Dylan Matthews, writing in Vox, poses an excellent question: “Can randomly selected citizens govern better than elected officials?” Who knows? Maybe it’s worth a try.
Whether you call it sortition or lottocracy, it’s a very old idea, dating back to Athens, Greece, early democracy days. Somewhat more recently, William F. Buckley Jr. said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard faculty. But, as Matthews points out, the notion is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the corridors of academe. Hélène Landemore of Yale, Alex Guerrero of Rutgers, and David Van Reybrouck of Belgium are serious proponents of the idea.
Landemore points out that elections produce an elite: look no further than the U.S. House and Senate for confirmation. We are governed by multimillionaires. An institutionalized governing class breeds corruption, as special interests vie for favors. Random selection could curb that vice. It would be a cure for campaigning and campaign fundraising. Landemore would limit the randomly selected to coming up with proposals, which would later be approved through more traditionally democratic means. Guerrero, on the other hand, advocates giving the selectees more power and protections, along with housing allowances and protections against getting fired. Van Reybrouck, who looks like a delightfully interesting cat, argues in his book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy that elections produce undemocratic results and we would do better with a combination of volunteers and lottery. (I’m willing to bet that President Biden hasn’t read this book.)
Matthews observes that citizen assemblies share some of the virtues of ballot referenda, such as California’s Proposition 13, which set limits on property taxes and requires a supermajority to raise other taxes. These are bypass routes around legislatures and often express the will of the people better than their elected representatives.
Of course there are fleas that come with any dog. The populace might feel even more alienated when their votes really don’t count. But we’re looking for improvement, not perfection. It’s a new/old twist on the wisdom of crowds. Given the track record of our elected officials, maybe we’d do better to put our trust in the wheel of fortune.
I’m a fan of the random, as I argued in a previous article for The American Spectator, “A Modest Proposal for the Ivy League.” If colleges and universities really want to avoid discriminatory practices and select a diverse student body, they can pick students at random from a qualified pool. We’ve seen how notoriously corrupt college admissions have become: A movie star went to jail over it. Legacy admissions, instituted by the Ivies in the 1920s and 1930s largely to keep Jewish students to a manageable minimum, are coming under fire. Amherst College just announced it was abandoning the practice. On the other hand, the U.S. solicitor general just asked the Supreme Court not to take up a case in which Asian-American students say they were discriminated against in admissions on account of race. I say, let’s hear the case, and put a stake through the heart of affirmative action once and for all. After all, as Chief Justice John Roberts said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Given the track record of our elected officials, maybe we’d do better to put our trust in the wheel of fortune.
There’s also something to be said for keeping the citizenry involved by requiring service in the legislature, as we do on juries. Civil responsibilities to balance civil rights. Mrs. McGillicuddy, unless you have a really good excuse, we’re going to need you in Washington for the next two years. Yes, you can bring the cat.
And, as long as we’re at it, let’s get everyone who wants a gun to serve in the state militia. After all, the Second Amendment reads, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” It would be a great way to ensure weapons safety training, not to mention civil defense. You want that AK-47? Fine. We’ll see you on the village green at 7 a.m. on first Saturdays to drill. Wear comfy shoes.
Majority rule is overrated. As the currently raging filibuster debate should remind us, protections for minorities were baked into the Constitution for a reason. Democracy isn’t what happens when two wolves and a sheep vote on what’s for dinner. So maybe it’s time to give randomness a try.
Betsy Dorminey is a lawyer in Athens, Georgia, and an entrepreneur in Vermont. Her columns have appeared in The American Spectator, Western Journal, Townhall, Vermont Digger, and The Hill. She is a regular contributor to The Freedomist blog.