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’.