In a 1967 paper, “The concept of elections in political theory”, Gerald M. Pomper briefly mentions “election by lot”.
The paper begins with an assertion:
Popular elections are generally assumed to be the crucial element of democratic governments, but the significance of elections is so widely assumed that it is rarely examined. Although studies of voting behavior abound, there are relatively few theoretical or empirical investigations of the effects of voting on the total political system.
This is an overstatement. Schumpeterian theory was well known and widely discussed at least as late as the 1950’s (e.g., Dahl’s A Preface to Democratic Theory) and a part of that theory is an analysis of the function of elections – an analysis that attacks the “classical doctrine of democracy”. Pomper seems to mean that there is little work attempting to defend the “classical doctrine”. His own defense is to a large extent a capitulation. He gives up on the hope of a representative government and is satisfied with the claim that elections “give the voters a means of protection, a method of intervention in politics when their vital interests were being threatened.” Of course, even this modest claim is not obvious and Pomper doesn’t offer a theoretical argument for its plausibility.
Pomper mentions sortition off-handedly in the section called “The Benefits of Elections”. The section generally rehashes the 18th century democratic doctrine, ignoring the modern theoretical criticism of the doctrine, but mentioning briefly a similar criticism made by Melancton Smith in the 18th century:
Elections also serve as a check on power because of the “sympathy” between representative and their constituents. This quality does not refer to the personal feelings of the legislator, but to the similarity between his social position and that of the voters. A representative would sympathize with his constituents because he would be of the same geographical area, occupation, and status. For this reason, Aristotle characterized election by lot as the most democratic method. The principle survives today in the militant Negro demand for “black power.”
Protection becomes more complex when society is seen as comprising many different and divergent interests. The representative no longer can be the embodiment of the whole community, but is likely to be more aware of some interests than others. With a variety of groups, conflicts between interests become likely. Government is no longer the only threat; it is also a means by which a group can advance and achieve its demands.
In this situation, elections serve a different function from negative protection. They may also be the positive means by which groups seek their particular goals. That representatives would promote specialized interests has been widely accepted. Most of the controversies over suffrage in American history have been based on the tacit or explicit recognition that legislators would advance the special interests of their electors.
The advancement of particular interests, however, could also be dangerous. When representatives are no longer a “random sample” of the population, some groups may be forgotten. Menlacton Smith warned of an oligarchy: “A substantial yeoman of sense and discernment, will hardly ever be chosen. From these remarks it appears that the government will fall into the hands of the few and the great.” If the representative is no longer identified with the community, “sympathy” becomes less of a control, which must come largely from the “dependence” on the voters. Important interests, perhaps essential to the common good, might be disregarded in the electoral process. There are dangers as well as benefits in the electoral process.
A few notable points:
- Pomper attributes to Aristotle an argument in favor of sortition that (I believe) is nowhere explicated in Aristotle or in any other ancient source.
- Pomper seems to misunderstand, or at least not to fully comprehend, the function of sortition, believing that it only provides “protection” rather than “control”, and that it would only be useful when the society is not “complex”. This may be the reason that sortition is not mentioned again in the paper.
- Despite mentioning sortition and Smith’s argument, the following discussion of “The Dangers of Elections” – which covers the theorists up until J.S. Mill – focuses on Plato-esque claims that the elected are incompetent and Madison-esque concerns about the “tyranny of the majority”. The question of whether elected government is representative of the majority is ignored.