12 October 2018

Word for the day: Sortition

"Federal authorities have charged a New York man with building a 200-pound (90-kilogram) bomb they say he planned to detonate on Election Day on the National Mall in Washington. Paul Rosenfeld, 56, of Tappan, was charged Wednesday with unlawfully manufacturing a destructive device and interstate transportation and receipt of an explosive. Prosecutors said he planned to use the bomb to kill himself and draw attention to a political system called sortition, in which public officials are chosen randomly rather than elected."
From Wikipedia:
In governance, sortition (also known as choice by lot, allotment, or demarchy) is the selection of political officials as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. Sortition ensures all competent and interested parties have an equal chance of holding public office. It also minimizes factionalism, since there would be no point making promises to win over key constituencies if one was to be chosen by lot. Elections, by contrast, foster factionalism. For that reason, when the time came to choose individuals to be assigned to empowering positions, the ancient Athenians resorted to choosing by lot. In ancient Athenian democracy, sortition was the traditional and primary method for appointing political officials, and its use was regarded as a principal characteristic of true democracy.
More at the link on the theory, and on historical examples of its utilization.  One of the examples cited is "picking a school class monitor by drawing straws."  Here are some other excerpts:
Compared to a voting system – even one that is open to all citizens – a citizen-wide lottery scheme for public office lowers the threshold to office. This is because ordinary citizens do not have to compete against more powerful or influential adversaries in order to take office, and because the selection procedure does not favour those who have pre-existing advantages or connections – as invariably happens with election by preference.

These Greeks recognized that sortition broke up factions, diluted power, and gave positions to such a large number of disparate people that they would all keep an eye on each other making collusion fairly rare.

The most common argument against pure sortition (that is, with no prior selection of an eligible group) is that it does not discriminate among those selected and takes no account of particular skills or experience that might be needed to effectively discharge the particular offices to be filled.

Because it introduces randomness in determining outcomes, there is always the statistical possibility that sortition may put into power an individual or group that do not represent the views of the population from which they were drawn... This argument applies to juries, but less to larger groups where the probability of, for example, an oppressive majority, are statistically insignificant.
The chance of American elected officials approving the utilization of sortition is, of course, one in a hundred gazillion bazillion, plus or minus.


  1. In my prepubescent youth, I read a fantasy series of books by David (and Leigh, uncredited) Eddings called the Malloreon, in which there is a race known as the Melcenes, who conduct a nation-wide random choice of their leader (I think known as a “prime minister”, but it’s been 20 years since I read the books) from amongst the population, somewhat like jury duty. The degree to which they’re perceived to “do well” determines whether they’re rewarded, merely tolerated, or unceremoniously kicked out and punished with prison time, to be replaced by another random “victim”. Most Melcenes dreaded the prospect of being selected. It’s a humourous concept that’s always stayed with me.

  2. It has always made sense to me that public office should be like jury duty -it's your turn by random lot -you're stuck and serve and when it's over you go back to your life. So now I'm surprised that there is a word for it as well as by the previous comment because I adored the Malloreon series and don't remember if my feelings about serving predated that or not! I still feel that it's not the worst we could do, although there is something to be said for professionals...

  3. THOUGHT EXPERIMENT: Is it likely that the random selection of members of Congress would give us a worse Congress than we already have?

    When we consider how many times each of us, no matter our political leanings, have felt like Congress had made a terrible decision, we begin to realize that, in truth, they don't know a whole lot more than we do, if that. Yes, they may have more connections and more money, but that has never meant that it necessarily followed that such persons knew more or knew better.

    Then, consider how WONDERFUL it would be if the wealthy class suddenly had NO WAY OF KNOWING who was going to be selected! They wouldn't know who to wine and dine! They wouldn't know who to contribute to! They wouldn't have anyone in their pockets!

    Of course, there is a drawback. We know that long-term elected officials often DO have the ability to navigate the system better, do have the ability to do more. Unfortunately, they don't typically do more for US. In fact, I heard one Congressman say that a majority of his time was about getting reelected. He had to make calls, see the right people, etc. I know that it no in and of itself a bad thing, but when you think of all the time that is NOT being spent on serving the people...yeah.

    At the least perhaps, we could have a percentage of all Congressmen chosen at random. I would, of course, suggest that it be limited to native-born Americans or Americans that have lived in our country for a good many years (since, presumably, we wouldn't want someone who arrived last May to be running the country).

    And for our peerless Tywkiwidbi host--who is not a fan of President Trump--perhaps we can even choose the president at random (since I assume he would prefer that to Trump--HA!).

    As always, this is a "keeper" site. So glad I found it.

    1. I think I have read or heard that the Founding Fathers considered governance to be something that should be done by people leaving their homes/jobs for a congressional session to meet and make laws and then returning back to their jobs. I believe the notion of a "professional politician" would have been unseemly. (but of course they would not have considered "everyone" suitable as a representative - only the landed gentry would have been considered).

  4. it does make me sad that we haven't come up with something better than democracy as an organizational paradigm (which clearly it isn't a very good organizational paradigm). But I guess we're stuck with it until the robots take over.


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