Thursday, January 13, 2022
If you want to guess what Congress is going to do tomorrow, just about the last thing you should do is check in with political philosophers and theorists in the academy.
But if you want to know what Congress will do in 50 years, seeing what ideas are percolating in the academy can be surprisingly informative.
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 instead picking representatives by lottery, as with jury duty. The idea, sometimes called sortition or “lottocracy,” originates in ancient Athens, where democracy often took the form of assigning positions to citizens by drawing lots.
But lately it’s had a revival in the academy; Rutgers philosopher Alex Guerrero, Yale political theorist Hélène Landemore, and Belgian public intellectual David Van Reybrouck have been among the most vocal advocates in recent years. (If you’re a podcast fan, I recommend Landemore’s appearance on The Ezra Klein Show.) The broad sense that American democracy is in crisis has provoked an interest in bold ideas for repairing it, with lottocracy the boldest among them.
It’s a proposal that might sound ludicrous. So much discourse around “saving democracy” — including President Joe Biden’s speech calling on the Senate to change the filibuster rules — revolves around protecting voting rights and access to the polls; it feels hardly imaginable to have a functioning democracy without elections.
But there’s a reason smart people are flocking to the notion. For one thing, randomly selected “citizen’s assemblies” have shown themselves to be viable in practice (at least on a smaller scale thus far), and have already been convened in a few cases, for purposes like proposing climate policy in France or reforming the electoral system in British Columbia.
It's not a bad idea. I think Ahkil Amar wrote his note on a closely related topic when he was on the Yale Law Journal. It's not just a left wing idea either. In fact, one result would surely be the de-radicalization of our politics. What are the odds you'd get an AOC by chance, or Margaret Taylor Green? The law of large numbers would be our friend. On the downside, most people are of only average intelligence and government rightly done is pretty hard, which explains a lot of our current problems.