Can democracy be improved?
By José Azel
Most of us are happy to live in a democracy. However, we may think that our democracy does not represent us or does not work. So could democracy be improved?
The “Iron Law of Oligarchy“ is a political theory developed by the German sociologist Robert Michels to explain how complex organizations, regardless of how democratic they started out, inevitably evolve into oligarchies. Representative democracies are degraded into regulatory elites as a result of this “iron law.”
According to Michels, the tactical and technical needs of organizations require that they be directed by a caste of leaders. These castes of leaders end up dominating the power structure of the organization. Representative democracies cannot avoid being governed by elites.
We have come to believe that electing representatives by popular vote is sacrosanct to governing democratically, but several exciting ideas propose reimagining democracy by replacing the traditional voting process. An interesting proposal for a future democracy is to select by “lots.”
“Sorteo,” “assignment” or “lottery” is a democratic form of selection where the representatives of the Government are chosen at random. This concept of randomly selecting from a larger pool of candidates has a distinguished lineage that began in Athenian democracy (507-232 BC), Venice (1697-1797), Florence (1328-1434 and 1494-1512), and Switzerland. (1640-1837).
Modern examples are found mostly in jury selection, where potential members are chosen at random from a qualified population and are then scrutinized to determine their abilities and impartiality (voir dire). Random selections have also been used to create citizen assemblies to advise on political proposals.
Lottery is more democratic than elections because a randomly selected sample more accurately reflects the composition of the population on personal characteristics, political preferences, and economic circumstances. Consequently, the legislation of a randomly selected parliament is more likely to reflect the views of the population as a whole.
Sorting is a less corrupt selection process because it is not easily manipulated by money, power, or status. The Athenians considered elections aristocratic and corrupt. As Aristotle expressed: “Public officials selected by lottery are democratic; and oligarchic when they are chosen by elections.”
Modern proponents of the lottery also point to the phenomenon of cognitive diversity. Studies show that cognitive diversity is more important to developing successful ideas than the skill level of a group. Simply put, randomly selected people of average intelligence often accomplish more than a group of the most talented problem solvers.
Most of the elected legislatures show diverse leanings on race, religion, gender, etc. Under a broad citizen lottery scheme for public office, ordinary people would not have to compete against powerful adversaries favored by socioeconomic or political advantages. Lottery is inherently more egalitarian than elections and offers all citizens an equal opportunity to serve in public office. It overcomes social inclinations and the problem of overrepresentation in elections of the most politically active groups.
Under most electoral systems, elected officials rely on political parties to win office and tend to cast their votes along party lines. His loyalty is divided between his party and his personal criteria. An official selected by lot does not have to thank anyone for his or her position. He is loyal to his conscience alone.
Of course, before a random selection, the pool of candidates must be defined. Many methods have been proposed to select from the entire population or from subgroups defined by education, experience, testing, etc. Modern computer technologies make such scoring systems possible, making the draw technically feasible. If those computer systems had been around when the Founding Fathers designed our democracy, I suspect that Thomas Jefferson would have defended the lottery.
Democracy progressed when we abandoned the notion that kings had been anointed by God. Similarly, the lottery is a modernization of democracy that we find uncomfortable because it requires rethinking the concept of voting. But let’s remember that we use lots to select jurors with powers to decide on life or death. And, in addition, the lottery implies an extremely attractive feature: it does not need politicians.
What do you think?
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José Azel left Cuba in 1961 as a 13 year-old political exile in what has been dubbed Operation Pedro Pan — the largest unaccompanied child refugee movement in the history of the Western Hemisphere. He is currently dedicated to the in-depth analyses of Cuba’s economic, social and political state, with a keen interest in post-Castro-Cuba strategies.