|Photo: Pete Charles
- Belief in the intelligence of ordinary citizens.
- Belief that ordinary citizens can be kept sufficiently informed about the issues.
- Belief that ordinary citizens are prepared to disregard their self-interest in cases where there is a conflict with national interest.
- Belief that ordinary citizens are interested in making decisions instead of delegating politics to professional representatives.
- Support for amateurism insofar as common sense is considered sufficient to make rational decisions based upon presentation of expert knowledge.
According to Mogens Hansen1 these 5 pillars are what laid the foundation for Athenian democracy. It would seem that only the shadows of these pillars remain in our modern democracy.
Public decision-making today is in the hands of professional and career politicians and bureaucrats. These politicians allow us (the ordinary citizen) only a glimpse of the information and knowledge necessary to make public policy. They suggest to us that we are not intelligent enough or do not have the experience to make informed and rational decisions.
My experience from working in the field of community development for some 40 years is that ordinary citizens are very interested in making decisions about what affects them. Furthermore, given full, accurate and timely information and the opportunity to learn and debate collectively, most ordinary citizens do make considered and wise decisions.
So, how did the Athenians maintain these 5 pillars? When direct democracy meant that there would be too many at the forum, the Athenians used a rather different technique for selecting their decision-makers than we do today.
They used sortition. Simply put, sortition is the choosing of representatives by random selection. A simple, fair and equitable system.
That means that you or I, or your dentist, or the woman running the dairy at the corner of the street, could be randomly chosen to be a public decision-maker.
This means of choosing our public decision-makers has many benefits, including:
- the spreading of civic skill rather than it being in the hands of a minority of career politicians and bureaucrats,
- reduced opportunity for powerful lobby groups to “buy” the allegiance of representatives2,
- ensuring that public decision-making is informed by a wider diversity of backgrounds, experience and knowledge than is presently the case,
- a much cheaper method of selection,
- greater opportunity for sections of society presently not or under-represented being included in public decision-making processes,
- less likelihood of an adversarial environment in which decisions are made (eg political parties would become largely redundant),
- enabling ordinary citizens to discover their wisdom and ability to participate in public decision-making.
1. Mogens Herman Hansen is a Danish classical philologist who worked for 40 years at Copenhagen University.
2. For example, organisations with gambling interests donated almost A$1.8million to Australian political parties in 2011-12 at a time when the the government was considering dropping poker machine reform. During the same year, mining interests donated over A$700,000 as the debate on the Carbon Tax raged. (Australian Electoral Commission quoted in Sydney Morning Herald, 2-3 Feb. 2013)