Friday, November 25, 2005

Rehfeld on Random Constituencies

B). Rehfeld

At this stage, we could consider even more radical proposals. Andrew Rehfeld[1], for example, proposes abandoning territorial representation altogether. He argues that large constituencies don’t in any case represent communities anyway. Rather the consequence of territorial representation is that legislators are more concerned with pushing local pork (like our ‘divide the 10 Euros game, last week) than promoting the common good. As an alternative, he proposes random constituencies: On coming of age, every American will be assigned to one of 435 constituencies, which will be theirs for life. As a consequence, each representative will truly represent a cross-section of the nation, providing “self-regarding incentives to act as if they cared about the common good” [p.xiv].

This radical suggestion challenges many of our ordinary assumptions. Rehfeld seems right to point out that territorial representation – even if deeply embedded in the US by the federal system – isn’t necessary; the slogan ‘all politics is local’ is true in consequence of the system, and we could go for representation by occupation or ethnicity. Rehfeld goes even further in disputing the presuppositions of our current topic, when he suggests district equality doesn’t matter:

“Despite its democratic-sounding framing, this “equal chance” claim in fact reflects one of the least democratic values we could imagine, as if everyone should have an equal chance of individually deciding an election, each of us standing an equal chance of being our own petty tyrant for a day… [W]e properly should not worry about unequal distributions of inconsequential goods, and an individual vote in a large election is as inconsequential good as any” [p.11].

This poses an interesting challenge, and radical alternative, to our present concern. My disagreements with Rehfeld will require more thought (and for me to finish reading his book first) – though it goes without saying that, while I’m happy with the use of randomisation, I’ll have to dispute the above claim. For now, some provisional remarks:

If votes aren’t equal, we aren’t giving all people equal concern and respect. If votes are ‘inconsequential’, it isn’t clear they’re any good. But votes aren’t just of symbolic value. Suffragettes surely wouldn’t have been happy if women were granted ‘half-votes’.

Moreover, equalising the value of votes seems the safest way to make sure they all count at all. One problem with weighted-voting is that one’s share of power need not be proportional to ones number of votes – a fact Rehfeld seems either ignorant of or to forget [p.42][2]. If votes are split 3, 3, 3, and 1 (with 6 needed for a motion to pass) the fourth person has no voting power – they are never vital to any passing motion, as it always requires at least two of the others, who are sufficient themselves[3]. If we allow even what seems a small inequality, it may have a great effect, to the extreme of denying some any influence whatsoever. If we want votes to have more than symbolic effect, the best thing to do is make them equal.

Finally, I think Rehfeld’s proposal would give majorities too much power. Territorial districting works because the population isn’t evenly distributed. If the population was clustered, one could achieve approximately proportional results, but districting accordingly. Alternatively, however, if the minority are split over many districts, and lose them all, they have no representation at all. Rehfeld suggests that some minorities may be better served by having a voice in all districts, rather than controlling a few but being anonymous in most [p.11]. This is an empirical question, but I’m still unhappy with the consequence he envisages and accepts – that a 51% majority could win 100% of the seats [p.244].

In any case, while Rehfeld seems happy to accept majority-rule in his random constituencies, and declares himself not bothered by any inequality of votes, his proposal does not directly contradict my lottery-voting. He is at pains to stress that defining districts is something independent from, and prior to, determining voting procedures [e.g. pp.7, 21]. Once a district is randomly constituted, it is still an open question whether to adopt majority rule[4].

In commenting on PR and group rights, Rehfeld says:

“If constituencies are defined by their members’ similarity of voice (if African American representatives, for example, come from predominantly African American districts), then we promote diversity of voice within a representative body by denying it within the constituency. The demand that representative bodies should be diverse thus subordinates the deliberative diversity within a constituency to that of the legislature. Yet, if good and proper deliberation requires that all voices are heard, then it would appear that we have to choose between diversity within the legislature and diversity among their electoral constituents. Or, in terms of exclusion, the question becomes, do we exclude “voice” from the representative body itself, or from the constituent groups who select their representatives?” [p.27]

He may be right that a diverse legislature is often ensured by creating homogeneous electoral groups, and further that such groups (exposed only to their own viewpoints, not others) may radicalise, making legislative compromise harder. However, the suggestion we must choose between a diverse legislature and diverse constituencies is a false dichotomy – and even if it were not, Rehfeld is not necessarily right to opt for the latter, given the former is where real decision making (if not local participation) takes place. It’s quite possible to adopt randomly-assigned constituencies (a la Rehfeld) and lottery-voting, and thereby produce diverse constituencies that mirror the whole nation, and a legislature that also includes members of all these groups. (Since both procedures rely on randomisation, neither are logically guaranteed – but the numbers concerned make these generalisations pretty much absolute).

In any case, Rehfeld’s preference for diverse constituencies seems to presuppose that democratic deliberation has to take place with fellow constituents [p.51]. Non-territorial constituencies, he supposes, only became possible with mass media and particularly the internet – through which he imagines most debate and campaigning taking place [pp.243-4, c.f. p.60]. I haven’t yet found any reason why deliberation has to be with fellow constituents, rather than simply with any others (preferably perhaps of somewhat opposing views). While it’s true that the internet has allowed for much democratic debate, e.g. political blogs[5], it seems unlikely to me that citizens would deliberately seek out others with whom they had no more than a randomly-assigned constituency in common – it’s far more likely they will converse with those local to them and/or sharing similar interest/views.

I think Rehfeld and I disagree about as much as we agree on[6], but his work is useful because it highlights that the very question we are here answering – how to assign representatives between states – may itself be flawed. However, I suggested arguments above against his indifference to the (in)equality of votes. If we are concerned about equality, then even if we were to adopt non-territorially based constituencies (on whatever lines you might imagine, e.g. profession, ethnicity or randomisation), then we would still need a method of apportionment between these groups. I don’t believe Rehfeld’s under-developed criticism of equality is successful, so I do not think he casts doubt on the importance of our present inquiry – only raises an important question about whether we should be apportioning to territory, as opposed to something else.

C). Conclusion

Use of territorial constituencies is just one historical prejudice too often accepted as a given, however. A further value in Rehfeld’s work is bringing random methods to more prominence, even though I don’t agree with exactly where he uses them. This takes me back to the lottery method so quickly dismissed by Balinski and Young (p.66, p.74). They say “A basic problem with a betting man’s method is that, although it may be “fair” over the long run, the immediate outcome is almost sure to be unfair” (p.67). However the only reason they say it is ‘almost certain’ to be unfair is their less plausible assumption all seats (rather than just remaining fractions) should be assigned randomly. The latter method, because it sticks within the quotas (rounded up/down) can be said to be fair in both the short term and long term. While the lottery may seem to go in favour of a state with a weaker claim on one occasion, there is no systematic bias involved.

To dismiss such (partly) random methods out of hand seems, to me, far too quick. Of course, to return to their quotation (p.93) with which I opened, electoral systems as a whole are confined by feasibility – in part, what people will accept. If the US public are hostile to the perceived ‘irrationality’ of random methods, then it is unlikely they will be the best to adopt. While it’s true there is a tendency to choice in modern society[7], there is also a counter-current against ‘hyper-rationality’, with many advocating random methods when ‘reason(s) run out[8]. It’s far from clear what public opinion is when it comes to lotteries. Whatever the rationality of such procedures, it’s almost universally accepted that they’re fair. If we want each person to be counted equally – in the sense of having an equal chance to make a difference – there seems to be no objection to bringing more chance into the procedure.
[1] See note 2.
[2] This gives me a feeling of smug superiority, even if it doesn’t itself discredit his whole argument!
[3] Such examples can be found in J. F. Banzhaf III (1965) ‘Weighted Voting Doesn’t Work: A Mathematical Analysis’ Rutgers Law Review 19 317-343 and A. D. Taylor (1995) Mathematics and Politics: Strategy, Voting, Power, and Proof ch.4, where he shows Luxembourg had no power in the 1958 EEC split of 4, 4, 4, 2, 2, 1.
[4] Rehfeld (2005) p.7 “Maybe they would use majority rule or plurality rule. Maybe they would select a representative by lottery. Our concern here is not, then, with voting rules or the questions of single-member or multimember representation. It concerns the prior question of how constituent groupings themselves affect the legitimacy of a political regime.”
[5] E.g. a few quick links take me to (amongst others):,,,,,,,,
[6] Nonetheless what two people share can be as illuminating as what they disagree on. It was recently put to me that G. A. Cohen shares, with many pragmatists and continental philosophers (e.g. Rorty and – I think – Habermas) a belief that if there’s no objective truth, normative political philosophy is in need of major revision. This agreement is itself significant, though they disagree about the conditional (i.e. Cohen thinks there is a truth…).
[7] See, e.g., A. Buchanan, D. Brock, N. Daniels and D. Wikler (2002) work on designer babies, From Chance to Choice: Genetics and Justice.
[8] See, e.g. N. Duxberry (2002) Random Justice: On Lotteries and Legal Deciison-making; J. Elster (1979) Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in rationality and irrationality and (1989) Solomonic Judgements: Studies in the limits of rationality; D. Heyd ‘When Practical Reasons Plays Dice’ in E. Ullmann-Margalit (ed.) (2000) Reasoning Practically; and O. Neurath (1913) ‘The Lost wanderers of Descartes and the Auxiliary Motive (On the Psychology of Decision)’ in his (1983) Philosophical Papers 1913-46 [ed. and trans. R. S. Cohen and M. Neurath].


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