Feb 16, 2018

Pro Bono Statistics: Democracy and statistical sampling

Yoram Gat’s third column considers whether democracy would be better served by sortition:

For about 2,500 years, statistical sampling was closely linked with democracy. “Selection by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice [i.e., elections] is to aristocracy,” asserted Aristotle in the 4th century BC, following his own first-hand experience at Athens and the conventional wisdom of his time. Montesquieu concurred in the first half of the 18th century. It was only in the last 200 years, as democracy displaced aristocracy as the legitimate organizing principle of politics, that sortitionthe delegation of power by statistical samplinghad to be air-brushed out of history and political science. And so today, it is commonly claimed that delegation of power was unknown to the Athenians and that their government was a “direct democracy”, governed solely by the mass body of the Athenian Assembly. Delegation of power, it is said, is a modern innovation that was necessitated by the much larger size of the modern polity.

This version of history is not only false (as the testimony of Aristotle shows), but must be false. A city with tens of thousands of citizens, as Athens was, could no more run its business without delegation than a country of millions can. Like the modern electorate, the Athenian Assembly could vote, but it could not write the proposals it voted on. Law-writing, as well as many other functions of government, cannot be “crowdsourced” and the only question is how those few who carry out those functions are selected. Some Greek cities, like Sparta, used the familiar selection mechanism of elections, but, as Aristotle indicates, those were considered oligarchical cities. Athens and other democratic cities had their law-writers statistically sampled (i.e., selected by lot) from the citizen body.

The idea that sortition is democratic while elections are oligarchical was so conventional, it seems, that despite being mentioned by multiple extant ancient texts, it is nowhere explicitly rationalized. As part of the attempt to dismiss sampling as a political device it is sometimes claimed today that its use in Athens was motivated by the superstition that randomization allowed the gods to make the selection. However, the historical record indicates that the main motivation behind the practice was the law of large numbers. It was expected that sortition would produce a group that would mirror the population in important respects. This was often stated as an expectation of resemblance between the population and the sample in terms of wealth and social status (i.e., that most members would be poor commoners) but it was taken for granted that these characteristics would be correlated with certain interests and beliefs.

In modern Western political ideology, there is significant equivocation regarding the desirability of having political power held by a statistically representative sample. The American founding fathers explicitly rejected democracy as nothing but mob rule. Their elections-based system was not advertised as being a democracy but a republic, where government is for the people, but not by the people. Jefferson put it this way: “[T]here is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. […] May we not even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?” Thus, quite realistically, elections were not offered as a way to put in power average citizens, but instead, rather optimistically, as the way to select that “citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country.”

Over time, optimism about the ability and willingness of the natural aristocracy to hold power and to use it for the benefit the people at large became harder to sustain, and explicitly paternalistic positions such as Jefferson’s were rejected. The term “republic” gave way to “democracy”, and conventional political ideology has come to hold that each person is the best judge of their own interest. But while ideology progressed, political institutions remained largely unchanged, and the same system of government that was explicitly designed to be non-democratic was rebranded as the quintessence of democracy.

Today it is accepted that certain groups—such as those defined by gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation—should be present in a democratic government according to their proportion in the population. Again, it is taken for granted that those characteristics are correlated with certain interests and beliefs and those should be represented in government proportionally. And yet gross distortions in terms of other characteristics—for example, age, wealth, profession and education—are matter-of-factly accepted as natural, and possibly desirable. Undoubtedly, those characteristics are correlated with interests and beliefs as well, and unless Jefferson’s premise—that some people are better off being represented by those who are naturally their betters—is accepted, then it is hard to understand how such a government could be considered democratic. Furthermore, since such distortions are unavoidable in any electoral system, and indeed in any deterministic selection system, it is hard to understand how any system in which representation is not based on statistical sampling could be considered democratic.

Yoram would be happy to have a critical and skeptical conversation about the topics he discusses in this column. He invites readers to comment on this column below, or you can email us at bulletin@imstat.org.



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