Government By Lottery

The media needs to get back to the business of educating the public. It needs to get back to "improving" us rather than spending its time inciting or titillating or demoralizing us. And given the media's enormous influence, the first step in that process should be to re-introduce the noble and altruistic concept of "public service."

What the media needs to do is promote the return (or at the very least the consideration of the return) of the participatory democracy that existed in Athens, circa 450 BC. The ancient Greeks took the enlightened view that, if we genuinely trust Democracy as a political system--if we honestly believe in the wisdom and basic decency of the common man--then we should conduct ourselves accordingly.

Instead of conducting elections where the wealthiest, most ambitious, well-connected and calculatingly self-serving among us run for public office, we should appoint people to those positions. Not only appoint them, but do it randomly, and make it mandatory. Do it the way we select people for jury duty. This is the surest way of guaranteeing that the country won't evolve into a plutocracy.

Do we truly believe in Democracy? Do we genuinely believe in the "will of the people"? If the answer is yes, then let us not only rejoice in that belief but act upon it. Under a system of participatory democracy, instead of receiving a jury summons, we citizens would receive a "political" summons.

This summons would notify us that as one of the requirements of remaining an American citizen we have been randomly selected to serve a year or two in the U.S. Congress or in our state legislature. We will receive a modest stipend for this service, and only an extreme hardship will permit one from avoiding it. Yes, it's a sacrifice, but it's a sacrifice we will all be required to make.

Consider the analogy to jury service. In capital cases, where the death penalty is still in play, our judicial system gives a group of twelve random citizens the power of life or death over a fellow citizen. If a group of strangers can be trusted to gather together to determine whether a person deserves to die (or spend years in prison), why can't a random sampling of the public be trusted to pass laws that affect the general populace?

The Greeks had the right idea. The last thing a nominal Democracy needs--indeed, the one thing that is guaranteed to cripple and eventually destroy it--is to have a de facto "ruling class" emerge. Accordingly, the only way to prevent that from happening is to radically democratize the process.

Think of the total transparency that will result, and the billions of dollars that will be saved in campaign funds. Think of how a group of random citizens sent to do the "people's business" for a period of a year or two will disappoint the lobbyists.

Yes, a certain amount of squirreliness and chaos will ensue, just as it does on juries. That's to be expected. But based on my personal experience (having served on eight trials), when people are given a solemn task, they tend to rise to occasion. We do our best. We try. And isn't that the underlying premise of a democracy?