Down with Elections! Part 6: conclusion


Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5 Part 6


The Mandate

One of the justifications claimed for elections is that they are the only mechanism by which the citizens give a mandate to those who govern them. “We can’t just leave choosing our representatives to chance. When we vote, we give the winning candidate a mandate.”

But who actually gives this mandate? Surely not those who vote against the winners. And not those who don’t vote, for whatever reason. So it must be those who vote for the winning candidates? Suppose you vote in an electorate where your candidate wins by a handsome margin. If you hadn’t voted at all, he would still have won. If you had voted for another candidate, once again, he would still have won. In short, your vote made no difference at all. How then can you say that you have had even the tiniest part in giving that candidate a mandate?

Only if the other voters are so divided between candidates that your vote is the deciding one, can you be said to have made a difference, and then, of course, you are in a sense a “dictator”, as the political scientists put it when speaking of this problem. In saying this, I’ve assumed a winner-takes-all, first past the post system. Is the situation different in a proportional or a preferential system? Not really. Most of the time, your vote makes no difference at all. And the statement that “we can’t leave choosing our representatives to chance” – as though chance plays no part in elections – is just laughable.

Overheard in a pub in Godelpus:

(Yes, the names have been changed to protect the guilty.)

Two men sat down at the next table.

“I didn’t catch what you were saying about a mandate” said one.

His friend took a deep swig of beer before replying. “It brings back painful memories”, he said, slowly. “I don’t know if you remember when Harry Bolt got elected?”

“That was that very close election, wasn’t it?”

“Very close. In fact he won by two votes on about the twentieth recount. Two votes in the electorate where I lived. Two votes – but that didn’t stop him trumpeting that he had a mandate.” He took another swig, and continued, imitating Bolt’s ponderous, braying delivery: “In our democratic system, the majority vote carries the day. The people have spoken, and their choice has fallen on us. We have a mandate . . .”


“I still feel guilty about it, forty years later. You know that less than six months after being elected he brought in conscription and sent the troops off to fight in Asia alongside the Americans. That was never amongst his campaign promises, incidentally. Five hundred of our men died, and more than three thousand were injured.” He fell silent, staring moodily into his glass.

“But why do you feel guilty about it?”

“The day of the election, I lent my car to my brother Bob. He went off with three of his mates to shoot rabbits; one of them had inherited a property that was over-run with them, and the Council was threatening to take him to court, so they went off to blast the bunnies. The deal was that they would come back in time to pick me up and we’d all go into town together to vote. We were all dead against Harry Bolt, and we knew the election would be close. The polls closed at 8pm, so I was pretty furious when they still hadn’t shown up at 7:30, and even more so when they finally appeared at 9:30, on foot.

“To cut a long story short, the fan belt had broken. Bob drove back most of the way without it – you don’t really need a fan for cooling when you’re going at a reasonable speed. But he got worried about the last long climb, and thought he’d stop at the bottom of the hill to give the engine time to cool down a bit. He forgot that with no fan belt the battery wasn’t being charged, and he couldn’t start the car again. They hitch-hiked home, and none of us got to vote. Five votes against Bolt that didn’t get cast.

“So Harry Bolt’s mandate was given to him by a broken fan belt on a ten-year old Ford. Five hundred men killed, and over three thousand injured, by my fan belt.”

“Well, that was bad luck, but come on, the war was hardly your fault.”

“Luck ! . . . I knew the damn thing was getting a bit raggy, I just hadn’t got around to changing it. I didn’t have much money, at the time.”

“But you can’t just blame yourself. What about Bolt and all of his crew, and the people who voted for him. And even your brother was partly responsible, for stopping when he did.”

“My brother . . ” He paused. “If that fan belt hadn’t voted for Harry Bolt my brother might still be alive. He was one of the five hundred”.

Tyranny, Defence, Spies, and Treaties

So far, in talking of tyranny, we have considered only tyranny originating within the political system. Tyranny can of course be imposed from the outside by a foreign power, as the Nazis did in Europe, the Soviet Union did in its satellite states, and as the US has done in Chile and elsewhere in South and Central America, and the colonial powers did throughout the world. There are also ways in which tyranny can be imposed from outside the political system, but within the country.

It is totally unrealistic to believe that a state using sortition to choose its government could be sure of not being attacked or involved in war, though it might be much less likely to start one. Therefore it will be just as necessary for such a state to have armed forces as it is for regimes with elected representatives.

It is also absurd to suppose that crime will magically cease. Therefore it will also be necessary to have a police force. Similarly, immigration and customs services will also be required.

All of these services will require some form of intelligence service to support them. In all cases, some secrecy will be essential, and for all services some surveillance of the civilian population will be necessary.

And so, BINGO! It seems that in our virgin utopia we are stuck with the whole unpleasant bag of offensive weapons, military personnel eager for a chance to use them, secrecy, and spies who are so expert at and so fond of finding enemies that they find them everywhere, including under the bed.

Security Agencies

One of the greatest difficulties for a democratic state must lie in preventing the well-intentioned gentlemen of the “security” agencies from establishing a secret parallel agenda within the state, while allowing enough scope and secrecy for them to do their job of protecting us from genuine threats.

Recent revelations by Edward Snowden and others lead us to wonder who really has the power in the US and other “democratic” regimes. Certainly with the enormous capacity for gathering information that is now available to the various agencies there are huge possibilities for blackmailing individual politicians and also for influencing elections by selectively releasing information just before them. It also appears that the enormous sums of money being spent on them in the US escape rigorous control. Perhaps the politicians find that it is just too dangerous to attempt to rein in the security services, as seems to have been the case in the days of J Edgar Hoover.

In view of the failure to prevent the “September 11” attacks, and the apparent failure to anticipate the rise of the Islamic State, the US taxpayer – and others – may have very good grounds for wondering whether the money is well spent.

Might things be better with sortition instead of elections? The obvious dangers from the secret service and defence personnel, and the safeguards against them under sortition, are:

  1. Use of secret services and surveillance information by those in power to remove or discredit rivals or silence opposition. There is no reason for this to occur with sortition, since there is no-one in power and no-one in opposition.
  2. Blackmail of politicians by secret services. Any citizen who has an embarrassing secret is vulnerable to blackmail for money. A member of the Assembly would be no more vulnerable than anyone else to blackmailed for money. It will not be possible to influence the member’s vote by blackmail, since secret voting will prevent a blackmailer from knowing how the member has voted.
  3. Assassination of politicians and putsch attempts. We may assume that the defence forces, all security agencies and police forces would each have an Oversight Committee, and that there would be various Policy Committees covering their fields of action. It may be impossible to eliminate the possibility of assassinations or coup attempts entirely, but:
    • Secret service and defence personnel would be free to make their private concerns known to the Assembly and to relevant Policy Committees. This might remove any frustration they feel that account is not being taken of information they provide.
    • Those who engaged in an illegal action could not expect to be protected, since the random process of selection of members of the Assembly, the Oversight Committees and Policy Committees, and the fact that they are regularly replaced, would make it difficult to secure the complicity of a member, and in any case, individual members would have very little power.
    • Close supervision by the Oversight Committee, as well as cooperation in achieving legitimate objectives, might permit the attitudes of personnel to be known.
  4. Secret services and Defence personnel who believe they know better than the government initiating actions designed to force the government’s hand or to embarrass it. The same considerations apply here as to item 3 above.
  5. Empire building. The Oversight Committee should be able to keep empire building in check by closely following expenditure and requests for budget allocations. The assembly itself, when making the budget, will limit expenditure. No-one will be in a position to set up a secret “slush fund” of any magnitude which escapes the control of the Oversight Committee and the Assembly.

It would not be surprising if security professionals were at first very wary of telling all their little secrets to a government whose members are regularly replaced. From their point of view such a government must look like a security disaster.

However, with an elected government there is the problem (from the spies’ point of view) that what they tell the PM and the Cabinet or the Senators today is known by the ex-PM, ex-Ministers and ex-Senators tomorrow, and sometimes by their spouses and partners, some of whom may be disgruntled, and who would pose at least as great a security risk as members of bodies selected by lot.

It would be a simple matter to swear to secrecy the members of the Oversight Committee and the Policy Committees, and the Assembly, if necessary. Such an oath would have no more and no less force than at present with elected governments.

To put fears for security in perspective, it is reported that in the US some 5 million people have security clearancei. Even if this figure is exaggerated tenfold, adding a few Assembly and Policy Committee members and a smaller number of Oversight Committee members seems a small extra risk.


Treaties may seem a strange thing to consider in the context of tyranny, but they can have implications which are not foreseen at the time they are made, and which can be disastrous for future governments and their citizens. The network of treaties in Europe before the Great War are a case in point. Treaties are a form of tyranny in which a government ties the hands of future governments. The treaty establishing Hong Kong as a British territory, the treaty leasing Guantanamo Bay to the US, and the treaties establishing the Panama Canal zone and British and French control over the Suez Canal are all treaties bitterly resented by later governments. The fact that these treaties were imposed on governments that were not democratic in any sense is of course irrelevant.

The way in which treaties are agreed is often dubious. When the draft European Constitution was rejected by referendum in France and the Netherlands, the basic provisions were instituted by amending the Treaty of Maastricht, and by the new Treaty of Lisbon. This is a clear case where the manifest wishes of the people were circumvented by politicians in an “arbitrary exercise of power”, in the words of the Oxford Dictionary article on “Tyranny”. The lack of transparency and of public participation in the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) is also seen as tyranny by many. Even a US senator complained:

“The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations—like Halliburton, Chevron, PHRMA, Comcast, and the Motion Picture Association of America—are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement.”ii

(If Ron Wyden, Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee’s Subcommittee on International Trade, Customs, and Global Competitiveness does not or did not know what is going on, what hope have the rest of us? If even Congress is being kept in the dark, then what sort of “democracy” is this?)

In any government formed by sortition there would no doubt be Departments of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Each would have its Oversight Committee, and there would be several standing Policy Committees in this area, and probably a number of SIPCs at any given time. Negotiations would be open and transparent, and in discussing proposed treaties members of standing Policy Committees and SIPCs would have the advantage over civil servants that they would not risk their job or prospects of promotion for expressing a point of view that was not popular with the hierarchy, or for challenging the prevailing orthodoxy.

One might also hope that such a government would have the wisdom not to make treaties which tie the hands of future governments and prevent them from withdrawing from an agreement gracefully and without penalty.


Corruption in today’s elected governments is extremely damaging, difficult to eradicate, and very common. I have made the claim above that sortition will greatly reduce corruption, if not completely eliminate it.

To justify this claim I shall look at corruption in the three branches of government: the administration, the judiciary and the legislature.

The Administration

With an elective government, civil servants are under the control of elected politicians. This opens the way to corruption by politicians using their power to improperly enrich themselves or their family or friends; or to unfairly favour political supporters under the temptation of bribes, or under the threat of violence or blackmail.

This favouring of supporters is done in many ways, for example by:

  • Allocating contracts improperly.
  • Selling government property at bargain prices.
  • Reducing government services to make the public more dependent on private companies.
  • Granting permission to use government services on unduly favourable terms,
  • Granting permits or monopolies for certain activities (mines, exploitation of state forests, irrigation rights, fish farms . . .) in a corrupt fashion.
  • Permitting environmental degradation by authorising discharge of waste and spoil on land, in rivers, or in coastal waters.

Under a government formed by sortition on the model suggested here, Departments or Ministries and their staffs are not subject to a politician, but instead are answerable to the Oversight Committee. Although this committee is subject to the Assembly as a whole, no individual Assembly member has any authority over it, or over the Department and its staff. The need for a politican to be re-elected disappears, and with it goes campaign funding provided with the intention of getting something in exchange. Unlike elected politicians, members chosen by lot will not need to repay political support. So both the means of corruption, and the temptation or need to be corrupt disappear.

Likewise the need to hide the failings of the administration disappears, and with it the need to manipulate statistics, to trumpet good results, and to avoid scandal by not releasing the bad ones, or releasing them when the public is distracted by holidays or major sporting events.

It might be suggested that an Oversight Committee could abuse its powers in the same way as elected politicians. However, to do so, its members would have to act in concert, and getting agreement for a risky proceeding between people of different backgrounds who initially do not know each other will not be simple. Unlike a political party which has a motive to save one of its own, neither their fellow-members nor the Assembly would have any reason to tolerate even a suspicion about the probity of an Oversight Committee member.

Civil servants and whistleblowers would have little to fear from Assembly members with no individual power to punish them, nor from Oversight Committee members who would not act as a bloc, and who were subject to automatic retirement in a short time.

The Judiciary

The more respectable elective governments have measures intended to avoid corruption by the judiciary. In addition to these a government formed as described above would add the rotation of all judges, including senior ones.

The fact that judges would not have any power to declare laws unconstitutional removes the possibility of a “back-door” recourse against a decision of the Assembly, such as undoing a law by bribing a judge or two.

The Legislature

Consider first corruption initiated by a member to serve his or her own ends, and corruption within a government or party.

In an elected parliament, corrupt members may:

  1. Abuse their power over the administration, as discussed above.
  2. Use their position within a party or faction to persuade or pressure their colleagues to act corruptly in their stead: (“Joe Lemaffieu is a friend, I’d like to see him get that mine permit”)
  3. Use their position to gain further power: (“I’ll back your bid for the leadership against Harry, if you’ll make me Minister for Transport”). This is not normally considered corrupt, but it amounts to advancing oneself in disregard of and probably at the expense of the public interest. In those countries where dual or multiple mandates are permitted, party support for an additional lucrative position can be used or sought as a reward for services rendered.
  4. Vote against their own electoral promises, or against the clear wishes of the majority, in order to further their own interests. An example is given in §7 above.

A member chosen by lot will have no power over the administration, so items (1) and (2) are not possible. Since there is no party structure, no leadership, and no plum jobs item (3) disappears also. What of item (4)? Members chosen by lot do not make electoral promises, and as we have seen, in order to maintain the representativity of the Assembly, members are expected to vote in their own interest as they see it. So this form of corruption also disappears.

Now let us look at corruption at the behest of another person or organisation.

Imagine that a corrupt person – call him A Crooke – wishes to make the Assembly pass a bill, and is prepared to bribe or threaten members in order to get his way.

Obviously if the bill is a popular bill, so that it will be passed by a majority in the absence of corruption, it is pointless for Crooke to do anything. Similarly, if it is clear that the bill will be rejected by a large majority, bribing or threatening members is a waste of time; it may reduce the majority, but it won’t prevent the bill being rejected.

So it is only in the case where the bill’s fate is doubtful that corrupt methods would be worth trying. Suppose, then, that in the absence of corruption, a bill will be rejected by 260 votes to 240. (Crooke doesn’t know the exact figures, but we do.) To ensure a bare majority by bribes, Crooke would have to find 11 membersiii willing to sell their vote. If all members are open to bribery, and Crooke does not know how they intend to vote, he would need to bribe 500/260 times 11, or 22 members, since nearly half the chamber would already vote for the bill. Now suppose that only half the members are honest – or afraid of the risk – and will expose any attempt to bribe them. The chance of not being exposed is 1 in 2²², or 1 in 4 194 304. This is in the most favourable case (to Crooke), where by luck he hits on the exact minimum number he needs to approach. If he approaches more members than necessary, the risk increases exponentially; if he approaches too few, he will fail, and the bill will be rejected.

Even if Crooke knows the voting intentions of all members (which we may consider impossible), so that he only needs to corrupt 11, his chance of not being found outiv is still 1 in 2048, if only one member in two is honest. But this high level of risk applies to the members too, so it is likely that far fewer than 1 in 2 would dare accept a bribe, which would make the real risk very much higher; astronomical, in fact. In addition, with secret voting in the Assembly, Crooke would have no way of knowing if his bribe had any effect: a member might pocket the money, and vote according to his own ideas, in order to ease his conscience. (“Sure I took the swine’s money. It cost him $100 000, and I voted against the bill. Serves him right.”) If Crooke used threats instead of a bribe (“If you don’t vote for the bill, something unpleasant might happen to your children”) he is even more likely to indispose the member or members. And a postponement of the vote – which should happen automatically if there is a suspicion of corruption – will give time for police investigations.

It has been pointed out that, rather than attempting to buy or gain votes by coercion, Crooke might try to bribe or threaten a member or members to speak in favour of the bill. In this case, it is suggested, he only needs to find one (corruptible) member who is a persuasive speaker, and a sufficient number of members will be convinced, will vote in favour, and the bill will pass.

In this scenario Crooke approaches only one member, or very few, so the risk of discovery is certainly less.v Though members’ names will be published at the time of the drawing of lots, Crooke won’t know the members’ opinions, nor their rhetorical skills, nor, most importantly, their honesty. He’ll have to research all that, at whatever risk. After the bribe or threat, the member makes the speech. Speeches in the Assembly will be anonymous, but Crooke could insist on a particular phrase being used which he can recognise. A large number of members are convinced by the splendid rhetoric of the corrupt member, the bill passes, and evil triumphs.

Or does it?

What is to stop our “corrupt” member passing a note to the Speaker to say that he has been approached by Crooke? The Speaker would then pass a note to all members informing them, the postponement of the vote will be moved and voted, and a police investigation can take place.

Even if the member is too greedy or too terrified to inform the Speaker and the other members, and makes the speech, quivering and trembling, there will be other members who speak against it, and no doubt some who speak for it in all honesty, unaware of the corruption attempt. (Remember that it’s only if the members are roughly equally divided that it’s worth attempting to corrupt a member.) The Assembly votes, the bill is either passed or rejected, but Crooke will never know if anyone was in fact persuaded by the speech. He won’t even know if the member he suborned voted for it. This is a very meager and doubtful gain for a very real risk.

In any case, there are much safer and perhaps more effective ways for Crooke to attempt to get his bill passed, than by trying to corrupt a member, and some of them are legal. He could spend his $100 000 on an advertising campaign. He could pay a radio or TV “personality”, or a newspaper editor to push his argument. He could approach known experts on the subject in question, and convince them to push the argument from a position of authority.

This brings us to another possibility. Suppose Crooke is not a person, but a large organisation, (a tobacco company for instance.) There are probably a number of experts either on the staff, or who have been funded by the company, or who can be persuaded by the lure of a research grant, or even blackmailed: (“We know you massaged your results in your paper on XYZ; it wouldn’t look too good if we pointed out that the photos have been retouched”). The experts would not have to stand up and boldly say “Smoke more, it’s good for you”, they could use well-honed techniques to cast doubt on research embarrassing to the company, and to overplay results that could be taken to be in its favour. Crooke Inc might then set them to testify to a Policy Committee, and convince the members of the Policy Committee to favour Crooke’s interests in their report to the Assembly.

This is a very real danger: this sort of thing is common at present. Large multinational companies spend massively on research, and scientists are dependent on funding to pursue their careers. It is well-known that bias exists in published papers, and much of that bias exists because research results that run counter to the interests of the corporation funding the research are not published.

Our salvation here is that other experts in the field, those who are not bound to the large corporations, will be called on by the Policy Committees and the SIPCs to testify, and their testimony is likely to be far more effective than that of the tame experts tip-toeing around awkward topics. If the government has enough good sense to allocate sufficient funds to science, researchers will be less at the mercy of large corporations than at present.

Constitutional Change and Adaptation

It should not be necessary to point out that this document is not an attempt to write a constitution. My intention is to provide no more than an outline, with an indication of the underlying principles. In any case, a paper constitution is worthless unless it has the active support – not lip service – and esteem of the great majority of people, including those in power.

Even members of a body charged with writing a constitution would be well advised to avoid attempting to bind future generations to their own beliefs, or to the values and morality of their age. To do so would be arrogant to the point of megalomania.

Bouricius and Schectervi point to the need for a political system to be able to adapt to meet change. In their proposal for a government based on sortition, they suggest a constitutional review every ten years.

This is probably not necessary with the form of government proposed here. One advantage of the overriding power of the Assembly is that it has the authority to make changes in structure and proceedings that could become extensive over time. The exception is the power to fix its own salaries; I feel sure that most people would support this limitation.

One possible change is for the importance of the standing Policy Committees and the SIPCs to increase relative to that of the Assembly, so that most or all important decisions were taken by those bodies, with the Assembly tending to take on the role of a “watchdog”, only meddling with decisions when its members were convinced that something had gone wrong in the process of getting submissions and examining the evidence. In this case, a Review Chamber, if it existed, might become totally superfluous, and would perhaps be suppressed.

I can see no harm in this, if it worked in practice. It would be a step towards proposals, such as those of John Burnheimvii (“Demarchy” and “Citizen Juries”) and A Guerreroviii (“Single-Issue Lottery-selected Legislatures”), where there is no central authority at all. If it proved to be feasible to do without government, and not to be invaded by hostile states or reduced to slavery by the rich and powerful, so much the better, no doubt, but my guess is that it will not be possible to go so far.

The simplicity of the model proposed here means that it is flexible enough to be applicable to all states from the very small to the very large, and also to regional and local government. Obviously a small island state would have fewer policy issues and fewer SIPCs than a large state, and the Assembly might also be smaller. The sizes of the various bodies, the length of the terms of office and frequency of retirement of members might all be varied in the light of experience without abandoning the principle of sortition.

Final Thoughts

I hope it has been noticed that this is not a political essay, in the sense of advocating an agenda whether socialist, conservative, ecologist, nationalist, liberal, libertarian, or whatever. Advocacy of a system based on sortition is not advocacy of any ideology except the insistence on fairness for all.

I shall not be surprised if the reader feels that this essay is completely utopian. In the literal sense this is of course true: the form of government proposed here (as opposed to the use of sortition) has been tried nowhere (utopia). There is no reason, though, for it to remain so. I believe I have described a system which would work well in practice, no doubt after a period of learning, and perhaps fumbling, by the Assembly and others. At the very least, this is a system which could be progressively modified by the Assembly until it worked extremely well. Electoral democracy, after all, has evolved considerably since the 18th century, though not always in the right direction.

How difficult would it be to make a peaceful change from an existing government to one modelled on the lines I have set out above? The answer will depend on the extent of popular support for the change, and the institutions already existing.

Most countries, even severely dysfunctional ones, have some sort of civil service at least notionally providing infrastructure and services, and some sort of legal system, with a body of laws, and officials to enforce them. These could be taken over by the new government and modified as need be. The only other requirement of sortition is a register of citizens, and this is not difficult to set up.

Given sufficient popular support, governments with a single Westminster-style parliament would be relatively easy to convert, it is simply a matter of replacing elected members of parliament with members chosen by lot. A full assembly could be chosen at first; of these members 10% (chosen by lot, of course!) would retire every six months and be replaced as described above. Until there were members with four and a half years service to form the Agenda Committee and the Speakers’ group, a group of 50 or more might be chosen by lot, who would elect from amongst themselves the members to fill these posts. A policy committee might be used to study procedural questions until there were experienced members available.

Federations would introduce another level of complexity. It would be desirable to convert both state and federal bodies at the same time, but this might be difficult in practice.

Much more difficult would be the conversion of countries with a Presidential system, where the President has significant power. For these countries it is not simply a matter of minor tweaks to the constitution, but a complete rewrite. In the US, in particular, where the Founders made the Constitution particularly difficult to modify, and where it is held in quasi-religious awe, this would be very hard.

Probably the easiest would be a country with a good standard of education, currently suffering from a dictator or an aging oligarchy, and where revolution is already brewing. If the street demonstrations of Tahrir Square had called for a government based on sortition, instead of for elections, perhaps Egypt might now have something better than a military dictatorship which is likely to prove worse than that of Hosni Mubarak.

It is also possible that a sortition-based government might be established as a compromise peace plan in a country weary of a long civil war. If it were proposed by some mediating body, it might be very appealing to the citizens, if not to the heads of the factions.

What is most needed for the adoption of this system is the widespread acceptance of its principles. It cannot and must not be adopted until a majority of citizens are in favour. I feel that this is a matter of time and education. Already a number of proposals using sortition to form a government have been made in the second half of the 20th century and in this century, and the idea is slowly gaining ground. There are great obstacles, of course; some very powerful people stand to lose their unfair advantages under sortition. We can expect it to be ridiculed by politicians, by big business, by the media, in short by all those who have a position of power under elected governments. But far more people stand to gain with sortition, and even many of those who see themselves losing in the short term may one day find that they are in fact better off with a fairer, more representative form of government.

If this essay helps to animate and enlighten debate on sortition, or even just to bring its readers to question the assumption that Western-style elective “democracy” is the best possible government, then it will have served its purpose.

Objections and Replies

“This is a crackpot idea which has never been tried, and couldn’t work. Elections are tried and tested.”

Elections are indeed tried and tested, and have consistently shown themselves unsatisfactory. Sortition was used in Athens and worked well for 200 years. More and more serious political scientists are coming to favour some form of government involving sortition.

“Could you not get members who are not fit to govern, or even to be at liberty in a civilised society?”

Yes, of course, just as happens now, though probably less often. They would be in a tiny minority, just as they are in the world outside. The amount of harm they could do in a body of several hundred reasonable citizens would be very limited. And please note that individual members do not “govern”; only the Assembly as a whole does that.

“But half of the Assembly members will have less than average IQ!”

Yes, of course. And half of them will have more than average IQ. Setting aside the questionable validity of IQ tests for predicting anything other than the ability to do IQ tests, when the facts are placed before them very few people are incapable of making a reasonable decision given sufficient time. On the other hand, even very intelligent people make stupid decisions if they do not reflect before deciding.

“What if you get a majority of extremist left- or right-wingers, racists, or religious fundamentalists?”

In a sufficiently large random sample, all tendencies will be represented, in the same proportions as in the public at large. It is just not possible to get a majority of people whose views are greatly different from those of the population as a whole, though there will be some. On the other hand, if the population as a whole is, for instance, racist, then the Assembly also would be racist. Sortition can only permit the views of the majority to prevail, it cannot itself change those views. That should be done by reasoned argument (which might indeed occur in the Assembly).

“To resolve complex and technical issues, you propose policy committees drawn from the general public, but naive members of the public would be incapable of understanding technical issues. Vested interests could influence them by using tame or corrupt experts to pull the wool over their eyes.”

Elected governments commonly call commissions of enquiry into technical matters, headed by a judge or former MP with no technical expertise. SIPC members would need to acquaint themselves with their issue, but that issue would be a very limited field of study. Standing Policy Committees, by virtue of their permanence, would have members who have had time to acquire considerable expertise in their field. Members of both would be independent, not having a vested interest, which is rarely the case with experts. Even experts with no financial interest tend to have an emotional involvement.For tame experts to influence members, they would have to produce arguments which would be available for public inspection. On contentious issues, (by definition) there will be other experts who will produce opposing arguments. If anyone can write to the committees, and be called to address them, then all those who wish to be heard will be heard, and the policy committee will decide which arguments are valid, much as happens in court cases.

“Your system with its policy committees, oversight committees, and all the rest will be complicated and expensive, and decision-making will be slow.”

The system proposed here is far simpler than the US system, or the British, or the French . . . in fact there is probably not a simpler system anywhere, except perhaps absolute monarchy.

What is more, it would be a false economy to adopt a bad decision when a little more expense and time might produce a good one. Complex issues require detailed, non-partisan investigation. One cannot always have a simple solution to a complicated problem.

Elected governments can be extremely slow in making decisions and implementing them. I know of two airport proposalsix that have taken 50 years, and the first sod has yet to be turned. No doubt there are others. And nothing could be more wasteful and futile than the current common practice of elected politicians of cynically calling into being a commission of inquiry, with no intention of following its recommendations, merely to take the heat off the government on a sensitive issue.

In the case of climate change and greenhouse gases, we have known for twenty-five years that a very serious problem was probable, yet little has been done even now. It is hard to imagine policy committees deliberately dragging their feet as elected governments have on this issue.

In any event, the Assembly would be free to dissolve an ineffective or superfluous policy committee.

“Other people who have proposed using sortition suggest using it in combination with elections, for example one chamber elected, and one chosen by lot. Why don’t you adopt this more moderate approach?”

There are two parts to the answer. The first part is: While any use of sortition from the whole population to reduce the power of elected politicians – and non-elected judges, as in the US – must be an improvement, elected politicians would have a strong prejudice against the chamber chosen by lot, and would gain by suppressing it. The mass media thrive on political scandals, politicians’ gaffes, and the “horse race” reporting of elections, and the media moguls like their power to influence politicians. So both media and politicians could be expected to do everything in their power to discredit sortition and get rid of any chamber chosen by lot.

The second part of the answer is: Would you please re-read the list of the defects of elections at the beginning, and then ask the question again.

“Sortition is a nice idea, but no-one has heard of it, so no-one will be in favour of it, and it won’t happen.”

Of course it won’t happen tomorrow. It will take time for the idea of sortition to become widely accepted by the public. When this happens, it will be possible to set up a government based on sortition.

You can help by spreading the word.

This essay first appeared in six parts on the blog Equality by Lot. (

If you have a suggestion or criticism to offer, I should be delighted to hear it. The best way is to post your comment on the blog in the comments to the part of the essay concerned.

And if I have managed to make you feel that something on these lines would be an improvement on what we now call “representative democracy”, then please talk to other people about it. Thank you in advance.

© Campbell Wallace, 2015

ii US Senator Ron Wyden. Congressional Record – Senate, May 23, 2012, available:

iii If the Assembly has adopted the measures suggested in Example 4, then it would be necessary to change the votes of 15 members for permanent adoption, or 13 for temporary adoption. It would be necessary to approach more members, 29 and 25 respectively. On the assumptions given, the chance of not being caught out is 1 in 537 million, or 1 in 33.6 million respectively.

iv If the Assembly has adopted the measures suggested in Example 4, then the corresponding figures are 1 in 32 768 and 1 in 8 192.

v Probably still a great deal higher than 1 in 2. The member will have no way of knowing how many other members Crooke has approached. Given that it would only take one of them to spill the beans, any thoughtful member would consider the risk unacceptable.

vi Bouricius, Terry and Schecter, David. (2014)

vii Burnheim, John, Is Democracy Possible? available:

viii Guerrero, Alexander, “Against Elections,” available:

ix The Second Sydney Airport and the Aéroport du Grand Ouest come immediately to my mind, but there must be hundreds of other similar cases of long delays caused by the political sensitivity of projects.

27 Responses

  1. […] is a mandate? | More deep political thinking on E by L #demoPart #polSci #demos… […]


  2. […] is a mandate? | More deep political thinking on E by L #demoPart #polSci #demos… […]


  3. […] is a mandate? | More deep political thinking on E by L #demoPart #polSci #demos… […]


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  5. […] is a mandate? | More deep political thinking on E by L #demoPart #polSci #demos… […]


  6. Seems like a beautiful idea


  7. I just created a sub-reddit for Sortition. There wasn’t one in existence! Feel free to post or start any kind of dialogue on Reddit as well.


  8. Thanks, doen and sortitionpetition.

    I’m a little surprised that this Part has not been vigorously attacked like the other parts.
    I can only assume that it’s absolutely faultless. :¬)
    And yet I thought it was the part most likely to be torn to shreds, particularly the section on Tyranny, defence, spies, and treaties.


  9. Campbell,
    Perhaps here would be the best place to leave this.


  10. @Naomi,
    Thank you for the link. I would invite you to again read the last section of my essay, in particular:

    “Advocacy of a system based on sortition is not advocacy of any ideology except the insistence on fairness for all.”
    “It cannot and must not be adopted until a majority of citizens are in favour.”
    “If this essay helps to animate and enlighten debate on sortition, or even just to bring its readers to question the assumption that Western-style elective “democracy” is the best possible government, then it will have served its purpose.”

    I do not think I have found the solution to all problems. (I say as much in the essay, but you don’t seem to have noticed.) I do think I am working towards a system which could enable solutions to particular problems (when found) to be implemented.

    If you are trying to suggest that I will be morally responsible for the crimes of some future time, I’m sorry, but I must reject this, whether it comes with the approval of Sir Isaiah or not. In fact such a suggestion amounts to “shut up!”. Since I believe in free speech, I shall not.


  11. I wish only to caution those who think they have found the One True Idea in sortition. It is only a tool in the constitution designer’s toolbox. One of many… each with its own pros and cons. Nothing more, nothing less.


  12. >If you are trying to suggest that I will be morally responsible for the crimes of some future time, I’m sorry, but I must reject this.

    This closely parallels Tony Blair’s response to the disastrous medium-term consequences of the Iraq War (he claimed that his intentions were entirely honourable). His principal error was to ignore the precautionary principle (unintended consequences). I posted an essay on this forum some time ago drawing parallels between the neoconservative and kleristocratic approaches:


  13. @Naomi
    Of course sortition is a tool, not an ideology.
    Blair was trying to excuse his own acts.
    Naomi appears to want to hold me responsible for crimes which may be committed in some future century by other people.

    Neither of your comments has any relevance, and both of them are offensive.


  14. Campbell,

    If your constitutional proposals were implemented then you would be responsible for the outcome (irrespective of your motives). In 2000 I edited/published a book entitled The Rape of the Constitution? and Blair’s picture was on the front cover. If your proposals were ever implemented I would need to publish the sequel with your picture on the front cover.


  15. I was very taken by the Isaiah Berlin article that Naomi drew our attention to, in particular:

    “If you are truly convinced that there is some solution to all human problems, that one can conceive an ideal society which men can reach if only they do what is necessary to attain it, then you and your followers must believe that no price can be too high to pay in order to open the gates of such a paradise. Only the stupid and malevolent will resist once certain simple truths are put to them.”


    “The idea that to all genuine questions there can be only one true answer is a very old philosophical notion. The great Athenian philosophers, Jews and Christians, the thinkers of the Renaissance and the Paris of Louis XIV, the French radical reformers of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries of the nineteenth—however much they differed about what the answer was or how to discover it (and bloody wars were fought over this)—were all convinced that they knew the answer, and that only human vice and stupidity could obstruct its realization.”

    Berlin, of course, was referring to the great millennial movements of the twentieth century, but the mindset of “to all genuine questions there can be only one true answer” would seem to apply equally to kleristocrats. What’s so great about the number one, rather than two, three, four or whatever compromise is necessary to solve a particular problem?


  16. I can only laugh at the inanity of this.
    A few days ago my proposal didn’t have “a snowflake’s chance in hell”
    Now it seems it is so likely to succeed that I’m a danger to all humanity.

    No-one who knows me except the cat next door thinks I’m a danger to anyone but myself, which is fine.

    What is obvious is that the pair of you want to silence any opinion other than your own. For Keith, that’s been apparent for a long time, he’s said so on several occasions. Naomi’s weasel insinuation goes in the same sense.
    Of course Keith accuses others (remember that “Taliban” jibe?) of his own intolerance.
    For my part, I am delighted to see other proposals, the more detailed the better; vague ones that deliberately don’t explain how they are supposed to work are useless.
    I also welcome criticism of my own proposal, when it sticks to what I have written, and doesn’t go off into hysterical prophesies of doom, or descend to cheap sneering without an argument to back it.
    There are plenty of things in this Part 6 and also Parts 4 and 5 which could do with a thorough, critical examination.
    I’m sure there must still be faults in it, though I go over things repeatedly.


  17. It was not my intent to be a weasel. I meant no disrespect to you, have no desire to silence anyone and I apologize if I’ve offended you. All I meant to suggest was that we sometimes loose sight of the significance of what we are talking about here. As Berlin said, those philosophers writing their musings did not expect to have much impact on history either. A powerful argument can change the world. In all likelihood our discussions will make no difference. If, however, sortition is the way forward, and gains the sort of acceptance that elections have, then our early deliberations will matter. I do advocate for sortition elsewhere, both on and offline. Sometimes I pause before doing so. If I’ve missed something… if the introduction of sortition ends up doing great harm then I will be responsible. My lapse in reasoning, my inability to see the problem in advance, my choice to advocate for it rather than against it at this critical stage and the full scope of the consequences will be a responsibility that I will bear. I won’t bear it alone, but I will bear it nonetheless for my part in this. I absolutely understand why Keith wants no part in being associated with this proposal. If you believe in it, then so be it. That’s your right. Having the courage of your convictions is a deeply respectable thing. However, we all have to accept responsibility for the *unforeseeable* consequences of the things we advocate. The way in which a society is structured is among the most serious matters that can be discussed by human beings. We can’t possibly know what sort of impact our deliberations here will ultimately have. As such, we should approach such serious matters with somber caution. This is the sentiment the link was meant to convey.

    As far as your proposal itself goes, it is quite well written and is one of the better pure-sortition models I’ve seen. I’ve already expressed my concerns elsewhere and will not harass you with them again.


  18. My inability to proofread or edit out my embarrassing grammatical mistakes will never cease to frustrate me. *facepalm*


  19. Campbell,

    >What is obvious is that the pair of you want to silence any opinion other than your own.

    My overriding concern is the credibility of the nascent sortition programme. We are currently below the radar (hence the grotesque absurdity of the “demands” of the Occupy sortition offshoot), so there is a danger that someone accidentally stumbling over your project will conclude that if that’s sortition then they don’t want to have anything to do with it (EbL is in the top 10 of Google hits for sortition, so this is a genuine possibility). Only a large established movement can afford the luxury of a lunatic fringe.

    >I’m sure there must still be faults in it, though I go over things repeatedly.

    I’m amazed that you think CW (and a few like-minded correspondents on an internet forum) can resolve “faults” in a programme that combines such a rich mixture of conceptual, historical, normative, sociological, psychological and polsci perspectives by simply “going over them repeatedly”. Perhaps that approach works for software engineering projects (for someone who has the necessary professional training); not so for constitutional design, where path-dependency is the overriding constraint (in addition to the above-mentioned academic disciplines).


  20. Berlin:

    So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. I know only too well that this is not a flag under which idealistic and enthusiastic young men and women may wish to march—it seems too tame, too reasonable, too bourgeois, it does not engage the generous emotions. But you must believe me, one cannot have everything one wants—not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion. And then to destruction, blood—eggs are broken, but the omelette is not in sight, there is only an infinite number of eggs, human lives, ready for the breaking. And in the end the passionate idealists forget the omelette, and just go on breaking eggs.

    This article is such a gem of pomposity. No wonder Berlin enjoys a fine reputation in respectable circles.


  21. The fact that Yoram’s reaction is the exact opposite of Naomi and myself really shows the unbridgeable divide between us (it would be interesting to know what Campbell and Yoram think of Berlin’s piece). Mind you “gem of pomposity” would gain nil points for critique in the “respectable circles” of my university, where generally some kind of argument is required (as opposed to simply mud-slinging).

    I’ve come to the sad conclusion that we are going to need two different forums for the discussion of sortition and, perhaps, two different terms to refer it (or perhaps even three, once the blind breakers are included). This is doubly sad, given the faith in the deliberative process that we all seem to profess (and which generates such scant progress on this forum). If we can’t even talk to each other, then what hope is there for the sortition in the wider world?


  22. I found the article humbling. I’m not sure how one gets, “gem of pomposity” but it’s probably something along the lines of, “something something elite propaganda something something.”

    It would be convenient to have a term which refers strictly to giving the final deciding role to a statistical sampling of the people. That’s usually how I pitch sortition anyway. Most of the people I work with are very familiar with statistical samples. They grasp the cleverness of the basic concept instantly. Drawing comparisons to conventional legislatures, but filed by lot, just confuses things.

    I’m less keen on a different forum. Eternal engagement is probably useful for uncommitted observers. I was useful for me before I put my hat in the ring.


  23. >”It was not my intent to be a weasel. I meant no disrespect to you, have no desire to silence anyone and I apologize if I’ve offended you.”
    Very well, Naomi, that is noted. But if it wasn’t your intention to silence me, it was singularly inept to wave the spectre of unknown, unspecified calamities to happen at some unknown time in the future all because I express an opinion. What is the good of free speech if we are not supposed to use it?
    I don’t have much time for the article, incidentally, however illustrious the author.

    >”I’m amazed that you think CW (and a few like-minded correspondents on an internet forum) can resolve “faults” . . . by simply “going over them repeatedly”.
    Quite obviously CW doesn’t’ think this; why would he ask for criticism otherwise?
    If a few people agree with me on some points, is that a bad thing? I would have liked to have more critics who oppose my ideas, especially if they kept their criticisms to what I have said and didn’t use straw man arguments or produce nonsensical bogeymen.

    All this off-the-topic stuff is a waste of time. If anyone makes a comment which has some bearing on what I have written, I shall be interested and shall reply. Otherwise, no. I’m far too busy plotting in my garret.


  24. Naomi,

    >It would be convenient to have a term which refers strictly to giving the final deciding role to a statistical sampling of the people.

    Agree. Let’s think about that.

    >I’m less keen on a different forum. Eternal engagement is probably useful for uncommitted observers.

    Yes that’s true. The problem arises when some of the frequent posters have non-negotiable commitments to a particular paradigm. Since Kuhn’s book we’ve understood how difficult paradigm shifts are.


    >If a few people agree with me on some points, is that a bad thing? I would have liked to have more critics who oppose my ideas.

    Of course not. The problem is believing that detailed and comprehensive constitutional proposals can be worked out in this way.


  25. Campbell,
    > “What is the good of free speech if we are not supposed to use it?”

    And what of my free speech? Have I no right to point out my belief that what you seek is dangerous?

    You still have the right to post and defend your proposal. The discussion may have been moved in a direction that is unfavorable to you and it may have been moved in that direction against your will but such a thing does not constitute a loss of speech rights. What it does do is illustrate the danger of leaving rhetoric to chance.


  26. Naomi,

    >It would be convenient to have a term which refers strictly to giving the final deciding role to a statistical sampling of the people.

    How about stochastion (pron: stokaschun)? That would give us election, votation and stochastion as the three public choice mechanisms.


  27. Hmm. I don’t know. I’ll give it some thought.

    In any case, there’s no rush.


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