I have been referring to the kind of government and associated structures that exist is the U.S. and Western Europe as Western Style Government System (WSGS). I have been looking for a convenient term that could replace this acronym.

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As long as bribery – of the direct, money-under-the-table kind – is not involved, abusing government power in a Western style government system cannot be punished more severely than by removal from power. That is, an elected official pursuing policy that is perceived by the public as damaging to the interests of people cannot be sanctioned in any way other than by not being re-elected. For example, a congressmember who tries (or succeeds) to push through legislation which allows the release into the air of pollutants that can cause the death of tens of thousands of people cannot be prosecuted as having some responsibility for those deaths.

Applying other types of power – say economic power, or a position of influence through control of a media channel – in order to exert disproportional political power for nefarious purposes is completely unpunishable. Lobbyists, for example, who promote bills that favor the interests of a certain industry over those of the public cannot be held accountable in court. A columnist who advocates a war that would (or does) result in mass killing cannot be prosecuted as having some responsibility for the disastrous policy.

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Athenian government relied heavily on random allocation of political power. Modern Western-style government systems are thus more similar to the government system of Sparta than to that of Athens.

However, in terms of official (and probably popular) ideology and the general structure of society, Athens is indeed a precursor of modern Western countries.

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I think that it is commonly held that our system of government had been inspired by and bears a resemblance to, both in its ideology and in its machinations, the government of Ancient Athens. This idea is expressed and reinforced by the modern usage of the term “democracy” which was also used by the Athenians to describe their system of government.

In reality, however, the formal structure of our system of government – basically a system dominated by elected officials (Congress, the president), but with significant governmental power held by non-elected officials (the courts, especially the supreme court) – does not resemble the structure of Athenian government at all. It does, however, bear a striking resemblance to the government of Athens’ arch-nemesis, Sparta.

Western society, however, does resemble Ancient Athenian society in other, very significant, ways: In its ideology and in its economic structure. It seems that it is fair to say that Western society borrowed Capitalism from Athens, and elected government from Sparta. The result is a society that is much more oligarchical than that of Athens and much less communal than that of Sparta.

The government of Sparta relied on the following institutions: the Ephors, the lower magistrates, the Council of the Elders, the co-kings, and the Apella (the assembly). [All the information here is taken from Gilbert’s “The Constitutional Antiquities of Sparta and Athens”, 1895. Available from Google Books.]

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The problem with elections

September 6, 2007

This is an essay I originally wrote in the early months of 2006.

A Democratic Alternative to Elections

Legislative bodies are selected through elections in all modern democratic countries. In view of this rule, to which there is not even a single exception, one might presume that elections are the only democratic method to select a legislative assembly. Such a presumption would be wrong. There is another democratic method to select legislators, a method that was used widely in the past (and was in fact considered more democratic than elections), but is almost completely forgotten today.

The alternative method is called sortition [1]. Sortition is the method of selecting the legislators by drawing lots among all the citizens. Those citizens whose names are drawn serve as legislators for a fixed period, as is the common practice with elected legislators. [2]

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