Toward true Democracy

Here’s the latest from Tom Atlee about government by the people….

Ancient Athens didn’t have politicians. Is there a lesson for us?

Few people realize that in ancient Athens – the original democracy from which modern democracies supposedly grew – no one was elected to be a representative.  There were no public offices elected by the people.  They just didn’t have politicians.*

They had voting, of course, because it was a democracy.  But they voted for proposed laws, not for candidates.

And they had a Council of 500 (the “boule”) who proposed laws for all the citizens to vote up or down in Athens’ participatory Assembly.  Ah!  So that’s a powerful role, being able to create the proposals that the people voted on!  So how were those 500 councilmembers chosen?

Well, believe it or not, those powerful people were ordinary citizens who had been chosen by lot – by random selection.  And Athens’ democracy didn’t stop there.  No way!  Nearly EVERYONE holding public office or serving on a governing board was an ordinary person who had been chosen by lot.  (The only exceptions were top military and financial posts, which constituted about 100 of the nearly 1000 government positions to be filled.)

In other words, Athens – that ancient city-state we consider “the birthplace of democracy” – was governed by randomly selected ordinary citizens. (For more detail, see or web search for Athens random selection)

This random selection approach – technically called “sortition” or “allotment” – was THE method for selecting people in government positions and, especially, in the Council of 500.  Here’s how it worked:  Each of Athens’ ten tribes (which were themselves defined to contain people from diverse territories and clans) picked 50 of its members at random to be on Athens’ Council of 500.  No citizen could serve on the Council more than twice, but most citizens served at least once in their lifetimes.  Within the Council, one of the ten tribal groups was chosen – by lot – to serve as presidents for the Council’s various sub-activities for about a month.  Furthermore, within that group of 50 presidents a chairman was chosen – again by lot – to preside over the other presidents for just one day.  Why only one day?  The chairman of the Council’s presidents was the most powerful office in Athens, holding the state seal and the keys to the state’s treasury and archives.

So we find that ordinary Athenian citizens – like ordinary Americans or other citizens of modern democracies – could EACH aspire to preside over their ENTIRE government.  However, those ordinary Athenians – UNLIKE most ordinary modern citizens – ACTUALLY had an excellent chance of serving in that lofty office.  It is estimated that “approximately one half of all Athenian citizens would, at some point during their lives, have the privilege and responsibility of holding this office, arguably the closest equivalent to a Chief Executive in the Athenian democracy.” (ref: the link given above)

The Athenians were obsessed with the necessity of random selection for a democracy.  They believed – quite rightly, it seems to me – that random selection not only made corruption very difficult but also involved the entire citizenry very directly in the challenges and powers of government.  In other words, random selection made Athens a true government of, by, and for its citizens.  For them, what made a democracy a democracy was random selection with few, if any, officials being elected.  Thus no politicians.  (We might also note that although they also supported voting, they were wary of mob rule and gave it a name: ochlocracy.**)

As the Wikipedia article on Athenian democracy says, “elections would favor those who were rich, noble, eloquent and well-known, while allotment spread the work of administration throughout the whole citizen body, engaging them in the crucial democratic experience of, to use Aristotle’s words, ‘ruling and being ruled in turn'”.

Compare that with our electoral system.  Electing people to office actually makes us a republic like the Roman Empire more than a democracy like ancient Athens.  We elect representatives… but who is this “we” and how representative are these “representatives”?


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