Sortition: a better way to do democracy?

lottoWhen we think of democracy, we usually think of either consensus and direct democracy on the one hand, or elections and representative democracy on the other, but in a recent article in the Journal of Management Inquiry, Simon Pek argues that we are neglecting a third option: sortition, a way of doing democracy that bridges direct democracy and representative democracy, and a form of democracy that may be better for worker-owned firms, particularly as a way of running a coop that may be less likely to lead to degeneration over time.

Pek observes that while many small worker coops start out as fully horizontal organizations, governed by consensus of all their worker-owners, as cooperatives grow, they ultimately face a choice: either limit their growth in some way, or transition to a more vertical organization that is governed by democratically elected representatives.

Personally, I am a huge proponent of direct democracy and consensus, but there is no arguing that at some point businesses become too large and complex to efficiently govern in this way. I can think of no examples of very large worker-owned businesses anywhere in the world that are governed by direct democracy. Worker coops tend to either stay (relatively) small, or introduce management and representative democracy structures as they grow.

But Pek also observes that representative democracy comes with problems. Over time, elections can concentrate power in the hands of an elite group, which can then lead to corruption and bad management in the cooperative, which in turn can lead to apathy and disengagement among the rest of the coop membership. Pek believes that such failures of representative democracy may be behind a lot of the drift toward degeneration we see in real-world worker cooperatives over time.

So what is sortition then, and how might it work better?

Sortition is a type of representative democracy, but instead of elections, representatives are chosen by random lottery from all the members of the group. In the early days of democracy – in ancient Athens and in Italian city-states for example – sortition was a common form of government, and is of course (part of) the way we select juries even today; however, after the French and American revolutions, elections became the dominant method for selecting representatives in democracies.

But with electoral democracy going through a serious rough patch just now, many are looking back at sortition as a possible alternative. Citizens’ assemblies and advisory groups and other democratic organizations are increasingly experimenting with sortition as a way to insure that representative democracy is truly representative.

Sortition would seem to be the best of both worlds: just as with consensus and direct democracy, no elite subgroup is privileged (at least in theory), but at the same time, you get all the efficiency that comes with representative governance.

But before we rush to introduce sortition into the governance structures of our cooperatives, it is worth noting that much of Pek’s article is still speculative. Pek qualifies most of his claims with the words “likely to” because the truth is that we don’t have a ton of empirical evidence yet for the effectiveness of sortition in cooperatives, particularly as a way to avoid degeneration.

Fortunately though, sortition isn’t all-or-nothing. A cooperative could experiment with sortition in a few committees or work-groups and see for themselves how it goes. But first, definitely read the Pek’s original article. He goes over many of the possible positives and negatives involved, and he is a clear, unpretentious writer. Highly recommended

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