The case for governing by lottery
America really would be better off picking its leaders at random, says a group of political scientists
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After November’s election , after the seemingly endless campaign and billions of dollars in advertisements, Americans are now sending to Washington a new Congress that looks very much like the previous Congress, despite the fact that years of gridlock have earned the chamber some of the lowest approval ratings in American politics.
The performance of our elected officials has led many people to wonder whether we might as well just pluck people at random and send them to Washington. For a small but fervent group of political philosophers, that’s not a joke—it’s a serious idea. They argue we’d be better off if we scrapped congressional elections altogether and instead filled the House of Representatives with 435 Americans selected lottery-style from the population.
Elections may be deeply intertwined with our conception of democracy, but these thinkers argue that when it comes to much of what Congress does, they aren’t always necessary, and can even harm a democratic state. Shifting decisions to a rotating pool of citizens, they say—a political system called “lottocracy” or “demarchy”—would limit the influence of money in politics, because there would be no more campaigns to fund; end the divisive rhetoric that politicians use to corral voters; and solve the problem of having politicians duck big issues like entitlement reform because they’re worried about their reelection prospects.
“My main worry is that electoral accountability has broken down,” says Alex Guerrero, a philosophy professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “In a lottocratic system, where the representatives haven’t necessarily sought out power, you might get policies that are more responsive to the people and less distorted by powerful special interests.”
Guerrero is an enthusiastic advocate for government by random selection. In a forthcoming book called “The Lottocratic Alternative,” he explains that while elections seem intrinsic to democracy, there might be other, smarter ways to preserve the one indispensable quality of democracy, rule by the people.
His idea is one of a number of provocative proposals offered by academics who contend that introducing elements of random assignment into legislative politics is just what we need to shake up a corroded system. Economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago has argued that randomly assigning and reassigning legislators to committees would limit the possibility of influence peddling. Peter Stone, a lecturer in political science at Trinity College in Dublin and contributor to Equality by Lot, a blog about lottocratic politics, has, along with Scott Wentland of Longwood University, put forward the idea of having congressmen run for reelection “in a district picked at random at the beginning of each election season.”
These schemes are unlikely to supplant elections any time soon, but at a time of particular dysfunction in American politics, they do force us to examine whether a political system defined by competing self-interests might actually be improved—strange as it seems—if we gave more political power to chance.
Government by random selection may seem incompatible with democracy, but the two have been conjoined from the start. Our democratic forebears in ancient Athens used randomness to prevent political power from accumulating among the wealthy and the well-born: Through the drawing of lots, they ensured that, in Aristotle’s words, every citizen had experience “ruling and being ruled in turn.”
It has also been tried more recently. In British Columbia, an assembly composed of randomly selected citizens was convened to reform electoral laws, though the proposal they came up with was ultimately rejected by voters in a referendum. In 2010, California used a highly modified form of random selection to fill eight seats on a commission charged with redrawing congressional districts. That experiment worked: The commission has been praised for producing non-gerrymandered congressional districts that have made elections there more competitive.
Guerrero’s idea is more sweeping. As he envisions it, the responsibilities currently given to state legislatures or even the United States Congress would be broken up and apportioned among “Single-Issue Lottery-Selected Legislatures,” or SILLs. Each SILL would be tasked with legislating on one issue—say, energy or agriculture or tax policy—and would be made up of 200 to 500 citizens chosen at random from the population to serve each for a single three-year term. The terms would be staggered so that only one-third of the members would turn over each year. The SILLs would solicit expert testimony, hold town hall-style meetings to gather citizen input, and then deliberate and vote on legislation that, depending on how the system was constructed, would still have to be signed by the president. It’s all very similar to the way Congress works now, only without the backdrop of elections.Continued...