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Friday, March 26, 2010

Lottery Democracy

William F. Buckley, Jr. once quipped, "I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University." Given that Congress currently has an approval rating of a mere 14% (76% disapprove!), we can bet Mr. Buckley would prefer those 400 Bostonians to the current Congress as well. I know I would. I don't think I could feel less represented by our representatives than I do now.

Even if the system were working well, either a large minority or even a majority of people still wouldn't be well represented. If, for example, you're a Democrat living in a majority Republican district, it's very possible that you'll go your whole life without having a representative that has views similar to yours. The same goes, of course, for a Republican in a majority Democrat district.

So I think we should adopt a variant of Buckley's approach.

Instead of the first 400 names in the phone, let's have our representatives be chosen at random from the adult population. The selection process would be sort of like jury duty for a very long trial.

There are some details to be worked out, but I think it could be quite straight-forward. I would propose something like four-year terms with one-quarter of the representatives cycled in and out each year. I believe that we would want more representatives, perhaps five times as many, to provide better representation of a wider cross section of the population.

This approach has a huge number of advantages. No more disruptive and divisive elections for representatives. No more election fraud. Since there are no more campaigns to fund, it weakens the lobbyist and big money connections to the representatives. Representatives will have less conflict of interest between their career and representing their constituents since after their four-year term, it's time to go back home. More people will have a representative that reflects their beliefs, even those who are of minority political persuasions in their district. A wider range of skills from far more professions will be available when debating legislation: scientists, doctors, engineers, economists, etc.

Are there any downsides? I don't think so. At first I was thinking that there might be to many undesirable representatives, but given the crazy (Pelosi), stupid (Boxer), and unscrupulous (Dodd) politicians we have now, I don't think we'd do much worse. It would clearly be disruptive for those chosen to be representatives, but I'm sure insurance companies would come up with products to help them.

To start, I would only do this for the House of Representatives. I would keep everything else (Senate, etc.) the same.

The ancient Greeks did this sort of thing at one point and it worked reasonably well. There's no reason it wouldn't work for us.


Harry Eagar said...

I have occasionally considered something like this. Not seriously. I'm a democrat.

But I frame it differently, because I do not believe in elites. Anywhere. I mean, it is impossible to create an elite.

Any selected group, once it gets past about 25 members, quickly tends to have the same range of desirability as any unselected group of similar size.

Congress is my example for eh argument. A congressman is selected from a pool of half a million. You would imagine that any selection criteria would result in all selectees being at least above average, but no.

At least Congress used to be my example. Today, it is easier to make the same point by looking at the management of corporations.

Susan's Husband said...


I think the biggest risk is that control would move from the representatives to the appartchiks, something that is a big problem now and only gets worse with less politically experienced representatives. The solution to that, of course, is much less government so there are fewer appartchiks and their control isn't as big a problem.

Bret said...

Susan's Husband,

I think that risk would be quite small since the representatives themselves would have no interest in expanding government. I'm proposing 4 year terms so the average experience level of the representatives would still be pretty good.

This approach may not shrink government, but I do think it would slow the growth.

erp said...

Remember these guys saved the empire from the nincompoops. Maybe it could be done here.

Anonymous said...

Make the pay high, so that it's desirable to be selected, and allow selectees to opt out.

The pool should be comprised of registered voters, as for jury duty. That would tend to exclude felons, which is on the whole a good thing, and if a person is so uninterested in civics that they are unwilling to help choose their society's managers, why would we want them to be one of those managers?

I am more than willing to see this scheme tried.

Today, it is easier to make the same point by looking at the management of corporations.

I think that such only makes the point that the elites also have fools, frauds, and scammers among them.

After all, even though corp. management on the whole isn't exemplary, we don't know what management by random people would look like.

Judging from my personal experiences with hiring and managing people in positions requiring low to medium skill, experience and qualifications, it would be much worse than mediocre.

Bret said...

Anonymous wrote: "Make the pay high, so that it's desirable to be selected, and allow selectees to opt out."

The ancient greeks had a variation of that version too at one point. Only people who were interested would put their name in a hat and the representatives would be selected from that pool of names.

That would work for me too, but I prefer a wider swath of the population being represented. For example, no matter how much you paid, people like Bill Gates would still never sign up.

Bret said...

Harry Eagar wrote: "Today, it is easier to make the same point by looking at the management of corporations."

Certainly if the owners of those businesses would rather select the management from a random pool in order to maximize their returns, they are free to do so. As a shareholder, you are also perfectly free to propose such a resolution at shareholder meetings. Have you done that yet? If so, how did it turn out?

Harry Eagar said...

I wouldn't own shares in a company if I didn't have control of the board, so the question does not arise.

But, sure, I think any wino who hangs out near the Salvation Army here could have done a better job with our county's only SEC-reporting company than Steve Case has.

erp said...

A jury of twelve randomly selected people worked pretty well until a couple of decades ago when the whole process became as politicized as the rest of our society.

Random selection of legislators will deteriorate too. People like Gates and other billionaires may not want to serve as legislators, but they’ll pull the strings just like now.

There's nothing wrong with our system. We stopped adhering to it is the problem.

Anonymous said...

"Only people who were interested would put their name in a hat...

" matter how much you paid, people like Bill Gates would still never sign up."

Nor should he, which is why I'd prefer an opt-out system.

If every registered voter's name were in the hat, then some people would be picked, and agree to serve, who would not have opted-in, and therefore we'd have a wider pool than just those who sought the position.

And I certainly don't want to be represented by those who feel trapped, who are angry/enraged/distracted/apathetic, thus the opt-out.

It occurs to me just now that, like jury duty, it could be an obligation incurred by those who exercise the privilege to vote. Either agree to potentially serve, or don't register to vote.

I like that too.

Bret said...

Anonymous wrote: "Either agree to potentially serve, or don't register to vote."

I like that.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I was misconceiving the situation - there wouldn't be any voter registration in the future, if leadership is chosen by lot and not by election.

So there would have to be some other mechanism for defining the pool.

But again, I think that it would work a lot better if there were a right of refusal, even if it carries some small penalty.

Bret said...

At least in the beginning, there would still be voter registration since this would only apply to the House of Representatives and not to elections for Senators, the President, or anything else.

Anonymous said...

That's actually a great plan, and one closer to the intent of the Founders than today's situation.