Our Politicians Would Probably Be Better If We Picked Them by Lot

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As we near November, Americans hear political partisans arguing more and more intensely that if we would just vote for them and their coconspirators that would put us in the best of all possible worlds. It reminds me of Will Rogers’s quip that “if we got one-tenth of what was promised to us…there wouldn’t be any inducement to go to heaven.”

Such assertions are also backed by get-out-the-vote efforts that even include making voting mandatory, as Miles Rapaport and Janai Nelson recently argued for in the Los Angeles Times. However, despite such supercharged hyperbole and extreme proposals, there are good reasons to question whether the political world as we know it would be as good as it gets if only the right party were put in charge. And there is a simple thought experiment, proposed by Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) founder Leonard Read in his 1964 book Anything That’s Peaceful, that can help us consider the issues involved.

Read suggests considering choosing most officeholders by lot for single terms, in comparison with the current system, in which politicians and their partisans “compete to see which one can get himself in front of the most popular voter grab bag in order to stand foursquare for some people’s supposed right to other people’s income.”

At first, the idea seems shocking. After all, as Read noted, “Voting is deeply embedded in the democratic mores as a duty.” However, “any person who is conscious of our rapid drift toward the omnipotent state can hardly escape the suspicion that there may be a fault in our habitual way of looking at things.”

In particular, what motivates this thought experiment is that “If it be conceded that the role of government is to secure ‘certain unalienable rights, that among them are the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ by what stretch of the imagination can this be achieved when we vote for those who are openly committed to unsecuring these rights,” with a focus on how it would reduce the vigor with which political abuses now invade our lives. Consider Read’s conclusions:

With nearly everyone conscious that only “ordinary citizens” were occupying political positions, the question of who should rule would lose its significance. Immediately, we would become acutely aware of the far more important question: What shall be the extent of the rule? That we would press for a severe limitation of the state seems almost self-evident.

In other words, instead of focusing on who can most effectively package their preferred violations of the Constitution, people would focus on the foundational constitutional question—what does government do better for us with our own resources than we could do ourselves—since only the very small number of things that pass this test could possibly improve the general welfare. The current bipartisan momentum toward ever-larger government would be reversed.

“Political parties—now more or less meaningless—would cease to exist.” Further, “No more campaign speeches with their promises of how much better we would fare were the candidates to spend our income for us.” There would be “An end to campaign fund-raising,” and “Mo more self-chosen ‘saviors’ catering to base desires in order to win elections.”

Political parties are, in substantial part, coalitions of invaders of others’ rights, so that voting that would shift control from one coalition to the other cannot defend everyone’s rights. But selection by lot would eliminate any such power to bundle promises as to who would be Peter and who would be Paul in the “robbing Peter to pay Paul” political game. That would also undermine the lies that must now be sold and free up the massive resources now dedicated to selling them for more productive ends. And as a bonus, many Americans would have lower blood pressure.

It would be “An end to that type of voting in Congress which has an eye more to re-election than to what’s right.”

While some claim that reelection prospects provide incentives for politicians to better advance American society, it also provides incentives to continue to expand the harm imposed on those not in the dominant political coalition, to keep that coalition in office. And where the Constitution (and, perhaps even more so, the vision of the Declaration of Independence) is honored more in the breach than the observance, Read thinks the latter incentive will clearly dominate.

The mere prospect of having to go to Congress during a lifetime…would completely reorient citizens’ attention to the principles which bear on government’s relationship to society…on which the future of society depends. In other words, the strong tendency would be to bring out the best, not the worst, in every citizen.

Read here comes back to the big question of what government does well enough for all of our well-being that we want it to. And if we agree with Locke that it boils down to more effectively enforcing all of our rights against invasion by foreigners, neighbors, and the government itself, allowing the maximal expansion of mutually voluntary arrangements, as did our founding documents, focusing on those principles would make us better citizens and free us from multiple layers of government impediments to create improvements wherever and whenever we can discover them.

But selection by lot isn’t going to happen any time in the foreseeable future, so why bother thinking about it?

“Merely to let the mind dwell on this intriguing alternative to current political inanities gives all the ammunition one needs to refrain from casting a ballot for one of two candidates, neither of whom is guided by integrity. Unless we can divorce ourselves from this unprincipled myth, we are condemned to a political competition that has only one end: the omnipotent state.” At a minimum, “Such scrutiny may reveal that voting for candidates who bear false witness is not required of the good citizen.”

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