Why not choose our politicians by lots?

Against Elections
by David Van Reybrouck, Bodley Head, £9.99

Democracy today is in crisis. Never in modern history has there been more discontent with the democratic system in the West, with voter participation at the ballot box and party membership falling, and mistrust of politicians growing. Cynicism and apathy seem to abound.

Yet the appetite for democracy is stronger than ever, as the emergence of protest groups and counter-mainstream populist movements bear witness. How do we resolve this paradox?

One radical solution, put forward here by Van Reybrouck, is to abolish elections and have democracy by lot. Those who legislate should be chosen at random, he says, as a means to eliminate bickering, factionalism, media distortion and corruption and to erase the distinction between the governed and those who govern.

This is not as outlandish as it first sounds. After all, we still choose juries on this random principle. And democracy by “sortition” was the norm in ancient Athens and Renaissance Venice. Our mental association of “democracy” with “elections” is but a legacy of the American and French revolutions, which borrowed the concept of elections from the papacy, in order to retain landed interests in large nation states. More than 200 years later, elections and political parties still prop up our now tottering “elective aristocracies”, he says.

There are problems, though. Sortition might have worked in small, culturally and racially homogenous ancient city states, but may not be suited to today.

In response, Van Reybrouck argues that when citizens of all capabilities are brought together to make decisions that will affect their lives, they behave rationally and exchange wisdom and expertise.

Having served on a jury this year, I am well inclined to believe that ordinary citizens of all hues are well suited to making responsible, sound decisions. Far from being facetiously contrarian, as it initially presents itself, Against Elections makes a compelling argument indeed.