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  • Hey, congratulations!

  • You've just won the lottery,

  • only the prize isn't cash or a luxury cruise.

  • It's a position in your country's national legislature.

  • And you aren't the only lucky winner.

  • All of your fellow lawmakers were chosen in the same way.

  • This might strike you as a strange way to run a government,

  • let alone a democracy.

  • Elections are the epitome of democracy, right?

  • Well, the ancient Athenians who coined the word had another view.

  • In fact, elections only played a small role in Athenian democracy,

  • with most offices filled by random lottery from a pool of citizen volunteers.

  • Unlike the representative democracies common today,

  • where voters elect leaders to make laws and decisions on their behalf,

  • 5th Century BC Athens was a direct democracy

  • that encouraged wide participation

  • through the principle of ho boulomenos, or anyone who wishes.

  • This meant that any of its approximately 30,000 eligible citizens

  • could attend the ecclesia,

  • a general assembly meeting several times a month.

  • In principle, any of the 6,000 or so who showed up at each session

  • had the right to address their fellow citizens,

  • propose a law,

  • or bring a public lawsuit.

  • Of course, a crowd of 6,000 people trying to speak at the same time

  • would not have made for effective government.

  • So the Athenian system also relied on a 500 member governing council

  • called the Boule,

  • to set the agenda and evaluate proposals,

  • in addition to hundreds of jurors and magistrates to handle legal matters.

  • Rather than being elected or appointed,

  • the people in these positions were chosen by lot.

  • This process of randomized selection is know as sortition.

  • The only positions filled by elections

  • were those recognized as requiring expertise,

  • such as generals.

  • But these were considered aristocratic, meaning rule by the best,

  • as opposed to democracies, rule by the many.

  • How did this system come to be?

  • Well, democracy arose in Athens after long periods of social and political tension

  • marked by conflict among nobles.

  • Powers once restricted to elites,

  • such as speaking in the assembly and having their votes counted,

  • were expanded to ordinary citizens.

  • And the ability of ordinary citizens to perform these tasks

  • adequately became a central feature of the democratic ideology of Athens.

  • Rather than a privilege,

  • civic participation was the duty of all citizens,

  • with sortition and strict term limits preventing governing classes

  • or political parties from forming.

  • By 21st century standards,

  • Athenian rule by the many excluded an awful lot of people.

  • Women, slaves and foreigners were denied full citizenship,

  • and when we filter out those too young to serve,

  • the pool of eligible Athenians drops to only 10-20% of the overall population.

  • Some ancient philosophers, including Plato,

  • disparaged this form of democracy as being anarchic and run by fools.

  • But today the word has such positive associations,

  • that vastly different regimes claim to embody it.

  • At the same time, some share Plato's skepticism about the wisdom of crowds.

  • Many modern democracies reconcile this conflict

  • by having citizens elect those they consider qualified

  • to legislate on their behalf.

  • But this poses its own problems,

  • including the influence of wealth,

  • and the emergence of professional politicians

  • with different interests than their constituents.

  • Could reviving election by lottery lead to more effective government

  • through a more diverse and representative group of legislatures?

  • Or does modern political office, like Athenian military command,

  • require specialized knowledge and skills?

  • You probably shouldn't hold your breath

  • to win a spot in your country's government.

  • But depending on where you live,

  • you may still be selected to participate in a jury,

  • a citizens' assembly,

  • or a deliberative poll,

  • all examples of how the democratic principle behind sortition

  • still survives today.

Hey, congratulations!

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B2 US TED-Ed democracy athens lottery assembly principle

【TED-Ed】What did democracy really mean in Athens? - Melissa Schwartzberg

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