Monarchies Are Better Than Representative Democracy
Primate group species depend on social cohesion for their survival. Nowhere is this more true than in our own species, as we lack powerful muscles, sharp teeth, and tearing claws. For nearly all of our evolutionary history, the survival time of a solitary human would be measured in hours. In consequence, our brains have been shaped by millions of years of selection pressure to contain hardwired behaviors that are as predictable as the rising sun or the ocean’s tides.
It’s instructive to watch a troop of baboons. They can be sitting around, grooming each other, staring blankly out at the horizon, chewing mouthfuls of food, and generally enjoying a moment of tranquility. Then something startles one or two of them and a moment later the entire troop is howling and jumping up and down. Each baboon’s individuality becomes submerged in the group hysteria so that the troop acts as a single quasi-organism, teeth bared, ready to fight or flee.
We see precisely the same thing with human crowds. The French recognize the mindlessness of mobs in their language: the word for crazy is derived from the same root as the word for crowd (fou, foule).
We know that mob mindlessness can have very damaging consequences. Hitler used his rallies as a means to create huge numbers of obedient drones and Trump’s rallies have successfully engendered all manner of civil harms. Brexit was predicated on stirring the ignorant and low-IQ into a frenzy of nationalist fervor that is no different from the reality-free babble of AfD and PiS supporters in Germany and Poland respectively. In India, Modi is whipping up tens of millions of Hindus into a state of religious hatred that is likely to result in genocide.
We humans have always been total suckers for a glib-talking demagogue and we’re always easily persuaded to become agitated. The fact that the social cohesion we rely on in our modern complex inter-connected world is severely damaged whenever we start jumping up and down and whooping and baring our teeth means that this hardwired behavior is now hugely dysfunctional.
You’d think, therefore, that we’d take steps to minimize the ease with which we’re all turned into drooling howling dull-eyed imbeciles.
One of the beautiful things about representative democracy is that it is guaranteed, by the very way in which it operates, to exacerbate our most self-destructive tendencies rather than mitigate them. To see why this is the case we can perform a simple thought experiment.
Let’s imagine we’re back in the days of Kings and Emperors. It’s obvious that the ruler will want to rule for as long as possible with as little hassle as possible. After all, it’s difficult for someone to enjoy the great privileges of absolute power and enormous wealth if the kingdom is in turmoil. Even a very dull-witted monarch (of whom there have been uncountable instances) will in some remote corner of what passes for their mind grasp this essential truth. If they can restrain their ego-driven desire for martial glory and restrain their cupidity and thereby keep taxation within reasonable bounds, there’s every chance they can remain comfortably on their throne for decades. The ruler has no compelling reason to whip the crowds into a state of resentful agitation but rather has very good reasons to do everything possible to maintain a state of calm.
In short, the general interest of the monarch is aligned with the general interest of the population as a whole: peace and stability.
Representative democracy, conversely, creates precisely the opposite condition. No aspiring politician can hope to win votes by saying to the mob, “Well, actually, my opponent’s policies are very sensible, she’s a good person, and whether you elect me or elect her, things will more or less be all right.”
Instead, in order to win votes, aspiring politicians have to create the illusion of vast divisions. “My opponent is a soulless harpy, a woman who wants to confiscate your babies and eat your guns, a woman who wants to impose communism in this great capitalist nation, and everyone who supports her is evil and is opening the gates to an influx of foreign rapist terrorists who will steal your jobs and live off our generous welfare system!”
Only by getting all the people jumping up and down and howling and baring their teeth can an aspiring politician harvest the votes necessary to achieve power. The interests of the politician and the interests of the population as a whole are diametrically opposed.
Meanwhile, the interests of media organizations are also diametrically opposed to the interests of the population as a whole. Editors learn early in their careers that sensationalism is all that matters. No one wants to read about facts and necessary context; everyone wants to gawp mindlessly at blaring headlines and misleading sound-bites. And so that’s what the media organizations pump out 7/24, ensuring that the population is simultaneously misled and terrified by whatever the latest manufactured sensation du jour happens to be.
Ordinary people simply don’t understand the degree to which their notions about the world are shaped by the media’s interest in ensuring a constant stream of revenue. Ordinary people think what they read and see on TV provides an accurate picture of reality. Yet even a moment’s thought is sufficient to tell us this is completely false. Think about airline crashes. Every news organization on the planet will feature headlines about the crash; the number of dead is repeated endlessly. In the days following, every airline near-miss, mild mishap, or other reportable incident is splashed across the pages in order to keep the sensation going. Yet not a single news organization will report that more than 100,000 flights take off and land without incident every single day of the year. As a result, ordinary people imagine flying to be infinitely more dangerous than it really is.
We can repeat the same contrast between newsworthy sensationalism and actual reality with every single topic that is presented in the media. The media doesn’t need to fabricate “fake news” because it’s so much easier simply to present real facts in a context-free way. SARS-COV2 provides merely the most recent example of a permanent commitment to information distortion. A distortion that causes irreparable harm to society as a whole.
Politicians and the mass media naturally form a symbiotic relationship in which each benefits from the activities of the other.
Of course, Kings and Emperors are a woefully inadequate method of governance. Even an unusually competent incumbent will inevitably pass power to a less competent child. Infantile rulers can inflict enormous harms not only on their own subjects but, by means of inducing war, harm others elsewhere too. And rulers are rarely competent in even the most basic elements of economics. We can no more argue for a return to the days of Kings and Emperors than we can argue for a return to the Wright Flyer as a primary mode of transportation.
But the inadequacy of Kings and Emperors is not at all an argument in favor of representative democracy, any more than saying that because cholera is less harmful than the Black Death we should all seek to contract cholera.
Churchill’s dictum that “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other forms that have from time to time been tried” is usually trotted out as a lazy excuse for not attempting to engineer better approaches. Yet this determination to stick to something that is hopelessly inadequate is quite bizarre.
Today our automobiles are infinitely safer and more comfortable than anything available even a mere forty years ago. Our domestic appliances are more efficient, safer, and easier to use than anything found in a 1950s kitchen. Our modern airplanes transport us around the globe in safety and relative comfort unattainable by even the wealthiest potentate of the 1940s. Our medications are significantly better than anything available to Queen Victoria. Our entertainment options would astonish Howard Hughes and William Randolph Hearst. Every single aspect of our lives has been improved by both incremental and revolutionary alterations over the last two centuries.
Except for the way we govern ourselves.
It’s as if we should walk into a modern-day intensive care unit and see surgeons dressed in black woolen garb carefully administering leeches to every patient while a priest mutters incantations in the background.
It’s as if we should return home after a long day at work to find our domestic partner putting dried cow-dung into a clay oven while children scurry around trying to avoid being bitten by the rats that criss-cross the compressed-earth floor.
It’s as if we should summon an Uber only to see a horse-drawn cart slowly trundle into view.
When we consider how every aspect of our lives is subject to continuous improvement, it becomes astonishing to realize that we’ve excluded what is in fact the single most important aspect: the way we govern ourselves.
Poor governance creates social divisions, inequality, bad laws, discrimination, and adverse health outcomes. Poor governance creates wars, shortages, and a wide range of self-harms. Poor governance impacts every single person in a way that even the most ubiquitous technologies cannot accomplish.
And yet we continue to stumble along with a sixteenth-century solution, telling ourselves that it is the best we can do.
Frankly, this is insane.
If we can make a reasonable argument for the idea that even Kings and Emperors are better than representative democracy, why are we incapable of seeing that it’s long past time we attempted to engineer something better?
The only argument that people used to advance on behalf of representative democracy that was not completely hollow was that at least with representative democracy, while a nation will never have a wise and benevolent ruler at least it will never have total incompetents at the helm. A kind of bumbling mediocrity lurching from one unnecessary disaster to another was seen as preferable to the risk of having a congenital moron sitting at the apex of power.
Brexit, Trump, Modi, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Orban, Erdogan, and so many other have conclusively shown this one last feeble claim on democracy’s behalf is as hollow as every other argument raised in its favor.
If representative democracy can muster no arguments in its favor that cannot be defeated with absurd ease, and if empirical evidence likewise shows its total inadequacy, why then do we continue to believe it is the system of governance to which we should cling?
Simply because people everywhere and at all times believe whatever they are told and are incapable of assessing reality for themselves. Until recently everybody knew that Kings and Emperors were the only possible way for nations to govern themselves. It was so self-evident that arguments in support, such as divine right, were accepted without question. Under the Soviet system and today under Chinese Communism, hundreds of millions of people accept without question the automatic right of the Party to decide every important aspect of life. We humans are abysmal at dealing with reality and absolute patsies when it comes to believing any fairytale we’re told by purported authority figures.
And so dysfunctional systems roll forward indefinitely because our brains aren’t evolved to question “the way we do things around here.” As a primate group species we’re so desperate to feel as if we belong that we adapt ourselves to our surroundings, no matter how mad they may be. And we feel powerless to change anything.
Yet sometimes, albeit rarely, change is possible. Although there are still forty-four monarchies worldwide, in only one country does the sovereign still holds supreme power: Saudi Arabia. So we’ve learned to let go of Kings and Emperors even though we still retain the trappings in some places. Around two-thirds of the world’s people currently live under de facto dictatorship, often dressed up as democracy. Of the remaining nations, only the Scandinavian countries plus the Netherlands, Germany, and the Baltic states offer anything approaching adequate government under a democratic system. The rest of the world’s democracies are a joke: mendacious incompetents elected by ignorant simple-minded electorates pursuing ruinous policies of self-harm.
Change takes time and although once a tipping-point is reached events appear to move quickly, in general the road that leads to such tipping points is long and weary. We have not yet begun to set our feet upon the path of constructive change; indeed we appear to be facing decades of increasing social disharmony punctuated by brief illusory moments of seeming respite as we end our accidental experiment with representative democracy. Rather than stumble blindly in circles, we need to begin thinking carefully about how to design more adequate systems of governance. Such systems must take into full account all that we’ve learned about our limitations: our inability to reason, our eagerness for simplistic sound-bites and memes that are within the grasp of the cognitively stunted and our aversion to complex reality, our mob mentality that is so easily exploited by the unscrupulous, our inherent us-versus-them emotional posture, our fixed-pie limited-horizon thinking, and our inability to learn from experience. To this we must add the knowledge that any element of moral hazard contained within our system will guarantee the eventual collapse of social cohesion as those able to exploit loopholes will do so in order to gain advantages at the expense of others.
In short, we need to behave a lot more like automotive engineers seeking to compensate for the fact the average person is an abysmal driver, and a lot less like Pollyannas and Panglosses who believe everything happens for a reason that was meant to be in this best of all possible worlds.
It won’t be easy to develop more adequate systems of governance. But quite literally everything is at stake, so it’s time we took up the challenge.