Fixing Democracy

What kind though?
Photo by Fred Moon on Unsplash

“Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others”. Winston Churchill’s words in the House of Commons from 11 November 1947 still ring true today. While democracy certainly solved many of the problems that plague other political systems, it still struggles with at least one: It only puts people in charge who really want to be in charge.

The paradox of leadership, however, is that many people who turn out to be great leaders usually did not set out to lead. Whereas those who do set out to lead often covet leadership in itself, rather than some more utilitarian end that really benefits the people who are to be led.

Unfortunately, this problem is difficult to solve through elections alone. Because here, too, candidates must really want the job, otherwise they rarely get far enough in the system to be able to run in the first place.

Even if we assume that the people will always pick the leader that is best for them, they can still only choose between those that are on offer at any given time. Every democracy is plagued by this problem, but it is especially apparent in two-party systems, such as the United States. People are usually forced to vote against the person they hate most, rather than for the person they like most.

Luckily, there is a solution: Randomness. It may sound counterintuitive at first, but think about it: What do we want in a democracy? Representation. What does representation mean? Having people in office who understand and work to provide for the needs of their constituents. Who understands the needs of any body of constituents the best? The constituents themselves. So, why not create a body that consists of a selectively stratified sample of constituents to represent themselves?

Thanks to censuses, we know how any population within a country is distributed. It would be easy to determine the proportions of relevant subgroups within an area, say based on age, ethnicity, gender or education, and then randomly select a subset of the population based on the proportions of the subgroups that need to be represented. This subset could then serve as a representative council for that area for a given time.

Of course, there are lots of further questions associated with this concept. Which competences should such a council have? How would it relate to existing governing bodies? What if selected individuals do not want to be on the council? How should existing commitments that selected individuals are likely to have, such as a regular job, be handled? What about renumeration for sitting on the council? There are also challenges of accountability, continuity in governance, etc.

All of these are fascinating questions that would go beyond the scope of this post (let me know if you are interested in hearing me talk more about them!). And there are also a ton of benefits beyond mitigating the paradox of leadership that such a system could provide. And it is not like the idea is a complete novelty; it goes at least as far back as Aristotle.

What do you think, could you imagine a democracy that is entirely random or at least includes elements of randomness? Or do you think that introducing any degree of randomness like this is a terrible idea?

16 thoughts on “Fixing Democracy

  1. This is a really interesting idea that merits a full discussion. Generally, as an electorate, we’re not good at choosing good leaders (I look no further than your country and mine), preferring soundbites and superficial traits to a solid, hardworking willingness to serve the country they wish to lead. Though a committed community activist, would I want to devote myself to political decision making? And I can certainly think of people I wouldn’t want anywhere near the process! But, yes, it’s certainly worth looking at anything that looks beyond the broken process we have at present .

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    1. Yes, I agree. Introducing randomness would by no means replace career politicians who, ideally, build an expertise in policymaking over their lifetime. But I think it could address many of the downsides that the current system has. At the end of the day, it can’t be any worse than the current setup at keeping people away from the process that most wouldn’t want to be part of it as well. As a committed community activist, could you see ways in which such an element of randomness could benefit your community?

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      1. The people I met and work with already make a difference to their communities, and some of the more successful engage local politicians too – interestingly, at a local level, it’s the personality rather than the party politics of the politician that makes the difference here. Which shows I think that getting away from party politics can only make us stronger. There is often much to agree on, but towing Party Lines forbids that consensus. Which doesn’t exactly answer your question, except in a tangential way!

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        1. Ha, you might just be a great loss to the world of career politicians. But I agree 100 percent, partisanship kills democracy – especially in a two-party system. An element of randomness could probably be constructive here, too, though. At the very least by facilitating a dialogue between voters of every party in particular and all walks of life in general.

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  2. The U.S. system of democracy is very flawed. I did not vote last time, because I did not want Trump or Clinton in the white house. With electoral votes for each state often overriding the popular citizen vote – it is a hopeless situation. I agree the two party system does not work.


      1. I would abolish electoral votes and use the popular vote. I once read that our founding fathers invented the electoral vote – because they thought the general population was too ignorant to use the popular vote. Nice of them.


        1. Very nice of them, indeed. Yes, that could work. What do you think about the shifting of electoral power from rural to urban areas that shifting to a pure popular vote would entail? Not saying this would necessarily be a bad thing, just curious what you think about it.

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          1. Really don’t know how to respond to this question. Had never given this any thought on shifting electoral power from rural to urban areas. Simply think that every American who goes to the polls needs to know that their vote matters. With electoral your vote does not seem to matter. Truly wish Trump was out of the White House. They are now thinking of making Washington D.C. the 51st state in the United States. Totally stupid idea.

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            1. The problem of the weight of a vote is definitely an important one. A straight up popular vote favours urban areas, while the current system favours rural areas – with the votes of people in some scarcely populated states counting more than a dozen times the vote of people in some highly populated states. But I totally agree that the electoral college is more than obsolete these days. At the very least, states should divide their electoral college votes proportionally, based on how people in their state voted (like in Nebraska, afaik).

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  3. I can’t remember if it was Plato that said one of the most important attributes of a good leader was that they didn’t want to lead. Lessons from the ancient Greeks are a little difficult in our age – back then the small populations of the average city state, not to mention their limited citizenship, gave them a greater ability to try direct participatory democracy than we have.
    I had a lovely visit to your blog.


    1. Thank you for dropping by our blog!

      You make a very good point about the size of the citizenry. Do you think this could be addressed if councils of randomly selected citizens are limited to their direct communities, which would somewhat simulate the situation in ancient Greece on a local level?


    1. Ha, brings to mind another quote from Churchill – “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”. But couldn’t directly involving people in policymaking like this actually lead to less ignorance among the population? I think it would also provide a greater incentive to be informed, as the policy decisions of people who are selected would truly and directly matter in their communities


  4. I like that you are thinking outside of the box. Have never thought of this angle and am not sure how it would work. You’d have to get a person who wanted to have this job, at least in some degree. For example, if someone randomly picked me it would be a disaster! Although I was a politician for 32 years…as a township treasurer in a tiny township in the woods. But you have some very good points that actually might infuse democracy with some new energy.


    1. It would probably need to be understood as a duty, perhaps similar to jury duty but with better incentives. And it sounds like a town would be lucky if you were picked on a lottery! I do agree that someone in a position of prominence, like a Senator, should stay as an elected official. But if there is a council of randomly selected citizens, there would always be a way in which different persons and personalities could apply themselves so that it plays to their strengths, no?

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