Democracy according to Richelet

The Richelet dictionary, edited by César-Pierre Richelet and first published in 1680, was one of the first dictionaries of the French language. The dictionary defines “Democracy” as follows:

Democratie: Gouvernement populaire. État populaire. Forme de gouvernement où les charges se donnent au sort.

Or, translated to English:

Democracy: Popular government. A popular state. A form of government where offices are distributed by lot.

(Thanks to Arturo Iniguez for noting this historical fact.)

Shaw: A transfer of power from the elite to the masses

Ethan Shaw advocates sortition in International Policy Digets:

Voter reform in America aims to increase turnout in elections, however, this focus dismisses the glaring weaknesses of the American democratic process. Congressional approval ratings are abysmally low, and you have probably heard the phrase “Congress is not doing their job” countless times. The problem is not about the accessibility to the ballot box; it is the inconsequentiality of voting that keeps people home on election day. So how does one solve the systemic issues with Congress that promotes voter apathy? By going back to the birthplace of democracy.

A Civic Duty to Legislate

The United States should have mandatory legislative service. Ancient Athenian citizens were randomly selected to serve a 1-year term in a legislative assembly. This process is known as sortition and has been purported by democratic reformists across the globe. In the American political discourse, sortition has never been fully discussed as a viable replacement to the current legislative infrastructure. Many individuals scoff at the idea, worried that random selection will create a legislature full of inept buffoons.

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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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Reginald Walter Macan: early sortition advocate

The February 1892 issue of The Classical Review (vol. 6, No. 1/2) has a review by Reginald Walter Macan of James Wycliffe Headlam’s Election by Lot at Athens which was published the year before.

Macan talks approvingly of Headlam’s analysis of the rationale behind the use of sortition in Athens:

The Lot was used in the Athenian democracy for two main purposes, as Mr. Headlam explains clearly enough: to constitute bodies, that represented the sovran people, or were committees, commissions of the same (p. 161); to secure rotation of office (p. 94) — both these purposes being subordinate to the supreme end, the sovranty of the whole people.

However, in regards to the representation function, Macan is radically reinterpreting Headlam. The “representation” discussed in page 161 of Headlam’s book is that of carrying out technical, apolitical functions which require no judgement and which any Athenian would have performed in the same way.

The inspectors, then, were appointed by the people to act as stewards or bailiffs. The people was the owner of a large business establishment; the inspectors had to do the work of superintendence over the workmen which the owner had not time to do himself. They were a committee of the Assembly, or council, who were appointed by lot because they represented the whole people. The whole of the demos could not go together to the dockyards to see that the new ships which had been ordered were properly built, so they deputed a few of their number to do so, and as a matter of course, as in all such committees, made the appointment by lot.
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Taylor: The principle of distinction at Athens

A 2007 paper by Claire Taylor (“From the Whole Citizen Body?”, Hesperia 76, 2007) explores the composition of elected and allotted bodies in Athens.

From the Whole Citizen Body? The Sociology of Election and Lot in the Athenian Democracy

Abstract: In this article the author examines the sociology of selection procedures in the Athenian democracy. The role of election and lot within the political system, the extent (or lack) of corruption in the selection of officials, and the impact of the selection procedure on political life are considered. A comparison of selection procedures demonstrates that the lot was a relatively democratic device that distributed offices widely throughout Attica, whereas elections favored demes near the city. The reasons for these different patterns of participation are examined.

Taylor’s findings, which rely on deme-membership statistics of holders of various Athenian state offices, confirm the theoretical expectations: elections favored city demes while sortition did not.
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 5/5

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

(ii) Constitutional workshops, a practical tool for popular education for training a multitude of citizen constitution-writers, guardians of the common good

Representative government (falsely called “representative democracy” – a deceptive oxymoron) is a regime of domination of the voters by the elected, was never willfully adopted and was imposed from the outset by the elected (Sieyes, Madison, etc.). The solution will not come from the elected, who are the problem since they usurp the constitutive power. The solution must come from elsewhere: from the citizens themselves.

The emancipation of the voters, their transformation into citizens, demands the institution of their political empowerment and it should therefore be the voters who practice constitution-writing themselves.

1. A citizen worthy of this name must be vigilant, and therefore a constitution-writer

Vigilance has long been described as an essential quality of a citizen.


When a man will not himself hold office and rule, his chief penalty is to be governed by someone worse [Republic, Book 1, p. 347c].


A man who takes no part in political matters we regard not as unambitious but as useless [Pericles’s Funeral Oration, The Peloponnesian War, Book 2.34-46].

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Republic or democracy: For the many, not the few

“Republic” means, more or less literally, “a government serving the public interest”. According to Thucydides, Pericles thought that this is also what democracy means:

It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is run with a view to the interest of the many, not of the few. Thucydides 2.37.1 (trans. S. Hornblower).

(In fact, it would probably be difficult to find a justification for a regime of any kind which does not at its root rely on the claim that it serves the public interest. Thus the common wisdom that the ascendancy of “democracy” is a modern phenomenon should be treated with caution.)

Using this definition, the difference between republic (or any other regime) and democracy can be summed up by asking “public interest, according to whom?”

The crucial point is that in a democracy it is the people themselves who are to say whether their interests are served, while in a republic (or any other regime) a select group gets to decide what the public interest is and how well it is served. Democratic ideology asserts that people are the best judges of their own interests. This leads to a straightforward and useful operationalization of the concept of democracy: a regime is democratic to the extent that the people who are governed by that regime believe it serves their interests, where their opinions are equally weighted. A survey, rather than expert opinion, is the best way to determine whether a particular regime is democratic.

It turns out, then, that “for the people by the people” is first of all an epistemic statement and that political equality and citizen participation is expressed in the first instance in the measurement of democracy rather than in its attainment. The rest is to be derived from that democratic starting point.

Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 2

Previously published parts of this essay are the Introduction and Part 1.

(i) Elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters. They discourage thinking and defending the common good (whereas sortition does not)

Starting with the governed, let’s see, point-by-point, how elections infantilize, and in this way paralyze, the voters:

1. By definition, elections are aristocratic, whereas sortition is democratic

The greatest political thinkers have long known what we have now forgotten:

Aristotle (332 BC): “Elections are aristocratic and non-democratic: they introduce an element of deliberate choice, of selection of the best citizens, the aristoi, in place of government by the people” [Politics IV, 1300b4-5]. This quote is spurious. EC has requested that it be replaced with the following quote.

Aristotle (332 BC): “It is thought to be democratic for political offices to be assigned by lot, for them to be elected oligarchic” [Politics IV, 1294b].

Montesquieu (1748): “Sortition is natural to democracy. Elections are natural to aristocracy” [The Spirit of the Laws].

Cornélius Castoriadis (1996): “It is the Greeks who have invented elections. It is an established historical fact. They may have been wrong to do so, but they have invented elections! Who was elected in Athens? They did not elect political officers. Those were selected using sortition or rotation. For Aristotle, you should know, a citizen is someone who is able to govern and be governed. Everybody is able to govern, and therefore sortition is used. Why? Because politics is not a business for experts. There is no science of the political. That was the conventional knowledge among the Greeks” [Post scriptum on Insignificance].

So, the word aristos means the best in Greek. Elections, which by definition aim to choose the best, are by construction aristocratic. The promise of democratic equality is therefore not kept. The elected representatives and the voters are not on equal footings: the elected dominate the voters, the few control the many. We should therefore suspect that the common good would be threatened as the elected come to serve personal interests rather than the general interest.

In contrast, sortition selects indiscriminately. It is therefore the only procedure that respects the foundational promise of democracy – political equality between citizens.
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Étienne Chouard: Public decision-making from the perspective of the common good, Part 1

Background about this essay and its table of contents can be found here.

What follows is a comparison of elections and sortition. The essay is divided into two parts. In part I, elections and sortition are compared in terms of general principles. In part II, they are compared in terms of different possible applications.

Part I. A comparison of the general strengths and weaknesses of elections and allotment of representatives

Let us start by a general comparison of elections and sortition in democracy, taking Paul Ricœur’s definition of democracy as our starting point:

A democracy is a society which recognizes itself to be divided, that is, containing conflicts of interests, and which has committed itself to endow each citizen with an equal part of the expression of these conflicts, of their analysis and of the deliberation of those conflicts with a view of arriving at a resolution.

That is, the definition of the common good is by construction relative, variable, debatable, conflicting, and therefore political. It rests fundamentally on the question of sovereignty: who is the legitimate communal decision maker? Who weighs the needs of the social body? Who decides? Who evaluates the decisions? The people themselves or their representatives? Do we even need representatives?

And if the scale of our societies indeed necessitates appointing representatives, what type of representatives? Because the word “representative” is ambiguous: are they the masters or the servants of the common good?

And above all, who is the legitimate decision maker regarding basic rules, the meta-rules?
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Sortition in the New Yorker, again

For the second time in less than a year, sortition is mentioned in the New Yorker. Last time, it was merely an off-handed comment. This time, sortition is front and center. Nathan Heller’s article is built around an interview with Hélène Landemore. Alexander Guerrero also gets quoted.

Landemore’s ideal is participative, but she seems to be working with a rather loose concept for her proposals:

What distinguishes Landemore’s ideal from other lottocratic models, such as Guerrero’s, is the breadth of her funnel: the goal is to involve as much of the public organically in as many decisions as possible. Her open-democratic process also builds in crowdsourced feedback loops and occasional referendums (direct public votes on choices) so that people who aren’t currently governing don’t feel shut out.

As evidence that open democracy can work in large[…,] culturally diverse societies, Landemore points to France’s Great National Debate—a vast undertaking involving a vibrant online forum, twenty-one citizens’ assemblies, and more than ten thousand public meetings, held in the wake of the gilets jaunes protests, in 2019—and, this year, to the country’s Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change.

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