Thursday, 7 November 2013

Fixing Democracy - Part 3: The Romans were on to something

Many critics of democracy point out the flaws in almost every step of the process. It’s the voters who are the problem; they need more education or are too selfish.

No, it’s the politicians with their ignorance or delusion lacking moral backbone. Maybe the country itself is hard on people, splitting them up rather than cohering them. It could be the society around the people, it’s just not as developed as it could be and too many people care less about building society than about staying alive from day to day.

All of these might be true, and some countries tragically experience each flaw at the same time along with other imperfections. But the problem in most advanced societies is not democracy, but the divisive politics.

Those artificial schisms people make for themselves and the tribal mentality sucking them further apart tend to distract them from the realities of how easy things can be to fix, playing right into the hands of that special breed of humans who can exacerbate those differences to gain extra power: the politicians.

A truth not widely known is that most social ills can actually be really easy to fix. The key is to start from the bottom with the rest of a hurting or disenfranchised society.

When was the last time an elected leader ever led from the front in trying fix a problem felt at the lowest corners of society? Real change is always a bottom-up process, almost never a top-down imposition (unless that top-down change is disastrous, like in Soviet Russia under Lenin and Stalin). This way of changing things in our world doesn’t exactly ring an endorsement for casting votes and elected officials.

Those fantastic Rights Revolutions started at the bottom. When it came time to create the laws to ratify them, the politicians were only useful to debate over the details and eventually push pens across paper. They sometimes come from the ranks of the people in the movement, but they didn’t start the ball rolling from their positions of power. They simply followed the will of the voting public who ultimately hold the reins to their power and who could find someone else to represent them if they wanted. Elected officials are the result, not the cause, of people wishing for change.

I agree this might be an oblique endorsement for keeping some sort of power in the hands of a few officials placed at the top, although it doesn’t endorse voting them there under the guise of fixing the problem. We do that by ourselves with popular movements. We should only need officials to sign the papers we put in front of them. That should be their job, nothing more.

Government officials should be ceremonial at best. After all, with the gravity of signing new things into law, we need to have a few people with the relative “power” to do this thankless task. But it by no means endorses the process by which these people gain “power” in the first place.

The thing many people confuse is position with legitimacy. Just because a person is at the top does not mean they’re suitable for that position, and just because a person is at the bottom does not mean they shouldn’t be at the top. The only legitimacy a government official should ever have is for listening to what the people and the experts are saying and then to sign proposed changes in to law. Their position should give them no further power. Their name should not be remembered. They are pen-pushers, that’s it. But I’ll get to the details later.

It’s important to remember how the better parts of the ancient Roman Senate encouraged their officials into positions of power. The understanding around what type of Roman should govern is highly instructive because it tells us who is not fit for the job today.

Although it didn’t always turn out like they hoped, none of the best officials ever sought the power they gained. They all felt it was a duty and a burden. Probably all of them would have preferred to be out tilling their fields, building structures, playing music, or pondering the mysteries of the universe. Wasting their time in the futility and fickleness of power was to be avoided.

If they were summoned to govern, they would grudgingly accept, do what was necessary and no more, before happily trading in their pens for a plough once more. They didn't want to be there, they did not chase power, and yet they had a stake in the well-being of the country or city-state they belonged to. The decisions they made - sometimes foolish but mostly considered - were very often in the interests of their own lives and the lives of those around them. If their country was to fall, so they too would fall.

And so they worked to limit this possibility as best they could and build their society up to benefit everyone without much temptation for continued power. Once their time was over, they departed, never to glance over their shoulder again.

The people we vote into power these days all volunteer. This is a major psychological problem. Our leaders wish to be in power to change things they feel need to be changed. They will convince as many people as they must to ensure it is their path and their politics everyone will follow and no one else’s. Put them into power, they say, and the people will see how utopia can be arranged.

This is folly. The old saying goes, “for evil to be victorious requires only that good men do nothing”, and fits remarkably well in this context. Instead of the pseudo-intellectual and the power-hungry, the people best suited for power are those who actually have real answers to the questions and problems so many of us need answered or fixed. But they can’t act on these answers because they either do not want to be in power, or the nature of politics is so capricious and arbitrary that as soon as a good process or fix is proposed the whole system spins in a new direction.

Many changes take time to implement completely, and just when they get started, a new government rolls through brandishing arbitrary sweeping changes. Constancy is non-existent. The people in power don’t know, and the people who know aren’t in power.  

Sure, these people, the experts (and I use that term sparingly), are actually included in the ruling democratic party’s assisting team. They sit behind the curtain thinking and measuring to discover the best steps forward. The leader is generally just a figurehead or lightning rod for the rest of their team’s plans and expert advice.

But this begs the question, why bother with a figurehead at all?

Especially when a leader must subscribe to a particular political slant which distorts the measurements coming from the behind-the-curtain team who try so studiously to ensure their recommendations are accurate. Is having someone in charge a process just to appease our very-human need for a leader and somewhere to direct our praise or criticism? If it is, this isn’t giving us the best results. Haven’t we moved past needing an ultimate leader? Wasn’t that the idea of democracy?

A nation’s leader should be like bowing to a judge as they enter the courtroom, acknowledging the gravity of the position that this one “special” person holds. The power to judge and condemn other people is the trait worth bowing to, not acknowledging anything special about the judge as a person.

Given the tribal nature of humans, I suspect this sort of system would inevitably devolve into partisan ideals too, but why should this be a strike against the idea? Just because humans are flawed does not mean we shouldn’t fight against those flaws and try to invent new and better ways of living. We vote people into power with the naïve expectation of changing things for the better, as if this will be enough. The problem with the current system is that we vote people into power, rather than methodologically-sound plans.  

Because most people couldn’t give two strokes about politics between the times they travel to the voting booths to “do their civic duty”. Let’s say a country votes once a year. Maybe a week prior to the annual vote is when people actually start thinking about who they want in government as representation. Most people even then will only think about their ideologies as they walk up to the voting ballot.

What do they do for the other 364 days of the year? Do most people think as deeply about politics on those days as they do on Election Day? No, of course they don’t. And in light of this obvious fact we’re to believe that these voters are qualified to choose the direction of the country? Something’s wrong here.

So does having a leader actually matter or can we do without them? Is there a way to govern without bias, ideology, or politics - just facts and measurement? Because, if all that existed were a group of expert people without bias or political bent scientifically testing different theories to narrow down better ways of running a society, what need would there be for politics? 

Part 2 here, Part 1 here

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