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Tom Atlee on the Sortition-Based Democracy of Ancient Athens

photo of Michel Bauwens

Michel Bauwens
15th January 2013


* Article: Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians. Is there a lesson for us? By Tom Atlee.

Tom Atlee writes:

“Few people realize that in ancient Athens – the original democracy from which modern democracies supposedly grew – no one was elected to be a representative. There were no public offices elected by the people. They just didn’t have politicians.*

They had voting, of course, because it was a democracy. But they voted for proposed laws, not for candidates.

And they had a Council of 500 (the “boule”) who proposed laws for all the citizens to vote up or down in Athens’ participatory Assembly. Ah! So that’s a powerful role, being able to create the proposals that the people voted on! So how were those 500 councilmembers chosen?

Well, believe it or not, those powerful people were ordinary citizens who had been chosen by lot – by random selection. And Athens’ democracy didn’t stop there. No way! Nearly EVERYONE holding public office or serving on a governing board was an ordinary person who had been chosen by lot. (The only exceptions were top military and financial posts, which constituted about 100 of the nearly 1000 government positions to be filled.)

In other words, Athens – that ancient city-state we consider “the birthplace of democracy” – was governed by randomly selected ordinary citizens. (For more detail, see www.stoa.org/projects/demos/article_democracy_overview?page=6&greekEncoding= or web search for Athens random selection)

This random selection approach – technically called “sortition” or “allotment” – was THE method for selecting people in government positions and, especially, in the Council of 500. Here’s how it worked: Each of Athens’ ten tribes (which were themselves defined to contain people from diverse territories and clans) picked 50 of its members at random to be on Athens’ Council of 500. No citizen could serve on the Council more than twice, but most citizens served at least once in their lifetimes. Within the Council, one of the ten tribal groups was chosen – by lot – to serve as presidents for the Council’s various sub-activities for about a month. Furthermore, within that group of 50 presidents a chairman was chosen – again by lot – to preside over the other presidents for just one day. Why only one day? The chairman of the Council’s presidents was the most powerful office in Athens, holding the state seal and the keys to the state’s treasury and archives.

So we find that ordinary Athenian citizens – like ordinary Americans or other citizens of modern democracies – could EACH aspire to preside over their ENTIRE government. However, those ordinary Athenians – UNLIKE most ordinary modern citizens – ACTUALLY had an excellent chance of serving in that lofty office. It is estimated that “approximately one half of all Athenian citizens would, at some point during their lives, have the privilege and responsibility of holding this office, arguably the closest equivalent to a Chief Executive in the Athenian democracy.” (ref: the link given above)

The Athenians were obsessed with the necessity of random selection for a democracy. They believed – quite rightly, it seems to me – that random selection not only made corruption very difficult but also involved the entire citizenry very directly in the challenges and powers of government. In other words, random selection made Athens a true government of, by, and for its citizens. For them, what made a democracy a democracy was random selection with few, if any, officials being elected. Thus no politicians. (We might also note that although they also supported voting, they were wary of mob rule and gave it a name: ochlocracy.**)

As the Wikipedia article on Athenian democracy says, “elections would favor those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle’s words, ‘ruling and being ruled in turn’”.

Compare that with our electoral system. Electing people to office actually makes us a republic like the Roman Empire more than a democracy like ancient Athens. We elect representatives… but who is this “we” and how representative are these “representatives”?

In the United States only around half the voting age population votes in presidential election years and even fewer vote in other election years – and fewer yet in primary elections. So we don’t actually practice majority rule, because when – as is usually the case – 50-52% of voters elects the president, that’s only about a quarter of the whole electorate, and an even smaller proportion of the total population. For example, in 2012 Obama won reelection with 62,615,406 popular votes. Although that was 51% of all the voters, it was only 27% of the voting age population (233 million) and only 20% of the whole population (313 million). Is this majority rule?

When we add to that pseudo-majoritarianism the media manipulations and lies that characterize electoral politics, the incredibly high percentage of white male millionaires who get elected to national office, the lobbying and back room deals that shape our laws and budgets, the number of broken promises and state secrets that make a mockery of “political platforms” and “answerability”, and the highly corruptible campaign financing systems that allow money to thoroughly overwhelm the principle of “one person one vote” – the whole idea of elections being popular self-government looks more mythic than real.

At that point the Athenian allotment approach starts to look a lot more like democracy than what we have in most so-called “democracies” today.

The only aspect of our political system that looks more democratic than Athens’ is our definition of who is a citizen. In Athens only free adult men born in Athens of Athenian parents were considered citizens. Most modern democracies consider any person born or naturalized in their country to be a citizen. So let’s apply such modern standards of citizenship to a sortition-based political system like Athens had. Just as we have certain qualifications – age, residency, registration, criminal status, etc. – for people to perform certain citizenship functions like voting, jury duty, getting on the ballot as a candidate and so on, we could have certain agreed upon (and evolving) standards for being selected by lot for serving (for example) in an ad hoc citizen deliberative council or in an ongoing citizen legislature.

Give it some thought. I know the idea of randomly selecting people to make laws or hold important positions seems like a recipe for chaos, stupidity and serious dysfunction. But think again. We randomly select juries – and how stupid are they? They could certainly be improved – and we should certainly improve them. But random selection is not where the problems with juries lie.

Take a moment to let it sink in that a whole city-state managed its democracy primarily by random selection for about 200 years – an era comparable to the American republic.

We could and should use sortition more in our own politics and government, to reduce our dependence on politicians, to reduce the role of money and corruption, and to engage more citizens in the hard and powerful work of government.

There are dozens of ways to do this. For one one approach, consider co-intelligence.org/CDCUsesAndPotency.html .

And here is a short (4.5 minutes) video about one of the few places where this citizen-empowering principle is used in the United States: healthydemocracy.org/video/ .”

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