Image credit: Psychology Today

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to world news (not, admittedly, a very large percentage of US citizens, but let’s keep going anyway) knows we’re in the closing phase of our two-plus century experiment with representative democracy. While most people remain fixated on unimportant details, imagining that it matters who the next Democratic candidate is or what the Irish Backstop solution will be, the far-sighted understand that it’s no coincidence that we’ve seen a tsunami of populism sweep the globe in the last half-decade.

Brexit, Trump, Orban in Hungary, Babic in the Czech Republic, AfD in Germany, PiS in Poland, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Duterte in the Philippines, and coming soon to Italy and France: Salvini and Le Pen. There are too many other right-wing demagogues around the world to list here, but the point is obvious: this isn’t about the political situation in any one country; it’s about the deep fundamental failings of democracy that have given rise nearly everywhere to blustering incompetent demagogues.

There are two things we need to do to get out of this mess, but we’re not going to do either of them. That’s because we humans are hardwired to cling to what we have. We fear loss far more than we value gain. We’re stasis-machines. Unlike in the world of hi-tech, innovations and improvements in the social realm occur very infrequently and always in the face of desperate opposition. And in any case, events are moving too fast for any meaningful social change to mitigate the self-harm we are inflicting on ourselves. Which is shame, because the solution to our problems isn’t conceptually difficult.

First of all, we no longer need “representatives.” They were created because it was impossible to gather everyone together to discuss the important matters of the day once civilization grew large. Ancient Athens could gather a good proportion of its 35,000 eligible voters together on a regular basis but try doing that across an entire modern nation. So we invented representatives to carry our interests to the assembly.

Problem was, three or four hundred people all talking at once and no one listening to anyone else didn’t permit any kind of decision-making. So Parties began to form, accreting around like-minded representatives. Soon, as representatives began to appreciate the many perquisites of power, being re-elected became the over-riding priority. Parties began to formulate policy based not on the interests of society as a whole but based on what they thought would most appeal to a large enough bloc of voters. Instead of being representatives, politicians became first and foremost salespeople. Worse yet, criteria for success were all based on glib persuasion rather than actual ability to discharge their duties effectively and responsibly.

Today we have an amazing invention called the Internet. It has removed the tyranny of distance. Hence we no longer need representatives.

If we get rid of representatives we achieve a few huge immediate wins:

  1. There’s no one to bribe now, so corruption and influence-buying diminish significantly

2) Instead of personality, voters can focus on policy

3) Policy can be based on what’s good for the nation rather than on what’s good for getting re-elected

But if we have no representatives, who will make policy?

We will.

Whereas most politicians have no domain expertise and very little intellectual acumen by means of which to acquire such expertise, there are in fact a lot of people who know quite a lot about their area of specialization. There are many more who understand enough to be able to assess policy proposals within that domain rationally and coherently.

This means, of course, that we need tests of competence to ensure that those who get to vote on a particular subject domain have enough knowledge and competence to do so coherently. Otherwise sensible ideas will be drowned out by the same dull-eyed drooling howling mob that today cheers every Trump stupidity, that cheers every crime committed by Conservative Party politicians in the UK in the name of Brexit, that reliably supports every so-called “strong leader” because they crave simplistic certainty in a confusing complex world far beyond their intellectual grasp.

Oh, but we can’t have testing! Remember how many years ago some people rigged tests to discriminate against some other group of people? This means testing is bad. Evil. Racist. Elitist. It’s a firm no to any concept of using tests to assess qualification for voting.

Testing Is Evil. End of discussion.

Okay, let’s assume this knee-jerk reaction is valid. Let’s assume for the time being that we can never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, use any form of test to assess whether or not a person should be permitted to vote on policy within a specified subject domain. Because Testing Can Be (and Therefore Will Be) Abused.

The very first thing we do once we’ve reached this Politically Correct knee-jerk conclusion is to root out the evil of testing everywhere we find it, because it is (according to the knee-jerk argument) always going to be abused.

So no more testing for competence. No more professional qualifications. Want your taxes done? Hey, Jimmy down at the auto repair place can do them for you. Sure, he’s never done taxes before but he’s sure he’ll be naturally amazing at it. He’s going to make Doing Your Taxes Great Again.

Want your abscessed tooth fixed? Mary next door can do it for you. Sure, she’s never even looked inside a mouth before but now we don’t have any testing, now we don’t have any requirements for doing anything, she’s your best hope.

Need surgery? How about Gordon? He used to make model aircraft as a kid so his hand is reasonably steady and he used to watch M.A.S.H. so there’s little doubt he’ll do just fine.

As we will no longer impose racist fascist discriminatory biased testing to determine driving skill, we’ll need a lot of Gordons because the road traffic accident rate will skyrocket. But that’s a small price to pay for ridding ourselves of the evil of testing.

Want a PhD? Why bother studying for all those years when you can award one to yourself right now? After all, we can no longer tolerate academic testing because it’s so obviously going to be abused, so why not? Let’s just hope you don’t give yourself a degree in structural engineering and then try to design a big suspension bridge…

Now we’ve used reductio ad absurdum to show why the “we can’t test for voter competence” argument is empty and plain silly, we can look at how we actually, in the real world, can use testing to create a far better version of democracy.

The world is very complex, so we break things down into components. We have people responsible for the economy, for trade, for defense, for social services, for infrastructure, for civic affairs, and so on. We can adapt these rough-and-ready categories as the basis for spreading the load. Of course many of these domains interact with each other in a complex manner but we have no better way at present of dealing with complexity than to slice it into manageable portions and then do our best to deal with the inter-relationships.

Once we’ve done this categorization work we can develop tests to assess competence in each domain. We already do this in every other aspect of our lives. Provided the test criteria and test results are open and transparent, there’s little chance of creating intentional discrimination. Any inherent bias can be quickly identified and corrected. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s infinitely better than getting a Trump or a Brexit today, and a Mussolini and a Mao tomorrow. And we can employ continuous improvement to make our testing more and more fair and accurate, whereas today’s approach to governance precludes any improvement.

Which is odd, because in every other aspect of our lives we’ve come to expect continuous improvement. A cheap automobile today is infinitely safer and more reliable than anything even the richest person in the world could have bought a century ago. The cheapest wristwatch is accurate to a few seconds a year whereas the most expensive and laboriously constructed timepiece of sixty years ago was accurate to a few minutes per month. Our clothes, transportation, entertainment, and medical services are all astoundingly better than they were just a short time ago, because of continuous improvement.

Isn’t it bizarre that we think the most important aspect of our lives, the way we govern ourselves, should be excluded so we limp along with an outmoded and non-functioning system?

Or we can just keep chanting “Testing Is Discriminatory!” and stick with what we have despite the fact it is so obviously and so disastrously broken.

And of course, that is exactly what we will do. Because it’s easier than acknowledging reality and accepting the need for change.

Let’s just hope there are a few people, years from now, who after surviving the totally unnecessary horrors we’re about to inflict on ourselves, look up from the wreckage and say, “let’s not do that again.”

For these people, testing for competence won’t be the Politically Correct anathema that it is today. It will be the foundation-stone for a far better approach to self-governance that will serve everyone far better than the inevitably inept corrupt incompetent clowns we elect today in the absurd belief that this is a vaguely adequate way to manage our affairs.

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