Paul Cartledge: The case for sortition is persuasive

Just read a short piece by Paul Cartledge in which he talks about the history of sortition, a topic treated more extensively in his book Democracy: A Life (Oxford University Press). He even manages to plug my own book, The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (also Oxford University Press) along the way. Check it out:

It is quite easy to compile a checklist, perhaps even a decalogue, of differences between their democracy (or rather democracies, as there was no one identikit ancient model) and ours (ditto). And in no respect did they and we differ more than on the issue of sortition, that is, the application of the lottery to the conduct of politics (another Greek invention, both the word and the thing, with – again – the accent to be placed on difference as well as similarity between theirs and ours). We today take the exercise of voting in either general or local elections to be the very quintessence of what it is to do ‘democracy.’ The ancient Greeks took the exact opposite view: elections were elitist and for the nobs, appropriate more for oligarchy (the rule of the few rich) than for democracy (the rule of the masses, most of whom were poor), whereas sortition, the lot, was the peculiarly democratic way of selecting most office-holders and all juror-judges to serve in the People’s jury-courts.

[…]

So what did sortition have in its favour, according to ancient democratic ideologues, that elections did not? It’s an irony (another good Greek word) of our surviving evidence that we don’t have an awful lot of explicit ancient Greek democratic theory to go on, but here the work of modern political theorists and indeed advocates of applying sortition to enhance our contemporary democratic processes can help us out, for instance Peter Stone’s The Luck of the Draw: The Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (2011). The following eight features have attracted most attention and comment, not all of it positive of course. 1. Descriptive representation – of the population from which the office-holders are to be randomly selected. 2. Prevention of corruption and/or domination (see also 4). 3. Mitigation of intra-elite competition. 4. Control of political outliers – preventing those with nonstandard views from unduly dominating. 5. Distributive justice. 6. Participation. 7. Rotation. 8. Social-psychological benefits – the sense of equality and fairness being made political flesh.

Those eight qualities add up to a powerful contemporary case that I for one find highly persuasive. Were an ancient Greek democrat to be reading through them, however, he (males only need apply in antiquity – legitimate adult citizen males) would surely have found the last four, numbers 5-8, the most relevant by far. The watchwords of ancient Greek democracy were freedom and equality. The use of sortition provided the greatest freedom of action to encourage all qualified citizens to volunteer for important public political positions knowing that the process of selection was random, that it presupposed equality of both opportunity and outcome, that it fostered participation and, perhaps above all, that it recognized and engendered in all citizens in principle a sense of their equal worth, what the Greeks called timē or ‘honour’.

Advertisements

5 Responses

  1. Cartledge says:

    The following eight features have attracted most attention and comment, not all of it positive of course. 1. Descriptive representation – of the population from which the office-holders are to be randomly selected. 2. Prevention of corruption and/or domination (see also 4). 3. Mitigation of intra-elite competition. 4. Control of political outliers – preventing those with nonstandard views from unduly dominating. 5. Distributive justice. 6. Participation. 7. Rotation. 8. Social-psychological benefits – the sense of equality and fairness being made political flesh.

    Were an ancient Greek democrat to be reading through them, however, he (males only need apply in antiquity – legitimate adult citizen males) would surely have found the last four, numbers 5-8, the most relevant by far.

    This is in keeping with the notion that the Greeks were not aware or did not care about statistical representation. This seems to conflict with, for example, Aristophanes’s complaints in Wasps about the old being over-represented in the courts, or with Isocrates’s suggestion in Areopagiticus that elections are more democratic than sortition because sortition can, due to chance misrepresentation, put the elite in power.

    Like

  2. I agree. This notion that simply because they did not have a formal theory of representation based in a detailed understanding of probability and statistics, that they did not have an intuitive appreciation of what a representative sample actually was, seems almost nonsensical. Having terminology for something is not essential to appreciate its reality and make use of it. The citations Yoram makes are contemporary observations by Greeks of when groupings of citizens VIOLATED the almost self-evident principle of being statistically representative. As has been noted, the Athenian cook who gave a pot of soup a good stir and tasted a spoonful (a sample), understood that this was a fair (statistically accurate) representation of the entire pot of soup. The Athenians also had no formal theory of gravity, yet they observed its effects, and used gravity to accomplish goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. An alternative explanation is that the Greeks took descriptive representation (1 in Cartledge’s list) for granted. He is only making the claim that the latter 4 of the 8 characteristics would have been seen as the most relevant at the time, not that the Greeks were unaware of the first 4.

    Like

  4. […] review of Paul Cartledge’s Democracy: A Life in the Los Angeles Review of Books (cited in a previous post by Peter Stone). While the book covers what will be familiar ground for many here, the author also charts how the […]

    Like

  5. […] Paul Cartledge is continuing his assault on the modern conventions about democracy: […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: