Umbers: Against Lottocracy

“Against Lottocracy” (PDF) is a 2018 paper by Lachlan Montgomery Umbers from the department of philosophy at the University of Western Australia.


Dissatisfaction with democratic institutions has run high in recent years. Perhaps as a result, political theorists have begun to turn their attention to possible alternative modes of political decision-making. Many of the most interesting among these involve reliance on lotteries in one way or another – as a means of distributing the franchise, selecting representatives, or making social choices. Advocates of these ‘lottocratic’ systems contend that they retain the egalitarian appeal of democracy, while promising improved political outcomes. The aim of this article is to defend democracy (or, at least, universal suffrage and majority rule) against the challenge posed by these proposals. I argue, firstly, that lottocratic systems necessarily involve the establishment of objectionable social and political inequalities in a way that democracies do not. Secondly, I raise a number of doubts with respect to the purported instrumental benefits of these proposals.

The paper is an attempt to formulate a reasoned (negative) response to proposals for instituting sortition-based government as a substitute to elections-based government, and specifically (as its name indicates) to Alexander Guerrero’s proposals. By doing so, the paper represents a significant step forward in the Anglophone academic discussion of sortition. In English-speaking academia proposals for setting up “citizen juries” – i.e., allotted, one-time, limited-purview decision making or (more often) advisory bodies – are discussed at length. So far, however, proposals for setting up sortition-based government were either ignored or summarily dismissed (“Nobody is going to support replacing Congress or Parliament with a randomly selected assembly,” as Helen Landemore put it). As it turns out, Umbers argues for the same reformist academic position. Umbers, however, does break some new ground by devoting his energies to making a detailed argument rather than simply taking sortition-based government off the table at the outset.

The paper deals with different proposals and approaches the issue of sortition from different angles, but in my opinion the most interesting section is the last one where Umbers addresses the instrumental case for representation by lottery:

The most important instrumental argument for representation by lottery is that it would mitigate elite bias. Two arguments to this effect have been presented. First, given the costs of running for election, democracies tend to disproportionately select for social and economic elites as officeholders. Selecting representatives randomly would eliminate this effect (McCormick, 2011: 170–188; Zakaras, 2010: 460–461). Second, elections afford social and economic elites opportunities to ‘capture’ – i.e. exert disproportionate influence over – politicians. These opportunities are numerous: manipulating pre-selection processes, manipulating candidates’ media presentation, campaign finance contributions, and so on. The elimination of elections would close off these avenues of influence (Guerrero, 2014). The end result, it is argued, should be decisions that attend more closely to the interests of the citizenry as a whole, rather than social elites.

Umbers’s retort is that

  1. Electoral finance rules and mandatory voting can mitigate the elite advantage in electoral systems,
  2. Government has to promote the interests of the elites due to their economic power,
  3. Elites would able to lobby allotted government, and allotted government would be very susceptible to lobbying due to lack of experience.

Umbers also argues against the notion that allotted legislature would produce better deliberation. Umbers claims that evidence about the quality of deliberation in citizen juries cannot be applied to claims about legislative bodies. Because of their great political power legislative bodies, unlike citizen juries, are the target of outside intervention and are more likely to foster self-interested deliberation.

Finally, Umbers claims that elections serve some useful functions:

  1. Elections “provide individuals with valuable opportunities for the exercise of those liberties necessary for political organisation – speech, thought, travel, and so on,” and thus, “[a]bolishing elections would diminish the role of these liberties in public life, potentially making it easier to curtail those liberties,”
  2. they provide “a range of important opportunities for political participation”, and
  3. they also create powerful incentives to “ascertain and address the concerns of the citizenry” and “to perform at least minimally competently to promote their chances of re-election,” while “[n]o such pressures obtain under representation by lottery.”

4 Responses

  1. Below is a link to a paper I wrote that counters all of Umbers’ arguments. Although my paper was written to argue against pairing a sorition chamber with an elected chamber, in the process of making THAT argument nearly all of Umber’s points are addressed as well.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Thanks, this is very useful. Here’s his dissertation which has chapters on “A Citizens’ Assembly for the Cognitively Disabled” and “Against Lottocracy”:

    Liked by 1 person

  3. From Umbers’s chapter on “A Citizens’ Assembly for the Cognitively Disabled” and “Against Lottocracy” (linked above): “I argue that there are structural factors in virtue of which elected officials tend to be systematically under-responsive to the interests of the cognitively disabled. These are unlikely to be ameliorated to any significant degree by the enfranchisement of such persons.” “[T]he best way of rendering democratic institutions adequately sensitive to the interests of the cognitively disabled would be to establish a citizens’ assembly, to be tasked with reviewing existing policy arrangements, and proposing reforms to those arrangements to be put to the citizenry in direct referenda.” “My proposal is modelled upon the 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly (BCCA) on electoral reform.”

    “If states were to establish the CACD [citizens’ assembly for the cognitively disabled], they would surely also be required to establish similar processes for many other groups to whom governments are under-responsive: the physically disabled, future generations, religious minorities, felons etc…” Umbers notes: “It may be that some other groups (e.g. future generations) have claims as strong – or stronger – than the cognitively disabled” to a citizens’ assembly.

    He concludes: “The citizens’ assembly offers the best of both worlds. It is a policy mechanism that is perfectly consistent with the requirements of political equality, and has the potential to deliver substantial policy advances.”


  4. I think that unfortunately, despite being willing to take the time and effort to make his case, Umbers has not gone beyond the standard arguments, both against sortition and for elections, at least in the context of the instrumental, anti-elitist argument for sortition which I focused on above.

    Umbers’s first two points (reformability of elections and the power of elites) are really beside the point. While I believe both points are largely erroneous, even if they were true they would not make the case that sortition-based government cannot be expected to be more democratic, even dramatically more democratic, than electoral government.

    The last point – that allotted government would be more susceptible to lobbying than electoral government is – is a standard argument and as such has been addressed before, e.g., here.

    In general, Umbers does not address effectively the main feature of electoralism – its oligarchical nature. The useful functions of elections that Umbers offers are in fact essentially symbolic. They do not amount to a mechanism that translates popular values and interests into government policy. The notion that the average citizen should settle for such symbolic prizes and resign themselves to live in a regime which exploits them in order to enrich and empower the elite is horribly defeatist and should be rejected by anyone with democratic commitments.

    Liked by 2 people

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