The Dissoi logoi on sortition

Dissoi logoi, a Greek book usually dated to the end of the 5th century BC, has the following argument about sortition, whose first part is quite similar in both content and form to the argument attributed to Socrates by Xenophon in Memorabilia. The second part is reminiscent of the argument made by Isocrates in Areopagiticus.

VII. [No Title]
(1) Some of the popular orators say that offices should be assigned by lot, but their opinion is not the best. (2) Suppose someone should question the man who says this as follows: Why don’t you assign your household slaves their tasks by lot, so that if the teamster drew the office of cook, he would do the cooking and the cook would drive the team, and so with the rest ? (3) And why don’t we get together the smiths and cobblers, and the carpenters and goldsmiths, and have them draw lots, and force each one to engage in whatever trade he happens to draw and not the one he understands ? (4) The same thing could also be done in musical contests: have the contestants draw lots and have each one compete in the contest he draws; thus the flute-player will play the lyre if that falls to his lot, and the lyre-player the flute. And in battle it may turn out that archers and hoplites will ride horseback and the cavalry-man will use the bow, with the result that everyone will do what he does not understand and is incapable of doing. (5) And they say that this procedure is also not only good but exceptionally democratic, whereas I think that democratic is the last thing it is. Because there are in cities men hostile to the demos, and if the lot falls to them, they will destroy the demos. (6) But the demos itself ought to keep its eyes open and elect all those who are well-disposed towards it, and ought to choose suitable people to be in command of the army and others to be the law-officers, and so on.

Democracy, participation and sortition

A letter I wrote to Dave Meslin:

Hi Dave,

My name is Yoram Gat. I recently viewed your TED talk “The antidote to apathy” and found it relevant to my own political thoughts and activity and wanted to see if I could interest you in those.

To start with, I share what may be called your democratic outlook: contrary to conventional wisdom people are not inherently apathetic, selfish or lazy. People respond to the situations in which they are. If they have no effective ways to make an impact, they will not bother making silly gestures pretending that they are meaningful. This manifests itself as “rational ignorance” or “rational passivity”. Such behavior is then being misrepresented as apathy.
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The Latest from Internauta Online

The latest from academics studying sortition in Italy. I must admit, I’m not exactly anxious to associate either plebiscites or Ross Perot with direct democracy.

Lottery Selection for Medical Students scrapped in the Netherlands?

Oh no it is not! There is still a large element of lottery selection, but because of de-centralisation, under the new rules it is difficult to tell how much more (or less) ‘loting‘ will take place. 

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Terry Bouricius’s sortition-based government system

David Van Reybrouck presents Terry Bouricius’s proposal for sortition-based government system in an article in De Corresponedent. I don’t read Dutch and the automatic translation is pretty poor, but, if nothing else, the graphics describing the system are very nice. [English version of the diagram added below.]

David Van Reybrouck: “Elections were never designed to be democratic”

Liberation has an interview with David Van Reybrouck by Béatrice Vallaeys about his sortitionist message.

An automatic translation of the preamble with my touch ups:

To counter distrust toward politics, Belgian historian and writer David Van Reybrouck advocates deliberative democracy, where allotted citizens lend a hand to elected officials.

“We despise elected officials, we venerate the elections.” Thus says David Van Reybrouck in a recently published essay, Against elections. Born in 1971 in Bruges, David Van Reybrouck strives with an undeniable talent to demonstrate “a fatigue of Western democracy”, but he also offers a remedy: instead of the appointment rituals where people are invited to cast their votes for a particular candidate, he proposes the creation of an allotted legislature. “The realities of our democracies disillusions people at an alarming rate. We must ensure that democracy does not wear itself out,” he says, convinced that elections are a cause of paralysis of democracy. His credo: not only the right to vote, but the right to speak.

The way from here to there

A useful proposal for reform must present a path for getting from the status quo to the desired, improved state and the credibility of the proposed path is an important determinant of the credibility of the proposal. Sortition advocates should consider what the most effective ways to promote sortitionist reform are.

To state the obvious: a reform agenda that is aimed at changing the power structure in society can expect to have allies and opponents, the former expecting to gain some power, the latter apprehensive of losing some. Democratic reform, by definition, aims at shifting some power from established elites into the hands of a disempowered majority. This makes established elites the natural opponents of democratic reform, and the general population its natural ally. In view of that, a proposed path for democratic reform which relies on cooperation by the elite is unrealistic. A credible path to democratic reform must rely on popular support and anticipate attempts by the elite to block or derail the reform.
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Discussing sortition in Plymouth

Keith Rossiter writes in the Plymouth Herald:

A COMMON cry from some Herald readers is that councillors are corrupt/incompetent/self-serving (delete as you wish), and above all that they should not be paid for their services.


Challenged to step up to the plate themselves, they may say – with some justification – that “it’s all a stitch-up”. You can only get elected with the help of a party machine, and parties only select their pals.

We got the idea of democracy from the Ancient Greeks, and perhaps it’s time to go back to Ancient Greece and borrow the other half of their brilliant concept.

The Athenians used a machine to pick people to hold public office or to do jury duty. The device, called a kleroterion, ensured randomness in allocating important civic positions in much the same way that a lottery ensures randomness in picking the winning ticket. (Of course, we’ve all met conspiracy theorists who claim that’s also a stitch-up.)
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