Malkin on Greek allotment

Irad Malkin is a prominent Israeli classicist. He has already been mentioned twice on Equality by Lot, when in 2013 and 2014 he penned op-ed pieces advocating for the use of sortition as a tool of democracy. It seems that lottery and its role in Ancient Greek society has become Malkin’s main focus of research over the last few years. The product of this research is a forthcoming book called “Greeks Drawing Lots: from Egalitarianism to Democracy”.

A first taste of Malkin’s research is already available in the form of a chapter in a book published last year edited by Sofia Greaves and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill and titled “Rome and the Colonial City: Rethinking the Grid”. The chapter written by Malkin is called “Reflections on egalitarianism and the foundation of Greek poleis“. It opens as follows:

When Greeks founded new settlements, they were facing the question of how to distribute plots of land to individual settlers. The main reason individuals joined a new foundation was to get such a plot of land (klêros), regardless of other reasons for colonisation. Back home, two brothers would need to share a klêros through partible inheritance by lot. However, if one brother stayed and another left for a new settlement abroad, both would have ended up, each, with a viable klêros. In and of itself, a klêros provides a basis for livelihood and a mutually recognised share of political and military power within the community. Practices of Greek colonisation are parallel to the Greek practice of ‘partible inheritance by lot’, since the same general principles and structures apply to both when it comes to land distribution: equality before the chance of the lottery, and, when possible, equality (sometimes equitability) of the size of the klêros.

From this we learn, if I understand correctly, that (like the English word “lot”?!) the word “klêros”, as in the randomizing machine “klêroterion”, meant in the first place a piece of fertile land, and the use of this word for randomization is derived from the custom of using the lottery for the distribution of such lands.

Malkin’s main thesis appears to be that the lottery was an embodiment of an egalitarian ideology. This ideology was especially influential in newly established colonies was in competition with oligarchization trends in more established settlements. It is this ideology that eventually, over the course of hundreds of years, developed into the Greek democracy.
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Conley: Let’s Randomize America!

Nicholas Coccoma wrote to point out a recent article by Dalton Conley, professor of sociology at Princeton University, in The New Yorker. The rather lengthy article revolves around randomness in public policy. It starts with the story of the introduction of the draft lottery in the US, then moves on to a proposal (a rather unconvincing one, it seems to me) for handling economic inequality using randomization, and finishes off with sortition and with a general call for using randomization to achieve a fairer society.

For three decades, through three wars, the U.S. military draft was directed by Lewis B. Hershey, a general in the Army. Hershey established the first local draft board in 1941; eventually, there would be four thousand of them. […] The boards, which adjudicated claims for reclassification or deferment on a case-by-case basis, had a distinct character. They were disproportionately white, white-collar, and elderly. According to analyses conducted in the nineteen-sixties, draft boards more often granted deferments to privileged young men, and poor Americans of color made up a disproportionate share of draftees. […] In 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson convened a group of experts to study draft reform. They recommended a drastic overhaul to centralize the process, and argued, controversially, for randomizing it. What was needed, they wrote, was a lottery to decide who should fight, in which the “order of call” was “impartially and randomly determined.”

Many people did not find this idea appealing. Detractors argued that haphazardly drafting young men, some of whom were training for critical civilian positions, would be inefficient at best and destructive at worst. Merriam Trytten, a physicist by training, who was the president of the Scientific Manpower Commission—a nonpartisan group set up by the American Association for the Advancement of Science to advise the government on issues of scientific personnel—said that, under such a system, “scientific effort in the United States will pay a substantial penalty.” […] A Gallup poll conducted in 1966 found that only thirty-two per cent of Americans favored a lottery system.
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Interview with the Classical Republican

I was interviewed some time ago about sortition for the Classical Republican. It was a wide-ranging conversation that included discussion of this blog. The interview is now on Youtube, and can be viewed here. Note that the Classical Republican has an entire Youtube playlist devoted to sortition which features, in addition to my interview, an extended conversation with longtime sortition advocate Oliver Dowlen and other interesting videos. The playlist can be found here.

Understanding the present by listening to the past: Walter Lippmann’s “The Public Philosophy”

I thought readers of this blog might be interested in a post I’ve just put on my own blog on Walter Lippmann’s The Public Philosophy. It does not directly reference sortition, but I think it’s an excellent illustration of the value that sortition can bring — and it provides a corroborative context for the ideas I sketched out here.


One way to get beneath the surface of what’s going on is to read people who were writing about issues as they emerged rather than in more modern times when they’d become the norm and become infused in our commonsense.

I was browsing in one of the few remaining second-hand bookshops around (as is my wont) when I came upon Walter Lippmann’s 1955 book, The public philosophy. Walter Lippmann was one of the great journalists and thinkers of the 20th century. He wrote a series of books that were landmarks in their day, despite uniformly bland titles. Public opinion. The good life. And this one — The public philosophy

Reading part 1. I was shocked to discover a critique of democracy that I had not really crystallised for myself. It comprehends two tendencies both of which are at their most disastrous in the avoidance of war on the one hand and the fighting of wars on the other.

In the first place there’s what I’ll call temporal mismatch. It can take an electorate years to catch up with emerging developments and so public opinion can be a disastrous guide to the exigencies of a particular situation. A further aspect of public opinion is its capacity for wild swings in sentiment which I’ll call temperamental amplification.

Lippmann explains how democracies wildly overshoot. They’re not good at avoiding war by preparing properly for it. It is easy to understand why that is. Wars are very expensive. So preparing for them is expensive too. That means that politicians get the choice between warning the electorate and preparing for war and winning elections. If they call for more military spending their democratic opponent will say that it can be handled without serious financial pain — either because the threat is overblown or because it can be managed via borrowing or some other evasively defined expedient.

Then as war looms larger, far greater sacrifice than would otherwise have been necessary is called for, alongside industrial scale demonisation of the enemy. We’re somewhat familiar with this narrative from WWII, but Lippmann extends it back to the insouciance of war before WWI, the imposition of the Carthaginian Peace of 1919 which in humiliating Germany made Round Two of the Great War all the more likely. (Lippmann became fast friends with Keynes when they were both in Versailles. Coming to terms with the cataclysm of that war and its peace burned itself deeply into both men’s thought.)

Of course, this is directly relevant to today’s circumstances where the economic hangover from both COVID and Europe’s first major war in eighty years is intensifying the scarcity of energy and food, and in so doing undermining living standards. A further demand is to get Ukraine the arms it needs to fight off the Russians — but that’s expensive too.

But how much are our political leaders leveling with their populations? They’re not of course. Because to do so they’d have to say something like “Here’s the plan. We need to reduce living standards compared to what they would otherwise be by 2-3%. Then their opponents will denounce this as the counsel of despair and incompetence and come out and say they can do all they need to do without such hardship.

An extract from Lippmann is over the fold.

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Bertrand Russell on Athenian democracy

In his 1945 book History of Western Philosophy Betrand Russell writes the following (p. 74):

Athenian democracy, though it had the grave limitation of not including slaves or women, was in some respects more democratic than any modern system. Judges and most executive officers were chosen by lot, and served for short periods; they were thus average citizens like our jurymen, with the prejudices and lack of professionalism characteristic of average citizens.

It is remarkable that the reason given for the Athenian system being more democratic than modern systems is not the standard superficial argument about the Assembly voting directly on laws. Russell’s appeal to the fact that Athenian judges and officers had, as a result of being chosen by lot, the same outlook as the average citizen is an adumbration of Manin’s pure theory of elections (“the principle of distinction”).

Ephraim David on sortition

Prof. Ephraim David is a historian of Classical Greece at the Haifa University in Israel. In a 2021 paper, published in the journal Advances in Historical Studies, David discusses sortition in Ancient Athens in the context of recent interest in sortition as a mechanism which can complement or replace elections in modern political systems.

The abstract of the paper is as follows:

Though considered the most democratic method of allocating citizens to office in Classical Greece, sortition (selection by lot) has never been adopted on a large scale by modern democracies (except for juries) and has fallen into oblivion. Recently, however, some political theorists, motivated by deep disappointment with current electoral practices, have been advocating a return to sortition without being sufficiently aware of the complexities involved in their ancient Athenian model. This study tries to explain the roots and ideology of sortition, the ways in which it operated in Athens and the causes of its functional success there for almost two centuries. Proposals of returning to a similar system should pay due attention to the significant role played by elections alongside the lottery in Classical Athens and the precautions taken there to prevent possible harm. In my view, the optimal formula for reform would be a political compromise combining, in one way or another, elections with sortition among volunteering candidates from various quarters of the civic society, selected in due proportions so as to be statistically representative of the demos. Selection by lottery should apply only to groups of people (e.g., committees and councils)—never to individual magistrates.

As the abstract indicates, David is somewhat conservative, emphasizing various aspects of the Athenian system that, as he presents things, guaranteed that “[d]espite the widespread use of sortition, Athenian democracy was far from being a dogmatic ‘lottocracy'”: election of generals and reliance on other forms of expertise, age qualifications, the voluntaristic way in which the allotment pool was created, the dokimasia and retrospective accountability for political decisions.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, unlike most academics dealing with sortition, including those that are considered as being advocates for sortition, David recognizes that reform of the existing system is an urgent need, due to the severe dysfunction of the electoral system as a means for representing public values and interests:

The adoption of sortition among volunteers (in one way or another) for the legislative, in addition to elections, is liable to galvanize participatory democracy and significantly reduce (or, at least, balance) the extent of the ills involved in an exclusively elective system, particularly the manipulation of party elites, the extensive cheating of voters by deceptive electoral propaganda, the manipulation of populist politicians and the over-influence of wealthy oligarchs and tycoons in politics—the blatantly plutocratic aspect of most modern democracies. The optimal ways of reaching
those aims remain to be further explored not only for macro-politics but also with respect to other forms of administration.

A sortition proposal in Sri Lanka

Over the last few years, Sri Lanka has been experiencing a prolonged economic crisis which has come to a head in 2022 leading to a political crisis. The following recent piece by Chandre Dharmawardana, a prominent Sri Lankan retired physicist, published in several Sri Lankan websites, offers sortition as a way to resolve the political crisis.

Using sortition to prevent electing of same crooks to parliament

The terrorism of the LTTE ended in May 2009, and most Sri Lankans looked forward to a dawn of peace, reconciliation and progress. Even Poongkothai Chandrahasan, the granddaughter of SJV Chelvanayagam could state that ‘what touched me the most that day was that these were poor people with no agenda wearing their feelings on their sleeves. Every single person I spoke to said to me, “The war is over, we are so happy”. They were not celebrating the defeat of the Tamils. They were celebrating the fact that now there would be peace in Sri Lanka’ (The Island, 23rd August 2009).

The dilemma faced by SL

Unfortunately, instead of peace, prosperity and reconciliation, a corrupt oligarchy made up of politicians from the two main parties of the period, namely the UNP, the SLFP, the JVP, their associated business tycoons and NGO bosses have evolved into a cabal of the rich who have hogged the power of parliament among themselves. The party names “UNP, SLFP, JVP” etc., have morphed into other forms, while the leaders concerned have changed adherence to the parties or made alliances with the ease of changing cutlery at a sumptuous banquet.

Periods of civil strife are also periods when corrupt cutthroats thrive, with illegal arms and money in the hands of those on both sides of the conflict who made a career out of the war.
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Snell: Countries obsessed with sortation likely to be inward looking and self-obsessed

As they describe themselves, James Snell is a senior advisor at the New Lines Institute, currently writing a book on the war in Afghanistan. The New Lines Institute for Strategy and Policy is a nonprofit and non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C. working to enhance U.S. foreign policy based on a deep understanding of the geopolitics of the different regions of the world and their value systems.

Snell has a piece in Politico where he expresses his concern about the dangers of what he consistently calls “sortation”. Snell’s concern has seemingly been triggered by the upcoming posthumous publication of Maurice Pope’s book “The Keys to Democracy”.

[T]he ancient Athenians — so admired by the founders of the United States — were ruled by a boule, or a council, where the positions were filled by lot. The same went for Athens’ courts, and Roman juries after the founding of their republic.

There’s something romantic about this notion of a non-representative democracy, of government formed by citizens rather than their elected delegates — so romantic, in fact, that it’s making a comeback.
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Hansen: ancient and modern democracy

In a recent article Dr. Polyvia Parara made reference to a 2005 book by Mogens Herman Hansen, The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and its Importance for Modern Democracy. It turns out this book is available online.

As always, Hansen is a very useful source of information about democracy in the ancient Greek world. In this book, Hansen focuses less on ancient Greece and more on the connections between ancient Greek democracy and “modern democracy”. Hansen rightly points out that, contrary to what some would have us believe (he cites and quotes Hannah Arendt), there is very little evidence for either institutional or ideological continuity between the two periods.

Hansen focuses first on the ideology.

The classical example that inspired the American and French revolutionaries as well as the English radicals was Rome rather than Greece. Thus, the Founding Fathers who met in Philadelphia in 1787, did not set up a Council of the Areopagos, but a Senate, that, eventually, met on the Capitol. And the French constitution of 1799, designed by Sieyès, had no board of strategoi but a triumvirate of consuls.

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Booij: Sortition as the Solution

Below is the Introduction to a Master’s thesis by G.J. Booij, submitted in 2021 at the Tilburg School of Humanities and Digital Sciences of Tilburg University, the Netherlands, titled “Sortition as the Solution: How randomly sampled citizen assemblies can complement the Dutch democracy”. Booij was advised by Prof. Michael Vlerick, author of the 2020 paper “Towards Global Cooperation: The Case for a Deliberative Global Citizens’ Assembly”.

During World War II, Winston Churchill famously stated that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.”. Not only does this indicate that, at least in Churchill’s eyes, the current governmental form is flawed, but also that, remarkably, Churchill sees democracy as being synonymous to the elective representative democracy that was present during his life. If this kind of democracy would indeed be the best way to govern a nation, it is logical that many countries have stuck with it. However, if it is actually flawed, as he also claims, it may be wise to investigate alternative forms of government.

In this thesis, I will do just this by investigating alternative (democratic) governmental systems, since democracy is in fact not synonymous to the elective representative democracy that is still present in many Western countries. In particular, I will scrutinize the democratic system of sortition (democracy through citizen assemblies drawn by lot) and I will argue that this system should be used as a complement to the system currently in play in the Netherlands. By doing this, I will build on existing literature regarding sortition (Fishkin, 2011; van Reybrouck, 2016) by presenting a comparative perspective of several (democratic) systems, focusing specifically on the Dutch context. This kind of critical evaluation of the governmental status quo and democratic renewal is now more important than ever, since political trust dropped drastically over the past years – 70% of the Dutch population has indicated they do not have faith in politics (Erasmus University Rotterdam, 2021; NOS, 2021a).
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