“A direct democracy,
typically if not eventually,
will develop into an ochlocracy.
A representative democracy,
typically if not eventually,
will develop into an oligarchy.
Ochlocracy, or mob rule, is the rule of government by mob or a mass of people, or, the intimidation of legitimate authorities. As a pejorative for majoritarianism, it is akin to the Latin phrase mobile vulgus meaning “the fickle crowd”, from which the English term “mob” originally was derived in the 1680s.
Ochlocracy (“rule of the general populace”) is democracy (“rule of the people”) spoiled by demagoguery, “tyranny of the majority”, and the rule of passion over reason; just as oligarchy (“rule of a few”) is aristocracy (“rule of the best”) spoiled by corruption; and tyranny is monarchy spoiled by lack of virtue.
Ochlocracy is synonymous in meaning and usage to the modern, informal term “mobocracy”, which arose in the 18th century as a colloquial neologism.
Oligarchy from ὀλίγος (olígos), meaning “few”, and ἄρχω (arkho), meaning “to rule or to command”) is a form of power structure in which power effectively rests with a small number of people. These people might be distinguished by royalty, wealth, family ties, education, corporate, religious or military control. Such states are often controlled by a few prominent families who typically pass their influence from one generation to the next, but inheritance is not a necessary condition for the application of this term.
Throughout history, oligarchies have often been tyrannical, relying on public obedience or oppression to exist. Aristotle pioneered the use of the term as a synonym for rule by the rich, for which another term commonly used today is plutocracy.
Especially during the fourth century BC, after the restoration of democracy from oligarchical coups, the Athenians used the drawing of lots for selecting government officers in order to counteract what the Athenians saw as a tendency toward oligarchy in government if a professional governing class were allowed to use their skills for their own benefit. They drew lots from large groups of adult volunteers that pick selection technique for civil servants performing judicial, executive, and administrative functions (archai, boulē, and hēliastai). They even used lots for posts, such as judges and jurors in the political courts (nomothetai), which had the power to overrule the Assembly.
Iron Law of Oligarchy
The iron law of oligarchy is a political theory, first developed by the German sociologist Robert Michels in his 1911 book, Political Parties. It claims that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, is inevitable as an “iron law” within any democratic organization as part of the “tactical and technical necessities” of organization.
Michels theory states that all complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they are when started, eventually develop into oligarchies. Michels observed that since no sufficiently large and complex organization can function purely as a direct democracy, power within an organization will always get delegated to individuals within that group, elected or otherwise.
Using anecdotes from political parties and trade unions struggling to operate democratically to build his argument in 1911, Michels addressed the application of this law to representative democracy, and stated: “Who says organization, says oligarchy.” He went on to state that “Historical evolution mocks all the prophylactic measures that have been adopted for the prevention of oligarchy.”
According to Michels all organizations eventually come to be run by a “leadership class”, who often function as paid administrators, executives, spokespersons, political strategists, organizers, etc. for the organization. Far from being “servants of the masses”, Michels argues this “leadership class,” rather than the organization’s membership, will inevitably grow to dominate the organization’s power structures. By controlling who has access to information, those in power can centralize their power successfully, often with little accountability, due to the apathy, indifference and non-participation most rank-and-file members have in relation to their organization’s decision-making processes. Michels argues that democratic attempts to hold leadership positions accountable are prone to fail, since with power comes the ability to reward loyalty, the ability to control information about the organization, and the ability to control what procedures the organization follows when making decisions. All of these mechanisms can be used to strongly influence the outcome of any decisions made ‘democratically’ by members.
Michels stated that the official goal of representative democracy of eliminating elite rule was impossible, that representative democracy is a façade legitimizing the rule of a particular elite, and that elite rule, which he refers to as oligarchy, is inevitable. Later Michels migrated to Italy and joined Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party, as he believed this was the next legitimate step of modern societies. The thesis became popular once more in post-war America with the publication of Union Democracy: The Internal Politics of the International Typographical Union (1956) and during the red scare brought about by McCarthyism.
Demarchy is a form of democratic government where the representative members of the government are selected randomly, rather than by election.
The word Demarchy is derived from the Greek words Demos (common people) and Arkhon (ruler).
Sortition is a democratic alternative to electoral politics.
The system of demarchy has been proposed as an improved system compared to the system of representative democracy, where representatives are elected. Demarchy aims to at least reduce this degradation by having all representatives appointed by lottery instead of by voting. Therefore, this system is also called lottocracy. The system was proposed by the writer Roger de Sizif in 1998 in his book La Stochocratie. Choosing officeholders by lot was also the standard practice in ancient Athenian democracy. The rationale behind this practice was to avoid lobbying and electioneering by economic oligarchs.
“Sortition is synonymous to stochocracy, lottocracy, and demarchy.”
In governance, sortition (also known as allotment or demarchy) selects officers as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates.
In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of democracy.
Sortition is commonly used to select prospective jurors in common law-based legal systems and is sometimes used today in forming citizen groups with political advisory power (citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies).
The following is a brief history of sortition’s implementation, as it applies specifically to governance, and (when specified) the judiciary system.
Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:
“Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely… The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.
It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.”
In Athens, “democracy” (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterised by being run by the “many” (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: “It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy.”
The Athenians believed sortition to be more democratic than elections and used complex procedures with purpose-built allotment machines (kleroteria) to avoid the corrupt practices used by oligarchs to buy their way into office. According to the author Mogens Herman Hansen the citizen’s court was superior to the assembly because the allotted members swore an oath which ordinary citizens in the assembly did not and therefore the court could annul the decisions of the assembly. Both Aristotle and Herodotus (one of the earliest writers on democracy) emphasize selection by lot as a test of democracy, “The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.”
Past scholarship maintained that sortition had roots in the use of chance to divine the will of the gods, but this view is no longer common among scholars. In Ancient Greek mythology, Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades used sortition to determine who ruled over which domain. Zeus got the sky, Poseidon the sea, and Hades the underworld.
In Athens, to be eligible to be chosen by lot, citizens self-selected themselves into the available pool, then lotteries in the kleroteria machines. The magistracies assigned by lot generally had terms of service of 1 year. A citizen could not hold magistracy more than once in his lifetime, but could hold other magistracies. All male citizens over 30 years of age, who were not guilty of atimia, were eligible. Those selected through lot underwent examination called dokimasia in order to avoid incompetent officials. Rarely were selected citizens discarded. Magistrates, once in place, were subjected to constant monitoring by the Assembly. Magistrates appointed by lot had to render account of their time in office upon their leave, called euthynai. However, any citizen could request the suspension of a magistrate with due reason.
Northern Italy and Venice – 12th to 18th century
The brevia was used in the city states of Northern Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice until the late 18th century. Men, who were chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.
Lot was used in the Venetian system only in order to select members of the committees that served to nominate candidates for the Great Council. A combination of election and lot was used in this multi-stage process. Lot was not used alone to select magistrates, unlike in Florence and Athens. The use of lot to select nominators made it more difficult for political sects to exert power, and discouraged campaigning. By reducing intrigue and power moves within the Great Council, lot maintained cohesiveness among the Venetian nobility, contributing to the stability of this republic. Top magistracies generally still remained in the control of elite families.
Florence – 14th and 15th century
The scrutiny was employed in Florence for over a century starting in 1328. Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. These men then had their names deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get magistracy positions. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of renaissance citizen participation in 1378–82.
In Florence, lot was used to select magistrates and members of the Signoria during republican periods. Florence utilized a combination of lot and scrutiny by the people, set forth by the ordinances of 1328. In 1494, Florence founded a Great Council in the model of Venice. The nominatori were thereafter chosen by lot from among the members of the Great Council, indicating a decline in aristocratic power.
Because financial gain could be achieved through the position of mayor, some parts of Switzerland used random selection during the years between 1640 and 1837 in order to prevent corruption.
Local government in parts of Tamil Nadu such as the village of Uttiramerur traditionally used a system known as kuda-olai where the names of candidates for the village committee were written on palm leaves and put into a pot and pulled out by a child.
In the political realm, sortition occurs most commonly in order to form policy juries, such as deliberative opinion polls, citizens’ juries, Planungszelle (planning cells), consensus conferences, and citizens’ assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council has initiated a citizens’ assembly that will meet in 2014–15 in order to assist in city planning.
Sortition is commonly used in selecting juries in Anglo-Saxon legal systems and in small groups (e.g., picking a school class monitor by drawing straws). In public decision-making, individuals are often determined by allotment if other forms of selection such as election fail to achieve a result. Examples include certain hung elections and certain votes in the UK Parliament. Some contemporary thinkers have advocated a greater use of selection by lot in today’s political systems, for example reform of the British House of Lords and proposals at the time of the adoption of the current Constitution of Iraq.
Sortition is also used in military conscription, in awarding US green cards, and in placing students into public schools, into one California nursing college, and into schools of medicine in the Netherlands.
- Law court juries are formed through sortition in some countries, such as the United States.
- Citizens’ juries or citizens’ assemblies have been used to provide input to policy makers. For example, in 2004, a randomly selected group of citizens in British Columbia convened to propose a new electoral system. This Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform was repeated three years later in Ontario’s citizens’ assembly.
- MASS LBP, a Canadian company inspired by the work of the Citizens’ Assemblies on Electoral Reform, has pioneered the use of Citizens’ Reference Panels for addressing a range of policy issues for public sector clients. The Reference Panels use civic lotteries, a modern form of sortition, to randomly select citizen-representatives from the general public.
- Danish Consensus conferences give ordinary citizens a chance to make their voices heard in debates on public policy. The selection of citizens is not perfectly random, but still aims to be representative.
- The South Australian Constitutional Convention was a deliberative opinion poll created to consider changes to the state constitution.
- Some election laws regarding certain offices in the United States provide that, in the case of a tie between the leading candidates, a coin toss (rather than a runoff election) shall be conducted.
- In the election of electorate MPs in New Zealand, if there is a tie between the leading candidates and this situation persists after an obligatory recount, the Chief Electoral Officer chooses the MP from among the leading candidates by lot. The UK, New Mexico and other governments have similar rules for breaking ties. For example, in 2000, a coin toss determined the outcome of a council election in England when the two candidates polled the same number.
- Private organizations can also use sortition. For example, the Samaritan Ministries health plan sometimes uses a panel of 13 randomly selected members to resolve disputes, which sometimes leads to policy changes.
Political proposals for sortition
Sortition as part of reworking the state
- John Burnheim, in his book Is Democracy Possible?, describes a political system in which many small “citizen’s juries” would deliberate and make decisions about public policies. His proposal includes the dissolution of the state and of bureaucracies. The term demarchy he uses was coined by Hayek for a different proposal, unrelated to sortition, and is now sometimes used to refer to any political system in which sortition plays a central role.
- Influenced by Burnheim, Marxist economists Allin Cottrell and Paul Cockshott propose that, to avoid formation of a new social elite in a post-capitalist society, “the various organs of public authority would be controlled by citizens’ committees chosen by lot” or partially chosen by lot.
- L. León coined the word lottocracy for a sortition procedure that is somewhat different from Burnheim’s demarchy. While Burnheim … insists that the random selection be made only from volunteers,, León states: “… that first of all, the job must not be liked”. Christopher Frey uses the German term ‘Lottokratie’ and recommends testing lottocracy in town councils. Lottocracy according to Frey will improve the direct involvement of each citizen and minimize the systematical errors caused by political parties in Europe.
- Anarcho-capitalist writer Terry Hulsey detailed a 28th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to randomize the election of Congressmen and Senators, and indirectly, the President of the United States. The key to its success, in his opinion, is that the critical selection of the initial pool of candidates is left strictly to the states, to avoid litigation regarding “fairness” or perfect randomness.
Sortition to replace elected legislative bodies
- Ernest Callenbach and Michael Phillips push for random selection of the U.S. House of Representatives in their book A Citizen Legislature. They argue this scheme would ensure fair representation for the people and their interests, an elimination of many realpolitik behaviors, and a reduction in the influence of money and associated corruption, all leading to better legislation.
- Étienne Chouard, a French political activist, proposes replacing elections with sortition.
Select, through sortition, a large legislative body (such as the U.S. Congress) from among the adult population at large. C. L. R. James’s 1956 essay “Every Cook Can Govern.”
- Terry Bouricius, a former Vermont legislator and political scientist, proposes in a journal article “Democracy Through Multi-body Sortition: Athenian Lessons for the Modern Day” how a democracy could function better without elections, through the use of many randomly selected bodies, each with a defined role.
Sortition to decide the franchise
- “Convened-sample suffrage” uses sortition to choose an electoral college for each electoral district.
Sortition to supplement or replace some of the legislators
- “Accidental Politicians: How Randomly Selected Legislators Can Improve Parliament Efficiency”: shows how the introduction of a variable percentage of randomly selected independent legislators in a Parliament can increase the global efficiency of a Legislature, in terms of both number of laws passed and average social welfare obtained (this work is in line with the recent discovery that the adoption of random strategies can improve the efficiency of hierarchical organizations “Peter Principle Revisited: a Computational Study”).
- Political scientist Robert A. Dahl suggests in his book Democracy and its critics (p. 340) that an advanced democratic state could form groups which he calls minipopuli. Each group would consist “of perhaps a thousand citizens randomly selected out of the entire demos,” and would either set an agenda of issues or deal with a particular major issue. It would “hold hearings, commission research, and engage in debate and discussion.” Dahl suggests having the minipopuli as supplementing, rather than replacing, legislative bodies.
- The House of Commons in both Canada and England could employ randomly selected legislators.
- The ratio of legislators decided by election to those decided by the lottery is tied directly to the voter turnout percentage. Every absentee voter is choosing sortition, so, for example, with 60% voter turnout a number of legislators are randomly chosen to make up 40% of the overall parliament. Each election is simultaneously a referendum on electoral and lottery representation.
Sortition to replace an appointed upper house
- The upper house of a parliament might be selected through sortition. Anthony Barnett and Peter Carty proposed this to the Royal Commission on the Reform of the House of Lords in the UK in 1999.
Effective representation of the interests of the people
A modern advocate of sortition, political scientist John Burnheim, argues for systems of sortition as follows:
“Let the convention for deciding what is our common will be that we will accept the decision of a group of people who are well informed about the question, well-motivated to find as good a solution as possible and representative of our range of interests simply because they are statistically representative of us as a group. If this group is then responsible for carrying out what it decides, the problem of control of the execution process largely vanishes.”
This advantage does not equally apply to the use of juries.
Cognitive diversity is an amalgamation of different ways of seeing the world and interpreting events within it, where a diversity of perspectives and heuristics guide individuals to create different solutions to the same problems. Cognitive diversity is not the same as gender, ethnicity, value-set or age diversity, although they are often positively correlated. According to numerous scholars such as Page and Landemore, cognitive diversity is more important to creating successful ideas than the average ability level of a group. This “Diversity Trumps Ability Theorem” is essential to why sortition is a viable democratic option. Simply put, random selection of persons of average intelligence performs better than a collection of the best individual problem solvers.
Fairness and equality
Sortition is inherently egalitarian in that it ensures all citizens have an equal chance of entering office irrespective of any bias in society:
“Compared to a voting system – even one that is open to all citizens – a citizen-wide lottery scheme for public office lowers the threshold to office. This is because ordinary citizens do not have to compete against more powerful or influential adversaries in order to take office, and because the selection procedure does not favour those who have pre-existing advantages or connections – as invariably happens with election by preference.”
Random selection has the ability to overcome the various demographic biases in race, religion, sex, etc. apparent in most legislative assemblies. Greater perceived fairness can be added by using stratified sampling. For example, the Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform in British Columbia sampled one woman and one man from each electoral district and also ensured representation for First Nations members. Bias may still exist if particular groups are purposefully excluded from the lottery such as happened in Ancient Athens where women, slaves, younger men and foreigners were not eligible.
Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle, Plato and Herodotus) emphasise the role of selection by lot or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example, Plato says:
“Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot.”
The idea that democracy is associated with sortition remained common in the 18th century. Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu writes in The Spirit of the Laws, “The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy.”
Sortition may be less corruptible than voting. Author James Wycliffe Headlam explains that the Athenian Council (500 administrators randomly selected), would commit occasional mistakes such as levying taxes that were too high. Additionally, from time to time, some in the Council would improperly make small quantities of money from their civic positions. However, “systematic oppression and organized fraud were impossible”. These Greeks recognized that sortition broke up factions, diluted power, and gave positions to such a large number of disparate people that they would all keep an eye on each other making collusion fairly rare. Furthermore, power did not necessarily go to those who wanted it and had schemed for it. The Athenians used an intricate machine, a kleroterion, to allot officers. Headlam also explains that “the Athenians felt no distrust of the lot, but regarded it as the most natural and the simplest way of appointment”.
Like Athenian democrats, critics of electoral politics in the 21st-century argue that the process of election by vote is subject to manipulation by money and other powerful forces and because legislative elections give power to a few powerful groups they are believed to be less democratic system than selection by lot from amongst the population.
Empowering ordinary people
An inherent problem with electoral politics is the over-representative of the politically active groups in society who tend to be those who join political parties. For example, in 2000 less than 2% of the UK population belonged to a political party whilst in 2005 there were at best only 3 independent MPs (see List of UK minor party and independent MPs elected) so that 99.5% of all UK MPs belonged to a political party. As a result, political members of the UK population were represented by one MP per 1800 of those belonging to a party whilst those who did not belong to a party had one MP per 19 million individuals who did not belong to a party.
Alleviates the problems of voter fatigue
Supporters also argue that sortition alleviates the problems of voter fatigue and rational ignorance, which is seen as a problem in both representative democracy and direct democracy.
Loyalty is to conscience not to political party
Elected representatives typically rely on political parties in order to gain and retain office. This means they often feel a primary loyalty to the party and will vote contrary to conscience to support a party position. Representatives appointed by sortition do not owe anything to anyone for their position.
“Pure sortition” does not discriminate
The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it does not discriminate among those selected and takes no account of particular skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled. Were such a position to require a specific skill set, sortition could not necessarily guarantee the selection of a person whose skills matched the job requirement unless the group from which the allotment is drawn were itself composed entirely of sufficiently specialized persons. The Athenians, for example, did not fill the roles of military commander (Strategos) by sortition for this reason. By contrast, systems of election or appointment ideally limit this problem by encouraging the matching of skilled individuals to jobs they are suited to. By submitting their qualifications to scrutiny beforehand, either by the electorate or other persons in positions of authority, those manifestly unqualified to hold a given position can be prevented from being elected or appointed to discharge it.
According to Xenophon (Memorabilia Book I, 2.9), this classical argument was offered by Socrates:
“[Socrates] taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft.”
The same argument is also made by Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
“There is no qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or presumptive. […] Everything ought to be open, but not indifferently, to every man. No rotation; no appointment by lot; no mode of election operating in the spirit of sortition or rotation can be generally good in a government conversant in extensive objects. Because they have no tendency, direct or indirect, to select the man with a view to the duty or to accommodate the one to the other.”
Because it introduces randomness in determining outcomes, there is always the statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or group that do not represent the views of the population from which they were drawn. This argument is mentioned by Isocrates in his essay Areopagiticus (section 23):
“[It was] considered that this way of appointing magistrates [i.e., elections] was also more democratic than the casting of lots, since under the plan of election by lot chance would decide the issue and the partizans of oligarchy would often get the offices; whereas under the plan of selecting the worthiest men, the people would have in their hands the power to choose those who were most attached to the existing constitution.”
This argument applies to juries, but less to larger groups where the probability of, for example, an oppressive majority, are statistically insignificant.
Voting confers legitimacy
Those who see voting as expressing the “consent of the governed”, maintain that voting is able to confer legitimacy in the selection. According to this view, elected officials can act with greater authority than when randomly selected. With no popular mandate to draw on, politicians lose a moral basis on which to base their authority. As such, politicians would be open to charges of illegitimacy, as they were selected purely by chance.
Individuals not chosen for enthusiasm
In an elected system, the representatives are to a degree self-selecting for their enthusiasm for the job. Under a system of pure, universal sortition the individuals are not chosen for their enthusiasm. Many electoral systems assign to those chosen a role as representing their constituents; a complex job with a significant workload. Elected representative choose to accept any additional workload; voters can also choose those representatives most willing to accept the burden involved in being a representative. Individuals chosen at random from a comprehensive pool of citizens have no particular enthusiasm for their role and therefore may not make good advocates for a constituency.
Lack of feedback or accountability
Unlike elections, where members of the elected body may stand for re-election, sortition does not offer a mechanism by which the population expresses satisfaction or dissatisfaction with individual members of the allotted body. Thus, under sortition there is no formal feedback, or accountability, mechanism for the performance of officials, other than the law.
Before the random selection can be done, the pool of candidates must be defined. Systems vary as to whether they allot from eligible volunteers, from those screened by education, experience, or a passing grade on a test, or screened by election by those selected by a previous round of random selection, or from the membership or population at large. A multi-stage process in which random selection is alternated with screening for merit can overcome the risk of selecting those who lack ability or enthusiasm. But, by creating definitions that are not equal to the actual characteristics of the group many of the benefits, like getting realistic data that people continuously choose not to vote (due to lack of enthusiasm) or clear legislation that can be interpreted without special ability, will be compromised as happens with any researcher’s data when the data that will be analysed is altered before conclusions are made.
The selection method may need to be carefully designed in order to preserve public confidence that it has not been rigged. The process may be conducted or supervised by a panel themselves selected at random, such as a grand jury being used to administer the random selection of the next grand jury.
One robust, general, public method of allotment in use since 1997 is documented in RFC 3797: Publicly Verifiable Nominations Committee Random Selection. Using it, multiple specific sources of random numbers (e.g. lotteries) are selected in advance, and an algorithm is defined for selecting the winners based on those random numbers. When the random numbers become available, anyone can calculate the winners.
David Chaum, a pioneer in computer science and cryptography, proposed Random-Sample Elections in 2012. Via recent advances in computer science, it is now possible to select a random sample of eligible voters in a verifiably valid manner and empower them to study and make a decision on a matter of public policy. This can be done in a highly transparent manner which allows anyone to verify the integrity of the election, while optionally preserving the anonymity of the voters. A related approach has been pioneered by James Fishkin, director of the Center for Deliberative Democracy at Stanford, to make legally binding decisions in Greece, China and other countries.
This short animated clip offers a succinct history and explanation of how the ancient Athenians came to use sortition (the selection of random citizens through lottery to fill government roles). It questions whether or not such a system could be used in today’s modern world. Could this ancient practice help eliminate greed and corruption from the political arena by restoring the integrity and efficiency of the democratic process? As America gears up for yet another brutal election cycle, these are worthy questions to be asking…
What did democracy really mean in Athens?
(Uploaded by TED-Ed)
This clip comes courtesy of the fantastic blog, Equality by Lot, and they have also transcribed the video:
“What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg
Hey, congratulations! You just won the lottery. Only the prize isn’t cash or a luxury cruise. It’s a position in your country’s national legislature. And you aren’t the only lucky winner. All of your fellow lawmakers were chosen in the same way.
This might strike you as a strange way to run a government, let alone a democracy. Elections are the epitome of democracy, right? Well, the ancient Athenians, who coined the word, had another view. In fact elections only played a small role in Athenian democracy, with most offices filled by random lottery from a pool of citizen volunteers.
Unlike the representative democracies common today, where voters elect leaders to make laws and decisions on their behalf, 5th century BC Athens was a direct democracy that encouraged wide participation through the principle of Ho Boulomenos, or “anyone who wishes”. This meant that any of its approximately 30,000 eligible citizens could attend the Ecclesia, a general assembly meeting several times a month. In principle any of the 6,000 or so who showed up in each session had the right to address their fellow citizens, propose a law, or bring a public lawsuit.
Of course, a crowd of 6,000 people trying to speak in the same time would not have made for effective government. So the Athenian system also relied on a 500 person governing council called the Boule to set the agenda and evaluate proposals, in addition to hundreds of jurors and magistrates to handle legal matters. Rather than being elected or appointed, the people in these positions were chosen by lot.
This process of randomized selection was known as sortition. The only positions filled by elections were those recognized as requiring expertise, such as generals. But these were considered aristocratic, meaning rule by the best, as opposed to democracy’s rule by the many.
How did this system come to be?
Well, democracy rose in Athens after long periods of social and political tension marked by conflict among nobles. Powers once restricted to elites, such as speaking in the assembly and having their votes counted, were expanded to ordinary citizens. And the ability of regular citizens to perform these tasks adequately became a central feature of the democratic ideology of Athens. Rather than a privilege, civic participation was the duty of all citizens, with sortition and strict term limits preventing governing classes or political parties from forming.
By 21st century standards, Athenian rule by the many excluded and awful lot of people. Women, slaves and foreigners were denied full citizenship. And when we filter out those too young to serve, the pool of eligible citizens drops to only 10%-20% of the overall population.
Some ancient philosophers, including Plato, disparaged this form of democracy as being anarchic and run by fools. But today the word has such positive associations that vastly different regimes claim to embody it. At the same time, some share Plato’s skepticism about the wisdom of crowds. Many modern democracies reconcile this conflict by having citizens elect those they consider qualified to legislate on their behalf. But this poses its own problems, including the influence of wealth and the emergence of professional politicians with different interests than their constituents.
Could reviving election by lottery lead to more effective government through a more diverse and representative group of legislators? Or does modern political office, like Athenian military command, require specialized knowledge and skills?
You probably shouldn’t hold your breath to win a spot in your country’s government. But, depending on where you live, you may still be selected to participate in a jury, a citizen assembly, or a deliberative poll – all examples of how the democratic principle behind sortition still survives today.”