The Athenian Way

Last week the NYT published an opinion piece suggesting what the author described as a better way for American democracy: dispensing with elections in favor of the distribution of offices by lottery. Students of history will know that this was in fact tried during the Athenian Democracy.

There are two broad things to be said here. The first is that, like all suggested reforms, this is bootless because the system is too corrupt at this stage to be reformed. There will be no elimination of mass-scale deficit spending until the dollar collapses because the political class is too addicted to the power of spending money. Nor will the size of government will be reduced, certainly not at the scale that would be required to make it affordable. The bureaucracy will not return its stolen legislative function to Congress, and Congress doesn't want it back in any event. The national debt will not be reined in, but will eventually destroy the dollar at least and the nation most likely. There will be no term limits because Congress itself would have to vote on them, and so too here. They will not replace the system they've already learned how to control in a manner that reliably lends them power. We can only wait patiently for the collapse that is coming, and we can afford to be patient because the course they are determined upon leads there inevitably. 

That first thing said, the second thing is that ideas about how to rebuild once the collapse occurs are wisely considered. We shall have to do so eventually, and probably sooner than later. So what about this one? 

Plato was hotly against it, to start. He felt that this lottery idea took the notion of equality much too far; or, more precisely, that it arose from the error of deciding that equality meant that everyone was equally good rather than that everyone should have the same test of their goodness applied to them. On the former view, the lottery seems sensible since anyone is as good as anyone else, and therefore it hardly matters who is sheriff or mayor or President; on the latter, it's obvious that you want to apply the test and then select only the best candidate. 

The old saying, that "equality makes friendship," is happy and also true; but there is obscurity and confusion as to what sort of equality is meant. For there are two equalities which are called by the same name, but are in reality in many ways almost the opposite of one another; one of them may be introduced without difficulty, by any state or any legislator in the distribution of honours: this is the rule of measure, weight, and number, which regulates and apportions them. But there is another equality, of a better and higher kind, which is not so easily recognized. This is the judgment of Zeus; among men it avails but little; that little, however, is the source of the greatest good to individuals and states. For it gives to the greater more, and to the inferior less and in proportion to the nature of each; and, above all, greater honour always to the greater virtue, and to the less less; and to either in proportion to their respective measure of virtue and education. And this is justice, and is ever the true principle of states, at which we ought to aim, and according to this rule order the new city which is now being founded, and any other city which may be hereafter founded. To this the legislator should look-not to the interests of tyrants one or more, or to the power of the people, but to justice always; which, as I was saying, the distribution of natural equality among unequals in each case. 
But there are times at which every state is compelled to use the words, "just," "equal," in a secondary sense, in the hope of escaping in some degree from factions. For equity and indulgence are infractions of the perfect and strict rule of justice. And this is the reason why we are obliged to use the equality of the lot, in order to avoid the discontent of the people; and so we invoke God and fortune in our prayers, and beg that they themselves will direct the lot with a view to supreme justice. And therefore, although we are compelled to use both equalities, we should use that into which the element of chance enters as seldom as possible. (Lawx VI 757b-d)

Plato thinks that the need to appease the jealousy of the ordinary, the poor, the 'democrats,' will require at least some offices to be distributed by lot; and he advises you to pray, every time it is necessary to do so, in the hope that the gods will find a good candidate rather than a bad one. 

At our present moment, one might argue (thinking of WF Buckley's dictum, perhaps) that we could hardly do worse. Indeed, how much worse could the lottery do than to assign powers to the senile, to crackheads, to those so aged or infirm as to be incapable of effectively wielding office? To the corrupt, the wicked, etc? I could easily provide links to exemplars of each of those charges, but each of you can readily call to mind examples of them also. 

Since we cannot reform things in the present moment, however, it is sensible to take Plato's objection on board in anticipation of the rebuilding to come. We do need a system for identifying those with the right virtues for any offices that we decide are necessary. 

That leads to another question: what offices are those, really? I am increasingly of the view that there should be none, or almost none; and those that do exist should be filled voluntarily and without pay, thus having neither power nor money to entice the corrupt to enter into the business. Yet it is worth pausing, first, to list what functions we really want a government to perform -- and, then, whether or not those functions might be performed as well or better by a private agency. Presumably we will still want roads, for example; but here in Western North Carolina roads are built by private contractors, and the only role the government plays is a fundraising one (well, and regrettably also a planning one: that would be far more wisely outsourced to private engineers than the corrupt officials who end up in charge of it). 

Presumably there needs to be someone to fight fires, but volunteers do that well in most of the country already; again, the government's primary role is in funding the volunteer effort. I think policing could be done at least as well by a volunteer group, perhaps an elected (and unpaid) sheriff backed as necessary by a posse drawn from the trusted members of the community. Perhaps we could do without prisons, even, if we resumed hangings and beatings of the criminal; I suspect that would be more effective at reducing predatory crimes, as well. Juries are in fact already drawn by lottery, more or less; perhaps judges could be, at least from a pool of people admitted as qualified to serve as a judge. 

What else? Food safety? We already rely on private ratings (even free ones, like Yelp) to make many purchasing decisions. If someone wanted to rate food or drug safety and developed a reputation for reliable ratings and honest work, would they not enjoy more public trust than the CDC or FDA? 

It might seem as if there might be a need for concentrated power to resist concentrated power: perhaps only a government could effectively restrain a powerful corporation. Yet we have seen, in Afghanistan as elsewhere, that distributed power is often most effective at resisting concentrated power. In spite of the President's favored suggestion that you would need an F-15 rather than an AR-15 to resist the US government, in fact the opposite is true. F-15s require easily broken supply chains and easily-killed experts to be effective; what worked was a vast number of determined men, widely distributed, with rifles. 

It is worth thinking about all of this. What do you think?


Assistant Village Idiot said...

Density of population has an enormous effect on need for government. Places largely empty are not the same as those where people live cheek by jowl, or stacked on top of each other. You can't do the fire department of NYC with volunteers.

The people who live in the less-dense areas prefer that, and believe that everyone else should prefer that too, because then their problems would be solved. They don't say it outright, and when stated right out loud like I just did the game is pretty much up. How do we effect this massive movement from the noisy, busy places to the quiet ones? By force? Where will we put the 20M folks in the NY metro area so that they can develop these virtues of self-sufficiency? And what will the cost be to the country when urban efficiency is dismantled?

The whole area around Athens had 300K at most, and those were largely outside the port and city in the agricultural areas that supported it. The American colonies of our founding had very few people by comparison to current densities.

Government started springing up as soon as there were people more tightly packed. The problem for those in the hinterlands is staying out of their reach, as they want to impose their solutions on others who don't particularly need it. This has been true for centuries. If you want to make money, you move to the cities. If you want to be left alone you develop strategies for living modestly and having escape routes back deeper into the hills.

james said...

Wherever the power resides, the temptation for corruption will also be. I doubt that private engineers will be any less susceptible to bribery than public ones when it comes to routing roads, and acquiring the property to make them.

I've claimed to be a "political godelian"--whatever system of laws and processes you devise will have something missing, as will the system with the new hack you add on to fix the missing rule. Keep adding "fixes" until you have an enormous incomprehensible mess which will _still_ have flaws, and probably inconsistencies too. (Is one or is one not allowed to hire aliens to work on space projects?)

Grim said...

It may be difficult to imagine FDNY being run on a volunteer basis, but it is not therefore impossible. The city of New York had a volunteer fire department until 1865, which is quite late in the period of human history. We are just very accustomed to the idea of professional governments.

Rather I think the main problem is the funding problem. You could have a professional, paid firefighting service that was a corporation rather than a government agency (just as the DOT can be replaced by private contractors who likewise know how to run the equipment). Or you could have a large, well-funded volunteer department - I think even in a city you could do that. They are, however, going to need to be funded, and government providing the funds is the answer to which we are all accustomed. It's hard to get past the free rider problem, so the answer people have swallowed is the taxman.

I don't mind if people want to live in cities, and maybe an answer to the issue lies in restricting professional government to localities that need it (if, indeed, they do; and only insofar as they decide that they really do).

The first question, though, is what services we really think we need. Firefighting is definitely needed everywhere; policing seems to be needed in many places; roads are usually wanted. Most of what the government does, though, is stuff I don't want done in the first place: transfer payments from one class of citizen to another, policing extended beyond necessary bounds into things like politics, holding millions of people in prison for years and decades, vast layers of control over every ordinary activity.

Today the Governor of NC issued a disaster proclamation, and its major force is to temporary repeal the transportation laws controlling the movement of trucks on the highway. In other words, faced with a genuine disaster like a hurricane, step one is for the government to start governing less. That is the most and best thing it can do to help when help is really needed. If so, why not govern less in general? How much less government can we consider?

J Melcher said...

Tex99's experience with city (county) swimming pools may apply. I encourage a contribution.

Does a majority really believe voting to choose executives or representatives is the best way to manage US community services such as firemen, police, ambulance, hospitals, schools, transit, stray animal control, water, sewer, electricity, phone, militia, libraries, blood banks, property value assessors, emergency shelters, soup kitchens, postal and parcel services, green space, playgrounds, dog parks, stormwater run off, ISPs, planning and zoning, ... ?

The US isn't even consistent among communities on how we choose JUDGES --- elected or appointed. I see no reason that every community should arrange things using the same philosophy. And if some weird "Autonomous Zone" wants to experiment, say, choose judges by lottery, go for it. What's the worst that can happen -- burn the whole place down?

james said...

For figuring the worst that could happen with lottery office selection, consider the prison & parole population. That's about 1%. If a comparable number are never caught, then the odds that we appoint an unconvicted criminal to the post of DA would also be about 1%.

You might argue that we're doing worse than that right now thanks to a well-funded national campaign, but compare with the situation a few years ago instead. There were corrupt DA's before--was this at the 1% level?

Grim said...

So, thirty years ago the DAs in Stone Mountain Georgia referred to the sheriffs of Georgia as the "Dixie Mafia," and attributed to them a host of organized criminal efforts that they weren't at that time really equipped to prosecute. One percent? I'd think that would represent an astonishing success compared to even recent methods.

Grim said...

That said, note that I'm siding with Plato in opposing a pure lottery. I think you need a method that identifies a person who has the right virtues for the office.

Now, you could potentially apply that selection process in advance of a lottery: you could identify the 500 people who might make a good DA based on a test of virtue (education, background, demonstrated examples of personal qualities, etc) and then randomly choose from among only that subset of the populace. Then you'd avoid a lot of the corruption, because why bother trying to corrupt someone if there's only a 1/500 chance they'll be selected?

But yeah, if you could get us to 1% corrupt officials I'd think you'd, well, 'won the lottery' so to speak. That would be an amazing improvement.

Tom said...

I have three immediate thoughts.

First, the Constitution can be amended without Congress. The Convention of States project is trying to do just that, and a balanced budget amendment is high on their list of priorities. That said, while it is possible, any proposed amendments would still require 3/4s of states to approve them and so I think serious change is unlikely. Even so, it's worth mentioning, and I think worth supporting.

Second, it wasn't just men with rifles. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, foreign aid was important for enemy success, and explosives were quite important as well. In addition, enemy fighters could run across the border when things got too hot. N Vietnam and N Korea also had significant foreign aid and used borders in ways that deterred us to some extent.

Third, I think a key practical problem would be national defense. Without foreign aid or a border to hide across, rifles and bombs would only go so far. Most insurgencies lose when faced with government forces that don't give up. Then, any sufficiently effective fighting force, after deterring foreign aggression, could turn around and create a military dictatorship, which is basically what the Taliban did: fight as decentralized insurgents, then take over and rule through military force.

Just an added thought for my third point -- in order to open up the possibility of foreign trade in general and foreign aid during war, some amount of sea access or sympathetic foreign neighbors would seem to be essential.

Grim said...

To take those sort of in reverse order, the collapse of the dollar is going to break what's left of the Navy -- of the military in general, really. You can look at the fate of the Soviet Red Army as a model for what happens there. It mostly collapsed; large parts of its armory was quietly stolen and sold off in Africa and elsewhere; and even decades later, the Russian Army is mostly proving to be incompetent and hollow. If they were fighting a real enemy instead of Ukraine, which has similar problems but fewer resources, they'd be in trouble.

So yes, you need to be able to hold onto a space in the world in order to have a nation of any kind. You may have to accept a less expensive way of doing it, because the fundamentals that have supported our military include a world-beating economy and a political order that was willing to be sufficiently disciplined to maintain it. (Also, a recruiting base among the populace that felt patriotic enough to volunteer to serve: that's something the government has been actively as well as passively undermining with support for anti-American-patriotism education as well as its corrupt and bad behaviors.)

I think the support of foreigners in Afghanistan was not especially decisive, although it helped that the Pakistani border offered something akin to a safe haven. In Iraq, Iran supported numerous militias but most of the American dead weren't from clashes with them. Explosives were very often either leftover from Saddam's era -- lots of IEDs were made from old mortars or artillery -- or manufactured on the spot out of fertilizer and fuel oil. Even EFPs could be machined in Iraq, and the Quds Force was more involved in training militias to do that than in providing finished EFPs. They did provide rockets, but those were mostly ineffective.

What they did that worked wasn't killing Americans anyway. Americans won every gunfight above the squad level for 20 years. It was political warfare combined with strategic patience, which was enabled by having true belief in a worldview and their place in it.

As for the Convention of States project, I'm well aware of it and have long supported it. If they pull it off, though, it'll be interesting to see what amendments they can ratify; and, having done so, whether the Federal government will actually modify its practices just because the Convention said so, or if they'd just come up with a two-step dance around the new provisions (which, after all, the Federal courts would be charged with interpreting).

It's a hard lift to get anything out of that, and even if you made the lift it might not count for anything. It's more likely that there just isn't anything that 3/4ths of state legislatures would agree to ratify. But I'm not opposed to trying.

Tom said...

AVI: Density of population has an enormous effect on need for government.

On the need for municipal government, maybe so. But I don't think that need affect national or state government.

You can't do the fire department of NYC with volunteers.

In the colonial period and early US, militia service was mandatory for men from 17-45, and they drilled one evening per week. The militia covered defense, policing, and fire fighting duties. If we re-adopted this and "on-call" duty were added, in a city of 20 million, surely there would be enough militia on duty at any given time to cover it.

How do we effect this massive movement from the noisy, busy places to the quiet ones? By force? Where will we put the 20M folks in the NY metro area so that they can develop these virtues of self-sufficiency?

I don't see why we need to do that, really. They could have all the municipal government they need and that would be fine with everyone. City governments wouldn't pass laws for rural areas, and the rural governments wouldn't pass municipal laws.

And what will the cost be to the country when urban efficiency is dismantled?

This is an interesting idea all by itself. I'm curious whether all of the relevant factors such as increased mental health problems, sedentary lifestyles, crime, pollution, etc., are taken into account when making the efficiency calculations.

Tom said...

james: (Is one or is one not allowed to hire aliens to work on space projects?)

I can't think of anyone better! :-D

We could recruit from Area 51, maybe?

Tom said...

I think voting could work quite well IF the voting pool were required to be qualified in some way rather than being automatic at a certain age. There used to be higher age requirements and property requirements, presumably so that voters would be more mature and be invested in the community. The Athenians required military service to earn the vote.

On the other hand, as long as Grim's plan is followed where first people must be qualified to be eligible for the lottery, that might be fine.

As for the Convention of States, well, any amendments that passed would of course become normal parts of the Constitution, so they should do as well as the rest of the document, FWIW.

Grim said...

“…so they should do as well as the rest of the document, FWIW.”

There’s not exactly an even standard there, though, is there? The Third Amendment is doing ok, but the Tenth is utterly ignored by the whole of the Federal Government and courts.

For that matter, Article III seems to give clear authority to the Supreme Court to adjudicate disputes between states, but SCOTUS refused to hear Texas’ challenge to the illegal election practices adopted by other states in 2020.

And since the Constitution also specified that the legislatures and not executives would determine the manner of elections, those illegal elections were also unconstitutional….

Grim said...

…In other words, even if you could get amendments through and ratified, changing the words alone wouldn’t fix anything. The government doesn’t obey the law, nor the constitution, much of the time.

Tom said...

Yeah, that's why I put "FWIW" in there. New amendments could be helpful, but they aren't going to solve all our problems.

One thing about services would be some need for continuity. You might have a private individual or group provide a service, but maybe as they retire no one steps up to take their place. You'd have a gap where no one was providing the service, and you'd also lose some amount of institutional knowledge, so the new service wouldn't be as good, at least initially.

Tom said...

Quick question: Are my suggestions for things like required militia service helpful or off-topic in this thread?

douglas said...

I feel as though we're talking about a lot of different things here as if they're all part of one thing.

"I don't mind if people want to live in cities, and maybe an answer to the issue lies in restricting professional government to localities that need it (if, indeed, they do; and only insofar as they decide that they really do)."

If we're discussing what form a *national* government should have, why are we discussing what works or does not in NYC? Why would that not be first an issue for the NYC government, and then the NY state government before the national government is concerned?

This is a large part of our current problem- the constant nationalizing of local issues.

Perhaps the question ought be how do we refocus people on the local and state rather than the federal (or future national government whatever form it is)?

A good question to ask might be to look back and try to pinpoint what the moment was that we lost what the founders had established for us.

Perhaps it was the 17th amendment, or the election of Wilson, or the New Deal.

What surprises me is that we can't seem to interest state politicians in moving power back into their hands- you'd think they'd jump at the chance- where we could perhaps do more about the problems that plague us- but no.

That's about as far as I've gotten in thinking about this.

Grim said...

Douglas, your comment and Tom's question are related. Is it relevant to the topic that NYC needs -- arguably -- more government than rural areas? Is it relevant that militia service (volunteer? compulsory? One is more like a government than the other) could address many community needs?

There's a lot to think about. I was trying to start with a simple question: What do we really need? We can figure out if there are voluntary modes for addressing that list once we have the list. It may be that "local government should do everything it can, but only what it must" is a functional principle. Talking this all through is something we might as well do, since we or our immediate descendants will have to work this out practically.

I do occasionally mark comments as spam for being off topic, but never from either of you. I used to let people say just whatever they wanted, but a few people can't help but be sufficiently disruptive that it's helpful to keep a very broad and open order to posts. Neither of you are anywhere near violating the terms.

Tom said...

Yeah, I think douglas nailed it. I asked because I had a sense that I was wandering.

It makes a lot of sense to begin with needs.

I mentioned above the need for external security. Unless this is to be an imaginary utopia, I think we have to assume the whole world isn't going to adopt this system and therefore there will always be nations that are potential threats.

Fire, police, EMS, hospitals (or some health care delivery system), etc., seem necessary.

Some form of justice system I think is necessary. E.g., some system to resolve disputes over land, water, etc., would be needed. Some method to enforce community agreements.

Also, some form of community agreements on things like water usage would be necessary. Historically, water has been problematic. Everyone needs it, but it tends to flow through or along properties. If the farmer upstream doubles his irrigation and you end up with half the water you need for your crops, that's a problem. Or, if he poisons it and kills all your cattle, that's a problem.

I think anywhere there are resources that are shared or which have fuzzy boundaries can be problematic and need some form of community agreement. Another example might be mineral rights.

Some form of public record keeping would possibly be necessary for land deeds, etc.

Those are the things that come immediately to mind. I'll keep thinking.

Elise said...

To go back to the idea of a lottery to select office holders: How about a hybrid system? Hold a lottery to select an office holder then let the voters confirm or reject. If someone was chosen by lot who does not have the necessary virtues, those who oppose him or her could make their case.

I'm not sure how we would decide beforehand which virtues are essential and who has them. Or, rather, I'm not sure who we would pick to make those decisions and/or how we could codify them into law.

Christopher B said...

I think Tom @7:55 touched on the main issue but went on a bit of a tangent. We're going to get the government that the majority of the (surviving) population wants, or will tolerate, regardless of what the more philosophical of us would like to construct. We might have some influence at the margins but the First American Revolution was quite unique and unlikely to repeat.

Grim said...

“We’re going to get… regardless…”

Well, definitely if no one has thought through the question and developed arguments that might be compelling. One of the factors that made the First American Revolution so successful is that it was proceeded by a long period of consideration about the philosophy, actually across several revolutionary periods starting in England and Scotland. Right now the only ones advocating for a replacement model are the Communists, who at least have a set of arguments in place.

douglas said...

Elise, that's brilliant, I think.

"Right now the only ones advocating for a replacement model are the Communists, who at least have a set of arguments in place."
Indeed, and it's why I think it's so wise that you've been working on this issue, little by little, Grim.

Rereading the OP, I think what I was getting at was your last part about the value of distributed power. I'm arguing for it, as the framers did, largely.
As a society we've moved away from the idea, and people almost reflexively turn to discussing things in the national perspective, and rarely really discuss the local and state issues, outside of how they play into the national debate. There has to be a way to shift people's sense on this- that what matters is thousands of miles away in DC, and not in your backyard- but of course, they need to have their power cut back a bit for that to happen, I suppose.

When you ask "what is necessary" for a government, I think the answer can vary greatly from place to place and subculture to subculture.

Elise said...

Thanks, douglas. The idea was inspired by listening to a remarkably stupid local councilman and realizing that if he had been chosen by lottery, we would desperately need a way to veto him.

Anonymous said...

You wrote: .....what worked was a vast number of determined men, widely distributed, with rifles.....

The Linked article reminded me of this article...

Ground combat in an age of drone warfare

....On the other hand, if the drones spend all their time looking for and fighting each other, perhaps the footsloggers can sneak through undetected. Who knows?...