I’ve been thinking about governmental politics, about the structures we use in our culture to debate and fix our laws. At the moment in Britain another attempt is being made to alter the House of Lords, this is a favourite old horse for British politicians to flog. Everyone (it seems) wants change but the understandable conservatism in constitutional reform makes this a slow process. The sluggish pace of amending this system makes sense because, if you make a mistake re-engineering a process that seems to work (at least as far those in power are concerned), then things can really go awry. Even the most ‘conscious’ people know this – look for example at the fiasco surrounding this years tickets to Burning Man. A reasonably successful process (first come, first served) was reconfigured into a lottery which has led to all kinds of practical, financial and ethical problems for the community concerned (see here).
Although for some Burners lottery is now a dirty word, I can see that the organisers were attempting to be (drum roll for poltical word du jour) ‘fair’. Fairness is one of those things, intuitively desirable but notorious difficult to agree on, which is the watchword for many British politicians these days. A sense of fairness is certainly something which emerges very early in our psyche, as experiments with infants seem to demonstrate (here). A lottery, which is supposed to imply random selection, is ‘fair’ (although as the Burners have learnt, this only works if one can purchase only one ticket per person, d’oh!).
So what would happen to the ‘fairness’ of government if we were to replace, or at least augment, the process of democratic elections with a lottery? Pete Carroll suggests such a ‘Chaocracy’, in his book Psybermagick (there is a little discussion of this idea here). This approach is also know as Demarchy and it’s interesting to consider, when people go on about the Ancient Greek democratic process, the selection of some roles by lot tends to be conveniently forgotten.
Recent evidence from a computer model suggests that introducing some randomly selected politicians into a governmental system makes it work better (see here for a newspaper report and here for the original paper). There’s the example of Iceland using a species of governmental crowd sourcing (through a meeting of 950 randomly selected people), in an effort to draw up a new consititional in the wake of the recent financial crash. As students of chaos mathematics, neurology and many more disciplines will also attest, sometimes ‘random’ decisions emerge into beautiful, robust complexity. A far cry from the monotonous to-and-fro of the adversarial two party system. Random selection is also a good enough method to be used in jury selection, hardly an insignificant element in our systems of law.
So my suggestion for the House of Lords is that we go for a random assembly. If nothing else this would help break the strangle-hold of old money, vested interests and ingratiating behaviour so closely associated with political life these days. And if you’re not convinced by the mathematical arguments try googling lottery winners in your country and compare their pictures to those of your elected representatives. Which look like a normal cross-section of people and which like they may well be evil alien-lizard-human hybrids? Ah! I thought so…