The lottocracy

Elections are flawed and can't be redeemed – it’s time to start choosing our representatives by lottery

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It could be you; in the House Chamber for the State of The Union address. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House/Corbis

It could be you; in the House Chamber for the State of The Union address. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House/Corbis

Alexander Guerrero is an assistant professor of philosophy, medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania.

It is easy to feel that what you do won’t make any difference. Recycle that can, bike or drive, buy from this company not that one, march in the streets against the factory closing or the looming war. It’s never enough: the forces are large and anonymous, and there aren’t enough of us. Or there are too many of us. Vote, petition, protest. It can all feel pointless: a kind of precious dancing around, keeping a low causal profile, with an eye on some imaginary Future Judgment. How clean my hands are! How little of the world’s horror has been made by them!

But we don’t care about that. We care about the horror: the steady-warming planet; the children born into hard, sad futures; the millions of homeless, and hungry, and unjustly imprisoned; the growing gap between the rich and the poor in Philadelphia, Kansas, and Kentucky, in Moscow, Ghana, and Paris. The problem, at bottom, is that we feel that we can’t make a difference. Ethically and politically, we are ghosts in a machine.

The celebrity comic Russell Brand is gesticulating wildly, urgently, in a hotel room, under the bright lights of a television interview. ‘Stop voting, stop pretending, wake up. Be in reality now. Why vote? We know it’s not going to make any difference. We know that already.’ He is responding to his interviewer, Jeremy Paxman, who is taking him to task for never having voted.

We are brought up to think that voting is important, that it is a necessary condition of being a politically serious person, that we can’t complain about politics if we don’t vote. This last principle has echoes of the more reasonable parental admonition, said of lima beans or cauliflower: don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. But that principle is based on sound epistemological grounds: you might, for all you know, like cauliflower or lima beans. The voting thing is, as Brand argues, stupid. There are ways of participating in public affairs other than voting. For example, one can become a celebrity and call for revolution in a television interview.

More to the point, the inference from not voting to not caring is a poor one. As Brand points out, you might care a lot about what happens and what the system is doing, but still realise that voting doesn’t affect what happens or what the system does. In most elections, the chance that your vote will make any difference to who wins is much smaller than the chance that you will be hit by a car on the way to cast your vote. But people still turn out to vote. They even drive through snow, miss work, and wait in line for hours.

This has puzzled political scientists and economists. Why do people vote? This is an empirical question; it concerns our actual motivations. Many answers have been given: we vote because we enjoy it; because we think others will think badly of us if we don’t; because we want to express ourselves; or cheer for our team; or because we believe that we have a duty to do so. One worry about all of these answers is that they seem disconnected from what makes voting seem so morally significant, something that it might be worth fighting and dying for the right to do.

In the modern world, we often find ourselves in the following situation. I know that whether I do X rather than Y won’t make a difference by itself. I also know that everyone else knows this about me and about themselves. I also know that if all of us do X, rather than Y, it will make a difference. And everyone else knows this, too. So it’s striking and surprising that a celebrity such as Brand would come out and say, to millions, ‘Don’t vote,’ rather than ‘Vote for X.’ That was the revolutionary part of the interview. A thousand lefty celebrities have gone on TV and advocated for causes. Very few have gone on TV and said ‘Don’t vote.’ Very few have gone on TV and said, essentially, X and Y can both go fuck themselves.

One reason not to vote is that your vote — your one vote — is unlikely to make a difference to who wins the election. Another reason not to vote is that it doesn’t matter who wins the election, that there is no difference between X and Y, republican and democrat, Tory and Labour. An extreme version of this thesis — which is obviously false — is that there is no difference between our Xs and our Ys. Much more plausible versions of this thesis are that there is not enough difference between our Xs and Ys, or that with respect to some important issues there is no difference between our Xs and Ys.

Brand’s view is clear: ‘I’m not [refusing to vote] out of apathy,’ he says. ‘I’m not voting out of absolute indifference and weariness and exhaustion from the lies, treachery, deceit of the political class that has been going on for generations.’ Brand says that many of us don’t engage with the current political system, because we see that it doesn’t work for us, we see that it makes no difference. ‘The apathy doesn’t come from us, the people,’ he says. ‘The apathy comes from the politicians. They are apathetic to our needs. They are only interested in servicing the needs of corporations.’

Is this true? Why would this be? Wasn’t the whole point of democratic elections to ensure that power would be in the hands of the people?

The theory of modern representative democracy goes something like this. Each of us is fundamentally autonomous and of equal moral worth, so that we have a claim to self-government, self-rule, to the extent that such self-government is compatible with an equal right to self-government of others.

This suggests something like direct democracy, in which each of us would have an equal say in determining whether we go to war, what policies and laws to adopt, what should be taxed and how much taxes should be, and so on. But — we quickly realise — modern politics is very complex; it is a full-time job to be even modestly well-informed about political issues. Ideally, one would spend all of one’s time doing it, in addition to having staff and resources to help. This suggests a move from direct democracy to representative democracy, where we would each have an equal vote in choosing that individual whom we think will best represent our interests and views. That person will act as our representative — and not as an elected tyrant — because to stay in power, she or he will have to be re-elected. If our representatives do things that we don’t like, we can vote them out. That’s the theory, and its simplicity and power — and the successes of actual electoral representative democracies — have led representative democracy to be the ascendant and unrivalled political system around the world.

So, what’s the problem? The problem is that despite the elections, elected representatives are not actually accountable, not meaningfully accountable, to those over whom they govern.

There are logistical hurdles to keep poor, marginalised citizens from successfully registering to vote

Even in established democracies there are concerns about the openness and fairness of elections. There are huge financial barriers to running for office, and considerable advantages to incumbency. Corporate money and television advertising have an outsized influence. There are logistical hurdles to keep poor, marginalised citizens from successfully registering to vote, and gerrymandering reduces competition, considerably. These difficulties all reduce how accountable our representatives are to us.

Even if these problems were addressed, they would succeed only in making elections fair. But meaningful accountability requires not just open and fair elections; it also requires that we are capable of engaging in informed monitoring and evaluation of the decisions of our representatives. And we are not capable of this. Not because we are stupid, but because we are ignorant: ignorant about what our representatives are doing, ignorant about the details of complex political issues, and ignorant about whether what our representative is doing is good for us or for the world.

Our ignorance means that representatives can talk a good game, and maybe even try to do a few things that benefit the majority of us, but the basic information asymmetries at the heart of the representative system ensure that, for many issues — defence manufacturing and spending, policy that affects the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, agribusiness policy and regulation, energy policy, regulation of financial services and products — what we get is what the relevant business industries want. In the presence of widespread citizen ignorance and the absence of meaningful accountability, powerful interests will effectively capture representatives, ensuring that the only viable candidates — the only people who can get and stay in political power — are those who will act in ways that are congenial to the interests of the powerful.

These concerns are brought to the fore if we think about how little we know about most of what our representatives do, how little real choice goes into the election of our representatives, and how much deference to the goodwill of our favoured political party is required. Even when we step outside partisan information streams, most issues are complex, and much of what we believe about them is a result of information provided by a few dominant media institutions. But there might be a way to overcome these difficulties, if we rethink the fundamentals of democracy itself.

One response to these problems is to go small. In a small community, collective action problems are less prevalent, and can be solved organically. We can detect and shun violators or freeloaders. And information asymmetries disappear: I know the issues and problems that affect us, as do you. We understand their complexities. They are within our daily life. If we need to use representatives for some reason, we will know them personally, as friends or neighbours. We can easily see what they do.

One difficulty with this response is that it is not obvious how to go small. We know we can make a difference by connecting to people in more direct ways: talking to people we see during our day, providing food and shelter for local families, teaching in a prison. But it can be hard to see how our political communities can be made smaller in this way. And many of us are hard-pressed for time, energy, and the resources to make these efforts.

Worse still, the going small strategy can seem inadequate when compared with the forces at hand, the foundations of the horror. We are globally connected now. We can’t roll back the technological development and population increases that threaten the planet, and make it so that my small choices and your small choices all have such large, global effects. This is where the political system is supposed to be of help, but our system is broken.

Political systems are a kind of technology, inventions of human beings to bring about things we care about: peace, prosperity, freedom. Representative democracy is old technology. It dates back to the Roman Republic. Russell Brand says don’t vote, the system is broken, and I think he’s right: we do need a new system. But it is important to stress that in saying that, one needn’t be committed to the view that everything is awful. It’s not. Modern democratic governments do many things well, even if imperfectly: food safety and quality control, traffic safety and road maintenance, regulation and enforcement of building and zoning codes, public health crisis response, air-travel regulation, antitrust and market competition regulation, hospital and health care support, energy and telecommunications regulation, civil court systems, public libraries and basic public education, police and fire protection, support for basic and applied scientific research.

It’s true that for each item I just listed, there are 20 legitimate, serious complaints that could be made about the way some particular government handles that responsibility. It’s also true that modern governments collect an extraordinary amount of money in taxes, so it should be no surprise that some things get done. Still, it would be a mistake to think that representative democracy is a disaster. It’s good, but that shouldn’t keep us from trying to make an even better system by paying attention to the ways in which it falls short.

Electoral representative democracy has undergone a great many changes since it came on the scene. We’ve seen a steady increase in constitutionalism and proportional representation. We’ve seen multi-member districts and non-geographic districting become popular, along with publicly financed campaigns in some places, and the rise of the administrative state. These changes have offered substantial improvements, but it is now time to reform the heart of the system: the election. Modern policy is too complex for there to be meaningful electoral accountability. Electoral capture is too easy and too important for powerful interests. So, what’s the alternative? Get rid of elections. Use lotteries to select political officials.

There is historical precedent for this kind of method, also referred to as ‘sortition’. There are also a number of academics who have argued for a role for lotteries in the selection of political officials, including C L R James, Oliver Dowlen, and Peter Stone. In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, lottery-selection was used to choose political actors in three of its four major governmental institutions. Selection of political officials in late medieval and early renaissance Italy incorporated selection by lot. More recently, Citizens’ Assemblies (in which citizens were chosen at random to serve on the assembly, and in which citizens heard from experts prior to coming up with their own proposals) were used in the Netherlands to reform election law, and in Canada (in British Columbia and Ontario). Randomly chosen citizens were also brought into the process of constitutional reform in Iceland in 2010, but nothing of the scope that I am envisioning has been tried before.

There are hard questions about how exactly to structure a political system with lottery-selection at its heart. Here’s one approach, which I am in the process of developing, that I call lottocracy. The basic components are straightforward. First, rather than having a single, generalist legislature such as the United States Congress, the legislative function would be fulfilled by many different single-issue legislatures (each one focusing on, for example, just agriculture or health care). There might be 20 or 25 of these single-issue legislatures, perhaps borrowing existing divisions in legislative committees or administrative agencies: agriculture, commerce and consumer protection, education, energy, health and human services, housing and urban development, immigration, labour, transportation, etc.

People would not be required to serve if selected, but the financial incentive would be significant

These single-issue legislatures would be chosen by lottery from the political jurisdiction, with each single-issue legislature consisting of 300 people. Each person chosen would serve for a three-year term. Terms would be staggered so that each year 100 new people begin, and 100 people finish. All adult citizens in the political jurisdiction would be eligible to be selected. People would not be required to serve if selected, but the financial incentive would be significant, efforts would be made to accommodate family and work schedules, and the civic culture might need to be developed so that serving is seen as a significant civic duty and honour. In a normal year-long legislative session, the 300 people would develop an agenda of the legislative issue or two they would work on for that session, they’d hear from experts and stakeholders with respect to those issues, there would be opportunities for gathering community input and feedback, and they would eventually vote to enact legislation or alter existing legislation.

Single-issue focus is essential to allow greater learning and engagement with the particular problems, especially given the range of backgrounds that members would bring to the institutions, and the fact that these individuals would be amateurs at the particular task of creating legislation. Lottery-chosen representatives would have more time to learn about the problems they’re legislating than today’s typical representatives, who have to spend their time learning about every topic under the sun, while also constantly travelling, claiming credit, and raising funds to get re-elected. In the lottocratic system representatives will be — at least over a long enough run — descriptively and proportionately representative of the political community, simply because they have been chosen at random. But they will not have in mind the idea that they are to represent some particular constituency. Instead, they will be like better-informed versions of ourselves, coming from backgrounds like ours, but with the opportunity to learn and deliberate about the specific topic at hand.

No pure lottocratic system has ever existed, and so it’s important to note that much could go wrong. Randomly chosen representatives could prove to be incompetent or easily bewildered. Maybe a few people would dominate the discussions. Maybe the experts brought in to inform the policymaking would all be bought off and would convince us to buy the same corporate-sponsored policy we’re currently getting. There are hard design questions about how such a legislative system would interact with other branches of government, and questions about the coherence of policymaking, budgeting, taxation, and enforcement of policy. That said, it’s worth remembering the level of dysfunction that exists in the current system. We should be thinking about comparative improvement, not perfection, and a lottocratic system would have a number of advantages over the current model.

The most obvious advantage of lotteries is that they help to prevent corruption or undue influence in the selection of representatives. Because members are chosen at random and don’t need to run for office, there will be no way for powerful interests to influence who becomes a representative to ensure that the only viable candidates are those whose interests are congenial to their own. Because there is no need to raise funds for re-election, it should be easier to monitor representatives to ensure that they are not being bought off.

44 per cent of US Congresspersons have a net worth of more than $1 million; 82 per cent are male; 86 per cent are white, and more than half are lawyers or bankers

Another advantage of lotteries over elections is that they are likely to bring together a more cognitively diverse group of people, a group of people with a better sense of the full range of views and interests of the polity. Because individuals are chosen at random from the jurisdiction, they are much more likely to be an ideologically, demographically, and socio-economically representative sample of the people in the jurisdiction than those individuals who are capable of successfully running for office. As a point of comparison, 44 per cent of US Congresspersons have a net worth of more than $1 million; 82 per cent are male; 86 per cent are white, and more than half are lawyers or bankers. Recent empirical work by Scott Page and Lu Hong has demonstrated that cognitively diverse groups of people are likely to produce better decisions than smarter, or more skilled, groups that are cognitively homogenous.

Elections lead elected officials to focus on those problems for which they can claim credit for addressing, and to ignore or put on the back burner those problems with a longer horizon or those solutions for which it is harder to get credit. This negligence is made possible by voter ignorance and made inevitable by the perverse short-term incentives that elections provide. Lottery selection can help us to avoid this problem.

Perhaps the most urgent issue we face is climate change, a complex collective action problem that will almost certainly require a political solution to solve. But many of the worst effects of climate change won’t be realised for decades, and so politicians are unlikely to pay the short-term political cost given that they won’t see the longer-term political benefits. Even when there are clear steps that need to be taken, many elected officials will avoid acting out of fear of the immediate consequences. Individuals chosen at random won’t be hamstrung by these skewed incentives. If there is agreement on a viable solution, to climate change or to the myriad other issues that affect our children and grandchildren, lottocratic representatives will have the luxury of looking beyond this week’s poll or next week’s fund-raiser.

This task of radically redesigning government is usually dismissed as utopianism, but there is no reason to think that electoral representative democracy can’t be improved upon, just like every other kind of technology. Of course, one must be aware of limitations in the materials; we must think critically and carefully about what we know, what we have learned from psychology, economics, history, political science, law, and philosophy. And we have to be mindful of the dangers that attend our tinkering. Some of the worst horrors of the 20th century were the result of political design projects gone terribly wrong. So, we must tread carefully and take small steps. But we can't continue to stand still.

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Comments

  • atimoshenko

    Excellent idea. Maybe add in a safety mechanism through which the citizenry can kick out/recall a legislative body should it go off the deep-end before its term is up (with a new one again selected by lottery), and you'd have a system that will without a doubt work better than anything that exists in the world today.

  • henry

    William F. Buckley, I think (hope), would agree.

  • Lester

    An Excellent idea.

    And, much like how systems evolve throughout history, there is no need to produce a perfect and infallible blueprint, but rather to apply the concepts and adapt them with the process.

    The question of implementation looms. How do we go about implementing this (or other progressive and excellent ideas) when such immense power is bearing down aimed at continuing the current paradigm? We know we need change. We have the ideas to create change. How do we go about dismantling the system and making space for change?

    • Lucas Grange

      a good place to start testing this out would be in student politics. see how it goes there, and also has the uptick of getting the lottocracy system into peoples brains

  • TomJV

    It is interesting to read this article so soon after the Flemish writer David van Reybrouck wrote a small book also pleading for sortition which has resulted in quite some debate in the Dutch language area.
    Concerning Guerrero's proposal I think that it is lacking in two ways. First, his "single-issue-ism". Policy areas aren't neatly separated - for example, foreign, development, trade and health policy all overlap. Adhering to a view of politics as consisten of a set of issues which should be governed through policies indicates a quite limited view of what politics actually is. Second, pure polities might seem nice, but they aren't. It would be better to combine such aspects as sortition, representation, and participation.
    But a very good and necessary article nonetheless.

    • Lee Napier

      -"But a very good and necessary article nonetheless."

      You're an idiot.

      • Greg Petliski

        No you're not. I agree, its like John Muir said "Whenever you try and pick out anything by itself, you find it hitched to everything else in the universe." I think the idea could still work as long as there is communication between the groups.

        • marxmarv

          Well, how does one handle conflicting interests? Competition only guarantees that someone will lose, and how many other ways do average Americans really care to, or even know how to, handle conflicts?

          Never mind the lobbyists. Worry about the parties.

      • TomJV

        If you put it like that then I am completely convinced of course.

  • Andrew

    This reminds me a lot of how we handle jury selection here in the US:
    potential jurors are chosen at random (typically from voter registration
    lists!). Many people try (often successfully) to get out of serving.
    As a result, I often hear complaints that people who actually do serve
    on the jury are not an accurate cross-section of the population, but
    rather, representative of those who lack the wherewithal to be excused.
    One thing that is lacking from your proposal is the idea that the jury
    is sequestered, free from outside influence, during their deliberations,
    so only evidence presented publicly in the courtroom can
    (theoretically) affect their decisions. However, I doubt that your
    appointed problem-solvers would be willing to be isolated from their
    family, friends or the rest of the outside world for their entire
    three-year terms! Therefore, you'd need an alternate method to be
    certain that the decision-makers aren't being unduly influenced by
    powerful outsiders. I don't think that eliminating concerns about
    re-election would accomplish this, because there are too many other
    influencing factors, both positive and negative.

  • http://samnabi.com/ Sam Nabi

    Well done, this is a bold and inspiring vision for future government. The question that intrigues me most is how to decide the scope of each legislature? Who makes that decision, and what form of democracy is used to set up the structure of the lottocracy? And how can the structure itself be changed?

    Admittedly, this is getting in the weeds — but it could have big ramifications for climate change policy. Say there's a legislature that deals with "Fisheries and Oceans" (we have a Department of Fisheries and Oceans here in Canada, so it would seem a logical transition). Say there's a bill proposing big tariffs on cargo ships to reduce traffic volumes, and in turn prevent pollution and protect biodiversity. Okay. That might cripple the fishing industry. But at least the fishing folks can bring that into the debate and vote on it. But what about the Finance legislature? Manufacturing? Surely they'd want a say.

    So who decides whether they get a say or not? And how do we make sure that legislatures stay within the confines of their area of expertise?

  • thurbeb

    I had actually been thinking about this, this week. If congress was more like jury selection , the representatives would be more like the people they should server, than the rich folks that currently reside in the in those seats, thereby making better representatives. Since the salary of a congressional seat is more than most people make anyway, it would be a bit like winning a 2 year salary.

  • tiredoftea

    Changing how representatives get to a governing body, Congress, Senate, state representatives, etc., is worth looking at, but it doesn't solve the actual problem, which is the pernicious effects of the moneyed interests. Having naive citizen lottery winners might very well make the laws coming from Congress more skewed in favor of special interests. After all, who would not want an all expenses paid trip to some fabulous place to listen to why some special interest (corporate, political, conservative, liberal) has the best solution to whatever narrow issue is being considered?

    No, we need absolute sunshine in the political lives of every elected representative, or government official, including to a limited extent, their family members, friends and business associates, no matter how they get to public office.

    This "sunshine" will expose any money or in kind donations, will extend to gifts and jobs to family, will open calendars to declare who they are meeting with, when, where, what the topic is, who they represent, how much they contributed to the officeholder and how the officeholder voted on any relevant and subsequent bills to the meeting attendee.

    Until we clean up and expose the "mother's milk" of politics, we cannot expect a change of faces and how they get to a privileged position to make much difference to the outcome of law making bodies. And, this effort can start in the next election simply by asking all candidates fro office to sign the "Sunshine Pledge" as described above. This personal act will make our current representative democracy truly representative of our interests without having to overhaul our election system or wait for some committee to approve the concept.

  • Souldiernour

    The united states congress is a farce and is detrimental to the country as they do not represent the best interests of the people of the united states as a whole and would rather represent the corporations who put them there(www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/cost-u-s-senate-seat-10-5-million-article-1.1285491)
    (http://theweek.com/article/index/235977/the-multibillion-dollar-2012-election-by-the-numbers) checks and balances are a myth a great show, nothing works the Reps and Sens do not read the bills, and SCOTUS passes unconstitutional bills, coerced, bought, or bribed bunch of mobsters. But they need to keep the American myth alive to maintain the military industrial complex. Their system depends on America being perceived as a democracy. It's not a democracy, It was never meant to be a democracy, just a humble freedom loving republic.

    • marxmarv

      Only for the landed gentry, though, and as for humble, citation needed.

  • Chris Berntson

    made me think of this

  • Antonia

    Excellent article, although I'm surprised you don't mention the system by its name: demarchy. The debate on its validity has produced a healthy number of articles and books.

  • IsraelCaballero

    Has anyone read "La lotería de Babilonia" by Borges?

    "That silent functioning, like God's, inspires all manner of conjectures. One scurrilously suggests that the Company ceased to exist hundreds of years ago, and that the sacred disorder of our lives is purely hereditary, traditional; another believes that the Company is eternal, and teaches that it shall endure until the last night, when the last god shall annihilate the earth. Yet another declares that the Company is omnipotent, but affects only small things: the cry of a bird, the shades of rust and dust, the half dreams that come at dawn. Another, whispered by masked heresiarchs, says that the Company has never existed, and never will. Another, no less despicable, argues that it makes no difference whether one affirms or denies the reality of the shadowy corporation, because Babylon is nothing but an infinite game of chance."

  • http://avangionq.stumbleupon.com/ AvangionQ

    Elections are flawed, agreed ~ but can't be redeemed, that's just wrong. There's a rather easy way to fix elections: on the ballot, drop the party the candidates are representing, add a list of their top10 most important issues, and how they plan on voting thereon ~ instant fix, as people will vote for the issues that matter to them.

    • rednip

      Who decides what that is on that top ten list? Who decides what laws back up that list?

      The idea that one can 'instantly fix' anything as complex as society or government is one of the biggest fallacies of the modern world.

      • http://avangionq.stumbleupon.com/ AvangionQ

        Each candidate would select his or her own top10 list. Laws would be passed by Congress the same way as always. Also, I'm pretty sure this system would fix our politics in a hurry, if not instantly upon the completion of the next election cycle.

        • marxmarv

          Great, so they get to put their political communications on the ballot. That's the opposite of accountability: if they can't be compelled in a binding fashion to either vote as the people demand or vacate their office, you're still just electing kings piecemeal.

          Vested authority is the problem, not the solution.

  • NeverGetOutOfTheBoat

    The problem I see is that such a system would enhance the sense of disenfranchisement of the governed population. The problem Guerrero points out, the individual sense of being a part of the governmental system, is a very real one. However, that is the one strength of a representative democracy, is that it ensures, for the most part, that the governed populace consent to the legitimacy of the government through the principle of the individual vote.

    Under Guerrero's system, this sense of ownership is lost, which may add more legitimacy to internal resistance, violent or otherwise. Additionally, it also holds the problem of trying to find citizens willing to defend and enforce the rules under such a system. Good luck trying to find people willing to join a military force whose ultimate authorities are determined by a lotto.

    The one area of government that I could see a lotto being a boon is in manning independent election commissions every 10 years (or another determined periodic time) to determine voting district boundaries. The process of gerrymandering by incumbents is too blatant a conflict of interest to function legitimately. Guerrero's lotto solution is ideally suited for this purpose. The other side of the coin is to some extent embrace smallness, at least in the US House of Representatives, and other representative legislative bodies, by mandating a much smaller representative to citizen ratio. See this article:http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/24/opinion/24conley.html.

  • Jim Dawkins

    Heck If we go that far we should require a political IQ test as well. Too many ill informed voters basing everything on media rhetoric, aesthetics and celebrity.

  • http://suijurisforum.com/ noone special

    More statism.... Look at the shiny new package it's in though!

  • rednip

    This idea is basically 'term limits on steroids'. No one would ever serve more than one term and those who do serve would likely never again hold any public office. In that world the only ones who'd have any clue about government would be the bureaucrats and lobbyists.

  • deepseer

    change the tax code...you don't vote, you don't get tax breaks. I guess this author has decided that it's too hard to amend the constitution too.

  • Alex Guerrero

    Hi Everyone. Thanks for the comments. I thought I'd respond to a few, although of course there is much to be said, and much more to be thought about!

    Antonia and TomJV: There are indeed a number of different people who have been working on this (and of course the basic idea itself is very old), and they have done so under different headings. Many working on the topic prefer the term "sortition" (to contrast with election), but I worry that leaves the difference of mechanism relatively obscure, and has unfortunate echoes of both "sordid" and "sedition." John Burnheim appropriated the term "demarchy" from Hayek to refer to the system he develops in his fascinating and wide-ranging book "Is Democracy Possible?" (you can read the whole thing for free here: http://ses.library.usyd.edu.au/bitstream/2123/2402/1/Frontmatter-is_democracy_possible.pdf ). Others like the term "klerostocracy" for its Greek roots.

    I would have liked to mention the many others who are engaged as activists and academics in thinking about using lotteries in politics, but these pieces have a less academic tone, and so that got cut. Other people whose work you might track down, if you're interested, include, in the UK (Anthony Barnett, Peter Carty, Oliver Dowlen, Ben Saunders, Peter Stone, Keith Sutherland), in the US (Terrill Bouricius, Ernest Callenbach, Hélène Landemore, Ethan Leib, Neil McCormick, Kevin O’Leary, Michael Phillips, Alex Zakaras), in Canada (Mark Warren and Hilary Pearse), the Australian philosopher John Burnheim, the late Afro-Trinidadian philosopher C.L.R. James, Paul Lucardie in the Netherlands, Yoram Gat in Israel, the French activist Étienne Chouard, the political party Partido Azar in Spain, Belgian MP Laurent Louis and the Youth Parliament of Belgium—all have argued for the use of lottery selection in politics, in various forms and to various degrees.

    There is a fantastic blog, Equality by Lot, that has lively discussion of the use of lottery in politics: http://equalitybylot.wordpress.com/

    TomJV and Sam Nabi: On the individuation of issues problem... Yes, it is true that policy problems don't always come neatly separated. On the other hand, most current systems already involve lots of this division into issues, both in the form of sub-committees within legislatures, and in the form of the division of administrative agencies. See, for example, the division of federal agencies in the United States: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_federal_agencies

    Still, I do see this as a worry. One possible institutional solution would be to allow these single-issue legislatures to merge in some instances, or to deal with issues in stages. (For the whole system, there is the question of monitoring and making sure a particular randomly chosen group stays in its lane. There will almost certainly need to be something like a constitutional structure in the background--whether written or unwritten--and some institution, whether a Supreme Court or a randomly chosen 'meta-assembly', charged with making sure that the randomly chosen assemblies do not do things beyond their authority.) In the background to your comment I hear something, too, about how issues come to be seen as issues in a particular polity--how the agenda gets created. And that's also something that is worth thinking about. One possibility is that there could be a randomly selected group or series of groups that also is responsible for figuring out how the issues should be divided up in the first place. Another possibility is to let the agenda itself be set through more direct democratic means. Lots of possibilities to consider. And it's worth considering what political parties will look like and do in a world of random selection.

    rednip: On the term limits/naive legislator issue... this is something that I've worried about, but I think there are reasons that random selection is much better than elections plus strict term limits. In the latter case, there still is the question of being viable as a candidate, which is often about playing nicely with corporate powers.

    As several people have suggested (Andrew, others), there's also the continued question of policing the influence of those lobbyists and corporate powers (quarantining the randomly selected, policing expert classification, etc.), something which one could do in either system, but which (for the aforementioned reason about no elections) should be easier in the lottocratic system. Why should they be talking to the randomly chosen folks at all? It's true I envision interaction with experts, activists, and stakeholders, and lobbying types might make themselves fit into those categories, but I'm also envisioning strict disclosure requirements in terms of where they get their money from, and I would think that would undercut some of the abilities of those folks to persuade the randomly chosen. It is an interesting question how much quarantining will be possible, how long people will need to spend in a physical place away from home (maybe none in a virtually equipped future?), and how much post-office holding monitoring will be permissible to make sure that the randomly chosen are not 'rewarded' (bought off) with nice trips, plush jobs, etc. after they have concluded their service. Much of this seems to be in-principle possible, although implementation is always the key. It's also worth stressing how much more costly and difficult it will be to buy off lots of randomly selected people (who might each be getting a million a year to serve, assuming they abide by the rules), rather than just one Senator who will be in office for 40 years.

    There is a real worry about newbies interacting with seasoned politicians and lobbyists, particularly given the evidence concerning the 'bureaucratic capture' of administrative agencies, so that recent short-term political appointees are routinely blocked from getting their way by the much more knowledgeable long-term bureaucrats, who might not share the appointees point of view. There is also the worry raised by the possibility of the randomly chosen legislature interacting with a long term politically expert executive or administrative state. The 'enforcement' side of policy is always hard on this front. I'm not sure it's any worse with the lottocratic system, but it might be... There might also be institutional fixes: having some people have longer terms, so that there are 'veteran' randomly selected people, having randomly selected bodies in an enforcement oversight role, etc. But these are definitely the kinds of things I'm interested in thinking about.

    Anyway, thanks for the feedback and engagement. We are just at the beginning stages of thinking about how this might go in practice, and I see it very much as a collaborative effort. Check out the Equality by Lot blog if you are interested!

    • Thirdsyphon

      In real life, this would almost certainly end in disaster. .. but it's an intriguing thought experiment, so I'll play along.

      If you're worried about the issues of transparency and lobbyists exercising undue influence on the legislators, there's an easier way to deal with that than sequestering them away from the rest of society for three years. I think that's a bad idea on its merits in addition to being impractical.

      Instead, why not just keep their identities anonymous? The Supreme Court or some other trusted entity can hold the lottery drawing in secret and then, over the next week or two, ship each of the winners a laptop with military-grade encryption and a variation on the following letter:

      "Dear Mr. Smith:

      Congratulations. You have been randomly chosen to serve anonymously as a Member of the United States Special Legislature for Transportation during a term of three (3) years beginning at 12:01am on January 1st of next year. In this role, you will use the Assigned Legislative Internet Anonymizing Signifier: "@US/Transportation-Rep.INDIGO." This ALIAS has been linked to the enclosed laptop, which you will use exclusively to carry out all legislative functions. All communications to and from your ALIAS, and all votes cast by it, will become a matter of public record; however, your true identity will not. Your compensation for this service, $750,000 per year, will be paid into your Numbered Legislative Account in biweekly intervals.

      Please note that while you are free, in your role as a Legislator, to reveal as much or as little of your personal background as you wish, and to tell any individuals you trust about your role, the risk of all such revelations is borne by you. If you are ever publicly identified as a Legislator, during or after your term of service, for any reason, you will be immediately dismissed from service; your ALIAS and the physical laptop associated with it will be disabled; and all payments to your NLA will cease. In addition, as a known former legislator your financial affairs will be subject to heightened scrutiny by law enforcement to ensure that you are not improperly receiving any favors or financial benefits from lobbyists or other parties affected by your votes.

      You have the right to decline this position. If you wish to exercise that option, simply activate your laptop, and select DECLINE at the first prompt that appears after your biometric verification has been completed. Thank you once again for serving your country, and good luck!"

      • http://www.alexguerrero.org Alex Guerrero

        This is an interesting suggestion (not sure how seriously you meant it--always hard to tell when people are offering a reductio rather than a genuine suggestion), and total anonymity could be useful for some issues, perhaps. There are worries, however. For one thing, it would complicate group deliberation, although there are perhaps technological fixes for that. For another thing, there is a real question of how the rest of society will react to policy imposed by a lottery-selected body. One key to acceptance of that policy might be knowing something about the people who were making these decisions. (This seemed important in the case of the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly, for example.) There might be some capability for anonymity while revealing, say, demographic facts, occupational facts, residency facts, etc., but it's a worry about deep anonymity of this sort. There's also the possibility of anonymity/quarantine/insulation during the service, with identities revealed after completion. But I also think there are important values of transparency and public engagement during the decisionmaking that would be made difficult by this kind of secrecy. But it's an interesting idea, and highlights how technological advances might make certain possibilities viable...

        • Thirdsyphon

          Thanks for your response. Even *I'm* not sure how seriously I meant that, but it's a fascinating exercise all the same, so I'm inclined to keep playing.

          The group deliberation template I had in mind was the live chat rooms they sometimes set up at The Economist to cover things like political debates and other scheduled news events. The staffers who participate in the chat are all anonymous and distinguishable only by the separate colors assigned to their posts (and they'll call each other by the name of that color, hence the "Rep.INDIGO" of my example). Although the participants all tend to have different personalities and perspectives, which become readily apparent as they interact with each other, you'd be amazed at how little difference it makes for the participants and the audience to not know who anyone "really" is. A similar phenomenon can be observed in discussion threads like this one, where a robust give-and-take of ideas can occur without the need for personal biography (although participants in threads can and often do productively reference their personal biography and experiences when it's pertinent).

          To my mind, by far the biggest legitimacy issue created by an anonymous, randomly chosen legislature is the problem of convincing the public that the random, anonymous legislature actually exists, and isn't just a Kafka-esque fiction presented by some shadowy cabal that's *really* in charge. In the States, the word of the U.S. Supreme Court might be enough to gain the public's trust; it's not clear to me who might fill that role in other systems of government, but then every society is unique.

          The other issues you mention (the risk of low demographic diversity, and the the probable lack -at least to start with- of technical competence and expertise among the legislators) are, to some extent, both problems that exist quite comfortably in our current system of government; and to the extent that random selection doesn't solve them, it strikes me as an inherent and unavoidable downside to this method of government.

          Sequestration, in my view, is more problematic than anonymity. Three years of what amounts to genteel imprisonment, even for $750,000 a year, would be a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow. Most people with families would insist that their families be allowed to join them at their undisclosed location; and not every family will accept this deal on any terms at all. You could very easily end up with a biased sample of people; and the candidates who reject the deal (because they have families and social/emotional connections to other people that they can't just cut off) strike me as exactly the sort of people we'd *want* in this government.

          Sequestration with anonymity is basically accomplishing the same goal twice, at horrific inconvenience and expense; but sequestration *without* anonymity accomplishes nothing. For one thing, it precludes any interaction with constituents; but if it becomes known that "pro-energy" legislators are always rewarded with cushy jobs at energy companies when their term of service ends, then the energy lobbyists won't actually need to say anything to the legislators in order to sway them, and we'll have a system that operates much the same as it does now.

          Disclosing demographic data is a solid idea -especially if you have a real world example of it working in practice- but it's a slippery slope. Too much information about who these people are and where they come from could easily unmask them. . . remember, these are anonymous *public figures* we're talking about here, and the media will have the motive and resources to make the most out of every scrap of information that the public disclosure gives them as a jumping-off point to finding out who they are. Also, a random sample of just a few dozen people (my estimate of the likely "class" size for an Issue Legislature) is likely to be skewed in favor of *something* that makes it unrepresentative of some aspect of the electorate as a whole. Too many college grads. . . too many westerners. . . too many left-handed people. . . unless your sample gets into the thousands (which I think would be unaffordable), that problem won't vanish. So the legislators will lose at least some of the legitimacy gained by this disclosure to the questions that the disclosure itself opens them up to.

          And also (this just occurred to me), imagine a hypothetical scenario in which an anonymous legislator described as a "Southwestern rural, white, churchgoing male in his late 30s who works on an oil rig" starts voting and speaking like Elizabeth Warren and consequently becomes a target of nonstop vilification in the right-wing media (or, if you prefer, the reverse situation in a liberal demographic). Can you imagine the witch-hunting paranoia that would haunt all the people in that demographic? This might incline some people to toe the line of their demographic point of origin rather than their own judgment (which isn't *all* downside, especially for demographics with self-loathing issues, but still).

    • Ahmed R Teleb

      Alex,
      Excellent piece, well done! I've been looking out for your book on the subject, that I first heard about in your Boston Globe article. Any updates on the book?

      I also mentioned you in a piece called "The New French Revolution" on Truthout as an example of political thinkers going beyond representative government.

      • http://www.alexguerrero.org Alex Guerrero

        Hi Ahmed,

        Thanks for your comment. The book is still in progress. I'll take a look at your piece; thanks for the heads up about it. Best wishes.

  • off_leash

    During the early colonial days of Philadelphia, the mayoral candidate was essentially chosen by drawing straws. Whoever got the short one became mayor. No one wanted the job because it interfered with a person's ability to pursue commerce. People were much more interested in earning money than in wielding political power. In those days, holding public office truly was a public service.

  • Alice Xia

    A few concerns... First, the author claims that voters are not the main problem, but rather, it is mostly apathy from politicians and their unresponsiveness to the needs of citizens. But then, voters are criticized for being ignorant about what are representatives are doing? I understand that the relationship must go both ways in order to even come close to realizing the pillars of the representative democracy theory, but I think this article misses a big point that goes beyond which either side of the voting system is or isn't doing. Most Americans seem to overlook the fact that we have never adhered to the theoretical underpinnings of the Constitution, so when our democratic institutions are in in bad shape, why do we instinctively turn back to something that never even existed? This problem moves past the author's argument for a lottery system (which is pretty entertaining, and not even in a mocking sense); I'm just thinking about why there was a strong negative reverberation to Brand's comment in the media when it seems like the statistics prove that more and more Americans agree with him. Again, it's as if people are offended that Brand would attack an ideal that has yet to come into fruition.

    • marxmarv

      Voting is merely a ceremony or sacrament of civil religion. When one goes to vote, one ratifies the institution of (ostensibly) representative democracy. That's where the power of not voting lies, and that's what scares those who benefit from power as it is currently constituted.

  • Agga

    I think this idea has promise, but doesn't go far enough. There is no reason the people who "win the lottery" wouldn't become nearly as corrupt as modern day politicians.

    Instead, do away with the whole idea of serving terms. Draw or randomly select (to get a thoroughly representative sample of the population as in scientific studies) a number of people to form citizens advisory councils who then convene on an issue. They spend a few intensive weeks pondering and debating the issue and get to hear experts and advocates. Then they make a report with proposed solutions, and a body of implementors get to work.

    Tom Atlee, amongst others, are championing these types of councils. The idea is that several people with a great diversity of thought will come up with better solutions as they are likely to consider more conditions and from more angles.

    Government could be a series of councils on an international, national, regional, and local level.

  • dfla

    It is a proven fact that any diverse group makes better decisions than an expert or group of experts. Lottery schemes usually devolve into focus groups or qualification bigotry. A lottery needs to be inclusive and blind. Along with a lottery or even the current election process when picked an internship with the current "elected" official would be helpful.

  • Brandon McNaughton

    Interesting idea. This would also take care of the "career politician" class. But what about scale? 300 people per issue legislature would be alright at the federal level; but a bit much for anything smaller than NYC or Tokyo. I'd be interested to see this tried at a state level.

    Another question is; under this system, do you stick with a single executive chosen by election? Move to a randomly chosen executive? Or do you pull an "executive council" together by pulling one person from each single issue legislature?

  • David Moye

    As nice as the idea sounds, electing congress by lottery puts even more power in the hands of lobbyists and other Washington insiders who will need to show the newly elected people how things are done.

  • Renee

    There is no system that will abrogate human nature. A lottocracy? That will be power to the bureaucracy, because every term you'll have a large crowd of newbies who don't know what they're doing. They'll have to rely on the lobbyists and staff who remain after the perpetual freshmen go. The ones who distinguish themselves as public servants? Never mind that. Throw them out with the rest.

    You think that is somehow better than an informed electorate voting? I'm sorry but I don't really see it that way. I don't want a new captain of the ship ever two weeks just because I don't trust anyone on the planet. That means a ship zig zagging all over the place.

    I'd rather be able to choose the guy I think brings the best skill set and mindset to the table, and if someone distinguishes themselves, then I want to keep them in office. That's my right and my privilege to vote my conscience.

    As for those who believe voting doesn't matter, please continue to think so. The fewer of you who vote, the more my vote begins to count. :P

    • marxmarv

      Does it? In what other department of life does an employee have more right to wreck the factory, harass other employees, ignore management, and heaven help you if you lay a finger on them, until they punch out at the end of their scheduled shift? Why do you need authority so badly?

      • Renee

        I'm not sure I really understand your comment, marxmarv. I said nothing about wrecking factories. I said I'd like to be able to choose the person I think best rather than leaving it to a roll of the dice.

  • marxmarv

    People vote as an act of religious observance. That the religion in question is a civil religion does not necessarily weaken its hold.

    First, it assumes that people generally believe in the concept of fiduciary duty. Society's tacit approval of stealing office supplies from employers gives the lie to that. Second, it assumes that people generally *seek* to be open-minded and discerning, to which I offer both Edward Bernays and his ideological descendants, and Kevin Drum's recent article on the abortion divide being driven by elites, not proles. Third, it assumes that the original justifications for the system (lack of distributed time and expertise) still hold. In response, I suggest that the era of near-light-speed communications and near-instantaneous retrieval of information or knowledge has blunted any question of expertise, and the matter of lack of time is simply Parkinson's Law combined with the Protestant work ethic.

    Furthermore, social and partisan identity are a far more accurate predictor of an official's official activities than any ostensible domain expertise (except, apparently, how to run a state like a factory and dormitory), and as long as political partisanship is still a fashionable piece of one's social identity ensemble, political parties will still be crafting the ideologies that its faithful would follow. In the extreme, any person or group who can afford to hire a battalion of sex workers or provide other unique and/or forbidden experiences could easily "get to yes" on any committee they like, and humans are expert at rationalizing such perfectly rational behavior -- in fact, it is ALWAYS potentially rational to sell out, according to some or other conceivable set of preferences. Finally, nothing about sortition remedies the lack of accountability inherent in the de facto privilege-cum-right to serve out one's term. Without the ability to instantaneously and by popular will remove malfeasors, including also those that try to use their official capacity to secure protection from accountability, there is no accountability.

    Besides all that, does a paternalistic, martial, hero-worshipping religious sensibility like American Exceptionalism even desire, or can it even accept, participatory government? I've seen very few signs in the mainstream of those who do not wish to be subjects of authority. They usually just want a different autocrat, preferably themselves. Those who can manage even such simple mental tools as Hegelian synthesis without prompting are rarer still. Such societies cannot function without scapegoats to milk and moral panics to keep them down, and save for a few years here and there, from the first days of slavery to the last gasps of the temperance movement, the USA has maintained a nearly unbroken run of having some outgroup on which to blame their poor outcomes.

    So don't flatter yourself overmuch -- the whole prospect of reinventing political economy without first reinventing politico-economic sensibilities (or culture itself) is not utopianistic, just onanistic.

  • founders1

    Check out this idea, to bring the public voice to bear in a whole new way, that is both powerful and scalable. http://www.VOP.org. Also, new study being released this week by PPC showing how using online 'policymaking simulations' Americans can solve even tough problems like Social Security. Here is the link to register: http://www.public-consultation.org/email/SS_Event020714.html

  • Virtually Yours

    This was a superb essay...congrats! I have been fascinated by this idea of sortition ever since I first stumbled upon a reference to it in Arthur C. Clarke's novel, Imperial Earth. I love your idea for the lottocracy (!) and the biggest question in my mind is: how could we potentially go about implementing a system such as this? I have an idea and would be curious to see if you have any thoughts...

    There are plenty of people on both sides of the political spectrum who are thoroughly discouraged and disillusioned...so what if we were to set up a third party, based upon a set number of shared goals and values (perhaps something akin to Living Room Conversations and/or the issues that were raised by Occupy the Debates) which could then be turned into the party’s platform? Instead of voting for a candidate, you would in fact be voting for the agreed-upon party platform and when the party wins, qualified individuals could then be selected by lottery for temporary roles of oversight and management in order to guarantee the successful implementation of the platform...all of those shared goals and values which brought everyone together in the first place! If something like this could be accomplished, it would prove that such a system could work and the precedent would be undeniable...

    And what about this for added incentive: let's say you are selected for a three-year term but you manage to successfully accomplish/implement your particular goal before that time is up...congrats! You can choose to step down and hand over the reigns to someone else (who will then be selected through another round of sortition) or you can continue on till the end of your term.

    I also wonder if those who are selected would be willing to wear Google Glass (or some other similar form of monitoring/live streaming tech) for the duration of their term? Anyone who agrees to accept a position with that much responsibility should be humble enough to acknowledge the necessity of transparency, a concept which is all but novel in the world of politics.

    Thanks again so much for sharing this fantastic piece :-)

  • scribblerlarry

    This is a good enough 'bare bones' outline of this concept. Let me offer some thoughts on this, if I may. On implementation; It is not necessary to tear down the old system so as to initiate the new. Our civilization has advanced to the point where we can use evolution to achieve our goals in much the same way as we have, in the past, used revolution. But understand this: Using evolution is NOT a quick method. It is cleaner in that far fewer people die. It is better in that the infrastructure of a highly technological society will be little harmed - important to we who can no longer survive in an agrarian society.

    The trick is to not confront those who espouse the present system. It is to ignore it to some degree - an ever increasing degree - as we build our own system right beside it. There is no way that we can simply alter our electoral system. We'll need to alter our economic system and our social system as well.

    First we need to understand that those two systems need to be looked at as inherently separate systems. Yes, they influence each other and need to work together for the good of the whole, but they ARE separate systems.

    In our present situation we have let the economic system come to dominate and control the social system. This is upside down. Men join together in societies for social reasons and find that they must have an economic system in order to expedite achieving social goals. We DO NOT build a social system so as to feed the needs of an economic system; so as to make of ourselves wage slaves.

    Unfortunately, that's just exactly what we've done. This means that our management team will be / is being chosen by whatever means is deemed best by the economic system instead of by the social system.

    Needless to say, the present economic system is quite happy with the present state of affairs; it can control whom we elect so as to ensure that only those sympathetic to its aims sit in the seats of management in the society. A lottery system would change that drastically.

    If the lottery system is set up so that there is a one-year overlap to allow the new person to be trained by the previous person as well as dividing the civic service/social management into twelve (or more or less) segments which each have their own time slot for changeover. The new person should spend hid first year sitting at the side of the old person to learn. He will spend the last year teaching his successor too.

    I do not recommend that those selected be paid anything special. Whatever the average income is in the nation (or state or municipality or county or.....) that is his salary. The only 'perq' he should get is to pay no taxes on that salary.

    There's a start. There's a lot more to think of. I've been working on this since 1970....... ;-)
    .

  • Ben

    It's a very interesting proposal.

    My biggest question would be how to allot the funding to each of the legislatures. Who would decide how much money each legislature would have to deal with to enact legslation? Or how to tax the people in order to get the funds? How would people decide what gets funding or not if there are 30 different legislatures all begging for funding for their ideas at once. Without funding a law doesn't have any effect no matter how good great a law or how little corruption there is. Unfortunately the people that have the money or control funding is where the power would lie in a lottocracy not with the legislatures.

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