Why Paine’s Lottery Is Not Plausible

Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense reminds me of how the leader of a society must be able to interact with their public.  In the book he writes about how anybody should be able to rule due to a lottery, but I strongly disagree.  It takes special talent to be able to rule a society, an ability that is not easy to come by.  Of the many things that a ruler must be capable of, I believe that the sovereign of a nation be capable of having a great relationship with public that leads to the public’s usual obedience..

The relationship between the sovereign and the public is very complex.  Contrary to Paine’s beliefs, it is not something that anybody can understand or manage.  At all times both must keep the other satisfied in order to achieve peace, while also maintaining mutual respect.  However, the sovereign is an employee of the public and has a greater responsibility to keep the connection stable and adequately meet the expectations of the public.  The state will function ideally when there is a balance between the sovereign making laws and decisions that are genuinely in the best interest for their constituents.  But there will also be times when the sovereign must make unpopular decisions that will upset the people in order to maintain the establishment as a whole.  For example, budget constraints could cause the government to increase taxes or decrease the pay it gives to its employees.  These instances are illegitimate reasons to rebel when these measurements are done with the authentic interest of the people in mind.

As long as the decisions made are in the best interest of the people, the public ought to respect and obey the policies set forth.  When these conditions are fulfilled, there can be tranquil organization between the ruler and the public.  However, when these actions are not satisfied there are several possible instances, whether it is tyranny, exploitation, or ignoring the public’s rights, when the public can legitimately revolt.   Also, the government can truly be successful in preventing a revolt when it both cultivates an attitude of obedience and forces it through their power to initiate strict policies and penalties if necessary.

Paine does not seem to recognize the complexity of the relationship between the state of the public in Common Sense.  Instead, he naively believes that anybody can not only understand the relationship, can also do what it takes to manage an entire population and the government above them.  If anybody was to be elected head of a government simply through a lottery in which all citizens participate in, it could lead to the head of the state making many mistakes that can lead to a revolt.

There are several instances when a revolt by the subjects of the sovereign is legitimate, and also inevitable, and can ruin the relationship between a government and its citizens.  This results in an unstable distribution between applying power and respecting the rights of the people.  An illustration of this situation is discussed by John Locke in Second Treatise on Civil Government.  In chapter 19 of the book Locke writes about tyranny, defining it as “the exercise of power beyond right,” and its effects on the citizens of the ruling administration.  “The exercise of power beyond right,” can occur when the state makes policies that are outside of their jurisdiction and violates the liberties of the public.  He believes that anytime the leader or a branch of a government oversteps their boundaries and deploys their authority in an immoderate force, it is acceptable for the public to overthrow the sovereign and end the tyrannical exploitation.


Here is a link to John Locke’s book.

All citizens of the United States should be grateful that Paine’s suggestion of a lottery to decide who rules the government was not seriously considered by the Founding Fathers.  If it was, the country probably would not have lasted very long and would not have become such a powerful nation.

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4 Responses to Why Paine’s Lottery Is Not Plausible

  1. charliefilips says:

    Paine suggests that the president of congress should elected out of the delegates of the whole congress. Who becomes president is not determined by a lottery. The state from which a president is chosen is determined by lottery.

    You convey interesting ideas about the relationship between the electorate and the sovereign, however I think you would have benefitted more from analyzing what Tocqueville says on the topic. Its also very difficult to determine what is or is not an illegitimate reason to rebel against a government. It is equally difficult for a citizen to determine whether particular legislative actions are in their own best interest or not. I would have looked at Tocqueville’s idea on the moral authority of the majority and apply it to whether or not such an authority can justify legislative actions which may run in opposition to the wishes of a minority.

    I’ve conveyed a similar idea on another post but I want to reiterate the point because I think it applies to the ideas you presented. Paine’s text is not interested in offering concrete guidelines for the procedure of elections in a new republic. He admits that his ideas on the topic should be interpreted by readers as “the means of giving rise to something better.” (35) The central objective of the text is to provide the rationale for why separation with England is beneficial for all individuals within the American Colonies. His suggestions relating to legislative elections and procedure shouldn’t be interpreted as ideas that would make or break the fate of a new democratic-republic — he didn’t even believe they were good enough to stand on their own.

  2. davehopkins2 says:

    I would agree with the sentiment of the original poster if that were the system that Paine proposed in Common Sense. However, as the previous commenter has already stated, the only the state from which the president is to be chosen is selected by lottery. The original poster alludes to the possibility of “just anyone” being able to be president under the system Paine proposes. For the purposes of this assessment, I will assume that “just anyone” means someone who would not have the knowledge to run the state properly. I argue exactly the contrary. If we compare the current system of presidential eligibility to that which Paine proposes, we find that the current system lends itself to a much greater possibility of an unqualified person becoming president than Paine’s system. Paine suggests that each colony send a “proper number of delegates to Congress”. After these delegates have been sent to Congress, Paine suggests a method for choosing the President. This method is as follows, “When the delegates are met, let a colony be taken from the whole thirteen colonies by lot, after which, let the whole Congress choose (by ballot) a president from out of the delegates of that province.” (36) According to the way in which Paine would have the selection of the President proceed, only members of the legislature would be eligible for the Presidency. Does this not limit the selection of candidates for the Presidency much more significantly than the way in which we currently elect the President? In our current system, there is no requirement that a candidate must be from the Congress or even be a politician in order to be eligible to win the Presidency. The Constitution does lay out certain requirements regarding age, nationality, etc. However, these standards are much less limiting than those which Paine offers. Therefore, I argue that Paine’s system would limit the possibility of “just anyone” becoming President much more than the current system.

  3. bkemeter says:

    As the other commentators pointed out, the system in Paine is not directly as the original post selected. Paine wants to have the colony from which the delegates for president are chosen would be picked from a lottery. While it may make a politician be more experienced than currently, where no political experience is needed, I’m not sure the limit would be “better”.

    In Paine’s system there would be a Congress that elects the president annually. Each year after a the state was chosen from the lottery, they would not be included until every state had been picked. The pot would only be full every 50 years. I’m not sure how I would feel about that idea. Toward the end of the cycle I could really see a chance for, I guess, unethical tactics to become President. When there were a few more states left in the lottery I could foresee an influx of people who wanted to run for president either moving to the area or running for Congress in hope of having a shot. I wouldn’t call it corrupt, but there would be a large downside in my opinion.

    Another note, I’m not sure about Congress voting for the president. It would be ideal for a classic liberal to have the government take care of itself. However, personally not having say for the Head of State would not too great. It could have ended up much like the Electoral College has, but it seems much less likely for it to become a popular vote later on.

  4. Bobby says:

    I object to the author’s use of the word “rule” when describing the act of governance. The President does not rule over the people, he serves the people.

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