This essay is available in Journal of Public Deliberation: http://www.publicdeliberation.net/jpd/vol9/iss1/art11
A number of scholars have proposed democratic reforms that use random selection (sortition) to form deliberative bodies (minipublics). Sortition advocates often look back to Classical Athenian democracy for inspiration. However, most political theorists dismiss Athenian democracy as having no practical lessons for modern nation states, due to the issue of scale. I will argue that certain Athenian democratic practices and principles can overcome the challenge of scale, and that they can be used to design legislative systems that are superior to any legislative system used by modern representative democracies. My intention is not to idealize Athenian democracy – this was a society that held slaves, excluded women from citizenship, and created an empire by conquering other city-states. However, I will argue that certain aspects of Athenian democracy contain valuable lessons for reforming today’s governments.
Three key Athenian practices were:
1) choosing law-makers and other deliberative bodies by lot rather than election,
2) dividing legislative tasks between multiple bodies, each with particular characteristics, and
3) utilizing both temporary bodies and ongoing fixed term bodies in the decision-making process.
This structure allows for optimal performance by matching legislative tasks to the inherent characteristics of each type of body, while also minimizing the opportunity for power-hoarding and corruption.
The key Athenian democratic principles that underlie the system I will propose are the principle of political equality (isonomia), the right to speak and contribute (isegoria), and a belief in the ability of a cross-section of people to deliberate, weigh arguments, and make reasonable decisions .