Radical Ideas for Changing the Democratic System

Updated on October 5, 2016

A Radical Idea From the Past

Sortition is the oldest of the ideas implemented to create a balance between the need to represent the will of the people and the need for a stable and effective government. The definition of sortition is selecting representatives from a wider pool of candidates. Sortition has been practised in many countries, but has withered away in the recent past, replaced with other forms of democracy. If people know anything at all about sortition, it is that it was practised in Ancient Athens. In the Athenian version of sortition, anyone was eligible to become a representative, but only those who put themselves forward were chosen to enter the lottery. They were entered into lotteries using kleroteria machines. The names picked in the lottery would go on to serve in government.


What did democracy really mean in Athens? - Melissa Schwartzberg

Critics of the idea of sortition claim that it will make government worse, not better than it is now. These critics point out that critical thinking and decision making skills are unequally distributed throughout the population. Some people have what it takes to make the right choice when it comes to important decisions, and others don't. Sortition doesn't mean government by people of all levels of critical thinking ability, because the people motivated enough to put their names forward for government office are probably more skilled on average than the population as a whole. However, it may in some cases mean government by people with weaker critical faculties than our current governors. Advocates of sortition argue that any lack of experience or skills in candidates can be remedied by intensive training. However, this criticism does weaken the case for sortition overall.

Direct Democracy

Direct Democracy is exactly what is sounds like- voters have a 'direct' effect on government policy by voting in ballots and referendums on various political issues. Direct democracy has been proposed as a solution to the discontent of voters which has arguably led to both Brexit and the rise of Trump. Supporters of Direct Democracy argue that people feel more alienated from the political system than ever, and the sense of a greater personal stake in outcomes which is fostered by Direct Democracy is the solution to this. Many people today feel that politicians act in their best interest rather than than the interests of citizens. Regardless of the actual truth of this feeling, direct democracy restores trust, because citizens decide what is best for them as a collective.

Voting Booth


Critics of Direct Democracy argue that Direct Democracy can lead to an unstable and unpredictable government, with voters choosing how to vote based on inaccurate evidence on the internet, stories they have heard from friends, and personal anecdotes. They thus will make decisions that harm their own welfare. Politicians have teams of economists and policy makers who look carefully at the evidence to decide the best option for them. Supporters of Direct Democracy call for better political education, but even this may fail to solve the problem of an uninformed public.


Jason Brennan proposes a form of government he calls the 'Epistocracy' in his book 'Against Democracy'. The book title 'Against Democracy' must seem outrageous to anyone reading who lives in a democratic country. How can a principle which seems so fair, rational and self-evident be a bad thing? Brennan thinks that we should look beyond our intuitions and look at whether democracy actually succeeds, instead of assuming that it does.

In the book Brennan divides the voting public into three distinct groups. First there are the Hobbits. These people are uninterested in politics, and leave it to others to debate political issues. Then there are the Hooligans. This group forms the majority of the voting public. This group has strong views on a variety of topics, but they rarely have good reasons for believing the things they do. They believe simply because it is accepted doctrine in their respective political parties. They are only interested in researching politics in order to confirm their existing views, they don't like to challenge what they already believe. Finally, and with the best name of them all, there are the Vulcans. The Vulcans try as much as possible to think critically and methodically about politics. They approach politics like a social scientist. They read broadly on a whatever topic it is they are trying to form an opinion on. They ask friends of various political persuasions to present the best case for their views. They look at what fact checkers and social scientists have to say about a particular issue. They may consult their personal life experience, but they primarily look at the evidence to decide what to believe. Most readers of Brennan's books could best be described as Vulcans. However Vulcans are rare, few have the patience and thinking skills to take the Vulcan approach to politics.

Proponents of democracy often say that it works fairly well. Voters sometimes choose awful candidates, but the experience that follows soon shows them the error of their ways. As Churchill put it: ' It has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time'. However Brennan thinks that this misrepresents the evidence which shows that democracy is failing. Brexit is one example of a decision which seems to most people with a good understanding of economics and policy, completely irrational and inexplicable. Yet 52% of the British population were in favour of Brexit. Brennan argues that these mistakes are a frequent occurrence in the current system where anybody, no matter how politically ignorant, can vote.

Brennan argues that we need a type of democracy, but not the type we have now. His answer is the 'epistocracy'. Brennan proposes a test on various political issues. The cut off point for the test would be roughly at the 'good' level of political knowledge. Anyone whose level of political knowledge could be classified as 'good' would be allowed to vote. Anyone whose level of knowledge whose knowledge is 'bad' would be prohibited from voting.

This is radical idea, and for some an epistocracy could not fairly be called a democracy, but a dictatorship of the knowledgeable. However, Brennan and others like him think it could transform democracy for the better, solving many problems with a simple, one-time change to a different system.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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