Have we finally run out of luck?

Source: Jerry CumminsSource: Jerry Cummins

Human existence is frustratingly and sometimes terrifyingly arbitrary. Society seems to change chaotically. Nature throws us major curve balls all-too-often, with tsunamis, floods and earthquakes causing utter devastation and loss of life with little or no warning.

The world can be a scarily unpredictable place, and for many people, the point of politics is to make society more rational in some way, to collectively ensure that human existence is more steady and harmonious, so as to try and cushion some of the impact of the chaotic world we live in. Since at least Plato, political organization has been theorized as a means with which to order the world.

Rather than fighting the inherent randomness of our world, is there not a way we can use this unstoppable force to our advantage? Is the only option to swim upstream against the current? One alternative is to re-embrace chance, or luck, or whatever you want to call it. We need to think seriously about randomly selecting people to fill political offices.

Societies used to be on far more friendly terms with luck, no doubt some still are. Ancient Athens, Renaissance Venice and Florence used lotteries to randomly select citizens to rule, and present-day San Marino still does. The Bible has numerous references to lot. That is how Jonah ends up in the whale – he picked the short straw. God instructs Moses to distribute land by lot. In the 1884 High Court case of The Queen vs. Tom Dudley and Edwin Stephens, the two sailors pleaded guilty to having killed and eaten cabin boy, Richard Parker, with whom they were shipwrecked, after supposedly he fell into a coma. The judge sentenced the sailors to death, stating that they would have escaped guilt had all three men drawn lots to decide who would be eaten.

For many of us today it would seem ridiculous and even dangerous to introduce a chance mechanism into the heart of the political process. Yet we also agree that lottery is an eminently fair way of making a decision when we want to remove reasons from the process. For example, military drafts often use lottery in order to treat every citizen eligible to serve equally – without bias such as age, wealth, race, or ‘who you know’ (note the anti-Iraq war slogan; ‘Draft the Bush twins!’, which expresses the idea that if Bush used a lottery to draft soldiers for his invasion of Iraq, risking his own twins being selected, then Bush would less of a war-hawk).

Lottery is certainly democratic in this sense, but lottery is not always fair. Take the Athenian example – women or slaves were not allowed to be selected by the lottery, so the lottery was not ‘fair’ in a substantive sense. Nonetheless, the lottery still ensured that political office in the various legislative bodies (although military generals and other similar positions were always elected) did not rest in the same hands for too long (helping to prevent corruption), and also that all demes (district/constituencies), tribes (administrative and military units) and classes were represented relatively proportionally to their size.

The most obvious advantage of lottery is that, over time, it will far better descriptively represent the population – there will, by virtue of the odds, be far more MPs who are women, LGBT and/or ethnic minorities. This is fairly obvious, and a very strong argument for lottery. There are, however, two more unusual but also persuasive arguments.


Politics today is a chatterbox – we ask the same questions, have the same arguments and reach the same answers, pulling the same old levers. Parliament is a shouting and jeering match between two dominant parties. Certainly, we have fringe parties emerging to reap brief success, and there is regular rotation of office. We have the illusion of experimentation and change, but really, like a chatterbox, the same options keep reappearing.

Chatterbox paper fortune teller

Chatterbox paper fortune teller


Lotteries are inherently random, and, like the world, unexpected. This means there is far less scope for the rule of idées fixes. For poet Stephen Mallarmé, ‘every thought emits a roll of the dice’, but this could not be applied to the uninventive party manifestos of recent years. Selecting political officers by lottery will insert diversity into political bodies – people with radically different viewpoints and situated knowledges will voice their experiences and debate with each other. Some argue no decisions would be made, and that ordinary people lack the expertise to make complex political decisions. There are three counterarguments to this.

First, is it not better to have conflict, especially concerning particularly contentious issues (take the culture wars), in the institutional realm and public view, rather than allowing them to fester under the surface and then erupt in often damaging radical movements such as UKIP or the BNP? Secondly, there is empirical evidence from deliberative democracy that people will often change their minds after discussion, and majority agreements can be reached.

Thirdly, ‘Diversity Trumps Ability’. This is a theorem by Lu Hong and Scott Page which states that a randomly selected group will always be better at solving a problem than a group of very clever people who think alike. For example, randomly choosing 20 people from the street in London and asking them to solve a problem would almost always be a better option than asking 20 members of the Mathematics Department at Cambridge. This is because people who think alike get stuck in the same thought-processes, whereas cognitively diverse groups can use various methods and approaches, as well as various sources of knowledge.  One could argue against lottery on the basis of the desirability of a technocracy or a meritocracy – the idea that the ‘best’ candidate should get the job because they ‘deserve it’. However, the ‘diversity trumps ability’ argument in fact suggests that a diverse group of people is, collectively, the best candidate for the job. Meritocratic arguments based on political outcomes (rather than on just desserts to each individual), as well as technocratic and epistemological criticisms of lottery, can thus be rehashed in support of lottery.

One of the best examples of how random mechanisms can serve decision making is the use of scapulimancy by the Naskapi peoples of Quebec. They burn the shoulder blade of a caribou over a fire until it produces cracks. The Naskapi then hunt in the direction of the cracks. There are various interpretations of this practice, but the one that suits us best is that this randomized procedure prevents regularities in hunting patterns which might be detected by prey. The Naskapi realize that they will tend to hunt in similar tracks and directions, and that prey will therefore learn to avoid those routes, and thus the Naskapi defer to a random procedure. This may be heavily influenced by religion – but perhaps there is not that much difference between deferring to God and deferring to chance. For the Romans, Fortuna was a goddess after all. The Naskapi avoid well-trodden paths and developing habits, and perhaps we can learn from this in our choice of political representatives.

Fortuna turning her wheel

Fortuna turning her wheel



Political power at the moment is something like a consumer good. We ‘buy’ our leaders with our votes (the most votes wins), or people buy power more literally with donations to parties. In contrast, lottery means everyone can be called upon to serve their community. It thus forms a system that is collectively owned and run – politics is public property.  Of course, not everyone wants to serve on the legal jury when they are called up, and some may see serving in parliament as a burden as well. But what if you knew you would be paid £80,000 per annum as MPs currently are? What if you also get an office in Westminster and use of a flat in London? It is also the case that many people relish jury service when they undertake it – enjoying the civic responsibility of a chance to both influence other citizens and exercise their own vision of justice.

In fact, although many people say they do not have the time or knowledge to rule, or that ruling is the job of the politicians, it could also be argued that most people generally think they can do a better job than a lot of politicians, if only they were given the chance. The reason that so few people run for political office is that it is extremely time consuming, expensive, and it comes with all the risks of being in the public spotlight (not to mention the physical dangers so tragically displayed in the case of Jo Cox). There may be ethical reasons to allow people to exclude themselves from serving, but it remains the case that many people who would never have dreamed of running to be a Member of Parliament wouldmp at the chance to be transported from their everyday life into Westminster for a year or two.

On a grander scale, selection by lottery allows us to see that we live in a plural world – a world of public institutions that no individual owns, but which precede and survive our individual existence. This is surely a humbling scheme.

A common argument against lottery is that it is risky. What if, by chance, a majority of white supremacists were selected to serve? We can turn back to probability here. Even if 25% of the population are white supremacists (I hope the figure is a lot less, but this proves the point), then the chance of there being a majority of them (more than 50%) in the parliament is just 0.0038%. So, how many years would it take for this majority to occur (with 100% probability)? The answer is 79,924 years. It is certainly terrifying that this may happen, but modern liberal democracy is only about 100 years old, and 80,000 years is a really long time, too long, I think, to make it worth worrying about.

Using chance in politics may be unattractive because of the association with risk. However, I see no way in which this system will favour risk-takers, gamblers, the wealthy or the confident – the type of people who tend to be able to afford and desire taking risks. In fact, the opposite is the case. In electoral democracy, it is a well-established fact that the most charismatic candidates are usually propelled into positions of power. Maverick, power-hungry, figures like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage do frighteningly well in electoral politics. Lottery, in comparison, has a middling effect – it works by the law of averages. It is a stabiliser, which is why Socrates hated it – for him it meant that Athens would be deliberately choosing not to select the best person for the job.

This point can be turned on its head and made into one of lotteries major strengths. Sure, we may not select confident and brave heroes, but do we really want heroes? Is that not a power-hungry and outmoded trait of the ‘default man’? In another example, Shakespeare’s says that ‘extremity was the trier of spirits’ and that ‘fortune’s blows’ require ‘a noble cunning’ – haughtily mocking the idea that only ‘common chances common men could bear’. For all his militarism and noble cunning, Coriolanus is murdered having nearly brought Rome to its knees. Whether ordinary people can bear the arbitrariness of the world and modern politics has yet to be proved, but there is no reason to believe that politicians, for all their mastery, have done a better job than the wisdom of the crowd could do.

Perhaps we need to radically change the way we think about politics itself. Established thought and power structures could be replaced by more dynamic and experimental government. Rather than stating ‘politics should be like this’, perhaps we should be asking ourselves ‘what are the possibilities for politics now? what can politics become?’.

Lenny Lottery, the Sun’s former lottery correspondent.

Lenny Lottery, the Sun’s former lottery correspondent.