Sortition, Sovereignty and Democracy in Modern Government

I would like to persuade people who are interested in sortition to take more interests in other aspects of public decision-making. I believe it is not enough to think of remedying our means of choosing the personnel of existing authorities. In some respects those authorities have too much power. In others, the problem is that power is not the right means to deal with some vital issues. These issues are not questions of what we would like, but of how to avoid impending catastrophe. It is essential for us to understand what we can and cannot do in these matters. We must think in functional terms and on a global scale, not in terms of what we have the power to do, but of what we must do to survive. Those who want to persuade us to hand over power to them try to trick us into thinking we can have what we want. We have to face the real situation and get it right.


A great deal of the thinking about the potential of sortition to replace voting in existing political institutions is based on the Athenian practice of using a lottery to fill some public offices, thus removing those offices from struggles for power. Some proposals I have made at times have been of this sort, choosing a few people for a particular task. But much of the work done by kleroterians refers to using sortition as the basis for a representative system of government, something the Athenians never considered. It raises problems that have no precedents in their practice. Once you have representative government the question arises of what it is entitled to do. The assembly in Athens could do whatever it wanted, including some atrocious things.

As the Americans discovered in seeking for ways of constructing institutions to replace British rule, the Roman republic offered much more relevant precedents for representative government, but none that involved sortition. In any case, Roman practice was based on stratified and contentious citizen rights. The city-state proved unable to handle the problems of imperial power, which soon abolished any shred of democracy. Citizenship came down to a right to a share in the spoils of conquest. Bread and circuses. Political power rested on control of an army. Out of centuries of chaos the medieval monarchies set up a system of territorial rights that prefigured modern nation-states. Hereditary monarchs emerged to claim authority over a territory, conceived as the property of the monarch. Other occupants of that territory were seen as subjects of the monarch, whose will was law. Such titles to property as they had were enforceable only against each other, not the monarch.
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