Democracy and Progress
Understanding the synergy between inclusive growth and governance
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The story of progress is a story of how humans found better ways of organizing themselves to solve problems, from the earliest tribes to modern states. Through centuries of trial and error, democracy, broadly defined, has emerged as the most advantageous form of government. It wasn’t always this way. We need to understand why democracy emerged and how this may have contributed to the sustained human progress we have witnessed since the Industrial Revolution.
A Brief History
The word “democracy” is comprised of the Greek root words Demos, meaning people, and Kratos, meaning rule, or literally “rule by the people.” Historically, however, democracies have varied widely in two key characteristics 1) who are those “people” are and 2) how are the “peoples” wishes and desires aggregated into legislation and policy. Like the word itself, democracy as a form of government can trace its roots to the ancient Greeks, ancient Athens in particular. Athenians practiced a form of “direct” democracy, where the people (in that case only free men) gathered, set the agenda, discussed, and voted on matters that affected Athenian society.
In the book, Open Democracy, author Hélène Landemore presents a rough overview of how Athenian democracy worked. Athens had several legislative bodies; The Boule or Council of 500, the Eklesia or People’s Assembly, the Nomothetai, and (by the 4th Century BC) the Courts. Members of these bodies were “elected” via sortition. Choosing members of the Boule, for instance, didn’t require elections, parties, or campaigning. Instead, an ingenious randomization machine called a Klerotorian was used to randomly select individuals from groups of eligible people to serve as “representatives.”
The Klerotorian featured horizontal rows of slots into which citizen tokens (essentially ID cars) were randomly inserted. Adjacent to these rows was a metal tube with a funnel at the top, into which black and white painted balls were dumped. Using a crank, the balls were allowed to fall down the tube one at a time. Depending on whether a white or black ball emerged at the bottom, that particular row of citizens was either accepted or rejected for democratic service.
The Council was comprised of 500 randomly selected individuals and set the agenda for the People’s Assembly. The People’s Assembly was an open forum of up to 8000 eligible men who could gather, deliberate, and vote. Attending the assembly required no election or appointment of any kind; so long as you were eligible and had some free time, you could walk to the agora and make your voice heard. Voting was typically done by a simple raising of hands with the majority vote winning. The Nomothetai were boards of legislators, also appointed via sortition, who could edit and review existing laws if the People’s Assembly deemed it appropriate. The Courts were also assembled by lot and tasked with deciding judicial issues.
While most envision the People’s Assembly when thinking of Athenian democracy, the core of Athenian governance was the Council. The Assembly was often manipulated by skilled and well-connected orators who could persuade the masses to support or stand against measures set by the Council. The Assembly also tended to favor wealthy men who had free time to participate in discussions and voting. Despite its many flaws, Athenian democracy flourished and helped spawn an incredibly innovative classical civilization, one that despite its relatively small population, forms the bedrock of modern Western civilization to this very day.
The End of Classical Democracy
Alas, the efflourence of this early form of democracy withered and its spark was snuffed out by violence and conquest. Later, the Roman Republic devolved into the Roman Empire, which paved the road for the concept of “Divine Right” in the Middle Ages. In this new era, the Kings and Queens of Europe saw themselves and their bloodlines, as ordained with the right to rule by God himself. The kingdom was merely an extension of the Monarch’s property, their authority was unquestionable by Earthly mortals and, for all intents and purposes, above any codified law.
What emerged was a Feudal system whereby the Monarch would provide land usage rights (fiefs) to nobles in exchange for their loyalty, protection, and tax revenue. The nobles, in turn, would use their power over their subjects, namely the serfs or peasants, to do manual labor. In this system, the serfs were little more than slaves, with essentially no rights, bonded to the land, and forced to grow crops for both themselves and the nobility.
In the Feudal system, roles and status were hereditary; merit mattered little. Serfs remained serfs and nobles remained nobles; immutable and stable but antithetical to progress. Like many early agricultural societies, the Feudal system was profoundly extractive. The vast majority of the population, the peasantry, did not share in the distribution of wealth and power and could not improve their lot. Had society continued to be organized this way, modern civilization would not have emerged. Power and wealth needed to be distributed more inclusively for this to happen.
Democracy began a slow and tortuous reemergence in the late Middle Ages. In 1215 England, noble landowners, or barons, aggrieved by high taxes and arbitrary enforcement of the law, rebelled against King John and forced him to sign the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta subjected the king, for the first time, to limits on his power; spreading some of this power among the barrons. Importantly, the Magna Carta created a council of 25 barons, tasked with ensuring that the king adhered to the agreement. By 1295, the council had evolved into a kind of early Parliament, which included not only the nobility but also representatives from around the kingdom. These two groups, the nobles and representatives, eventually evolved into a ‘bicameral’ Parliament with two houses; the House of Lords representing the nobles/ elites and the House of Commons forming the “lower” house of representatives.
In Britain, continued power struggles between the Monarchy and Parliament culminated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which dethroned King James II and established the primacy of Parliament; the Monarch was no longer in charge of the state. In the following century, as the Monarchy became increasingly dependent on Parliament, the Privy Council, once the executive branch of government, became overshadowed by the Cabinet which was comprised of ministers and members of Parliament. Eventually, the “first among equals” minister became known as the “Prime Minister,” forming what would become the core of executive power.
In the late 18th Century, the United States, newly free from British colonial rule, borrowed some aspects of the British Parliamentary system but made some important changes. Like Britain, it included a bicameral legislature, but with an upper house staffed by representatives chosen by the state legislatures, not nobility. The Americans, fearing a powerful executive, created a Presidential system where the executive would be elected by the people instead of being selected from the ranks of Parliament. The Constitution also drew a sharp division of power; curtailing the President's authority through the courts and Congress. America’s decision to vest democratic legitimacy in two branches of government has created its own set of challenges; an issue I will address in a forthcoming essay. From the British, the US also borrowed simple plurality voting or a first-past-the-post system of elections. That is, within their respective districts, the candidate with the most votes wins in a winner-take-all election.
Alongside the gradual development of new government structures and the increased dispersion of political power, participation rights gradually began to expand. In the United States, voting rights were initially limited to white, property-owning adult males. By the 1820s, however, voting rights expanded to include non-property-owning males, then to non-white males (at least in theory) in the 1860s, and eventually to women in the 1920s. Britain and other democracies followed a similar path, gradually expanding the right to suffrage until it was universal, or at least very close to it.
As democracy spread, innovation continued, with many newer democracies disregarding the American and British plurality voting systems, instead preferring proportional representation in their Parliaments. This began with Belgium in 1899 but is a key feature of many democracies. In this system, seats in Parliament are allocated proportionally according to the number of votes that a party receives in an election. With proportional representation, a wider variety of parties gain seats in parliament where they must form coalitions to govern. This is in contrast to plurality voting, where according to Duverger's Law, two parties will almost inevitably dominate in a zero-sum battle for power. Concurrent with this development, some democracies have also eschewed upper houses entirely. Indeed, the Danish Parliament is unicameral, as are many Nordic countries known for relatively effective governance.
You will notice that the key contrast between Athenian democracy and its modern equivalent is that the latter has preferred to aggregate the voices of the people through elected representatives; direct democracy is now rare. This is a concern for some, including Hélène Landemore, who argues that we have built a new “enclosure of power” around elected elites. This is something I will revisit.
Authoritarian regimes still exist and for good reason. As noted by Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now, “chaos is still deadlier than tyranny.” More death and destruction result from the breakdown of authority than from the exercise of it. For most of human history, therefore, it was beneficial to have some kind of ruler and laws, even if they were unjust, unfair, or even tyrannical. According to Pinker, democratic regimes were advantageous because they “thread the needle” between anarchic chaos and suffocating totalitarianism. They use just enough coercive force to prevent people from “preying on each other” while not being quite strong enough to “prey” on the people themselves.
In Political Order and Political Decay, author Francis Fukuyama speculated that as economic and technological development progressed, it created an ever-expanding division of labor. From the old order spawned new “out-groups” like merchants, craftsmen, shopkeepers…etc, that eventually sought political representation. In turn, though not without resistance, the political system opened up to these new groups, giving them a voice in the development of policy and further dispersing decision-making power. What emerged was a self-reinforcing cycle. As the breadth of represented voices expanded, policymaking became increasingly efficient, fostering better policies that enhanced growth and development, which, in turn, created more “out-groups.”
If we imagine the whole of humanity as one giant computer, or ascalls it, a vast decentralized problem-solving machine, then law and statutes are the code, the constitution is the operating system, and the people and markets are the data inputs. The advantage of democracy was its ability to bring together this data; the voices that otherwise might not be heard. W.E.B Du Bois argued that since each of us contributes to the human quest for knowledge, societies that silence some voices, ultimately condemn themselves to injustice and ignorance. In both politics and economics, millions of self-interested decisions made every day by individuals, when correctly aggregated with maximum cognitive diversity, result in new and better ways of solving problems.
Modern State Building
Parallel to, but not directly resulting from, the transition to representative democracy was an effort toward professional state-building. Early governments, as we have seen, were patrimonial, wealth went in one direction and privilege went the other. Merit and performance did not matter, only bloodline and loyalty. Asian states, such as China and Japan, however, built strong and relatively meritocratic administrations long before the invention of representative democracy. They employed civil service exams and impersonal administration and hiring. Their rule was authoritarian, “rule by law” rather than “rule of law,” but in many respects more effective than their Western counterparts. The Asian tradition of strong technocratic administration continues today.
The West only began to catch up in the 19th Century as the system of patrimony gave way. This didn’t happen without great resistance. Over a century after signing the Constitution, the American government was rife with nepotism, quid-pro-quos, and clientelism. Elected officials promised government jobs for friends, family, and supporters; this is not an effective way to run a state. Again here, as the economy grew, new groups emerged that began demanding greater professionalism and merit from government staffers. In the US, for example, reports of undelivered mail piling up at post offices and inefficient customs houses forced the government to act. The pressure eventually resulted in civil service exams in the Western world that established a strong meritocratic state by the time of the Great Depression.
The very concept of a strong, technocratic bureaucracy is, however, often at odds with a democratic system that strives to give everyone a voice. How can government departments operate effectively given constantly shifting and contradictory mandates from representatives who are more interested in political soundbites than nuanced administration? How can they remain properly staffed with the best people when taxpayers are reluctant to pay civil servants salaries equivalent to those found in the private sector? This tension is one of the defining problems with democracy in the 21st Century. This tension comes with growing concerns of political polarization, the rise of the “vetocracy,” and the aforementioned “enclosure of power,” all of which I will address in an upcoming essay.
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