Discover more from Granted
What If We Chose Leaders by Lottery?
It's a thought experiment, not a literal proposal.
More than a century ago, G.K. Chesterton wrote about a small country that selected its rulers at random by lottery. It wasn’t a real country—Chesterton dreamed it up for a satirical novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill. In my New York Times essay this week, I took the idea a step further. I proposed that America might consider replacing elections with lotteries.
I wrote the article because the way we select our public officials is broken. We systematically attract and elect candidates who are self-serving and shameless. In a world filled with divisiveness and derision, campaigning is increasingly unattractive to the next generation. The candidates with the greatest virtues don’t want to run for office, and the ones with the most vices will do almost anything to get it.
We’ve made little headway on reasonable reforms. We don’t have term limits on Congress or the Supreme Court. We haven’t overhauled campaign financing or widely adopted open primaries or ranked-choice voting. We haven’t turned public leadership into a profession like law or medicine. The only qualifications to run for office are age and (natural-born) citizenship. So I decided to pitch something more provocative.
Radical proposals often serve as lightning rods, absorbing conflict and allowing opposing groups to find common ground. (Think of the civil rights movement, where Martin Luther King seemed more moderate against the backdrop of Malcolm X.) Informed by evidence that groups actually make better decisions when their leaders are chosen at random rather than selected, I proposed a lottery. My hope was to stimulate thought and discourse about more effective—and feasible—ways to fix our system.
My inbox was flooded with extreme reactions. There was enthusiasm from Democratic and Republican presidential appointees who clearly understood my intentions… and angry messages from people who didn’t understand what I was trying to do. I was trying to start a conversation about rethinking our election system.
Obviously, I wouldn’t want a lottery for selecting heads of state. As I suggested years ago, I’d much rather design systems to help voters assess the competence—and character—of candidates. However, I do think a lottery could be an interesting model for Congress, where individual power is more limited. It’s easy to imagine a random draw of 535 people being more balanced, functional, and civic-minded than our current legislative branch.
After losing a reelection in 1947, Winston Churchill famously observed that “democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy is an experiment, and when it comes to choosing our leaders, we haven’t tested many alternatives. Perhaps we’ve been cautious because the stakes are so high. Yet refusing to experiment is a risk too—it closes the door to learning and improving. I’m not sure if a lottery is an experiment worth running. I am confident that if we want to attract and elect better leaders, we need to run more experiments.