What if duffers and lunatics get picked?

A duffer is a term used to describe an incompetent or dull-witted person. A lunatic is an a term used to a person who is considered mentally ill, dangerous, foolish or unpredictable.

One of the most immediate arguments levelled at Sortition is that if you chose lawmakers by lot, the potential exists for “duffers” and “lunatics” to be appointed, who will not take the process seriously or who will seek to maliciously influence the process of law making.

This argument can be addressed at several levels.

1. The Theoretical Argument

Firstly, in any legislative assembly, chosen by elections or by Sortition, power rests with the assembly as a whole, not the individual. A single individual, or even a small group of individuals, cannot exert undue influence over the assembly.

Secondly, whether or not someone is a “duffer” or a “lunatic” is a matter of opinion. A representative who appears to one person as incompetent, disruptive or disinterested may not appear that way to someone else. To state that a person is incapable of participating in the process of law making on the basis of an opinion is not valid.

Thirdly, any system of law making must recognise that society is diverse. There are people in society who many people would consider to be incompetent, disruptive or disinterested, but those people are entitled to representation in exactly the same way as doctors, teachers and old age pensioners.

Finally, our current system of representative government does not protect against the election of people many would consider to be unfit for public office. In Ireland over the last 20 years, Dail seats have been won by people who have been convicted of tax fraud, who have openly admitted breaking the law, who have been convicted of drink driving, who have been found to be corrupt by tribunals of inquiry and who rarely turn up at Leinster House to exercise their parliamentary duty.

2. The Scientific Argument

A lottery is an exercise in probability. In any lottery, the outcome is influenced by the number of potential outcomes. The more potential outcomes, the greater the probability that the ultimate outcome will reflect the average make up of the population.

For example, if you have a large bowl containing 20 balls, of which half are red and half are blue, and you have to chose 10 balls, the probability that you will chose exactly 5 red balls and 5 blue balls is low.

However, if you have large bowl containing 2,000 balls, of which half are red and half are blue, and you have to chose 1,000 balls, the probability that you will chose exactly 500 red balls and 500 blue balls is still low, but the probability that you will chose close to 500 of each is much higher.

This is a scientific concept known as The Law of Large Numbers:

“A principle of probability and statistics which states that as a sample size grows, its mean will get closer and closer to the average of the whole population.”

This principle ensures taking a sample from a larger population size will reflect the average make-up of that population provided that both the sample and population are large enough.

In a system of Sortition, the list of candidates from which representatives would be chosen would be available for inspection by the public, and would be open for submission of candidates several years in advance of the lottery to chose representatives.

This would enable people to take a view on whether or not the list was representative of the population, and whether or not it contained too many “duffers” and “lunatics”. If someone formed the view that the list was not representative, or that it contained too many “duffers” and “lunatics”, that person could add their name to the list to reduce the statistical imbalance, and/or encourage others to do the same.

The most likely scenario is that the list would evolve over time until it contained a sufficiently large number of candidates such that the Law of Large Numbers would produce an outcome that accurately reflected the views and concerns of the current population.

3. The Practical Argument

But a lottery is still a lottery, and there can be no certainty. It is extremely unlikely that a lottery involving a large number of candidates would produce a result that included a majority of “duffers” and “lunatics”, but in the event that it did, any decision of a Dail comprised of a majority of “duffers” and “lunatics” would still be subject to review by the President and the test of constitutionality as exercised by the Supreme Court.

A system of sortition would also include checks and balances to ensure the people chosen in the lottery would exercise their duty responsibly. For example, a representative who did not participate in the process of law-making would automatically lose their position and be replaced by another candidate from the list. A person convicted of a criminal offence would lose their position and be replaced by another candidate from the list. A full discussion of the checks and balances that would accompany a system of Sortition is available here, and a list of simple answers to common questions is available here.

The final point to make in this section is similar to the final point in the previous section. Our current system of representative government does not guarantee against the creation of a Dail that is not representative of the population. In fact, as political participation rates continue to decline, particularly among certain sections of society, it is far more likely that our current system will produce a non-representative Dail than a system based on Sortition.

2 thoughts on “What if duffers and lunatics get picked?”

  1. What are the chances that a criminal conspiracy or a military one might coerce the attendees who might not be fully committed. What safeguards could be established to preserve stability? What would happen should a populist wish to hold onto power.

    1. Those concerns apply to the current Dail just as easily as they apply to a prospective Dail chosen by random selection. In fact, members of recent Dails have already shown themselves to be susceptible to criminal interference. I don’t see why someone who volunteered and was chosen by random selection would be automatically less committed than a professional politician.

      I don’t understand your question about populism. The Oireachtas would still be inferior to the Constitution, as it is now. Elections facilitate the rise of populism to a far greater degree than random selection.

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