Better Approaches to Governance

Back in the days when everyone assumed nations should be ruled by kings or emperors, a few writers began adumbrating better approaches to governance. They noted that kings and emperors are rarely the wise and just rulers people crave, and that they are not easily replaced even when their errors of judgment cause enormous harm. Locke and Montesquieu in particular were interested in how human nature could be employed to check the worst excesses of human nature, much as Adam Smith used the same general notion years later when he outlined how the “invisible hand” of an open competitive market can, along with requisite government regulation, act in the best interests of the many while avoiding capture by the few. And so when a totally unexpected event occurred because a group of colonies in the New World took a stand against what they regarded as unfair taxation, the new ideas of Locke and Montesquieu were the intellectual seed capital that enabled the emerging United States to go beyond sovereign rule.

Today our systems of representative democracy are falling like nine-pins, bowled over by the unstoppable wave of populism that is sweeping the globe. Those who survive the horrors and privations to come will be in need of new ideas for more adequate systems of governance for the more thoughtful of them will not wish to repeat our mistakes and thereby suffer the same kind of outcome in due course.

The question that really matters, therefore, is simple: how can our highly fallible and intellectually constrained species, full of hardwired behaviors totally unsuited to coping with modern-world complexity, create systems that help mitigate our weaknesses and help us act in more coherent and productive ways?

To answer this fundamental question we need to break things down into pieces.

As noted in the preceding article (Why Democracy Failed), representative democracy is systemically unfit for purpose. To do better we need to break out the various components of governance and see how each, individually, may be better structured so as to promote better outcomes than those we are accustomed to.

The first component we can examine is the notion of representation. Representatives arose because of the tyranny of distance: it was infeasible for hundreds of thousands or even millions of people to gather in the same place at the same time to debate and arrive at coherent policy initiatives. So towns and cities elected representatives to carry their interests to the central parliament. As noted in the preceding article these so-called representatives rapidly became mere salespeople for their Party and thus representation was effectively diminished to near vanishing point. But we no longer suffer the tyranny of distance. Thanks to modern communication technologies vast distances can be traversed in a fraction of a second, information is readily available, and there are no technological barriers to people gathering virtually in potentially very large numbers to debate policy. Thus we no longer need representatives.

If we dispense with representatives we automatically eliminate many of the ills of modern democracies: partisanship, corruption, and incompetence. No one capable of even the most rudimentary mental functioning can look at the United States or the United Kingdom and argue with a straight face that representative democracy is alive and well. Anyone who can claim everything is fine should immediately apply for the position of Public Relations Consultant for the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea.

If we eliminate representatives, how shall policy be proposed and chosen?

To answer this question we first need to look at enfranchisement. Today we use age as a very imperfect proxy for competence. No matter how ignorant, slow-witted, bigoted, or outright loony you may be, provided you live long enough to reach the age of consent you can vote. Conversely no matter how well-informed and thoughtful you may be as a precocious teenager, you’re out of luck. The dullard can vote, but the clever young person is barred. This is obviously itself a dull-witted notion.

So once we abandon age as a very imperfect proxy for capability we are left with the conclusion that we should actively test for capability. After all, we expect demonstrated competence in nearly every aspect of modern life and we expect people to pass tests in order to show the necessary competence. You can’t get a driving license merely because you turn up at the test center wearing a red baseball cap proclaiming “Make Driving Great Again.” You actually have to show (a) you can drive, and (b) you know the rules pertaining to road use. Likewise when we board a commercial aircraft we expect those in the cockpit to have undergone rigorous training and evaluation prior to being permitted to assume the duties of pilot. Not only do we expect so-called white collar professionals to demonstrate competence, we expect the same of hairdressers, plumbers, electricians, and practically every profession upon which we rely on a daily basis. Given that voting is an incredibly important act that can influence the destiny of our country, it is only reasonable to conclude that people should demonstrate some minimum level of competence before being granted the privilege of being able to cast a vote. As for those who may say, “But how would you test competence? It wouldn’t be fair, it wouldn’t be right” we can merely note that if this objection were anything other than spurious we wouldn’t test anyone for anything, ever. The fact is, we devise tests and we improve them over time and there is absolutely no reason why testing electoral competence should be beyond our ability.

Of course there are degrees of competence. A commercial truck driver must demonstrate a far higher level of competence than an ordinary driver. A commercial pilot must meet far more stringent requirements than a private pilot. So we may tier electoral competence likewise, from town to region up to nation, for example. And competence is not a universal attribute. Just because Sally is qualified to fly a wide-bodied commercial jetliner doesn’t mean she’s able to perform neurosurgery. Just because Phillip has a PhD in astrophysics doesn’t mean he is qualified to remove a decayed tooth. So we may reasonably expect prospective voters to demonstrate competence in domains. Most people may select one or two domains that really interest them, a few may select more — there should be no limit other than the individual’s interests and capabilities. But we need to recognize that while Mary may be highly qualified to vote on matters of economic policy she has no demonstrated competence in matters of national defense and thus can vote on the former but not on the latter. Thus enfranchisement can be tiered geographically and by domain, leading to sets of voters who have demonstrated competence at their levels of enfranchisement within their subject domains.

Once we have such voters it is logical that they can also propose new policies — after all, they have demonstrated competence and thus are well positioned to do so. Provided policies are proposed anonymously so as to avoid human biases regarding gender, personality, and suchlike, we should find a much greater number of rational policies intended to increase national benefit rather than, as is the case today, irrational policies designed to appeal to particular segments of voters in a purely emotional manner or created to appease special interests that have bought or otherwise acquired undue influence over the so-called “representatives.”

Many will object that an approach of this kind would leave some people disenfranchised. Undoubtedly this is true. But we don’t give away driving licenses merely because some people won’t be able to pass the test or will lack motivation to apply. We don’t let anyone into the cockpit of commercial aircraft merely because most people don’t train to be professional pilots. And let’s be honest, this type of objection is hypocritical. When you next have a really bad toothache, will you really ask your neighbor Jenny to perform dental surgery on you in the name of equality, rather than seeking out a qualified dentist. When your car develops a fault, will you really ask your retired and rather enfeebled neighbor Dan to repair it rather than seeking out an automobile repair facility that has great reviews on your local business website?

The fact is, a complex modern world demands suitable competences. When we don’t require them, the results are dire and the consequences are harmful beyond imagining.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.