Primitive (innate) ideas on randomisation, divination and lotteries

No-one would accuse the classical Greeks, our heroes of the klereterion, of lacking insight into abstract, nay philosophical concepts. Yet it was not until Pascal & Co. in the 1600s that formalised concepts of Probabilty were established. So we can only speculate that the Athenians knew(?) that a lottery was best for implementing fairness, equal chances, descriptive representation — democratic values — across the citizenry. Even so we surely would never describe them as ‘primitive’?

But what of the widespread ‘folkish’ practise of divination, where some natural random phenomenon is used to decide—a lottery, in others words. This could be to  choose a course of action, or even decide guilt or innocence in trials. Many of its  practitioners would be pre-literate, and in the grip of a range of irrational, some might say primitive religious beliefs. What did they think this ‘lottery’ was doing?
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2018 review – sortition-related events

This is the end-of-year summary of notable sortition related events for 2018.

Sortition received some increasing attention in the English-speaking world in 2018. The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College has announced the creation of the Bard Institute for the Revival of Democracy through Sortition. Richard Askwith and Tim Dunlop published books advocating for sortition. Selina Thompson put on a sortition-themed play and organized a sortition-themed workshop. Van Reybrouck’s Against Elections was (dismissively) reviewed in the New York Times. Sortition was featured in the Left-leaning magazine Jacobin as well as on BBC radio, and was mentioned in the Washington Post. Canadian scientist and environmentalist expressed interest in drawing politicians from a hat.

Brett Hennig’s TED talk about sortition was featured by TED on their main page, generating a spike of interest in the idea, including by Beppe Grillo, co-founder of the Italian electorally successful Five Star movement. Another spike of interest in sortition followed media reports about the arrest of a sortition advocate who allegedly planned to blow himself up in an attempt to draw attention to the idea.

Late in the year, sortition was on the agenda of two mass-action movements: UK’s Extinction Rebellion and France’s Gilets Jaunes.

Earlier in the year elites continued to express their dissatisfaction with the way elections are turning out. A proposal was made to use sortition to improve citizen behavior. Former UK prime minister Gordon Brown made a similar suggestion in the context of Brexit. The Ireland abortion referendum that approved the recommendations of an allotted chamber was held as an example to emulate.

Reports about sortition being used or advocated at local government appeared in the press. An initiative for appointing judges by lot is under way in Switzerland. Charlie Pache, a Swiss sortition activist, promotes single issue allotted citizen panels. Academic conferences about sortition were held in Belgium and in the US.

In France, the discussion has moved beyond the initial stage of unfamiliarity into some substantive discussion of the details of applications of sortition. A member of La France insoumise who was allotted to its electoral committee expressed disillusionment with the process. Other FI activists claim that “so far, the allotted have had no real power”. Michel Quatrevalet, a power industry professional in France, complains that the so-called participatory democracy process that was part of the process for the creation of a French multi-year energy plan was a sham.

Tim Dunlop: It’s time to replace voting with sortition

In 2014 Tim Dunlop had just been introduced to the idea of sortition by David Van Reybrouck. He was “not completely convinced by his [Van Reybrouck’s] argument, but [was] sufficiently incensed by our current parliamentary democracy and its many failures to at least consider what he suggests.”

Four years later, Dunlop has written a book advocating sortition, and has an article in the Guardian that opens with an unambiguous statement:

If we want to fix the way our governments work, the first thing we should do is replace voting with sortition in at least some of our governing bodies.

Like many feel-good reformists, Dunlop puts much emphasis on the potential for fostering deliberation, trust and respect amongst the members of the allotted chamber and by extension, in the population at large. However, bucking the norm among such reformists (including Van Reybrouck), Dunlop’s message is very clearly democratic in the most fundamental sense (i.e., making power representative) and his rejection of elections and its elitist implications is uncompromising.

If we are really serious about bottom-up reform of our democratic institutions, then reforming the seat of government itself in this way, a way that installs ordinary people at the heart of power, is essential. Our neoliberal economy and the representative form of government that dominates our societies do everything they can to divide us from and pit us against each other. A People’s House transcends these divisions and brings us together. The basic concept of sortition is pretty straight-forward, and introducing it as a replacement for voting in, say, the Australian Senate, while leaving that body’s other powers intact, represents, at least administratively, fairly minimalist change. But on every other level, the potential effect is explosive. In one fell swoop, you diminish the power of the parties and that of many of the lobbyists who exist to influence their decisions. You transform the way in which the media covers politics. You hand control of at least part of the legislative process to a genuinely representative sample of the population as whole, rather than vesting it in a bunch of elites and their representatives. You empower people in a way that the current system could never hope to do, and you reconnect our chief democratic institution with the life in common.

Nothing is going to change until the main source of power in our society, our seat of government, is populated by people who are genuinely representative of the society at large. We have been taught forever that the way to do that is by voting, but that is simply wrong, and the quicker we unlearn it the better, no matter how counterintuitive it might seem at first. If you want a truly representative government of, by and for the people, then you need to choose it not by voting, but by sortition.

Book: The Power of Scale by John H. Bodley

Here’s an intriguing book: The Power of Scale: A Global History Approach (2002), Routlledge, by John H. Bodley. Its price varies depending on format but is generally over $30. It seems to have been overlooked—it has only one Amazon review. But it could be mined for some good Kleroterian ammo; here’s its blurb:

“Throughout history, the natural human inclination to accumulate social power has led to growth and scale increases that benefit the few at the expense of the many. John Bodley looks at global history through the lens of power and scale theory, and draws on history, economics, anthropology, and sociology to demonstrate how individuals have been the agents of social change, not social classes. Filled with tables and data to support his argument, this book considers how increases in scale necessarily lead to an increasingly small elite gaining disproportionate power, making democratic control more difficult to achieve and maintain.”

Its shorty link in the American Amazon site is: Its link in the UK Amazon site is: 

Speaking of “scale,” here’s some lagniappe that also might be useful ammo: two quotes on scale’s effect on elections:

”The larger the mob, the harder the test. In small areas, before small electorates, a first-rate man occasionally fights his way through, carrying even the mob with him by the force of his personality. But when the field is nationwide, and the fight must be waged chiefly at second and third hand, and the force of personality cannot so readily make itself felt, then all the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum.”

—H.L. Mencken, “Bayard vs. Lionheart,” July 26, 1920, in H.L. Mencken on Politics: A Carnival of Buncombe (1960), page 21. 

(On U.S. Amazon it’s atop a list of other H.L. Mencken books at this shorty link: On UK Amazon it’s at, but thrice as expensive.)

“Something like republicanism or ‘democracy’ will work after a fashion in a village or even a township, where everybody knows everybody and keeps an eye on what goes on. Why not, then, in a county, a state, a nation? Simply because the law of diminishing returns is against it.”

—A.J. Nock, Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943), page 134. (Available in the U.S. in a $3 Kindle edition at:, or in the UK more expensively in paper at; 

25 Books under “Sortition” on Amazon

Sortition fans can type “sortition” into the Amazon search box (with the setting set to Books) and bring up a list of about 25 books on sortition. (You might also try “demarchy” or “election by lot”.) About one-third of the Kindle versions are under $5.

Americans can get to that page merely by clicking the shorty link 

Britons can do likewise at

Burnheim’s book, Is Democracy Possible? isn’t among the 25, probably because the word “sortition” isn’t in its text (I assume), but its Kindle version can be had in the U.S. for $3 at 

Probably its UK version is likewise inexpensive, but you’ll have to type in the title to get to it.

Mencken: A Purge for Legislatures

The book A Mencken Chrestomathy contains a reprint of an article by H.L. Mencken called “A Purge for Legislatures”. The article, originally published in 1926, may be the first modern piece of advocacy for sortition. Thanks to Roger Knights for writing to draw attention to this article.

A MOOD of constructive criticism being upon me, I propose forthwith that the method of choosing legislators now prevailing in the United States be abandoned and that the method used in choosing juries be substituted. That is to say, I propose that the men who make our laws be chosen by chance and against their will, instead of by fraud and against the will of all the rest of us, as now. But isn’t the jury system itself imperfect? Isn’t it occasionally disgraced by gross abuse and scandal? Then so is the system of justice devised and ordained by the Lord God Himself. Didn’t He assume that the Noachian Deluge would be a lasting lesson to sinful humanity — that it would put an end to all manner of crime and wickedness, and convert mankind into a race of Presbyterians? And wasn’t Noah himself, its chief beneficiary, lying drunk, naked and uproarious within a year after the ark landed on Ararat? All I argue for the jury system, invented by man, is that it is measurably better than the scheme invented by God. It has its failures and its absurdities, its abuses and its corruptions, but taking one day with another it manifestly works. It is not the fault of juries that so many murderers go unwhipped of justice, and it is not the fault of juries that so many honest men are harassed by preposterous laws. The juries find the gunmen guilty: it is functionaries higher up, all politicians, who deliver them from the noose, and turn them out to resume their butcheries.
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Hugo Bonin: Democracy by lottery

The newspaper Le Journal de Montréal has an article by Jacques Lanctôt about Hugo Bonin’s book, La Democratie Hasardeuse [Original in French, my translation].

Games of chance in politics

“With luck, things will turn out well.” Who has not heard this saying at some point? A chance encounter, a decision taken offhandedly, a delay that turned out for the best, any of those may change our life.

Hugo Bonin believes that luck may be beneficial in politics as well even if it is not a magical solution to all our problems of representation. In a well structured essay, well supported by numerous concrete examples stretching as far back as antiquity (Athens and Rome) and where a future that is almost within our reach is imagined, Bonin aims to show that sortition is a hundred-fold better than the so-called representative elections.

Sortition has its limits but its great merit is that it takes no account of distinctions between races, genders, ages or social classes. John and Jane Doe are worth just as much as the elitist clique of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who have been governing us for too long a time.

More “egalitarian”
In an electoral regime such as the one know here and elsewhere in the West, the voters vote to elect the supposedly better candidate. While in an allotment system, the notion of “better” does not exist because everybody are equally politically qualified. Thus, this is “an egalitarian and a democratic procedure” where all external considerations are excluded.

Random selection is already practiced here in Québec and elsewhere. We need only consider jury selection in a criminal trial. Made of lay people rather than experts, following the British law, this jury is called upon to analyze the evidence and render a decision after deliberation.
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