Adding Sortition to the Modern State

Something that sometimes happens is that libertarians think I must no longer understand the pitfalls of politics that I once understood. Not so! Coming to appreciate the pitfalls of trying to ignore or do away with politics does not imply having forgotten the pitfalls of politics itself.

One serious problem is that the government officials, who are supposed to be attending to the common weal, come to treat their offices as merely ways to feather their own nests. (Those who would say that that is all that government officials ever do are being absurd: all I can say is get out of your parent's basement and meet a variety of people in government posts: most of them are genuinely concerned, to some extent or other, with actually doing good at their job, even if they are also concerned with doing well themselves. I'd say, in fact, it's much like at any private company for which I've worked: some people are devoted to the company, some care enough to get promotions, some slide by doing as little as possible, and some will actively rob their employer. And yes, I know about incentives!)

One mechanism that might help alleviate the issue of officials turning public trusts into private fiefdoms is sortition. In the US, we currently employ sortition in jury selection: jurors are selected at random from voter registration roles. But the ancient Athenians used it much more extensively; in fact, Aristotle would consider our constitution to lack a democratic element: elections produced an oligarchic class, not a democratic one. So we might consider introducing it to a greater extent as well. Here is the sketch of a scheme for introducing sortition in a conservative fashion to our current governments:

The idea would be to add a third legislative body to the bi-cameral legislatures that our federal government and most (all?) states currently have. This body would be selected from registered voters entirely at random, similar to a jury, perhaps on a yearly basis. The body would have no regular meetings on its own (this not only allows members to keep their jobs, it also prevents them from simply joining the professional political class); rather, any member of Congress (as well as the President?) would have the power to call this body to meet to consider vetoing a recently passed piece of legislation. Like challenging referees' calls in the NFL, there would have to be a limit to how often per year a legislator could use this power. (My guess is once a year is plenty.)

The new, third body -- perhaps the People's Assembly? -- would meet and hear the case for and against vetoing the legislation in question. (For how long? Some reasonable time limit ought to be set on the debate. Each side gets a day?)

This has some similarity to referendums, but with this difference: we would have an informed sample of the populace voting, rather than the typically uninformed one. And think of this: once a year, politicians like Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich would at least have a chance to block some pernicious piece of legislation, and even if they failed, their views would get a national hearing.


  1. Anonymous10:08 PM

    "Aristotle would consider our constitution to lack a democratic element"

    It's my understanding that those that were involved in the drafting and ratification of the constitution weren't big fans of pure democracy. My own opinion is that they were attempting to create a system of government that would eliminate the problems associated with democracy while also creating a system of self-government. However, I think that our system has become far more democratic since its inception (which I see as a bad thing).

    1. "It's my understanding that those that were involved in the drafting and ratification of the constitution weren't big fans of pure democracy."

      Right. In fact, per Aristotle, they left democracy out totally.

      "However, I think that our system has become far more democratic since its inception (which I see as a bad thing)."

      Well, per Aristotle, it is still not democratic AT ALL, except for jury selection.

  2. Wait, shouldn't it be a boon for libertarianism if a government official worries about feathering his own nest than attending to his duties?

    Because if the government official actually attends to his duty, that only increases the power of government, not decrease it. Certainly no libertarian would object if the members of those trust-busting Competition Commissions were to put their feet on their desks and look the other way.

    1. Prateek, even the most die-hard libertarian divides government activities into two sorts:

      1) Things that ought not to be done at all, e.g., busting pot smokers.

      2) Things that ought to be done, but would be better done by someone else, e.g., arresting rapists.

      Your critique is accurate for type 1 activities. However, for type two, I think almost all libertarians hope that, so long as the state exists, it would do type 2 activities better.

  3. Good morning, Dr. Callahan.

    Great idea.

    Mine is not as radical, but I think that it would solve some issues: Instead of having the President serve a maximum of two terms with each term being four years, limit the President to one term but extend that one term from four years to six years.


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