In recent months I’ve discovered that random selection offers unexpected gifts to our efforts to create more fair, functional, and intelligent politics and governance. I share a key dynamic that defines random selection and show how it has been applied historically and might be used more in specific institutions and instances today.
Until a few years ago I thought that random selection was just a great way to pick people who were a cross-section of the population, for a survey or a citizen deliberation. Random selection guarantees diversity and safeguards against manipulation, two very important factors in such exercises. I didn’t think to explore it further.
Then while researching my 2012 book Empowering Public Wisdom, I discovered that ancient Athenians staffed 90% of their government posts by drawing lots from the general citizenry. THAT was certainly a different way to govern!! Then this year, while helping on a few on-the-ground projects involving random selection, I had to learn about the unexpectedly diverse nitty-gritty issues of how people actually do such selections.
I began to realize that random selection is much more nuanced and filled with possibilities than I’d previously thought. I dug further into the subject, reading three books and a number of articles on what is also called lot, lottery, and sortition. I am starting – just starting – to get a handle on its counter-intuitive logic and its novel promise of remarkable power and potential….
You’ll hear more from me about all this over the coming months. Right now I want to share the main reason I think random selection is really important for us social change agents to understand:
Random selection is a perfect tool
to address our most dangerous political problem –
special interest manipulation.
Its potency includes and goes beyond the problem of “money in politics”. It potentially deals with manipulation of politicians and public officials (which generates corruption) … manipulation of information and social narratives (which generates ignorance and folly) … manipulation of public policy and budgets (which generates injustice and concentration of wealth and power) … and manipulation of elections and districts (which generates political malignancy and polarization). Collectively these forms of manipulation generate apathy, cynicism, low voter turnout, powerlessness, and suffering among the population at large while degrading prospects for future generations.
If you are reading this, the chances are you already know how toxic such dynamics are to democracy. Imagine what a gift it would be to be able to address them all in one powerful way.
The essence of random selection
Random selection is the rigorous exercise of arbitrary chance to make a decision. It involves drawing lots by hand or using some form of mechanical determination.
This seemingly ridiculous method of choice has a defining quality that political scientist Oliver Dowlen calls “the blind break”. A decision made using pure random selection excludes every form of human intervention – both the rational and the irrational, the compassionate and the selfish, the calculating and the innocent. In short, it creates a break in the ongoing drama of human agency and willfulness. Because of that, it potentially provides a break in those social, economic, and political forces and feedback loops that concentrate power into a few self-interested hands.
In a political situation where reason, compassion, integrity, and creativity are all functioning well, the use of random selection to interrupt these human qualities would be insane. However, where irrationality, ignorance, fanaticism, polarization, greed, apathy, corruption, and harm predominate or threaten – such as in so many aspects of today’s politics – random selection offers a decisive way to interrupt their degrading impact and wipe the slate clean.
Of course we can’t stop there. Immediately after such a break, we have fresh space into which to reintroduce positive human qualities – qualities like reason, compassion, integrity, and creativity. In other words, we use the clean slate created by the blind break to enable life-affirming activities to flourish in a space formerly colonized by special interests.
We find this dynamic at work in the randomly selected citizen deliberative councils that already exist: When a judicial jury or Citizens Jury or Wisdom Council or consensus conference is convened, conditions are then created to help that randomly selected group do a well informed, wise and/or creative deliberation, free from outside manipulation. There are, of course, many ways to improve a deliberative activity. But the point is that random selection creates a space where we actually have an opportunity to do that by the way we design and implement the subsequent process.
Two more possibilities worth contemplating
Aristotle observed that in Athens “It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.” How remarkable! Ancient Athenians didn’t like elections. They perceived that elections were readily manipulated by elites, while random selection favored the common citizen and gave everybody an equal chance of participating in actual governance!
Among other things, their government featured a legislative body of 500 randomly selected citizens called the boule. This little-known institution created most of the proposals that the citizenry then voted on in the participatory Athenian Assembly. It should give us pause to note that only the Assembly gets highlighted nowadays as the key feature of Athenian democracy. In contrast, hardly any history or political science book mentions the randomly selected boule.
Inspired by ancient Athens, then, let us free thinkers wonder what such a “citizen legislature” would look like in a modern democracy. I imagine (just for example) that all citizens who want to be part of a citizen legislature and who pass some qualifying steps and objective standards would be entered into a pool that ends up having (I imagine) several hundred thousand citizens. 150 of them get picked at random each year for 3 year terms in a 450-person national Citizens Legislature and are paid well for their service, just as modern members of Congress and Parliament are. As I conjure up this institution in my own country I wonder: Should this replace the U.S. House of Representatives – or be an additional branch of government? What would be the pros and cons?
Of course such an institution would still leave us with the challenge of preventing isolated instances of corruption (How high will be the reward for information leading to convictions for bribery?) and enabling quality deliberations (How will citizen legislators be informed about the issues? Who will facilitate their deliberations?). Nevertheless, such a citizen legislature would minimize the kind of initial, systemic corruption, partisanship, and ego-driven ambition that is virtually built in to our current methods for choosing legislators. Our existing electoral processes actually make it unlikely that many humble, high integrity, nonpartisan people will be elected to national office. As most of us recognize, this seriously impedes our ability to develop and implement truly wise public policy.
Now here’s another thought experiment based on history. Imagine a randomly selected group of citizens who would then choose the top executive – the president, prime minister, or governor. This group of “electors” would have the opportunity to learn about and interview all the candidates – or perhaps the top five or ten vote-getters in an election. And then they’d make their choice. Imagine how much harder that process would be to manipulate than our current system for choosing top government executives.
The historical precedent for this goes back to the 14th century Italian city-states like Venice and Florence who used an indirect election process known as the brevia to avoid the manipulation and intimidation that often infected open-air electoral forums. The city would first randomly select a group of electors from among a pool of eligible citizens. These electors would then be sequestered like a jury while they deliberated and chose their new leaders. Finally, they’d publicly announce their decisions and disband.
Note that none of them knew beforehand that they would have this responsibility and power – and that that unpredictability and their subsequent isolation prevented any outsiders from influencing them before, during, or after. This and their natural diversity made it very likely that they would work together for the common good rather than for special interests.
Of course, the kinds of people included in the “pool of eligible citizens” would be more inclusive today than it was in the early renaissance and its exact nature would be hotly debated if we were to propose such a process now. When elites control the pool of candidates – as they largely do today and usually did in the 14th century Italian city-states – any electoral process gets used only to prevent any one elite group from dominating the others while maintaining overall elite control of the government (as we see today). However, we could set up a brevia that didn’t work that way, so that it fairly represented all citizens and prevented all self-perpetuating cliques.
It is also possible to mix elections and random selection. For example, we could vote to choose from a slate of six candidates recommended by a group of randomly selected nominators. Or we could vote for our favorite candidates from an open field – especially using preferential voting that allows us to vote for multiple candidates in descending order of preference – and then the top six vote-getters would draw lots to see who would take office. (Can you imagine the fanfare and TV audience associated with THAT event?!!!) Or we could use a randomly selected citizen deliberative council to investigate and interview the top dozen candidates and share with us their findings and conclusions before we vote on them.
And then there’s the question of how random selection might be used with modern technology. One interesting example is the collective decision-making tool Codigital.com. Dozens or thousands of users create and then evaluate or edit randomly selected pairs of items – proposals, arguments, versions of a mission statement, etc. The software then translates that activity into a kind of “wisdom of crowds” outcome. We end up with a very democratic participatory form of thinking and choosing together and a prioritized list of what we co-created. Random selection in this case helps prevent mob-think and ensures that newly offered items get due consideration from the participants rather than getting lost at the bottom of a first-come-first-served ratings list.
The many uses of random selection
In learning about its history I’ve discovered that random selection has been used in all of the following ways:
- to select ordinary citizens to staff most government posts
- to select nominators who then recommend slates of candidates for public office (which candidates will then be elected or rejected by final decision-makers – voters, officials, or others)
- to select electors who then decide who will hold specific public offices
- to choose people who will then select electors or nominators (sometimes there were several iterations of this pattern!)
- to select jurors to adjudicate the guilt or fate of accused criminals or conflicted parties
- to increase citizen involvement in public decision-making (by randomly selecting citizens for temporary decision-making roles, such that many people have a fair chance to be selected during their lives)
- to limit power to certain (usually elite) groups (by controlling who goes into the selection pool)(Note: Historically in polities using random selection, emerging power centers – such as guilds in the early renaissance city-states – demanded to be added to the selection pool to obtain power in political decision-making. This recalls the progressive extension of citizenship and the franchise to women, minorities, youth, etc., in systems based on elections.)
- to balance power among competing elite or geographic factions, preventing any one power center from dominating the others
- to choose a group of citizens who represent a larger group (community, guild, school, etc.) who are then empowered to express opinions, to deliberate on issues, to attend congresses, or to perform other official or delegated functions.
- to fairly distribute scarce or quota-restricted resources, opportunities, dangers, or fates – e.g., the last rations, sweepstake prizes, higher education, immigration authorization, slots on a trip to Mars, military service, which one will be sacrificed, etc.
- to engage the public (e.g., through fanfare around the selection process and/or observing a resulting deliberation)
- to make urgent decisions when there is insufficient time to gather information and/or to deliberate
- to make decisions when the choices seem equally good (or bad)
- to break a tie
- to make decisions when efforts to apply informed reason doesn’t clarify matters, but only makes the issue or options increasingly confusing, complex, or impossible to contemplate
- to make decisions when there is no agreement on what to do and no agreed-upon authority to decide
- to find out what the gods want people to do. It is interesting that surrendering human will in this way was in earlier times seen not as abdicating responsibility to arbitrary chance, but rather as humbly deferring to the greater wisdom of the spirit world, the will of Providence, or the inexorability of destiny.
All these and other applications of random selection could be developed and debated further. The point I want to make with this essay is not that we should adopt this or that specific practice of random selection, but that the PRINCIPLE of random selection can and should be recognized, studied, and applied in diverse ways in our political system wherever we need to guard against manipulation, corruption, undue partisanship, misinformation, a disengaged public, or any other human but problematic quality that degrades our collective pursuit of the common good, the general welfare, or just plain sensible governance.