Sortition: A Surprising Curb on Political Greed

I’ve recently read Sigmund Knag’s fascinating essay on sortition “Let’s Toss for it”. Knag summarizes the history of political systems that used sortition (the Athenians, the Venetians). He cites several proposals where quite small changes to electoral systems would break up the chain that leads to campaign-spending-determined, party-elite-protecting outcomes. One of the cases Knag examines is that of the American presidential election. His background introduction illustrates some of the destructive incentives in this scheme:

Politicization: The U.S. Presidential Race

The U.S. presidential election system illustrates a maximally politicized election process. By politicized, I mean simply that considerations of merit and utility as understood by the typical citizen take second place to the desires of political insiders and organized special interests. We cannot, of course, “take the politics out of politics.” Politics will be partisan, and politics will never be snow-white. Still, if a democracy is not to be a sham, it must strive to serve the general rather than any particular interest.

In the present perspective, the main elements of the American presidential election process are the following. First, the various subgroups in each party put forward candidates regarded both as friendly to the subgroup and as having a reasonable chance of winning; of course, the candidates must be fairly well known and willing to run. Then, in each party, the various subgroups compete to get the party to accept their candidates as the party’s candidate; again, the successful candidate must make himself known and acceptable to all and make a case that he can win. Then, in the final campaign, each party spends a vast amount of money and effort to make sure that its candidate is well known, well liked, and a possible winner. Throughout the process, launchers, candidates, and supporters eagerly search for sponsors outside the political system — individuals, groups, and organizations willing to supply voters or funds. The ultimate winner gets monarchic powers for four years, during which he must work in various ways to repay his launchers and sponsors, especially if he hopes to secure reelection.

Clearly, the system turns on self-promotion by candidates, eager maneuvering by initiative groups inside the political system, deal-making with outside special-interest groups, and calculations of candidates’ salability. Moreover, the campaigning to publicize the name and policy positions of candidates requires much money, partly because the United States is an immense country. So money is the major consideration. Traits of the American character, such as brashness and the worship of financial success, compound the insidious predominance of money in campaigning. A president’s great capacity to affect the material conditions of individuals, groups, and firms by wielding his statutory and discretionary powers colors the entire process.

Because so much of the selection procedure occurs before the choice is at last put before the public, the system as such does not ensure that the man elected is the one regarded as best qualified by the public (Vile 1984, 86). One recalls Gaetano Mosca’s acid dictum that a representative is someone whose friends have arranged for him to be elected. Further, the system practically ensures that the two (or more) final contenders will be men reared by the political establishment, beholden to it, and constituting no threat to it — in short, men such as Bill Clinton and Bob Dole. The system also ensures a great deal of sound and fury as the contenders attempt to convince voters that the choice is one between night and day. The earnest voter might be pardoned for feeling, during the throes of a presidential campaign, that the best outcome would be for the two candidates to stop their electioneering, engage in a manly duel, and shoot each other dead.

The all-importance of money in American presidential campaigning means that if a party or a party subgroup has confidence in the winning potential of its candidate, the rest is regarded as a matter of money. Even an independent candidate may perceive a fighting chance if he has money or celebrity status. Personal wealth and a gambler’s self-confidence can buy the aspirant a place in the public eye, at least for a (perhaps considerable) time, as illustrated by the recent campaigns of Ross Perot and Steve Forbes. Whoever seeks the candidacy must promote and publicize himself; in this endeavor, modesty is not a virtue but a liability. Nor does anyone view the president as “above politics.” The indignities of the campaign make it hard for the bruised survivor to establish his authority.

One may view a presidential campaign, not unreasonably, as a gamble with rather favorable odds and astounding gains — provided one has, or is, a candidate with good communication skills, an entrenched position in a political party, and access to ample funds, which in turn implies good connections to special-interest groups for whom one’s victory has high value. From an insider’s perspective, one sees campaign spending, not unrealistically, as having the power to better one’s odds considerably or even decisively. For the outside interest group, campaign contributions are simply business investments with a calculated chance of paying off. So, from all sides come cries of Take me! No, me! No, me! and the suggestive crackling of dollar bills. Surely one must wonder whether the sort of person likely to engage in this huckstering and enjoy it — the endlessly flexible, ever smiling, eagerly self-advertising type — is likely to be the person best suited to lead the country.

For Knag’s suggested solutions, you will be rewarded by a careful reading of his essay.

If you are after a more technical exposition on sortition I recommend Alan Lockard’s Decision by Sortition: A Means to Reduce Rent-Seeking.

(…) This essay gives an overview of how such a randomized decision mech- anism can be expected to reduce the intensity of self-interested activity by rent-seeking factions within democracies. The social costs of rent-seeking are briefly reviewed. I then make the case that randomization of collective decision making procedures attenuates rent-seeking expenditures. I illustrate the argument by reference to the highly contested Presidential election of 2000. Finally, I buttress that argument by comparing plurality voting and sortition within the context of Tullock’s Efficient Rent-seeking model (1980).

(…) James Buchanan (1980b), in contemplating reform of the rent-seeking society, argues that changes to reduce rent-seeking must be broad-reaching rather than piecemeal. Since rents transferred typically bestow a concentrated benefit on one constituency at the diffused expense of others, attempts to eliminate one rent at time can be expected to be bitterly resisted through the political process. A general change that reduces rent-seeking across the board may be more feasible, since participants in the political process may regard the loss of particular rents to be balanced by the gains they hope to realize when the awards of other rents, which are detrimental to them, are simul- taneously abolished. Episodes of economic reform in both New Zealand and Estonia are consistent with this hypothesis.3 In both states a broad package of liberalizing reforms was put in place at once. Due to the breadth of the re- forms, individuals who stood to lose particular rents (nearly everyone, due to the level of interventionism in both societies), could still be net winners, since they would not longer be obliged to support other rent transfers. Although the generality of the reforms did not preclude heated political battles, the reforms were put in place, with clearly apparent beneficial effects on those economies.

(…) A general reduction in rent-seeking due to a change from a plurality voting decision technology to a sortition decision technology should benefit even net beneficiaries of a current rent transferring regime in two ways. First, a reduction in the social loss associated with reducing rent-seeking expendit- ures (the opportunity cost of rent-seekers) expands the production possibility frontier, so even if rent-transferring continues, the size of the pie increases. Second, since the institutional change should reduce rent expenditures by all contestants, each contestant that continues to play should realize the same expected return for a lower level rent-seeking expenditures.4 The inherent uncertainty of the return may (and we hope, will) cause some rent seekers to substitute their efforts to wealth creation, which will become a relatively less risky source of wealth. In any case, the rule change is inherently general, and should not affect any given existing rent transfer in an idiosyncratic manner.