How Afraid Are We?

For decades it has been argued that we, as a society, should focus on treating the general populace as a “resource” rather than a burden or ideological impediment. Accordingly, one step in that process would be to re-introduce (and defend and promote) the noble, altruistic and largely forgotten concept of “public service.”

A bold step in that endeavor would be to consider the participatory democracy that existed in Athens, circa 450 BC. The ancient Greeks took the remarkably enlightened view that if we truly trusted Democracy—if we honestly believed in the wisdom and basic decency of the common man—then we should conduct ourselves in a manner that exploited that belief.

Instead of conducting elections where the wealthiest, most ambitious and most calculatingly self-serving among us run for public office, we should appoint people to those positions. Not only appoint them, but do it randomly, and make it mandatory. Do it the way we select people for jury duty. Say what you will, but this arrangement would be the surest way of guaranteeing that the U.S. doesn’t devolve into a plutocracy.

We must ask ourselves: Do we truly believe in Democracy? Do we genuinely believe in embracing the “will of the people”? If the answer is yes, then let us not only rejoice in that belief but let us act upon it. Under a system of participatory democracy similar to that of ancient Athens, instead of receiving a jury summons, we citizens would receive a “political” summons.

This summons would notify us that we have been randomly selected to serve a year or two in the U.S. Congress or state legislature. We will receive a modest stipend for this service, and only an extreme hardship will permit one from avoiding it. Yes, it’s a sacrifice, but it’s a sacrifice we will all be required to make.

Consider the analogy to jury service. In capital cases, where the death penalty is still in play, our judicial system gives a group of twelve random citizens the power of life or death over a fellow citizen. If a group of strangers can be trusted to gather together to determine whether a person deserves to die (or spend years in prison), why can’t a random sampling of the public be trusted to pass laws that affect the general populace?

The Greeks had the right idea. The last thing a nominal Democracy needs—indeed, the one thing that is guaranteed to cripple and eventually destroy it—is to have a de facto “ruling class” emerge. Accordingly, the only way to prevent that from happening is to radically democratize the process.

Think of the total transparency that will result, and the billions of dollars that will be saved in campaign funds. Think of how a group of random citizens sent to do the “people’s business” for a period of a year or two will disappoint the lobbyists.

Yes, a certain amount of squirreliness and chaos will ensue, just as it does on juries. That’s to be expected. But based on my personal experience (having served on eight trials), when people are given a solemn task, they tend to rise to occasion. They tend to do their best. They try. And isn’t that the underlying premise of a democracy?

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at