Ancient fresco of Greek ‘Chance’ dice player

The Revival of Demarchy: Kleros as a Political Technology

From the Ancient Greeks to the Decentralized Internet: How Random Selection Shaped Democracy…

Sortition, the use of random selection to allocate political decision making rights, plays a limited role in contemporary political systems. The most well known sortition mechanism in modern democracies is the selection of jurors in American trials.

Few people know that randomness was a key political technology throughout the history of democracy. In different times, thinkers and social reformers saw sortition as a way to avoid concentration of power and corruption by special interests. Australian political scientist John Burnheim called demarchy political systems based on randomness.

Kleros uses sortition for jury selection. While we frequently talk about it as an innovation in the legal field, it can also be interpreted as part of a wider movement of governance innovation: the revival of demarchy.

Random Selection in Classical Athens

The Greeks never really trusted elections. They saw them as an oligarchic feature all too often manipulated by demagogues to serve their political agenda.

Sortition played a key role in Classical Athens. Randomly chosen citizens carried out most ordinary administrative duties in law courts, the police, public finance, etc. Voting was only used for choosing high rank military leaders and a few other officials.

Athenian political reformer Cleisthenes created many of the institutions of Ancient Greek democracy between 508 and 507 B.C. He pushed for demarchic political reforms that curtailed the power of the aristocracy and empowered the people. The use of randomness was a key part of these reforms. The kleroterion was an astounding piece of civic technology that allowed for transparent selection of citizens for public duties.

Cleisthenes, the father of Ancient Democracy. According to some, Cleisthenes was an Ancient inspiration for Satoshi Nakamoto.
In his Discourse on the Remodelling of the Government of Florence, Niccolo Macchiavelli strongly advocated sortition for empowering republican institutions.

The Founding Fathers of America

The democratic revolutions of the 18th century resulted in a fundamental rethinking of governance. When drafting the Constitution, the Founding Fathers of the United States had to figure out how to rule a large scale decentralized society. The Federalist Papers contain many of these discussions. Authored by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, they were published under the pseudonym Publius, recalling the first consul of the Roman Republic.

The Founding Fathers greatly admired the democracy of the Ancient. Thomas Paine wrote:

“What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude. One was the wonder of the Ancient World; the other is becoming the admiration of the present”.

Paine was a strong advocate of demarchy. He proposed that the delegations from each state to the Continental Congress be selected by lot, and that the Congress should elect the President from the members of the chosen delegation. In the end, however, random selection was only applied to the jury system.

This participatory feature of American democracy was greatly admired by Tocqueville:

“The jury, and more especially the civil jury, serves to communicate the spirit of the judges to the minds of all the citizens; and this spirit, with the habits which attend it, is the soundest preparation for free institutions (…) It invests each citizen with a kind of magistracy; it makes them all feel the duties which they are bound to discharge toward society; and the part which they take in the Government” (Tocqueville 1961: 336–37).
The Founding Father Thomas Paine was a strong advocate for the use of random selection during the days of the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America.

Demarchy, Reloaded

These are times of discontent with representative democracy, a system many see as prone to be ruled by special interests and demagogues. In this context, some believe that sortition can help correct a number of flaws. After all, the Greeks used random selection precisely for its potential to curtail special interests and stop demagogues.

One of the pioneers was John Burnheim. In his book Is Democracy Possible? The alternative to electoral politics (1985) he advocated a political system based on randomly selected groups of decision makers. In The Principles of Representative Government (1997), Bernard Manin studied the potential of demarchy in modern democracies.

A number of experiments used random selection to increase the input of citizens into public policy making. These include the Citizen Juries of Ned Crosby (1995), the German Planning Cells of Peter Dienel (2005), and maybe the most famous of all, the Deliberative Polls of James Fishkin which extract political opinions from randomly selected pools of informed citizens. Large scale experiments were done in the randomly selected Citizen’s Assemblies created in British Columbia and Ontario to reform their electoral systems.

There is a group of political scientists called The Kleroterians, who specialize in the study of sortition as a way to reform democratic institutions with principles of random selection.

In “When the People Speak”, James Fishkin presents his framework of deliberative democracy and the methodology of deliberative polling, based on the use of randomly selected citizens for policy making.

Kleros as Demarchy for the Online World

Even though representative democracy faces an existential crisis, reforms aiming at a deeper use of sortition seem unlikely. Upgrading governance systems usually requires reforming the Constitution. Institutional design is an unwelcoming field for running experiments.

However, there’s a whole new world that requires building a new governance system from scratch: the Internet. And, in particular, the decentralized organizations of the blockchain era.

We are used to seeing Internet behemoths like Facebook or Google as business organizations, which they certainly are. Although, from a political point of view, they also look a bit like virtual states. Millions of “subjects” spend many hours within their jurisdiction every day.

If we were to consider Facebook as a state, then its form of government would probably be a monarchy. The owner writes the law (terms and conditions), controls the justice system (dispute resolution procedure), appoints jurors (moderators) and control the enforcement mechanisms (banning users), in a way not fundamentally different from how Louis XIV wrote the law, appointed judges and had decisions enforced in 17th century France.

The revolution of our time isn’t violent. We are not trying to overthrow kings as in the French or American revolution. Instead, the blockchain industry is building a decentralized ecosystem that will make the old centralized platforms obsolete (in a way no different to how Google made obsolete the libraries and the media industry, Wikipedia the Encyclopedia Britannica and Yelp made obsolete the Michelin Guide).

Even though Kleros is especially crafted for dispute resolution, from a wider perspective of the evolution of political ideas, it may be one of the first steps for the revival of sortition into the governance debate. As has happened times before, when we’re in a period of change and in need of inspiration, it may make sense to look back at the Greeks.

As we transition to the decentralized platforms, new governance mechanisms will be needed for the collective decision making which will define the fate of these new democratic virtual states. We are like the Federalists, trying to build new governance institutions in an uncharted territory.

References

For a deep exploration of demarchy in Athens, read James Headlam’s classic Election by Lot at Athens (1891) and Stanford professor Josiah Ober’s Democracy and Knowledge: Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2009).

To learn more about how Ancient democracy influenced modern American institutions, read Mogen Hansen’s The Tradition of Ancient Greek Democracy and Its Importance for Modern Democracy (2005).

Some great books to learn about the revival of demarchy are Peter Stone’s The Luck of the Draw: the Role of Lotteries in Decision Making (2011), The Political Potential of Sortition: A study of the random selection of citizens for public office (2009) by Oliver Dowlen. Some think that sortition might be especially useful in a time of post-truth politics as a mechanism to solve citizen’s ignorance.

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