Ganesh Sitaraman’s sortition version of the Roman tribunes

Ganesh Sitaraman proposes a sortition version of the tribunes of the Roman Republic in his new book The Crisis of the Middle-Class Constitution: Why Economic Inequality Threatens Our Republic.

Angus Deaton, the Nobel Prize winning Princeton economist, describes the proposal in his review of the book in the New York Times (March 20, 2017):

Perhaps the least familiar and most intriguing policy proposal that Sitaraman discusses is the idea of reviving the Roman tribunate: 51 citizens would be selected by lot from the bottom 90 percent of the income distribution. They would be able to veto one statute, one executive order and one Supreme Court decision each year; they would be able to call a referendum, and impeach federal officials.

Such a proposal seems fanciful today, but so is campaign finance reform, or greater redistribution. Yet we do well to remember Milton Friedman’s dictum that it takes a crisis to bring real change, so that our job in the meantime is to develop alternatives to existing policies that are ready for when “the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

Sitaraman is an associate law professor at Vanderbilt Law School.

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4 Responses

  1. This proposal is like proposing the following. In a society where all branches of government are controlled by men, there will be a special tribunate of randomly selected women who will be given the power to veto one statute, one executive order, and one Supreme Court decision that the men produce each year. Such a proposal would be an insult to women.

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  2. Nevertheless the idea is worth to evaluate, even in his original form: Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people, or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic, the most important check on the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis, or people’s assembly; to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power of these tribunes was the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions.[1] During the day the tribunes used to sit on the tribune benches on the Forum Romanum.

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  3. Something very similar was proposed by John P. McCormick in his 2011 book Machiavellian Democracy. https://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/machiavellian-democracy/

    Liked by 1 person

  4. And also Lawrence Hamilton in “Are South Africans Free?” and “Freedom is Power: Liberty Through Political Representation.”

    Liked by 1 person

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