A Voice from the Past

A man and his friends approach you, and ask if you want to play a game of cards. After taking bets up front, the man pulls a deck of cards from his pocket. Instead of passing them out round-robin, he takes cards from the top of the deck and gives them first to himself, then to his friends, and then to you. Curiously, his and his friends’ cards seem much better than yours. They get aces, kings, and queens, while you get an assortment of low cards. After a while, you finally manage to hit a winning streak. The man stops, holds the deck in his lap for a minute, and then resumes the game. His and his friends’ good cards are back, and so are your duds. It seems that no matter what you do, the dealer and his friends always get the good cards, and you only seem to draw a losing hand.

Do card games ever really work like this? Of course not. No one in their right mind would accept a game like the one in the example, because the dealer and his friends were clearly cheating, having obviously stacked the deck. The standard solution to the problem of cheaters like that is randomization. With cards, that means shuffling the deck. Shuffling before every hand would have put a quick stop to the cheater and his friends. Any attempt to install certain cards in order in the deck would be washed away by the next shuffle. Shuffling the deck works so well that it makes you wonder why it isn’t used more outside of the realm of games.

There was once a country in another part of the world that resembled the U.S.A. Like the U.S., it was a military and economic power, and its citizens seem to have been proud of it. At the appointed times, they would go to the polls and cast votes for candidates in their elections. They must have thought this was a great improvement over the dictators who used to rule their country. Unfortunately, only people with a lot of money could get elected. Once in office, they didn’t seem much better than the dictators the public had gotten rid of.

A crisis gave the people of that country a chance to fix their political system. They saw that only the rich were being elected, and they knew just what to do: they got rid of election by voting. How, then, did they decide who got to be in office? There were always more people who wanted in than there were actual positions to fill. Their solution was to have political offices elected by lottery, with the winners chosen at random from among all eligible citizens. Because everyone had an equal chance to win the lottery, average people began to take their place in the government alongside the wealthy and powerful. That equalization of power lead to the greatest explosion of culture and learning the world has ever seen. The country itself is considered one of the greatest in all of history, and is commonly referred to as the “cradle of western civilization”: ancient Athens, in Greece. They invented a new word to describe their system of election-by-lottery. They called it democracy. That was not only the answer to their problems, but to ours, as well.




How can you have democracy without voting?! We’ve all been told since we were kids that voting for the politician of your choice is the very essence of democracy! If democracy meant using a lottery, and our system uses voting, then why is our system called a democracy? That’s a very good question. Our system is correctly called an “oligarchy” (ALL-uh-gar-key), in which the deck is stacked, and corruption thrives. Democracy, on the other hand, means keeping the deck shuffled. An ancient document by Aristotle shows that election by lottery was a central feature of democracy in Athens. By the yardstick of Athens, there’s not a country in the world today that is a democracy. In fact, by the Athenians’ measure there have been only a few democratic governments in all of history. Aristotle made it clear that voting for politicians is undemocratic.   


Why’d it Have to Be Snakes?

Several great discoveries have been made since the beginning of archeology, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Tomb of King Tut, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. There is another discovery that belongs on that list, and it’s old like the other three. It’s the long-lost work of Aristotle called Constitution of the Athenians, which is a record of how the world’s first democracy worked. Reading it is like Howard Carter peering into the burial chamber of King Tut, and being overwhelmed by the gold. Throughout Aristotle’s work are dozens of references to election by lot, confirming by their preponderance that democracy really does mean lottery and not voting. The Rosetta Stone, King Tut, and the Dead Sea Scrolls were all important in that they advanced human knowledge. But, none has any meaning in the lives of ordinary Americans. Those discoveries don’t pay their bills, or tend to them when they’re sick, or keep them safe. Constitution of the Athenians is different. It advanced human knowledge and has the power to improve the lives of everyone, if only we will follow its lessons. Surely that makes it one of the most important relics ever found.

Since Constitution of the Athenians was discovered in 19th-century Egypt, the Athenian solution has been hiding in plain sight, ready for us to do something about it. Theirs is the answer that has been waiting, quietly and patiently, through 2300 years of oligarchy since classical Athens. Lottery is not the only gift that the Athenians left for us, as further investigation of their history will show.

Democracy in Athens didn’t arrive all at once. Instead, it evolved in phases over a number of decades. Up until the 6th century B.C., Athens was ruled by an oligarchy. Politicians were elected by voting, and only the wealthy were allowed to run for office in the first place. Some of the wealthy tried to enslave the public with debt during an economic depression, which lead to a revolution early in the 6th century B.C. That crisis brought the leadership of Solon (SO-lun), who tried to diffuse the situation by giving political power to the public. His government featured a mix of voting for candidates and lottery. A tyrant overthrew this government in the middle of the 6th century B.C. Once the tyranny itself was finally overthrown, a man named Cleisthenes (KLEISS-the-neez) came along to pick up the pieces. He brought back the government of Solon, with its extensive use of election by lottery. It was around that time that the Greek word for “democracy” first appeared. This is one of the main patterns of classical Athenian history—a movement away from voting and towards lottery.


Carrot and Stick

The Athenians were more like us than you know. Once they admitted the public into the government, they ran into a familiar problem: they couldn’t get people to show up! Initially they tried just what our country does now with juries. They threatened people with penalties if they didn’t serve, and then paid them nothing when they did serve.

As in our system, that didn’t work. Ancient Athenians weren’t just standing around like robots, waiting to be switched on to work in the government. They had jobs, kids, and pets that filled their time, just like modern Americans do. Like us, if they didn’t work at their jobs, they had no way to support themselves, much less their kids and pets. Because of this, it became hard over time to get people to show up for public service in Athens, despite the threat of penalties.

Like the move away from voting and towards lottery, here is another fundamental pattern of classical Athenian history. They gradually realized that given a choice between carrot and stick when it came to motivating the public, that the carrot of incentive was usually a much better choice. They moved away from forcing the public into the government, and tried a new tactic that proved highly successful: they paid people for their effort, as if it were any other job.


On the Plain of Attica

From Constitution of the Athenians and other ancient sources, we know that the Athenian government was roughly divided into several branches that on the surface look like those of our own government: the Assembly, the Council of 500, the magistrates, the military leaders, and the law courts. For the purpose of comparison, the best point to look at them is in democracy’s later, most-evolved period, in Aristotle’s time.

The Assembly is what people normally think of if they know anything at all about democracy in Athens. The Assembly was open to all eligible citizens. All someone had to do was show up for an Assembly meeting on top of a hill in Athens called the Pnyx (puh-NIX). Conceivably, that could be tens of thousands of citizens. From Thucydides (thoo-SID-uh-deez), we know that in reality only a small percentage of that number actually attended, which is something most modern people don’t seem to know.

The Assembly had few powers to do anything by itself, other than some minor functions like conducting impeachment trials. Instead, it almost always had to work with other government branches to get things done. Most of its power lay in the ability to pass legislation handed to it by the Council of 500. It could propose a piece of legislation of its own, but that first had to be agreed upon by the Council before the members of the Assembly could ever get to the chance to vote on it. The Assembly could ask a jury to create what was essentially a constitutional amendment, but the Assembly had little input into the process after that. While it filled an important role by watching over other parts of the Athenian government, by the time of Aristotle the Assembly was much weaker than its modern reputation would have you believe.

As you can guess by its name, it wasn’t quite possible to fit everyone into the Council of 500. How did they decide who got in, then, given that there were many more people interested than there were positions to fill? This sort of problem is where the Athenians had their breakthrough. They used a lottery to whittle down the crowd of entrants to fit the number of positions available. This had the benefit of being fair, because everyone had an equal chance to win the lottery, regardless of who they were or how much money they had. As you’ll see, the lottery became the primary method for placing people in office in Athens, and not just for the Council.

The function of the Council was the opposite of the Assembly. It had the power to propose laws, but for the most part couldn’t pass them on its own. It had to send law proposals to the Assembly for their approval. This made the Council seemingly weak like the Assembly. In fact, the Assembly and Council were complementary, and were designed so that they couldn’t function without each other.

The magistrates were a large, mixed group of what were basically civil servants. Some of them, such as the Archons (ARE-cons) and Areopagus (are-ee-OP-uh-guss), were once very powerful. They ruled Athens as dictators in the days of the oligarchy. With the coming of democracy, most of their power was taken away from them. They and most of the other magistrates were chosen by lottery in the democracy, though a small number of magistrates who handled money continued to be voted in.

Military leaders were a necessity in the ancient world. As Athens was often at war, it was no different there. The U.S. has always benefited from having two large oceans between it and most of the rest of the world. Athens was less fortunate. Its strategic situation was more like that of modern Poland, which has long been a country feeling strong military pressure from outside, mainly from Germany and Russia. In the case of Athens, that pressure came from aggressive neighbors like Sparta and Persia. The generals of Athens were critical to help it survive.

The Athenians felt that this was one of the only places where it was OK to have a candidate chosen by vote. How did a democratic government justify this oligarchic voting? For one thing, the generals were only a very small part of the government, which was overwhelmingly democratic otherwise. Beyond that, being voted into office carried a price. The generals’ performance was reviewed after their time was up. If it turned out that they had abused their positions, they could face consequences, even severe ones. This threat of retribution is how the Athenians balanced the necessity of voting for their generals with their desire to keep those generals under control.

Like most other government positions in Athens, the law courts were filled by lottery. The result was another feature of democracy as recounted by Aristotle, and one of special interest to us: the jury system. There was no jury duty in Athens; people who didn’t want to serve on a jury simply didn’t volunteer. Though there were juries in Greece before the era of democracy, none had the equality or freedom from corruption that the Athenian juries had. That’s because the Athenian jury system was built on top of an elaborate system of lottery machines, which provided fairness that was mechanically enforced.

Athenian courts resembled ours, but only superficially. There were judges and juries, but neither worked like those in our system. Athenian judges were assigned by lottery. Unlike the judges in our legal system, they had little power to impose themselves on the jury. They were in the court primarily to keep order, and also to keep the proceedings moving along. It was the jury in Athens that had supreme power, which again is different from how our system works.

Unlike the Assembly and Council, the law court system stood mostly by itself. The juries didn’t just try the civil and criminal cases that you’d expect. At times they also acted like legislatures, and created the Athenian equivalent of constitutional amendments. More importantly, the court system had the power to review the decisions made by all of the other branches of government. The juries of the court system essentially had veto power over the whole government, something they were alone in having.


Belts and Water Pump

Lottery, incentives, and juries: these are major features of democracy as told to us by Aristotle. They also figure prominently in the plan to fix our jury system. What if it were possible to extend the Goodbye Jury Duty plan a bit further, and make democracy here in America?

 “We the People”

“Government of the People, by the People, for the People”

With the first democracy in over 2300 years, these would no longer be the meaningless slogans that they are now. At that point, the government wouldn’t be run by the rich, and it wouldn’t be run by the poor. It would be run by everyone, with people from all walks of life working side-by-side. The people you’d see would be the same people you’d see walking down the street of any large U.S. city: doctors, warehouse workers, corporate CEOs, students, movie stars, stay-at-home moms, engineers, plumbers, and cashiers. Democracy can become reality, but only if someone tries to make it happen. That someone should be us.

What would it look like? Is it even possible? You’ll find the answers in the next section, which is called All Together Now.