Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 2: Get involved, sure, but know where you need to go

When things do get better in society, most voters think it was because of them. Pats on the back all round. WE made the right decision, WE voted the right people in for the job.

And sure, to take just one successful example, the various formulations of the Rights Movement over the last few hundred years was mostly a bottom-up approach. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Children’s Rights, Gay Rights, Animal Rights. Each started in the hearts and minds of normal, every-day people moving together to create a critical mass. Eventually electing a representative from their own ranks, they push their cause into or out of law through sheer weight of numbers.

Good things (and bad things) have been given to us by fervent crowds of people. And for the most part, we’d all be in a worse place if they didn’t push as hard as they did. There’s still a lot more work to be done on many fronts and thankfully some of us are still trying to get there. But the aggregate for a healthy society and the realisation of the Just City really does seem to move in a positive direction. Especially in societies with democratic values and processes. But I believe it’s difficult to unambiguously laud politics and the electoral process as the method responsible for many of these societal evolutions.

It seems more truthful to say that both miniscule and giant societal leaps occur in democracies not because of the process of voting, but mostly in spite of it.

Because having a champion rise from the ranks of a movement is not always a desirable outcome for the good of a society. Perhaps a Ghandi or Martin Luther King Jr. appears, sometimes gaining ultimate power in that country. This has been an unmitigated good for the vast numbers of oppressed people. (Of course, those leaders probably weren’t so useful for the hegemony they dislodged, but the force of numbers and determination of the public pushed their societies in better directions nevertheless.) The American and Indian nations both function better for almost every sector of those cultures because of such leaders. They all came from a bottom-up movement, not a top-down approach, that’s the key.

But then so too can the politicians who buy their way to the top by taking campaign donations to influence whichever sector of society they say they’ll support. Both the good and bad politicians are always beholden to their fickle masters in the voting public. Should they stray, or respond to other competing sectors of society, alternative leaders can always be found. This gives some leaders the incentive to mould their decisions towards those members of the public with the most influence or power. While those leaders appear to listen to the cries of the people, their ears are bent only towards those with the loudest voices.

As quickly as they reached the top, both the good and bad leader’s wings can be clipped. If the public doesn’t like what they see, all they need to do is vote to change it. At least this is what’s advertised on the cover. In reality, the quagmire of politics and the minefield of ideology get in the way. The tendency to recognise the most influential parts of society over the least is human nature, especially if it agrees with pre-conceived notions of politics and ideology. 

Healthy democracies and a well-educated voting public might be more equipped to see through the dangers of ideology, but even they do not always vote for impartial and rational reasons. Popular movements often become special interest groups ready to manipulate the democratic outcome in their favour long after the initial goals have been realised or diverted, continuing into successive generations who might not possess even remotely similar ideologies to their forebears.

What might have started as a noble cause can very often morph as the sand slips from beneath their feet and mission-creep sets in. And this is supposed to be the benefits of politics and voting? This is how our society perpetuates? Remember that just because you’re shouting and people are listening, doesn’t mean you’re right. Maybe we’re mistaken and our idea lacks verifiable data? It might put fire in your belly and frustrate you with how simple and obvious the fix would be. But not every good observation comes from common sense. It’s great for things which don’t really matter - like not touching a hot stove with bare skin - but common sense tells us the world is flat too.

This is the problem with a system set up to listen to those who shout the loudest with the most influence. Very often the people who form movements from the bottom-up are the ones who get it their way in the end, if they persist.

They rise out of the ranks of activism, and, if they’re smart enough and choose their time correctly, a few of them might rise high enough to help along the movement from the top rather than from the bottom. Even if a movement is clearly beneficial to many people, such as Civil Rights, just championing a cause and becoming powerful does not necessarily indicate that cause’s objective worth. After all, the Nazi’s came to power using the system of democracy perfectly.

Very often this sort of self-filtering power drive run by movements or activists neglects the needs of the many for the wants of the (relatively) few. Or, as can happen occasionally, the system neglects the needs of the few for the needs and wants of the many. Neither are good outcomes if you’re on the sharp end of getting nothing.

To say it another way, if our world really is complex with layered chaos, why should one of those fractals dictate how the rest of us should live? Decisions by governments informed strictly by what their voters “believe” out of “common sense” is asking for trouble. Moral panics, revolutionary fervour, ideological ferocity, or political myopia are all useless and destructive if they snowball before the data is truly in.

So many sections of society get a disproportionate share of attention for their needs, while others get trampled, but why? Why do people in the aging, hippie-era parts of our society get so much attention from the politicians? Why do rich people get tax havens and favourable business rules? Simply because they choose to vote. They vote, and they game the system to carve out more for their personal desires. Their needs often end up trumping emerging needs in the rest of society.

For some reason, the act of voting into power those willing to listen to the retirees or aging hippies is sufficient to ensure the old folks getting what they want. I only use pensioners as an example here, but the argument can be made for every sector of voting society as well. We are each of us just as guilty if we vote on what we think would be best from our perspective, when most of us cannot point to the data or methodology which will prove ours is the perfect societal model. They can’t all be the perfect model.
So few people listen to the folks who actually have the data, because our old friends Politics and Ideology stand up to get in our way. Changing our minds is both the most difficult and most important learned trait, yet so few of us appear ready to embrace objectivity to find the balance.

The question is, why should the self-described and admittedly (even by the voters themselves) selfish ideals and needs trump every other need? Why is it that a sufficiently strong group of people (the exact size dependent on the democratic voting system, of course) should, if their movement’s representative is elected into power, control where the focus and resources of a society concentrate?

A common response is that if you don’t like it, go out and vote for your own ideals. If you don’t like it, try to counterweight the prevailing lean and push the decision a little more towards where you think resources should be spent.

But this misses the point entirely. I’m perfectly happy to criticise the political ideals held by others, as both contradictory to my own and lacking sound reason, to trump all other ideals held by society. At the same time, I’m perfectly happy to let my own beliefs meet the same scrutiny. Why should my ideals trump others’? I could be wrong, and I may need to change my mind, but suppose the damage is done if I acted politically on those beliefs before the data was in?

It seems that without an objective process to determine methodologically which model best suits the greatest amount of people, then there will always be corruption in a democratic system. Those with the clout will direct society every time, even if they’re wrong. But gaining clout as a counterweight only lumps the same problem on your shoulders, it does nothing to fix it. People always believe their views are the right views, they wouldn’t hold them if they thought they were bogus.

And I understand the dilemma binding any forward progress in which trying to please everyone inevitably pleases no one. There must be a balance, and to find it we need to start recognising the importance of science and methodology. There will always be someone who comes off worse if one model is preferred over another, but refusing to do nothing out of fear of hurting even one person is not the recipe for a healthy society.

Well neither, surely, is choosing the direction for your society arbitrarily based on politics or through a manipulating voting process. Playing the politics game to drive a belief very often refuses to employ anything like a rational scientific method to determine whether that belief is useful or not. The voting public usually doesn’t care whether the politicians they support stand on foundations of sand or rock. Even the politicians themselves cannot point in every case to rigorous studies by experts which back up their policies or decisions.

The way the brain works explains this. Beliefs are formed in a human mind before reasons to believe them are researched. We go out and get data only after we’ve made up our mind. It’s crazy, but it happens all the time. Few people have the time or inclination to studiously compare or contrast the myriad differing governing ideals rationally, relying instead on their predetermined beliefs to direct their decisions. Politicians prey on this very natural human tendency.

We can’t keep playing the politics game where everyone thinks their governance model is the best for society, but no one can rigorously show with verifiable data which one actually is. Falling back on an ideology or a pre-packaged political belief is the laziness and natural human reaction most voters choose when faced with the humbling mound of complexity in a modern society.

Getting involved in government is honourable, and interest should be applauded. But running an intricate system like a country or city is hard. It takes guts, time, and brains to figure it all out. That’s why treating the questions of society like they have simple answers by ticking a few boxes based on what your “common sense” tells you every few years I suspect does more harm than good.

Part 1 here, Part 3 here

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