How can we avoid the many mistakes of today’s preferred method of governance?
Today’s world is very complex and most of the important issues appear to be beyond the intellectual capabilities of most of our citizens. Most of us vote on spurious grounds for candidates who are incompetent and unscrupulous. That’s why we’re seeing a tsunami of mindless populism sweeping the world and brushing aside the fragile norms of civilization.
A quick list of a few of the more blatant examples of blustering halfwits is enough to demonstrate that mindless populism is a global phenomenon: Brexiteers in the UK, Trump in the USA, Duterte in the Philippines, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brasil, PiS in Poland, the AfD in Germany, Orban in Hungary, Babiş in the Czech Republic, Erdogan in Turkey, and of course Putin in Russia. All these, and many more, were democratically elected. All these, and many more, are fatally undermining their countries.
Take a bow, representative democracy.
The fact is, while it’s true that representative democracy was indeed better than queens and emperors, it was only a little better. As the world has become more complex, and as our mass media has trivialized and sensationalized everything, representative democracy has shown itself to be completely unfit for purpose. In a great many countries, special interests have captured the body politic so we have a sham democracy in which real power and real decision-making occurs off-stage.
How can we expect to achieve adequate outcomes when we have ignorant and easily fooled electorates voting for incompetent and venal representatives?
Some would like to imagine that we can rescue representative democracy, but that’s rather like imagining we can rescue the Roman Empire or resuscitate long-dead animals. The fundamental flaws of representative democracy are simply too many and too great.
This is because representative democracy is in fact a misnomer. We don’t have representatives.
What we have is a class of professional sales people whose job is to sell the policies of their Party to a sufficiently large number of voters. Meanwhile, voters tend to vote based on group affiliation, just as we identify with our favorite sports team. Hardly anyone makes sufficient effort to educate themselves adequately on even one or two of the major issues of importance; perhaps one in a million exerts themselves enough to vote coherently.
Worse still, the probability is that there’s no one to vote for, because the politicians are busy pushing policies designed to attract votes (and, sotto voce, serve the special interest groups that hold real power) rather than to benefit the nation.
So why are things this bad?
We only have representatives because in the old days it was impossible for us all to gather in a single place to vote on proposed policies. In ancient Athens people could gather in a single place because there were only 30,000 eligible male citizens. Today, the size of the nation-State and the large number of voters makes any such gathering impossible. So we invented so-called representatives.
But thanks to the Internet we don’t need to gather physically. We can easily create a quorum online. So representatives are no longer needed.
If we don’t have representatives, who will propose policy?
The answer is: ourselves. But there’s a caveat.
When we step back and think about nearly every aspect of our modern lives it’s clear that we expect demonstrations of competence before we let people do things. Want to drive an automobile on the public highways? Pass a driving test. Want to pilot an aircraft? Become certified. Want to practice surgery? Qualify as a doctor, undertake an internship, then study under a qualified surgeon until you can demonstrate your abilities to a sufficient level. For all our professions we expect qualifications: for lawyers, for accountants, for electricians, for plumbers, and even for hairdressers.
So why not expect qualifications from those who wish to propose policies? And why not expect qualifications from those who wish to vote for policies?
It’s no good arguing that this means some people (perhaps a great many people) would no longer be able to vote. Because that’s like arguing we shouldn’t have driving tests because some people can’t pass them. Or we shouldn’t make doctors and pilots pass tests because some people might want to perform surgery or fly commercial aircraft but can’t pass the tests.
Sure, for the person who can’t pass the test, testing seem unfair. But is it fair to let incompetent people drive merely because they want to? Is it fair on everyone else if we let unqualified pilots fly us into the ground? How fair is it for the patient if an untrained surgeon cuts into them?
As with all things, we balance the needs of the individual against the needs of society as a whole. Which is why we do have driving tests and we do require our doctors and electricians etc. to pass tests before they can practice their trades. We’ve learned to create tests that are good enough, and we can always improve them over time. So pretending that we can’t test for competence is foolish because it ignores the overwhelming evidence that (i) we can, and (ii) we already do in most aspects of modern life.
As voting is one of the most important things we do because it has long-term consequences, it’s impossible to argue coherently that we shouldn’t require some demonstration of competence before granting the right to vote.
Just as we segment professional qualifications, so too can we segment subject-domain qualifications. A person may be qualified to propose and vote on economic policy at the level of the City, State, or Nation (depending on the level of qualification) but that doesn’t entitle them to propose and vote on healthcare policy. We don’t automatically grant a pilot the right to perform surgery, for example.
Anyone sufficiently motivated to get qualified gets to propose policy and vote on policy at the level and in the domain they’re qualified to do so. There is no necessary limit on levels and domains. Testing can be done online anonymously to remove issues around skin color, mythological beliefs, or any other feature that could result in human (but not impersonal computer) bias. This would in fact be far more fair than today’s systems of testing, which all rely on humans to make subjective as well as objective judgments. If we accept today’s flawed tests we can’t really object to the idea of less biased testing in future.
Someone with sufficient interest, intelligence, and knowledge could qualify to vote in several different domains. All that matters is proof of competence.
And if all policy proposals are anonymous, we remove entirely the possibility of voting for something merely because the voter “likes” the person proposing the policy. Using the Internet means we can achieve anonymity in a way quite impossible if we had to gather together in a public space.
Once we’ve decoupled personality from policy, and eradicated political Parties because we’ve removed representatives, and we’ve required some evidence of competence before people can propose and vote on policies, we’ve removed nearly all the systemic flaws of today’s version of representative democracy.
Corruption vanishes because there’s no one for the special interests to capture. Irrational voting vanishes because there are no group associations possible with an anonymous policy, and only those with an adequate grasp of the issues are allowed to vote. Gridlock vanishes because there are no opposing Parties. And today’s biases are largely eradicated because it’s all anonymous and based on transparent algorithms that can be continually improved as flaws come to light.
Although all modern States require a bureaucracy in order to implement policy, a process of temporary secondments from the private sector can provide the necessary expertise while ensuring that a permanent cadre of bureaucrats cannot capture the system and pervert it for their own benefit. So we can have more adequate policies and more adequate delivery mechanisms.
There are, of course, a great many details that this brief article can’t begin to touch on. But the core point should be clear: we can no longer lurch and stumble around in the hope that representative democracy can somehow one day be slightly less inadequate.
As for legitimacy, let’s remember that nearly everyone at every time simply accepts whatever the social structures happen to be and assumes that’s the way things have always been. Russian peasants accepted the rule of the boyars and the Tzar for hundreds of years without question. Most societies accepted queens, emperors, and sultans for thousands of years as the only possible way to govern. The fact is, for the most part people accept what they’re given. And if we provide a system of governance that works better than today’s shambles, most people will be content most of the time.
Unfortunately however, we can’t get to there from here. People hate having things taken from them and today we all expect to be allowed our “right” to vote regardless of how little we know about the topics of importance and how nonsensical our voting preferences may be. Very few of us would willingly embrace a new approach to governance that requires us to surrender our“right” to vote.
We’d far rather do the wrong thing and suffer horrible consequences than try something new, and we’ll rationalize away our inertia instead of stepping back and attempting to think more clearly. That’s just who we are.
So we will have to pass through a period of horrors, a new Dark Ages, in which everything we value will be destroyed and hundreds of millions will suffer terribly.
After this, however, there may just be some slender possibility that the survivors will look back on what caused the horror and say, “Let’s not create representative democracy again. Let’s put something better in its place.”
Who knows if this will occur? All we can do, in the present, is to generate ideas that may be of use at some distant point in the future. After all, if Locke and Montesquieu et al hadn’t written down their ideas, the thirteen Colonies of North America wouldn’t have had the inspiration to create the US Constitution when they broke away from Britain during the Revolutionary War.
It’s easy to be against the idea of needing to demonstrate competence in order to gain the right to propose policy and vote on policy. We’ve fetishized our current system to the degree most people can’t see past it, just as we used not to be able to see past queens and sultans. But that doesn’t make representative democracy a valid or coherent system.
It’s easy to be worried about the issue of testing, but let’s face it: we’ve mostly resolved this problem already. After all, we don’t complain about making lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, electricians, pilots, plumbers, hairdressers, etc. having to past tests, do we? We don’t shout about how all testing will inevitably be biased against some particular segment of society and therefore all tests should be banned. Furthermore, who among us would be truly happy to get on a plane piloted by a totally unqualified person who merely thought they’d be “the greatest pilot, the best pilot” or undergo surgery by an unqualified person who merely thought they’d be “the best surgeon, the greatest surgeon, everyone says so?”
So when we object to testing to prove competence, we’re merely being hypocrites. Testing is mostly a solved problem.
Moreover, when tests are made completely transparent we can see where biases creep in and we can take steps to remove biases and improve the tests. We can engineer systems that improve over time and we can take explicit steps to avoid capture by special interests.
Contrast this with our present systems of representative democracy, which neither improve over time nor avoid capture by special interests. Today we’re seeing even more gerrymandering, Jim Crow laws 2.0, and a whole host of similar distortions that are occurring precisely because representative democracy is such a terribly flawed system in which little opportunity exists to hold back power grabs by special interests. Trump and the Republican Party have dumped feces all over the US Constitution and in the UK Brexiteers are moving to dismantle the independent judiciary. In Poland PiS have been doing the same thing for the last few years and in Hungary Orban has long since neutered all opposition from courts and from civic society. Putin in Russia has established rule by a single man: himself.
In a different system, in which there are no political Parties and in which all proposals are anonymous and automatically filtered to remove pandering to special interests, we will have a much better chance of arriving at outcomes that benefit all rather than merely benefit a special few, as is the case today.
I completely understand that few of us will be able to abandon our blind unquestioning attachment to “the way we do things today.” For all of human history, we humans have resisted change and clung to the old ways. That’s just how our ape-brains are hardwired. And that’s why we can’t get to a better system of governance until we’ve lost everything.
Perhaps, just perhaps, at some distant point in the future when there’s nothing left to lose, a few people will gather together and try to engineer a far more adequate way to govern ourselves. And at that point, perhaps a few of the ideas I’ve sketched here (and detailed more thoroughly in my book Why Democracy Failed) will be useful. I hope many more such books will be written by others, all attempting to suggest new approaches to governance that are far less failure-prone than our current system.
New ideas will be needed, many years hence.
But for now, a new Dark Ages is nearly upon us. The lights of civilization are going out all around the world, and we will not see them lit again in our lifetimes.