Western democracy appears to be in retreat around the world. Even the United States, the birthplace of modern democracy, is now flirting with the notion of overturning its own election to appease a select few with cult-like devotion to Donald Trump. The rise of Trump, however, is the symptom, not the cause of our current predicament. Whether you are on the “left” or the “right,” most Americans intuitively feel that their government has lost touch with common people and serves only itself. Democracy as we know it seems to be failing, but few can imagine a better system. So, I propose a radical idea: democracy without elections.
Western Democracy is Not the End of History
When people hear the term “democracy"two things tend to come to mind. First, even if they do not like their elected representatives, most people tend to agree that democratic governance is the best form of government that exists.
Second, when they picture a democracy in their minds, they tend to picture Western-style democracy. Whether they envision an American-style bicameral Congress or Westminster 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” it political development. But what if Western democracy is merely a step toward something even more effective and not an end in itself?
Fearing the Crowd
Modern democracies, despite their name, are purposely very undemocratic. Take the United States, for example. Supreme Court Justices are not elected by the people; they are appointed by the government. 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 comes from those urban areas, the center of political power is rooted in rural areas. In essence, democracy has devolved into a system whereby the minority control public policy over the majority.
This, 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 democratic 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 government from becoming tyrannical. Power is divided among various 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 and I have proposed a far more effective arrangement.
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.
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 respondents answers and average them, in effect aggregating the collective wisdom of the group, the resultant 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 and wise 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 man can touch the elephant, feeling its shape and contours, but each individual can only describe the small portion they that they feel themselves.
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 large crowd from which to draw knowledge and wisdom.
More importantly though, the folks in congress tend to lack diversity. And no, 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 disproportional 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 a group that is representative of America, and is certainly not diverse enough to bring about the benefit of a diverse array of knowledge and wisdom.
The third issue is that 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.
The goal of government should be to pass laws that best serve the interests of the people and the nation, not pass laws that protect and empower the status and wealth of incumbent elite groups. But as long as we have elected representatives, we will have the distortion of wealth obfuscating truth and reason.
In other words, representative democracy is better than nothing, but far from ideal.
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 we can learn from. For one, Athenians experimented with direct democracy. No elections, no wasteful televisions 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.
But how then were representatives elected? 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 up 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 long terms in “office.” The representative’s identities are hidden and their votes anonymous. The random selection would ensure that these citizen representatives would be more diverse in their wisdom, more numerous, and because they are free of elections, campaigning, and serve short terms, they need only be true to themselves and share their wisdom with the collective through 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 a variety of ways. I will cover these in an upcoming article.
A Way Forward
Such a system would bring all of the benefits of democracy without the drawbacks. Such a government 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, and its time to begin thinking beyond.