Abolish Elections: For Sortition and Direct Democracy


What if we abolished elections and replaced them with a system that was much more democratic? Sounds fantastic? It shouldn’t, because “democracy” as everyone understood it until a couple centuries ago had nothing to do with elections. Rule by the people meant just that: political choices are made by the assembly of all voters when practical; when not practical, representatives were selected not through election but through sortition, random selection from the pool of all voters.

Being governed by “the mob” and names literally chosen out a hat, which is basically what sortition is, might sound crazy to many modern people, but many places throughout history have been direct democracies, and “mob rule” was if anything less common there than in less-democratic polities such as ancient Rome, 18th century France, or 20th century Russia.

As it turns out a sense of ownership of and responsibility for your own polity, which direct democracy engenders, militates against succumbing to the mob mentality. This is not very surprising, since the same fundamentals apply in other arenas. Employee-owned businesses don’t tend to run themselves into the ground through labor disputes or overinflated compensation packages the way businesses with adversarial labor unions do, entrepreneurs and the self-employed put in hard work much more eagerly than employees do, and so forth.

The natural Aristocracy thwarted

Elections might be expected to produce the best man for the job, a kind of meritocracy, but in practice this isn’t the case. In campaigns where the candidates and voters can all genuinely deliberate with each other and choose the best man, that might work, but the constituency sizes needed for that are microscopic compared to what we have today.

What are the chances of that in a constituency the size of the average state in the United States, for example? To even shake hands with five million people over the course of a year-long campaign would require shaking twenty hands a minute all day, day in and day out, a task that is virtually impossible and in any case would not achieve the goal of deliberation.

Even five thousand people would be a bit of a challenge; over the course of a year you would have to meet fourteen voters per day, doable even if is a bit intense. Five hundred people would be more like it; you’d only have to meet one voter a day over the course of a year to meet most of them. Consider, though, that if the United States were divided into constituencies of such size that would be 640,000 constituencies.

Even with one representative per constituency, it would be no more practical to organize such a massive assembly than it would be to practice direct democracy through referendum. Shrinking constituency sizes and jurisdictions to this scale is a very good policy in general, but is a bit outside the scope of this post.

The inherent Oligarchy of Elections

The point is that with each candidate a mere abstraction that you don’t know personally, who has the advantage in such a contest? Those who can spread good word of mouth about themselves, namely the already rich, powerful, and well-connected. No other kind of people will be able to reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people and persuade them to vote for them.

The ancient Greeks were more aware of this than modern political philosophers seem to be, and thus considered elections to be a method of oligarchical government, i.e. rule by the few. The reason is that the election process systematically favors the already privileged in society. Many ancient philosophers in Greece were in favor of oligarchy, and they recommended offices be filled by elections where only elites could vote rather than by sortition where anyone could be selected.

The Mixed Constitution: in Practice not so Mixed

The more moderate philosophers among the anti-democrats favored what is called a “mixed constitution”, where offices are filled by elections but with the masses able to provide their input. Mixed constitutions were adopted in many places, most famously Rome, which provided the direct inspiration for the constitutions in the United States, France, and the parts of Europe under French influence, after the Revolution.

The underlying logic is that since it is wrong for the rich to oppress the poor, it is also wrong for the poor to oppress the rich, and so the rich needed more power in the political system than proportional representation would give them so their interests would be protected from the majority. As Roderick T. Long points out in his truly excellent article “The Athenian Constitution: Government by Jury and Referendum”, however, this analysis neglects the informal power wielded by the rich and well-connected.

By virtue of his social power alone a rich man could influence more voters than a poorer or less connected man could. Therefore, the rich already wielded enough power to protect their own interests even without each of their votes counting for more than a poor man’s in the formal vote count.

Thus it is political equality under direct democracy and sortition that in practice achieves balance between the classes. Giving the rich political privileges in addition to their social privileges would be expected to tilt the playing field toward de facto rule by the rich. Indeed, this is what we do see whenever mixed constitutions are tried.

Modern Democracies: Oligarchies in Disguise

Athens during the democratic period filled a few offices by election, most prominently that of strategos, or general; these positions were held overwhelmingly by the wealthy. Rome used elections extensively as part of its mixed constitution, and the wealthy had de facto complete control over the government, especially as time went on. The United States serve as another example; millionaires are at best 10% or so of the general population, yet more than 50% of members of Congress are millionaires.

So extreme is this tilt that a recent study found that in terms of actual policies enacted the bottom 90% of the whole population have no significant influence at all on political outcomes in the United States. In practice only the top 10%, perhaps not coincidentally people of the same classes that tend to become Congressmen, are listened to at all. A much smaller group of political elites, in all likelihood less than 1% of the population, control policy for the most part.

As far as 50% of Congressmen being millionaires, that statistic if anything underestimates the tilt of Congress toward elites. Even the 50% who aren’t millionaires skew more elite in terms of social class. Even having any kind of college degree makes you a bit of an elite in the United States, numerically speaking; only 30% of the population have one. Yet a full 94% of Congressmen have bachelor’s degrees. 72% have graduate degrees, a credential that only 13% of the general population possess.

Admittedly, if we are electing the best and brightest to be our representatives, we might expect more of them to have earned college degrees than the general population. But are we seriously supposed to believe that out of all the people genuinely able to be the best representatives only 6% don’t have a college degree? Are we seriously supposed to believe that only 28% of the best and brightest lack a graduate degree?

Especially when we consider that Congressmen don’t come off as a particularly smart or competent group anyway, the attainment of political power under “representative democracy” is rather obviously about social connections, i.e. class, not ability.

So in adopting direct democracy we need not worry about the mob of the poor oppressing the small number of the rich. The rich are more than capable of protecting their interests with the non-political powers they already possess, to the extent that any system that formally balances the classes is informally taken over by the elite classes.

Democracy and Liberty: Coupled even in Antiquity

So what about policy? Wouldn’t a direct democracy lead to the majority oppressing and tyrannizing the minority? As it turns out the direct democracies of ancient Greece, most prominently Athens, were characterized by their very high degree of individual liberty, including economic liberty. So tight was this association that ancient philosophers actually named individual liberty as one of the key characteristics of a democratic polity, along with political equality and sortition.

As it turns out even today there is a very high correlation between how democratic a country is and how friendly its policies are toward individual liberty. Although we lack a great many examples of direct democracies today, the mixed-constitution-using “representative democracies”, for all their flaws, are genuinely much more democratic than the autocracies and oligarchies that are found elsewhere. They also have much more liberal (or libertarian if you prefer) policies, and enjoy a much higher degree of the rule of law.

This is probably for the simple reason that while in a direct democracy 51% can oppress 49%, in a less democratic system the share of the population would-be oppressors need to convince in order to start oppressing is much lower still. In a polity like the United States it’s actually common for 10% of the population to foist oppressive policies on the other 90% of the population. In an autocracy or more extreme oligarchy, the needed number shrinks to perhaps 1%, leaving 99% oppressed.

The bottom line is that the more people you have to persuade to oppress others, the fewer people you’ll get to oppress. People are far less likely to vote to tyrannize and brutalize themselves than they are to vote to tyrannize and brutalize other people. Many have noted that cries to take freedom away usually apply to other people’s freedoms rather than the freedoms the would-be oppressor enjoys. It’s probably also true that ordinary people are much less likely to want to oppress elites than elites are likely to want to oppress ordinary people.

Democracy: bar Anarchy, the best Guarantor of Liberty

Many people, especially libertarians who pose as enemies of democracy, rightly complain that entrusting political power to the whole body of the people enables the tyranny of the majority. These libertarians, like the others, hold out anarchy as the better solution, and they are correct: any form of monopolistic government enables oppression, including a democratic monopoly. Indeed, given that democracy is rule by the people, a free market in government would give everyone what they wanted as opposed to giving a bare majority what they want, and thus would actually be much more democratic than any form of government by the state.

I have noticed, however, that many of these libertarians argue against democracy more than they argue against the state itself, when the latter rather than the former is the enemy of liberty, often deploying these anti-democratic arguments against proposals to democratize the American political system.

If we are to have a monopolistic government either way, if we don’t entrust this power to the whole body of the people who are we to entrust it to? A small group of elites? If a majority can’t be trusted to not run roughshod over a minority, would not giving a minority the power to run roughshod over the majority be even worse?

No, history and logic tell us that Thomas Jefferson was right when he said “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves”.

Of course, it’s not exactly true that direct democracy is unlimited government by majority rule. Like any other political system, a direct democracy can be bound by a constitution, and this essential feature of the rule of law, thought to be a vital element in democracy today, was also thought to be vital in ancient Greece.

Direct Democracy: Rule of Law, not Mobs

Contrary to popular belief, Athens itself, along with all the other democracies as far as I’m aware of, had a constitution and laws. Indeed, rule of law was actually much stronger there than it is in any modern “democracy”. Among other salutary features, anyone who made a proposal in the Assembly that was unconstitutional was actually prosecuted for it. One could also be prosecuted for deceiving the people with false promises.

It therefore shouldn’t be a surprise that the despicable modern tactics of lying to get into office or to get a bill passed, introducing unconstitutional bills for political theater, or passing unconstitutional legislation and letting the courts sort it out later were not present in the Athenian system.

So thorough was the ancient Greek embrace of the concept of accountability in government that Locris, a Greek polity in southern Italy, took the concept of legislator accountability to its ultimate conclusion. Any time someone proposed a new law, a rope was put around his neck; if the law was rejected the legislator was strangled, but if the law passed the legislator was spared. It was said that in Locris only one law had been passed in two centuries. And Locris wasn’t even a democracy!

The Athenian model was considerably less grisly. In the earlier stage of the Athenian democracy, in the fifth century BC, the preferred method was the famous ostracism, where every year the voters would decide who should be exiled from the city of Athens, in a sort of constitutional preemptive strike. In the fourth century BC ostracism fell out of favor and was replaced by prosecution for unconstitutional proposals. Like other kinds of offenders, if found guilty the most common penalty was a fine, but execution, enslavement, exile, and dishonor (analogous to the Germanic practice of outlawry) were also employed.

Justice by Sortition

In the fifth century BC the Assembly had complete power to pass and repeal legislation, but this was limited, after a lack of constitutional stability during the crisis at the end of the fifth century, in the fourth century BC to passing “decrees” that were limited in scope and duration. Anything that was open-ended and general, which was a “law”, had to pass through the legislative courts.

In Athenian democracy’s mature fourth-century form, every year the Assembly conducted a review of all the laws, voting up or down. If they voted yes the law was retained without change, but if they voted no, that did not repeal the law, but rather convened a Legislative Court. This was to prevent the Assembly from being pressured to abolish the democracy, as happened in 411 BC.

Cases that came before the Legislative Court were conducted like regular jury trials. Athenian juries were selected by sortition, i.e. at random, from a pool of 6000 volunteers, and were large, numbers ranging from a few hundred to a few thousand. Juries’ power was not restricted by any judge, as is the case in modern jury systems.

Importantly, the courts possessed the power of judicial review, and could strike down laws and decrees passed by the Assembly as unconstitutional. Thus a few hundred ordinary people in the Courts could override the will of a much larger group of ordinary people in the Assembly. The idea that the Athenian system represented unrestrained majority rule, therefore, is a myth.

Trials were swift, lasting no longer than a day. The plaintiff and defendant (there was no distinction between civil and criminal law; criminal prosecutions were analogous to what we would call lawsuits and were brought by the victims, not the state) each had to conduct their own case and give a speech in favor of their case to the court; there were no lawyers, though each party could hire others to write their speech for them.

If found guilty, the sentencing phase consisted of the plaintiff and defendant each proposing what the punishment should be, and the jury voted between the two proposals; deliberation was impractical given the large size of the juries. This helped ensure moderation in punishment, and avoided the problem we have today of sentences that defy the jury’s intent.

In the case of prosecutions for unconstitutional proposals that had been approved, if the sponsor was found guilty the law was also automatically struck down as unconstitutional. This power of judicial review was frequently exercised, striking down laws at ten times the rate the United States Supreme Court has in its history. Such was the extent of the Jury Courts’ power that many scholars considered that the courts, rather than the Assembly, were the real power in Athens.

Sortition: not just for the Legislature

Even officers of the executive branch, a rather plural group of commissioners and functionaries, were chosen by lot, i.e. sortition, from the Assembly, with a few exceptions, notably strategoi or generals (for obvious reasons). These officials served for one-year terms, had to pass an examination (though failure rates were low so it obviously wasn’t too hard), had to pass a vote ten times a year in the Assembly to retain their position, and after his year was up his term was scrutinized and audited, subject to charge by any citizen for inefficiency or abuse of power.

As we can see, there is room for far more democracy and accountability in government than is practiced by any modern country. No doubt we would be told that selecting executive-branch officers by lot is crazy, that politicians couldn’t govern if they could be fined for unconstitutional proposals, and any number of excuses for abusing the populace. Always remember the example of classical Athens: a functional government does not require us to accept such corruption.

Isonomy: Democracy’s true Name?

As far as selecting the best and brightest is concerned, the entire idea of democracy to the Athenians was not so much that it would select the best people to steer the ship of state so much as the ship of state should not be steered by anyone; the individual should enjoy freedom from such “steering”.

Indeed, another name for the sortition-based democratic system used by the Greeks is “isonomia”, or isonomy, which means equality of political rights. Hannah Arendt noted the intriguing fact that Herodotus in one of the debates featured in his work has Orestes call the political system we would know as “democracy” “isonomy” instead:

The rule of the people has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.

Isonomy is alone among all the ancient Greek words for political systems in that it does not contain the suffixes “-ocracy” or “-archy”, meaning rule. The fact that proponents of democracy seemingly preferred to call it “isonomy” suggests that isonomy might have been its original name, denoting a state of no rule where all were equal as peers. “Democracy”, meaning rule by the demos (the people), may have been a term invented by its opponents, designed to equate it to other more authoritarian forms of government.

Sortition: no Obstacle to Human Excellence

As C.L.R. James notes in his excellent essay on the Athenian system, classical Athens was where Western civilization truly started to take off. Clearly political equality did not impede the cultivation of human excellence. As James notes:

If you were writing a history of modern civilization, you might find it necessary to bring in perhaps half a dozen Americans. Let us be liberal. A dozen. You will be equally in difficulty to find a dozen Englishmen. But in any such history of Western Civilization, you would have to mention some 60 or 80 Greeks.

And all this cultural productivity was accomplished by a polity that had a population of perhaps 100,000 at its all-time height. If the whole world could attain the level of per-capita genius possessed by the classical Athenians, for every great man Athens produced we would produce over 70,000 such men.

Admittedly there’s no doubt that many factors other than the sortition-based political system generated that figure, but the sheer volume of cultural flourishing on a per-capita basis in classical Athens makes modern Western civilization appear like a pale shadow of its ancient self. Clearly we are working at nowhere remotely near our potential.

No Patriarchy? No Slavery? No Problem

Another objection to the Athenian system often raised by modern critics is the alleged dependency on disenfranchised women and slaves to do all the work, providing the leisure supposedly required for a direct democracy. While Athens unfortunately shared the characteristic of excluding woman and slaves with every other polity of the time, it’s worth noting that the vast majority of voters worked for a living and did not have a particularly great amount of leisure time.

There’s no particular reason to believe that women and slaves would have had a more difficult time participating in the democratic political process than free men did.

Indeed, the whole concept of women in government was not completely alien; two of Aristophanes’s plays notably portray women seizing control of the government in a positive light. Women’s traditional role of managing the household budget is even cited as a justification for women running the government budget, a line of argument that is sometimes employed by woman political candidates in their campaigns even today.

Aristophanes and Euripides, among other figures from classical history sympathetic to female political power, have even been put forward as precursors of feminism. While there was comparatively few precursors to abolitionism, the idea of slavery was starting to be questioned, and I find it intriguing how much thought was devoted to defending the practice of slavery; perhaps it was under more scrutiny than the surviving records make it appear, though obviously any abolitionist or feminist sentiment did not coalesce into a mass movement capable of effecting change in antiquity.

The example of what I like to call the “classical democracies” provides a pathway to a superior political system, one where we do not have to tolerate rule by elites in the guise of democracy, but rather one where we can realize democracy’s promise.

Smaller countries, through decentralization and secession, produce better governments and bring us closer to the goal of individual sovereignty, but the principles of referendum and sortition can be applied to polities of any size, not just city-states.

Referendum and Assembly in the World Today

Indeed, there is ample precedent for government by referendum in the modern period, though not nearly as extensive as practiced in ancient Greece. Switzerland takes it further than any other major country, and perhaps not coincidentally is described as perhaps the world’s best-governed country. Ordinary voters there decide on questions of local and national policy on a quarterly basis, to generally positive results. The example of Switzerland, and the many places that have employed annual elections historically, shows that “voter fatigue” should not serve as a barrier to having votes annually or even multiple times a year.

Direct democracy, in the sense of voters actually assembling in person, is practiced in a few places locally, perhaps most prominently in the Landsgemeinde in (where else?) the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus. Liechtenstein employs much the same referendum system as Switzerland, and even grants its voters the power to limit or remove the monarchy in a referendum if they so choose, and grants each municipality the power to secede from Liechtenstein and form their own country if they so choose. Given this exceptional liberalism, its small scale, and its high degree of democratic control over the government Liechtenstein is arguably the world’s most democratic country, despite its powerful monarchy.

The Renaissance of Sortition in our Time

Selection by lot has experienced a revival in recent years, interestingly as electoral institutions have started to lose legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary people, and “citizens’ assemblies”, selected by lot, are now a common feature of many countries’ political processes. Notably, Extinction Rebellion has in recent years called for citizens’ assemblies selected through sortition to be convened to solve the issue of climate change.

Most notable of all, however, has been the German-speaking community of Belgium deciding in 2019 to create a permanent house of its legislature that is selected by lot, with some legislative powers ceded to it. This may well go down in history as a key moment in the revival of sortition and true democracy, and the repudiation of the concept that elections can produce “representation” of the people.

Don’t be surprised if in the future democracy consists of voting in referendums and taking a ticket to be selected by lot to serve in the legislature, and not voting in elections. The whole concept of anyone but the randomly-selected legislature electing anybody to any branch of government might seem as alien to people in the future as the ropes of Locris, the ostracism of Athens, and the sortition of all the classical democracies are to us.

Perfect Proportional Representation through Sortition

Under sortition, assuming only citizens over the age of 18 are included as is the case today, the United States Congress would be 67% non-Hispanic White, 5% Asian, 13% Black, and 13% Hispanic. Today the Congress is 78% non-Hispanic White, 3% Asian, 10% Black, and 8% Hispanic.

While the new Congress would be more representative racially and ethnically, other changes would be much larger. Women today form 23% of the Congress, while under sortition they would form 50%, more than double their current share. Those with no religious affliation would go from 0.2% of the Congress to 26%, a drastic increase.

People who aren’t millionaires would increase from just under 50% of the Congress to perhaps up to 90%. Those with college degrees would decline from 94% to around 30%, graduate degrees from 72% to 13%. Ivy Leage graduates would decline from their current 8% to their general-population share of perhaps 0.2%.

Perhaps the biggest change would be in age. The median age of the adult population is 47, and this would also be the median age of the new Congress. The current median age is 58, considerably older. Millennials only represent 6% of Congress now (and that’s up from a pitiful 1% as recently as 2016!) but would represent 27% of the new Congress. Generation Z would go from no representation whatsoever to a full 10% of the new Congress. Baby Boomers, who are currently 54% of Congressmen, would see their share cut almost in half to 28% in the new Congress. Other generations wouldn’t see much change.

The changes sortition would bring aren’t just limited to the more obvious demographics, either. 38% of Congressmen currently hold law degrees, for example; in the new Congress, that shrinks dramatically to perhaps 1% at best. Those who advocate for representation in the halls of power as a means to achieve social justice and those who wish to break the rule of credentialed elite professionals and the wealthy should love sortition. Sortition solves all the problems race, gender, etc. quotas purport to solve, and in a far more elegant and comprehensive fashion.

Let’s move Beyond Elections

Today is Election Day in the United States. As the returns roll in tonight and we see the votes come in, I invite everyone to imagine a new, different, and better world, a world where we vote for policies, not personalities, a world where the power to make decisions that can make or break the life of ordinary voters is made by people like them, not effectively unaccountable elites. Consign the days where our only choice was between a 77-year-old millionaire law school graduate and a 74-year-old billionaire Ivy League graduate to the ash heap of history where it belongs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.