Unger: We really don’t have much to lose!

Stephen Unger, formerly a professor of engineering at Columbia University has a short article proposing sortition as a replacement to elections with several points worth discussing:


Great care should be taken to ensure that the selection process is truly random. The method used should be very simple and transparent. No fancy technology. Note that every stage magician is expert at faking random choices.

Body size:

Assume that, in the new system, the legislative body consists of 200 randomly chosen citizens


Assume that only American citizens at least 21 years old are eligible. Including a modest number of young people is desirable as they are likely to be more energetic, and it is worthwhile to have their views considered. Setting an upper age limit would be difficult. We might allow people over the age of 70 to decide for themselves whether they should be eligible for selection. There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.

Term of service:

What should be the term of office for the legislators? Too short a term would not give them enough time to learn the job. Too long a term would disrupt their lives, and/or make them feel too special, perhaps to the point that they were corrupted. One year seems like a good compromise–enough time to learn the job–but not likely to upset their lives too much.

Probably the most important problem that most people would face would be the disruption of the education and social lives of their children. High level professional athletes might suffer from a substantial layoff. Physicians might have problems–possibly interrupting the treatment of some patients. If the term of office did not exceed a year, this would not be all that bad, assuming special treatment for special cases. For example, we might have some minimal interval, say 3 months between selection and the start of service. Delaying start of service too much might open the door to people being corrupted. Let us assume a one-year term, which seems plausible.


If we assume the salary of a member of congress would be about what it is today (of the order of $174,000 annually [7]), then this would be, for most people, very generous (median annual income of individual Americans is roughly $31K [8].) Wealthy people would probably not suffer too much–in most cases their incomes are largely from capital. Poor people would benefit substantially.

Selection of the executive:

The parliament might, as in most European countries, choose one of its members to be the chief executive (prime minister). But a one-year term might not be feasible, as it really isn’t enough time to master the job. It might be a good idea to have those completing their 1-year terms to elect one of their members, i.e., an outgoing member, to serve an additional year–or perhaps 2 years–as chief executive. Or maybe they should choose more freely from among the general population. This is a point that calls for more thinking.

Procedure for introduction and testing:

Sortition could be tested on a small scale by implementing it for some small municipalities. Then for governments of larger cities, then states, etc. Given the prevalence of scandals and failed governments, more and more people might be open to such experiments.

9 Responses

  1. There should definitely NOT be any formal education requirement. (“There should be some minimal education requirement, such as limiting the selection to high school graduates.”) The minimum age should be younger than 21.


  2. I agree that exclusions should only be used in extreme cases.

    Regarding the other points:

    Randomization: Yes – it is very important to have the randomization verifiably fair. This is not an easy task since the stakes are much higher than in the most lucrative lotteries.

    Body size: Yes – 200 seems the right size. It is at the higher end of what can still produce an all-to-all conversation.

    Term of service: 1 year is too short. It is barely enough to get acquainted with the topics, with the other members of the body, with the procedures, etc. I think we should stick to 4 years as is now the standard period of service in many parliaments. Anything shorter than that will leave most power in the hand of professionals running the system. Yes – that would mean that there would be a large disruption to the lives of the allottees. That is unavoidable, unfortunately, and the allottees should understand that they are carrying out a hugely important task that requires some sacrifice for which they are compensated financially and in other very important ways.

    Selection of the executive: Yes – the executive should be selected by the allotted legislature. However, unlike things are today, the allotted body should be firmly in charge. So the executive should be closely monitored by the allotted body, and be accountable to it. This also implies that the term of the executive should typically be shorter than that of the allotted chamber. This is another reason that the allotted chamber should have a term of several years. Otherwise it would be in a position where it could be easily manipulated by the executive.

    Procedure for introduction and testing: Starting at the local level is not a promising way to go about introducing sortition. Sortition only works well when it is used to constitute a body that is perceived by the average allottee as having significant power justifying the investment in time and energy. Local government does not meet this criterion. The way to start is by applying sortition to policy areas that are both naturally circumscribed and are generally perceived as being important. One such area is addressing corruption and ethics in elected bodies. This area clearly presents a conflict of interest for the elected and therefore seems natural for the application of sortition. Another promising area is the management of the country’s natural resources – again an area that is perceived as important and which the elected are not trusted to manage properly.


  3. I can’t see much in ‘shooting the breeze’ type arguments such as this one.

    We can all speculate on our favourite utopia. Doesn’t amount to much.


  4. Hi Nicholas,

    I agree that detailed designs are not useful. However, without having a general direction to aim for – “knowing which way is up” – we are just ineffectively flailing around and are likely to be led astray.


  5. I prefer that the final say in legislation be given to legislative juries that serve short terms, and that each only decide one law by majority vote in the context of a trial-like process (or decide which, if any, of a set of contradictory proposed laws on the same topic passes).

    This is of course in keeping with Athenian legislative juries that each decided only one proposed law after a “trial” between that law and the law it would replace. It is also in keeping with trial juries that decide just one trial (rather than for example serving for a year or more and deciding many trials).

    On this point I think the Athenians got it right (though each jury could serve for weeks or months rather just the one day that legislative juries served in Athens), and that the trial jury tradition is also correct (it seems to me) in limiting juries to deciding just one trial, and then fairly soon disbanding back into the public.

    Paying jurors $174,000.00 per year, especially for any extended period of time, and especially if this will boost their pension (as presumably it would apart from those who are already members of the 1%) would render such jurors unrepresentative of the public in terms of income and wealth, and therefore make them a flawed and dubious stand-in for the public. Even for just one year, such a rate of pay would impact negatively on a jury’s representativeness of the public.

    I don’t think it is desirable for existing legislatures to be simply switched from being chosen by popular election to being chosen by lottery. Instead, the key thing to me is that final decisions about laws be made by legislative juries.

    I am in favour of a separation of powers between legislative juries that decide laws, and the formulating and proposing of laws that are proposed to them. Proposed laws can be worked out and proposed by professional politicians chosen by jury, by law reform commissions chosen by jury, by expert regulatory commissions chosen by jury (regarding proposed laws within their area of expertise), by citizens’ assemblies such as the one in Ireland, and by public interest groups.

    One reason for this separation of powers is that I see no reason why the best proposed laws would come from a Congress chosen by lottery, rather than from the other possible sources of proposed laws I just mentioned.

    Deciding for or against one proposed law in the context of a trial-like process is within the realistic capacity and competence of a randomly sampled jury of several hundred to 1,000 citizens (large enough to be quite statistically representative of the public) serving for short terms of service (say one year maximum, but typically just a few days, weeks or months), it seems to me (given very well designed procedures). Expecting a randomly sampled jury serving for short terms to carry out all the functions and activities now conducted by the Senate and House of Representative is not, it seems to me.

    Education requirements and any other basis for excluding people from juries (other than in extreme cases as Yoram indicates) is contrary to democracy and the equality of citizens. It is reminiscent of proposals to limit the right to vote to those who can pass a test or have a university degree or something. Ditto re excluding 18, 19 and 20 year old citizens.


  6. I agree with the broad thrust of Simon’s comment. The authors of a draft law are automatically ill-suited to then also be the judges of whether that draft should become law. They are biased with pride of authorship and can no longer be objective nor impartial. The final say must go to a short duration, highly representative mini-public dealing with just one issue.

    There are also many practical reasons why a single mini-public cannot competently carry out all the tasks assumed to be carried out by an elected chamber. It should be noted that an elected legislature is ALSO not competent to do all these tasks.

    Some sortitionists advocate a one-for-one replacing of an elected legislature with one selected by lot. This cannot work. Many lay people have the false sense that a chamber of perhaps 150 or 500 elected representatives work in various committees to draft bills, take testimony digest relevant information, deliberate, and pass judgment on the huge number of bills. This never happens in any national chamber, and cannot be done in a random mini-public either.

    The way things actually work (I was an elected lawmaker for 20 years) is that a huge assortment of behind the scenes people do nearly all the crafting of proposals. Senator Ted Kennedy wrote in his autobiography that around 95% of all such legislative drafting and negotiating was carried out NOT by the elected legislators. The people who do this work are unrepresentative legislative staffers, special interest lobbyists, campaign contributors, think tanks, and party insiders. Often a few elected members of a particular committee DO come to understand many details of the draft bills they look at, but often they simply rely on the lobbyists, staffers, and others in whom they have political trust. The rest of the elected legislators, not on the committees could not possibly understand the vast number of bills that come to the floor… Indeed they rarely read any of the bills, let alone understand them. They simply follow the lead of the party members of the committee they know and trust, who in turn are following the lead of the lobbyists, staffers and others they trust. It is impossible for a group of 150 or 500 representatives to understand and digest the needed information to make informed decisions on the huge number of bills considered. They ALL rely on various heuristics.

    If we throw out all the elected members and replace them with ordinary randomly selected citizens, yet they still have the job that we imagine elected legislators have, and need to handle a huge number of bills, they would need to use similar heuristics (relying on the guidance of political parties, think tanks, and lobbyists …we only remove the campaign donors). Even if they break into committees (which due to small size would no longer be statistically representative of the population), these committees dealing with many bills would need shortcuts just like elected legislators. Elected legislatures are both undemocratic and incapable of genuine deliberation on a wide variety of bills. Merely substituting random selection without a complete reworking of how legislation is crafted and considered, would accomplish virtually nothing for democracy, nor quality of output.

    Sortition is essential for democracy, but it is not sufficient. The entire structure of the law making process needs to be overhauled.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I agree with Simon and Terry (noting that the former is a lawyer and the latter was an elected legislator)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. 1. An allotted constitutional body should be in charge of setting the institutions, rules and procedures of government (this body could be the same body carrying other government functions as well or it could be a separate body). Thus if any of the arguments above (or different arguments) convince the members of that body that the legislation process should be split into multiple stages involving multiple bodies, so be it. However, setting those institutions, rules and procedures a-priori in a way that would not be changeable on an ongoing basis later is undemocratic. Conversely, if the constitutional body is powerful enough and democratic enough then all else can be fixed in due course.

    2. Personally I am quite unconvinced by the arguments above. I would expect an allotted body to have roughly the same structure of division of labor described by Terry – legislators learning who to trust and who to collaborate with, picking up areas of interest and expertise, etc. The difference would be that the body would be representing interests that are aligned with those of the public rather than narrow interests.

    3. “Adding sources” of legislation to that of legislation proposed in the allotted parliament means, in fact, having elite dominated channels for legislation. “Popular initiative”, “expert bodies”, etc. are all in fact elite dominated channels and to the extent that they produce legislation that is different from legislation proposed in the allotted chamber they would simply be a way for elites to promote their interests at the expense of the average citizen. Needless to say, the allottees do not live in a vacuum and they can communicate and consult with whoever they see fit as they decide which legislation to propose in the allotted chamber. Thus, insisting that legislation should be proposed in the allotted chamber does not mean that other elements in society are not involved in generating legislation. It merely means that agenda setting power remains is held by a representative body (any other arrangement would be undemocratic).

    4. As I have written several times before (including recently in this thread), there are good reasons to expect that having a final up-or-down vote on legislation by a short term body would be destructive to the quality of the proposals that would reach that final up-or-down vote. Despite revisiting this issue frequently, I have never seen these objections addressed.


  9. As Yoram’s arguments are a priori/definitional it’s hard to know how to respond.


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