Democracy Without Elections
Saving democracy with true democracy
Whether you are on the “left” or the “right,” most Americans feel that their government has lost touch with common people and serves only itself alongside a few vested interests. Democracy as we know it seems to be failing, but few can imagine a better system. That solution may lie in the past; democracy without elections.
Western Democracy is Not the End
When people hear the term “democracy" two things tend to come to mind. First, for all of its flaws, most people tend to agree that democratic governance is the best form of government that exists. Second, they tend to picture a Western-style democracy. Whether they envision an American-style bicameral Congress or a Westminster-style Parliamentary system, they envision a government where regular people vote and elect representatives to “represent” them in the governing body.
What is forgotten in this discussion is that Western democracy as we know it is still very experimental. Only since World War 2 have most nations embarked on this democratic experiment. We tend to assume that the arrival of “democracy” in a nation “ends” its political development. But what if Western democracy is not an “end” but merely a step toward something more effective?
Fearing the Crowd
Modern democracies are purposely very undemocratic. Take the United States, for example. Supreme Court Justices are not elected by the people; they are appointed. The President is “elected” but only through a needlessly complex electoral college system that often overrides the will of the people. Congress itself, through the Senate, bestows disproportionate voting power on rural and less populous states.
While most Americans live in urban areas, and most innovation and economic productivity come from those urban areas, the center of political power is rooted in rural regions. American democracy has evolved into a system whereby the minority controls public policy over the will majority, but to some extent, is by design.
The Founding Fathers and Framers who wrote the Constitution feared what was called the “tyranny of the majority.” They feared that giving too much power to “the people” or populous states would allow the majority to use the institutions of government to hoard all power for themselves and oppress the minority.
This fear is not unfounded. It can be partially resolved by another innovation of the Enlightenment era: the separation of powers. The separation of powers is one effective means of preventing the government from becoming tyrannical. Power is divided among branches of government, each with the ability to check the other. As I point out in my previous article, however, the current separation of powers in the US is flawed.
Embracing the Crowd
In the groundbreaking work, The Wisdom of Crowds, the authors illustrate how, despite the long-held belief that elites can better serve the people than the people can serve themselves, the crowd has a wisdom of its own. The wisdom of crowds is a peculiar phenomenon that describes the ability of the “crowd” to have greater wisdom than any one individual, no matter how enlightened that individual is.
This was noticed during a jelly bean guessing contest. When individuals are asked to guess how many jelly beans are in a jar, each individual answer is likely to be far from accurate. But, if you take all of the respondent’s answers and average them, aggregating the collective wisdom of the group, the resulting number will tend to be more accurate than any single individual’s guess.
This works because each person brings with them a small piece of knowledge and wisdom that is not shared by anyone else in the group. While some individuals are more knowledgeable than others, each member has something to share and bring to the table that fills in missing pieces of information. Subsequent research has found that the larger the crowd is, and the more diverse it is, the more accurate that resulting number will be.
The authors compare this phenomenon to the Indian parable of the blind men and the elephant. When blind men, who have never encountered an elephant before, are asked to describe and conceptualize the shape of the elephant, they are unable to do so accurately.
Each individual can touch the elephant, feeling its shape, texture, and contours, but can only describe the small portion that they feel themselves, an incomplete subsection of a bigger picture. But, combine the conceptualization of all of the men, aggregate their collective wisdom, and a more accurate portrait of the elephant emerges.
The wisdom of the crowds may explain why Western democratic government has gotten as far as it has. Modern democracies separate powers and distribute it, if very unevenly and inefficiently, to all people. They attempt, very poorly, to leverage the collective wisdom of the people, but they are inherently handicapped by elections themselves.
Failures of Representative Democracy
Now that we understand why democracies work in theory, we must also remember that they work best when you have larger and more diverse groups of people to draw wisdom from. This brings us to the failures of representative democracy.
First, most democracies don’t have enough representatives. The US Congress, for example, only has 538 Senators and Representatives, hardly a “crowd” from which to draw knowledge and wisdom. More importantly, representatives in congress tend to lack diversity. I am not talking about the “left’s” narrowly constructed concept of diversity which is built upon race and gender.
Congress lacks diversity because most people in Congress are wealthy, older, and a disproportionate number have a law background. You will be hard-pressed to find poor or middle-class representatives. You wouldn’t find many teachers, engineers, doctors…etc. Congress is not representative of America and is certainly not diverse enough to bring about the benefit of a diverse array of knowledge and wisdom.
Then there is the issue of elections. Representatives need campaign money to win elections and keep their jobs. Money flows toward them in exchange for taking favorable positions that keep vested interests in power. This is often an extractive force that prevents change for the better.
The goal of government should be to pass laws that best serve the interests of the people, the nation, and humanity, not pass laws that protect and empower the status and wealth of incumbent elites. But as long as we have elected representatives, we will have the distortion of wealth obfuscating truth and reason.
Looking to the Past
How can we bring together a large and diverse group of people that are not beholden to powerful vested interests? It turns out, ironically, that the solution to modern democracy’s problems may lay in its ancient birthplace: Athens.
While the Athenian democracy was not “democratic” by modern standards, it did feature some important elements that were lost to history. For one, Athenians experimented with direct democracy. No elections, no wasteful television ads, no begging for cash in exchange for favors.
Direct democracy is written off in the modern world as impractical on a large scale, but The Wisdom of Crowds illustrates the power of the people and why direct democracy, in some form, is needed. How can direct democracy be utilized today? In Athens, some officials were “elected” through a process called sortition. Sortition works much in the same way that juries are selected today: random chance. The ancient Greeks even developed a machine that randomly selected representatives from a group, called the Kleroterion.
So how would this work? In my prior article, I illustrate how we can more effectively separate government powers. The first branch, comprised of small committees, would draft proposals to address a particular issue. For this example, let's say that issue is climate change. These committees would draft up 3-5 proposals to reduce carbon emissions and submit them to the second branch, the legislature.
To visualize this second branch, picture a stadium filled with 10,000 representatives, each randomly selected via a kleroterion to serve 1-month terms in office. The representative’s identities are hidden and their votes are completely anonymous. Random selection would ensure that these citizen representatives would be more diverse in their wisdom, more numerous, and because they are free of campaigning and serve short terms, they need only be true to themselves and share their wisdom with their vote.
The representatives would be shown all of the proposals for addressing climate change, much how a jury is shown the evidence in a courtroom. They would then vote on which proposal they think is best. The particulars of voting in such a system could be done in a variety of ways, including using quadratic voting, which would be ideal.
A Way Forward
Such a system would bring all of the benefits of democracy without the drawbacks. Sovereign governments would be able to create laws that reflect truth and reason and not greenbacks. If humanity is serious about addressing the issues that confront it in the 21st Century, it must improve public policy. Democracy as we know it, may not be up to the task.