If you want to guess what Congress is going to do tomorrow, the last thing you need to do is ask the political philosophers and theorists of the academy.
But if you want to know what Congress will be doing 50 years from now, seeing what ideas are circulating in the academy can be surprisingly enlightening.
That’s why I’ve been struck by the growing popularity among academics of a radical idea for rethinking democracy: getting rid of elections, and choosing representatives instead by lot, like jury duty. The idea, sometimes called lotteries or “lotocracy,” originated in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of allocating positions to citizens by lot.
But lately there has been a revival in the academy; Rutgers Philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Helene Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you are a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The general feeling that American democracy is in crisis has sparked interest in bold ideas to fix it, with lotocracy being the boldest of these.
This is a proposal that may seem ridiculous. So much of the “bailout of democracy” talk — including President Joe Biden’s speech calling on the Senate to change the filibuster rules — revolves around protecting voting rights and access to the ballot box; it seems hard to imagine having a functioning democracy without elections.
But there’s a reason smart people flock to this idea. On the one hand, randomly selected “citizens’ assemblies” have proven viable in practice (at least on a smaller scale so far), and have already been convened in a few cases, for purposes such as proposing climate policy in France or reform the electoral system in British Columbia.
More importantly, choosing representatives at random has strong theoretical appeal.
The case of lottery representation
The basic argument is that selection by lot avoids many of the flaws and biases of elections.
In theory, representative electoral democracy allows citizens to select genuine representatives of their interests. But in practice, this mission is undermined by the corrupting influence of campaign donors; voters’ racial, gender and other biases; voters’ ignorance of which politicians and politicians will best uphold their values; And so on.
In an electoral system, a member of Congress who proposes, for example, to tax imports face a barrage of attacks from Walmart and Target that threaten their re-election.
Representatives selected by lottery do not have to campaign and do not need campaign funds, the argument goes, limiting opportunities for corruption. As Guerrero puts it, “Lotteries excel at preventing corruption or undue influence in the selection of representatives.”
Landemore argues that lotteries can also lead to more diverse and representative legislatures than elections, which should allow for better and fairer decision-making.
In Previous work, she argued that part of what makes democracy a valuable system is its ability to integrate a wider range of information and perspectives than those held by an autocratic elite. Lotteries, she claims, going beyond elections, allowing for the inclusion of perspectives systematically excluded from electoral democracy: “the introverted, the inarticulate, the small and the timid, as well as, typically, the poor and the black or other people of colour” who are disadvantaged in practice in electoral matters. diets.
The disadvantages of such a system
No idea is infallible and one can imagine many scruples at the idea of a democracy by lottery.
The first is that the lottery’s apparent incorruptibility might be a function of its existence as an ideal, not as a highly contested and actually existing body like Congress.
As noted above, there are a few cases of citizens’ assemblies in recent memory, including several in Ireland (which helped to advance the country decision to legalize abortion) and the UK (where he produced a related to ideas for reducing carbon emissions). None of these cases involved notable cases of corruption or bribery of randomly selected citizens, or at least no such cases were made public.
But these assemblies have typically been charged with proposing policies that a legislature or electorate must then ratify. Ireland as a whole voted in a referendum to legalize abortion. The opinion of the citizens’ assembly was not binding.
If a citizens’ assembly had the binding power to determine billions in public spending, private interests would have a strong incentive to influence the design of the lottery, what briefing materials are given to amateur representatives, what experts can testify before them, etc. . In other words, they could be plagued with precisely the problems of representative democracy that lotteries are supposed to reduce.
In his book Open democracy, Landemore addresses this objection in depth. For one thing, in his proposal (unlike Guerrero’s), citizens’ assemblies would only propose changes that would then be put to a public vote. But she also cites her experience observing the French citizens’ assembly on climate change and says that “ordinary citizens, once empowered, are very protective of their prerogatives and will actively and vocally resist perceived attempts to manipulate them”.
It is possible, but not all manipulations are obvious. Much lobbying takes the form of lobbyists provide useful information to legislators, although the information is worded in such a way as to elicit conclusions favorable to the lobbyist’s client. This process seems more likely to work on randomly selected citizens, who have a lower level of basic political knowledge than people who self-select to run for Congress.
Landemore ultimately admits that “any system would have to rely on additional accountability mechanisms, including laws regulating the role of money in politics.” That’s true enough – but it should give pause on the likelihood of a Captured Citizens’ Assembly outperforming a Captured Congress, in terms of producing effective and broadly popular policies.
Second, much of the effectiveness of the proposal depends on the ability to get a random subsample of the country to participate. Guerrero offers “considerable” financial incentives and offers relocation costs and protection from dismissal for those chosen to serve. This would help ensure greater participation than, say, jury duty. But as long as participation is voluntary, self-selection will bias who ends up serving.
To give the lotocrats their due, such bias seems to be softer than any bias present in electoral democracy, which also forces potential participants to self-select in service, as well as self-select in fundraising, a grueling campaign schedule, etc. .
People feel alienated from their government. Will it really help?
Finally, I am a bit worried about lottery selection which increases citizens’ alienation from the political system. One of the deepest problems in our society today is a general decline in public trust among other citizens and in establishments – a feeling that government, business and civil society are not working for ordinary people and that activities like voting are not helping.
If citizens feel that way now, imagine how they would feel if they literally had no choice about who represented them.
Yes, random selection means that the entire audience is represented in a general and statistical sense. But this process robs individual voters of any sense that their own actions can influence political outcomes, which in turn could worsen trust in government.
Faced with this objection, Landemore responded that in his view, lotocratic assemblies should primarily be responsible for proposing proposals which would then be put to a public vote, meaning that the public retains a say. This alleviates the problem, but opens up the possibility of massive corporate spending influencing the referendum results; call back Uber and Lyft’s successful $200 million campaign push through a proposal in California to reduce their labor costs.
That said, I’m excited to see more government lottery experiments. In California, for example, I could imagine a citizens’ assembly empowered to produce a new state constitution that would be less encumbered by ballot referendums like Prop 13 — which sharply limits property tax revenue and imposes a two-thirds supermajority requirement when the legislature wants to raise other taxes — that make governance in this state a nightmare. I hope that such a new constitution would grant a lesser role to referenda.
I could also imagine citizens’ assemblies offering a way around the deadlock in Congress. Suppose Congress passes a law authorizing an assembly to propose changes to the gerrymandering and voting rights laws – with the promise that any proposal that emerges will become law unless a majority of both houses rejects it. Congress might not cede much power, but it would move forward.
American democracy is in bad shape. Desperate times call for trying something new.
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