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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