Why do we in the West celebrate democracy? The reason is that democracy is how we unshackled ourselves from kings and lords who subjugated us, stole from us, raped us, and squeezed us into the subsistence margins while they lived with excess and privilege.
Indeed, anything is better than that — even democracy is better.
But democracy is really mob rule with lipstick. It is a popularity contest, like in high school. It is a tyranny of the majority. It is the elevation of the lowest common denominator. In fact, it is far worse than those things.
Democratic countries hold popular elections, under the unproven theory that the best person will be chosen to lead. That sure is not the usual outcome! The theory has no basis in reality. Popular democracy is a terrible process.
An analysis with game theory will show mathematically that two major tribes will evolve — two parties — and they will drift farther and farther apart, becoming opposites — unless a great amount of time is allowed to pass, after which a panacea equilibrium will be reached in which the two sides cooperate; but in the real world, too much changes to allow the equilibrium to ever be reached, and so cooperation is never reached.
If that were not bad enough, democracies actually do not represent the voters: the real constituents in a democracy are the various special interest groups that influence voters and buy political will.
On top of that, in the US we have a winner-take-all voting system, which ensures that a third party can never get sufficient traction to challenge the two parties that are becoming polar opposites, ensuring that the standoff will never be broken.
Facing the Realities
We need to acknowledge that democracy is a terrible system. In the US, this should not be a problem, since the US was not founded as a democracy: it was conceived as a federation of independent nation states. The original US Constitution specified Electors who voted for the US President. It was not a popular democracy.
That sounds like a system ripe for abuse: power corrupts, and the Electors had power. But substituting, in effect (the US system is complex) a popular vote does not solve the problem, for the reasons stated above, one of which is that special interests take over, and another that polar opposite parties emerge — leading to division and tribalism, which is what we face today.
There is also the unavoidable reality that popular election is a popularity contest. The public do not choose the most thoughtful person with the best judgment: they tend to choose the person who looks like a leader, sounds like a leader, and represents their tribe. That is a poor process: it does not give us good leaders, and it does not give us fair leaders. It gives us one-sided people who are good at selling themselves and good at making secret deals with king-makers.
So What Do We Do?
To solve the problem, we must ask ourselves, what are the requirements of a system that chooses the best leaders?
I propose that such a system must meet these requirements:
- The person chosen must be thoughtful and knowledgeable.
- The person must be an effective leader. Not an effective salesperson necessarily, but an effective leader in action, who is able to bring diverse interests together, and drive toward a common solution that is smart and satisfactory to all.
- The person chosen must have an incentive to be fair to all, rather than motivated to pursue self interest, or the interests of only special groups.
We should not expect these people to emerge from among the public. Those who emerge from the population at large will inevitably be supported by special interests: there is too much at stake for it to be any other way. So we need to look to a subset of the public that is largely out of reach to most special interests.
Let me provide an example. This example is unworkable as things currently stand, but perhaps it could be made workable. Let me state the example, given that as things currently are, it would be unworkable.
The example is the cohort of the presidents of the top 100 US universities. That is a group of individuals who are thoughtful (for the most part), highly informed, and who generally have experience leading a complex organization. It is therefore a potential candidate pool from which to choose a leader of the US federation of states.
The problem with this example is that if top university presidents were the group from which US leaders were chosen, special interests would quickly seek to corrupt that population, and stack it with university presidents who are aligned with special interests — corporate interests, ideological interests, and so on. So for the idea to be workable, we would need to find a way to protect the process by which university presents are chosen.
If it could be done, however, then we would have a very high quality pool of candidates — a considerable improvement of the pool of candidates that we tend to have today. It would address numbers 1 and 2 above.
The third criteria — fairness — is tricky, because any individual in a position of power is subject to incentives to use that power for their own interests or the interests of those close to them. An overriding incentive therefore needs to be provided to ensure that the individual is able to stay true to their office, and remain fair to all. The challenge is how to construct such an incentive.
One possible approach is to provide an independent source of oversight: that is, require transparency, and have a second body that must sign off on what the president does. Well, the US system has such a body — in fact, it has two: the House and the Senate.
My aims here are not to provide a solution. Surely there are problems with my proposals. My first aim is to call out the fact that democracy is a terrible system, and we need something better. My second aim is to identify the requirements of a fair and efficacious system, and challenge people to think about this.
It is unlikely that the structure of the US government will change in the near term, although rank choice voting could really help. But there might be opportunities in the future to start over. We don’t know what is going to happen. In 50 years, these questions might be relevant if we manage to settle Mars in numbers, with the opportunity to start fresh. Or it could be that predictions of doom come true, and we have to re-architect a future government on top of the ashes on our soil. If those situations arrive, we should think beyond 20th century models.