Lottery Film Now on DVD

Mention was made earlier of the new movie “The Lottery,” which deals with charter school lotteries. More on the movie is available here–

The film is now available for sale on DVD. Just visit–

A grave lottery

This is something I’ve never heard of before! Even in death, where you finish up can be a lottery. I suppose it makes sense.

Malden near Boston MA will release 60 new grave-sites firstly to local residents who apply. The winners, who will have to pay $5,710 per grave-site, will be chosen by a lottery.

Details (from a local news-site) are: Continue reading

Strange Days

Went to see The Doors biopic (highly recommended) the other day and was surprised to catch Jim Morrison saying something like “We don’t need an elected president, we need a jury democracy”. As this was the prelude to the notorious Miami concert rant nobody picked up on it as it was overshadowed by the resulting obscenity trial.

Morrison was famously well-read but it was more Rimbaud and Nietzsche than Herodotus. This would suggest that sortition-based ideas might have been circulating in the student radicalism movement at the time of the Vietnam war protests.  Can anyone cast any light on this, and did anyone else catch Morrison’s remark in the movie?

The lottery of Greek democracy

The BBC History Magazine, “Britain’s bestselling history magazine”, has a recent short article called “The lottery of Greek democracy” by Michael C. Scott.

Interestingly, despite its title, the article manages to mention the use of chance solely for nominating juries, avoiding any mention of sortition.

My favourite item in the Epigraphical museum is in fact not an inscription per se, but actually a machine made originally of wood and stone: the kleroterion. A what? A kleroterion was used to ensure absolute randomness in the allocation of particularly important civic positions, in particular the allocation of men to juries that sat in the many Athenian court rooms.

[ Description of the workings of a Kleroterion. ]

This machine was, in essence, just like the lottery machines used in so many national lotteries in countries around the world today. It provided the Athenians with a definitive way of ensuring that the important organs of their system of democracy were not tainted by corruption. This machine, combined with the fact that most juries were 500 people strong, made bribing juries in advance a practical impossibility and helped reassure the citizens of Athens that when a decision was made, it was made on the strength of the arguments alone. The kleroterion is thus a remarkable testament to a remarkable civilization.

It’s OK for Muslims to use lotteries

That is the clear message from a new paper from Crone & Silverstein ‘THE ANCIENT NEAR EAST AND ISLAM: THE CASE OF LOT-CASTING’ in the Journal of Semitic Studies, 2010, 55(2):423-450.

The abstract includes

It focuses on the practice of using lot-casting to allocate inheritance shares, conquered land, and official functions, and briefly surveys the history of this practice from ancient through Hellenistic to pre-Islamic times in order to examine its Islamic forms as reflected in historical and legal sources. It is argued that the evidence does suggest continuity between the ancient and the Islamic Near East, above all in the first century of the hijra, but also long thereafter, if only at a fairly low level of juristic interest.

You can read the full paper ($25 for non-academics) at (or go to my website

We have seen previously a case where the use of a lottery to share out goods has been rejected on religious grounds by Muslims: Lotteries for Cab Licenses.

This paper shows that although limited, lotteries can be found in the Quran (2 examples), and that most of the various strands of the Muslim traditions have accepted the judicial use of lotteries to divide property. (Thanks to Keith Sutherland and Anthony Barnett for drawing our attention to this paper.)

Another deliberative polling experiment

Roger Hickey writes in the Huffington Post about a recent deliberative polling experiment:

In Deficit “Town Meetings,” People Reject America Speaks’ Stacked Deck

On Saturday, the group known as America Speaks (funded by Wall Street mogul Peter G. Peterson and two other foundations) brought together several thousand people in meetings in 18 cities. They gave participants misleading background information about the federal deficit and economic options to achieve fiscal “balance” and future prosperity.

Peterson cannot be pleased with the participants’ mainly progressive policy choices, which will be presented on June 30 to the Deficit Commission that Peterson encouraged President Obama to create.

According to America Speaks’ own press release, when a scientifically selected group of participants picked up their electronic voting devices, they overwhelmingly supported proposals to

* Raise tax rates on corporate income and those earning more than $1 million.
* Reduce military spending by 10 to 15 percent,
* Create a carbon tax and a securities-transaction tax.

This pretty progressive set of solutions emerged from the process many feared would be skewed to the solutions of conservative deficit hawks.

America Speaks was certainly not pushing the discussion in a progressive direction. The background materials — and policy options — provided to participants were anything but fair and balanced, as analysis by economist Dean Baker demonstrated.


On the face of it, this would seem like a case of democracy in action: the people were given a chance to study an issue and they spoke their minds. They did so despite attempts by the organizers to manipulate them by disseminating misleading information and by attempting to limit the set of policy options being discussed.

But in a complex system, the elites have many opportunities to exert power. Peter Hart of the media watchdog group FAIR comments:

Given the media’s general enthusiasm for Peterson’s propaganda on austerity and Social Security, it’s striking how little coverage these town halls have received. But it’s hard not to conclude that the public rejection of the media’s conventional wisdom is the explanation.

Using deliberative polling on a haphazard basis, rather than as a systematic way to form binding public policy, allows the elites to utilize the polls as a way to legitimize their choice of policy, by highlighting a finely selected subset of the poll results, and ignoring the rest.

Delibartive polling experiment

Keith Sutherland’s article Chinese Democracy: ‘scientific, democratic and legal’ enthusiastically introduces James Fishkin et al.’s paper Deliberative Democracy in an Unlikely Place: Deliberative Polling in China. My own, less enthusiastic, opinion is in the comments to Keith’s article.

More sortition advocacy by Marxists

Paul Cockshott writes:

In a modern oligarchy like France, Britain or the USA, what Aristotle called the magistracy is elected. In these elections those with education and money have a huge advantage. The election process is expensive – there are the costs of advertising and campaigning. Historically, in Europe at least, workers’ parties have been able to partly get round this by collecting dues from hundreds of thousands or millions of members. But when standing candidates they usually face the hostility of the privately owned mass media, which is hard to offset.

They are also under pressure to present candidates who are far from being “of indigent circumstances and mechanical employments”. Their first generation of leaders may be of that sort: Ramsay MacDonald or Lula. But later they attempt to present candidates who are educated and polished: Obamas and Blairs. In consequence the elected representatives of popular parties tend to be from higher classes than their supporters. They tend, in consequence, to be markedly cautious in implementing the full rigour of a socialist programme when in office.

Democratic selection by lot suffers none of these disadvantages. It guarantees that the assembly will be dominated by the working classes. It guarantees that the assembly will be balanced in terms of sex, age, ethnic origin, etc. As such it would constitute the most favourable possible grounds for achieving a majority for socialism.

How democratic was Athens?

Back and forth on this subject on a Marxist blog.