Word of the Day: Sortition [Repost]

The United States ranks 22nd on the corruptions perceptions index, behind such countries as Hong Kong, Iceland, and Qatar. For a nation that once prided itself as the greatest in the world, this is a tragic figure. Our sliding position in the world can be seen in our declining status in education, health, research, etc. Contrast the historic downward trend in these metrics with the uptick in political corruption and we can see an obvious correlation.

What is the source of this political corruption? First and foremost, nearly all corruption is rooted in individual actions of greed and self-interest. These actions happen at a number of levels, whether it’s a politician taking bribes, a corporation writing the laws that are supposed to regulate their industries, or a political party wavering on their positions just to acquire some extra votes. These examples demonstrate some -not all- ways that corruption presents itself in the political realm. Frequently, these actions are not referred to as corruption but simply as partisan. That is to say, biased political activity is labeled as a political position or belief rather than a purposeful effort to deprive a group of people of their liberty, property, etc.

How do many corrupt people come to be in power? They are elected. Who supports these candidates? Businesses, social groups, corporations, and political parties. In addition to elections, other people take positions of power by being appointed by others who were elected. We see that the practice of elections itself may be the weak point in a society’s efforts to combat corruption. In fact the ancient Athenians, as conveyed by Aristotle, believed that elections supported oligarchy rather than democracy. Given the Athenians are the intellectual founders of our political systems, we should take heed of their concerns about corruption and democracy.

In an effort to preserve the elected, representative nature of our republic, it may seem that laws prohibiting lobbying or access of special interests to our representatives may go a long way toward curbing corruption. However, another access point for corruption exists. Even if special interests were denied access to politicians, allegiance to a political party provides another arena for representative corruption. Anytime a group of politicians votes strictly on a party line rather than voting based on the desires of a particular jurisdiction, you have an lack of fidelity for the wishes of the represented. Once a system exists where minority political parties and interests have no significant political entity to represent them, the effects of corruption are magnified.

A number of ways exist to alleviate this ingrained political corruption. In Switzerland, the public has easy access to hold canton (state) and national voter referendums. The ease with which the people can conduct referendums allows them to repeal any extremist actions of a political party while allowing for social and political change to occur at a rate faster than entrenched political parties can address. Furthermore, the ability of the people to override the actions of politicians encourages Swiss political parties to refrain from extremist action. Consequently, this aspect of the Swiss political system is viewed as essential to its long term stability.

Another much older method for preventing corruption in politics should be considered. This practice dates at least to ancient Athens and was considered by its greatest thinkers to be essential to maintaining democracy, if not the actual foundation of democracy. This practice is called sortition, or isonomy by some. Sortition is the selection of decision makers by lottery. The decision makers are chosen as a random sample from a larger pool of candidates. What this essentially means is that anybody could be a representative. Now this process may not be ideal for all governmental positions, but sortition is already used in the United States. The process of selecting a jury is in fact a form of sortition. Jurors are chosen at random (in theory) and make a decision as a group.

In the situation we are discussing here, legislators would be selected at random to serve a term voting on legislation and laws for a state or the nation. This page offers a comparison of potential benefits and disadvantages of sortition. However, studies have shown that parliaments with a certain percentage of representatives selected by sortition, while the remainder is elected, are more efficient and eliminate some of the potential for corruption.

What is compelling about sortition is the potential for an increase in political activity by the general public. When the possibility that anybody may be selected to serve a term through sortition, people may potentially become more aware of the issues that affect their cities, counties, states, and country. Since many more people would potentially know someone who has served in the government, greater awareness and interest may ensue. As it stands, elections in the US draw 62% participation at best, often far lower. Sortition would have an unknown though potentially positive effect on the American people.

Contemporary names for a political system that relies on sortition to produce decision makers is demarchy, though the Athenians would have simply called it democracy. Whatever you call it, democracy or demarchy, it is the rule of the people, by the people. The major political parties in the US do not represent everybody, selecting representatives at random from the populace goes a lot further towards complete representation than elections can. Furthermore, there are no re-elections, no career politicians in a system that relies on sortition. We simply have people who are offered the chance to serve their country, to offer their honest opinions, free of political bias and unreserved by an unelected party elite. The American people would be granted the opportunity to represent their country in a grand and honorable way. Maybe it’s time for a change.

For more information, check out this previous post of mine or visit the Equality By Lot blog.

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