Representative Government Without Elections?

Selection of a representative government doesn’t have to be done by voting. Given the downsides of voting with which we are all familiar, it might be worth considering alternative methods for choosing legislators.

A couple of such alternatives are presented here and here. (The first proposal is to select legislators by lottery; the second proposal suggests a variant on the lottery system that would treat selection of citizens for legislative service in the same way that we treat jury selection.)

I don’t know if the fact that these two proposals appeared as columns in Canadian newspapers is significant. I wonder why we don’t see more such proposals in the USA.

Of course the political class, whose livelihood is based on rent-seeking that would not be possible without elections, would oppose such reforms. So would many businesses, and even entire industries, that benefit from legislative largess. But that doesn’t mean the idea or replacing elections with something else shouldn’t be considered.

UPDATE: In the comments, Robert Schwartz explains why the columns I cited appeared in Canadian newspapers.

13 thoughts on “Representative Government Without Elections?”

  1. My lawyer friend said only losers or those with little to do serve jury duty. If our system is in such bad shape it is currently in, why make it worse by random selection of this or that one? Would you want your market checkout lady to represent you in Congress?

  2. Actually, Joseph Hill, I am quite certain that most market checkout ladies could serve better than most in Congress. Most of the time market checkout ladies (I used to be a market checkout guy myself back in the day) are more than likely concerned with money and balancing a checkbook, two things that our current Congress doesn’t give a damn about.

    Also I have never been selected for jury duty but would gladly serve. I wouldn’t consider myself a loser. Only a “loser” like you and/or your lawyer friend (loser was your lawyer friend’s word) would belittle the jury system.

  3. “Would you want your market checkout lady to represent you in Congress?”

    Since you bring it up, a very liberal writer named Frederick Pohl wrote a novel (well, series of connected stories) about just such a hypothetical change in our system of government.

  4. “I would rather be governed by the first hundred people in the phone book than by the combined faculties of MIT and Harvard.” –William F. Buckley

  5. The primary function of elected representatives is to, well, represent. One of the problems that we have today is that most representatives are formally educated as lawyers and many if not most have never done anything but law and politics. Given the high degree of specialization in todays world how can such people whose training and experience show them only a narrow slice of life really represent all the people?

    A lottery system would overcome this problem by providing a wider point of view for representatives. However, politics is a profession just like all others and rank amateurs operating at the highest levels would be eaten alive. The true power in government would shift to professional representative staff and career executive bureaucrats. The lottery selected representatives would come and go but the professionals would remain to build powerful and unaccountable empires.

    The real problem has less to do with our system of choosing representatives than in the overall scope of government and the level of detail it works at. The more areas the government controls and the greater detail it controls them at, the more opportunity for corruption and vote buying. As P,J, O’Rourk said, “When government legislates buying and selling, the first thing to be bought and sold is legislators.” If a third or more of the GNP ends up under direct political control it doesn’t matter what system of representation we use, the shear force of the fortunes to be made by diverting just a fraction of the trillions of dollars in play will corrupt the system.

    Given the impracticality of eliminating a lot of redistribution and regulations, we might best focus on eliminating government micromanagement buy using redistribution mechanisms like vouchers and using government supervised market mechanism like pollution credits for regulation.

  6. “Would you want your market checkout lady to represent you in Congress?”

    Yes. She knows the value of a dollar. She has to get the rent paid. She knows how much gas cost. Her brother or her boyfriend or her ex-husband was in the Marines. She has to get her kids to school and make it to work on time. She understands crime. She has probably been victimized and knows when a neighborhood is turning bad or getting better, since she can’t afford to live in a lily-white suburb. She probably goes to church. She doesn’t know who Derrida is. She believes in personal responsibility.

    Give me 435 just like her, tomorrow if possible.

    Isn’t it funny that the Left used to like Democracy and believe in the People.

    Now libertarians and conservatives do.

    The Buckley quote is apt. More so than ever since the university faculties of today are a toxic excrescence on the body politic, which was not entirely true 50 years ago when Buckley said that.

  7. A small bit of explanation, I think.

    Last month (2007-OCT-10), voters in Ontario voted in a provincial election. A ballot issue proposed to change the method of election of provincial parliament members from the traditional single member district plurality election (a/k/a first past the post) to a system that combined single member districts and party lists. If you are morbidly curious here are explanations of the proposal.

    The proposal lost, badly.

    The Star article linked above was provoked by the referendum. Here is a link to the Star html version of the article: An irreverent proposal: choosing a government without voting. It was satirical in intent and cynical in nature.

    The Globe and Mail article is a cynical response to a procedural proposal concerning the Canadian Senate by the current national government, that is no doubt driven by the Conservative government’s frustration with that body, which is most likely packed with Liberals.

    As a note I will add that I am very skeptical of the utility or wisdom of such procedural reforms. I do not think that a case can be made for procedural determinism. Consider that all of the major powers of Europe and North America have different procedural systems, but the substantive differences among them are much slighter than the procedural differences.

  8. That our representatives represent us is a legal fiction-in fact they are acting as our agents but, we are not well informed of all the decisions they make for us. An agent is often in a position to act against his clients interest. The ballot is not a very useful protection against all the corruption and rent seeking simply because the voter has neither the information or incentive to evaluate what is done in his name. Yes, the ballot is probably better than nothing in that it allows you to pick those who will betray you but this is not a solution. The late Mancur Olson discussed the problem of rent seeking in The Rise and Decline of Nations, which as far as I can see has been ignored. The proof is in the fact that in all “representative” systems the government has gained in power as it has botched its basic resonsibilities. Can anyone name any gov’t agency or intitution that doesn’t become progressively more rancid? The private sector in the West has thus far been able to improve the public welfare in spite of incompetent government; don’t expect this indefinitely.
    Solutions? Have the government agencies be treated like other organisations with the same legal status as any other business. Let lawsuits be brought, on the behalf of the public,before the public, against government agencies onlike the FEC EEOC or Dept. of Agriculture, and their funds impounded and returned to the treasury. I don’t expect anything like this soon but radical ideas like this have to be put on the table; what we have now in the West is not viable in the long term. We see this in Europe and South America already.

  9. there you go again. The Left does not believe in democracy or people? utter nonsense. Who gives the grand tax breaks t o the very wealthy? Who is trying for universal insuarnce for health care? etc?
    Libertarians are free thinkers who, in the voting booth, will vote GOP.

    As for citing William Buckley! if he distrusts Harvard and MIT it may be because he went to Yale.

    The lady in the checkout line may know the value of the dollar but running the country, under present circumstances, whe will be flooded with dollars from special interest groups and lobbies and, guess what?–she will be no better than what we have.

  10. Joseph Hill,

    The Left does not believe in democracy or people? utter nonsense. Who gives the grand tax breaks t o the very wealthy?

    The Left has you so nicely programmed. The rich are every bit as much the people as everyone else. You think politics is about money.

    Its not.

    It’s about power.

    The Left exchanges money for power. To get the benefits of Leftism you must surrender some of your ability to make decisions about your own life.

    Look at social security. 12.5% of your paycheck up to $80,000 a years gets taken and spent on retirees with the promise that future workers will be taxed to support you. Now maybe you think this a good idea. On the other hand, maybe you don’t. What is certain is that now you now longer have the legal right to choose how you spend or invest that 12.5% of your paycheck. You might have gained a benefit but you have definitely lost some of your freedom.

    Every Leftist goody comes with string attached. To get free stuff, you must trade your freedom.

    Leftist are elitist because when it comes down to brass tacks they do not trust the people in general to make good decisions. Instead, they create political structures in which the a narrow elite decides what people do.

  11. Historically this method of choosing a goverment was used in ancient Rome from 300 BC to 100 BC. Every senator held every government job, inluding Consul. Terms were for 6 months.
    This was called the “cursus honorem” and men held office because it was their duty. People who were not senators could vote as long as they could use a spear or sword. When Rome was ruled in this manner it grew to fill Italy, beat off invaders, and built businesses around the world.

    It worked nicely for two hundred years until the Graachi brothers showed – who changed the reason for holding political office from personal sacrefice for love of country to personal ambition.

    People selected by lotery will serve their country if the terms are short and their lives are not seriously disrupted.

  12. Well, mostly I agree with Shannon, of course. But (and from the French Revolution on this has not always been the position of those on the far, revolutionary left) I think Hill is right that the grocery check-out clerk is as likely to be corrupted as the rich or the elite intellectual or . . . because human nature is universal. And as Shannon observes, the rich are people, too. Buffett and Soros do not seem as altruistic as both think they are and their positions are often insulting, but they, too, are people. As is Teddy Kennedy. All three want a world that doesn’t inconvenience them but lets them think highly of themselves. This, too, is human nature. But not at its best.

    Abigail Adams:

    “I am more and more convinced that Man is a dangerous creature, and that power whether vested in many or a few is ever grasping, and like the grave cries give, give. The great fish swallow up the small, and he who is more strenuous for the Rights of the people, when vested with power, is as eager after the prerogatives of Government. You tell me of degrees of perfection to which Humane Nature is capable of arriving, and I believe it, but at the same time lament that our admiration should arise from the scarcity of the instances.”

Comments are closed.