Sortition to Fix America’s Broken System

A recent blog posting…

…advocates sortition to select all American federal elective offices–the President, the Vice President, the Senate, and the House. The proposal is a (quite understandable) reaction to the Supreme Court’s recent radical decision to lift all restraints on corporate “free speech” (thereby constraining the free speech rights of everyone else).

The proposal has generated a lot of comments, which is a good thing. I mostly have quibbles about the proposal. For example, I wouldn’t rely upon income tax records for fear that those at the bottom might be underrepresented. Why not rely on voter registration, combined with a much more aggressive effort at achieving universal registration? Also, the proposal calls for curtailing lobbyists from outside the area a representative or senator represents. I suspect such proposal would be ineffective, and that other measures (for example, the restoration of a robust and vibrant media) would be needed here. Finally, I’m not very keen on selecting the President and the Veep this way. In the past, sortition has almost always been used to fill collective bodies. Obviously, this helps to guard against the variances in quality that random selection can induce. Pick one name at random, and you may get an idiot, a nut, or a teabagger (but I repeat myself). Pick 12 names, and you might get 1 or 2 cranks. Pick 435 names (i.e., fill the U.S. House by lot), and the odds of getting a large number of nutters is infinitesimally small (unless a majority of the citizenry are nutters, in which case you have bigger problems on your hands).

6 Responses

  1. An issue that comes up in passing in the boiling frogs post are the matter of pay and benefits for the allotted officials and the process of resumption of their private lives at the end of the term.

    I think the package presented to the allotted people has to be alluring enough so that it is accepted voluntarily by the overwhelming majority of the people it is offered to. This would eliminate the need to use any type of mandatory service, as well as provide motivation for enthusiastic and conscientious service.

    In terms of pay and benefits, people keeping those they had before they were allotted is neither fair (differential pay for the same work), not generous enough to command the loyalty of the allotted to their new jobs. Something along the lines of what Congresspeople receive today should be sufficient.

    The matter of the private lives of the allotted officials after the end of the term is more complex. The guiding consideration should be that the statistical representation principle continues to hold after the service – i.e., that the lives of the officials after leaving office would be somewhat representative of the lives of the general population. This means that the post-service lives would not be unusually unpleasant (due to the disruption to their private lives created by holding office) or particularly pleasant (due to an excess of benefits).

    In particular, things should be arranged so that (unlike the situation today) there will not be a likely tendency to trade favors to powerful elements while in office for favors by the powerful after leaving office. It may make sense to have an allotted committee supervising the income of former allotted officials and making sure that their income does not have the appearance of creating a retro-active conflict of interest.


  2. On the other hand, giving very generous benefits — in installments, for several years after the officials leave office — could be a way to greatly reduce corruption. In Athens, officials, upon leaving office, underwent an audit. I would suggest something very generous — say, $2 million — in installments of $200,000 per annum over 10 years, with a new audit every year, and payment of the future installments conditioned on passing the audit.

    Such generous benefits would help ensure the representativeness of the sample, because very few people would refuse the offer. (And those who did would almost always be the very rich, who have other ways of making their influence felt.)


  3. Hi lysias,

    The problem with deliberately enriching allotted officials is that on the one hand it would be difficult to compete outright with the amounts that could be offered by the rich & powerful ($2 million, for example, is spare change for a powerful corporation that can reap profits in the billions due to preferential treatment by allotted officials), and on the other hand knowing that they would likely be rich after they leave office would strengthen the tendency for the officials to form an elite with its own interests and ideological outlook that are closer to those of other elites than to those of the average citizen.

    I do, however, think that it may be a good idea to imitate the Athenian custom of bestowing crowns – whose value was both monetary and honorific – upon officials who are deemed as having served society particularly well. Again, I think it would be best to vest the powers to bestow rewards for outstanding service in the hands of an allotted committee.


  4. I do think this is the kind of problem that would require both the carrot and the stick. On the one hand, generous compensation for serious public work. On the other hand, serious sanctions–including prison time–for corruption. It would be difficult to fine tune, but heck, it’s not like America’s current system is squeaky clean.


  5. Handing out carrots is fine, but what must be recognized is that this is not a monotonic relationship where more carrots translate into better government. One could easily hand out too many carrots.

    It is also worth noting that carrots can (and, I would even argue, must) be to a large extent honorific. An overemphasis on monetary rewards turns public service into a pure pay-for-services arrangement in which recognition of virtue cannot be achieved even by the virtuous, thus substituting a base form of reward for a noble one.


  6. Link working here :) Great post, three things I would like to add:

    First, sorting one president would be dangerous I agree. But why should we have only one president and not three for instance? to replace the pyramid by something more flat at the top. It is an interesting proposal to go for the executive power

    Second, it is a top down approach and I think over-ambitious, changing the system from the top is a daunting perspective.

    Third, computer selection. Mmmh, I work with computers everyday and I have no trust in them, I know how easy it is to hack one. I would go for an analog system.


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