A 5-minute video lesson about sortition

Melissa Schwartzberg is a professor of Politics at NYU.


What did democracy really mean in Athens? – Melissa Schwartzberg

Hey, congratulations! You just won the lottery. Only the prize isn’t cash or a luxury cruise. It’s a position in your country’s national legislature. And you aren’t the only lucky winner. All of your fellow lawmakers were chosen in the same way.

This might strike you as a strange way to run a government, let alone a democracy. Elections are the epitome of democracy, right? Well, the ancient Athenians, who coined the word, had another view. In fact elections only played a small role in Athenian democracy, with most offices filled by random lottery from a pool of citizen volunteers.

Unlike the representative democracies common today, where voters elect leaders to make laws and decisions on their behalf, 5th century BC Athens was a direct democracy that encouraged wide participation through the principle of Ho Boulomenos, or “anyone who wishes”. This meant that any of its approximately 30,000 eligible citizens could attend the Ecclesia, a general assembly meeting several times a month. In principle any of the 6,000 or so who showed up in each session had the right to address their fellow citizens, propose a law, or bring a public lawsuit.

Of course, a crowd of 6,000 people trying to speak in the same time would not have made for effective government. So the Athenian system also relied on a 500 person governing council called the Boule to set the agenda and evaluate proposals, in addition to hundreds of jurors and magistrates to handle legal matters. Rather than being elected or appointed, the people in these positions were chosen by lot.

This process of randomized selection was known as sortition. The only positions filled by elections were those recognized as requiring expertise, such as generals. But these were considered aristocratic, meaning rule by the best, as opposed to democracy’s rule by the many.

How did this system come to be?

Well, democracy rose in Athens after long periods of social and political tension marked by conflict among nobles. Powers once restricted to elites, such as speaking in the assembly and having their votes counted, were expanded to ordinary citizens. And the ability of regular citizens to perform these tasks adequately became a central feature of the democratic ideology of Athens. Rather than a privilege, civic participation was the duty of all citizens, with sortition and strict term limits preventing governing classes or political parties from forming.

By 21st century standards, Athenian rule by the many excluded and awful lot of people. Women, slaves and foreigners were denied full citizenship. And when we filter out those too young to serve, the pool of eligible citizens drops to only 10%-20% of the overall population.

Some ancient philosophers, including Plato, disparaged this form of democracy as being anarchic and run by fools. But today the word has such positive associations that vastly different regimes claim to embody it. At the same time, some share Plato’s skepticism about the wisdom of crowds. Many modern democracies reconcile this conflict by having citizens elect those they consider qualified to legislate on their behalf. But this poses its own problems, including the influence of wealth and the emergence of professional politicians with different interests than their constituents.

Could reviving election by lottery lead to more effective government through a more diverse and representative group of legislators? Or does modern political office, like Athenian military command, require specialized knowledge and skills?

You probably shouldn’t hold your breath to win a spot in your country’s government. But, depending on where you live, you may still be selected to participate in a jury, a citizen assembly, or a deliberative poll – all examples of how the democratic principle behind sortition still survives today.

13 Responses

  1. Hola ¿Crees qcque merece la pena subtitular este video en español?


  2. Sorry: *que, NO *qcque.


  3. Yes, that’s a good video and from a reliable source. The only problem is the “typo” at 0:56 that appears to claim it refers to 6th century practice! And Melissa, like most scholars, focuses on 5th century direct democracy rather than the 4th century reforms, which are more relevant to the modern potential for sortition.


  4. PS this is also a good example of the changing attitude to sortition within the political theory community. Melissa is a fan of Peter Stone’s book and is in the same department at NYU as Bernard Manin, who we attempted to “turn” to sortition at one of the Paris workshops. This all takes time and presupposes a careful measured approach (that refrains from describing political theorists as apologists for elite interests).


  5. Hi Tomas – Are you aware of a similar Spanish-speaking video? If not, translating this to Spanish may have some impact. What do you think?


  6. It’s not perfect, but it is accessible to the masses. There needs to be a lot more of this. Most people, even “educated” people, have an extremely short attention span and zero interest in political theory. Media like this could be our best hope.


  7. I like it. It’s not perfect, but it’s probably good enough for basic advocacy purposes.


  8. Reblogged this on Fila Sophia and commented:
    A good intro video to the use of lots in Athens and how they may be used today. Note, there are now several such videos and TED-talks about sortition, Étienne Chouard, David Grant, and the makers of “J’ai pas voté” should also be noted.


  9. Por lo que escribis los angloparlantes parece que el video no está mal..
    No hay videos buenos ni en ingles ni en español. .. asi que subtitulare este, pero necesito vuestra ayuda: el texto del video en ingles para que pueda traducirlo al español y, despues, subtitular. Soy duro de oido.
    ¿Lo haces tu Yoram? U otro de mis queridos sorteistas… y asi descargais un poco de trabajo a Yoram


  10. Thanks, Tomas. Sure – I’ll produce a transcript.


  11. !Lo he intentado Yoram. ..! ;-) … no han aparecido voluntarios.
    No hay prisa.


  12. > Lo he intentado Yoram. ..!

    sé :) – ¡gracias!


  13. […] clip comes courtesy of the fantastic blog, Equality by Lot, and they have also transcribed the […]


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