Advantages and Disadvantages of Sortition

This is the second post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. The first post is here.

At the start of Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin gives an overview of the history of sortition, which in the beginning was bound up with war and religion. Victory in war meant division of the spoils and since most warriors were full time farmers in their day job (professional soldiers were an innovation of Phillip of Macedon), land grants (hence “lots” of land) to veterans for their service served as a sort of pension.

Tangibles as well as intangibles like power have been distributed by lot since early times. God instructed Moses to order the Jews to divide up tracts of land by lots, and this method of distribution is frequently mentioned in the Old Testament. Land in Athenian colonies was distributed by lot to cleruchs (veterans), and the Romans also parcelled out landholdings for veteran soldiers by lot, to ensure that the most fertile land was impartially distributed: this too, presumably, was God’s reasoning in the case of the Jews.

The Greek word for veteran, “cleruch,” was bound up with clerisy or random distribution. It is also the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries, but later the clergy disapproved and the practice was restricted to heretical outliers, such as the Gnostics. In Hellas, random choice was not primarily religious, as Goodwin points out. “Despite the Greek predilection for giving political rituals a religious gloss, it appears that no divine weight was accorded.” It was also a Roman tradition, though in different form.

In Rome, the augurs had special responsibility for supervising lots as well as for reading entrails, and they adopted as their symbol the urn, from which lots were drawn. But the reasoning behind their usage of the lot also seems to be common-sense and secular: the lot was chiefly used as a convenient means of determining which of various necessary tasks would be performed by officers of equal rank, such as the two consuls.


Early in the book, Goodwin offers two separate lists of brief summaries of the arguments for and against sortition; later on, she expands upon them in entire chapters. She offers seven justifications for the position that random choice is the fairest method, and nine common “reasoned objections.” She admits that the objections can directly negate the advantages, and that they amply explain why the “lottery is indeed considered a last resort in contemporary society.” Myself, I think that being a last resort is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, it is considered an advantage of democracy that replacement in an election is a standing threat to any government that makes itself unpopular enough. Rather than just list the pros and cons as given in the book, I have labelled and numbered them according to Goodwin’s order and categorized them under these four sub-headings.

Heading One: The Freedom and Control of those in power. This includes none of the pros and seven of the nine arguments against sortition. This heading concerns the leeway, independence and discretion given to those at the tiller of the ship of state. Understandably, these arguments are heavily weighted against sortition, which by nature takes control entirely out of human hands. As long as humans are led by human delegates or representatives rather than machines or algorithms, discretion will have to be entrusted to someone.

Heading Two: Equality or Impartiality. Here dwell three of the seven arguments for election by lot. Sortition by its very nature treats everyone as equals (although, as Goodwin mentions later in the book, it is possible to introduce merit and ability into the equation by a process known as “weighted sortition”).

Heading Three: Transparency against corruption. This category contains no arguments against and only one argument for sortition, the first on Goodwin’s list. Nonetheless, this was pivotal for the Athenians, who “often employed [sortition] to guard against corruption by presiding officers. Archons and other important officials, and jurors, were selected by lot.” If sortition is ever re-introduced into the mainstream, its efficacy against plots and criminal malfeasance by managers will be a major justification.

Heading Four: Fairness or accountability. This is the most mixed heading, including two contradictory points and three supporting ones.

The second and third of my categories, impartiality and transparency, comprise arguments for choice by lot only. However, the last, fairness and accountability, is mixed, fairly evenly divided between arguments for and arguments against.

Freedom and Control

contra2. Lotteries ignore personal merit and desert.

contra3. Lotteries expose people to a high degree of risk and uncertainty.

contra4. Any non-trivial lottery is antithetical to personal freedom, and reduces people’s control over their own destiny.

contra5. The use of lottery to take a decision circumvents the processes of rational thought and deliberation to which we, as human beings, are committed, and of which we are proud.

contra6. Lottery allocation or decision-making undermines human dignity and diminishes the individual by attacking the very basis of individuality (that is, being considered as a person with attributes, rather than a cipher, in the decision process).

contra7. Any socially or politically important lottery (such as the TSL) undermines elite and/or traditional sociopolitical structures and power bases.

contra8. Such a lottery also reduces the governors’ control over the governed.

Equality or Impartiality

for3. Likewise, the lottery allows no one to boast of his or her selection or to claim that it is especially apposite or deserved. (This was important in the Greek political context, and among the Gnostics)

for5. The lottery assumes that everyone in the draw is equally qualified or deserving or liable. This is a precondition of any lottery, but it is also part of the justification for its use.

for7. Repeated drawings of the lot tend to equalize everyone’s chances of enjoying whatever goods, or suffering whatever evils, are being distributed. (This is shown in the political examples given above and the practice of the Gnostics.)

Transparency against Corruption

for1. The lottery puts choice in distribution beyond human interference and so prevents corruption, if it is fairly operated.

Fairness, blame, responsibility, accountability

contra1. The lottery neglects human need.

contra9. Lotteries unrealistically assume equality on the part of their participants and tend to promote unmerited equality in their processes and/or their outcomes.

for2. Use of a lottery therefore means that no one is to blame for the selection; this is especially important if evils are being distributed or harsh decisions taken.

for4. Being, as it is, a ‘refusal to choose’, the lottery lets everyone off the hook where unpleasant or mortal decisions have to be taken. Not only is no one to blame, but no one actually has to do the choosing.

for6. If properly conducted, a lottery is entirely impartial between individuals and is thus eminently fair according to the basic and widely accepted definition of fairness.

As this list shows, different core values lead to varying opinions about random selection. Those with direct experience in the halls of power tend to uphold control and freedom for leaders as the overarching concern; incumbents value the path which raised them to the top and block new ways into the halls of power, including sortition. Those who hold equality as crucial prefer sortition in the hope that starting with an assumption of equal rights and chances for all will lead in the end to equitable equality of outcome. Goodwin holds this hope as perhaps the most important reason for considering sortition.

The injustice of capitalist society is that those who have much get more: the use of the lottery and rotation could alleviate, or even eliminate, this injustice. (p. 40)

It is important to note here that Goodwin considers rotation as a close corollary to be applied along with lotteries. I will deal with the advantages of this combination in future installments.

The third category is transparency, the use of random choice to eliminate cronyism, nepotism and other corrupt measures. This category is a clear-cut win for sortition. Whenever avoidance of corruption is the first consideration, random choice is the surest way. The final category is blame and accountability, which is mixed, both for and contra. The lottery shifts blame away from human agency and as such poses an obstacle to long term planning. However, it also opens up unexpected possibilities and fresh talent, knowledge and techniques into the equation. Indeed, the potential for lotteries to quickly collect together a diversity of latent talent from many backgrounds, cultures and races now unfairly excluded from the halls of power surely deserves a separate category on Goodwin’s short list.

Sortition is a tricky proposition. Everything depends upon how effectively, scientifically and broadly it is introduced. The advantages may not be clear for a long time — perhaps a generation or more — after it is introduced. Meanwhile the disadvantages tend to be obvious to the most superficial observer. It may well take a lifetime of tinkering with sortition, combining it with rotation, minimizing the bad and optimizing the good, for this instrument to be perfected enough to be broadly accepted.

Goodwin is concerned with justice and fairness, which means that her list overlooks other possible social goals. Aesthetics, for example. A photograph of the leaders of a government or corporation makes a statement as to whether they represent a monolithic set of values or a unity in diversity. If humankind is a garden, its beauty is a visible metric of its health, organization and reach. Another social goal that sortition could serve is security, where diversity is a good in itself. In nature, for example, a diverse ecosystem will usually be more robust against the shock of extreme weather and other sudden changes. Higher organisms are thought to use sexual division and reproduction as a protective measure against disease. This, of course, implies that a government balanced between men and women will defend its people more effectively than the present male monoculture. This consideration is especially salient during the current pandemic, which began in Wuhan where errors and venality initially let the viral genie out of the bottle. Later, airliners without proper filters and other sanitation spread the virus rapidly around the world. Many governments acted quickly and did well, but others dithered as the disease snowballed into a global cataclysm. What could better demonstrate how deadly corrupt, inept or oblivious leaders are?

Goodwin holds above that unequal wealth tends to snowball under capitalism, a gross injustice, but not the only iniquity. Beauty, too, is important, and safety has to come first. In future installments of this series, I will look at where Justice by Lottery hints at how kleroterion technology could judiciously tweak the mix of decision makers to assure that diverse backgrounds, tastes and points of view are included so as to avoid future fiascoes.

6 Responses

  1. for7. Repeated drawings of the lot tend to equalize everyone’s chances of enjoying whatever goods, or suffering whatever evils, are being distributed

    This is inaccurate. The chances are equal a-priori, by definition. The actual frequency of enjoying the good could be very different if the number of goods being distributed is small compared to the allotment pool. E.g., the chance of being a Congress-member would be the same for all, but the frequency will be 0 for the vast majority and 1 for the “lucky” few.

    Which brings up a crucial element which seems to be missed by this analysis if it is to be applied to allotting a parliament: the law of large numbers. The LLN only applies in a situation where some sort of “voting” among the allotted is taking place. But it is this property of allotment which is most important in terms of its usability for democratic decision-making.

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  2. What sources does Goodwin cite for the use of sortition in early Christianity and by Gnostic sects?

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  3. Yoram:> The LLN only applies in a situation where some sort of “voting” among the allotted is taking place. But it is this property of allotment which is most important in terms of its usability for democratic decision-making.

    I don’t think the book discusses democratic decision making. Barbara’s interest is purely in impartiality (the Blind Break) as opposed to the representational potential of sortition (the Invisible Hand).

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  4. Sorry for the delay in responding. Here is the brief section where she treats the history of the use of lot in religion. I have included her two end notes in square parentheses. She mentions religion in a few other places, but this is the main one. Irenaeus’s dates are 130–202 AD, and he was taught by a student of John the Evangelist, so this was pretty early on.

    Early Uses of Lotteries

    Jonah, fleeing from the Lord, went aboard a ship bound for Tarshish. He had refused to go to Nineveh and prophesy its doom, as the Lord had commanded. The ship was beset by a great storm, and the mariners threw the merchants’ goods that they were carrying overboard, to lighten the load. Then, since the storm failed to abate, they cast lots, saying, Come, let us cast lots, that we may know for whose cause this evil is upon us. The lot fell upon Jonah, and the rest of the story is familiar, although less plausible. [Jonah 1] The sailors on the ship, we are told, all worshipped different gods, but at least they agreed on this: that a lottery was the best way to divine God’s wishes, whichever the god.

    Irenaeus recounts that among some non-orthodox Christian Gnostic groups in the early days of Christianity, lots were drawn at each meeting. According to the draw, one person would act as priest, one as bishop and others as prophets, for that occasion only. Lots would be recast at the next meeting. This prevented a sacerdotal hierarchy from developing. The Gnostics believed that since God ordered the universe, He would direct the lots to fall in accordance with His choice. [E. Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1982, p. 66]

    from: Justice by Lottery, Barbara Goodwin, pp. 43-44

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  5. I think you are right.
    As a philosopher, Goodwin sees adversarial party politics as based on a fallacious assumption that there is a right answer to every debate, and that a given party knows that answer. Deciding based on inadequate knowledge is a dangerous delusion and pretending that we know when we cannot is mendacious, at best a waste of time. Deciding not to decide by making a quick random choice where nobody can be blamed is basic honesty, a humble recognition that many, if not most issues are inadequately understood, unknown or unknowable. Because of this, the lot is an independent principle, an “ally of democracy.” It can spread the egalitarian spirit of democracy beyond formal democratic decisions, especially since only a tiny percentage of decisions can ever be made by holding an election. On a deeper level, she sees a problem with the majoritarianism that runs through democracy. Majority rules is “neither the only nor the fairest way to achieve political equality.” (p. 160) As far as I can see, even a mini-public has to decide this way when there is not unanimity.

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  6. *** Along this post, the Greek word «klêros » is « the root of a common word for Christian leaders, clergy. In Christianity, the practice of electing officers at every meeting by lot may have been common in early centuries. »
    **** This sentence might seem to imply that the words « cleric », « clergy» are derived from the use of lottery to appoint clerics. I don’t think so, I think it is indirect.
    *** To quote Etymology online :
    « Klēros was used by early Greek Christians for matters relating to ministry, based on Deuteronomy xviii.2 reference to Levites as temple assistants : “Therefore shall they have no inheritance among their brethren: the Lord is their inheritance” (klēros being used as a translation of Hebrew nahalah “inheritance, lot”). Or else it is from the use of the word in Acts i:17. » [« For he was numbered with us, and received his portion in this ministry. » The subject was Judas Iscariot – who was chosen by Jesus, not allotted]
    *** From the idea of lottery, the Greek word came to the meaning « inheritance », « share » (because of the traditional use of lottery to share, specially to share inheritance). And afterwards it came to mean religious ministries, and ministers.
    *** Note the various meanings of English « lot ». Here, too, the lottery sense is the original one, hence « share » and other meanings.
    *** The original value of lottery in secular matters, for ancient Greeks (« klêros ») or ancient Germans (« lot »), was equality – between brothers, between warriors, between colonists, and, in Greek dêmokratia, between citizens.
    *** « Impartiality » is a kind of equality.

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