When automobile engineers began to obtain data that showed we humans are atrociously poor drivers, they didn’t hope that the majority of humans would, upon learning this fact, acquire the skills necessary to drive less badly. Instead those engineers developed airbags, anti-lock brakes, crumple zones, collision detectors and now collision avoidance technologies.
We’re in more or less the same situation with self governance. Democracy has failed for precisely the reasons Plato enumerated more than 2,500 years ago. As we humans are not going to change our fundamental cognitive structures, it is rational therefore to think about how we can engineer systems of governance that explicitly take our limitations into account and mitigate them.
Today, because we fetishize representative democracy in precisely the same manner as people used to fetishize the divine right of kings to rule, we’re persistently looking in the wrong direction. It is actually irrelevant who the candidates will be for the next election, or what their supposed policies will be. In reality across the West we see a tsunami of populism sweeping all previous values aside and replacing them with less functional ones, just as we saw in the 1920s and 1930s.
That time around, the democracies failed to learn from experience; we must hope that those who survive the horrors to come start to look forward instead of telling themselves comforting stories about how democracy is somehow still fit for purpose. We expect continuous improvement in almost every other aspect of our lives so it’s striking we’re so content to accept complacently an approach that is clearly now unfit for purpose because it implicitly assumes our cognitive abilities are very different from what we now know them to be.
In other words, it’s time to build systems of governance that have the equivalent of airbags, anti-lock brakes, etc. so we may mitigate our tendency to drive into oncoming traffic while shouting “I’m making driving great again!”