Two items by Equality-by-Lot regulars

Arthur D. Robbins:

To quote Sean O’Casey, “Th’ whole worl’s in a terrible state o’ chassis.” Why is it that way? Does it have to be that way? What can be done to set it straight? These are the questions the intellectual should be asking.

There are many factors creating the “state o’ chassis.” Most of them can be traced to a combination of action and inaction on the part of government. Government promotes the exploitation of fossil fuels. It favors the private car over public transportation. It diverts to war critical resources that could be used to develop alternative sources of energy. All of these policies are humankind’s contribution to global warming. These policies can be reversed, but not without transforming government. And I am afraid yet another election will not do the job.

Currently, there is considerable discussion and some experimentation exploring the possibilities of using sortition as a means of restructuring government. In ancient Athens, sortition was used as a means of selecting magistrates. We could substitute sortition for elections as a means of selecting our representatives and senators.

Sortition is another word for lottery. Essentially, a number is picked out of a hat. A pool of candidates is established. Often it is simply those who volunteer, those who want to hold the office. Then there is some kind of vetting process. Perhaps there are requirements of age and citizenship. Other parameters can be introduced as well.

Once the pool of candidates is established a number is drawn and the name attached to that number is now the magistrate. In ancient Athens he served for a year and but once in a lifetime. The Athenians used juries to keep track of a magistrate’s performance. If they didn’t like what he was up to another lottery was held and the magistrate was replaced.

Such a means of selecting those who govern has some obvious advantages over holding elections. There is no electioneering, i.e., lying and pandering, at election time. There are no political parties and no leaders to be bought off. Thus there is considerably less corruption. Corporate control of government is dramatically reduced.

Sortition is more democratic than elections because it establishes true political equality. Anyone can serve. Setting brief term limits insures rotation in office—this could be applied to the presidency as well—further limiting the opportunity for abusing power. If one wanted to democratize the process even further one could introduce referenda on key issues. Decisions concerning war and peace would certainly be one opportunity. This was the protocol in ancient Athens.

Or one could completely democratize the governing process by having the citizens govern themselves. This was the meaning of democracy in ancient Athens. The citizens, not their representatives, met in the Assembly, debated and voted on legislation and policy. The same principle could be applied in the United States. Instead of one assembly there would be thousands spread throughout the country. In Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained: The True Meaning of Democracy, I explore these and other possibilities at length.

Such thoughts will undoubtedly be dismissed as foolhardy, naïve, utopian by those who are stuck in the here and now, mired in the fixity of things as given, those who have a fear of change and want to cling to the present setup at all costs. Yes, changing government has its risks. There are outcomes that cannot be predicted. But if Professor Chomsky is right—and I believe he is—then the biggest risk of all is letting things stay as they are and believing we will survive. Change does occur and will continue to do so. The only questions are: What direction will it take? Whose hands will guide it?

What is the responsibility of the intellectual? Is it simply to gather the facts and uncover the lie, or is it the intellectual’s responsibility to lead the way? It is easy enough to predict the end of civilization. It is quite another thing to do something about saving it. With courage and imagination mankind can live to see another day, but not without transforming government into an instrument that serves the common good.

Peter Stone:

Democracy provides a form of social contract. Like any contract, it only works if people believe that all the parties involved are doing their parts. If people stop believing this, then the result is a loss of trust in democracy—a “loss of institutional legitimacy,” to use a more grandiose term. The democratic world is currently facing such a loss right now. Thanks in large part to the banking crisis, and the austerity measures that have followed, the citizens of the western world believe (with good reason) that the system is corrupt, and rigged against them. If you lack the money to buy yourself a bailout from the politicians, the system has nothing to offer you except another round of belt-tightening. Efforts to challenge this system-rigging—by the Occupy Movement, for example—have consistently failed so far.

[…]

This is where lotteries come in. What if the integrity of the political system were defended, not by politicians or bureaucrats or judges, but by groups of randomly-selected citizens? Lotteries do one thing very well; they prevent people from being selected on the basis of reasons—including bad reasons. And this is just what is required for the institutions that must police the democratic system and keep it operating fairly. This is the essential insight behind the randomly-selected jury system. Neither the state nor any powerful private interest can stack a jury with people it likes, or ensure that a jury will follow its wishes. (This is why corporations often hate juries. The American “tort reform” movement is motivated by this hatred in its efforts to defang the jury.)

If juries can protect the justice system from corruption, perhaps randomly-selected “citizen juries” can do the same for the political system. What if a randomly-selected board were periodically called to reform the ethics rules for legislators, judges, and bureaucrats? What if any political actor accused of breaking these rules had to appear before a similar randomly-selected board? And there are many other ways that citizens selected by lottery might contribute to keeping the system working and shoring up political legitimacy. (Countries that elect legislators in single-member districts, for example, could use citizen juries to draw district lines.)

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5 Responses

  1. Peter generally chooses his words carefully and his opening sentence “The biggest threat to democracy is the belief that the system is broken” (my emphasis), clearly refers to a widespread public perception (as opposed to a claim that the system actually is broken). If this is the case then the blind break version of sortition might well be understood as an innovation designed to correct this (mis?)perception. So, even if sortition had no effect in terms of changing actual political outcomes, it would undermine the attraction of upstart populist movements, like the Tea Party, which are attempting to seize power back from the political class, who (along with most political theorists) view such movements with open contempt — “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” as David Cameron described the UKIP variant.

    This sounds like a highly conservative defence of existing elite political practice. That this is his intention is confirmed by Peter’s “citizens selected by lottery might contribute to keeping the system working and shoring up political legitimacy” (my emphasis). The goal of sortition is to “reassure everyone about the integrity of the system” rather than to introduce what has been referred to on this forum as “real” democracy.

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  2. Yoram,

    Thank you so much for quoting my recent piece. The context was a critique of Noam Chomsky, someone who is content to predict the end of civilization but do nothing about trying to save it. He is an excellent journalist. He fails as an intellectual. We look to our intellectuals for new ideas. I am afraid Professor Chomsky has had little or nothing to offer.

    Arthur D. Robbins

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  3. > This sounds like a highly conservative defence of existing elite political practice.

    Your ability to misunderstand simple English never ceases to impress.

    Thanks in large part to the banking crisis, and the austerity measures that have followed, the citizens of the western world believe (with good reason) that the system is corrupt, and rigged against them. If you lack the money to buy yourself a bailout from the politicians, the system has nothing to offer you except another round of belt-tightening.

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  4. Arthur,

    > We look to our intellectuals for new ideas. I am afraid Professor Chomsky has had little or nothing to offer.

    I hold Chomsky in great esteem and I think he has and is offering many ideas of great value and importance.

    I do agree however that the fact that Chomsky offers no credible systemic alternative to the status quo is his greatest weakness. This is a weakness he shares with many other progressively minded reformers. The range of standard solutions offered lies between the ineffectual (“direct democracy”, campaign finance regulation) to the pipe dream (Anarchism).

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  5. Yoram,

    The passage that you quote is part of the introductory preamble; the thrust of Peter’s article is a proposal for “keeping the system working and shoring up political legitimacy” which sounds pretty conservative to me. Blind Break theorists are adamant that the role in the political system of allotted persons is as monitors or tribunes, as opposed to representatives. If there are any substantive proposals in Peter’s article for anything further than an (underspecified) monitoring role, please draw them to our attention.

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