphysical or physical, that guarantees that the government’s actions represent something beyond the mere whims of whoever issues the commands. For example, the Pharaohs were considered the representatives of the Gods on Earth, and their right to command was seen as an expression of their duty to maintain balance between the divine and the worldly. More recent non-democratic sources of sovereign legitimacy include the need to preserve revolution (Cuba, Venezuela, Zimbabwe) and the putative superiority of white people over others (Germany, South Africa, Rhodesia, …).

It’s fair to say that Democracy represents a dramatic improvement over the past by asserting a source of sovereignty that is far more grounded in the reality of everyday life. Our main source of sovereignty is the election; a single event that seeks the opinion of eligible citizens on a range of questions. Usually, the question is simply who deserves to fill a certain office, however in a referendum or an initiative, the question may be whether or not to approve a specific law or policy. Since it is my purpose to propose something better, I will leave it to others to describe the virtues of the election. However I will note that the election is certainly a better source of legitimacy than any other currently in use at a national level.

I should note that for small groups of people–say, in the low hundreds–decisions can be made informally by respected elders without any formal notion of sovereignty. This can be effective, but it does not scale, which is why I reject the various systems of government coming from the anarchist tradition (e.g. Anarcho-syndicalism). For lack of a better term I call this informal type of governance tribal governance.

Most democracies cannot make all decisions via direct election, aka direct democracy. They therefore outsource most major decision making to elected representatives, creating representative democracy. This creates a body that can function more like a tribe, and make coherent decisions the way that small groups of people can. At least that’s the theory–as I look at representative democracies today, it is these bodies that are the most problematic. To be more explicit: I view representative legislatures as currently constructed everywhere in the world as being wholly inadequate. We need something new.

At the heart of my new system is a body I call a jurga. I define it as follows: A body selected at random from among qualified citizens (voters), assembled for the purpose of answering important questions of state that have been formulated and published before the selection of the body takes place, and given the time and resources to come to a considered and binding conclusion according to a predetermined voting mechanism.

First, the etymology of the term: I took the Afghan idea of a jirga–a body of tribal leaders assembled to make decisions–and mixed it with the common law notion of a jury, a panel of citizens used to pass judgment in criminal proceedings.

The most common use of a jurga would be to pass laws, the traditional role of a legislature. For example, it could work like this: A small number of bills (say, 3-5) would be published as proposed responses to a public policy issue (How this is done is non-trivial; I will propose a solution for this in another post). At this point, a jurga of, say, 250-500 people would be assembled for 6 weeks or so. They would have the services of a group of professional researchers, much as legislatures do now. In addition, outside groups such as think tanks and interest groups could submit their own materials outlining their views–again, though, all such materials would have to be submitted before the jurga is selected. The jurga would review these materials, call witnesses, do their own research, etc. At the end of the 6 weeks, each member would rank the bills in order, and these votes would be tabulated using a Condorcet ranked voting method such as the Schulze method. For general legislation, a “no change” alternative should be included; for periodic legislation (i.e. budgets) no such alternative should be present so as to avoid stalemate.

What are the advantages of this setup? The most important by far is the separation of crafting bills from approving them. Currently representative legislatures do both. This deeply erodes both their effectiveness and their integrity. On the side of approving legislation, a single vote is valuable enough that will always be a temptation to sell it in some form. I’m not an expert in legislatures around the world, but in the U.S., it is reasonable to assume that most significant votes are strongly influenced by the financial self interest of the legislators, through campaign donations or the implicit promise of cushy jobs on retirement. Neither are illegal, yet both fundamentally call into question the integrity of the process. And these inducements pollute the bill crafting process as well, because crafting legislation becomes an exercise in increasing the value of the vote the legislator intends to sell.

Thus the importance of publishing all bills before the jurga is selected. Those crafting bills must not be able to target their provisions to the specific members of the jurga, they should write bills intended for the broader population from which the jurga is selected. Sure, you can try to slip in provisions for your favorite donor. But you risk sinking the bill itself, since in all likelihood the members of the jurga will look on it negatively.

For other purposes, a jurga might use other voting mechanisms. Let’s look at nominating judges. At present, this is done in the U.S. exclusively by the President in a winner-take-all format. I envision a propoprtional format, in which each political party gets to nominate judges in proportion to their public support (again, more on this in a future post). But there is still a need to vet prospective judges. This is where a jurga comes in. The system works like this: once a certain number of judicial vacancies open up–say 30, for the sake of argument–each party nominates candidates for those judgeships in proportion to their support. But the total number of judges nominated must be more than 30–say 60 in this case. This list of 60 candidates would be submitted to a jurga. Each member of a jurga would choose 30 candidates of whom they approve. The 30 candidates with the highest total scores would fill the judgeships.

Why is it so important to have a jurga in the judicial nomination process? Why not just have the parties nominate judges without a jurga? In a word, sovereignty. A process as important as nominating the judiciary must have some direct appeal to the core unit of sovereignty in any society. Viewed from a counterfactual point of view, what happens if political parties can just make anyone a judge? In that case there is tremendous incentive to nominate apparatchiks and cronies. With a jurga in place, however, a party that tries this might have none of their picks actually seated as judges.

Another use for jurgas could be for routine periodic policy changes. Imagine the following minimum wage law:

Each year, the minimum wage will change by a factor determined by a jurga, according to proposals given by each of the three parties with the greatest popular support. In no case will this factor differ by more than 5% from the inflation rate.

It is very hard to write laws like this under representative democracy. The problem is, who sets the rate? The possible bodies that could set the rate include:

  • An executive branch agency
  • An independent agency like the Federal Reserve
  • A judicial body
  • A special body of ex-officio members, such as mayors of major cities
  • A legislative committee

All of these bodies have problems. The Federal Reserve is probably the best example, as it sets interest rates. But its indepedence is mostly a matter of political consesus, and is constantly being challenged. I don’t think the Fed could survive having to set such a politically charged value as the minimum wage. I would not recommend that central banks make their decisions by jurga; monetary policy requires expertise. But the minimum wage is easier to understand, and the unquestioned legitimacy and independence of a jurga would be of great value in avoiding the problems of partisanship. In addition, there is this important fact: the dominant party does not have stranglehold on policy. A party with minority popular support can still get their policies enacted if they convince a jurga.

In contrast to representative democracy, I call a system of government in which the jurga is the fundamental unit of sovereignty sampled democracy. This name suggests that, if it were possible, we would submit every question for the considered opinion of the entire population. The word consideredhere means that the entire population would have the time and the resources to properly research every question submitted to it. This is clearly impractical, so the real question is, what is the closest thing? As I will argue in future posts, sampled democracy, properly constructed, is a far better alternative than representative democracy at approaching this ideal.

6 thoughts on “Where does sovereignty come from?

  1. I am intrigued by this idea of a Jurga. However, I think that there should be specific criteria to be selected. I would not trust any person off the street to represent me. How would you take into account socioeconomic factors, like level of education? Would you screen for factors like development disabilities and how would you take this into account? Are only registered voters in the pool? Everyone knows that certain groups are grossly under represented in the pool of registered voters. I would love some elaboration on this topic in future blog posts.

    1. The point of the jurga is to be a sample of the adult population. Any condition such as education level would bias the result. The issue is that if you empower the political class to choose the jurga, they will use that power in a corrupt manner. Members of the jurga aren’t expected to be brilliant politicians or lawyers or anything else, they are only expected to provide a reality check that does not currently exist.

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