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Unthinkable: Should college places be awarded by lottery?

An excellent article in the Irish Times:

Unthinkable: Should college places be awarded by lottery?

Using a lottery is preferable to distributing goods based on ‘bad reasons’, argues political scientist Peter Stone.

Dr Peter Stone of TCD’s political science department believes there’s scope for greater use of lotteries in society as a way of keeping “bad reasons” out of decision-making. Rather than seeing lotteries as a failure of imagination, he argues that those who dismiss lotteries can “have the failure of imagination because they think there must be a good reason for distinguishing [between options], even though we haven’t found it yet”.

School admissions are a “classic case” where lotteries are preferable, he says, and he extends the argument to third-level admission. Criticising the recent CAO reforms, which try to minimise random selection in the points race, he provides today’s idea: “Not only should we not be reducing the amount of random selection [in college admissions], we should be letting more in.”

Voting but not talking

I just wanted to recommend a working paper by Daniela Cammack entitled “Deliberation in Classical Athens: Not Talking, But Thinking (and Voting).” It’s available online here. It’s not directly about sortition, but it deals with a number of themes discussed on this blog. The paper argues that the Athenians maintained a careful distinction between the function of presenting arguments and the function of evaluating those arguments, and assigned the latter, but not the former, to the assembly. This distinction, Cammack argues, is conflated by those who use the term “deliberation” for both functions.

I found this passage particularly relevant to contemporary politics:

In Athens, then, as in modern democracies, an overwhelming majority of non-speaking voters attempted to control a minority of prominent political actors who took primary responsibility for advocating and carrying policies. The key difference between Athenian and modern democracy was not that all or even many Athenians took part in political discussion, but first, that large samples of ordinary citizens had the opportunity to vote on every political decision, and second, that the barriers to becoming politically influential were relatively low, while the risks associated with this position were high. This is the reverse of the situation today, where a high barrier to entry as a politician–largely financial–is combined with a low risk of losing one’s position once established. To be sure, one can fail to be reelected, but this pales in comparison to the mechanisms of accountability available in Athens, such as routine annual audits (euthynai) covering both moral and financial issues. In many modern systems, by contrast, a feedback loop is set up in which corruption becomes endemic, since the high costs of running for election are in large part met by supporters whose opportunity to shape policy then becomes significantly greater than that of ordinary voters, with very little way for those ordinary voters to hold the politician in question to account, either before or after the next election.

Worth a look.

David Grant’s play about sortition to be read in St. Louis

The St. Louis Post Dispatch reports:

Global movement towards representative legislatures

St. Louis, Missouri, 18 October: A world-wide movement towards establishing legislative bodies that are fully representative finds expression in the staged reading of “Our Common Lot” by David Grant. The short play is written for an international conference, “Democracy for the 21st Century,” to be held in December at the Library of Alexandria, Egypt.

In the play, Marisa, Alma, Sami, and Ali live in a city embroiled in conflict and violence — the Regime, the Opposition, the Opposition to the Opposition. When the fighting stops, they ask themselves: What is the best way to move forward? “Our Common Lot” argues for choosing legislators in the way that the first democracy did – by random lot, known as ‘sortition.’

In the original Athenian democracy, sortition was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy. Most recently the city of Melbourne, Australia has used a random sample of citizens to determine its ten-year financial plan. Two-thirds of the recent Irish Constitutional Convention was composed of sortitionally-chosen citizens.

The reading of “Our Common Lot” is its world premiere. The ensemble includes Adam Flores, Carl Overly, Jr., Erin Roberts, and Jacqueline Thompson.

A real democracy would use sortition – the video!

The Sortition Foundation‘s take on what is sortition, how it might work, and why they like it – all in a very short video!

Sortition on ideochina.com

The Chinese language blog ideochina.com – 思想中国 – has an article about the troubles of the elections-based system of government (what may be termed “eklogocracy”). Among other ideas for reform, the article mentions proposals involving sortition.


In the past quarter of the century,democracy has won the day,with most countries in the world claiming themselves to be democracies. However, the glory is fleeting. In exactly the same period of time, the advancing step of western democracy starts faltering, and its theory is being challenged in an unprecedented way. The idol of democracy is entering into twilight, surrounded by more and more pessimistic views. Theorists of democracy have now started to reflect on the inherent deficiencies of representational democracy, rethink electoral democracy, and seek to return to real democracy by exploring various institutions that can involve the participation of the populace.

The author appears to be an Equality-by-Lot reader.

News: Democratic Reason wins 2015 Spitz Prize for work in democratic theory

Hélène Landemore’s book Democratic Reason won the 2015 Spitz Prize for work in democratic theory.

That makes the second Spitz (for outstanding work in democratic theory) to a Sortinista in three years, following John McCormick’s Machiavellian Democracy in 2013.

Coming Soon – Sortition in the UK

This is a repost from the Sortition Foundation blog.

Sortition is coming soon to the UK!

Or at least three citizens’ assemblies and one forum presenting aspects of sortition are happening in the coming months:



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