Does a group have agency?

In a previous post, I proposed basing a new form of democracy on randomly selected groups of citizens called jurgas. This idea is closely related to sortition, but is distinct in that a jurga is only called to act on specific questions that have been formulated in advance. This guarantees that the group will have agency; they will be able to act in a directed fashion to achieve a meaningful end.

Existing bodies (e.g. Belgium) based on sortition are given a much broader mandate, but this has a drawback: there is no guarantee that the body will ever come to any decision on anything. These leads to many of the same problems that plague legislative bodies today: gridlock, followed by the usurpation of legislative power by the judiciary and the executive, on the excuse that “something must be done”.

This illustrates the fact that groups of people do not have any natural agency. The facile solution to the is to say, “majority rule”. But what does that even mean? What does the majority vote on? Who formulates the questions to be submitted? This brings us back to my favorite punching bag, Mitch McConnell. The problem, which I will call the McConnell problem, is that a majoritarian system is insufficiently specific because it does not answer the question of how deliberations and decisions actually happen. Into this breach steps a man like McConnell, who has hijacked the entire American democracy by controlling what—or more often, what not—to vote on.

A jurga differs from bodies with a more expansive mandate in that it has both a mission and a process from the moment it is called. In the last post I briefly mentioned an example in which a jurga is used to select judges. I will expand upon the idea here.

The selection of judges starts with political parties. I will assume 3 political parties: A, B, and C. By means of ranked voting from the entire population, these parties receive a judiciary score, which grants each a certain weight in nominating judges. Let’s give party A 50%, party B 35%, and party C 15%. At regular intervals (once a year, for example) all judicial vacancies come up at once. Let us say in a given year that there are 100 vacancies. Now how many judges can each party nominate?

The obvious answer would be that party A gets 50, party B gets 35, and party C gets 15. But this leaves no role for the jurga. This is a problem because each party can now appoint partisan hacks with no check on quality. Instead, the total number of potential judges must be significantly larger than the number of vacancies. I assert that no party should ever be guaranteed any spots on the judiciary, so that any party that nominates all partisan hacks can in theory have all of their nominations excluded. Basic arithmetic gives n = v \cdot \lceil \frac{1}{1-p} \rceil, where v is the number of vacancies and p is the largest share given to any party. In this case, n = 200. Thus party A gets 100, party B gets 70, and party C gets 30.

How does the jurga whittle this down to 100? There are any number of mechanisms, but the simplest is a straightforward approval system. Each member of the jurga would get to approve of exactly 100 candidates, and hence implicitly disapprove of 100. The number of approvals for each candidate would be added up, and the top 100 would be seated. Of course there are other voting mechanisms, but the important feature is that a result is forced. The jurga cannot fail to act. 100 new judges will be seated, no matter what.

The jurga acts as a filter, presenting the political class with a risk: Nominate highly partisan judges and risk getting frozen out, or nominate judges with broader appeal and risk losing ideological control.

Ultimately, what properties are we looking for in a selection process?

  1. Inevitability: The process will always produce the desired result, in this case nominating 100 judges once the jurga completes its work.
  2. Non-participation penalty: Failing to participate will only harm the obstructing party, all other parties will benefit.
  3. Sovereignty filter: The final decision must be made by a body that credibly represents the basic sovereign unit of the country. That is the jurga. But not just any jurga will do. The jurga must have the following properties:
    1. Well-sampled: Randomly selected from among voters at large, with enough people to be a representative sample.
    2. Blind: Selected only after all nominations have been made.
    3. Sufficient Entropy: Given a sufficiently broad array of choices, i.e. minimum entropy. For example, if only 101 nominations had been allowed to fill 100 slots, most reasonable people would say that the fix was in. My criterion is that the process should be able to work even with the non-participation of any one party.

These conditions are the what gives the jurga agency. It allows action without depending on the members of the jurga to organize themselves internally, to choose leaders, or to decide among themselves what questions to consider. Since the process is well defined, there is no chance for the jurga to get sidetracked or hamstrung the way a traditional legislative body often does.

I have a challenge for me reader(s) (There is at least one, as I stand over my wife’s shoulder while she reads): How could the above scenario be made to fail? What conditions could allow the judiciary to be taken over as the American judiciary has been taken over under such a mechanism?

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