Rotation; The Stabilizer of Random Selection

This is the 4th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previous posts in the series: 1, 2, 3.

Barbara Goodwin’s main concern in Justice by Lottery is to examine how a purely sortition-dominated economy, in the form of what she calls a “total social lottery”, might aid in establishing greater justice and equality. However, she does introduce another technique that grew up at the same time as sortition did in Ancient Athens, that of rotation. Rotation of positions there was assured by default, it seems, simply by establishing term limits and stipulating that a given post can be only held once by any given citizen in their lifetime. Goodwin treats sortition and rotation as so closely compatible that she sometimes treats them as a single process, sortition-rotation. Whereas sortition, run by the cleroterion device, assigns posts at random, rotation assures that all the necessary bases are covered. She explains,

Rotation is not the same as pure chance: it pays some attention to people’s desire for a guaranteed supply of certain things. By contrast, the lottery is based on the idea that surprise and risk are themselves a major part of what people desire. But there could be room in a transformed society for both principles, and they could operate in harmony – unlike, say, rotation and the principle of entitlement. If we could ensure that people’s basic needs were securely satisfied and that highly specialized jobs (which carry their own rewards in terms of work satisfaction) were appropriately filled, there would be sound reasons for distributing non-specialized jobs and scarce goods above a guaranteed minimum via a modified lottery system or by rotation, especially in the case of scarce luxuries. This would add to the spice of life. Such a system would mitigate the two major kinds of social injustice which the ineradicable inequalities in the structure of advanced capitalist societies, combined with the inelasticity of supply of some goods, produce – for example:

1. The injustice of the fact that not everyone can live in, say, Chelsea simultaneously. Such inequalities are externally determined.

2. The further injustice of the fact that some people with lesser talents or resources cannot, under a merit-based or entitlement system of distribution, ever hope to live in Chelsea.

[…] The adoption of such methods would not necessarily negate other concepts which we associate with social justice, such as merit (there could still be praise or honour for a task well performed) but would subordinate them in the interests of greater equalization of people’s life-chances, the ultimate aim being that everyone should have a fair chance of enjoying every sort of position and good for part of their lives, and should also take a fair share of the less pleasant duties which society imposes.

Furthermore, if everyone understood and agreed to such procedures, the likelihood of resentment at inequalities would be considerably reduced, as in a democratic system where the losing political parties content themselves with the thought that it may be their turn next time. At the very least, people would not feel that allocations were being made by those with vested interests, or according to inappropriate criteria.

The lottery/rotation system would also mitigate natural inequalities to some extent by preventing people from capitalizing on their natural advantages or from having extra social stigma added to their natural disabilities. Of course, there are irreducible differences between people: in our society, being a woman, being black, being handicapped are examples of such natural differences which often attract additional artificial (i.e. social) disadvantages. While a rotation or a lottery system could not eradicate these differences, it would at least divorce them from the allocation of goods and positions. (pp. 38-39)

The use of rotation would ground the unpredictable nature of the lot by deflecting the accumulation of direct political experience away from the few and towards the many. It also would establish parameters and baselines around which new power bases could collect and grow. Goodwin points out,

There are, I think, good reasons for believing that a degree of rotation, or even the use of a modified lottery principle, in the allocation of public office would have an ameliorating effect on political institutions. It would prevent the formation of elites — or, rather, undermine existing elites — and produce a wider dispersal of political knowledge, which would surely be desirable. Representative Democracy, after all, has scarcely had the effect of educating the people politically or increasing their power and responsibility. The allocation of office by rotation would go some way towards achieving these ends and would still be democratic in the proper sense of the word.” (p. 38)

One Response

  1. […] This is the 5th post in a series on Barbara Goodwin’s classic work on sortition Justice by Lottery, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992. Previously published parts: 1, 2, 3, 4. […]


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