Sortition

Back in 1979, James Bovard wrote an op-ed in the New York Times proposing that Congress be composed of conscripts rather than volunteers who choose to run for office. This Independence Day, he revived the notion on his blog.

July 4th is my Independence Day, regardless of how depraved the government has become. Forty-two years ago, the New York Times printed a satire I wrote on the failure of the All-Volunteer Congress.  Some congressmen wanted to revive the military draft in order to have a higher quality army.  I showed that the same argument could be used for drafting members of Congress because “it is only the ego-starved who volunteer for Congressional duty now. These people are forced into Congress by their psychological or mental poverty, as no real alternative or treatment exists for their condition.”

Unfortunately, conscription is now fashionable – and the New York Times editorial and op-ed pages are leading the charge.  Two months ago, the Times editorialized on the benefits of forcing all young people to “serve.” Two days ago, NYT published an article by the president of Rutgers calling for “compulsory national service for all young people” in order to “make us more self-reliant” and to “secure the blessings of liberty.” NYT editorial page has apparently gotten rid of both its fact checkers and its BS radar.

The fact that the nation’s most respected media and many prominent officials are calling for imposing conscription epitomizes the growing contempt for individual liberty.  I’ll write more on that shortly.

Here are some excerpts from the original article:

The All-Volunteer Congress has proved to be a failure. Its cost is extremely high and there is not a proportional representation of minorities. There are also many doubts about the honesty and intelligence of the recent volunteers. Many of Congress’s recent failures are owing the low quality of its composition.

In a society with 50 percent women and over 10 percent black and Hispanic populations, these groups are very underrepresented in Congress. When we consider the injustice of these statistics, superficial objections against conscription are easily swept away.

A viable democracy needs to have a racially, sexually balanced set of representatives. The latest statistics issued last November proved that this lack of representation is worsening.

It is only the ego-starved who volunteer for Congressional duty now. These people are forced into Congress by their psychological or mental poverty, as no real alternative or treatment exists for their condition. Naturally, Congress is psychologically off-balance, because of the nature of the people who currently volunteer.

Most of the members of Congress are between 30 and 60 years of age. There is no group that enjoys the benefits of society more than this group. They have the highest salaries, the nicest homes, the largest cars, and the most power. However, this group is deeply entrenched in hedonism, and has thus far turned a deaf ear to the needs of the country.

Mr. Bovard explains how the new system would work.

With a service-oriented Congress, every man and woman would be required to register with the Selective Service Commission on their 30th birthday.

Every second year, everyone’s name would be placed in a giant basket, and the Secretary of Labor would pull out the number of names needed for that session of Congress.

The new members would receive a subsistence allowance (an honorable precedent established during the Revolutionary War), as it would not be right to overpay someone for what he owed to society.

The moral caliber of Congress would be improved by conscription. The environmental and personal background of many of today’s volunteers appears to be conducive to fabrication. Randomly picking people off the street would give a much higher level of honesty and responsibility.

Mr. Bovard wrote this article as satire, but the proposal that Members of Congress, and perhaps other government posts be selected by lot is not as crazy as it sounds. That is just what they did in ancient Athens and some other Greek city-states. Government by randomly selected individuals is called sortition, dymarchy, or stochocracy. Strange as it may seem, sortition has been used to select government officials of states in various times and places, with varying results.

We call ourselves a democracy here in the United States, but a citizen of fourth-century Athens would disagree. He would point out that the definition of a democracy is a state in which the people themselves make the laws and would state that our system of government by elected representatives is really a kind of elective oligarchy. Electing representatives is not all that democratic, as our Athenian friend would argue since the already wealthy and connected would be more likely to have the leisure and means for pursuing a political career, the elected representatives would not be representative of the citizenry as a whole. In time, an Athenian might argue the officeholders and representatives would tend to form a closed elite excluding outsiders from offices and political power forming political dynasties If he were of a philosophical bent, our Athenian friend might note that the people most likely to seek office and power are the very people who ought not to have it.

In contrast, our Athenian would point to his own city as a perfect example of democracy in action. In Athens, the laws and basic decisions of government were made by the people as a whole in the Ecclesia, the body of adult male citizens. A six thousand man body would be somewhat unwieldy so there was a sort of executive committee of five hundred called the Boule or council. This Boule was made up of fifty men over the age of thirty and selected by lot from each of the ten Phyle or tribes of Attica and ran the day-to-day affairs of the city. Members of the 501 man juries and many other officials were also selected by lot, though, notably, the ten Strategoi or generals were elected.

The Athenian system worked well enough, though it was not without its flaws and perhaps we should consider adopting certain elements of the Athenian constitution for ourselves. Of course, An ecclesia of a hundred million would be impossible to manage, and our Athenian friend would certainly argue that democracy is only possible on a small scale, but we could select Congress by lot, as James Bovard suggests satirically. The drafted members of Congress would be more representative of the Congressional districts they represent, the states the selected Senators would represent, and the nation as a whole. The people drafted for Congress would not become isolated from the needs of the citizenry, as politicians are wont to do in our current system and politics would be open to the people, not a self-selected elite.

The major objection to drafting Congress is that the people selected might not be experienced or competent enough to serve in Congress. In response, I would point out that we are not exactly sending our best and brightest to Congress.

 

I’m sure a brief search could find many more instances of Congressional idiocy. Surely ordinary people off the street could do at least as well, without the greed for power that animates many people in politics. Besides we need not include the whole population in the lottery. Perhaps exemptions for physical or mental incapacity could be granted, just as they were when men were drafted to serve in the military.

No system of government is perfect and sortition has its own set of flaws, yet I think that on the whole drafting ordinary people to serve would make a better, more responsive government. The people selected would be more focused on doing the job of legislating so they could get on with their lives, rather than focusing on winning the next election.

Seriously, I think sortition is worth a try. The result couldn’t possibly be worse than our current system.

 

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