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Commentary

How to Pick Our Leaders: Should We Try a Lottery?


     
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Next time we get serious about election reform, how about having a pretty girl draw numbered ping-pong balls out of a revolving drum?

(Ancient Venetians used a small boy and an urn.)

It's not my idea. I read it in the otherwise serious Independent Review, which describes itself as "a journal of political economy. "

The author, Sigmund Knag, a scholar living in Norway, calls it a curb on "political greed" and on "the power of political insiders and organized special interests. "

He hasn't worked out the details, but he has done some intriguing research:

"Historically...general elections have been the exception rather than the rule for selecting and guiding governments, " he writes.

Among the alternatives that have worked in the past has been "sortition" from the Latin sort, meaning "lot. "

"In the 5th century B.C., the Athenians filled their civic offices either by random operation of the lot (kleros) or by election. Most officeholders were selected by lot. Aristotle, among others, viewed sortition as the more democratic procedure and election as the most aristocratic, " he wrote.

For a thousand years, until 1797, Venetians selected their republic's lifetime leader, the Doge, by a combination of alternate "sortition" drawings and elections.

Thirty names were drawn from an urn containing several hundred names of prominent families. The 30 were reduced to nine by blind draw The nine put forward 40 new names. The 40 were reduced to u by draw. The process was repeated in 10 complicated steps.

"When reason has done what it can (to select a leader or decide a question) something must complete the job: intuition, faith or chance. Of these only chance is objective and has no bias, " Knag writes.

(Among the alternatives he listed, haruspicy had a nice ring to it. That's the inspection of animal entrails. But, as he paints out, the interpretation depends too much upon subjective analysis by the inspector.)

Knag is convincing when he's describing the flaws in our present election system, in which the winner must "work in various ways to repay his launchers and sponsors. "

It practically ensures the election of men "reared by the political establishment, beholden to it, and constituting no threat to it – in short, men like Bill Clinton and Bob. Dole, " he concludes.






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