Selection by lot is a simple idea, so it’s not surprising that it can be useful in many situations. Whenever I see institutional dysfunction or idiocy, I think “how could selection by lot improve things?” In a discussion last week with the Lowy Institute’s Sam Roggeveen – a person of unusually good judgement and thoughtfulness it seems to me – my mind naturally turned to the question of how selection by lot might be useful in international relations.
Imagine a treaty between two countries in which either side could bring about diplomatic mediation by way of a citizens congress. That citizens’ congress would take place between two groups of citizens, one from each country with all appropriate support from translators and if necessary meeting in an independent country etc. They would be chosen according to some methodology utilising randomness subject to any requirements of representativeness of the national citizenry – for instance as to gender, age, regional location etc – as supervised by some trusted third party country or supra-national body such as the UN or the ICJ. They would then deliberate on any diplomatic matters at hand. I wonder if Australian citizens would have been as ungenerous with Timor Oil as our government has been, though it’s nice to see that there’s an end in sight for that business.1
Imagine the possibilities in the worst possible situation – that of war. Wars are so terrible, so horrible that my guess is that most are just a mistake. Sometimes they flare up when there are big, difficult things to resolve. And some of the worst we’ve known flare up as the result of poor diplomacy and/or unstable international institutions – like WWI. In both situations various toxic forces powerfully reinforce each other: Human beings’ physical and cultural ‘fight or flight’ mechanisms, their groupishness – their preparedness to their own and other groups behaviour with very different levels of understanding and empathy – and structures of political and economic power.
Rearrange the architecture of the way these groups become a group negotiating on its future and that future could be much brighter, much less pockmarked by horrific events brought on by accidents that foreclosed the necessary amount of goodwill being developed. As we saw most tantalisingly, most movingly in the Christmas truce, 1914 when the picture above was taken.
Almost invariably in the modern world, the decisions to wage wars are made by people with little skin in the game and then executed by ‘the people’ who, though they are often highly supportive at first, soon learn the ghastliness of what they’ve gotten into. So in some ways the kind of structure I’m suggesting is much more incentive compatible with the interests of the people.
But I’d go a little further. As I wrote in correspondence with Yanis Varoufakis:
Perform this thought experiment. Imagine that, whilst you were negotiating with the Eurozone – though I think the experiment would still be worth running today – you did it alongside a deliberative body comprising 99 Germans and 99 Greeks all chosen by lot. They would be supported by translators and diplomatic expertise from some neutral party and paid to meet one day each weekend to deliberate, advise and propose any of their own plans as Greece negotiated with the Eurozone.
The Greeks and the Germans have some hard talking to do!! But as we saw, the equivalent negotiations between those peoples’ elected representatives broke down into increased polarisation and recrimination as each of the representatives headed for their own media to ’spin’ their story and the media reported it all according to its values of entertainment, arousal and combat.
Reading this column by Roger Cohen, I’d love to find a way to get 100 randomly selected Israelis and Palestinians together to work on a peace deal.
- Declaration of (relative) ignorance. I don’t know a lot about this, so may need to revise my view as to our ungenerousness in the presence of any pesky facts. ↩