Sortitionists, Think Small

It has been highly encouraging to see so many attempts to convene citizen panels in recent years. I certainly applaud such efforts, and I would like to see more. There are some technical problems with these efforts, most notably a reliance on volunteers that undermines representative quality. While efforts are made to enforce diversity on a small subset of properties, these efforts will never reproduce the inherent diversity of truly random selection with compulsory participation.

My primary criticism, however, is the focus on proposals, rather than decisions. Consider the French Citizen Convention on the Climate (CCC), meeting over six weekends ending in January 2020. Its mandate is to define a series of measures to achieve a reduction of at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990) in a spirit of social justice. This is an extremely open ended mandate. More importantly, it is not likely to produce any new or innovative suggestions. Ordinary citizens are quite capable, but they are not going to invent a new solution in six weeks that has escaped an armada of experts for decades.

The CCC came as a response to the “yellow vest” movement, which was a protest against the high cost of living, income and wealth inequality, and a carbon tax, among other things. Instead of an assembly with an overbroad mandate to make grandiose suggestions, we need citizen panels to come to decisions, which is where professional politicians fail so miserably. In the case of climate change, we know what policies are needed: they are things like carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems, etc. Also, when it comes to wealth and income inequality, we know what works: income taxes, minimum wage increases, etc. All of these policies are easily parameterized. Both a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system are driven by a single parameter: the price of carbon for the former, the annual carbon allowance for the latter. Clearly, income taxes and minimum wages are also driven by simple parameters.

The French Parliament could instead pass a law combining many of these ideas, but leave the parameters up to a citizens’ assembly (CA). For example, imagine a law which has a revenue neutral carbon tax. All of the money from the tax would go toward a wage subsidy on low wage work, effectively increasing the minimum wage. The only parameter would be the price of carbon. Every year, a CA would meet to determine the price of carbon for the next year, perhaps with a cap on the percentage change from year to year. The higher the price of carbon, the higher the wage subsidy, so environment and social justice are linked.

These kinds of decisions—ongoing adjustments to legislative parameters—are a large area of corruption in the current system. How many cap-and-trade plans have been rendered ineffective by special interests that lobby over time to raise the cap beyond a useful level? The CA can be a tool to keep such policies fresh. Such situations are conceptually simple but politically difficult, which makes them perfect candidates for sortition. As I see it, this is where CAs can prove their worth. Citizen assemblies that focus on proposals provide cover for politicians afraid to put forth their own ideas. Meanwhile, backroom deals and special interest politics will still dominate the final product. We don’t want citizen panels to become yet another weapon of partisan warfare. We want them to provide real relief in the face of political gridlock. It is the decision side of the ledger that must be reinforced, not the proposal side.

We want the state to build the capacity to call CAs (with mandatory participation and meaningful compensation) on a regular basis in order to make decisions that the current political system cannot make with legitimacy. What decisions are most ripe for early consideration as the state climbs the learning curve? The best candidate is the minimum wage. If we convene a CA, and simply have each participant submit their own preferred wage (within 10% of the previous year), then the average is a continuous function of citizen preferences. This makes decisions highly stable, protecting perceived legitimacy even if the early selection process is not ideal. Limiting the amount of change at any one time also adds stability.

The minimum wage is a classic example of a policy that is conceptually simple but politically fraught. Political systems struggle to keep the minimum wage up to date because special interests dominate the boring details of legislation, and because legislators themselves are out of touch with what the minimum wage means for large swaths of the population. The technocratic solution is just to index the minimum wage to inflation or cost of living. But this is problematic for two reasons: first, it hands power to the executive branch that should belong to the legislature; and second, it ignores the fact that the minimum wage must adjust to social and political conditions, not just narrowly economic ones.

If and when simple CAs like this gain legitimacy in the eyes of the public, more complicated policies can be tackled. One possibility is income tax rates. This again is a policy that everyone understands, but whose content becomes warped by special interest politics. Most people know what the structure of an income taxes looks like: it consists of a small number of income brackets, and a marginal rate associated with each bracket.

Such a policy cannot be reduced to a single parameter, so some mechanism would be needed to provide the CA with a small number of choices. For starters, we can allow any group of legislators that make up 20% or more of the legislature to submit a proposal. For example, in a legislature of 100 members, any twenty members could submit a proposal. This guarantees between two and five options in systems where there are at least two major political parties.

This proposal mechanism is not ideal; I discuss the theory of democratic proposals in my book, posted here. Nevertheless, it is better than the current system, where only the majority party can meaningfully advance proposals. It also starts the process of convening CAs as a regular way to make ordinary decisions.

This is what we need to move to a true sortition-based government. Let us call CAs regularly, to make small but vital decisions. The cause of genuine democracy will only be hurt when citizens’ assemblies are glitzy spectacles political distraction.

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