The Potential of Weighted Sortition

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.

Sortition is hiring without human intervention using random rather than reasoned criteria. Weighted sortition, though, is a statistical narrowing down of randomly chosen job candidates to the more ready among workers available. In Barbara Goodwin’s words, they are “lotteries where some people get extra chances of winning according to their personal characteristics or qualifications.” More broadly, the chances of “winning” a position can be micro-managed to take in any number of other factors beyond qualifications, such as need and desert, both personal and social, both present and future.

Goodwin’s “Justice by Lot” introduced to me the idea of weighted sortition. True, she dismisses it as “impure” compared to completely random sampling of the entire population, but the idea has intrigued me ever since I encountered it here. Admittedly, playing with percentages increases the complexity of choices, but complexity, in an age of supercomputers, data mining and artificial general intelligence (AGI), is not the obstacle it was even ten years ago. A weighted lottery allows for intriguing possibilities never imaginable before. It can factor into every hire whatever evidence-based social science deems well grounded, including experience, aptitude, personal choice and even broader social goals. The difficulty is that the advantages of sortition itself have to be clear to a broad proportion of the population before weighted sortition comes into play, as Goodwin points out,

Only by participation, which is a continuous process, would people acknowledge the authority of a social lottery [p. 71].

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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:
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Kleroterion 2.0; Our Once and Future Escape Key

This is the third 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 and the second post is here.

There are mass demonstrations in cities throughout the United States and around the world against racism, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, a Black man in Minneapolis who was recorded being choked to death by a police officer while in custody. Among his last words, “Please, I can’t breathe” are now a slogan repeated and sung around the world, a metaphor for the stifling nature of racialized oppression. Here in Ontario — the Toronto-Niagara Golden Horseshoe region is the most racial and ethnically diverse in the world, a place where immigrants are popular and in Toronto  are actually the majority –there have still been large street demonstrations against deaths-while-in-custody of certain Black and Indigenous people who were suffering from mental illness. Why is it, Toronto activists ask, that money meant to alleviate problems in poor neighbourhoods is directed away from local social workers and towards force, armed police and other arbitrary measures? In the Canadian Parliament, Elizabeth May, leader of the opposition Green Party, summarized a large part of the problem,

She urged an inquiry to weed out white-power groups in Canada and make sure they are not infiltrating police forces. `Because if there is one thing scarier than a white supremacist with a gun, it’s a white supremacist with a gun in uniform.’ (1)

Mr. Floyd’s plea for air resonates so universally because none are guarding the guardians. Clearly, bullies in uniform tasked with enforcing social distancing laws are targeting and persecuting visible minorities, worsening the climate of fear that visible minorities already suffer under. The democratic institutions that depend upon justice, especially but not exclusively the police, to uphold the rule of law are blocking reform and accountability and stifling the very purpose for which they exist, to serve the social good, protect the vulnerable and assure the safety, order and security of everyone, not just the privileged. So, these are the questions of the hour: How can democracies end the perilous insularity of the police? How do we reinstate badly degraded trust in authority? Why is the guardian branch of governance so prone to corruption, bullying and infiltration by sociopaths? How do we end the vicious cycle of escalating violence, reaction and oppression?
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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.

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Barbara Goodwin’s Justice By Lottery

This is the first post in a series dealing with the book Justice by Lottery by Barbara Goodwin, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1992.

Barbara Goodwin’s Justice by Lottery is a classic overview of sortition, covering its practical applications and the many speculative proposals in literature and political theory. The book begins with a headpiece, a quotation from King Lear. Since this play was written while Shakespeare was confined in quarantine, it rings differently now that virtually every nation in the world is in lockdown. King Lear planned for a gradual, honourable retirement, but is rejected and enters into a sudden isolation that dislocates and impoverishes.

The scene in question has the former king, betrayed by two of his daughters, in a homeless state, beginning to perceive what his ascendancy had blinded him to. He asks Gloucester, who recently had been brutally blinded for loyalty to Lear, whether he can see how this world goes? Gloucester ruefully answers that he “sees it feelingly.” That is, he understands by touch, not sight. This cartoon depicts how he “sees feelingly,”

Lear then says (and this is Goodwin’s headpiece),

What, art mad? A man may see how this world goes with no eyes. Look with thine ears. See how yon justice rails upon yon simple thief. Hark in thine ear: change places and, handy-dandy, which is the justice, which is the thief? (King Lear, Act IV, Sc. vi)

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The Principle of Rotation

Let me share part of the section called “The Principle of Sortition” in E. S. Staveley’s 1972 book, Greek and Roman Voting and Elections. In spite of its title, the section might better have been titled, “The principle of rotation,” since Staveley argues that rotation in Athens was “more fundamental by far” than sortition. I am not an academic, and I would be interested in hearing what the reception was for Staveley’s thesis among his colleagues. Only a few reviews of the book are available to me, and they seem to have been written by specialists in Roman rather than Greek politics. He seems to be shooting across their bow. Was anybody listening?

It certainly stands to reason mathematically that the more posts are available only once in a lifetime, and the shorter their term limit, the more rotation would become the operating principle. This would set up what the Romans later would call a Cursus Honorum, a career trajectory where the average Athenian would gain active experience in every aspect of local governance, from finance to foreign policy. Unlike the Cursus Honorum, though, the order or life stage in which the citizen held a position mattered less than variety of exposure to various workshops in what Pericles called the “school of Athens.”
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