The date is some future November.

Across the country, hundreds of successful individuals receive the following e-mail: "We regret to inform you that you have been selected to serve a four-year term in the House of Representatives for your home state of Minnesota. This selection was made by the ELECTDRAFT6000 computer system based on your record of achievements, demonstrated intelligence and potential for positive public service. Your country recognizes the sacrifice this requires; however, this service is mandatory."

Why should national office not be a true merit-based system? We have thousands of politicians in state and municipal government who demonstrate a great ability to serve their constituents. We have corporate executives who demonstrate their ability to lead large organizations. We have academic stars who perform leading-edge research.

Why not draft from these high-achieving leaders for the good of the country -- not just those that want the job, but those who could do best? Far-fetched? Of course, but it raises interesting questions.

What are the real qualifications today for national office? Well, advertising and campaigning cost lots of money. This may require promises to uphold the priorities of interest groups. You also (usually) need some charisma, some ability to convince the crowds that you are the right person for the job.

Last, it helps to have intelligence and a command of the law, but this is not required. Nowhere in this process do judgment, pragmatism, or the ability to balance the competing needs and priorities of the country come into consideration.

In the 1986 science-fiction novel "The Songs of Distant Earth," by Arthur C. Clarke, a human society flourishes on a distant planet.

Their leadership selection is by assignment; the president points out that anyone who wants the job must be unqualified. It is hard to look at the dysfunction in Washington today without an appreciation for the wisdom of those words.