If men were angels no government would be necessary
Left to our own devices we humans behave badly, very badly; on this you may depend. Government exists (we are told) to compensate for this primitive nature of ours and facilitate justice & the common good in spite of our passionate resistance to such civilized concepts. So when justice, liberty & welfare are all under siege (and have been for as long as anyone can remember) at some point we must look beyond the partisan battles of the moment and contemplate anew those institutions and mechanisms which provide the backdrop for this interminable warfare. When a score (or more) of elections have passed and both tribes enjoyed numerous opportunities at leadership and both have failed to bring any substantial relief, is it not time to re-examine the nuts and bolts of government? It’s no longer credible to imagine that another election will bring any substantial or lasting improvement. Instead, we should reconsider those habitual procedures which have failed to produce the desired result. We are not angels and we become less like angels with each passing day. If we may yet hope to become civilized human beings then we’d best look to the details of government.
Perhaps this system served better once although I believe such a rosy view is largely unwarranted. But even if it is true, the world has changed immeasurably. That government which may have sufficed previously is clearly no longer up to the challenge. It’s time for an upgrade; not that mysterious factory upgrade which cripples your device but a crowd based open-source solution we may all agree on. Ours is a nation of pioneers, inventors and dreamers; our forebears crossed oceans in wooden ships and our parent’s generation (practically on a whim) sent a rocket to the moon; we’ve got this! – if the ship of state is in danger of foundering there are no people on earth better equipped to make the necessary repairs. But first we must find the courage and honesty to admit that our system is failing and then we must discover the humility to collaborate with people that we have disagreed with in the past. We will sink or swim together…
Life, Liberty and Property
For centuries this slogan has been proclaimed as the enlightened alternative to inherited title and arbitrary power; a new meritocratic society of just laws usurping the ancient reign of hereditary monarchs. But was this sales pitch of revolution really a universal panacea? The unlimited liberty of capital was a central tenet of this new paradigm; a golden goose to benefit all humankind. But this thinking, which may have seemed credible in the 17th Century, must now be recognized as flawed. Only a blind person can fail to recognize that the triumphs of capitalism are matched equally by the violence and destruction of its failures. Surely today, with the advantage of hindsight, we may now see that the unlimited liberty of capital is a formula as dangerous as the divine right of kings; a dark power that ground humans into dust as readily as it created grand tapestries and gilded statues.
Still, we must also acknowledge the reality of progress (however fleeting it may potentially be). Prior to capitalism the idea of human rights would have been almost incomprehensible. In a world of famine, plague and superstition the thought that humans might have any positive, definite expectations would have seemed quite absurd; death and taxes were all any normal person could count on. Capitalism did indeed furnish humans with a cornucopia. The problem is, we’re so busy fighting over this windfall that we’ve turned a blessing into a curse. On our current path we may soon destroy all the gains of recent centuries (and then some). Capitalism made positive human rights a real possibility but it’s a limited time opportunity; if we don’t act soon the offer will probably end. In order to move forward (and not backwards) I believe we should refine our understanding of life, liberty and property, insisting (unequivocally) that life (in the broadest possible sense) must (always and everywhere) take precedence over property.
Of course this isn’t really a radical idea; notions of charity, social justice and environmentalism are well embedded in our culture; but the law of the land (our sacred Constitution) tilts solidly in the direction of liberty and scarcely acknowledges there may be a vital conflict between the liberty of one citizens capital and the welfare of others suffering the consequences of that investment. This omission together with a political system openly favoring wealth has lead to the current sad state of affairs, in which many Americans are virtual slaves to an oligarchy of corporate overlords. It is a situation that truly benefits no one, even the “winners”, although most are too drunk with power to recognize this fact. Unless this conflict between liberty and welfare is explicitly treated by our founding document and the economic bias removed from our political system, I do not believe that things can end well. And this would surely be a failure of epic (planetary) proportion; to stand on the threshold of a golden age but plunge backwards into darkness and death instead.
Does anyone really doubt we have the capacity to care for each citizen (and the planet) without enslaving the one while destroying the other? We have the knowledge and resources to realize greatness but insist (like willful spoiled brats) on breaking everything we touch. The richness of our shared inheritance is something we may all claim as members of the human race. It took five thousand years to go from building wheels to assembling rockets but we permit a handful of our more aggressive peers to lord it over us as though they wrought this entire transformation on their own. Our situation is not preordained but it will not be remedied unless we make a deliberate choice to address our predicament with unflinching reason and introduce appropriate modifications to our institutions. We must – in my opinion – apply the same level of analysis to our social structures which we have already used so effectively in the manipulation of our physical environment.* If this can be done then I think we humans might accomplish just about anything.
* You may call this social engineering if you like; we’ve rejected the divine right of kings so what else could it be?
The general Welfare
“The common good”, “the greater good”, “the greatest good for the greatest number”, “the general Welfare”; these words defy rigid codification but we know it when we see it (or more frequently, don’t). Everybody’s different but we all have similar needs; physically, mentally, socially, even spiritually. Whatever promotes physical health, emotional security, good will and understanding is correct, while that which engenders ignorance, pain, and destruction must surely be wrong. And let no sophist paint the inherent tension in this concept as a battle between freedom and slavery, in which the backward masses tear down all those displaying greatness. This specious tale has been told before, surely we recognize it for a lie. The Greeks had a bonafide Democracy and they didn’t engage in leveling schemes, there’s no reason to believe Americans would either. No one denies that talent and enterprise will be rewarded, but neither should we permit the winners to grind us into the dirt. There must be social justice.
We live in a high technology post-industrial era; an age of overflowing capital markets in which human labor plays an exponentially diminishing role. It is impossible to reconcile these facts with gaping failures in nutrition, housing, education and health-care; neither do they furnish any excuse for wage slavery and the pillage of our environment. In the Framer’s age a majority of Americans were independent subsistence farmers. In that context the general welfare was best ensured by minimizing the role of government. Today we are all hostage to a merciless economic algorithm which turns the basest human impulses into forces of nature, with Government the only entity able to impose more civilized values. When every last person is well fed, housed, educated and cared for (on a sustainably managed planet) then we will have achieved the common good. Until that day comes we must ask what is wrong with our government?
The organization of society as a coalition of factions, each gathered behind its standard and perpetually vying for dominance, is an ancient practice. When the contestants are armed we describe this state as civil war and deplore it as the lowest form of human existence, but when the parties lay down their weapons and head to the voting booth we laud it as Democracy, the pinnacle of human civilization. But is this black & white distinction really warranted? Is a political campaign anything other than a sublimated type of violence in which financial capital furnishes us with proxy warfare in the form of media blitzes and political rallies; leaving truth & honor as battered & bloody as any fallen soldier. Do these contests not occasionally descend to the level of fraud and even outright physical violence (making the distinction between civil war and democracy thinner than ever)?
True, it is generally desirable for a previously disfranchised group to acquire electoral privileges (from this vantage our modern “democracy” does indeed represent progress) but the advantage is tactical, not strategic. Absent the ability to muster a majority, your partisans may remain nothing more than a despised (and trampled) minority. Positive rights may be written into law (or even a Constitution) but their enforcement will remain problematic so long as majority support is lacking. Democracy (as it is currently understood) does not guarantee any kind of social justice. It may, in fact, be openly destructive to the idea of justice (and sanity in general).
Granted, there is no form of human government likely to offer perfect benevolence and justice (and minorities are inevitably a source of tension), but is this really the best we can do? The Greeks thought differently. Certainly they didn’t imagine that class and economic divisions would be eliminated but neither did they see the deliberate exacerbation of existing social tensions as a productive basis for establishing a government. They knew this process only brings out the worst in people (as war inevitably does) and that the true beneficiaries of this sort of democracy were the demagogues who inevitably brought society to its knees.
Authentic Democracy is a system designed to promote rational debate (and the common welfare) by inspiring people to behave their best, while Majority Rule is a system which deliberately promotes the worst possible behavior (just shy of outright violence). They may both be superior to that State of Nature which the English philosophers spoke of but it certainly doesn’t make them equivalent. We moderns have conflated two very different forms of government.
Few of those who settled this country had ever voted before, neither had they an extensive knowledge of Greek history. It is unsurprising if they were misled about the nature of our Government; frontier farmers care more for weather & crops than distant dealings in an unknown city. At first, this misrepresentation must have seemed like a minor white lie to those few who were in on the game; just a tiny taste of the American snake-oil purveyed elsewhere. By now however it’s getting a little old. Government matters more today and we can no longer afford the old illusions. It’s time we faced the truth and acted accordingly; perhaps before it is too late. We need real Democracy and we need it now. We can no longer settle for the fairy tale version they sold us when we were getting off the boat. We must now insist on the genuine article. Nothing less.
If Majority Rule is really only a thinly sublimated form of civil war, what then may we honor with the label authentic Democracy? Consider it like this: majority rule is a system which does not attempt to suppress human nature in any substantial manner, merely to put some brakes and limits on the process; the traditional forms of dominance and submission inherited from our tree swinging ancestors are still encouraged to flourish. Yes, we are a Nation of laws, but those laws are still laid down by force, not reason. Authentic Democracy, on the other hand, acknowledges the full depths of our primitive pathology and seeks to civilize us whether we like it or not. Most of us should like this, I think, but the knuckle draggers (and serpents) among us will definitely object.
First and foremost, authentic Democracy recognizes that if we allow our leaders to self-select (because that’s really what elections are) then those individuals who maneuver their way to the top will be the most devious, power hungry, and morally flexible of our peers. Somehow, in a nation of 325 Million, you are permitted to choose between two candidates for President; seems like most of the decisions were already made without you doesn’t it? Yes, these political figures will (generally) be handsome and personable (and occasionally genuinely nice), but as a class they will ordinarily behave like a herd of sociopaths; trampling the common good in the name of political expediency. Authentic Democracy replaces the self-selection of an electoral contest with the random selection of a lottery; instead of politicians you get ordinary citizens (not unlike those you met during jury service). These individuals have far more in common with you and me than any politician (on average), but perhaps most important; they didn’t mortgage their principles to pay for an election! Morals intact, these ordinary citizens understand the needs and wants of people like us and are prepared to legislate accordingly. This, primarily, is what I understand by the term authentic Democracy.
Secondly, however, and almost as important; authentic Democracy recognizes that all citizens are dangerous. Professional politicians may represent a worst-case scenario in terms of unhealthy human development but even most regular folks have plenty of untapped potential when it comes to the morally ambiguous behavior we typically equate with politics. Given the opportunity, you and I may both discover an impressive capacity for greed, deceit and power mongering. Authentic Democracy acknowledges this fact of nature and imposes institutional safeguards to keep us on our best behavior. These controls may take various forms.
The traditional notion of checks & balances where separate bodies must concur before legislation proceeds
Procedural rules acting within the confines of a body (i.e. – House Rules, Senate Rules)
Judicial Review – A control based not on politics (hopefully) but on the legal merits of a bill or statute.
Term Limits – In a mixed system such as I have proposed, where elections and sortition cohabitate, a single term removes much of the potential for corruption
Authentic Democracy is a theoretical ideal; a government run entirely by a random, rotating assemblage of volunteers. The Athenians realized this goal almost perfectly (but did occasionally resort to elections). We’ve strayed so far from their example that elections now are all we know. A full immediate return to authentic 200 proof Democracy may be implausible but the existing product resembles nothing so much as near beer; a useless beverage so far as most consumers of government and alcohol will agree. At the very least we need a good shot of 80 proof Democracy. This is non-negotiable.
With a party system comes party line conformity; a partisan ideology and social mechanisms for enforcing it. Is this really what we need or want? There may be more than two views of a problem; must we artificially restrain the scope of acceptable inquiry? Cognitive diversity suggests that a more open system (with tenure unconnected to conformity) may offer us more (and perhaps better) insights. Social justice may require it but there is also an innate superiority to a system which doesn’t limit itself so thoroughly.
When economic conditions descend to the appropriate level, society inevitably divides up along racial/ethnic/tribal lines. This is a fact on the same level as money dominating politics; bedrock. So why shoot the messenger? – you must concede these individuals are simply being realistic and proactive. Who are we to judge them? These citizens will not be persuaded by name calling, but perhaps (if we’re polite) we may convince these folks to contemplate a single question; why is the existing system so inadequate to the task of meeting our basic needs?
Are we truly pitted against our fellow humans because the available resources are insufficient to the task of feeding, housing and caring for all? Or, is this entire conflict artificially maintained for purposes unrelated to the immediate exigencies of human need? Consider the might and majesty of our factories, farms (and landfills). Regard the various miracles which science has wrought. Is it reasonable that so many must continue to endure so much? Is it possible to rationalize the existing order as either a practical or moral response to the physical and social requirements of our species in its existence on this planet?
You may or may not like people who look different from you but it is most assuredly not in your best interest to deport, incarcerate or otherwise harass them. Rather you should ally yourself with them to fight the real enemy; a political system that answers only to the rich. Once the wealthy are dethroned there will be enough for all of us. Then, I think, those old rivalries will look quite ridiculous.
The State holds an exclusive monopoly on the sanctioned exercise of violence; death (and taxes) being the heart of civilization. Thus, we should probably consider how the military and police may relate to broader issues of democratic governance. Nominally these institutions aren’t really political but this is an artificial distinction I think.
A volunteer army and police force sound nice – it’s always wonderful when people volunteer – but another way of looking at this is to say that our armed service members are actually mercenaries. When you pay someone to carry a rifle (or pistol) and they make a career out of it how is this person anything other than a mercenary? Add all the patriotic window dressing you like, this individual has entered into a labor contract under which they kill people (or at least rough them up) in exchange for a paycheck and benefits. There are consequences to this sort of thing.
- “Professional” soldiers are expected to perform their job without resorting to “politics” but how absurd is this? An enlightened democratic soldiery may be our best preventative for wars of aggression founded in corporate greed and political convenience. If “poor morale” was a contributing factor to our withdrawal from Vietnam I consider this a democratic victory. Is it likely that the “war on terror” would be politically tenable if our army was maintained through a draft? Is it possible that excesses like those of Abu Ghraib are more likely with a volunteer force?
- When the armed forces are composed of a unique demographic segment (and not a true cross-section of society) this group represents a potential threat to our civil institutions. A military coup is never impossible when these conditions exist.
- Like their peers in the army, our domestic police may engage in questionable behaviors that a more open and democratic organization would perhaps not tolerate. Would stop & frisk racial profiling be likely if “community policing” was more than a slogan and actually a fact (with officers “drafted” from the local community)
The real and potential evils arising from a volunteer armed force stand opposed to the unambiguous democratic benefits of universal service. There is a desperate need for institutions in which all members of society may rub elbows. Prejudice is surely diminished when citizens of every descriptions come together in support of the common good. It is better, perhaps, if weapons don’t need to be involved; but armed or not, when a vital service involving personal risk is required by society surely we’re all obligated to play some meaningful part. In my opinion this shared responsibility is so fundamental that it ought to be addressed by the Constitution. A well regulated militia is conducive to democracy; standing armies are not.
The forces of secret violence and intrigue exercised by our State security apparatus, both foreign and domestic, are utterly opposed to the basic principles on which a free democratic republic is founded. They are an omnipotent (and invisible!) unchecked power; the Framer’s worst nightmare. A handful of civilian overseers can never be expected (or trusted) to control such a Pandora’s Box. If we are unable to conduct our business openly, honestly and legally (with full transparency) then we should be ashamed of ourselves. How may we call ourselves a democratic republic when the public does not even know what crimes are being committed in our name? Incredibly, we do this in the interest of safety!, but if you make a career out of playing with matches you will get burned; highly trained professional or not. And when the box goes up for good there won’t be another, so now might be a good time to reconsider our attitude towards the question of security… I mean no disrespect. I know that everything which has transpired was done with the best of intentions by men and women far better than I. But the world has changed and our society has arrived at a critical juncture. The existing practices must be reformed.
I don’t imagine humanity will change overnight but I do think we might take one or two baby steps back from the abyss. If a few brave soldiers and sincere patriots will have the courage to publicly disavow practices which are clearly dishonorable then I think it might just be possible to legislate a tentative general movement in the vague direction of better (more survivable) behavior. Such an Act might have several components:
- A Constitutional Amendment specifically disavowing the practices of abduction, assassination, blackmail, espionage, incitement and torture; at home and abroad. The existing Bill of Rights has proven insufficient to the task of protecting us domestically and there are no Constitutional safeguards whatsoever to impede our bad behavior on the world stage. Simply saying a thing doesn’t make it so but we can at least nominally take the high road in our affairs.
- Immediate retirement at full pay with complete immunity from prosecution for those government employees currently engaged in the above named pursuits.
- A new Federal holiday, Security Day, when we can honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our Nation and reflect on our understanding of what this word means and how it may best be fostered.
The franchise in Athens
It’s true, political rights in Athens were restricted; suffrage was a privilege of native sons (metics, slaves and women were excluded). But access was limited in our society too, back in the day, and this doesn’t stop anyone from lauding the Framers. In an age when the State was synonymous with the sword it seems excusable if the patriarchy guarded its privileges closely. This should not prevent us from appreciating how progressive the Athenians were in other regards.
Athenian Democracy vs. Representative Democracy
It is sometimes claimed (erroneously) that the Athenians conducted all of their business directly, in the Assembly, and knew nothing about any mechanisms involving representation. Supposedly, such hands-on democratic practices as theirs could never work on the scale of a modern nation state and so the Framers were required to look elsewhere for their inspiration . Electoral Republicanism was the genius and gift that we received; a tool (allegedly) more appropriate to modern needs. But this choice, between direct representation and electoral selection, is a false choice; it ignores the fact that the Athenians were perfectly familiar with the concept of representation; they simply preferred that their representatives be chosen at random. The Council which prepared most business for the Athenian Assembly was a representative body of five hundred randomly selected citizens. Their power was certainly comparable to that of the Assembly; and the Peoples Court (superior to both the Assembly and the Council) was also populated solely by random volunteers.
There are a thousand silver-tongued sophists in the intelligentsia today who would tell you that it’s apples & oranges, and random selection doesn’t translate into our modern system. This is nothing but the most pure brand of B.S. If a lottery is good for jurors and soldiers then why not for law-makers as well? Not the same lottery as jurors and soldiers perhaps, maybe a bit more rarefied, but a random drawing nevertheless.
The foundation of Government
Originally, governments were constructed on the direct threat of violence; the assertion of power was honest & open, but also clumsy & inefficient. Later it was determined that the mere suggestion of violence was enough; this was the basis for “peaceful” majority rule; whomever fielded the greatest band of partisans was the presumed winner and allowed to wield power provisionally even without the customary formality of bloodshed. Reason entered into the equation but only indirectly; raw power was still the moving force. Democracy is revolutionary because it’s truly and completely based on reason (to the extent that humans are ever capable of such a divine quality).
If reason is the basis for democracy but humans are inherently unreasonable we may safely say there is no such thing as a perfect democracy. But even the occasional imperfections of democracy are vastly preferable to the sheer brutishness of lesser governments.