A better system of government

Originally posted on Tue, 11/06/2012

I’ve been seeing (and commenting on) a lot of suggestions about how to improve our democracy. It’s been said that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. Winston Churchill is most famous for saying that (“it’s been said” and all), but we’ve over half a century with lots of advances in game theory and psychology, so perhaps it’s time to revisit this assertion.

First we must decide what the purpose of government is. It’s not strictly to enforce the will of the people, for several reasons. Even in a democracy of one person– or a dictatorship– a leader might not know what he wants or be wrong, by later judgement. With more people, there’s even less agreement. What’s more, it’s important for people to have certain rights, regardless of the will of the people.

For the purpose of argument, I’d say that the purpose of government is twofold:

  1. To ensure an equitable distribution of power. At a minimum, to keep tyrants, corrupt officials, invaders, thugs, bullies, and thieves from taking over. Taken to an extreme, this may mean heavy-handed wealth redistribution. There’s a lot of room for interpretation in between, depending on what you consider equitable. My own take is that, in each generation, every person should have a fighting chance to rise to the top of society, and nobody should become completely disenfranchised. (Note that this is aspirational: I don’t know of any government that always succeeds at either.)
  2. To facilitate cooperation, as necessary. That is, to make sure that services that can’t or shouldn’t be provided individually are taken care of, either by providing them directly or indirectly through laws, regulations, and policies. That’s really more of a means than an end, so I’ll append: …in order to sustain the best of human values, for the present and future generations.

That being the case, is democracy the best choice? Many of the biggest problems that face our world are environmental or economic, where experts have a far more nuanced (and often completely different) view than the population at large. Government is most successful when people are intimately involved in measuring outcomes, but don’t necessarily care about implementation details. Sanitation, for example. People don’t know (or care) where the trash goes, so long as they don’t have to care, but will complain immediately if it doesn’t get picked up. Or schooling. School works best when parents complain immediately when things go wrong, and taxpayers are willing to pay to make things go better. But global warming? That takes decades to measure, and few have the expertise to measure it.

Economics is similar. The biggest factors that effect the economy, in my opinion, take 10-20 years to have an effect. Education. Investments in roads and other infrastructure. Cultivating a business community that makes long range plans. And preserving free-market enterprise. (“Business friendly” policies tend to be pro-existing-business, and therefore anti-free-market.)

The biggest advantage of democracy is that it is extremely good at distributing power. Power tends to consolidate. The wealthy and powerful– whether individuals, associations, or corporations– use their influence to gain more influence. It’s a corrosive effect that seeps through the cracks in every society. And once it becomes overwhelming, the disenfranchised try to take back power.

This is not unique to democracy. If anything, democracy works to protect the bullies– by keeping them from getting so powerful that they are overthrown violently. I see society as like a car going down a road. Ideally, the driver keeps the car in the middle of the lane, but at a minimum tries to keep it out of the ditch. The driver, in a democracy, is lazy. People have better things to do than to pay attention to politics. So it’s like a car with a sleepy driver, who wakes up when the car drifts too far, gets back into the lane, and dozes off again. That’s a whole lot better than monarchy and other dictatorships, which is like a bus where the driver doesn’t have to care about staying in the lane. It occasionally crashes, people die, the bus gets repaired, and someone else becomes the new driver. (Or you have a parliament which tries to replace reckless drivers, when the parliament itself isn’t reckless.)

So the qualities that make for a good government are (1) measurable progress toward goals (call it transparency), and (2) responsiveness, which is an antidote to corruption. There are plenty of organizations that do well in this regard that aren’t democratic. Successful, customer-focused companies (such as Apple) make it easy for people to judge them, and people do. They are held to a higher standard, which they don’t always meet. Apple, for example, delights its customers with high-quality products, and is also more transparent than any other electronics company when it comes to fair labor practices in their factories. The irony is that people associate Apple with poor labor practices, because we know more about them. You can be sure that Dell and HP don’t have better practices. Similarly in government, it appears the most corrupt when you hear about every little whiff of potential corruption, which is in fact when it’s the least corrupt.

So is democracy the best? For exposing and fixing corruption, you need activism to come from all corners. That doesn’t necessarily mean everyone voting in the way we think of it. Our election cycle is too infrequent to deal with immediate problems, yet too frequent to provide long-term leadership. And yet, because power tends to collect, we can’t afford to have politicians who persist for too long, lest they become too powerful.

Here are a few things I’d like to see for good governance, whether it’s in a democracy as we know it, or not:

  • A democratic process that engages people at the appropriate level. Not asking them to make decisions about technical issues they can’t be expected to become experts in, nor asking them to choose several Soil And Water District Supervisors, and over dozen judges (as I do). But to give them an opportunity to choose a few leaders, whose qualities they can be expected to research and judge.
  • A selection process which promotes consensus builders. So you aren’t choosing between the far left and the far right. Nor are you necessarily choosing the “safest,” most center-of-the-road candidate. I think multiple-choice voting (e.g. instant run-off) would be far better than our current system in this regard. That is, the winner would have to be acceptable to a majority of voters, not simply get more votes than the alternative. But you also need a system for choosing the candidates that’s more flexible than the current party system, where a radical group can overtake the nomination process.
  • A culture of engagement, where corruption is not acceptable. Where diverse opinions are discussed, but lies and distortions are not tolerated. In some ways, the echo chamber of the Internet is a step back from the old days when most people got their news from a few authoritative sources.
  • Resilience against power grabs. Small groups that can take over a nomination process, for one. But also organizations that lobby for tax loopholes that aren’t a big deal individually, but add up to a lot of corruption over time. I’m not sure what the cure for the latter is, except perhaps to limit the complexity of certain kinds of laws. (Referenda aren’t the answer: deceptive advertising influences voters even more than lobbyists influence politicians.)

If you were to design a system from scratch based on these principals, you’d end up with something unlike democracy as we practice it today. But it’s not impossible to get there from within our own system. Like so many things, the theoretical properties (how many legislators, how many parties, electoral or direct elections, etc.) aren’t as important as how well it is implemented. And that implies constant vigilance.