Equality by Lot

Over the last two decades a number of books and journal articles have advocated the integration of sortition into constitutional practice (as opposed to the purely advisory role of Deliberative Polling and citizen juries on electoral reform). With the noted exception of Callenbach and Phillips’ Citizen Legislature all of the proposals have been subject to powerful criticisms by Yoram Gat, the moderator of this blog. Gat has been remarkably consistent in his criticisms, his prime objection being that the proposals are insufficiently radical as, by retaining a statutory role for the plural institutions of liberal democracy, they fail to adhere in full to the principles of Athenian-style sortive democracy – i.e. equality by lot.

What Gat has failed to do to date, however, is to provide us with a detailed and comprehensive constitutional programme of his own, nor pointed us towards any material that he has published elsewhere, so as a result his own proposals have not been subject to comparable scrutiny. Having corresponded with him at considerable length – offline as well as on this blog – he has been admirably consistent with his views, making it possible to reconstruct such a model from our exchanges alone, and I have been alarmed at how illiberal the model has turned out to be. If the man that I construct in this post turns out to be only made of straw, then I apologise in advance and look forward to Yoram’s corrections in the commentary section, but I’m entirely confident that his personal commitment to equality will ensure that he will not seek to exercise his moderator powers by suppressing this post.
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New Book Review Mentions Kleroteria

From Walter Isaacson’s review of Bettany Hughes’ The Hemlock Cup: Socrates, Athens and the Search for the Good Life (New York Times, February 11, 2011):

Hughes intersperses the story of Socrates’ trial in 399 B.C. with some wonderful details. We learn, for example, about the workings of the mechanical device that randomly selected, from 6,000 names, the jury of 500 Athenian citizens (yes, 500) that assembled at the law court to hear the case. This kleroterion, a replica of which can be viewed at the Agora Museum in Athens, was a proto-computer that used carved slots to send metal disks down a chute. “Every means possible has been thought of to prevent corruption,” Hughes writes. “Alphabetical blocks of seats, secret ballots, random-selection machines.” Her quest for authentic detail even leads her to grind up hemlock and sniff it. “It releases a nose-wrinkling sour smell,” she reports.

The review can be found here–


Big shot, Nobel prize-winning, New York Times-op-ed-writing, Princeton-teaching economist vs. person-on-the-street

Paul Krugman, on the way to a rather funny punchline, takes an off-handed swipe at the irrational person-on-the-street. Apparently, Americans can’t decide how they want to make ends meet. They don’t want to cut spending and they don’t want to increase taxes. Krugman himself knows better. He is not worried about current deficits, but in the long run he thinks a VAT (a version of a sales tax, which he admits would be regressive but is not particularly concerned about this) would be the way to go.

This position is a classic noblesse oblige maneuver. While ostensibly attacking those other elite members – those who have no sense of social duty – Krugman is effectively asserting that policy should not be set by the irrational masses. And, sometime in the not too distant future, regressive taxes would be the solution.
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Do people like lotteries for allocation?

David Teira of Universidad Nacional de Educación a Distancia (Madrid) asks

Sorry if my question is too simple, but I’d be grateful if anyone pointed out the references of empirical studies on our taste for lotteries in the allocation of scarce goods. Are there people who do not like lotteries as allocation mechanisms, independently of whether they are fair or not?

Paul Cockshott: Ideas of Leadership and Democracy

Paul Cockshott is offering the Greek political structure as an alternative to the Roman model:

When the American revolutionaries were trying to establish their state – and that is the stable form of bourgeois state that has survived – they looked at historical models. And there were two models available for them, there was Rome and Athens. They had to choose between these, and it is actually no accident that they chose Rome, that the United States constitution is largely based on the Roman ideas of constitution – it’s a republic, it’s not a democracy. It was constructed as a state by slaveholders who saw what had been the most stable slaveholder state in the past: Rome. And they modeled their state on that.

But there’s another model, and that’s the Athenian model of direct democracy, and the Greeks, over a period of hundreds of years, developed mechanisms to prevent aristocratic domination of the state. Continue reading

Vitalizing democracy

Tiago Peixoto wrote about a video regarding the British Columbia Citizen’s Assembly:

It turns out that the video is one of the finalists of something called the 2011 Reinhard Mohn Prize given out by the Bertelsmann Foundation under the title “Vitalizing Democracy“. Other submissions to the prize may also be of interest.

Random Selection as an Obligation of Citizenship

William K. Dustin introduces his book and website:

I am the author of a book entitled Toward an Ethic of Citizenship: Creating a Culture of Democracy for the 21st Century which was published in 1999. After completing the book, I created a website, www.ethicofcitizenship.com, to promote the book and the idea of random selection. Until very recently I was unaware of any other websites advocating the same idea. As a result of an email I received on a totally different topic, I discovered The Common Lot website which then led me to the Equality by Lot site.

The idea for the book arose out of a little known political scandal, known as “phonegate”, that occurred in Minnesota in the early 1990’s in which a number of legislators were found to have been abusing their phone privileges. The hubris of the legislature in response to the discovery of this abuse not only made me rather angry, but, since I had been called for jury duty the year before, gave me the idea that service in the legislature ought to be a duty of citizenship like jury duty. Continue reading


Our ongoing debate on Egypt got me thinking about the connection (or lack of it) between sortition and religion. Fustel de Coulanges’ 1864 account, that lot was the revelation of divine will, was discredited by Headlam in 1891 and nobody has sought to revive it. Similarly, as Conall Boyle points out in his edition of Gataker, lotteries were only acceptable in the Judaeo-Christian tradition in so far as they didn’t involve claims about divine revelation.

On the other hand Oliver Dowlen argues that the disappearance of lot may well be connected with religious factors, as sortition appears to have been a victim of the Reformation:

There are many reasons why the process of selecting nominators by lot might have been lost in the transition from Venice to the New World. . . The drawing of the lottery was very much a public process, witnessed by the whole community or reggimento. To the puritan settlers this could have seemed a very foreign, bizarre public ritual which smacked of superstition – even Catholicism. The secret ballot, on the other hand, conformed to the Protestant ideal that the private individual should be alone in his judgement and answerable only to God. (Dowlen, Political Potential of Sortition, p.163)

The question that I’m leading up to – and it’s no more than that – is would sortition-based politics be more acceptable to Muslim sensibilities than (Western) electoral politics, and might this possibly account for the failure of electoral democracy in the Arab world?

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For Egypt, Are Elections the Way Forward?

Sa’ada Abu Bakr wrote the following essay.

The people of Egypt are standing at an historic crossroad. But to hear other people tell it, Egyptians are travelling down the highway to democracy. They’ve been stalled for decades but now their engines are revving and they are all but on their way to western style democracy. First stop: free and fair elections.

To all those who died and sacrificed, it would be a disservice to commence this trip without fully examining the destination and any and all alternatives. Required reading before you embark on this journey is Animal Farm by George Orwell. Moral: If new people are put into any version of the same system, no matter how reformed, you will eventually end up with the same results. The problems may be to a lesser degree, more benign, but you will not have the freedom for which people died.

As an American who dabbled in local politics, consider this my postcard from Destination: Democracy. I don’t wish you were here. Sure, I have a vote; I have a voice, but it is not heard. If you have a voice which you can’t use, are you in a worse position than one who can use their voice, unheard? What is the difference?

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Public Opinion vs. Sortition

There’s been some recent discussion here of the possibility that a randomly-selected decision-making body (an Allotted Chamber, or AC) might disagree with the people it represents because the former is well-informed and has thought things through carefully but the latter has not. James Fishkin discusses a movie that illustrates this possibility well–


Thought this might be useful for the discussion.