Thursday, March 10, 2016

Selection by lottery or by election?

My daugther explained to me that in her class (she's 9) delegates are chosen by a lottery organized by the teacher, for terms of 1 month. I asked her whether she thought it is a good idea as compared to an election. She said "of course" (her parents taught her common sense from day 1): "otherwise each would vote only for her friends." LSE economist Tim Besley agrees with my daughter. In the article "Political Selection" (2005), he wrote (there are also many other interesting things in the article): "For a period of time, ancient Athens filled seats on its legislative council by drawing lots from among its citizens. Each citizen served for one year and there was a restriction to two terms in a lifetime. The Greeks understood the downside of this method in terms of ensuring good politicians. They did impose safeguards in the form of a kind of confirmation hearing in which the character and competence of the selected candidate was scrutinized. However, the basic premise behind selection by lot is that civic virtue was widely distributed in the population, so that random selection made it relatively unlikely that anyone picked by the lottery would be a bad politician. Selection by lot was deemed preferable to elections for three main reasons. First, it guaranteed rotation in office, so that politicians were guaranteed to experience both political and everyday life. Second, selection by lot guaranteed the widest possible access to public office and hence was viewed as egalitarian. Third, lots seemed more likely to maintain a unity of purpose in the community, while elections increased the chance that citizens would group into factions. The use of lottery makes a lot of sense in a relatively homogenous city states such as Athens. For similar reasons, lotteries were also used in the Italian city states of Venice and Florence." Of course, there are downsides, but do not apply to my daughter's class: "However, even political thinkers such as Montesquieu and Rousseau who took the idea of political selection by lot seriously in their writings ultimately favored elections, principally because they believed that elections helped in the selection of a natural aristocracy of the talented and virtuous. After all, selection by lot does not favor those with greater political competence over those with less. This view heavily influenced the founding fathers of the United States, who similarly saw the task of political selection as selecting a ruling class that was different from the citizens at large -- superior in their talents and mental capacities. Indeed the term “natural aristocracy” originates with Thomas Jefferson (1813), in a letter written to John Adams. Jefferson wrote: “I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents. … May we not even say, that that form of government is the best, which provides the most effectually for a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government?” Jefferson continues to argue that he favors laws to break up large inheritances and support public education as methods of creating a situation in which the natural aristocracy can rise and be selected." While we wait for the breakup of inheritances, instead of a natural aristoi we run the risk of having someone from the Republican Party ticket elected as President of the USA.

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