Are “Professional” Politicians the Problem?


Do we really need politicians?

Can’t we cut out the useless middlemen and do it ourselves?

Professional politicians just pimp their services out to the highest bidder.

And American democracy – once a glorious thing – has devolved into an oligarchy, according to two leading IMF officials, the former Vice President of the Dallas Federal Reserve,  the the head of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, Moody’s chief economist and many others.

This is not how it was supposed to be.   Thomas Jefferson envisioned “citizen farmers” who served in political office for a few years, and then went back to their normal jobs.

Reader Eric H. has a very interesting take on the whole question of politics and democracy:

“I was curious about Athenian democracy, and when I was poking around I was very surprised to find out that traditionally, a state in which the people voted for their public officials was known as an oligarchy. This was because that even if not at first, then eventually the government would devolve to a small, homogenous group that had enough political power to disregard the will of the people. Today we define oligarchy as simply “the rule of the few,” but that’s only the symptom; the Greeks understood that the disease was the delegation of political power through elections. Sounds radical, I know.

Today we call it representative democracy, but that’s just a euphemism (perhaps the most pervasive euphemism in history). It’s hard to understand how giving up the power to make the decisions that affect one’s life could be considered to be any kind of democracy. Even though the definitions have been changed, there is ample evidence to show that the ancients were correct, much of which has been chronicled on your site. And it’s an explanation that makes a lot of sense; rather than a secret conspiracy for world domination, maybe our problems are down to a deluded public repeatedly making the same mistakes.

I think a discussion about whether we should elect our public officials and lawmakers is important because:

1) It’s mind boggling to consider how many people (hundreds of millions? billions?) have been hoodwinked into thinking that because they might occasionally have some (extremely limited) political influence, they have some kind of political power

2) It’s heartbreaking when the first order of business of a people who wrest political power at a terrific cost is to give it away in the hope that this time they will choose the right oligarchs

3) It would make it possible to understand “the end of history” as the emergence of oligarchy as the dominant form of government in the world (great if you’re an oligarch, not so great for the rest of us)

4) It might mitigate the suffering caused by seeing the same often cretinous or senile career politicians year after year

5) The creeping feeling that by bothering less and less with the pretense of democracy, our ruling class feels almost secure enough to drop it altogether and take off the gloves.

The Athenians cured the disease of oligarchy by randomly choosing their public officials and submitting legislation to popular vote. There were other checks and balances, but those were the main features. I think that until we adopt some combination of those two processes, our political situation is unlikely to improve, even if the ills of oligarchy take a long time to manifest themselves. Quite a few people have actually given a lot of thought to how we might adopt aspects of the Athenian system; a web search on sortition and demarchy will yield a lot material.

We really need to challenge our most basic assumptions if we want things to change.”

Wikipedia explains:

Demarchy (or lottocracy) is a form of government in which the state is governed by randomly selected decision makers who have been selected by sortition (lot) from a broadly inclusive pool of eligible citizens. These groups, sometimes termed “policy juries”, “citizens’ juries”, or “consensus conferences”, deliberately make decisions about public policies in much the same way that juries decide criminal cases.

Demarchy, in theory, could overcome some of the functional problems of conventional representative democracy, which is widely subject to manipulation by special interests and a division between professional policymakers (politicians and lobbyists) vs. a largely passive, uninvolved and often uninformed electorate. According to Australian philosopher John Burnheim, who coined the term demarchy, random selection of policymakers would make it easier for everyday citizens to meaningfully participate, and harder for special interests to corrupt the process.

More generally, random selection of decision makers from a larger group is known as sortition (from the Latin base for lottery). The Athenian democracy made much use of sortition, with nearly all government offices filled by lottery (of full citizens) rather than by election. Candidates were almost always male, Greek, educated citizens holding a minimum of wealth and status.

In the Canadian provinces of British Columbia and Ontario, a group of citizens was randomly selected to create a Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform to investigate and recommend changes to the provinces’ electoral systems. A similar system happened with the Dutch Burgerforum Kiesstelsel. The Old Order Amish use a combination of election and sortition to select church leaders; men receiving two or three nominations to fill a vacancy (the number varies by district) are then asked to select a psalm book containing a slip of paper, one of those slips being marked to indicate who will take on the burden of the position.


An attractive feature of demarchy is that if political leaders were replaced on a regular basis with randomly selected citizens, it would reduce institutionalised corruption, party apathy and complacency as well as a history of party led entitlement, lack of choice and variety in political ideas in platforms. It could be argued that replacing politicians in this way would solve such problems.

As people would be randomly selected to act as representatives it would be less likely that the person involved would be part of a “party political machine”.

The theory says that a randomly selected person as a representative would not have to compromise their own beliefs in order to make political alliances and gain support, nor fear political reprisals in implementing tough or controversial legislation. However, as theory goes, there is no inherent guarantee, nor anything a priori in demarchy which guarantees this.

There is no proven link that long term political representation equals a larger amount of monetary loss through political corruption nor could it be proven that random citizens in office would end or limit corruption nor that corruption would increase.

Research by the World Bank and others has shown that a form of citizens’ assembly called Participatory budgeting reduced corruption in several cities.


Politicians are often forced to make decisions which compromise their own beliefs and what they may think is best through the pressures of future elections, fitting into their party apparatus, pleasing those who funded their campaigns and vote sharing and voting compromise. The time lost in the voting process, image forming and maintenance and focusing on approval would be better suited to forming good law and policy. Demarchy would eliminate some of these pressures, however these pressures are likely to exist in any political office and there is no guarantee that a randomly selected citizen would adhere to his/her belief system or that he/she would have the political history, knowledge or courage to do so.

Demarchy, because it is based upon random selection, does not make a person’s career dependent upon popularity, and, because a demarchy is likely to remove the direct influence of political parties, there is no “party line” that the individual must adhere to. This is not to say that political alliances could not be formed after a person’s selection—but that the structure of demarchy is less suited to decision-making based upon politics.

One benefit of demarchy is that it is more suited to non-party politics. So some claim it is better able to build consensus or compromise.


No modern nation has attempted to use demarchy as a primary system for political decision making, so it is difficult to assess problems of transition or shortcomings of the system.

Wikipedia also notes:

Almost all Greek writers who mention democracy (including Aristotle, Plato and Herodotus) both emphasise the role of selection by lot or state outright that being allotted is more democratic than elections. For example Plato says:

“Democracy arises after the poor are victorious over their adversaries, some of whom they kill and others of whom they exile, then they share out equally with the rest of the population political offices and burdens; and in this regime public offices are usually allocated by lot.”

We see the same idea in the 18th century after the re-emergence of democracy in the writings of Charles de Secondat, baron de Montesquieu:

“The suffrage by lot is natural to democracy, as that by choice is to aristocracy”


[But] according to Xenophon (Memorabilia Book I, 2.9), this classical argument was offered by Socrates [against demarchy]:

[Socrates] taught his companions to despise the established laws by insisting on the folly of appointing public officials by lot, when none would choose a pilot or builder or flautist by lot, nor any other craftsman for work in which mistakes are far less disastrous than mistakes in statecraft.

Interesting stuff … what do you think?

Category: Politics, Think Tank

Please use the comments to demonstrate your own ignorance, unfamiliarity with empirical data and lack of respect for scientific knowledge. Be sure to create straw men and argue against things I have neither said nor implied. If you could repeat previously discredited memes or steer the conversation into irrelevant, off topic discussions, it would be appreciated. Lastly, kindly forgo all civility in your discourse . . . you are, after all, anonymous.

13 Responses to “Democracy v. Demarchy”

  1. T. Greer says:

    The central problem with American democracy is one of scale. Right now the average American citizen is further removed from the levers of power than at any time in American history. Here is one easy example:

    “The grandparents of today’s Americans (132 million in 1940) had opportunities to serve on 117,000 school boards. To exercise responsibilities comparable to their grandparents’, today’s 310 million Americans would have radically to decentralize the mere 15,000 districts into which public school children are now concentrated. They would have to take responsibility for curriculum and administration away from credentialed experts, and they would have to explain why they know better. This would involve a level of political articulation of the body politic far beyond voting in elections every two years.” – Angello Codevilla, “Our Ruling Class – and the Perils of Revolution”, American Spectator July 2010.

    Up until WWII most powerful organs of government were local and local governments, by definition, are of limited scale. They were not of a scale large enough for plutarchs to fight over, and the decision makers were close enough to the people that the people needed to be civically engaged for most towns, school boards, and even state governments to run. Since then we have pushed a lot of the decision making (and funding, and implementation) onto the federal government and private contractors, and the population has been growing apace all the while. The scale has fundamentally changed, and democracy along with it.

    I wrote a longish essay on this theme that explains this with more depth (and sources!) here:

    “Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream”
    T. Greer. The Scholar’s Stage. 7 July 2013.

  2. Frwip says:

    Are “Professional” Politicians the Problem?

    No. Concentration of power and wealth in few hands and unaccountable politicians are the problem.

    And demarchy is not the solution. A demarchy or a direct democracy can be as corrupt and unjust as a representative democracy if there exists a corrupting power capable of buying or coercing the randomly picked assemblymen or of corrupting and restricting the debate through control of the media, academia, social organizations, etc,

    By the way, the corrupting power doesn’t need to be an economic oligarchy as we have now. It can be a state bureaucracy, a religious group, a union, an intellectual cabal even. Anything that can bring disproportionate resources to bear on the apparatus of the state, particularly on the making of laws, will try to exert those resources and gain advantages and privileges for itself at the expanse of the greater number.

    Controlling the making of laws is particularly attractive to corrupters, because of what is though to be a very core principle of the rule of law, the principle of finality, that guarantees that any benefit acquired by the corrupters or related interests (social class, union members, coreligionists, etc.) under the effect of corrupt laws will remain acquired, even if the populace wakes up after a while and gets the laws overturned through political action. The advantage and increased power stays acquired and becomes the next step to reiterate the process and acquire more power through another round of corruption and so on, in a ratchet-like fashion, over the course of years, decades or even centuries.

    As a matter of facts, demarchy is not the solution, nor any other system is a solution, because there is simply no “automatic” solution, no “technological fix” to the problem of governance. You can write the greatest constitution, the best laws, implement the greatest institutions and the most honest administrations, it will be subject to capture. The best you can hope are laws and institutions which will slow down the capture sufficiently to allow the populace to notice, react and correct the course?

    So, the problem is how do you avoid deleterious concentrations of power? And can you do away with legal finality so you can overturn the ill effects when such concentrations of power nonetheless gain hold, without doing away with the rule of law?

  3. Dan Probst says:

    I put my vote in favour of more direct democracy. Having lived in both Switzerland and Germany for many years, I find representative democracy to be suboptimal – also, the more centralised a country the worse. In centralised representative democracies, the economies of scale from centralization are by far over-compensated by politicians’ moral hazard and lack of popular control.

    That said, while politicians typically make decisions on a shallow intellectual basis, I would not want to devolve power to a random person. I want to vote on the topic at stake. In Switzerland, politicians sometimes refrain from the more obviously stupid decision due to the implicit threat that it will get shot to pieces in a subsequent popular vote.

  4. Non Sequor says:

    I’d like to be able to change my vote between elections. I might like to have a different congressman depending on what issues are being tackled. They should just let all of the parties send representatives and senators and give them pro rata house and senate votes based on their current share of the electorate’s votes.

  5. TLH says:

    Why solve problems? Milk each side for contributions. Solve the problem. No more contributions. Our politicians at work.

  6. eideard says:

    And please reflect upon the fact that the history of that Grecian democracy rested entirely upon the backs of a slave-based economy.

  7. murrayv says:

    The problem I see with a lottery is to determine the candidates for the lottey. Many people will not want to serve, and no few will be seriously unqualified. If the lottery is drawn from a pool of volunteers there is the risk of skewing to extremism, as the most extreme may also be the most likely to volunteer. The biggest problem we have with corruption in the USA is campaign finance. If we went to a system of public funding of campaigns, and short (120days?) campaign periods much of the problem would go away. Term limits for representatives would probably also be a good idea. Regulations to put serious limits on lobbying would also be beneficial.

  8. willid3 says:

    consider the US house of representatives. its based on population. but the number of representatives hasn’t changed since the 1900s. when the US population was about 1/3 of what it is today. not that having a really large number of reps would be better, but it does make the reps less representative of their ‘constituents’.
    then there is the states that have decided to have all their electoral votes be the voted for who ever wins the states presidential votes. which of course means that that these states are only if interest to one party or the other. and only states that have no leanings to one party or other matter to presidential candidates. while we might question the idea of the electoral college, its not like we have improved the idea with this at all. seems like we have made it worse not better.
    then we have the current vogue of politicians picking their voters. this entails them studying voting populations and setting political boundaries based on that. this means you can actually set up house of representative seats so that only one party matters, because the voters for the other party are so split up that they wont ever be able to have any one really represent them (which after all is the entire purpose of representative democracy). it also makes it do they can protect their jobs. we really one protect voters from other forms of denial of representation. so we still end up with gerrymandering just like before. only now it seems to be legal.

  9. willid3 says:

    what if politicians had to actually live on the same laws the rest of us do?

    seems like when they do (ex when sequestration actually impacted them making it harder to fly home, they turned around and fixed it post hast. what if instead of having a really cheap health care, on site doctors, or excellent pensions, they had to live the same way the rest of us do) they just might make fixes, that would address the problems they create. but they dont live in the same world we do.

  10. ravenchris says:

    The solution begins with one term in Congress in one lifetime.

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