On not being ruled by 'the best'


Opposition movements are fixated on more elections as a means of solving economic and ecological problems. But historically, elections were an aristocratic, not democratic, mode of rule. Today, representative government enables an ambitious, status-obsessed elite to hold power. Can random selection, choosing people who don’t want to rule, return power to ordinary people?

A single person will not serve as the sole representative of the Partido da Terra, the libertarian municipalist political party elected to Lousame municipality in North-West Spain in May. Instead, under a system of rotation, every four months a different person will occupy the position; 11 in total over the four year term.

In Iceland, the grassroots group Alda (‘The Association for Sustainability and Democracy’) advocates that a third of Icelandic Parliament be reserved for randomly selected citizens. Part of Alda’s board is also randomly selected. “Random selection is simply a very incorruptible process, unlike elections which are usually won with money,” argues board member Hjalti Hrafn Hafthorsson.

Faced with the twin realities of economic and ecological failure, many opposition movements press for the widening use of elections to bring undemocratic institutions into line with the popular will. Under the banner of ‘economic democracy’ there is an insistence that company boards and pension fund managers, for example, should be elected, not appointed. More conventionally, there is a fervent desire – witness Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Syriza etc - for elected austerity-imposing governments to be replaced by elected anti-austerity governments.

But alongside this fixation on more elections – choosing people to occupy empowering positions for which the only available recourse is that they lose subsequent elections - there exists a growing recognition that they cannot overcome the burgeoning set of problems we face. Both in terms of what kind of person puts themselves forward as a candidate for election and the forces exerted on that person once in a position of power, many are concluding that elections are not the answer. Random selection (or sortition to give it another name) – the selection of people who don’t visibly desire power to govern for short and non-renewable periods – can be however.

Not only are elections not the answer to the unmistakable issues of mammoth inequality and elite power, but they are also not democratic. For a long time elections have been regarded as synonymous with democracy, but random selection has a far better claim to be the democratic way.

Ancient Athens and sortition

Aristotle famously said that choosing officials by lot was democratic but selecting them by election was a sign of oligarchy. A cursory look around the world reveals its oligarchical character – the widespread use of elections, coupled with the barely hidden assumption that elections cannot actually threaten the interests of the 1 per cent and 0.1 per cent. Ancient Athens was the originator of the practice of government by sortition – apart from expert posts such as architects or admirals, all public officials, magistrates and so on, were chosen randomly, using an allotment machine for that purpose, the kleroterion.

But sortition didn’t die out with the end of democracy in Athens. According to the anthropologist David Graeber, for much of European history elections were assumed to be an aristocratic way of selecting public officials. “’Aristocracy’”, he writes, “after all literally means, ‘rule by the best,’ and elections were seen as meaning that the only role of ordinary citizens was to decide which, among the ‘best’ citizens, was to be considered best of all.” The democratic way to select officials, he asserts, was taken to be by random lottery (and this was actually the case in early modern times in the Italian cities of Lucca and Vincenza).

Ambition and other disorders

And now, in a world convinced that elections are the only democratic way to choose who governs us, we are growing increasingly tired of being ‘ruled by the best’. Epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, co-author of The Spirit Level has astutely identified one of the faults of our political system as selecting “people with ambition as their primary quality”. The English psychologist, Oliver James, claims that, while 13 per cent of the general population have a personality disorder, so do a majority of high achievers in spheres such as politics, business and the arts.” And invariably the high achievers will be the ones pushing themselves forward as candidates and being elected to positions of power.

The evidence that psychopathy amongst corporate chief executives and senior managers is four times higher than amongst the rest of the population has by now become something of a trope in popular culture. But psychopathy is just an extreme example of personality disorder. Personality disorder more commonly takes the form of narcissism (marked by the desire for dominance, insensitivity to others and a preoccupation with personal success) or the borderline (capriciousness and impulsivity). I believe any close-up observation of the exercise of power by successful people will reveal these behaviours to be very common.

As James emphasises, the traits that accompany personality disorder are an advantage in the quest to reach positions of power. “Being a chameleon, with the self-monitoring, game playing distance that often accompanies dissociation, has been shown to enhance career success in organisations,” he says. “Ruthlessness is easier if you lack empathy for the emotions of others, as borderline people often do, and being ruthless is usually necessary if you are to reach the very top.”

According to James, personality disordered behaviour thrives in organisations “where an individual is very concerned to gain power, resources or status.” Institutions that hold out the lure of gaining “power, resources or status” are clearly not limited to profit maximising capitalist corporations. Public sector organisations, elected governments or pan-governmental bodies like the EU are just as susceptible to this kind of misrule. There is now a well-trodden career path in politics – intern, researcher, special adviser, MP, minister – while a common alternative is to demonstrate your talent in the corporate sector before switching to politics. It is more accurate to say that personality disordered behaviour thrives in oligarchic institutions.

Mimicking the elite

Our collective sense of impotence is compounded by the fact that, while ruling elites are generally more disordered than the populations they rule over, the mass of people are catching up. The American researcher Jean Twenge, has identified a 30 per cent increase in narcissism, among college students, since the late 1970s. She says that in the 1950s only 12 per cent of teenagers agreed with the statement, ‘I am an important person’ but, by the late 1980s, this had risen to 80 per cent. The English academic Peter Fleming, says students now approach their education like “fecund bank managers who only see rational and singular futures.”

Culturally, ‘being the best’, the aristocratic mode of rule, has become firmly entrenched, as evident in public life, marked by perennial elections, as it is in its traditional bastion of the autocratic private, corporate sector. For the rest of the population, the only feasible choice is to try and mimic the successful, prodded by the neoliberal insistence that everyone think of themselves as an individual enterprise. Witness the rise in self-employment and the accompanying conviction that success or failure is a personal responsibility. But, as much we seem besotted with the lives of the rich and famous and want to emulate them, there is a germinating awareness that there is something wrong with ‘the best’ and the kind of rule they embody. Paradoxically, we need rule by people who don’t want to rule over us. Immediately we allow the desire for power to be let off the leash, multiple problems ensue. “If righteous people don’t want to govern,” says French economics lecturer, Étienne Chouard, “and if we give power, as in representative government, to those who want it, the worst will govern.”

Conventional political thought, even if it recognises the problem, cannot provide an answer. Oliver James, who politically is a left-wing social democrat, candidly admits he can’t ultimately see a way out. “To run a large business or government department requires extremely hard work, and it may even be that the disordered are the best equipped to make what to others would be a sacrifice of their personal lives.” The social psychologist Stanley Milgram, whose 1960s experiments showed the power of obedience, could only suggest “constant vigilance” as a remedy.

However, sortition does offer a solution, if not an instantaneous one. The choosing of people to hold positions of power, not as part of a well-thought out career ladder, but randomly and for short and non-renewable periods, can neutralise the pernicious effects of electing individuals to niches of power. And as has been demonstrated, it can more accurately reflect the make-up of society, increasing the presence of women and marginalised groups. Random selection can therefore loosen the stranglehold of the upper middle classes on political power.  A reliance on elections, by contrast, will merely reproduce the same political inequalities.

A realist vision

But less noticed is the fact that random selection can turn traditional notions of Left and Right on their head. The linguist Steven Pinker differentiates between a left-wing utopian vision of human nature and a right-wing tragic vision, associated with, among others, Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. The tragic vision assumes that people are inherently selfish and flawed and that any changes will likely have unintended consequences worse than the problems they are intended to fix. The utopian vision assumes people are altruistic, and, in principle, perfectible. In short, conservatives are realists, leftists are idealists.

But random selection rests on a realist view of human nature and the conviction that institutions have a decisive effect on how people behave. You don’t count on virtuous behaviour; you assume people are not inherently good, you assume dishonesty. That’s why mandates, under random selection, are short and non-renewable. Representative government, however, when it is not simply disingenuous, is founded on a naïve idealism: that democracy will somehow emerge unscathed, while the elected inhabitants of power pursue their own self-interest and, in between elections, accede to the demands of the economy’s dominant financial and corporate institutions. It is time to see through the election myth and recognise how the world works.