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. Although the idea of the citizen legislature goes back to Aristotle, serious consideration of it raises the question of what is meant by citizenship and representation. This book addresses that question. It is an attempt to develop a model of citizenship in which representation is simultaneously a fundamental right and the highest obligation. After developing these ideas at a rather high level of abstraction, the book applies the model to the system of education, and then it concludes with a proposed constitutional amendment for the State of Minnesota to illustrate how the model will work in practice.

States that have the citizen initiative will have an easier path to implementation than the one proposed in the book. Also, the book does not go on to discuss applying the idea to the Federal government because it needs to be tried out at the state level, our so called laboratories of democracy, first. With 50 states, we have ample room for experimentation and learning. Whether readers agree with my argument or not, the history of election in the United States since its publication tends to confirm the argument.

14 Responses

  1. I did not find a contact email address, so just in case, here is a video recently released about British Columbia’s Citizen Assembly. I thought it could interest readers of Equality by Lot.



  2. Thanks – certainly of interest. I’ll create a post for this. My email, by the way, can be found by clicking on the “about the kleroterians” tab above.


  3. I very much like your emphasis on political participation as a civic obligation, rather than viewing it as a right; this would suggest that participation should be compulsory. Agree also that there is a necessary two-way connection between political participation and education (Mill is very good on this).

    Would you like to flesh out the distinction that you draw between representation and advocacy — especially addressing Madison’s concerns in Federalist 10?


  4. What a great contribution. Looking forward to reading your essays, and I’ve added the book to my Amazon wishlist. Thanks.

    I’m particularly in how to handle/address the matter of Education vs Training (indocrtination) in your book. I think the manner in which citizens become educated democratically (or authoritatively, as now) affords tremendous opportunities for improving the acceptability of true democracy among the public at large.


  5. In this ‘land of the free’ I don’t think an obligation to civic participation will work. Nor do I think it should.

    We all have our specialties and personal interests. As long as everyone has an equal opportunity to be a policy-maker … as long as the representatives are proportional to the engaged citizenship … as long as I am content that the legislative body is a legitimate one … then I have other things I’d rather attend to and I leave it to that representative body to handle our common affairs.

    This seems more efficient and also more fair than the one we have.


  6. That may be OK viewing it from the individual perspective, but if the AC doesn’t accurately describe the whole population then it fails in terms of democratic accountability. Say, for example, that you are a busy professional and don’t really have the time to devote to civic affairs then all the other busy professionals will not be descriptively represented. Just as in Athens, the AC will tend to be composed primarily of the poor, the aged and a motley crew of activists and other busybodies. Whilst the resulting bias may please some members of this blog, it will not be a democratically representative body.


  7. Yeah, this one is now on my Amazon wishlist as well. I’ve also posted the URL to the Kleroterians Facebook page. (It would be nice if we could figure out how to use that page to raise our visibility.)

    Has anyone contacted this author? We should totally invite him to join the Kleroterians, get on our e-mail list, post here, etc.


  8. Thanks Yoram for your interest and diligence. Six years ago as far as I knew there were only two living who had any knowledge or interest in election by lot. And now thanks to you every day a new enlightenment surfaces to encourage us. If we only had a compendium that gave a brief history of election by lot,
    the absurdity of elections by party/elections today , and the superiority of BEL our quest for truth would greatly accelerate. hdh


  9. Responding to Keith’s “it will not be a democratically representative body.”

    Agreed, with a voluntary system — with citizens registering for sortition — I don’t see any way around it being NOT strictly proportional. For the reasons you cite.

    It will, however, be a ‘democratic’ body since the sortitional body will vote among itself. (I’m not convinced of “Alloted Chamber” as agreed nomenclature … I prefer “Citizen Legislature”).

    I’m unconvinced this would lead to the motley crew. Athens didn’t select legislators and a lot of factors are different.
    I’d rather rely on an increased sense of civic responsibility (“It’s a duty to put oneself into the lottery pool”) and, frankly, the fear of having the motley crew run things.
    In a way, I’m for the ‘tough love’ of: We Deserve What We Get.


  10. > Has anyone contacted this author?

    We have been in touch through email.


  11. > Six years ago as far as I knew there were only two living who had any knowledge or interest in election by lot.

    It is rather interesting how this idea keeps occurring to people independently despite being completely absent from public discourse.

    > a compendium that gave a brief history of election by lot, the absurdity of elections by party/elections today

    Again, I agree. I think we should try to come up with some sort a manifesto or a series of pamphlets expounding our cause.


  12. David, one of the problems I have with the deliberative democracy movement is that the focus is solely on the internal mechanisms and the need to get as close as possible to the Habermasian ideal speech situation. If a council of oligarchs chose to operate on the basis of deliberation followed by majority voting then this would be democratic according to your criteria.

    However, most of the activity on this blog compares sortition to elected representation, so the primary focus has to be on ensuring that the microcosm accurately describes the existing electorate. Although many voters currently choose not to exercise their vote, if allotted members who resemble me choose not to take their seats then I am effectively disenfranchised without having the freedom to exercise my own choice.

    If we are really serious about sortition as a method of democratic representation then its essential that those allotted show up (look at the enormous efforts that Fishkin and his associates put in to ensure this happens). That doesn’t mean, necessarily, compulsion, but it does mean, as you suggest, developing similar cultural norms that prevailed at the time of the birth of democracy, where those who chose not to participate in politics were viewed as social pariahs. This might prove challenging in large modern states; if so then legal compulsion would be necessary.


  13. Keith,
    You wrote:
    >If a council of oligarchs chose to operate on the basis of deliberation followed by majority voting then this would be democratic according to your criteria.

    I appreciate you pointing out this formulation. It surprises me but I see it as accurate. It throws me into the deeper waters of what ‘representation’ is. Namely, at the deepest level: an impossibility.

    If, then, no one can actually ‘represent’ me, then whatever composition of any representational system will perforce be a sort of oligarchy. In which case, why not give full force to Habermasian ideal speech for those ‘representational oligarchs’?

    As has been pointed out in this blog, it is likely that carefully-selected, attendance-demanded, representative-sampled deliberators will come up with solutions unrepresentative of the whole from which they come. The expertise they gain through the process makes them no longer proportionally representative.

    I’m glad you aren’t absolute about compulsion. Here in the states, I hear two views about compulsive jury duty: 1.) It is an honor and grave duty to serve; 2.) It is a great imposition and to be avoided. The latter view is of most import to those with low incomes since the $12/day for jury service is a major encumbrance.


  14. I think we need to do everything to enhance the “honour and grave duty” viewpoint, particularly in respect to the $12 per diem, but also building on the fact that (at least in the UK) the allotted reps would be Members of Parliament, with all the kudos that goes with that (or at least used to until recently). I do think people will rise to the occasion given the right institutional (and financial) support. But, at the end of the day, if people do not accept the honour/duty/burden then we cannot call it democratic — it would be just as oligarchic as at present, with the added problem that the electorate did not have the opportunity to make their preferences known.


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