The case for governing by lottery

Kevin Hartnett has an article about sortition in the Boston Globe “Ideas” section.

The performance of our elected officials has led many people to wonder whether we might as well just pluck people at random and send them to Washington. For a small but fervent group of political philosophers, that’s not a joke—it’s a serious idea.

The piece focuses mainly on the ideas of Alexander Guerrero, who is a professor at the department of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, and who, we learn, has an upcoming book on sortition called “The Lottocratic Alternative”. Others mentioned as proposing various ways to use chance in politics are Richard Thaler, and Peter Stone (“a lecturer in political science at Trinity College in Dublin and contributor to Equality by Lot, a blog about lottocratic politics”) and Scott Wentland.

Familiar objections are mentioned by three critics. The classic elitist argument:

Susan Stokes, professor of political science at Yale University, agrees that more diversity in Congress would be a good thing, but she also worries that Guerrero ignores something important: Often we really do elect representatives because we believe they’re good at their jobs. “There are ways in which we want our elected officials to look like us and then there are other ways in which we want them to be better than us,” she says. “We actively try to select for some skills and talents when we choose politicians.”

The experience argument:

“Basically what would happen” in a lottocratic world, says Bruce Cain, professor of political science at Stanford University, “is that regular staff and the president would become more powerful.” He continues, “You really do need to know something to pass legislation. By the time these [lottocratic legislators] learn where the bathrooms are, they’d have to leave.”

And the participation argument:

“Overall, there’s a fair amount of information delivered even in this hostile type of campaign environment,” says Sam Issacharoff, professor of constitutional law at New York University. “Politics ennobles the population as a whole, and elections force officials to come to me and educate me.” While Guerrero’s model specifically includes a period of community consultation, Issacharoff thinks that absent the competitive energy created by elections, it would be hard to get people to pay attention to the relatively dull business of day-to-day legislating.

It is a pity those arguments aren’t engaged with in the article.

16 Responses

  1. Hi. Thanks for posting this (it’s “Guerrero” by the way). The book is not “forthcoming” in any sense other than that it is still in progress; as I told the reporter, it is not yet under contract. (Obviously, I wouldn’t have used the word “forthcoming” given the connotations it has in the academic context.) I hope to continue to get input from many in this community, and I look forward to engaging with some of the concerns raised in the article, and with the work of many of the contributors here.


  2. Is it true that the only two recent experiments are California and BC? I thought I heard about a municipal government in France using sortition? There needs to be more research, publication, discussion, experimentation so hurry up Alex and get your book “forthcoming” eh! An experiment with sortition would be to take a current and willing elected governing body (likely municipal or lower) and create a second body that is selected by sortition. The second body would be the chamber of “sober second thought.” The sortition body would review, debate, reject, amend or pass legislation passed in the elected body. Legislation would need the approval of both elected and sortition bodies to become law. That would create a living labratory to test and prove sortition.


  3. @kejamo For other experiments relying on sortition check


  4. > it’s “Guerrero” by the way

    Sorry – fixed.


  5. I’ve contacted Alexander Guerrera and invited him to comment on this post.

    >Often we really do elect representatives because we believe they’re good at their jobs. “There are ways in which we want our elected officials to look like us and then there are other ways in which we want them to be better than us,” she says. “We actively try to select for some skills and talents when we choose politicians.”

    Of course this is factually correct. The issue is whether or not election is an effective way of achieving this goal.


  6. I intend to address the elitist and experience arguments in a future post, but Issacharoff’s participation argument can be dismissed out-of-hand as nothing more than dogma.

    Campaign information and what passes for policy discussion in mass media is neither ennobling nor educative. On the contrary, it is manipulative, misleading, condescending and demeaning. It brings out the worst in the citizenry.

    Electoral competition doesn’t motivate people to become better informed. It motivates the candidates to deceive the public and it siphons political energy into counter-productive avenues. It also suffuses society with the destructive ideology of competition.

    Whatever the justifications of electoralism are, meaningful participation is certainly not one of them.


  7. I’m very taken by Alex’s proposal for SILLs (Single-Issue Lottery-Selected Legislatures). In UK terms this would be an amalgam of parliamentary select committees and legislative standing committees. The former (a recent innovation) are regarded highly for their expertise, (relative) impartiality and their ability to hold ministers to account, whereas the latter (which are supposed to scrutinise parliamentary biils) are partisan and largely devoid of expertise (the whips usually EXCLUDE any MP with any knowledge of the issue under consideration).

    Needless to say both committees have a scrutiny role rather than being charged to initiate legislation. I would be wary of allowing SILLs to propose new legislation, not on account of a lack of expertise (which could be gained by the overlapping tenure that Alex suggests) but because a) they would be easily corrupted by lobbyists and b) the speech acts of individual members would not benefit from the statistically-representative mandate. Their role should be limited to deliberating after hearing expert testimony and determining the outcome by secret vote. This would be harder to corrupt by lobbyists (hence my deliberate avoidance of the phrase “solicit expert testimony”). If my analysis is true then determining the legislative agenda and the selection of expert witnesses would need to be achieved by other means.

    SILLs would presumably also be charged with holding the corresponding branch of the administration to account.


  8. A few immediate reactions:

    1. What is not clear from the article is how the issues are to be “broken up”, and who decides which issues merit a SILL. Whoever decides this could have a huge influence on policy. The US, for instance, could dodge forever the need to do something drastic about CO2 and climate change simply by not having a SILL to deal with it.

    2. Is not the name a misnomer? How can you call energy a single issue? Or agriculture or tax policy? These “issues” are really groups of inter-related issues, and there are overlaps, eg you might give tax relief to farmers to encourage them to grow crops for
    bio-fuel. Come to think of it, someone may even have done just that . . :-)

    3. The objection that term limits weaken legislators relative to lobbyists “who prey on them” can be countered by noting that the leverage that pressure groups can exert on legislators depends mainly on their desire to get re-elected. As for regular staff and the president, it would help if the terms were longer. It would of course help more if there were no president!

    4. “They point to 50 years of research . . . which shows that most voters have insufficient knowledge to really evaluate how well their representatives are performing”.
    It would be dreadfully cynical to suggest that politicians and the media do their best to keep it that way.

    5. “Politics ennobles the population as a whole, and elections force officials to come to me and educate me.”
    I can’t believe that any honest person can say this with a straight face.

    6. I do think that randomly chosen groups focussed on broad sectors like agriculture, trade, energy etc might be a very useful adjunct to a parliament chosen by sortition. The parliament would decide what those sectors should be, and the groups would be answerable to the parliament. And yes, I see them as overseeing the corresponding branch of the administration.


  9. Campbell,

    Why not just have a SILL for every government department? Given that public participation in politics is now largely a matter of single-issue pressure groups (rather than party membership) this would bring the mechanism of governance back into line with democratic realities and help to moderate the power of both activists and government executives. The performance of (UK) select committees is impressive so this would be a good model on which to base an allotted alternative.

    I agree that fiscal policy is the common thread so this would mean that some SILLs were a lot more equal than others, as the Treasury always holds the trump card. Historically speaking the “prime” minister started off as First Lord of the Treasury (in fact that is still his official title).

    In Alex’s proposal the SILL is an alternative to an allotted parliament — why do you feel the need for both institutions? Surely the group who deliberates in depth should make the final decision.


  10. >”Why not just have a SILL for every government department?”
    Yes, indeed. That’s how I understood the last line of your post, and it’s what I meant in my last paragraph.

    >”In Alex’s proposal the SILL is an alternative to an allotted parliament — why do you feel the need for both institutions? ”

    Alex’s proposal appears to be an attempt to make the American system work. That is not my point of departure.
    I feel you need one body that has over-riding authority, and also that the SILLS will come and go. If you had tried in Britain in, say, 1250 to set up a system of SILLS once and for all time, you would no doubt still have one for the Cinque Ports.

    I’m not familiar with the select committees. Maybe they would be a good model. But who is basing things on the “fused British system” this time?


  11. When it comes to the select committees the fusing does come apart to a degree. They are staffed by backbench MPs and are part of an attempt to create an independent career structure along American lines. Of course if the SILLs are elected by lot then there’s no problem, all I was saying is that we would be building on a departmental accountability model that works quite well in practice. It would be the Treasury SILL that had the overarching authority as other departments spend money and the body with fiscal powers ultimately calls the shots.


  12. Campbell – as usual, I agree.


  13. The concept of multiple “single” issue allotted bodies and a separate allotted body setting the agenda has similarities to Burnheim’s demarchy and also part of the multi-body sortition model I developed. You can find a summary of it on the NewDemocracy Foundation web site here:

    That model is more of a concept piece than a plan for implementation in the foreseeable future. But elements of this concept are certainly achievable right away in local contexts.


  14. Thanks, Yoram, and Terry, thanks for the link. I’ll go through it tomorrow.


  15. […] As was mentioned here before, some time ago Prof. Alexander Guerrero and his ideas about the use of sortition in government were the subject of an article in The Boston Globe. […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: