In The Principles of Representative Government (1997), Bernard Manin attempted to explain why Athenian (sortive) democracy was supplanted by election at the time of the birth of modern representative democracy. Many members of this forum have lamented this development and called for a return to classical democracy. In this post I would like to argue that sortition was only ever one element in Athenian democracy and that the other elements, if translated into a modern context, would of necessity be rather like the institutions that we currently bemoan. For analytic convenience I’ll deal with Athenian democratic practice under three categories:
- One Man One Vote
- Deliberative Scrutiny
- Rule and Be Ruled In Turn
One Man One Vote (OMOV)
The principal legislative forum in Athens was the Ekklesia (general assembly), which was open to all (male) citizens. Although legislative proposals were usually introduced via the randomly-selected Boule (Council of 500), nevertheless the fundamental principal of Athenian democracy was that proposals were put to the general assembly and decided on the basis of OMOV. This would involve a meeting of (up to) 30,000 in the Agora, which is about as large a democratic assembly as might be imaginable.
Assuming the fundamental democratic principle of OMOV, how might this be scaled up to the needs of large modern states? One way is via direct voting, as in a referendum, a comparatively easy matter in an age of digital communication. However referenda rarely reflect the considered view of the electorate and are usually a general verdict on the (un)popularity of the current government.
Most modern states have opted instead for representative government via general elections. Although these are (nominally) for named constituency representatives, in practice most voters opt for the political party that offers the policies that best approximate their own views and interests. As such, elective democracy best approximates the Athenian principle of OMOV and it is difficult to imagine any alternative for large modern states.
The problem with large popular assemblies (actual or virtual) is that they inevitably become dominated by demagogues and offer an impoverished level of deliberation. As a consequence the resulting vote is anything but the considered verdict of the political community (the parallel between the Athenian general assembly and the modern general election is a direct one in this respect). This led to the Fourth Century innovation of the nomothetai (legislative courts), The nomothetai were selected by lot from among the jurors who were over thirty and who had taken the dikastic oath. ‘It was the wisdom of advanced age combined with the importance of the oath that distinguished the nomothetai from the Assembly’ (M.H. Hansen, personal communication).
There is no modern analogue to the legislative courts, hence the justified call by members of this forum for the establishment of a modern equivalent. Note however that, to the Athenians, this was only ever a check on the OMOV verdict; to replace direct (or electoral) voting by sortition would be a direct contravention of the norms of Athenian democracy. As to whether or not the sort of franchise restrictions suggested by Hansen are applicable in a modern setting is not the subject of this post.
Rule and Be Ruled In Turn
The third aspect of Athenian democracy was the predisposition to rule and be ruled in turn:
One factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn . . . [by] election by lot either to all magistracies or to all that do not need experience and skill; no property-qualification for office, or only a very low one; no office to be held twice, or more than a few times, by the same person (Aristotle, Pol., VI.2, 1317b).
Apart from military and a few other specialist functions, most Athenian magistracies were filled by lot. But how is it possible to import a model of democracy that originated in an ancient city-state – where every citizen would have stood a reasonable chance of being selected for office at least once in his lifetime – into large modern nations? In nations of many million citizens there is as remote a chance of being selected for political office by a modern electronic version of the kleroterion as there is of drawing the golden ticket in the National Lottery. Clearly ruling and being ruled in turn is no longer possible. The dramatically increased size of modern states was one of the reasons for the birth of representative government at the end of the eighteenth-century. So why is there a call for a return to this aspect of Athenian democracy?
Aristotle’s exclusion from the lottery process of magistracies that needed experience or skill (prompted perhaps by Socrates’ sarcastic observation that choosing skilled officials by lot is like ‘selecting a pilot or a flute-player . . . by bean’), rules out sortition as a sensible way of selecting government ministers in complex modern polities. Indeed a plausible argument could be made for appointing government executives on merit alone, a practice that is becoming increasingly common in modern states. In the UK, despite a supposedly fused (politicized) constitution, currently three out of five civil servants work for ‘Next Step’ agencies headed by appointed chief executives. It would be much better to acknowledge this de facto privatization of ‘political’ roles and put it on a formal (and accountable) statutory basis than to continue the pretence of government by ordinary citizens (or their elected surrogates).
A direct comparison between the institutions of classical and modern democracy would indicate that there is more in common than might initially appear. All that would be required for a better match between modern and Athenian democracy would be the introduction of randomly-selected political juries to scrutinise legislative proposals that have passed a prior elective hurdle. To seek to replace OMOV by sortition would contravene fundamental democratic principles, ancient or modern, however distasteful or dysfunctional we may find the abuses of modern electoral democracy.