Lottocracy among 5 ideas to upgrade democracy

NJ.com presents “5 ideas to upgrade democracy” by 5 “of America’s leading political philosophers”. One of those is Alexander Guerrero, professor of philosophy at Rutgers University-New Brunswick’s School of Arts and Science, who offers the readers his ‘lottocracy‘:

Maybe America’s problem stems not from the fact that we aren’t picking the right people, but from the fact that we aren’t picking them in the right way.

Maybe — bear with me here — we should get rid of elections. I believe that you — that each of us — has something to offer, and that we can find ways to work together.

I propose we use a new system that uses random selection, rather than elections, to select political representatives.

I call it lottocracy.

For it to work, we must agree that having an elected, generalist legislature has run its course.

We should instead have randomly-chosen citizens selected to serve on single-issue legislatures, each covering specific areas such as immigration, transportation, education, agriculture and so on.

Each of the proposals was evaluated by 3 political scholars from Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute of Politics: Ashley Koning, Elizabeth C. Matto and John Weingart. Here is what they wrote about lottocracy:

Why won’t this work?

Koning: Be careful what you wish for. We as a country may endlessly complain about an elite ruling class and rich politicians gaming the electoral system, but moving to the completely other end of the spectrum is not necessarily the answer, either. Some individuals may not want or are simply not equipped with the right skill set to serve. Instead, we should encourage those with more diverse backgrounds – both culturally and professionally – to run for office.

Matto: Replacing elections with a “lottocracy” to address American democracy’s current ills is the political version of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. Although its application is constantly evolving, the Constitution supplies us with an effective political system. The real problem lies in the ways in which we’ve perverted it. Concerns with the influence of moneyed interests or media elites are best addressed by reforming our electoral system, not abolishing it. American is a representative, not a direct democracy; a “lottocracy” undermines this core tenet.

Weingart: For one thing, isolating single issues to be addressed independent of others would lead to chaos. How could a “transportation legislature” make decisions without consideration of impacts on farmland which presumably under this proposal would be handled by the “agriculture legislature?” For another, the proposer argues that “people don’t know enough about the political issues or what our elected officials are doing…,” but expects some of those people drawn at random to be able to tackle complex public policy issues. I agree that “we should think more creatively about how we might work together,” but, at least as briefly described here, this idea seems monumentally flawed.

Why will this work?

Koning: At the heart of this proposal is the idea of participatory democracy, leaning more toward the delegate than trustee model of representation. Engaging the average citizen and amplifying their voice in the political process should always be encouraged – whether through running for office, participating in a town hall, voting, or expressing one’s views on important policies in a poll. An active citizenry has a big impact on who gets elected and what gets decided.

Matto: This proposal promises to instill a sense of ownership among citizens in the processes of politics. From participatory budgeting to referenda, more states are crafting methods to engage citizens. The inclination to play a part in democracy is innate in America’s psyche. As Tocqueville observed, Americans possess a natural “civic spirit,” and “to take a hand in the government of society. . . is the only pleasure he knows”. This proposal will help Americans recapture their propensity to be active democratic participants.

Weingart: The most readily available realization of an idea like this is the American jury system. By virtually all accounts, it is successful in requiring randomly-selected citizens to drop whatever else they are doing and spend days, weeks or occasionally months deliberating about legal matters that previously, in most cases, were totally unfamiliar to them, and to arrive at decisions objective analysts generally consider wise. Maybe something in the direction of this idea could grow from assessment and expansion of the jury system.

7 Responses

  1. In such a brief presentation (hardly more than an “elevator pitch”) Alex couldn’t anticipate all the objections the idea would inevitably generate, but the two critics were pretty condescending and unsurprisingly locked into their preconceived understandings of democracy as “elections plus participation by voting.”

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  2. Of course I agree with Weingart :-)
    Weingart: The most readily available realization of an idea like this is the American jury system…

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  3. I agree too. When people make reckless and overblown claims about replacing election by sortition it’s inevitable that they will receive a negative response. And inventing neologisms like “lottocracy” is shooting yourself (and the rest of us) in the foot.

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  4. Yes – despite (what I hope is) the increasing familiarity of academics with sortition, the discussion (at least in the English speaking world) never seems to move beyond square one with the formulaic off-handed, instinctive objections – as if they have not been addressed and rebutted again and again.

    Unsurprisingly the academic mainstream seems very comfortable with the existing system and the endless hashing and re-hashing of the standard proposals for its reform, despite those having been tried and re-tried for decades without achieving a significant improvement. In this case the respondents aren’t even really trying to hide their elitist mindset:

    Some individuals may not want or are simply not equipped with the right skill set to serve.

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  5. Some individuals may not want or are simply not equipped with the right skill set to serve.

    1. Judging by the typical uptake from voluntary sortition projects (4%), it is self-evidently the case that some people may not want to serve.

    2. If the mandate is active deliberation/proposal/information advocacy and/or executive functions — this is presumably what those proposing the replacement of election by sortition have in mind — it may well be that some are not equipped with the right skill set to serve. But this does not mean that large, quasi-mandatory, well-briefed juries are not capable of informed decision making in a way that reflects “what everyone would think under good conditions” (Fishkin).

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  6. Thanks for posting the piece and the series of pieces. I do sometimes wonder about the value of these pieces—which are really meant just to expand the political imagination, and to introduce new ideas to a broader audience. Obviously, one can’t get into all the details in 750 words! I always get lots of good emails from people who are interested, the comments on the pieces are always terrible (as is standard for most of these outlets), and I have no real idea how the other thousands of readers are responding. I hope it’s at least moving the idea into broader currency.

    Fortunately, my book on lottocracy will be coming out with Oxford University Press sometime in 2020, so a full book-length treatment can be presented, and many of the sensible and obvious worries can be engaged in detail. And Hélène Landemore’s book on Open Democracy will be coming out even sooner with Princeton University Press.

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