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Why not government by lottery?

Only the most partisan among us would agree we’re well governed: from the autocratic financial mismanagement in Ottawa and the scandal-prone missteps at Queen’s Park right on down through regional and local governments, we’re hardly getting full value, let alone anything resembling true representation.

That’s true not just of the incumbents – though there’s much left to be desired – but a reality of what we’ve allowed our form of democracy to become.

Complaining about government typically trumps discussing the weather as the Great Canadian Pastime. Would those of us with a litany of complaints be prepared, however, to do something about it? I’m thinking in particular of reforms that would move our democracy closer to the form practiced in ancient Greece, the foundation upon which resides the West’s complex and often dysfunctional (see America, United States of) democratic system.

Instead of elections, we could have a form of direct democracy, in which every citizen entitled to vote would get to have a say in how things are run. Unworkable? Perhaps, especially at the federal and provincial levels, but more probable at the local level – Athens, after all, had upwards of 60,000 eligible participants at one time, far more than in the townships.

Or we could use an allotment system, whereby names are drawn in a lottery, something akin to jury duty. With a significant number of representatives, numbering dozens or even hundreds, this would be more wieldy than having thousands of people out to vote on policy – online voting of this magnitude is certainly not ready for primetime.

The Greeks saw selection by lottery as more democratic, as it eliminates electioneering and removes money, class, popularity (especially important in this era of the cult of personality) and a host of other issues from the agenda in picking leaders. On the downside, critics argue, you might not get the best and brightest out to serve. Who, however, would argue that’s currently the case? And, with a large enough group, it all evens out in the end.

Of course, there are issues with essentially compelling people to serve as politicians: most of us are much too busy to even pay adequate attention to political matters, let alone take time out from our schedules to serve in government.

The fact that government has deteriorated to its current state is testament to what happens when we disengage from politics, ironically.

Improving democracy is the goal of the “lottocratic” system proposed by University of Pennsylvania philosophy professor Alex Guerrero, who has a firsthand look at what democracy has devolved to in the bitter, cash-fuelled form on display south of the border.

In an upcoming book called The Lottocratic Alternative he introduces a system of government with three distinctive features: that the legislative function is fulfilled by many different single-issue legislatures (each one focusing just on, for example, agriculture, or health care, or transportation), rather than by a single, generalist legislature; that the members of these single-issue legislatures are chosen by random lottery from the relevant political jurisdiction; and that the members of the single-issue legislatures hear from a variety of experts on the relevant topic at the beginning of the legislative process.

“This system is modeled after the citizens’ assemblies that have been used to reform electoral law in British Columbia, Ontario, and the Netherlands, although the lottocratic system eliminates the stage during which policies chosen by the assembly are put to a referendum vote and dramatically expands the legislative scope,” he explains.

While recognizing the pitfalls – and lack of political will for change – he says reforms are necessary.

“My main worry is that electoral accountability has broken down,” says Guerrero in a recent interview. “In a lottocratic system, where the representatives haven’t necessarily sought out power, you might get policies that are more responsive to the people and less distorted by powerful special interests.”

That might be so much wishful thinking, even here where the politics are somewhat less polarized. We can’t even manage a less drastic shift such as proportional representation, let alone something even more democratic.

We shouldn’t give up, however. After all, wasn’t the whole point of democracy to allow people to lead themselves? Removing ourselves from monarchies and dictatorships – not ancient history in the Arab world, we should remind ourselves – and taking that power for ourselves? As citizens, aren’t we each responsible for ensuring democracy flourishes? Instead, we’re letting it slip away, its roots and purpose forgotten. What’s that line about forgetting history …?


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