Humans as a species seem to enjoy complaining about what is, more than they do addressing the problem. Perhaps it is because there are so many problems and that many of these problems seem to pose insurmountable obstacles to change. Complaining is easier, and there is a certain comradery that comes from being fellow sufferers.
Five hundred years or so ago a Roman Catholic priest proposed changes in the way things were done by the church. Martin Luther’s demands were not met because they would have necessitated a great deal of change in the way things were done, and would have required a new way of financing the church’s expenditures and some creative explanation for the changes made.
The result was Luther’s excommunication, the formation of a new “reformed” church, and a few centuries later institution of many of the reforms requested.
At one point in my life I belonged to a religious group which referred to itself as the “restored” church, rather than a reformed church. This restoration was based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, and a belief that the Bible was the inspired word of God. Furthermore, it held that nothing that was done in worship should involve anything not specifically mentioned in the Bible, more specifically, the New Testament. So, there was no instrumental music because, while David played on a harp, there was no mention of instruments in the New Testament.
This would have been all well and good except for the fact that the church elders picked some practices and rejected others as unnecessary. Also, they rejected any writing that was not included in the Bible ignoring the fact that a group of men got together and decided which books to put in the Bible. They assumed those men involved in canonization to also be inspired. No one today, however, could be inspired. Such are the problems of restoration; Eden would not be Eden without the snake.
We complain daily – actually many times a day in many cases – about politics. Despite the fact that much of the Western world lives in societies that practice democracy we find the results of the process less than acceptable. We have various ideas about reforming that process.
Representative democracy such as is practiced in Europe and North America, while convenient, is easily corrupted and becomes distinctly non-representative.
Our representatives are chosen by voting. In the U.S. voting is voluntary and considered to be a privilege. The result is that certain segments of society do not vote for various reasons ranging from lack of interest to lack of convenience to discrimination in the qualification process. In some other democratic countries, such as Australia, voting is considered to be a duty, and all adult citizens are required to vote. In Switzerland the decisions about what to vote on are formulated by representatives, but every citizen votes on everything from local parking meter rates to national defense. This requires voting several times a week at times. Voting is considered a duty.
The alternative options have been generally considered to be autocracy. Autocratic governments have certainly been the historical alternative in recent times. Monarchies, while they may have originally been established by popular consent, ultimately become non-representative and favor the rich and powerful. Even in elected governments power may be left in the hands of an individual or a small group of individuals as it is in Russia.
Democracy, however, has not always depended on voting. In ancient Athens representatives were chosen by sortition, a random process involving the casting of lots. The basis for this process was a fundamental belief in the equality of all citizens.
Restoring Athenian democracy, however, like restoring the original Christian church, suffers from problems with actual implementation. We know about sortition from ancient manuscripts, but how complete is our knowledge? How would it be practiced today?
Should a representative selected by sortition be compelled to serve? Would society reimburse them for their work? How would their job or business be protected while the selected served? Should there be a process for removing individuals who were corrupted? How would corruption be defined? Should some effort be made to insure a broad representation of all interests by requiring some percentage of representation by race, gender, wealth, ethnicity or other factors?
Would there be independent lotteries for local, state and federal representatives? What would be done about the same individual being chosen more than once?
Wikipedia gives a list of pros and cons for the process. Nicely summarized on a blog site as follows:
Effective representation of the interests of the people
Fairness & Equality
Less corruptible than elections
Power to ordinary people
Voter fatigue (eliminated)
Loyalty is to conscience not to political party
Pure sortition does not discriminate
Sortition can put in power people with minority views
Voting confers legitimacy
Some forms of sortition entail compulsion
Enthusiasm of the representatives
Any change in Western democracy can only come after a complete dismantling of the current form of government because rules and regulations, including the Constitution of the United States are based on electoral democracy. The current institutionalized non-functioning form of U.S. democracy is based on the Constitution. This discussion it, therefor, a thought experiment since it will take a complete collapse of the current form of government to bring about any form of real change.
There is no current democracy based on sortition, so what do we know about how Athenian democracy worked and how the democracies of other city states like Sparta functioned?
Aristotle wrote about differences in the way Spartan and Athenian democracy worked.
We have been led to believe that sortition had serious problems and the Spartan practice of election by voting was better than sortition. Looking toward Plato and Aristotle is not much help.
Neither Aristotle nor Plato thought a simple democracy to be the best form of government. Aristotle thought that governance should be left to those best able to do the job; those who did not need to work. He thought laborers were too busy.
Plato thought it should be left to the “Philosopher Rulers” who had the ability to choose what was best for everyone. In his view there were three classes; philosophers, warriors, and everyone else. Although Plato was opposed to a democracy that was controlled by an oligarchy as Sparta was, he was opposed mainly because it was dominated by the military rather than philosophers.
Aristotle felt that democracy was not the best form of government, that rule by the aristocracy was better because aristocrats had the time to rule. Aristotle saw the city – the polis – as the political unit. In that unit the city held sway over the family and the family held sway over the individual. The function of the city was to provide a space where the individual could do beautiful things. Aristotle was not an Athenian as Plato was. He must have regarded sortition as a bad way to choose those who managed the city.
"The citizens must not lead the life of mechanics or tradesmen, for such a life is ignoble, and inimical to virtue. Neither must they be farmers, since leisure is necessary both for the development of virtue and the performance of political duties." Aristotle
Brett Hennig has written and talked extensively on the use of sortition in selecting representatives.