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Politics

Democracy: as Winston Churchill put it, "it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. "

Today, I couldn't help noting that even regimes governed by ideologies hostile to western free-market orthodoxy adopt a lot of the forms of democracy. (Look at Iran, for example: within the limits staked out by the religious authorities established by the late Grand Ayatollah Khomenei, it's a highly politicized and democratic society. ) On the other hand, if you rewind the clock to 1938, democracy was pretty widely viewed as being on the ropes: autocratic regimes were the norm rather than the exception. Seventy years before that, it was monarchies as far as the eye could see.

So. Why are democratic forms of government spreading?

By way of disconnected and rambling thinking-aloud (with no basis whatsoever in actual political theory — hey, I'm a blogger, you expect me to study stuff before I open my mouth and start talking about it?) I'd like to propose a handful of reasons:

1. Democracy — and elections in particular — do not so much select the best possible leaders from a pool of contenders, but avoid selecting the worst possible leaders from the pool of contenders.

To stand a chance of election, a candidate has to convince the electorate not only to vote for them, but not to vote against them. (Witness the Chirac/le Pen presidential run-off in France in 2002, and the pissed-off socialists bearing banners saying "vote for the crook, not the fascist".) Yes, it is possible for a rogue candidate to get through the filter of public disapproval — but in order to do so, they have to (a) get a large base to vote for them, and (b) more importantly, prevent a majority of the population from uniting against them. Hitler managed to hold his base together in 1933 in the face of fragmented opposition and a perception of national crisis; even so, his most brutal rhetoric was reserved for party ears, rather than the public, until the NSDAP grip on government was secure.

More often, we see unsuitable candidates weeded out before they can get their hands on the levers of state power.

2. Democracy provides a pressure release valve for dissent. As long as the party in power are up for re-election in a period of months to (single digit) years, opponents can grit their teeth and remind themselves that this, too, shall pass ... and wait for an opportunity to vote the bums out. Democracies don't usually spawn violent opposition parties because opposition parties can hope to gain power through non-violent means. But a regime that concedes no limit to its duration threatens its opponents sense of control over their own destiny; the longer the perceived injustice stretches out ahead, the harder it is to resign one's self to waiting and voting in due course.

3. Never underestimate the value of an organized succession. With monarchies, you know where the next king's coming from ... probably. Hereditary succession has a bunch of drawbacks, not least (a) they can go horribly off the rails if a single hairless primate has reproductive problems, and (b) it has yet to be demonstrated that political competence is a genetically associated trait. (It also usually begs the question of why this particular family is destined to rule, either shuffling it off onto the shoulders of the local version of the Invisible Sky Daddy™ or reducing it to "because I say so; address any further questions to my employees from SAVAK".) If an unsuitable heir is proposed, in the absence of a pressure release valve for dissent, opposition can lead to actual civil war.

Even dictatorships have problems with the organized succession. Most members of ruling juntas want, like everybody else, to die at home — not in a prison cell or facing a firing squad. When dictators die, the consequences are usually turmoil on a par with the death of an heirless king; and if it's a ruling committee or politburo, the death of senior members usually results in, at the least, upheaval and competition. Any administrative solution that reduces the probability of facing a firing squad tends to be popular among the survivors of a dictatorship; note for example the gradual shift towards collegiate management in the Soviet and Chinese systems after the demise of their respective charismatic dictators (Stalin and Mao).

Democracy is at a huge advantage over dictatorship or monarchy when it comes to handling the organized succession problem, because the entire system is predicated on the possibility of non-violent succession and an amnesty (or at least amnesia) for the former rulers. Parenthetically, this also makes it extremely dangerous to prosecute the former elected rulers of a democracy, at least for crimes they may have committed during their time in office — it sends a signal to future administrations that they may end up being persecuted by their opposition (and by extrapolation, they can save themselves by exchanging their elected status for a permanent dictatorial one).

Anyway. Here we have three ways in which democracy is less bad than rival forms of government: it usually weeds out lunatics before they can get their hands on the levers of power, it provides a valuable pressure relief valve for dissent, and it handles succession crises way better than a civil war.

Unfortunately democracy has some really huge drawbacks too ... that'd make a fine topic for another rant, but I'm getting a bit tired of this right now, and I've got some work to do.

But anyway: looking (with my science fiction writers' eye) at the above list of reasons why democracy sucks less, I'm inclined to wonder: can we conceive of a form of government that combines the lack-of-comparative-weaknesses of democracy with other, additional strengths? And if so, what would it look like?

You have the mike ...

98 Comments

1:

Agreed on the 3 points you gave. As for current alternatives, I can't actually come up with anything off the top of my head, but if the situation were different and we lived in a post scarcity society (yeah, I know, fiction) I'd be there voting for a benign machine dictatorship AI. Between false/manipulated scarcity (no, I didn't research too deeply) and religion, we mere humans don't stand much of a chance of governing ourselves.

Of course, what we really need to bring the human race together is an outside threat; alien invasion, Deep Ones waking up, lolcats going on strike......

2:

2. Democracy provides a pressure release valve for dissent.

For your anti-democracy rant, I suggest a corollary to number 2. As long as the populus believe that they are participating in Democracy it provides a release valve for dissent. In American democracy, at least, most of the important decisions are in the hands of a privileged elite. Candidates are culled through backroom dealings and the political parties provide the bureaucracies that truely run things. That said, Americans believe that they are the Freest People in the World (whatever that means). I think that Democracy lends itself well to marketing and that the influence of marketing in the success of Democracy cannot be underestimated.

As long as people think they are in control, or at least that they are sharing control fairly, democratic regimes can always quiet rebellion.

3:

Typo:

makes it extremely dangerous to prosecute the former elected rules of a democracy

4:

The futurist Alvin Toffler referred to America as having a "spasm" of democracy every four years...

He proposed the idea of an internet "plebiscite" input to Congressional voting, with the results of these online votes counting for perhaps 20% of the total...
Seems wildly unworkable now; what with complaints of elitism and hacking...

I wonder to the extent that the activities of dictators are rather atavistic. The dictator is very much like the "silverback" writ large; he gets the pick of everything, and challengers are dealt with rather violently....
Much the same with cult leaders, seems to me.
So many of these guys follow exactly the same pattern; is it a cultural meme, or a throwback to our ancestry?

5:

The United States has a system that combines elements of democracy with a buffer against some of their problems: the undemocratic court system, in which, in particular, the Supreme Court can overrule democratically made decisions by referring to a body of law that cannot be changed by a democratic majority, but only by a fairly large supermajority through a somewhat cumbersome process. It still doesn't create strong enough obstacles—referring to Hayek's distinction between law that affects the rights of citizens (including both criminal law and tax law) and law that affects the internal workings of government (including budgets), I think a case could be made for requiring a supermajority for all substantive law—but it's blocked some dangerous tendencies in the electorate. And, as a result, perhaps, the Supreme Court has been denounced by the morally dominant parties, at least from FDR's complaints about the "nine old men" to the current Republican complaints about "undemocratic" decisions every time the Supreme Court rejects one of their crazed schemes.

There are, of course, weaknesses in this: the ability of the President to appoint justices who go along with his ideological slant (the strongest reason to hope for a Democratic victory later this year), the tendency of the Supreme Court to yield to political pressure and popular crazes, and the ability of a President who really wants to to ignore a Supreme Court ruling and do what he wants.

The more interesting question is how to improve, not on pure democracy, but on mixed, partially democratic systems such as the United States has. Clearly some improvement at a structural level is needed. I'm sure that's the question you would primarily like to have addressed.

I tend to think that the crucial thing is not how the machinery of government is set up, but how much freedom people have to opt out of it. Governments that keep their populations penned up can be much more brutal than governments that permit "voting with your feet." A move toward a generally recognized right of secession would have its advantages, too. The Balkans give this a bad image, but there have been peaceful secessions, such as Norway from Sweden and Slovakia from Czechoslovakia. Ludwig von Mises advocated letting any community down to the size of a village declare itself independent. Of course the anarchocapitalists would take it down to house by house, but I doubt that that's workable.

If people freely choose to live under a regime, when they could walk out, it's less crucial what the regime is. This is the principle that the bondage community has institutionalized as the "safe word." There's an old book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, that suggests that the two basic alternatives for dealing with a bad situation are to ask for change or to walk out; the widespread demand for democracy may be as strong as it is because the world by and large makes exit difficult to exercise. Idealized democracy relies entirely on voice; in contrast, idealized markets rely entirely on exit—that's what anarchocapitalism appeals to.

Smaller units of government make exit easier. It's a lot less of a problem to change government by moving from San Diego to Los Angeles than to do so by moving from the United States to Canada or New Zealand. So a reliance on local governing bodies for as many functions as possible seems likely to be desirable.

6:

Note: Iran's theocratic limitations to democracy are rather severe and theocrats can basically dictate whatever they want as 'islamic' if they don't like the democratic decisions.

#2: Bang on. "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible, make violent revolution inevitable." as JFK put it. This may take some time, though.

As a comment on #3: The Possibility of future prosecution is also one reason why ICC at Hague and revocation of amnesty laws are rather bad ideas. If a dictator is on troubled/tired/old or otherwise might want to let go of the reins of power, the possibility of future prosecution and prison cell / firing squad instead of quiet retirement on some sunny beach is a pretty negative incentive. Which is worth more: Possibility of N more years of dictatorship vs. quiet retirement for few crooks?

As for the SciFi version of democracy, one could take a rather old approach: Minimize governmental participation in citizens' affairs and maximize the citizens' participation in government. A Peaceful competition between governments might also improve things as long as things stay peaceful: "Laboratories of Democracy" as ol' Ronnie Raygun put it.

7:

I think there are quite a few things that could be done in order to improve on representative democracy as currently conceived. I'm just going to drop a few ideas, some probably good, some probably bad, but hey, I'm not a political scientist either.

1. Right of recall. Your representatives are doing stuff you don't like? Collect enough signatures and vote whether they should be recalled. This is actually institutionalized in the Venezuelan constitution, and whereas it is arguable whether it has made Chavez accountable, it has become a workable outlet for opposition forces to try to recall him instead of to try to depose him (well, in Venezuela, I should say in addition, not instead, but something is something).

2. Imperative mandate. I don't worship corporations, but it is quite clear they get a few things right. Among others, they manage to harness the skills and intelligence of their officers to the benefit of their owners. In order to do this, the officers need to have some forms of accountability. One system that could work is that of imperative mandate: since your representatives are meant to represent you, tell them, at least in outline, what it is you want, and if they deviate, recall them. How do you tell them what you want? Vote for a programme, or make their own programme binding, or even get rid of the idea that representatives need to be super-smart and capable people, and vote for a programme which gets implemented by a random person chosen by lot.

3. Make the Constitution binding. Countries with written constitutions tend to affirm their political powers are subject to them, but what happens in reality is one of the powers (judiciary) or a special court (constitutional tribunal, according to Kelsen's theories a negative legislator) anulls what the legislative has done. But hey, these legislators who drafted, passed and promulgated the law are supposed to be subject to the Constitution too, directly, so why don't they have any liability from this? What kinds of liability? They could 1) lose their seat, 2) pay the costs of all the procedural mess, 3) pay damages to those who have suffered in any way from that law, 4) all of the above.

4. Distributed auditing. Some things are state secrets, but most are not. It's quite clear from phenomena like free software, Wikipedia and the like, that an enthusiastic group of people with a vision are capable of quite a lot. Why not let citizens audit the behaviour of the State? That way, an image of transparency and ownership is fostered. It could even go further: people could get drafted for some State Control Service instead of an obsolete military draft in the age of professional armies. The unemployed and retired could be given something to do. It would all increase the perception (and hopefully the reality) that the State is under the citizens' control, and at their service.

5. Use big juries. Use juries of about 100 people at least, enough to contain a representative sample of the population, so their decisions can have general legitimacy and they don't have to limit themselves to apply the law. Allow them to anull or at least disapply laws they believe to be unjust, and to modify sanctions according to the circumstances of the particular case. Let people appeal to an impartial legal expert (aka judge) or a pannel thereof if they're not happy.

6. Simplify the law. This can go two ways: make it more precise, written in a formal language (like programming) or make it more broad so that everyone can understand it. Either way, what there is makes people believe, with some justice, that they cannot know the law, so why should they be sanctioned for disobeying it? On top of that, the fact that law is so complex makes interpretation very uncertain, and the best thing for a legal system is to be predictable.

Probably I could come up with a few more ideas, but these are the ones that come up.

8:

"As a comment on #3: The Possibility of future prosecution is also one reason why ICC at Hague and revocation of amnesty laws are rather bad ideas. If a
dictator is on troubled/tired/old or otherwise might want to let go of the reins of power, the possibility of future prosecution and prison cell / firing
squad instead of quiet retirement on some sunny beach is a pretty negative incentive. Which is worth more: Possibility of N more years of dictatorship
vs. quiet retirement for few crooks?"


Thing is, incentives go both ways. What is better, for a dictator to know that he can murder, disappear, torture anyone and he'll be allowed to get away with it in his plushy retirement, or for a dictator to know that actions which overstep certain bounds will get him prosecuted no matter what?

9:

You confuse me with the wording of your question: "Why are democratic forms of government spreading?" Do you mean the appearance ("forms") or actual democracy? If you mean actual democracy, I would first ask, are actual democracies spreading? As you say, autocratic regimes adopt a veneer of democracy. Are they examples of democracy spreading? Meanwhile, actual democracies seem to be forgetting their roots (e.g. UK and US, which have recently abandoned principles going back to Magna Carta in the former case, and the Bill of Rights in the second. Will this go on? Rome went on paying lip service to its republican past centuries after the republic was gone except as a skin, covering the imperium that replaced it from the inside. The German Democratic Republic was notorious as the home of the ubiquitous surveillance agency, the Stasi.

If you're talking about forms only, then your reason 1. for the spread doesn't apply, as mere forms need not select for the least bad leader at all.

My answer to the question is: because who wouldn't like democracy? It's motherhood, apple pie, and fluffy puppies, it's what the majority of people want, by definition. Naturally even leaders who do not want democracy (perhaps *especially* leaders who do not want democracy) will say they do. So all around the world we see leaders insisting they are friends of democracy.

(notice that capitalism is not motherhood and apple pie, and it takes a massive investment of propaganda to make it look attractive. You hear words like "counterintuitive" from libertarians, which means "look, this sounds like crazy bullshit but it isn't, honest!")

Oh. Other reason: keep in good with the country that spends over fifty percent of the world's total military money, which loves democracy, and which publicly threatens to invade undemocratic countries chosen at random.

10:

I know!

How about a Democracy? (What you've described is, of course, a Republic)

In a Democracy, the people rule directly. Administrative duties (generally given to "executives" in republics) are conducted by committees, which are selected like a jury is selected in America - by lot.

So, for example, in a democracy, you're happily writing SF novels, and you suddenly get a Summons in the mail, demanding that you stand for the Armed Services Committee. You duly show up on your appointed day with a few hundred of your fellow random countrymen, perhaps pass a few basic qualifications (in the olden days, there were a lot of these, like "Are you male? Of the proper race? Athenian? Wealthy? Adult?" but in the modern day, we'd probably dispense with the first one), and you're in! You (and your fellows) are now the Chief Administrator of the Armed Services. You decide how to manage the military budget, you oversee operations and personnel, and so on. Or perhaps you'd be called up to run the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or Agriculture... you never know!

In any event, after a year or so, your term is up and you can return happily to your life as a SF writer, never again to be bothered by such a boring job as running the Armed Services.

Of course, every so often, like every Citizen, you may be called up for the Assembly, where you must hear arguments and vote on important subjects. For example, whether to go to war, important law bills, trials of irritating philosophers, and so on. But luckily, in such a modern civilization as our own, we no longer need to send slaves out to try to round up as many citizens as possible (they used to use ropes dipped in red paint - if your clothes got smeared, you were fined. What a hassle!). Instead, you can simply form an assembly over the internet using your state credentials (it's so much easier to avoid the fines that way!)

Democracy is great! And so much easier now that we have advanced telecommunications technology, not to mention computers to count up the votes. Why, an unpopular war... can you believe they used to have such things?

The only downside, really, is how many titanic monuments keep getting voted in for movie stars. And for some reason, weird laws seem to get passed during every episode of American Idol... Oh well! You can't have everything!

11:

You started asking why democratic forms of government are spreading. I think this is because our current crop of global dictators have worked out this makes us look in the wrong direction and shoot/fire the wrong guy/gal. Put this together with something like the US constitution (and I know next to nothing about it, and am not an American, so by Stross' law of blogging I expertly positioned to comment on it) which was simply designed to prevent any politician from achieving anything that could even vaguely be conceived as interferring with business or the rich, and develop a meme to infect the population with that makes them think you've just given them total control, et voila: you have a very attractive method of keeping the plebs under control.

I've no idea how to make democracy better (is there a Nobel prize for politics?), but I know some of the things I don't like about it, in no particular order:

It discourages long term planning. There seems no motivation to politicians or parties that do something that gives a return to the next incumbent.

It never annoys the people. How often do you get politicans standing up and telling you that you are stupid and need to do things differently?

It's a cancerous meme. When was the last time you saw a democratic system reduce the number of members it has. Or get rid of a layer of democracy, or do anything that a business would call an efficiency improvement?

It discourages the very people you want in charge. I don't know what it is about democracy, but anytime you find someone you'd really like to be in charge they either want nothing to do with it, or change magically as soon as they get involved, or something very nasty happens to them.

It's in the pocket of the media. For some reason, politicans think they will only get elected if they make the news. So they are forever after sound-bites, quick responses to the hacks gripes and media friendly faces.


Hmmm. I think I should stop now before I really wind myself up.


To answer the original question, how about where we are only ruled by people who are expected to die in the next few weeks or years, have absolutely no family at all, hate the idea of doing the job, and carry a nasty virus that instantly kills any journalist who comes into contact with them.


P.S. Apologies to journalists out there...... (I never though I'd say that), I understand that there is good they do like highlighting some of the esoteric expenses practices our lovely British and European politicans are engaged in.

12:

I think people fundamentally misunderstand the advantages of democracy. Democracy has nothing to do with either electing competent leaders, or allowing the people to decide policy. The advantages are.

1. Minimizing corruption. In feudal states and dictatorships corruption tends to rise to the point where it consumes a considerable fraction of GDP, and seriously hampers everyday business because mothing can get done without kickbacks. Democracies tend to keep corruption to a fraction of a percent of GDP, and you can go weeks without bribing anyone.

2. Stability through consensus. Governments wanting votes tend to seek the broadest base of support they can, and not to piss off any group they don't have to. This keeps radical changes to a minimum.

I think these two advantages of democracy generally outweigh the disadvantages: mildly incompetent rulers, and policy based on the misunderstandings and ignorance of the general public.

13:

I'm inclined to wonder: can we conceive of a form of government that combines the lack-of-comparative-weaknesses of democracy with other, additional strengths? And if so, what would it look like?

We might be _able_ to thing of this, but the rule is "Triumph of the Mediocre solution".

14:

Justin @ 10

Wonderful idea. Mori-ocracy (Mori is the well known polling organisation, right?). At least I only need to hack one place to shift the results my way, rather than having to hack lots of counting machines.

On a more serious point, the idea of forcing people to run the place is a good idea I do actually like. Trouble is, have you seen Yes (Prime) Minister?

15:

Reckon the Pennsylvanian constitution of 1776 got it about right - annual elections for the legislature, directly elected executive body (regular election works better than recall, recall can paralyse, after all, what is the trigger number?). Throw in initiative and referendum, and you have a functioning direct democracy...

Lets not forget Condorcet's Jury theorem, the more voters the more likely they are to find a correct answer to a question - that's a strong positive for democracy.

This leads to the informatic justification - dictatorships need information, but can't collect it effectively, a vote is a special kind of poll.

16:

With ref to #12 "It discourages the very people you want in charge" I disagree totally. All known forms of government seem to result in "crazed power seekers" running things instead of the people who ought to run things. The point about democracy is that the worst of these people are avoided.

Charlie also missed the fact that if a leader "deteriorates" her own alies will usually replace her before they all get voted out.

17:

It never annoys the people. How often do you get politicans standing up and telling you that you are stupid and need to do things differently?

Were you in the UK at all between 1979 and 1990?

18:

Kevin Murray @ 12 asks parenthetically:

(is there a Nobel prize for politics?)

There's the Peace Prize which seems to be suffering mission creep.

19:

When was the last time you saw a democratic system reduce the number of members it has. Or get rid of a layer of democracy

The abolition of the Greater London Council is the first that comes to mind, I'm sure there's others.
All it requires is for an upper level of democracy to disapprove of a lower level.

20:

The real problem with democracy, as I see it, is that the votes follow the campaign funds, and the campaign funds do not come without strings, strings that tug the government in directions not necessarily beneficial to the nation, but to the pockets of the donors.
In most first-world countries the laws about donor identity disclosure help to some degree. In developing countries, however, there is usually no such thing. In such cases democracy almost necessarily precludes the election to power of any honest man or woman. Admittedly, such politicians are rare, but one can hope. However, when getting elected demands huge funds, funds that come with steel cables welded to them, then democracy becomes, in the words of Winston Churchill "The art of getting money from the rich and votes from the poor promising to protect each from the other". In other words, a farce.
Therefore, in a democracy as described, an honest government cannot, ever, be elected. In a monarchy, however, it is possible to get an honest ruler. Unlikely, but at least statistically possible.
Cheers.

21:

I think what you've said about democracy is quite accurate (indeed, I said something similar if much more brief on my rarely-visited blog last week! :'). However, I think that the question you go on to ask is a mistaken one.

Democracy is a tool for minimizing the harm caused by a naturally occurring phenomenon: government. It's not really possible to eliminate the scourge of government; if you try, you just wind up with a different, probably worse one. And governments can actually serve useful purposes (legal systems, preventing the tragedy of the commons, collecting taxes to support things like medicine that have no business being run competitively).

But ultimately governments aren't where goodness comes from. If you look at the good things that have happened in the past millennium, how many of them came from governments? Mostly they came from geeks like us. And if it weren't for governments arranging to skim the cream off the milk of our creative effort and reserve it for the small group of people who happen to be anointed for the trough, we'd be living in one of those futuristic utopias we used to read about in science fiction novels. Right now.

The magic of the utopioid futures that you and various new science fiction authors are describing now is that they happen because of such completely overwhelming geek success that even the corporate geek-milking system can't skim off all the cream. The old utopias we used to read about required careful management of resources to perfectly provide for the common welfare.

And I think you're right to propose utopiod futures like this, and reject the idea that better government will produce them. If we want the world to be a better place, I think that's how it's going to happen. Government isn't going to bring it to us, even if the project that produces the cornucopia happens to be built as a result of funding that came from a government.

22:

A quick grep for "Florida" and "Diebold" returned no hits, so... let me just say that a nominal Democracy is not always a Democracy under the hood.

If Bush keeps talking about "free and fair" elections (for Cuba, elsewhere), I'm going to go nuts.

23:

[...] in the words of Winston Churchill "The art of getting money from the rich and votes from the poor promising to protect each from the other".
I think I got that quote wrong, but I can't find the correct attribution.

24:

The real problem with democracy as it is actually implemented is that voting mechanics and representation are (largely) based upon practicality issues... from the 18th Century.

The US experience is dishearteningly exemplary. Due to abuses in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction, there is a long line of precedents disfavoring at-large voting for multi-representative positions. In other words, it's ok to have a citywide vote for Mayor, but not a citywide at-large vote for the Council in which the first five past the post become the new Council. So, in response, we have severe geographical gerrymandering based upon the location of one's residence. This leads to two problems:
* Particularly in urban and suburban areas, many people identify less with where they live than with where they work, or play, or go to school. And the less said about transient populations in this context, the better the current power brokers will like it.
* Thanks to gerrymandering, it's all too easy to squelch the voice of unpopular minorities, either through superconcentration or superdilution. For example, it's virtually impossible for a non-Christian to get elected to US federal office, particularly in the Midwest.

So, to improve democracy, I'd do away with elections as we know them now, at least to deliberative bodies. Instead, people should be allowed to choose their representatives on a nongeographical basis by signing up on a "support list" that has to be reverified every few years, with the minimum number to get "elected" set at an appropriate level to ensure the "right" number of legislators. That also does away with the problem of seventeen-year-olds (who, in this country, cannot vote) having no opportunity for a say in the government due to the vagaries of election scheduling.

But I don't see a real alternative to democracy, for a very simple — ruthlessly Darwinian/Malthusian — reason: It's the best way to ensure that opposing ideas have at least some room to get considered, and thus force the government to evolve along with changing circumstances.

25:

You may be overlooking the legitimacy issue, which is slightly different from allowing people to blow off dissent. Any government needs to be able to point at some "myth" that says "you should obey us because...". Myths such as "the divine right of kings" or "this holy book right here" or "the inevitable communist evolution of society" all have serious flaws, and a large number of people in any society will not buy into them. "Democracy" as a myth is difficult to argue with, because it requires the dissenter to come up with something more legitimate.

26:

Ted @21, if you don't class The Rule Of Law as a good thing, then I'm very glad I don't live in the kind of world you want to live in -- and enforcing the rule of law (and doing their best to enforce a monopoly on force regulated by the rule of law) is just the first of the many things governments have done for us. (Cue Monty Python chorus of "what have the Romans ever done for us?") And pretty much by definition, enforcing the rule of law -- their laws, whether they be good or bad -- is what governments do.

Some of this stuff is so fundamental that we don't realize it's there. But it's still important.

Charles @24 -- that nongeographical list system sounds suspiciously like some versions of proportional representation (list system; threshold of votes for admission to the legislature -- Germany, anyone?). Hmm.

You're right about it being an environment that lets opposing ideas develop enough to get themselves heard ... usually. But I'm kind of worried right now because it seems to me that a lot of the enabling anti-terrorist legislation is so broadly drafted that just about any attempt to build a campaign to change the legislative framework is vulnerable to terrorism charges if just one member (or associate) is stupid enough to do something illegal. Dissent on terms not sanctioned by the incumbents is subject to persecution. How far would Martin Luther King have got in today's legislative climate? (Leaving aside the question of whether the civil rights climate would require that kind of activism.)

27:

Iain @ 17
Yes I was; but most of the time I was living in Scotland, so I thought it wasn't a democracy...
Seriously the point is well made, but the government did spend a lot of time telling a lot of people that what they were doing was right: just so long as you weren't part of the industrial unionised working class.

Chris @ 19
As mentioned above, being in Scotland I wasn't interested in minor provincial towns. ;-} However, I'm under the deluded opinion that it does seem to be making something of a comeback under a different guise. And the number of MPs, MSPs, AMs, MLAs, local councillors seems to be on an ever upward spiral.

Ian @ 20
I think it is Freakonomics that has a fascinating argument that it is funds that follow votes, not the other way round. Make your own mind up on that one, but worth reading.
Charles @ 24
I'm confused (as an outsider) how minorities are excluded. At least some systems, especially with some forms of PR they seem to have far too much power, acting as the king-makers and extracting very large payments from this. If you add to this, a strong vocal co-ordination mechanism and they can easily punch above their weight. Whilst the rights of the minorities must be preserved (see above about being in Scotland during the 80s), it can go to far (IMNSHO).

I'd love to see something where we didn't vote for people, but for "grand challenges", like Kennedy's "Man on the Moon", and then we had no government, simply a civil service that was responsible for making them happen. Surely something could be developed that let grand challenges rise up naturally....

28:

One deranged idea I had a while ago: transparent plutocracy. Auction off blank bills that will be voted on, or have a fee for putting an issue up for a vote. Voting consists of spending money: when you open bidding on a bill, voters have a week to spend money on it. After the week is up, voting closes when the total amount of money in the race does not increase by at least 10% in 24 hours. Unlike a regular auction, winner and loser both pay, and the money goes directly to the government coffers. Money spent on this applies directly to your income tax payments, so all citizens have incentive to weigh in either directly or by handing money to a watchdog organization that will support their interests. Someone who is spectacularly wealthy could try to buy an issue, but they'd need to have the money to defend it against subsequent bills to repeal it.

The system gives a disproportionate voice to the rich, just like the current one-- but at least it's honest about it.

29:

Chris @#19, of course nothing can get rid of the highest levels of power: but look at the UK for an example of what happens to them. There is always pressure to increase the size of any ruling circle, for the reasons Charlie outlined: but the people with the actual power want to keep it rather than diluting it, and so about every generation a new inner circle is formed within the old one, and the old one becomes a shell around it. (The US hasn't avoided this process entirely: it's just disguised it, and slowed it down.)

Repeat this process enough times and you end up with something like the UK's astonishing accretion of political posts, getting increasingly bizarre and powerless the older you get (often they have more impressive titles than the newer ranks, to make up for the fact that the newer ranks have all the power and that the older ones last had a pay rise in 1610 and have gone unfilled since 1840).

So old political posts never die: they just fade away.

30:

I thought the U.S. system of government was moving in the right direction after the impeachment of Richard Nixon until Jerry Ford signed the bill that created Political Action Committees.

Eliminate PACs, have your elected officials be bound by the laws of the land, have Congress only vote pay increases for their successor, and make it illegal for former elected officials to profit from being a former elected official and the current U.S. form of government wouldn't be that bad. Have former Legislators and Executives return to being family lawyers, exterminators, dentists etc.

Didn't really address your question. Sorry.

31:

So. Why are democratic forms of government spreading?

Capitalism.

The current form of democracy developed in Western Europe and North America during the last 250 years exhibits the strongest compatibility with the capitalist system over the same period.

As capitalism spreads across the surface of the earth, democracy follows.

32:

2. Imperative mandate. I don't worship corporations, but it is quite clear they get a few things right. Among others, they manage to harness the skills and intelligence of their officers to the benefit of their owners. In order to do this, the officers need to have some forms of accountability. One system that could work is that of imperative mandate: since your representatives are meant to represent you, tell them, at least in outline, what it is you want, and if they deviate, recall them. How do you tell them what you want? Vote for a programme, or make their own programme binding, or even get rid of the idea that representatives need to be super-smart and capable people, and vote for a programme which gets implemented by a random person chosen by lot.

I've thought for a while that this could plausibly be combined with Heinlein's idea for a legislature in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, where instead of getting a 50%+1 majority in some district, you show up with verified proxies from some threshold number of voters, and you're in. Legislators under that system could provide explicit commitments to work for X, and if they failed to do so, they could be sued.

3. Make the Constitution binding. Countries with written constitutions tend to affirm their political powers are subject to them, but what happens in reality is one of the powers (judiciary) or a special court (constitutional tribunal, according to Kelsen's theories a negative legislator) anulls what the legislative has done. But hey, these legislators who drafted, passed and promulgated the law are supposed to be subject to the Constitution too, directly, so why don't they have any liability from this? What kinds of liability? They could 1) lose their seat, 2) pay the costs of all the procedural mess, 3) pay damages to those who have suffered in any way from that law, 4) all of the above.

Apparently ancient Athens had this. The lawsuit for improper legislation was a known cause of action. There were "laws" laid down by an extraordinary ruler, and if you introduced an act that someone thought clashed with those laws, you personally could be sued for damages. I suppose in the United States it would have to take the form of a lawsuit for unconstitutional legislation. Given some of the things Congress has done in the past few years, I must say it has a certain appeal.

Incidentally, it's not quite accurate to describe Athens as picking their officers by lot. A lot of them were, yes, but not all. They didn't try to appoint military commanders by drawing lots, for example.

33:

David @#8:
Because the dictators we want to get rid of are already in business: "One might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb." and the proverbial cornered rat. There is also that the prosecutions will inevitably have the whiff of political maneuvering... With all badness this implies.

Dictator who knows he will not be allowed to retire peacefully will cling to power by whatever means necessary, and as he already is the dictator this has rather high probability of success. In the end he'll probably either die in office (Hafez Al-Assad) or retire with carefully-groomed successor who continues the dictator business (Fidel Castro). He will not do "Pinochet" and any meaningful change in government will probably have to be a violent one (naturally there are exceptions like Spain and Juan Carlos).

Note that I do not say this would be a good thing. It just might be a lesser of two evils...

34:

Charlie @26: Hmm. I think that you may be wrong to ascribe 'Rule of Law' to a top-down phenomenon emanating from the Government. An interesting book is Hernando de Soto's "The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else".

Now, I do realize that 'democracy' and 'capitalism' are not synonyms, but 'Rule of Law' turns out to be one of those things that are a prerequisite to both, so I think the book and it's lessons as to why capitalism also can't be imposed from the top down is relevant:

http://books.google.com/books?id=thJPIP0_Fg0C&printsec=frontcover

35:

Michael R. Bernstein , you might be interested in Amy Chua's book "World In Flames". She looks at the conflict between democracy and capitalism, especially what happens when there is a market-dominant minority (or a perceived minority).

One point she makes, repeatedly, is that capitalism as practiced in America (she's an American lawyer and Harvard professor) is not the same as the capitalism that America encourages abroad. Another is that how democracy has worked in the West has changed over the last 200 years. (For example, the franchise has gradually spread, rather than being given to everyone all-at-once.)

To expect other countries to replicate our trajectory, but in much less time, is counterproductive. They can't.

36:

Cojones of shot-peened high carbon steel for opening this particular can of elongated, soft-bodied invertebrates, Charles.

Advocates of direct, or participatory, democracy grab a copy of Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War and read about the slow-motion self-destruction of the most directly democratic system ever devised (assuming you were born with a penis and had served in the armed forces, trained and equipped at your own expense).

37:

Ted Lemon @ 21, it's easy enough to criticize government, but you haven't described a working system to surplant it. And even in a post-scarcity world, we'll still have finite positional goods like services and land.

By the way, I'm not completely buying into your geeks vs. the world framework. A doctor, a welder, or a baker could probably make the same argument. Or would you care to live in a world without medicine, bridges, or tiramisu?

38:

Hm..

The English system before they decided that the House of Lords needed gutting. Yes, I'm aware of the drawbacks it had, but there was a far greater buffer against the sharp-spiking of public sentiment the public seem prone to.

On a wider basis, a government which has people selected in various ways. Some seats hereditary, some elected both directly and via party list, some appointed for term or for life, etc. - and with methods of turnover which mean that some members will be replaced frequently and some very infrequently. With a method of majority-voting in the country such that a 66% vote can remove someone from government.

39:

I've always wondered if the draft isn't a better way running the government. Basically, conscripting people through a lottery into a public office of some sort. Nothing with direct power of course, more like a committee of your peers who would serve as a counterweight to elected officials. Like a third component of the legislative branch, a people's senate of involuntary conscripts.

You could also have mandatory beheading of elected officials at the end of their terms. It would ensure only people who REALLY care get into office.

40:

Hey, I said one of the good things governments do is to have a legal system. That's rule of law, isn't it? :')

I'm sorry my comment was taken as a criticism of government implying some alternative. There is no alternative. Government is a necessary evil. There are certain problems that only a government can really address.

But to turn from that and say that government is, or could be, a force for good in the world is a mistake. That's not what government is good at. Government, at its best, is good at fairly sharing burdens across a population, and at preventing tyrannies of minorities (e.g., criminals).

Sometimes individuals turn government to their own good purposes - I think of Roosevelt and DARPA as excellent examples of this. And sometimes mass movements of people use government as a tool for accomplishing good. But the direction of the arrow is toward the government, not toward the people.

Nowadays you young whippersnappers expect either for governments to be inherently useless, which they are not, or inherently good, which they are not. When we expect government to take care of us, like Mommy, with no intervention from us other than the occasional whine (whinge?), the results tend to be ugly.

41:

Er, and when we expect the magic middle finger of the market to do the same, we are equally deluded.

42:

Great topic! I'll preface my "points" with Python:

You're not qualified!
The line Keanu didn't say in Parenthood springs to mind "You need a license to drive a car, catch a fish, own a dog.... but they'll let any asshole get elected."

In other words, some minimum qualification for being able to stand for election seems like it ought to be achievable. Perhaps a one-year diploma in "civics"? With the curriculum set by an elected citizen's panel and reviewed every decade? That mostly avoids the (obvious) charge of elitism, IMO.

Hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma.
We aught to be electing teams, not individuals. The single thing that all great "leaders" have in common is their ability to craft an excellent team. Contrast Caesar's use of the utterly brilliant Trajan with Hitler's use of the imbeciles that were his closest advisers. Or Lincoln with Hamilton compared to Mao with, well, any of the losers that comprised the "Big Five".

So a single "leader" no longer outlines "his" policies (see the two lies in that sentence?) But rather an actual person-manager outlines who she/he will place at the head of policy areas. "And I will ask Professors Smith & Jones to bring their expert yet contrasting views together to map out the future of our education in this country." Now this is unashamedly elitist, but we get to pick the teams. Combine that with a "recall" capability and instead of getting some old union hack in charge of health (or, worse, someone who once managed a popular chip shop), you might actually get someone who knows what they are doing.

Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords.
Absolute openness in government. The classic example of this is taxes. You pay your taxes and off they go to an enormous black hole to be spent on things like bombs that get dropped on Iraqi kids even though a clear majority of the people who paid for the bomb disagree with that usage of the money. No wonder we minimize our taxes! So, absolute transparency on government budgets.

That's three, anyway.

43:

I guess I'm kind of astonished that someone as seemingly erudite as Messr. Stross seems to think that democracy is either common or is desirable.

Once the participants in a democracy figure out that they can vote themselves largesse from the public trough, it's all downhill from there. Democracy inevitably ends in empire (viz. Pericles of Athens).

The United States were deliberately set up as a republic, *not* a democracy, because the Founders knew their history and understood human nature. The current problems the United States are experiencing can largely be ascribed by the erosion of the Republic into a mere democracy, IMHO.

44:

Democracy is the open source of governance. Not everyone is a talented enough coder to contribute and commit, but everyone is running the code, users are exercising many if not all of the features, especially in ways not originally thought of by the designers, and bugs get reported on a frequent basis.

Clearly we need to spend more time on the backlog, and consider allocating development resources to a better UI. The code base is a little unruly, too. Maybe some time spent refactoring would be a good idea.

45:

Er, and when we expect the magic middle finger of the market to do the same, we are equally deluded.

To my mind, the market has one big advantage over democracy. If I feel it's not meeting my needs, I can go out and try to cut a better deal. I don't have to run for office, or write letters to office holders, or go through a bureaucratic procedure, or put together a lobby, pressure group, political party, or mass movement. I just define what I need and search for someone who will provide it. Any vision of the market as a process or institution that provides automatically for people who passively rely on it is missing the point; the market is the result of people not being passive, in a situation where they have enough freedom to be active.

The big weakness of the market is that it can't provide its own legal scaffolding (and yes, I've read all the standard anarchocapitalist works, back to the Tannehills around 1970). Having that provided by the state takes us back to the problem of arriving at a better political system than democracy. Part of "better" in this case is being more resistant to the impulse of people in a market to try to buy special favors from government, giving themselves a privileged position over their potential competition, and in the process putting their customers and suppliers at their mercy—what the Virginia School people call "the rent-seeking society." Lacking that, we have the market and the state corrupting each other. . . .

46:

It never annoys the people. How often do you get politicans standing up and telling you that you are stupid and need to do things differently?

All the damn time; they are constantly telling us that we are stupid and must be forced to behave differently, with the caveat that they mean...those people.

It's a cancerous meme. When was the last time you saw a democratic system reduce the number of members it has. Or get rid of a layer of democracy, or do anything that a business would call an efficiency improvement?

GLC abolition; further, I really don't know what the last clause here means.

Once the participants in a democracy figure out that they can vote themselves largesse from the public trough, it's all downhill from there. Democracy inevitably ends in empire (viz. Pericles of Athens).

Can someone actually cite a real case for this overquoted pabulum? Which democracies actually collapsed because of...THOSE PEOPLE...getting welfare benefits? I can't think of one, but I can think of a hell of a lot of right-wing wankers who use this quote as a sort of universal political acid to justify their prior prejudices.

47:

It's a cancerous meme. When was the last time you saw a democratic system reduce the number of members it has. Or get rid of a layer of democracy, or do anything that a business would call an efficiency improvement?

In Wales in 1996 the local government system changed from a two-tier system of eight counties and thirty-seven districts to a system of twentyitwo unitary councils, substantially reducing the number of councillers.

48:

Alex: the nonsense about democracy being brought down when the people start voting for bread and circuses is only nonsense if you assume that "the people" being spoken of are the actual voting public. If you think of them instead as being the moneyed interests who fund the electoral campaigns, it's a whole 'nother matter, isn't it?

The UK isn't as badly off in this respect as the USA -- we've got strict spending limits, enforced by an apolitical civil service and in extremis the police, and taking too much money from shady donors can be a career-ending move (or even a prison-cell-occupying one). To clean up US politics you'd have to start by bringing in state and federal funding for all election campaigns, strict spending caps, and banning individual donations, and expecting the current legislators to nod that one through is like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas.

William Stoddard: the market does not address all needs -- frequently it gets caught in local minima, where stuff on offer doesn't fit your needs, but the cost of doing so is so high and the consumer base is so small that nobody is going to build a business around it. See for a trivial example my quest for the perfect PDA. (All I want is a modern reinterpretation of the 2000-vintage Psion 5MX. Nothing more. But can I find one? Can I hell! Developing such a beast would not be cheap, and there's a decade of marketing bullshit and failures to overcome that say "the public don't want PDAs with keyboards". I'm not the only person who wants such a beast, but are there a million-plus punters out there who agree with me and who'd be willing to drop 200 notes on one?)

Roland @43: what makes you think I was advocating democracy? I was describing it, but that's not quite the same thing ...

Shan @42: your qualification for politics is trivial but would serve to exclude from low-level or local governance people who don't have the spare time and money to acquire it. As it is, something north of 90% of US congress and senate seats are occupied by lawyers; in the UK, 70% of parliamentary seats are occupied by lawyers or company directors (and most of the rest by professionals such as medical doctors). This tendency for the legislature to be captured by a single profession is one of the more worrying diseases to which democracies are prone; if we made it a formal requirement to have a qualification in a given area, don't you think it's likely that successive legislatures drawn from the sector of people with that qualification would move to raise the bar progressively, giving themselves a lock-in?

49:

In Norway we had an interesting project that I haven't heard about lately and may be defunct. The current government had already started with the broadband initiative which promised access to broadband in every little community by 2007. It was finished in the spring of 2007.

The reason I mention this is that this was part of a greater plan to strengthen local democracy. The plan was that you'd log into the government portal norge.no with fingerprint and there you would find information about upcoming cases for your local council and vote on them within a time limit. A sort of local demarchy to use an expression from another SF writer (I know he didn't invent it). In addition you coul get access to public documents and with the most liberal Public Informatio Act in Europe you have a means to get the necessary information.

A problem with the broadband initiative is of course that you can't get everyone to use it and the old generation is inherently techno-skeptic (at least the rural one.) So if it were to be implemented it might shut out a significant part of the population from the local democracy.

50:

Parliament's business is the making of laws (it's a legislature) - is it really wrong or even surprising that lawyers are fairly common there? I bet that medical doctors and researchers are fairly common at NICE, and novelists on the Booker Prize committee.
I'm always wary of the "too many lawyers in government" argument. It sounds, well, American.

51:

Ajay: my problem with a legislature full of (or rather, consisting almost entirely of) lawyers is that they're tempted to look at all problems as legal problems: either as a semantic system that needs to be gamed, or as a series of exceptional cases that need to be regulated. Also, there's a tendency for people who fixate on a political career to start young, study law, and climb the ladder via student or low-level-national politics, without ever doing anything else. Look at most of the current cabinet, for example; or at Hillary Clinton. (Barack Obama at least did something a little bit different first, before switching to the law'n'politics track.)

I'd be a lot more sanguine about the prevalence of lawyers in parliament if one of the requirements for candidacy for high office was to have been engaged in some occupation other than political activism, legal practice, or the study of law for a period of no less than five years. (Just to give them some other life experience, from the perspective of the non-lawyers they're aspiring to legislate for.)

52:

But one missing point is that the concept of Democracy that was born first in the American Independence War and "perfected" after the French Revolution deals about the existence of three powers that are independent powers (Executive, Legislative, Judiciary) with very specific attributions. At least Executive and Legislative must be representative (its members chosen by popular election).

Many dictatorial regimes have the formalities of Democracy (free elections, etc) but misses the separation between powers.

Other missing point is that a true Democracy lies in the inexistence of privileges based in race, faith, birth and favors of the powerfull. And this is a more recent concept. Many "so-called" Democracies can't stand to the verification of this standard.

53:

"Unfortunately democracy has some really huge drawbacks too ... that'd make a fine topic for another rant, but I'm getting a bit tired of this right now, and I've got some work to do."

This is already an excellent rant, and I look forward to the follow-up.

One minor nitpick: you native English speaking types always remind me that it is "raise the question," that begging the question doesn't have a second argument; did you use "beg" on purpose?

54:

If I have any dispute with the notion of democracy, it's that Lockean liberty is more important than formal democracy; freedom of speech, rule of law, limitation of power, equality before the law. If you don't have those, the vote is a very poor substitute; you ask a Russian.

55:

Branko @53: "to beg the question" is to commit a logical fallacy of circular reasoning, by accepting an argument as true on the basis of evidence including the assumption that the argument is true: in this case, I hold that monarchies rely on their claim to legitimacy through just such a pattern of circular reasoning. (It's widely misused in colloquial English, but it is a legitimate expression.)

Alex @54: yup. (And that's why I'm so itchy about our current lords and masters in parliament; they don't seem to be clear on the idea of liberty as an end in and of itself.)

56:

I've always thought that Texas' system of making it illegal to legislate in even numbered years was an interesting solution to the problem of lawmakers productivity, but that's just a tweak on republican governance.

Another one would be to give all laws and statutory agencies a ten year maximum life span. If the lawmakers had to debate every standing law every ten years, they might get up to less mischief.

57:

Charlie Stross @ 51: I feel the same way about journalists.

58:

Your comment seems to assume that the word "democracy" means more or less the current political system of the United States. The U.S. is best described as a "republic" with a certain degree of democratic practice. It is a "democracy" only in the sense that the Wright Brothers' airplane was a space ship. You focus almost exclusively on the issues of succession of power, as if democracy was a system of selecting kings. This is an unfortunate psychology that has brought the United States nearly to ruin. Democracy is not an "ideology", it is a technique, and the aim of the technique is not to select a ruler, but to allow people to govern their own affairs WITHOUT rulers. This makes it absolutely severed from, and completely antithetical to any of the "systems" that have plagued human history. It is not a variant of them, it is something in a different universe. The U.S. began with some experience of this idea, in the form of self-governing communities (mostly in New England) where people governed their own affairs using democratic techniques, but it never developed a way of doing this very effectively on a larger scale. There are ways to do this. Democratic techniques can be developed that don't require 300,000,000 people to gather in one room. But unfortunately, the "selecting a king" notion has replaced actual democratic thought or development. For a more modern approach to these issues, try the World History of Democracy website http://www.nipissingu.ca/department/history/MUHLBERGER/HISTDEM/INDEX.HTM
or my own Meditations on Democracy series
http://philpaine.com/mycenea/modules/content/index.php?id=198

59:

Sebastien: yup, I concur.

Brett: alas, modern societies are a bit more complex than those of yore, when the body of law was small enough to chew over on a regular basis.

I am interested in the idea of an upper house, however, selected on a jury service basis, with the power to veto bills put forward by the lower house (with one exception: no veto power over bills that remove legislation previously brought in under this system). In other words, to put parliament under public oversight by members of the public, with a built-in bias towards rejecting new laws.

60:

Charlie @ 48: The problem with spending limits in the US is that it runs into free speech issues. Even if you limit the money candidates can spend, restricting their supporters is questionable. Plus, individual donations & the need to fund raise forces people to put their money where their mouth is -- if you really agree with your candidate, why not send him/her some money?

As to your original question, Demarchy is an interesting idea. And as Alastair Reynolds suggests in his novels, it may be more viable as technology advances.

Or maybe some sort of shareholder state where each citizen in effect owns part of the country, which can be bought, sold, and inherited? Or there's weighted democracy, where some people have more votes on others -- Mark Twain suggested something like that in "The Curious Republic of Gondour".

The question between the two is should voice in government be egalitarian or meritocratic ?

61:

Brett @ 56 & Charlie @ 58:

I like the idea of a built in sunset clause to legislation. How long it should be is debatable - 10 or 20 years is probably good. Essential laws and rights should be covered in a constitution that doesn't sunset, while all laws passed through the legislative body would.

There's no reason why it should be unwieldy, if everyone thinks the law is still good enough, it would be a simple matter to vote to extend it another 10 years. If it's not good enough anymore, then they definitely should revisit it.

The time taken up doing that would keep legislatures too busy to pass stupid laws that interfere with our lives overly much. There's not that much new stuff each year that demands as many new laws as are produced.

62:

I heartily endorse the "legislative house selected as a jury" proposal above.

Also, as Mr. Gerrymander demonstrated, you can ring some interesting changes on democratic forms by just redefining the lines between constituencies. Instead of a House of Lords and a House of Commons, why not a House of Men and a House of Women? Or a House of Extroverts and a House of Introverts? (As an introvert, I feel tragically unrepresented in the current political system...) Or a House of Pirates and a House of Ninjas?

63:

Can someone actually cite a real case for this overquoted pabulum? Which democracies actually collapsed because of...THOSE PEOPLE...getting welfare benefits? I can't think of one, but I can think of a hell of a lot of right-wing wankers who use this quote as a sort of universal political acid to justify their prior prejudices.

I don't know which "those people" you have in mind, but when I think of democracy wrecking the economy, I worry more about rent-seeking—in popular language, welfare for big corporations. American politics has been going through a whole series of efforts to prevent economic pressure groups from enriching themselves through favorable legislation and regulation, such as restrictions on lobbying, public funding of campaigns, and term limits, but it rather seems that this is a case of holding back the sea by royal command. For a libertarian (which I am), the ideal solution is to strip the government of the ability to control the economy, so that there's no power to abuse and nothing for politicians to sell to corporate management or industry associations; unfortunately that doesn't seem to be a stable condition.

I do prefer that the poor be helped through private charity rather than government programs, and secondarily that government help take the form of a single income subsidy such as negative income tax rather than a lot of specific provisions such as national health care or food commodities programs; but all the money spent on poor people is a trivial part of the public voting themselves handouts. For one thing, the poor are disproportionately less likely to vote. On the other hand, the old are disproportionately more likely to vote, and here in the United States, we're facing a big problem with Social Security for the baby boom generation, which it's politically impossible to cut and may be ruinously expensive to continue.

64:

William Stoddard: the market does not address all needs -- frequently it gets caught in local minima, where stuff on offer doesn't fit your needs, but the cost of doing so is so high and the consumer base is so small that nobody is going to build a business around it. See for a trivial example my quest for the perfect PDA. (All I want is a modern reinterpretation of the 2000-vintage Psion 5MX. Nothing more. But can I find one? Can I hell! Developing such a beast would not be cheap, and there's a decade of marketing bullshit and failures to overcome that say "the public don't want PDAs with keyboards". I'm not the only person who wants such a beast, but are there a million-plus punters out there who agree with me and who'd be willing to drop 200 notes on one?)

Oh, sure. But if you review my comment, you'll see that I didn't claim that the market would solve all problems, or give people the freedom to solve all their own problems. In fact I explicitly said that government was needed to do certain things.

There's an idea in economic thought called "the nirvana principle," which says that it's fallacious to compare the imperfect working of the market with the results that might be attained by some ideal vision of a nonmarket institution. For sound conclusions, you need either to compare the pure ideal of a free market with the pure ideal of a government, or the actual workings of markets with the actual workings of governmental systems.

It doesn't appear to me that government, even democratic government, is immune to the problem of the local minima that concern you; trying to put together a political movement to have the kind of PDA you want created would take a huge amount of effort and likely not pay off. Likewise trying to get it funded by some charitable organization, though it would be nice if something like Heinlein's fictitious Long Range Foundation existed in the real world.

65:

There is an interesting article:

http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=962498

The title of the paper is "Is Democracy Like Sex?" which discusses how species evolved sex for the purpose of shuffling around genes, which had the benefit of making it harder for parasites. The paper discusses whether democracy works in a similar way, making it harder for political parasites by a change of administration.

66:

For a libertarian (which I am), the ideal solution is to strip the government of the ability to control the economy, so that there's no power to abuse and nothing for politicians to sell to corporate management or industry associations; unfortunately that doesn't seem to be a stable condition.
As a non-libertarian, I don't see why anyone would think it would be a stable condition. All you'd do would be to remove the middle layer of politicians, and end up with corporations taking what they used to buy.

Tangentially, I think that every libertarian would-be society which doesn't start with the demolition of all existing corporate power and influence, and the complete and equitable division of all resources and means of production is just begging to collapse into rapacious plutocracy.

(That a lot of libertarians seem to want a rapacious plutocracy, with the assumption that they would manage to get in on the upper levels, is another reason why I dislike the ideology.)

67:

In the vein of exploring alternatives:
1. Voting is important because it lets a person exert some control over their government. How else can people control things besides picking a representative?
2. Stability through patience; 'this too shall pass.' Where is the line drawn for that "acceptable" timeframe to wait? What kind of changes would make it longer or shorter?
3. Guaranteeing a successor: current methods of biological fabrication are unreliable. How else could a successor be created rather than selected?

68:

William Stoddard @64: it would be nice if something like Heinlein's fictitious Long Range Foundation existed in the real world.

www.google.org.

Wakboth @66: what you said goes for me too.

712 @67: Voting is important because it lets a person exert some control over their government. No it doesn't. All it does is let you provide some input into how the government is selected. There is no guarantee that your input will have any effect (as in, for example, a vote for a non-winning party in a winner-take-all system) and there is no guarantee that the winning party will implement their pre-election manifesto promises. Let me repeat this: voting does not give you control over the government, it merely gives you input into the composition of the next government.

On the other hand: consider that hypothetical veto-capable upper house selected on a jury basis. You have an equal probability (low) along with everybody else of being picked, in which case you have direct control over what the elected lower house are able to do.

On stability through patience, I should note that Belgium seemed to run perfectly happily for six months last year without a government. No laws got passed but the country didn't disintegrate (that's why it didn't have a government). Hmm.

69:

I like the idea of a sunset clause. It also makes me wonder if we could have a "sunrise" clause. A lot of legislation seems to be ill thought out knee-jerk reactions. If it had to be delayed by, say 5 years, before it came into force would that really be so terrible. So many times to me it sounds like some is saying "We don't have legislation making it illegal to shoot Kevin in York on Fridays, so we'd better bring it in".

I guess there must be novels already out there that explore the idea of a "country" that has no government. So what are the good ones to read?

70:

I would like to second (third?) the idea of automatic sunset clauses, with the addition that the length of time before the clause comes into affect be limited by the majority achieved in parliament. i.e. if a law passed by one vote is up for review much sooner than that passed unanimously.

Charlie @51, I have heard ex-members of the House of Lords complain bitterly about the loss of 'life experience' involved with the removal of the hereditary peers. Whilst obviously not the best solution, hereditary peerages had some advantages, chief amongst which was that it brought experience to the job. The replacement with more appointed peers seems set to exasberate the too-many-lawyers-not-enough-others problem.

71:

Mr. Stoddard, your praise of markets neglects one important point: only those who are able to produce value are able to exchange it for other things of value. And as Charlie pointed out, the mere fact that you have something of value to exchange does not mean that what you want will be available for purchase.

The problem with the market, aside from the whole poor people thing (if you're going to hand-wave, might as well wave your hand broadly, I always say) is that the way it makes choices is broken. The market doesn't choose what to produce based on what people need, or even what people want. It chooses based on what can be sold, and how easily.

I personally think this is better than top-down management, because of the nirvana fallacy you mention, but it's by no means optimal, or even good. Those continent-sized masses of floating garbage in the Pacific ocean are a direct result of this problem.

Basically, the market is an ecosystem, and when we act in the market as selfish organisms, we get survival of the fittest (for that ecosystem). If that's really what we aspire to, then the market is great. If we aspire to something more, we have to stop acting like bacteria.

72:

Even now the Belgian government is a caretaker administration with rather limited decision making power. Belgium was able to drift along for a fairly long time partly due to the federal government not doing all that much anyway (the regional and provincial governments have most of the day-to-day decision making power) and decision making on the relatively few things it does do could mostly be deferred for a few months.

73:

The question comes up as to whether either nation-states or empires are going to be valid poltical forms in the future. "Government" is more-or-less an Enlightenment concept--prior to the Enlightenment there wasn't "government" as such; there was just rule, and in some places and at some times (as in the Arabian desert) no rule at all. Looking into the future, if humans make it at all, they'rere going to have a world something, but it may not be very much like what they now call "government".

As to the project of democracy--broadly, ordering society so as to respond to and reflect the needs and desires of its members--what is the ethical alternative? Is it ever desirable--except for a minority--to have a social order that does not do that?

In terms of democratic forms, I can only speak to the USA. And I'd have to say that the USA is not very democratic in these times. Oh, there's plenty worse. But, broadly, the government is not delivering any summation of what we need and desire. More importantly, in their day-to-day lives, US citizens by and large pursue social relations in hierarchical rather than democratic groups.

Caw!

74:

Response to Ted Lemon, #71:

I certainly don't think that the market is sufficient to create a viable society all by itself. I tend to think that Kenneth Boulding was on the right track when he said that there were three social binding forces—love, greed, and fear—and that the tragedy of socialism was that it had tried to rise above greed to rely on love, but in practice had fallen below greed to rely on fear.

I don't think we can eliminate reliance on fear entirely in the foreseeable future. But people in the developed nations—which means the nations that have functioning market economies, by and large—spend a much smaller percentage of their lives in a state of immediate fear. And the core libertarian principle—which is not reliance on the market, but noninitiation of force—basically says that fear should be used only to keep people in check who would live by trading in fear; that is, its goal is to minimize the role of fear, and live by informed consent.

In the kind of market economy the libertarians I know would like to achieve, there would be nothing whatever to stop you from dealing with other people on a basis of love. You could have a family, and support your children without demanding that they "earn" your support; you could give to a church or charity; you could join an intentional community; you could pass on the content you created via copyleft. To be sure, you'd have to spend some time in the market, to earn the money to support these activities. But I don't see much prospect of creating a human society where greed plays no role.

As to the mountains of garbage, you know, the oceans are not part of a market economy; no one has property rights in them, or can collect fees or taxes for what gets dumped into them. They're being treated as if they were free, superabundant goods. And since they're no longer superabundant with respect to the scale of human industry, that regime is no longer viable. Certainly we need to establish new boundary conditions, probably on a national or even transnational scale.

75:

Charlie @59: What say they wanted to veto the removal of human rights or anti-discrimination legislation?

Having lived with both, it seems to me that an upper house (Australia) is a lousy substitue for a proportional representation system (New Zealand) where the nation actually gets the parties it voted for, on a one-to-one basis. There must be hundreds of cases of the opposition having got numerically more votes in first-past-the-post systems, not to mention minor parties who might get 20% of the vote and have no-one in parliament.

Free-market fanboys @ wherever: your arguments would be a lot more compelling if your theory didn't make multiple demonstrably false assumptions about human behaviour (linear or hyperbolic discounting of future returns, to name but one).

76:

I think William Stoddard sums the libertarian idea up nicely.

And regarding democracy as a whole, is more democracy necessarily better? The US system seems to be the best balance, though I might weaken the power of the Presidency slightly.

I'm a fan of a party that's never in power -- the Libertarians -- but I'd rather see them out of power than groups I oppose such as Socialists, Greens, or some of the more Right-wing ideologies with an equal amount of power.

77:

Charlie @ 48:

Then perhaps that "one year civics course" needs to be built more robustly into high-school education.

Not sure where the pressure for that would come from, though, as politicians over the last 30 (150?) years seem to have successfully convinced parents that their children are best served spending 12 years being trained for McJobs...

78:

William @ 74:

I guess if I can hand-wave about poor people you can hand-wave about externalities. But I don't think it's any more valid to talk about the nirvana principle with respect to managed economies than it is to talk about it with respect to markets. When people wave their hands and say "well, if that were part of the market economy, it would stop being a problem," they are in effect talking about market nirvana.

Managing externalities like this is something that pretty much requires rule of law, and requires common agreement as to what that law should be. Or else it requires a significant percentage of all people in the world to decide to change unilaterally.

This latter course seems a bit hopeless, but what I like about it is that it is the one course over which I personally have any actual control at all. As long as I don't break the law, I can always act unilaterally, and much of what would address these problems falls comfortably within the bounds of legal behavior.

I *love* your quotation from Kenneth Boulding. However, without being too much of an apologist for socialism, I will point out that while his observation is poignantly correct with respect to certain failed forms of communism, it's by no means common to all extant forms of socialism. Socialism's failures *have* been spectacular, though, haven't they?

79:

Managing externalities like this is something that pretty much requires rule of law, and requires common agreement as to what that law should be. Or else it requires a significant percentage of all people in the world to decide to change unilaterally.

Exactly. Please bear in mind that I'm not an anarchocapitalist. I think that government has some vital functions to play in making a market work. For example, if you're going to have private property (and without private property, you won't have much of a market), you really need some form of title registry, especially for property in land. Setting up some form of property regime under which fees could be charged for dumping into the oceans or the atmosphere would be a natural extension of this function.

Years ago I read about the water management system in the Ruhr, which I've admired ever since: basically, for each river, a corporation was set up with everyone in the watershed as a shareholder entitled to vote on policy—including setting fees for the use of the river. That strikes me as having some promise as a way to deal with oceans, atmospheres, and other large pools. Mind you, I don't propose it as a worked out solution; we have never had institutions to deal with these things as scarce resources, so we don't yet know what will work best.

But my criterion for a good solution is that it should be one that will let the market go on generating wealth and giving us freedom of choice—indeed, ideally I would like it to provide more wealth and more freedom of choice—while taking away the ability to profit by damaging the environment.

In the long run, I believe it will be necessary to have a planetary government of some sort. In the short run, I think this would be a disaster, in that there isn't enough common culture, and there are too many regions where brutality and kleptocracy are the dominant political institutions. But I think it's necessary to have one law in any region where people interact—call it "densely"—and we're reaching the point where everyone interacts densely with people everywhere.

80:

Just to put some sci-fi in here....

How about libertarian view, with intelligent agents negotiating laws with each other as you walk down the street? As you approach someone's property, the agents negotiate an agreed set of laws based on your pre-defined moral/legal belief sets. The system then states whether or not your legal systems are close enough for you to not get into trouble, probably some sort of sliding scale.

There would have to be some sort of trust metric as well, otherwise people would be trying to come up with legal systems that look good from the outside, but end up with new arrivals being sold into slavery....

81:

Jason: to that scenario, now add the legislative equivalent of spamming. "Hi! I am an intelligent agent representing Sam! Sam profoundly believes in the benefits of Penis Englargement and will give you a discount on infractions of his legal code if you watch the following ad!"

82:

How would Demarchy fit in with something like the original vision behind Cybersyn, refracted through NANOG, or for that matter Charlie's past comments about an alt.USSR that replaced GOSPLAN with a huge MIS?

83:

It might be worth reading about the theoretical ideas surrounding Arrow's impossibility theorem about fairness as it relates to various choice systems which are a generalization of voting. I particularly like that it is sufficiently abstract to include a lot of cybernetic components or autocratic considerations. The question, perhaps, is how to reframe Arrow's assumptions in a way that allows for more interesting solutions...

84:

Brian: Honestly, I'm not sure that the Arrow theorem is the right way to look at voting.

The flaw lies with the "Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives" (IIA) criterion. The IIA requires, roughly:

"If voters prefer candidate A to candidate B in a two-way race, then adding candidate C to the ballot should never make candidate B win."

This sounds extremely reasonable, but imagine that the voters have the following strange preferences:

1. Given candidates A and B, the voters prefer A.
2. Given candidates B and C, the voters prefer B.
3. Given candidates C and A, the voters prefer C(!!!). Sure, this is bizarre and irrational, but we _are_ talking about humans here.

Furthermore, imagine that the voters prefer A over B by a very thin margin, but that the margins for B-over-C and C-over-A are both huge.

In this case, several voting systems will break the "loop" in favor of B, because the A-over-B margin was the weakest link in the loop.

Now imagine that candidate C drops out. There's no longer any loop, and candidate A wins. Oops--we've just violated the "IIA" criterion.

So the easiest way to reframe Arrow's assumption is to say, "You know, the IIA criterion is useless in the presence of preference loops." One you relax the IIA criterion in this way, several voting systems satisfy all of Arrow's criteria, including Condorcet voting.

Condorcet voting works roughly as follows: "Pick whichever candidate would beat all the others in one-on-one matches, if possible. But if there are preference loops, break them at the weakest link."

Another intriguing option is Approval Voting: "Vote yes or no for each candidate. The candidate with most yes votes wins." This has the advantage of extremely simplicity, although it's probably biased in favor of bland, universally-liked consensus leaders. You may or may not see this as a good thing. :-)

85:

As for Charles Stross's point (1):

Personally, I think democracy tends to vote people into power more-or-less at random, because the average voter can't make an informed choice in the presence of sophisticated propaganda campaigns.

But democracy is good at saying, "You know, everybody hates the morons in power. Let's pick another set and see if they're better."

My opinion is based on participation in U.S. primary campaigns, where choosing the best candidate requires guessing about the character, competence and ultimate policies of 4 or 5 individuals. Digging through the bullshit is practically a full-time job. Worse, the "opposition researchers" employed by each campaign make Orwell's Ministry of Truth look like amateurs. Who has the _time_ to choose intelligently?

Now, it's possible that a parliamentary system with well-specified platforms might have entirely different dynamics.

86:

Charles: Legal Spam! Nice.

Eric: Nope, parliamentary systems don't work any better. You still have nasty, nasty conflicts. Even worse, they last longer. If the leader's power base in the party is small, the infighting gets insane.

Here in New Zealand, they have an even more interesting phenomenon - coups! The Prime Minister is elected by the members of parliament (not the party), and can be thrown out at any time. Happens pretty frequently too.

So, you vote for a party (they've got some proportional representation here) to elect the PM, next thing you know, they've pissed off the sitting MPs in their own party and been fired!

It was a bit of a surprise to me when it happened after I got here. We've had something like 2, 3? in the past 10 years?

Instead of having a fight every four years for the nomination, you end up with a continuous struggle for leadership. They leak information to the opposition, cross the floor, leave the party, etc...

87:

Hmm, how about a lower house (taxes, laws) elected by location, and an upper house (which made the electoral divisions of the lower house) elected by preference proxies? Maybe the upper house also appoints judges?
So the Democrats and Republicans in the lower house have to refrain from annoying the rival Klingon and Scientology factions in the upper house for fear of being gerrymandered out of their districts?

I also favor exploring the idea of a sortation draft with a one year apprenticeship. You wind up as a very well paid intern to last year's winner/loser for your district or subcommittee assignment. You get 12 months to study up on agricultural policy or something before they turn you lose with a vote in the Senate.

88:

WKWILLIS - Well bluntly that's why a floor for reprisentation in the 1-2% range is necessary (as in Germany) under a PR system to stop tiny views like that getting elected.

89:

A democracy with a limited franchise. That is, not everyone would have the right to vote. A good criterion would be a) gainful employment (not welfare) + completing a moderately difficult test that would test citizen's logical thinking & reading comprehension.

I am sure there are ways of ensuring such a testing would be imapartial, hard to manipulate, and so on.

Democracy is a fine system, as long as people who are far too credulous don't get to vote.

90:

Y.Schmidt, I think they did that in the American South.

91:

If you look at the systems that have been successful, they have on common theme: decentralization.

For instance, in the U.S., by most measures (GDP per capita, longevity, military strength, ability to democratize other countries) the most successful democracy, there is a constant tension between the courts, the POTUS, and Congress. There is further tension between the State and Federal governments, which also have their own internal tensions between Governor, courts, and legislature.

Numerous studies have shown the more centralized power becomes, the less nimble and responsive it is. I think the best answer is to move power as far down the chain as possible.

92:

Y.Schmidt@89, that would disenfranchise me. It's not my fault I'm disabled, and I had gainful employment up until it happened.

I'd pass the test, but a test is just another way of keeping the poor and minorities down.

93:

South.

Yes, I know they did something like that in the south.
However, the system I propose would not have a grandfather clause. (which allowed dumb whites to vote) That is, the only people who would be able to vote would be those who passed the test, or did something heroic for the good of the community(uncommon, dangerous, etc).

@Marilee ?

Disabled in what way? As long as a citizen would be able to think clearly, and able to wield a pen or a keyboard, passing such a test would be no problem. Besides, disabled people can be employed these days, and their employment prospect will only get better with time.
(this year, not one but two neural game controllers are going on the market. I strongly believe that sooner or later, someone is going to devise a way to input text just by thinking it. Then disabled people will be able to do a lot of white collar work quite easily)

94:

Ted @21, what makes you think medicine has "no business being run competitively"? The way medicine is run in US is awful, but it is by no means "competitive", and barely "private". Cost of insurance is detemined by government regulations, which vary wildly from state to state, and with insurance companies paying percentage instead of fixed amounts, doctors and hospitals have absolutely no incentive to lower costs and improve efficiency. If anything, they have perverse incentive in keep costs as high as possible -- and making health care fully government-paid is not going to change that.

Why shouldn't hospitals and insurance companies compete -- on both price and quality? If I want to save money by going to a cheap but inexperienced dentist, why shouldn't I? And if a dentist with 30 years of perfect record wants to charge three times as much, why not?

95:

Y.Schmidt@93, work generally requires you to be able to walk for more than a block, stand, bend over without falling, and stay awake for at least eight hours. If my doctors would go for an electric wheelchair, I might try working part-time, but right now, I'm not mobile enough for that without the wheelchair. (I'm pretty sure none of the doctors would release me for work, anyway. Stress is likely to bring on another stroke and it's hard to work without stress.)

But to look at the larger picture -- what about someone who has lost their job, then lost their house, and is now living in a shelter -- why shouldn't they vote? This scenario is happening more and more in the county around my city and we only have one family shelter so many families are broken up. It's hard to get a job when you don't have a permanent address or don't have a car. What about that should keep them from voting?

96:

If you have to program computers, being able to think, interface with a computer and stay awake for eight hours are the only qualifications needed. Though I Imagine having a nap every four hours may not be bad.. four hours is plenty of time, and generally, programmers like to have a little pause after programming for four hours straight.. And I doubt anyone finds computers stressful. I don't. They are pretty predictable, though sometimes mysterious.

The larger picture.. you have a good point there.
Maybe their voting privileges would be assessed on a, let's say, three years basis. However, finding jobs isn't supposed to be hard in our glorious capitalistic western civilization, is it? I mean, I found a job despite having no qualifications apart from some programing skill, good knowledge of English and a grammar school diploma and my questionable intelligence.
In Brno.. there's a great demand for programmers there.
Unemployed American coders take note. And, generally, programmers and a lot of young people speak English..
In fact, I met a black American once on a bus stop, he moved to Brno from L.A., he claimed he likes it here. He wasn't a programmer though, some kind of business degree he has. He worked at .. Logica call centre there, but managed to get himself kicked out in his trial period...
(Infosys, Logica CMG, Siemens, Accenture, SAP all have offices in Brno)
And it's generally a pleasant place to live. One can get a three room apartment for .. 110 K $ to 150 K$.. new programmers can expect an after tax, health & social insurance income of 800$ a month. Seniors earn twice that at least.

Marilee, I hope your health improves. Are you old? Strokes are not very common among younger people I think. My grandfather had a mild one some years back, though it didn't leave any permanent observable damage.

97:

I did software QA and while that in itself was not stressful, it was stressful to always be the only woman on the professional staff and prove I could be in charge of most of them because of my abilities. They had other theories. I was younger, no degree, and a woman. I hear that problem isn't so common now, but I now know how people act toward disabled folk and I think it would still be stressful.

I'm 52, which is middle-aged, but I had the stroke when I was 32. I was already in the hospital with the first renal failure when my evil stepmother came and screamed at me. My blood pressure went up, the monitor went off, and the doctor ordered a med that was standard practice at that time and for a few more years. They stopped using it when a study showed it caused strokes instead of stopping them. My BP went too low too fast and I didn't get oxygen to my brain for a while so I had a big stroke and a six-week coma. Six weeks then without nouns, and then I had to learn to read, walk, and take care of myself again. (Then a second different renal failure and lots of auto-immune diseases -- the most recent is that I've become allergic to tapes and adhesives.)

It's not likely that I'll ever get well enough to work again, but I saw the nephrologist today and my kidneys have come off the crash they've been on for the last 18 months and I now get to have 60gr of protein a day!

98:

Im a bit late to this discussion, but it seems to me that the right place for experimenting with more inclusive forms of democracy is in local government. Its venal, unintelligent, boring, cram-packed with self-interested parties, and corruption of various kinds abounds. if you can make it work there, you can make it work anywhere.

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