Idea alert

Italian researchers posit that legislatures would be better off if some members were selected at random from the population.

The scientists made a simple calculation model that mimics the way modern parliaments work, including the effects of particular political parties or coalitions. In the model, individual legislators can cast particular votes that advance either their own interests (one of which is to gain re-election), or the interests of society as a whole. Party discipline comes into play, affecting the votes of officials who got elected with help from their party.

But when some legislators are selected at random – owing no allegiance to any party – the legislature’s overall efficiency improves. That higher efficiency, the scientists explain, comes in “both the number of laws passed and the average social welfare obtained” from those new laws.

Efficiency is generally a nice thing, but I’m more interested in what this could do to remedy everything else that ails the modern legislature and answer those nagging questions of relevance, discourse, openness, purpose and meaning. (At the very least, wouldn’t it be an interesting idea for Senate reform?)

Let’s say that after every federal election, 20 individuals were selected at random to serve in the House of Commons. The logistics would require a lot of consideration. Would everyone of voting age be eligible for selection? What precisely would be required of these people? Would they have to move to Ottawa? Could they be part-time MPs able to vote remotely? On what grounds would people be allowed to opt out? Or would we ask people to opt into a pool from which the 20 individuals would be selected? Would randomly selected MPs be allowed to join parties? Would they have all the rights and privileges of elected MPs?

Assuming a system could be arrived at that did not place grave hardship on its participants, the possibilities for a better system are intriguing. In addition to obviously making the House more relevant for the 20 participants, wouldn’t the presence of those 20 individuals make the House more relevant to the population at large? Wouldn’t the possibility that you too could be selected to serve in it make Parliament more relevant? In a minority parliament, those 20 votes could be crucial. Presuming they did not align themselves with established parties, their views and speeches would almost immediately be more interesting than the strictly controlled backbencher. Indeed, would the presence of free-speaking MPs, unencumbered by any deference to party or even voters, force changes to party discipline? Wouldn’t the scripted backbencher seem even more diminished by comparison?

What this idea might also get to is something that Alex Himelfarb and Charles Pierce have written about in their own ways recently: the idea that democratic society entails not just freedom for the individual, but obligation to others, and the sense that that idea is being slowly buried. And maybe that is part of the disconnect that defines the modern House of Commons. It is difficult to write about such things without descending into airy platitudes or baseless nostalgia, but there is certainly a cynicism that hangs over the House of Commons and it’s probably not far removed from the same cynicism that presently hangs over ideas like obligation and community. To oversimplify: The House is presently regarded as a silly place full of politicians who don’t care about us and who we don’t like or, at the very least, would rather not have to think about too much. Or something to that effect. The Commons, conceivably the exalted forum that should stand as a great symbol of obligation, service and community, is generally dismissed as the setting of a silly game. That is probably not the worst thing in the world—and count me among those who will also argue against taking too stuffy an approach to these things—but I dare say the House should generally hold some redeeming value, be regarded (even if quietly) with some seriousness and be treated with some deference.

Would the inclusion of 20 randomly selected members of the public fix any of this? Maybe. Conscription probably doesn’t legitimize the military, but juries are probably inherent to the legitimacy of our legal system. I suspect the presence of 20 citizen MPs would make the institution of parliament a bit more difficult to casually dismiss or disregard. It would also promote ideas like obligation, service and community. And if you consider those worthy pursuits, this might be an idea worth pursuing.

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