Lecture on Lotteries

Before leaving California, I gave a talk to a local Palo Alto group called the Humanist Community on lotteries. The talk can now be found online:

32 Responses

  1. I really liked your presentation, Peter. I hope you are finding Tulane a congenial environment. I wonder if you might have any thoughts on the promotion and implementation of “The Common Lot: Next Step for Democracy” a.k.a., Callenbach & Phillips’ “Citizen Legislature”?
    My thrust is primarily creative. I’ve been working on this theme for a couple of decades (novels & screenplays written); have recently been laid off so I have some time now … but I’d like a team.


  2. A good question. Well, I’d like to see our group do what we can to raise the visibility of this blog. If we can keep the blog active (with some help from the silent majority of the Kleroterians, I hope), we can hopefully start building that critical mass.

    Here’s one idea that might lead to some more people. I get google alerts for “sortition,” “random selection,” and “Kleroterians.” (But not “lottery”–that would produce way too much junk.) The last of these, unfortunately, doesn’t come up very often, but the first two do produce some interesting hits. On a semi-regular basis, somebody posts on a blog or a bulletin board about sortition. I’ve often thought it would be great if we could find those people and invite them to join us, or to post on the same blogs/bulletin boards about our group. What do you think?


  3. The silent majority, Peter Stone? Yoram Gat said in one of the long arguments with Keith Sutherland that he’d looked at the traffic numbers, and didn’t think there were a lot of passive readers.

    I do try to promote both the blog and the ideas, though. Several minor parties here in Norway are in principle supporters of more referendums (this tends to be forgotten once they gain some small measure of power, though). I try to make people aware the possibility of allotted bodies as a cheaper and fairer alternative.


  4. Well, there are at least 3 dozen people on the mailing list for the Kleroterians. If each of them posted regularly, that would make a dramatic difference. The traffic numbers merely indicate that the silent majority is also AWOL.


  5. Peter, Harald,

    I have been doing exactly what Peter suggests – contacting people who use the terms ‘sortition’ or ‘selection by lot’ online – ever since Peter mentioned the possibility of using Google Alerts to find new occurrences of those phrases several months ago.

    For example I recently emailed the author of this post.

    It is my experience, unfortunately, that few of those that I contact respond, and very few, if any, become regular commenters. Exactly how many become regular visitors, I don’t know, but I suspect that not many. I find this rather perplexing, but that’s how things are.

    BTW, the system reports that there are currently 12 “active email subscribers” to this blog.


  6. Glad my response provoked others.
    I have to demur about the importance of this blog. “Kleroterians” is academically cute but much too obscure. It’ll forever be off-putting to any kind of mainstream.

    I just posted my first post to my WordPress blog, ‘Commonlot’s Blog’ which I hazard to re-post here:
    I’ve added FAQs to http://www.TheCommonLot.com … which, in my humble opinion, unassailably make the case for sortition as the means to establish a ‘government BY the people’. (It can be said that we already have a government ‘of’ the people insofar as the representatives are not aliens. And that we have a government ‘for’ the people insofar as those representatives would at least so claim.)

    But how to make the change to the proportionally representative legislature that ‘by’ the people would be?

    I’m throwing in my hat as a lobbyist. My constituency is, however, so diffuse — ‘the people’ — that I don’t know where to seek the financial wherewithal to continue much longer. My purse is light and dwindling.

    Options: advertisements on my website? (Are there any commercial interests for ‘the people’?)


    Contact me if you want to collaborate in this endeavor. My personal thrust is creative production, not so much political organizing, though I’m for a Big Tent.


  7. Yoram: Thanks for checking on about outreach. I’m very happy to hear you’ve been following up on my suggestion. I understand we might get a low hit rate, but given that we have zero budget our outreach options are limited. I’m certainly interested in other suggestions.

    David: Well, the group’s name preceded my involvement with it. Changing it would require some discussion especially with our group’s founder (Conall Boyle). It’s a bit of an obscure name, but it is distinctive, you have to admit.

    Perhaps an e-mail to the Kleroterian list is in order. More of the “old guard” might participate in such a discussion.


  8. I doubt that the use of the term “kleroterians” has much impact one way or another on the popularity of this blog or the cause of sortition in general. However, if everybody agrees, we can de-emphasize the term.

    Regarding the scope of the blog, I think we all view it as having a wide scope rather than an academic or theoretical scope only, and this has been reflected in the content so far.

    David, putting the matter of financial resources aside, what are the lobbying activities you would like to pursue?


  9. I’m not strenuously suggesting the name of this site be changed. It’s just that, with only twelve active members, and a name which many would interpret as either abstruse or kooky, and given the depth of discussion, I infer that this blog is not intended to be a vehicle for mass use.
    In fact … are any blogs intended to be? The funnel and filter can only handle a few.

    About ‘lobbying’ … I use the word as a provocation. Going through the ten organizations I identify in my FAQ “What might be intermediate steps towards realizing a Citizen Legislature?” — all of them making only half-steps towards a government BY the people — I read of efforts ranging from holding a Constitutional Convention to enhancing dialogue with one’s neighbors.
    Since I’m in Washington I give a thought to direct lobbying for a Citizen Legislature but: 1.) What are the chances that the elected reps will want to cut their own throats?; and 2.) Even if there were possibility of creating some kind of platform here, where is the focused ‘special interest group’ to pay for such an effort?
    Negative answers to those two questions lead me to think more of producing media of various sorts to capture the popular imagination … and to leave the lobbying and political organizing to the organizations already half-stepping in that direction.


  10. > I infer that this blog is not intended to be a vehicle for mass use. In fact … are any blogs intended to be? The funnel and filter can only handle a few.

    It is clear that this blog is not currently a mass forum, but at least as far as I am concerned, it does aim to reach as many people as possible. There are quite a few blogs that have a very wide audience, I believe.

    > producing media of various sorts to capture the popular imagination

    I also tend to think that an awareness campaign should be the first action item for promoting sortition.


  11. Returning to the topic of this thread(!). I liked very much the presentation of the reason for using a lottery to share out ‘common-wealth’. The only cavil (!) I would have is that there was no mention of the Holy Grail of modern society – the job, employment or ‘work’ as it is sometimes fatuously called.

    C’mon Pete! Tell ’em about lottery-for-jobs, like for example the Cavil for the coalminers in Co Durham, or even shortlisting for applicants by lottery.


  12. > Holy Grail of modern society – the job, employment or ‘work’ as it is sometimes fatuously called.

    Wouldn’t the Holy Grail of modern society be “property” rather than “jobs”? Any examples of property being redistributed by lot?


  13. La propriété, c’est le vol! Proudhon is alive and kicking, and lives in Palo Alto.


  14. Keith Sutherland: I don’t see any normative statements in the post you are presumably replying to. Isn’t that, at least, a reason to quit naming people after your favorite historical bad guys?


  15. Harald,

    When dealing with objects of the Highest Order of Holiness, the mere mentioning of certain possibilities is sacrilegious.


  16. Yoram,

    Let’s not join in the negative personal characteristics.


  17. Harald,

    Despite the facetious tone, I don’t think my comment is a frivolous attack. When having a conversation, it is of some importance to realize what the mind set of your counterpart is. It really does seem to me that Keith thinks and argues in the doctrinaire manner of a guardian of orthodoxy, for whom certain ideas are sacred truths that cannot be challenged, or even examined.

    You, by the way, made a similar observation recently: “I feel like I’m having an argument with a lawyer, rather than someone trying to cooperate in finding the truth.” Again, I think making such observations (assuming that they are sincere) is not a frivolous ad-hominem but a relevant part of the conversation.


  18. “Keith thinks and argues in the doctrinaire manner of a guardian of orthodoxy”

    Whatever the truth of the above, I think my views on property and privacy are shared by many. Few people would start out from the primitive communist perspective and there is a danger that sortition will be seen as part of a far-left agenda (I’ve been banned from using the M-word), whereas I see its attraction as straddling the political divide. That’s why it’s a shame that we are allowing political mud-slinging to colour the debate.


  19. Yeah, mud-slinging like calling people after historical bad guys at the slightest hint of disagreement. IMO, Godwin’s law needs an extension for academics (to include Proudhon, Hong Xiuquan, Robespierre, Napoleon, Caesar, Tokugawa or whoever else the students have been reading about the previous months.)


  20. > I’ve been banned from using the M-word

    How shall I put it politely? This is either a lie or a very poor usage of language. As you very well know, your ability to express yourself has not been limited in any way.

    It is true that more than one person here has pointed out that you are using various terms, like “Marxist”, in ways that have nothing to do with reality. However, if you wish to continue discrediting yourself in this way, no one has even suggested that you should be prevented from doing so.


  21. Both Harald and yourself have expressed the view that the public ownership of property is the default position. You also told me some time ago that your interest in sortition was to bring about the revolutionary transformation of society. You have also disparaged every mainstream political position (including Obama’s healthcare proposals) as serving elite interests, rather than those of the masses (of fashioned terms that you use very frequently).

    As to what ism best describes your constellation of views I will leave to others to decide, but the academics that you cite most often, including Ellen Wood, CLR James, Paul Cockshott and Mike Macnair are/were happy to call themselves Marxists.

    My concern is that the sortition agenda is being hijacked by the hard left and that this will put off those of a more moderate political perspective. My own interest in sortition is to make sure the trains run on time, but I imagine that of the few people that read this blog, most would describe themselves as liberal in some sense.


  22. > Harald and yourself have expressed the view that the public ownership of property is the default position.

    A caricature. Property implies restrictions. With private property, I can’t come and take away your rock unless you let me. With public property, I can’t come and take away the rock unless we all agree somehow. With no property, anyone can come and take away the rock, and while others are free to stop it, or fight it, there’s no idea that the would-be rock-taker is acting improperly.

    I say the last is the default state. It’s the state you would be in with respect to people you had no social obligations towards.

    I never said this state was one you would want to stay in, or would even be permitted to stay in, given a conscience. But when designing the most fundamental institutions, you should assume as little as possible about what your fellow men might want. You fail at that, as your China embargo thought experiment showed.


  23. Harald, I’ve read your post several times but I’m none the wiser, perhaps I’m just too stupid. Nevertheless in the West, for better or worse, for the last few centuries the private property paradigm has predominated and if we are making proposals for sortition this is the starting position, however much you may dislike it.

    Of course Barbara Goodwin and others have published Utopian visions* where everything is distributed by lot and we can discuss that if we like. But it’s better not to do that on a thread that is dealing with practical policy issues as some people might think we were being serious (practical politics involves starting from where we are now, rather than a utopian dream).

    * Justice by Lottery, published by my firm, Imprint Acaedemic


  24. Again, Keith, if you choose to continue with the meaningless labeling, that is up to you. Your claim that you are being prohibited from using certain terms is a pure fabrication.


  25. Harald –

    > I say the last is the default state. It’s the state you would be in with respect to people you had no social obligations towards.

    Historically, or rather pre-historically, most interaction has been based on the public property model, rather than the no-property model, I believe, since most interaction has not been with strangers, but rather within a group of people with long and well established relationships.

    Be that as it may, both the no-property model and the public property model can serve as a default state in the philosophical sense that they are consistent and do not require an extra-political authority for settling property conflicts. A private property model, on the other hand, must rely on some such authority. In real life (as opposed to the natural-rights mythology), the private property model rests on a political actor (the state) that establishes “property ownership”.


  26. Yoram: In real life (as opposed to the natural-rights mythology), the private property model rests on a political actor (the state) that establishes “property ownership”.

    Exactly. And those of us who believe that sortition is a practical political tool (rather than a utopian dream) should remember that “real life” is the starting point. No-property and public property models may well be philosophically consistent but, like it or not, the de facto rules we all live under in a capitalist society are property-based. You have told me previously that your own concern is with political rather than economic equality, so why muddy the water?


  27. My point with the argument is not to suggest that “it once was so”, or that it should be that way again. It is merely that ultimately, the constitution must be agnostic on this issue. Certainly, any government is free to adopt a particular view, but the mechanisms through which they do so must be unbiased.

    Constitutions must be neutral on as many areas as they possibly can, because the whole point of government is to let people live together in peace even when they disagree.

    But Keith’s China example showed that he does not share that concern, and he’s willing to give intrisic privilege to certain of his values, such as economic stability – in this case in the form of privileged access to decision makers by established interests.


  28. Harald, you are conflating a number of different issues:

    Constitutions deal with the structure of governance — such things as voting systems and how the executive is appointed. Whether sortition should be part of the structure of governance is a constitutional issue, as is whether or not to privilege the role of certain citizens for their expertise or (more traditionally) their social rank — hereditary or otherwise. In a democratic age we believe that decisions should be in the hands of the “average” man, and all of us on this forum would argue that sortition is the best way of achieving this, although we differ between us on whether or not the constitution should be mixed (with a supplementary [non voting] role for advocacy and expertise).

    Constitutions are not “agnostic” as they have no views on isssues of substance. Substantive issues such as property ownership are the responsibility of the legislature and have nothing to do with constitutions.

    One can of course speculate on the connection between structural and substantive issues. My own hunch (and it’s nothing more than that) is that empowering the judgment of the “average” man would lead to a surprisingly conservative outcome, in which people were more likely to privilege their own economic interests over the concerns of the political elite.

    So let’s keep structural (constitutional) and substantive (legislative) issues separate. The ownership of property falls into the latter category and is not the concern of this blog when it’s discussing practical constitutional suggestions. By all means have a thread on Barbara Goodwin’s utopian vision of the distribution of *everything* by lot but let’s not let it be confused with those of us who are serious about reforming our broken political institutions.


  29. Speaking of constitutions, the US’s in particular … Would sortitional selection of a Citizen Legislature require an amendment? Or could it be done legislatively.

    Article One states:

    The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States….
    The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State…

    Neither of those seem to rule out sortition as a method of ‘choosing’ or ‘composing’. Does anyone know if subsequent federal court rulings constrain sortition’s use? (I realize at least some state and lesser elections that end in a tie are decided by sortition.)


  30. An interesting question: according to the OED the word “ballot” means both election and selection by lot. The problem I imagine is that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas/Thanksgiving and, to paraphrase Acton, power corrupts and the prospect of losing power corrupts absolutely.


  31. Also potentially relevant is Article 4, Section 4, which states that “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.” I don’t think there’s any reasonable way to construe sortition as anti-republican, but who ever said that federal courts were reasonable?


  32. And, although Madison redefined republican government as representative government in the canonical scripture, sortition also provides the latter, but just using a different filtering mechanism.


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