A. H. J. Greenidge: Appointment by lot in Athens

In 1896 A. H. J. Greenidge published his book A Handbook of Greek Constitutional History. Greenidge devotes a few pages to sortition (“appointment by lot”). He proposes theoretical justification and analysis of the effects of the mechanism.

At this point we may naturally raise the question, “What is the meaning of this new element in political life which was destined to become almost the most characteristic feature of the Athenian and other democracies?” From the treatment of the lot by Plato and Aristotle we should be inclined to gather that it was a consciously adopted democratic institution, that it was the final assertion of the numerical equality of all citizens and of the principle of equal representation. But to realise this character it must be accompanied by universal admission to office. We know, however, that the use of the lot preceded universal admission; we shall see, when we come to discuss the qualifications for office, that in early Athens it was an assertion of the equal fitness for rule of the members of only a narrow circle; and we are further informed that in some cases of its employment it had other meanings than that of an assertion of equality. It was sometimes adopted as the final solution of a difficulty — in the case, for instance, of equality of votes. [Arist. Pol. vi. 3=p. 1318 a.] Here it is a mere appeal to chance, as in Homeric times it was an appeal to heaven. In the state of Heraea the lot was introduced as a means of avoiding the bribery and canvassing which accompanied direct election. [ib. v. 3=p. 1318 a.] But, though it was a political expedient that might be applied with other objects, we must regard its use as being, on the whole, in the highest and purest sense democratic. A low view of democracy as the right of a majority to rule, such as had begun to be entertained at Athens in the fourth century, might justify Isocrates’ assertion that the direct election of magistrates is more favourable to popular government than their selection by lot. [Isocr. Areop. § 23.] For under the former system the people choose their own representatives, under the latter chance will rule and the oligarchically minded sometimes slip into the government of the state. But true democracy is the assertion of the equal representation of all individuals, classes, and interests; and there is much to be said for the view that the effect of the lot at Athens was the protection of the rights of minorities, [Muller-Strubing Aristophanes p. 206.] although we cannot admit that this was the primary motive for its introduction. There is abundant evidence that the lot existed at Athens before the constitution could be described as democratic; [To the passages in the Ath. Pol. we may add Her. vi. 109; Plut. Arist. 1, Per. 9.] but, in the developed democracy, its employment was a guarantee that all offices should not be swamped by the triumphant majority of the moment. It was a standing protest against that party government which the Greek thinker knew to be the deadliest enemy of liberty, and at which, as realised in the pseudo-democracies of America and England, the true Greek democrat would have stood aghast.

Next to the question of its meaning comes that of its justification as a working principle. We must here distinguish its employment as a mode of appointment to individual offices like the archonship, or to small corporations like the financial boards, on the one hand, and the faculty of admission it gave to large administrative bodies such as the council of five hundred on the other. In the former cases there seems a greater danger of lack of fitness or of maladministration. For in large bodies gifted with the power of discussion and debate the aristocracy of intellect is certain to prevail; the decisions of the council at Athens were often those of a Cleon or an Androcles; and its constitution does not need as its justification the modern thesis that “on general questions the votes of forty academicians are not better than the votes of an equal number of water-carriers,” [Le Bon Psychologie des Foules.] for the lot admitted men of every grade of intellect. In the case of smaller bodies at Athens the danger of the lack of the intellectual element was met by the routine nature of their duties and the constant direction of the ecclesia, of the lack of the moral element by the scrutiny before admission (δοκιμασια) and the rigorous examination of conduct after quitting office (ευθυνη). This created an individual responsibility which was demanded even of members of as large a body as the council. Where special knowledge was required, as in the στρατηγοί. Or the great finance offices of the fourth century, the lot was not employed. It was a misfortune that in one sphere at least where special knowledge would have been desirable, the law-courts, it was recognised as the universal principle of admission. In these courts there was no debate, and therefore no intellectual guidance, and this is the weak point of the Athenian system. (pp. 139-141)

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22 Responses

  1. Yoram,

    How did you happen upon this book…Mogens Hansen doesn’t list this in his bibliography in “The Athenaian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes,” so I am tempted to read the book online to see if it has any different interpretations than Hansen.

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  2. This suggests that the use of sortition in modern citizen deliberative councils like Citizens Juries, Consensus Conferences (a la Denmark), Citizen Assemblies (a la British Columbia), German Planning Cells, and Jim Rough’s Wisdom Councils – and visions like Callenbach & Phillips’ Citizen Legislature – reflects the best of the Athenians’ use of that approach. The randomness of selection in these instances combined with their consciously deliberative approaches to engagement serve to elevate the best of group wisdom and authentic representation over elite, partisan, and majoritarian distortions of collective intelligence and public will. If such citizen deliberative councils vetted appointments (the way the US Senate currently does), that would even legitimate partial use of sortition in the selection of individuals to hold nonelective government offices (e.g., evaluating randomly selected candidates from pools of qualified volunteers).

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  3. Terry,

    This started with Mencken’s book which mentioned a book called Modern Democracies by James Bryce. Bryce discusses Athens and mentions Greenidge.

    Bryce:

    To a modern eye the strangest part of all this strange frame of government [at Athens] was the plan of leaving to chance the selection of nearly all officials except those generals for whom military skill was indispensable. Yet the use made of the Lot, as well as the other arrangements described, was deemed to be imposed by the supreme need of averting oligarchy, and still worse, Tyranny, the disease always threatening Greek republics, as it destroyed sixteen centuries later the republics of mediaeval Italy. The vesting of public functions in large Boards instead of in individual officials was meant to make each member a check upon his colleagues. The short terms of office tended to prevent corrupt men from forming secret schemes for robbing the public funds. Thus power was brief as well as limited. The throwing open to every citizen of the right to prosecute officials made the way of transgressors hard, for it turned every ambitious rival into a detective. The Lot itself not only gave each man, however obscure, his chance of office, making him feel his equality with the richest, but threw difficulties in the way of treasonable plots, for those who had to exercise political power together were not, as in modern popular governments, party associates or social intimates, with common aims in view.

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  4. “Large administrative bodies such as the council of five hundred . . . in large bodies gifted with the power of discussion and debate the aristocracy of intellect is certain to prevail; the decisions of the council at Athens were often those of a Cleon or an Androcles.”

    Absolutely, this is why any allotted assembly gifted with the power of discussion and debate will immediately cease to be descriptively representative. The principle of distinction doesn’t apply only to elections, it applies to any collective institution in which individuals of widely differing intelligence, eloquence and status play an active function. This didn’t bother the Athenians because the final decision (in the 5th century) was the assembly or (in the 4th century) the legislative court. But it would be a serious problem for the all-powerful allotted legislatures proposed by members of this forum. That’s why I refer to them as a klerotocratic oligarchy. This would have also been the case in Athens if the Council were the only organ of state — the equivalent of what is being proposed on this forum.

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  5. “But, though it was a political expedient that might be applied with other objects, we must regard its use as being, on the whole, in the highest and purest sense democratic.” I must say, I don’t think the argument given sustains this conclusion at all. It does provide good reason for believing that a lottery selection from the entire people might be just as democratic as election. But it does nothing to refute the claim that the lottery is democratic or not depending on the pool from which it is drawn. Not that this is a bad thing, but it does make me suspicious about the claim that lotteries per se are inherently democratic.

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  6. Peter,

    I don’t see how the makeup of the group of citizens makes a difference on the matter of how democratically the group conducts itself. Clearly, to the extent that the system is democratic it is only with respect to the group of citizens. The problem with elections is not that some people don’t get to vote (that may happen but that’s a separate issue). The problem is that elections don’t result in a democratic system even within the group of voters.

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  7. Yoram,

    Why would a group selected by lot necessarily conduct themselves democratically? What if they decided to hand all power over to one or some of their members? This would be their free choice, but given that they were supposed to represent the wider community democratically they would also condemn everybody else to the resultant dictatorship.

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  8. “But it would be a serious problem for the all-powerful allotted legislatures proposed by members of this forum. That’s why I refer to them as a klerotocratic oligarchy.”

    Keith, you have convinced me that it would make sense to advocate in the U.S. for sortition only, at first, in the lower house of bicameral chambers. Just practically, that would more likely be accepted as more moderate. Step-by-step.

    It would also be a test of the splitting-the-pie example you like to quote.

    I note that there is only one state in the U.S., Nebraska, that has a unicameral legislature. I am unaware if they eat pie out there ;+}

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  9. Thanks, although my preference would be a functional separation rather than duplication. In the juridical example the advocates and jury meet in the same chamber but have different roles. Having two houses with a parallel role (as Callenbach and Philips propose) would be a bit like saying that every criminal should have two trials.Of course this would be absurd, as advocates and jurors serve two different roles.

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  10. “Having two houses with a parallel role (as Callenbach and Philips propose) would be a bit like saying that every criminal should have two trials.”

    Absurd or not, aren’t “two trials” what the current upper and lower houses do now?

    Evolving, rather than revolutionizing, would seem to be the more acceptable and safer course.

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  11. I’m all for evolution, it just strkes me that the separation of functions is more relevant to the 21st century than the archaic notion of the estates of the realm, according to which the aristoi argue in their chamber but don’t mix with the hoi polloi in the lower house. This is a Roman idea, and foreign to the classical Greek view of democracy.

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  12. *** Peter Stone says he is « suspicious about the claim that lotteries per se are inherently democratic ». The word « inherently » can lead to a logical fallacy, as (a>b) does not imply (b>a).
    *** Lottery can be used for many reasons and with various rationales ; it implies a basic equality, but only within a given pool ; lot was used in Greece before the age of democracies (see for example, Homer, Odyssey, X, 207). Right.
    *** But if lottery could exist outside the democratic world, the dêmokratia could not exist without lot. You can give to general vote (the Assembly, in ancient Geek Cities) the legislative power, or what, following Locke, we can call the « prerogative power » (especially war and peace), or the judicial power in exceptional cases (high treason). But it is impossible for executive/administrative power, or ordinary judicial power. The political problem is clear : the law is what the public agents and the judges say. Who interprets the law decides the practical meaning of the law . The legislative power of the sovereign people is meaningful only through allotted bodies in charge either of execution and judgements, or, at least, of overseeing them. Alloted bodies can be trusted ; they can somewhat drift emotionally when concentrated on an issue, or, as insists Keith Sutherland, under the influence of a rhetorically able citizen ; but, basically, they can be trusted because, mirroring the civic body, their political leanings are identical to the political leanings of the civic body itself.
    *** Sortition/rotation was necessary in some fields for the dêmokratia. It could be extended to other fields – to legislative power and to « judicial review » of decrees and laws, in late Athens ; generally in later Rhodes, along Cicero (De Republica, III, 35). But true popular sovereignty could not do without it, from the beginning. It is mentioned in the first characterization of democracy by Herodote.

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  13. Andre,

    By chance do you have a citation of Herodotus about lot and democracy in English?

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  14. Terry,

    Wikipedia has the standard citation:

    The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public. (The Histories 3.80.6)

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  15. André,

    > The legislative power of the sovereign people is meaningful only through allotted bodies in charge either of execution and judgements, or, at least, of overseeing them.

    How would this cash out in practice in a modern state? The concept of the allotted jury is familiar to everyone, but are you suggesting that interpretation of the law, sentencing and execution of the sentence should be in the hands of allotted groups (committees of public safety)? Would these be ad hoc or with a longer duration? Would not historical examples such as the trial of Socrates suggest that a mixed-constitution approach to jurisprudence would better serve freedom and justice.

    > [allotted groups] can be trusted because, mirroring the civic body, their political leanings are identical to the political leanings of the civic body itself.

    This is is only true at the aggregate level, unless you resort to the Machiavellian worldview reflected in Monbiot’s claim that the grandi are all “inveterate bastards”, whereas the popolo are mostly decent, kind and honest. (Note that this would put elected politicians like Terry in the former category, though he’s always struck me as decent, kind and honest.) If, however, we assume the former, then it is true in principle, not just in the exceptional case and this limits the role of the allotted group to functions that can be aggregated in a way that doesn’t undermine statistical representativity. Once this principle is breached then we cannot trust the allotted group to accurately reflect the political leanings of the civic body itself.

    In sum I agree that the lot is an essential part of the dêmokratia but we need to be very clear as to what that part is and not seek to extend its brief beyond functions that are open to aggregate judgment.

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  16. Andre,

    > The legislative power of the sovereign people is meaningful only through allotted bodies in charge either of execution and judgements, or, at least, of overseeing them.

    This is an important point. The courts, as an institution, hold significant political power. In particular this means that the idea that the legislature is all-powerful – “unchecked” – is mistaken. A legislature that displeases the courts may find not only that its laws are not enforced, but also that its members can be held personally responsible in court.

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  17. That’s why the verdict in all courts, including constitutional and supreme courts, should be taken by allotted juries. But this is a long way removed from the argument that expert advocates and government executives should be appointed by lot. It’s also different from the claim that allotted bodies should be responsible for recruiting the above, although there is a good case for the final choice to be made, or endorsed, by an allotted body. This is merely an extension of the existing US constitutional principle that senior government and judicial appointments should be approved by a committee of the sovereign legislature.

    I’m not sure whether this is what André means by “overseeing”, or whether that would involve a more active function for individuals selected by lot, in which case representativity becomes problematic — at least for those of us who disagree with Monbiot’s Machiavellian distinction between the grandi and the popolo. Note that Machiavelli claimed that the former were motivated only by an “insatiable desire to oppress” (“inveterate bastards” in Monbiot’s reworking). This is not my impression of the majority of elected politicians, who are generally motivate by a desire to serve their fellow citizens, and would be deeply offended by the use of such language (which should have no place on a serious forum like this).

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  18. *** I said :« The legislative power of the sovereign people is meaningful only through allotted bodies in charge either of execution and judgements, or, at least, of overseeing them. ”
    Keith asked how it is possible in a modern State. Here I will answer only for the administrative/executive field.
    *** Let’s consider, for simplicity’s sake, an independent public agency. In a modern dêmokratia, an allotted body would set the general objectives, the basic rules and the basic organisation chart. But how control the system ? how ensure conformance and effectiveness (with implied lealty )? Please note that it is not a problem specific to democracy, it is a problem for any « proprietor » of a system. It can be solved only though « quality management » as organized along ISO9000 standards. Well, quality management was part of my job before my retirement and I know that these standards have some defects and drawbacks, but they can be perfected, including for their use by a modern dêmokratia. And, basically, it is the one way. I remind some requirements : precise description of authorities and responsabilities, documented procedures, monitoring of the processes, corrective actions, recording of all data, including decisions and implementations, and, overall, regulary audits allowing an evaluation of conformance and effectiveness. If the system does not work properly, the organisation may have to be changed.
    *** In our specific case, some of the authorities internal in the system could be assigned to specific allotted bodies, to oversee directly for instance decisions both critical and irreversible. Some audits (not all) could be carried out by alloted teams, after some training (quality management is not theoretical physics !). Control of an organism is a general problem, but sortition allows the sovereign people to « multiplying » himself, which would be difficult for an autocrat.
    *** Democratic control is easier than autocratic control. In a polyarchy (« representative liberal democracy »), the problem does not exist, because the lack of control by the nominal rulers opens the way to the lobbies, which is part of the polyarchic model.

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  19. André

    >In a modern dêmokratia, an allotted body would set the general objectives, the basic rules and the basic organisation chart.

    This is presumably a reference to the legislative function, and we’ve discussed elsewhere the problems in ensuring an allotted legislative body with policy-making powers retains its statistical representativity.

    >[executive conformance and effectiveness] can be solved only though « quality management » as organized along ISO9000 standards.

    “Quality management” standards, in the field of government, translates as the rule of law (the formal obligations of executive officers), and I’m not sure what that has to do with sortition as QM could apply to any form of government. I also don’t understand how an allotted body would be immune to lobbying. If anything the lack of retroactive accountability or party discipline (coupled with the modest financial means of typical allotted citizens) would make allotted bodies easy prey for lobbyists. Why would audit teams of ordinary citizens recruited by lot be more competent and less corruptible than teams appointed by some other process? At least it is in the commercial interests of professional auditors to retain a reputation for probity; they are also subject to the standards of their professional body and can be sued, or even prosecuted, if they fail in their task. How could you take legal action against randomly-selected amateurs over their competence? However if what you are arguing for is a mixed system, in which the “authorities internal in the system” play an important role, I would agree with that. But it would be counterproductive to assign some of these professionals to allotted bodies as they could easily dominate and corrupt them.

    In general it’s important to think very clearly as to the relationship between function and selection principle. There is a role for expertise, there is a role for partisan advocacy, there is a role for executive competence and there is a role for popular judgment — each of these has an appropriate selection mechanism. In the last two examples, if I want an architect, pilot, flute-player or auditor then I wouldn’t normally resort to selection by lot, but I would have a clear view on the sort of house I would like to live in or the tunes I would like the flautist to play etc etc. In English we have the expression “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. In a democracy we all pay the piper (albeit some more than others) and that’s why the choice of tune should be put to the vote in an allotted assembly. But I don’t see the relevance of sortition to any of the other functions listed above.

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  20. […] In 1896 A. H. J. Greenidge published his book A Handbook of Greek Constitutional History. Greenidge devotes a few pages to sortition ("appointment by lot"). He proposes theoretical justification an…  […]

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  21. *** Keith Sutherland does not see the relationship between Quality Management standards and democracy through sortition. I think the relationship clear : the QM standards requirements about documented procedures , precise responsabilities and mandatory records are necessary for an efficient auditing, and efficient auditing is necessary for control of an administrative system by the sovereign people through an allotted body. Quality Management can exist outside dêmokratia, as sortition actually ; but they are necessary for a modern dêmokratia
    *** Keith is right : as a rule, blending of professionals and allotted jurors is to be avoided. But I never asked for that. I think it would be good to have professional teams of auditors, and at the same time allotted teams. How good an auditor, how clear the standards, there is always a remainding part of subjectivity (from past experience, learning, personal concerns…). It is good that this subjectivity would be sometimes the subjectivity of ordinary citizens.
    *** Keith seems very concerned by the idea of personal corruption, maybe excessively. This is a problem, right, but a limited one ; personal corruption is unethical and criminal, and thus can be limited by common morality and fear of punishment. The power of lobbies in our political systems is very high, but not primarily by personal corruption.
    *** Keith says we must distinguish between executive competence (to selected people) and the « legislative » decision about basic objectives and rules (to allotted bodies). He forgets control of the execution, after the execution and during the execution (« Trust but verify » !). He forgets, too, the case of critical and irreversible decisions, which a sovereign people cannot supersee only post facto.
    *** The people as legislator must trust the executive agencies. If not, he will produce bad legislation. The same in the judicial area : if the judges are seen as « soft on crime », or on some kind of crimes (maybe by biased « framing ») the legislator will be obsessed by the idea and issue over-repressive legislation.

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  22. André

    I agree on the need for QM standards in all forms of administration, including dêmokratia. QM in the political arena would normally be referred to as the rule of law.

    The reason I get a little over-excited on the issue of corruption is because many commentators focus on the ex-ante potential of sortition as a barrier to factionalism and corruption, thereby overlooking the fact that, once the die has been cast, allotted representatives will immediately be the target of lobbyists. On the issue of personal corruption, the British political system is viewed as relatively uncorrupt and I would be hesitant to introduce any experiments that might tarnish it. It’s not entirely clear what the mechanisms that protect against corruption are, but party discipline and retroactive accountability certainly play a role. These factors would be absent in an allotted democracy, hence my preference to limiting the role of randomly-selected voters to secret voting. Observers of US democracy rightly point out the role of wealthy lobbyists in corrupting the process; this is less of a problem in the UK, due to stringent limits on election expenses and guarantees of equal coverage in the public media for election addresses and debates. Regarding the power of initiative, clearly well-funded lobbyists and concentrated media power have a corrupting effect but this is being increasingly undermined by the power of the internet. I would hope that my proposal that any online legislative petition that received 100,000 signatures should be on the public votation ticket would help to counteract the power of money and lobbying. It’s not perfect, but clearly a system that left the power of initiative in the hands of allotted members would be easy to corrupt. Money and other benefits can easily be transferred via third parties and I think it’s a little naive to rely on common morality (unless you accept Monbiot’s essentialist view of the popolo as decent, kind, honest etc). Allotted members would also be just as exposed to the effects of concentrated media power (indoctrination in Yoram’s terms) as voters currently are and as such are likely to bring in proposals that started off as editorials in popular newspapers or tweets from the latest celebrity twitter-feed. Much better to keep this under firm democratic control, so that anyone can make a proposal and then we all have a say in which proposals should go to the nomothetai (as in 4th century Athens). It puzzles me when such an uber-democratic proposal is criticised as elitist.

    The idea of allotted bodies overseeing the various branches of government is a good one. This is usually the role of committees of elected members (parliamentary select committees in the UK) and there is no reason in principle why this should not be undertaken by allotted bodies, though steps would need to be taken to compensate for the lack of expertise in areas of administration which in a modern state can be quite complicated. As for the problem of critical and irreversible decisions, each department would be working within the constraints of a framework previously set by the allotted parliament and individual ministers would be subject to the threat of impeachment. In other words there would not need to be any change in the existing relationship between the delegated government and the sovereign legislature.

    Trust in executive/judicial competence/integrity is essential, and in short supply. Onora O’Neill’s little book is very good on this. How best to fix the problem is probably beyond the remit of this forum.

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