New Paper on Appointment to office by lot in Ancient Athens

Constitutional choice in ancient Athens: The rationality of selection to office by lot” by George Tridimas (University of Ulster) is forthcoming in Constitutional Political Economy.


Contrary to modern democracies ancient Athens appointed large numbers of government officers by lot. After describing the Athenian arrangements, the paper reviews the literature on the choice between election and lot focusing on representativeness of the population, distributive justice, minimization of conflicts, quality of appointees and administrative economy. It then examines why in drawing up the constitution a self-interested citizen may give up voting for government officials and appoint them by lot. It is shown that appointment by lot is preferred when the effort required to choose candidates is less than the benefit expected from their actions as government officials. It is also found that, given the choice, office motivated candidates may unanimously agree to selection by lot but not to election.

5 Responses

  1. A noble effort in applying the economics of Public Choice to the appointment of officials – whether elections or a lottery is the best way of doing it.

    The Conclusion: that citizens, using a calculus of cost-benefit may prefer a lottery over elections to decide who gets the job; and the candidates for office can make similar calculations about the process.

    What is missing, though, is whether the performance of the office holder is affected by the process of appointment.

    Can we expect a lottery-man to be more honest, diligent, competent than the elected official?


  2. I think that the utility of sortition for the citizen is indeed the most interesting issue. I think that the cost function you present, however, misses important aspects of the issue.

    In your model, the advantage of sortition over elections is as a way to avoid the need to spend the cost of gathering information about the candidates. Clearly, however, this is not the main effect, since the price of information can be avoided by simply not voting or voting at random. Under elections, the decision of how much information to gather (and how much resources to spend on other elections-related activities) becomes private, but the decision could still be “none”.

    Elections are like an arms race, while sortition is like a universal disarmament agreement. If the arms race is going on, simply not participating does not put the non-participant in the same state as if a disarmament agreement was in place.

    One more point of interest is the matter of the impact of added information on the results of an election [your function Π(Z)]. This is the crucial effect of scale. As the size of the group increases the amount of information needed in order to make an informed decision increases, while the impact of the voter decreases. Thus the cost/benefit ratio increases to the point where for most people gathering information is close to useless – not because the effect of government is small (it is very important) but because for the average citizen its effect (like the effect of political activity of any kind) is negligible. For those privileged few who actually can influence the results of an election, gathering information pays off handsomely.


  3. Hi, I am from Australia. I came across your site via a browse on John Burnheim after reading a brief review of To Reason Why.
    This is a bit off topic but is still very applicable re the state of the world altogether in 2011. Please check out these references.


  4. Conall: “Can we expect a lottery-man to be more honest, diligent, competent than the elected official?”

    I think George answers this in footnote 13: “Attempts to bribe serving officers cannot be ruled out; the intensity of this problem was addressed by the scrutiny carried out by the Athenian courts”. I’m not aware of any electoral system being associated with anything like the threefold scrutiny that the Athenians deemed necessary, so I think it’s important to separate out the claim that sortition sanitises the appointments process from the claim that sortition will sanitise the political process as a whole.

    I was encouraged by George’s argument that sortition can be justified by rational choice theory. Hansen has pointed out that Athenian jurors tended to be drawn largely from the old and the poor and George has shown how generous the remuneration was. There is no need to explain sortition by appeal to classical republican virtues — what Yoram has previously referred to as a low level of background corruption in the overall political community — straightforward ration self-interest is quite sufficient.


  5. […] relevant to the topics discussed on this blog, George Tridimas wrote to let me know that his paper Constitutional choice in ancient Athens: The rationality of selection to office by lot has made for a couple of weeks the list of 10 most downloaded articles from the SSRN repository in […]


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