As we get ready to swear in the new 114th Congress, let’s take a few minutes to think about the system of government we have established and how well it has been working. Some of you are probably happy about the change in control of the House of Representatives, but all things considered, not much has really changed in terms of who runs the US government.
The American Revolution was a watermark in human history as our founding fathers effectively began a great human experiment with a new form of democracy. The implementation of separation of powers and checks and balances in the form of executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government, were not the only innovations. The establishment of the trial by jury system was not only a symbol of democracy, but a superb solution to the problem of crime and punishment. It had been evolving over time as a part of English common law as well as jury systems in other parts Europe and elsewhere. They jury system was widely believed to work much better than the old systems of relying on a cadre of professional judges or a king and his ministers, to make decisions on civil or criminal matters.
The creation of our elective system of representation was innovative, but not necessarily as democratic as we think or as effective as our founding fathers might have hoped. It turns out that we have seen our elective system turn into one where the vast majority of incumbent politicians are re-elected year after year, even though the public opinion of their performance is extremely low. Our politicians are widely believed to be beholden to special interests and focused mainly on getting re-elected by avoiding hard decisions because the necessary solutions may be unpopular. Most legislators are millionaires and/or attorneys who are simply not a representative cross-section of the country. Congress has developed a culture of corruption.
Many have considered ways to make the system better, to no avail. Campaign finance reform has proven to be an ineffective joke, since the 1st Amendment, which guarantees our freedom of speech, effectively prevents any limit on campaign activities. Even our founding fathers debated the usefulness of term limits, but declined to write them into the Constitution. Many states and local governments have implemented term limits, but it does not seem to have helped to change the nature of politics. I wasn’t sure there really could be any solution that would result in a body of leaders more committed to serving the country than to their own personal self interests.
Then, a thought hit me. I wondered if we could just replace our current system for one that might even be considered more democratic and effective—one based on the jury system. Just think about what would happen if ordinary citizens were given the chance to serve in the state legislatures and Congress for a limited period of time. No professional politicians, just a cross-section of citizens from all over the country. Could they really do worse than the current elected officials we pay to do the job and to stay in office virtually for life?
I know what you are thinking. What fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of ordinary idiots? To that, I respond, what fool would put his life and the future of his country in the hands of a bunch of highly-paid, power-hungry, idiots?
Are juries elected? No. Do they possess any special knowledge or expertise that ordinary citizens do not? No. Are they easily corrupted? No. Are they easily fooled? Maybe, but I’d rather take a chance with a well-meaning jury than a corrupt one. Besides, if the pool of people making the decisions is diverse and large enough, it is likely that the collective decisions will be even better than those made by an elite pool of professional politicians. I think that 100 senators and 435 representatives are enough to provide the required diversity and knowledge.
In the book “The Wisdom of Crowds,” James Surowiecki discusses many cases in which groups of ordinary people with limited knowledge can, collectively, make better decisions than experts. And those studies were comparing experts who were honestly trying to make the best decision they could, not corrupt ones trying to serve their own self interest, so I would expect the comparative results to be even better.
After coming up with what I thought would be a great new idea, I discovered that I was, in fact, several thousand years behind the first democratic thinkers. Yes, the citizens of the first known democracy, the ancient Greek city state of Athens, had a system that worked in just this way.
In the cities of Ancient Greece, the Boule was a council of citizens appointed to run the daily affairs of the city. It’s origin was from the council of nobles that advised a king, but boules evolved differently according to the constitution of the city. In a democracy such as Athens, members were typically chosen by lot and served for only one year. Little is known about the workings of many boulai (plural of boule), except in the case of Athens, for which extensive material has survived.
An Athenian Boule was a randomly-selected 500-citizen council similar to a grand jury or citizens’ assembly. Any citizen had the right to propose initiatives and the Boule decided which issues were important enough to be on the agenda. This was followed by a majority vote of the entire electorate. This is the origin of the Athenian initiatives system, which they considered the incorruptible cornerstone of their democracy. In ancient Athens, the Council of Five Hundred operated for 180 years. Archeologists did not discover critical Greek texts describing this until 100 years after the Founding Fathers wrote the US Constitution.
Today, we live in a society a tad larger than an ancient Greek city state, so one would expect some slight modifications to their system. Interestingly, however, our Congress consists of 535 members, which is already almost the same size to an Athenian Boule. So, here is a blueprint for how it could work, although I’m certainly open to suggestions. If and when I manage to buy an island and start a new country, or maybe sign up to establish the first Mars Colony with Elon Musk, I’ll be sure to try out a Boule system.
Any citizen at least 25 years old, without a criminal felony record, would be able to submit his name into a pool for legislative duty, which would last for only two years with no chance for a second term. Legislators would be paid a very good, but not exorbitant, salary of about $150,000 and would be provided free temporary housing near the state or national capital where they will be working. No pension, no special gold-plated benefits, and no chance of ever becoming a lobbyist. Legislators would have to sign a contract agreeing not to accept any contributions or gifts from anyone or to accept any post-employment job offers or other benefits.
Two weeks before the election, five people for each available legislative spot would be chosen via a lottery. This is the essence of the jury system, but without the vetting process available to prosecution and defense attorneys. I had considered allowing the political parties to approve or disapprove of some candidates until they had an agreed-upon group, but figured that would just invite corruption and mediocrity into the system. So, to ensure there are sufficient checks and balances to the system, the lottery winners would simply undergo a criminal background check and be put up for public election. Each person would be encouraged to publicly declare his or her political party affiliation, if any, to state their position on any issues of interest, and participate in any debates.
Since our current single-vote system does not work well for elections with more than two popular candidates, we should probably use a rank-ordering voting system. Instead of just voting for one candidate, voters would list all the candidates in their order of preference. The candidates with the fewest number of #1 position votes would get eliminated, and the votes cast for them would be replaced with the voter’s #2 choice. This would continue until one candidate had a majority of the votes.
The role of political parties would be limited, during the elections, to something more like a lobby trying to promote their preferred candidates. After the election, the legislators would be free to join any party of their choice, or to create their own new party from other like-minded legislators.
The selection and election system would be simple, quick, and mostly random, but the resulting legislature as a whole should consist of a more representative body with a more diverse group of backgrounds, knowledge and experience than we have today. In other words, it would be a more democratic, and hopefully less corrupt, group of representatives.
Furthermore, we should establish a national electronic voting and polling system to enable these representatives to put important questions up for national vote, or to take local polls to get a sense of their local area’s public opinion. Maybe this would help to turn around the low and falling voting participation rate in this country. I suspect that more people now vote in TV talent shows like American Idol or the X-Factor than vote in US national elections.
Some groups have already been trying to propose the establishment of a boule system. Is it likely to be implemented, considering that constitutional amendments must be approved by Congress or three fourths of state legislatures? Of course not! But it may be just crazy enough to work as well as our jury system. In fact, with some minor tweaks to the process, we don’t even have to amend the Constitution to make it happen. We just need some new political parties that agree to select candidates via a lottery system, instead of via a primary election or caucus (fat chance). Unfortunately, the current electoral system will probably ensure these candidates have little chance of victory against the traditional Republican or Democratic candidates in the general election. However, if a miracle occurred and all existing political parties agreed to select their own candidates by lottery, we would have a new electoral system that could transform our government.
Until such time as the people become so fed up they are willing to take action, we are going to have to find other less-effective ways to deal with a corrupt, unpopular, Congress. Maybe a revolutionary group in some small country will overthrow their government and experiment with democracy using the boule system instead of establishing a new dictatorship. If not us, who will create the first new form of democracy for the 21st century? We may have to wait for the establishment of a constitution for the first Mars colony to start over again. I can dream, can’t I?
2020 Update: Malcolm Gladwell just published a podcast called The Powerball Revolution about experiments with “democratic lotteries.” Give it a read to hear how well they worked.