Maybe Democracy Isn’t Such a Good Idea

And maybe there’s another option

The idea of democracy is believed to have been born at around 500 BC in ancient Athens. The US today practices a form of that original idea; as a representative democracy, we elect representatives who then have the power to make laws. Makes sense, right?

Well, in theory, yes. But there are some things that get in the way of that working as perfectly as the ancient Greeks may have imagined. Campaign financing is a major problem, albeit solvable in my opinion (if you need more info on that, google Larry Lessig or Bernie Sanders for a lesson). I guess you could get rid of the campaign financing issue if you just got rid of representative democracy and turned the US into a direct democracy. That wouldn’t have been possible for most of history because you simply couldn’t reach all of the people you’d need to reach and get secure responses in any reasonable amount of time. However, with the ubiquity of the internet, it’s actually quite possible now. The real problem (and the one that’s not as easily solvable) is that there are a lot of people who vote who know next to nothing about the issues they’re voting on.

Now I’m not writing this to point fingers at who is and isn’t capable of making good voting decisions, but think about it. Do you have any Facebook friends with irrationally strong opinions about issues they don’t fully understand? Have you yourself ever voted for a politician you didn’t know anything about simply because you wanted to complete your ballot and not leave something blank? How many people do you think do that?

So, if even in its purest form, democracy doesn’t really work, then what can we do? It’s the best form of government there is. We’ve just gotta suck it up, right?

Nothing is perfect; that’s for sure. But I do think we can do better than allowing politicians (and their financial backers) to literally manipulate an uninformed populace for power and governance. I’m not saying that is what’s happening — but frankly, based on the system in place, it could be.

Let’s be honest, government isn’t the most efficient, high-performing entity ever. If we think about the most successful, high-performing organizations in the world today, I think it would be fair to describe them as caring meritocracies.* You are given more power and influence based on merit, always with the success of the organization as a whole in mind.

Sounds good, right? But a little bit pie-in-the-sky. Would this ever actually work for a government entity? Well, maybe. First, you’d have to redefine the power structure. Right now, people have power and influence in this country for basically 2 reasons: (1) they have a lot of money, or (2) they’ve been successful in a publicly visible industry (e.g., sports, movies, reality TV, etc.). Neither of these things necessarily make them more capable of making good decisions with regard to most issues (e.g., Jenny McCarthy is no more qualified than my 18 year old sister with regard to vaccinating your children yet people seem to really care what she thinks). Power and influence would have to be awarded — at least as it relates to government — based on merit. Merit should then be a combination of education, experience, and intelligence.

Let’s play this out. For an issue related to education, for a voter’s vote to count, they should have to (1) have been educated, or (2) currently be a part of the education system as a student or parent. Seems fair, right? Middle school dropouts shouldn’t be making decisions on what students in this country should be taught.

What about a more difficult issue? Let’s take immigration. It doesn’t make sense to only let immigrants vote, but should everyone get a vote simply because they live in this country? Finishing high school or college isn’t even a great indicator of how educated you are with regard to the issue of immigration in particular. Perhaps there should be some type of unbiased education program — freely available online — that would have to be completed before a vote could be cast. It’s probably not completely different from the types of information lawmakers are given before they make decisions today. The problem is that it would create a barrier to voting; you would have to really care about the outcome of the election to take the 10–15 minutes to really learn about the issue. But isn’t that a good thing?

There are all sorts of things to consider here. If we require education or experience, we probably favor people with a stronger socioeconomic background and that isn’t really fair. Maybe you solve that by requiring direct education on the issues, regardless of standard educational attainment. Anybody can spare 15 minutes to learn about an issue and vote if it really matters. Maybe you could even encourage uneducated people to go back to school if it meant they would be rewarded with more power and influence over the trajectory of their country.

I don’t think there is a perfect answer, just as there was never a perfect answer with regard to how democracy should be carried out. It evolved over time, first adjusting for practicalities (i.e., representative instead of direct democracy) and then allowing more and more people to vote (e.g., women, black people). Government would still be required to carry out the process, and you probably couldn’t get rid of elected leaders altogether — at least for a long time. All of that said, the idea of giving people power based on merit is a powerful one. I hope we, one day, find a way to make it possible.


* I got that phrase when I worked at McKinsey and, when I google it, it looks like McK and MIT still actively use it

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