For Your Consideration

I have just read a rather entertaining article over at Current Affairs proponing sortition — random selection — as an alternative to elections. Highly suggested read. The main problem I have with sortition is that, like jury duty, it would be difficult for many people to accommodate the requirements of being in congress. I’m sure plenty would love to do it, if they had the time. But many more would probably feel they needed to just stick with their job. This of course might be irrelevant, for I’d still expect randomly selected congresspersons to get paid. Still, leaving their job for months or years couldn’t really go over well. This is an idea worth considering though.

Certainly, there are arguments to be made in favor of elections. There’s something that feels right about having a legislature elected by public vote. This is, after all, the gold standard for democracy around the world: a previously corruption-ridden state “becomes” democratic as soon as it holds free, fair elections. We have a general sense that a legislature, because elected, must therefore “represent” the people who voted for it. But in what sense does it represent them? Demographically? We all know that isn’t true. Take our current Congress, which is 80% male, 95% college-educated, and 50.8% millionaires. The population it “represents” is 50% male, 30% college-educated, and 5% millionaires. That’s not even close.

Well, you might say, the legislature doesn’t need to be an exact demographic mirror of the population, so long as it matches them ideologically. If your Congressman (or Congresswoman, but probably Congressman) puts forward the kinds of policies that you yourself would wish to see advanced, why does it matter whether you and he happen to have wildly different backgrounds? That would be an excellent argument, if Congress usually put forward policies that Americans agree with. Alas, it does not. One Princeton study estimates that, statistically speaking, the preferences of 90% of the American electorate have a “near-zero” impact on policymaking. And a number of highly-publicized legal reforms with a broad popular mandate, such as closing the gun show loophole, have never made it anywhere near the President’s desk. How is that possible in a “representative” Congress?

The obvious answer is that Congress is not representative of the population in any meaningful sense. (Of course, many of the reasons why this is so are obvious: high educational and financial barriers to entry, out-of-control campaign spending, grossly disproportionate donor and lobbyist influence, party-controlled nominations, obsessive focus on reelection prospects, etc., etc.) But ah, you might say, that’s not what’s meant by “representative.” A legislator isn’t someone you expect to think like you: he’s someone you empower to think for you, because he is specially qualified for his job.

But consider the fact that this is nonsense. First, nobody actually believes that our legislators are especially qualified people. (We might note in passing that over 40% of Congress are lawyers, reportedly viewed by the public as the least useful profession in America, in terms of positive contributions to societal well-being.) And the idea of outsourcing our thought processes to them is horrifying in the utmost.

The spirit of democracy would be much more prevalent. Sortition could do wonders for self-government, that old idea that people really know what the hell they’re doing with their own lives and actually do it.

I recently revisited a quotation from Spe Salvi, Benedict’s encyclical which played a major part in my conversion to Catholicism, where he mentions faith not as a suspension of disbelief or the neglect of fact, but an understanding of something less than apparent. Indeed he references the scripture, which puts it best, that faith is the “evidence of things unseen.” Now, sight doesn’t just mean invisible. It also means unknowable.The belief in such a thing then creates something real at the moment. Hope works the same way.

I bring this up because we do not know where our society is headed, despite the transhumanists and scientism’s faithful believing it’s on the up and up and we’ll all be satisfied by increasingly easily attained pleasures. We do not even know for certain that we’ll be working at the same place next year.

But we certainly do have hope that certain things will happen. That is because hope is not a characteristic of faith but an article of the human heart. When we have hope, we have something to work towards, as evidenced by a builder who makes plans ahead of time.

The article is quite risible in places, and downright disillusioning in others. But I primarily wish to note that it’s a humble hope. It gives a name and support to something we could consider working for. That’s important for us to do.

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