Adam Cronkright and Simon Pek: Reconstructing Democracy

Adam Cronkright sent the attached document and writes:

Here is a draft that I’ve put together to help explain the work we are doing here in Bolivia, and hopefully in other places in Latin America with time. Would love to get input/feedback from readers of the EqualityByLot blog.

In particular, I would love help with the citations in the section on ancient Athens. I’ve been a long ways from home for the last half a year, so I have no access to my personal computer, my personal library, nor any English public/academic library. So in putting this Overview together, I regularly cited a second/third-hand source (Arthur Robbins Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy), since it was one of the few .pdf’s I could access. But Robbins did not rigorously cite his Athenian history, and I would much prefer to sight primary sources when possible. So any help making that section more academically rigorous would be appreciated.

It would be great to know about other key modern uses of sortition that I did not highlight in the “What’s Happened Recently?” section.

It would also be extremely important to know if I’ve stated anything about Athens or about the modern examples of sortition that is not factually correct. And if anyone with editing experience wants to go through it with a fine-toothed-comb – it would be nice to have this overview tightened up grammatically etc., while still keeping it generally accessible in diction and style. Or any other kind of input/feedback! People can contribute via the blog, or email me directly:


23 Responses

  1. –Update–
    Thanks to Terrill Bouricius’s response, I will be making some serious revisions to the “What’s happened recently?” section:
    – Removing the Mali example (the “jurors” in Mali were not randomly selected)
    – Adding the Australia Citizens Parliament (2009)
    – Adding the City of Canada Bay’s amazing budget process (2012)!

    Looking forward to more input/feedback. :-)



  2. Nice piece, just a few comments

    >The biggest campaign contributors (primarily banks and other multinational corporations) have the most influence over important “public” decisions.

    For the sake of even-handedness one should also state the disproportionate influence of cognitive and cultural, not just financial, elites. The right may have won control of the economy, but the left has been victorious in the culture wars and this is no less anti-democratic than the power of organised money.

    >Rotation is in fact an ancient democratic practice, and it is an essential tool for reconstructing democracy in our modern, large-scale, urbanized, and globalized world.

    Not so. Rotation can only work in small societies. In large communities random selection by lot is a means of establishing descriptive representation, not rotation. Arthur Robbins’ argument for rotation in large societies is unpersuasive (see earlier thread on Arthur’s book on this forum).

    >the execution was not outsourced to a professional executioner, as is currently done in many countries like the US. Instead, the execution was carried out by a group of that person’s peers

    I don’t believe that’s the case — the allotted magistrates merely performed a supervisory role. Most of the work in Athens was done by slaves.


  3. Many thanks Keith!

    Great point on the cognitive and cultural influences – I’ll be sure to incorporate that.

    As far as rotation is concerned – I haven’t only thought of rotation in sense that if we have 20 people we rotate a position one-by-one among each and every one of them. I’ve also though of it in the general sense of rotating responsibilities and powers throughout a community/society. And I have understood random selection to be the best and fairest way to administer rotate in this sense in large groups. Due to sheer numbers, in huge communities, not everyone would be selected to take a turn in every role (just like 3/4 of Athenian citizens did not get to take a turn serving as the president, and not every America citizen is called for jury duty in their life), but responsibilities and powers are still generally rotated throughout the community. So, I don’t see the choice as either or in large societies (rotation or random selection by lot), I see it as both and (general rotation of powers by randomly selecting citizens to take their turn serving in groups that have specific responsibilities and powers). Do you think it is unwise to talk of rotation in a general sense? Should I only use rotation when things are structured so that indeed every single person will get a turn? Does this make sense? What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for pointing out the supervisory role of the magistrates – that’s an important thing to get right and not overstate. I’d love to read the source that talks about the slaves doing most of the supervised work. Do you remember where you go that information?



  4. Generally speaking rotation (in Aristotle’s sense) is used when there is a reasonable chance of most people being selected. In Athens there was at least a 50% chance of an active citizen being selected for the council at least once in their lifetime. In order to replicate this in a large modern state you would need to go with Arthur’s argument for a hierarchy of allotted bodies, starting at the local level. Some might argue that this is a case of Every Cook Can Govern, others see it as Too Many Cooks Spoiling the Broth. But modern advocates of sortition (apart from Arthur) tend to make different arguments for sortition, accepting that rotation is mostly of historical interest.

    I’m afraid I’m not an expert on Greek history so not sure exactly who got to actually portion out the hemlock. But Hansen and others generally speak of the magistrates in terms of supervising rather than doing the actual work. I believe there were something like 10 slaves for every citizen, so that would suggest that they did most of the work, leaving the citizens free to fight endless wars, go rowing, seduce youths, get drunk and write philosophy books.


  5. Interesting. Great points Keith.

    Here in Bolivia people talk about institutions being “rotatorio” – which translates as “rotating/rotative”, when the elected leadership does not stay in power indefinitely, but rather rotates out after a short term and others rotate into the position. Rotation is also talked about with respect to the Ayllus system – where community members “rotate” through a hierarchy of public positions with one year terms, and each position rotates back and forth between different parts of the community. Neither usage speaks to a system whereby everyone gets a turn.

    When I wrote “an essential tool for reconstructing democracy in our modern, large-scale, urbanized, and globalized world.”, I was more gearing towards today’s average communities and organizations (not necessarily communities that number in the millions – as I talked about in the following paragraph on random selection). The urban neighborhood we are working with here in Bolivia has 1,000 families, and we hope to rotate responsibilities and powers among (all) the members of the neighborhood water cooperative over time, by using random selection and strict term limits. This normal-sized urban neighborhood reflects our modern urbanized large-scale reality, in that a community of 1,000 families would have been quite sizable in this part of the world 300 years ago, and now it’s just one neighborhood of many, in one million-person city of many. So, I’m not sure yet if I agree with reserving the word ‘rotation’ for only those instances when most people will eventually be selected, or if it will depend on the popular understanding of the word (and the language I’m speaking in). But your point is well made, and especially if I am going to talk about sharing responsibilities and powers EQUALLY over time (as I did in that paragraph), then I’m talking about a rotation that would need to eventually equally include everyone – not simply a general rotation in which everyone has an equal chance (thanks to random selection) and a good portion of them eventually take their turn. And as you correctly point out, this is not practical in mega-cities and regions etc. [I am not necessarily an advocate of Arthur’s hierarchies of allotted bodies – I heavily cited his section on Athens because it was one of the few books/ebooks/pdfs on the subject in English that I could access from an internet cafe here in Bolivia.]

    Wish we could find something conclusive with respect to supervising and doing actual work. From The Constitution of Athens (Part 52): “The Eleven also are appointed by lot to take care of the prisoners in the state gaol. Thieves, kidnappers, and pickpockets are brought to them, and if they plead guilty they are executed, but if they deny the charge the Eleven bring the case before the law-courts; if the prisoners are acquitted, they release them, but if not, they then execute them. They also bring up before the law-courts the list of farms and houses claimed as state-property; and if it is decided that they are so, they deliver them to the Commissioners for Public Contracts. The Eleven also bring up informations laid against magistrates alleged to be disqualified;” It sounds as though Aristotle is talking directly about the deeds of The Eleven, but I can certainly understand how he would just lump the work of slaves into the “they”, he uses – given just how pervasive slavery was.


  6. Regarding slaves “doing most of the work”, leaving the citizens idling about – this is very likely not the case. It seems Keith is conflating the Athenian aristocracy and plutocracy with the Athenian majority who were in fact small scale farmers (in the rural area) or artisans (in Athens itself).

    In terms of numbers, it is true that it is estimated that citizens were about 10% of the Athenian population, but the other 90% comprised not only slaves, but Athenian women, Athenian children and metics (free non-Athenians) as well.

    As for the role of the Eleven, in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo the poison cup is actually served to Socrates by “the jailer, who was the servant of the Eleven”. I am not sure if “servant” should be interpreted as “slave” or not, but in any case it seems that this is a professional rather than an allotted citizen.


  7. > the disproportionate influence of cognitive and cultural, not just financial, elites.

    This seems to me to have very little meaning. Who are the members of those “cognitive and cultural elites”. What turns someone into a member of a cognitive elite? Being really smart? I could understand talk about some sort of a status elite (e.g., prestigious academia) – but the overlap between that and the economic elite is pretty high.


  8. Adam:

    I think we agree on the principle of rotation — that there should be reasonable proportionality between the size of the population and the numbers selected. You could have a small committee which everyone takes turns to chair and that would be an example of 100% rotation. But a political community of 60 million in which only a few hundred, or a few thousand are selected randomly would not constitute rotation. Hansen cites a rotation proposal for Denmark (pop: 4 million) and that’s very much the upper limit, if those that share power at any one time are to consider their participation meaningful.


    My basis for the 1/10 citizen/slave estimate is the current BBC2 programme Who Were the Greeks I was surprised by the ratio — perhaps I misheard it.


  9. > the disproportionate influence of cognitive and cultural, not just financial, elites.

    I think the claim that the left have won the culture wars, but lost the economic battle is widely accepted. The argument is that the reds are no longer under the bed, they’re in it now, given the huge changes in sexual and other social mores that western societies have witnessed over the last half century. To give one example, a tiny minority of equality activists pushed the case for gay marriage in the UK but this is now the policy of the “Conservative” government. During the previous administration the Labour MP Frank Field wrote that the majority of his working-class constituents only went along with Labour’s liberal social agenda holding their noses. They were prepared to put up with it grudgingly, so long as Labour supported their economic interests. If this is true then it would be unlikely that an allotted assembly, free of the domination of cultural elites, would vote in favour of gay marriage. I use this as one example of the domination of policy agenda by cultural elites where there’s no obvious correlation with economic interests (less so in the case of immigration, where there was a conspiracy between business interests and cultural elites against the indigenous working class).


  10. I agree with the sentiment above that “rotation” is rather vague and needs to be defined more specifically. (Also, talking about “participation” rather than “rotation” could be useful – but specificity is important either way.) For example, I think that term limits are not a useful tool for making elections more democratic. Rotation or participation could be used in non-decision making roles such as in the production of democratic media (see here).

    “Sharing of responsibilities and powers” is also rather vague. If the idea is having boards or councils making decisions rather individuals (indeed essential for democracy), then this should be made explicit.

    In general, I think making the proposals more specific and explicit would be useful. I think it should be made clear that the main proposal is putting all decision making power in the hands of randomly selected bodies (rather than in the hands of elected individuals or bodies). (That’s my understanding of what you are proposing, and I think this is a good proposal.)


  11. > a tiny minority of equality activists pushed the case for gay marriage

    Public policy on this issue reflects popular sentiment – a majority of the population supports gay marriage (US, UK).

    Yes – some progressive ideas have become more popular over time, but why would you call this fact by the incoherent label of “the disproportionate influence of cognitive and cultural, not just financial, elites”?


  12. >a majority of the population supports gay marriage

    I deliberately phrased my claim very carefully: “a tiny minority of equality activists pushed the case”. There was no evidence of a widespread public campaign for gay marriage; as such it was the will of a small elite group that brought it about.

    >why would you call this fact by the incoherent label of “the disproportionate influence of cognitive and cultural, not just financial, elites”?

    Because most social innovation starts with a small (over)-educated minority (the “progressive” avant-garde, the cultural equivalent of the revolutionary vanguard) and then disseminates through wider society, at least that’s what I was taught when I studied sociology. Take the concept of the swinging sixties. As I remember it (ignoring the quip that if you remember the sixties you weren’t there) this was the experience of a tiny elite group of hippies (I was one of them). The sixties for most people were just as boring as the 50s. The reason I put the word “progressive” in scare quotes is because it’s a term that only has meaning in the realm of technology. The concept of cultural progress is far less obvious.


  13. So, to summarize your social theory, the fact that policy that enjoys majority support in the population is implemented is evidence that some elite group (mysteriously called the “cognitive and cultural elite”) enjoys disproportional influence.


  14. Thanks to both of your for your rich feedback! Going to give a quick response with the time I have right now – internet access isn’t always ideal here in Bolivia…

    Yoram –
    Yes, the putting of responsibilities and powers in the hands of randomly selected groups is my general proposal, and I agree with your feedback that I should make this more explicit. I decided to break up the proposal into three “tools”/practices to allow groups more flexibility in applying these practices to their own personal context (instead of offering a more cookie-cutter packaged product). I personally believe we need to experiment with random selection in all kinds of different contexts and ways for us to learn to properly apply this tool in our diverse communities and organizations. Same goes for rotation. And the idea behind “sharing” responsibilities and powers is, like you said, sharing them in groups (of equals) instead of giving them to individuals. I feel this deserves to be driven home as it’s own “tool”/practice, given the political context here in Latin America (which places a lot of emphasis on individual titles, i.e., president, secretary of whatever, etc., and at the same time has experienced so much corruption by individuals entrusted with too much individual power). Also applies to administration in virtually all parts of the world, where we tend to have individual rather than group leadership (in government we call the leaders executives – president, governors, mayors, etc., and in business they are called CEOs, managers, etc.). So for this reason I’m presenting the idea of responsibility/power sharing. And I’ve intentionally included the word responsibility wherever I’ve talked about power because I think this is another key part (especially in communal cultures like here in Bolivia). In the community where we are working, for example, the same directorship has been left in power for 6 years longer than their initial mandate, because no one else want’s the responsibility. So they vote in the assembly and say “You guys and gals keep going – great job!” to offload the common responsibilities, but in doing so they outsource their own power, experience corruption, and are constantly suspicious of the same people they keep electing. To me, we need to talk about responsibilities and powers together – as they are two sides of the same coin. Power without responsibility leads to corruption, tyranny, entitlement, etc., and responsibility without power = hopeless impotence. In communities and organizations of all kinds, we need to address the distribution of both.

    On the topic of “cognitive and cultural elites”, I think I understand Keith’s position. But I will quickly add two observations to the discussion:
    – Our cultural changes are heavily influenced by the media. Most news media outlets (at least in the US), are owned by large corporations, who heavily dictate the content (or at least steer the general direction of the content and veto certain topics). Popular media is also largely dictated by board-room decisions (the music industry provides the perfect example – especially the phenomenon of gangster rap [in contrast to more political Hip Hop that dealt with the systemic oppression and racism in the inner-cities]. Gangster rap was systematically fostered by board-room decisions in the early 90s – decisions made by mostly rich, white, older, businessmen).
    – The “leftist” political victories of the past several decades have been important and impact-full, but mostly superficial. In the US, for example, somehow the political debate always stays primarily focused on issues like gay marriage, abortion, and evolution/creationism in schools (all important issues); detracting/distracting attention away from larger more fundamental issues, like our two wars and the “War on Terror”, political reform, the urgent ecological crisis, whether or not we want to continue with capitalism, etc. These topics at times enter the mainstream political debate, but usually only with some great impetus (housing foreclosures, Occupy, Tea Party, etc.), usually in passing, and usually without discussing root problems and solutions. To me, this general steering of the debate away from deep systemic problems constitutes a land-slide victory for “the right”, although I find the left-right distinction to be very limiting. I agree with Yoram that most cognitive/cultural elites are also economic elites, with varying social values/views, but generally a shared interest in maintaining current political and economic structures. I think it is very telling, for example, that politicians who can never agree on things like gay marriage and pollution regulation were hand-in-hand when it came to the $700 billion plus US financial bailout. And as Snowden proved, surveillance of US citizens and drone attacks has continued the same under Obama as it was under Bush. The occasional “progressive” measure makes it through the legislatures, but deeper social problems remain untouched.


  15. On the issue of Athenian slavery, I would refer readers to Hansen on pages 87 and 317-318.

    Most Citizens had to work for a living. Metics (foreign residents) and slaves did the majority of work simply because they were probably the majority of the population. Nobody knows how many slaves there were, though they likely outnumbered Citizens (though probably not by the wide ten to one ratio mentioned in an earlier post.)

    Slaves were not as we imagine them based on American history. Slaves had their jobs assigned, were owned by a citizen (or sometimes by the Polis as a whole – government owned slaves) but they were not seen as an inferior race. They were simply the unlucky “spoils of war.” They were treated similarly to the way indentured servants were in Colonial America. Slaves were generally paid the same wages, and wore the same clothes as Metics and working class Citizens. The Old Oligarch (historian) complained that slaves wouldn’t get out of the way of wealthy citizens like him on the streets, and he couldn’t distinguish a slave from a citizen since they dressed the same. Some slaves even rose into the “exploiting class.” Indeed, one of the richest men in Athenian history had been a slave before being granted Metic status, and shortly before his death, full citizenship. It is also true that most citizens owned at least one household slave…but this was a far less effective “labor saving device” than modern washing machines, etc., which we enjoy today. Some key differences have to do with slaves inability to participate in politics, and lack of freedom to travel and choose jobs.


  16. >the fact that policy that enjoys majority support in the population . . .

    You’ve conveniently adopted a synchronic perspective on a diachronic issue. My argument is that the initiative comes from the avant-garde elite, popular opinion changes later on. Although Adam is right to point out the role of the media, when it comes to family and gender issues the popular media initially take a conservative view and then realign themselves in keeping with changes in public opinion. The key issue is the role of cultural elites in initiating social change, especially in family and gender issues (referred to by some right-wing theorists as the victory of cultural Marxism). “Progressive” elites depend more on university tenure than ownership of the popular media to spread their influence. This is uncontroversial stuff, although the Frankfurt School Conspiracy Theory takes it a bit too far.

    But those of us who are genuinely concerned with democracy should seek to challenge the power of all elites (in particular those who have no electoral or market-following mandate), not just those whose political and economic views (capitalism etc) we happen to dislike. Otherwise sortitionists will be viewed as yet another intellectual elite group. For this reason alone all true democrats should be pleased to hear that sortition is of interest to right-wing thinkers, even it that includes those whose illiberal (ancient-Greek) perspective on citizenship we might otherwise prefer to deny the oxygen of publicity.


  17. Adam:

    >I agree with Yoram that most cognitive/cultural elites are also economic elites.

    This trope makes sense in terms of Marxist theory, but is difficult to reconcile with awkward things like facts. The social changes that have occurred over the last half century, including the breakdown of traditional family structures and gender roles, have been strongly in the interest of capitalists, yet the opposition to these changes have mostly come from the (paleoconservative) right. If you are in the property industry then the fragmentation of stable nuclear families into single-person units and unstable partnerships is manna from heaven. If you are an employer then the doubling of the workforce through immigration and the social/financial pressure on women to work enables you to keep wages low. The additional spending power of two wage earners is good news to all business owners in the manufacturing and services sector. Why sell women cheap ingredients so they can cook for their family when you can make more bucks selling frozen readymeals or entice the whole family into your restaurant? I suppose if you’re really into conspiracy theories then you could argue that Jewish capitalists hired left-wing Jewish academics to break up traditional social norms to further their business interests, but I think even the anti-Frankfurt School writers would see that as laughably OTT.

    >politicians who can never agree on things like gay marriage and pollution regulation were hand-in-hand when it came to the $700 billion plus US financial bailout.

    I don’t know how it is in the US, but in the UK the biggest supporter of let-it-rip banking was the Labour party, Gordon Brown seeing the taxation of banking profits as the golden cow which he milked in order to fund his ruinously expensive redistribution project. The reason the left supported the bailout was in order to protect the golden goose; most of the pressure to let the banks fail came from the (neoliberal) right.


  18. > My argument is that the initiative comes from the avant-garde elite, popular opinion changes later on.

    So anyone who advocates a certain policy which later becomes popular and is implemented is by definition a member of a “cognitive or cultural elite” exerting disproportionate influence? It turns out that according to you any change in public opinion implies the sinister influence of some “avant-garde elite”. Or maybe that’s only true about change toward the “left”?


  19. Not by definition, but de facto that’s pretty much the case. The cultural turn in “progressive” politics has shifted the instigation of change from the vanguard to the avant-garde, but it’s still an unrepresentative elite, as most people are naturally conservative in the sense of being comfortable with the familiar. And when it comes to culture it’s quite hard to think of many (any?) instances of change towards the right, other than as a reactive antithesis. Those who control the commanding heights of culture are not the same as those with the most economic power.


  20. Ok, I think that at this point it is clear that your notion of “cognitive-cultural elite” is useless. It appears to be no more than an attempt to paint any attempt to change the status quo as being anti-democratic.


  21. My point is only that sortitionists should be even-handed in their treatment of elites, and resist the ingrained habit of reducing everything to economic power.

    There are other elites than the “rich’n powerful”. If I might be allowed to recount a personal experience — a few years ago my firm (Imprint Academic) published a book called The Great Immigration Scandal, which pointed out that the biggest loser to mass immigration was the indigenous working class. David Davis, the shadow home secretary, agreed to chair the booklaunch but he was frightened off by an article in the impeccably liberal broadsheet, the Independent (which nobody reads), that described any critique of immigration as crypto-fascist. The Independent has always lost money but is, alongside the Guardian, a flagship organ of “progressive” thought. The story is a good example of anti-democratic tyranny by cultural elites. In the Guardian’s case the tyranny is subsidised by the Scott Trust; with the Independent it’s more a case of pass the parcel (I believe the current owner paid £1 for it).


  22. Adam,

    I agree very much about the importance of mass media and about the dominant powers within mass media as it is now organized.

    Regarding flexibility vs. specificity:

    I think that the “many ways to democracy” approach is very problematic. Democracy at the large scale (and even at the small scale, but more so at the large scale) is difficult. Just making things up as we go along is likely to lead to costly failures.

    I think the general framework of “allotted bodies” allows quite a lot of room for maneuvering within it, so that it is not some sort of a one size fits all. It should be seen as a democratic alternative to the “elections” framework. “Allotted bodies” is a clear and simple message which is not a silly slogan. It is clear and simple enough to be able to focus public attention and become an achievable agenda for reform, and at the same time it is meaningful enough so that its achievement would make our society much more democratic.


  23. Document removed before I could read it. If it gets reposted, I’ll try to give it a look.


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