Democracy and its discontents: an alternative to elections

Electing representatives to make grave and consequential decisions for us has ceased to work (if it ever did). Here’s why: it fosters infantilism in the electorate and entrenchment in the proxy, both of which form ripe conditions for the ascendance of a class of oligarchs.

Either we don’t live in a democracy or “democracy” has taken on new meaning.. (See Gilens below.)

If Donald Trump had not won the 2016 election, if instead Hillary Clinton had won, we would be further from even the sight of a serious problem with our system of government, let alone, any solution. It would likely have meant the prolongation of a system of democracy that many serious thinkers have become convinced is not sustainable. The system of government we are familiar with where representatives of the governed are elected to positions of law-making power has become morally bankrupt. Its failure to live up to all but a pernicious semblance of its ideals was predicted. Sometimes the semblance of an ideal is worse than the complete loss of it.

Trump is a symptom, not the cause of this failure of electoral democracy. Protest Trump. Impeach him if you can but be prepared to bleed.

The central cause of the failure is a flawed conception of what human beings are like. This conception has allowed the semblance to survive at scale as long as it has.

Such a massive and fundamental failure was hidden from view by the institutionalized illusion that human beings in positions of power can be trusted to remain incorruptible in the face of overwhelming temptation to appease and be appeased. The system allows capture of its ideals by the interests of both individuals and groups much smaller than the full set of the governed. The system of electoral democracy demands nothing less than saints be in power and saints have always been in short supply.

The system of representative democracy practiced in the United States has evolved into a streamlined process of generating and preserving concentrations of power. Whatever its stated function, whatever may have been envisioned by the architects of the system, the concentration of power is what it has become the most efficient method of producing. A conclusion something like this is what a small, but growing, number of scholars in political and economic science and in philosophy are coming to realize and articulate.

Democracy is good. Whenever anyone even hints otherwise, the quip attributed to Churchill is trotted out. In a moment of resigned exasperation, he famously said, “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the rest.” Because Churchill said it, is it so? More specifically, even if we accept that it is the best form government may take, it remains a question how it is to be instantiated working with human material as we find it.

Representative democracy in its electoral form is responsible for Trump. So much the worse for representative democracy in its electoral form. Philosophical discontent has been brewing for a long time with the notion, but Trump… well, what can we say? Enough of complaints. It’s time to get down to the brass tacks of governance.

We will explore arguments for and objections against one interesting alternative system of democratic government, “lottocracy.” It claims to better achieve the two central desiderata of any theory of government: responsiveness to the governed and good governance.

Problems with electoral representative democracy

If there is one thing scholars on both the right (Bryan Caplan, Jason Brennan) and left (Robert B. Reich) agree on, it is that the American electorate is ignorant when it comes to what their government is doing or supposed to be doing or even who it consists of. This is hardly news. There are ample studies that have established this fact over and over again. Consider that:

  • Only about 34% of Americans can even name the three branches of the federal government: executive, legislative, and judicial.
  • Only 38% of Americans know which party currently controls the House of Representatives or the Senate.
  • “About 22 percent of Americans can name all five of the fictional ‘Simpsons’ family members — Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and Maggie. But just one in 1,000 people surveyed could name all five freedoms granted under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.”
  • If a crazed killer with a semi-automatic handgun approached random American millennials and asked them to name just one of their state’s senators or face instant death, 77% would die.

In order to responsibly decide who shall represent them in government, a voter cannot limit their knowledge of the political issues to what they are told by the media at election time. And that is about the only time anyone seems to pay attention to who is running for what and what they stand for — and even then for mostly just one office: the presidency. This is why we get the government we have. What government is that? One unrepresentative of any reality but that of a small number of well-placed members of the polity. They are well-placed because 1) they have a vested interest in controlling political outcome, and 2) they have the means to actually affect outcomes. The two reasons reinforce each other. Why bother to surmount my indifference if, not only perception but reality, too, tells me I will do better to expend my efforts to improve my life in other ways?

Does this mean the electorate is stupid?

One is not stupid for not knowing something one does not need to know, or something knowledge of which would be idle in one’s epistemological economy, something knowledge of which would detract from resources one would be more rational to invest in learning about, something more pertinent to one’s needs and desires or even the needs and desires of others. Is political knowledge in electoral representative democracy more like knowing the performance statistics of one’s favorite sports star or, instead, like knowing how to build a house, do CPR, or bake a cherry pie? Knowledge of the latter sort can certainly come handy on occasion. But what’s so wrong about finding joy in amassing trivia? Nothing, none at all. Except when it comes at the expense of more useful skills. Really? But how often does political knowledge have practical utility or even entertainment value. When was the last time a politician bought you lunch? Or made you laugh? That once-every-four-year contest and spectacle, can be fun, but most of us find it gets old quickly by comparison to many, more engaging or productive, distractions or activities. So where do we get off insinuating that the names of the Simpson’s aren’t more important than knowing about those five freedoms? Honestly, when has knowing that you have the freedom to petition the government to address your grievances ever actually solved a problem for you?

No, most people are sufficiently conversant with reality to know what it makes sense for them to know for the limited purposes most people have most of the time. In politics, as in any field, deep knowledge by all those who may be affected by its possession is neither required nor desirable. It matters only that some people have this deep knowledge or know how to access and interpret it. And, for representative purposes, it also matters greatly that these knowledgeable people very likely share your values and outlook on the world. How is this convergence between your values and your representative’s supposed to come about?

Types of representation

There are at least two obvious ways in which your values and outlook on the world may be shared by those who represent you. One is sometimes called proxy (or responsive) representation; the other, indicative (or descriptive) representation.

Proxy representation is what we are most familiar with in electoral representative democracy. It should be no accident that the legislator you vote for expresses more or less views similar to yours. You vote for them for exactly that reason. You want them to enact laws and policies that reflect what you would do in their place. They are selected by you and like-minded members of your community to stand in for you, to act as your proxy in government.

Indicative representation, however, shouldn’t be that strange to us either. Anyone familiar with experimental methods in science will easily grasp this other way of achieving representation. If you want to determine whether something is true about a large target population, you take, examine, and conclude some truth about a representative sample of the target population. A medical researcher, for example, who wants to know whether a certain drug works to treat an ailment that afflicts the general population, will take pains to select a random sampling from the population on whom to test the drug’s efficacy. It is important to avoid bias in order to achieve credible representation. If the target is people in general, selecting only members of one sex or age or class or racial group may taint the conclusion of the study. If bias is carefully avoided, we can say the sample group truly represents the target population or that it is indicative of what we expect would be true of the larger group. This method is responsible for much of scientific progress.

The problem with proxy representation

If your representative, in the proxy sense, could be trusted to actually legislate as you would in their place (minus the pressures about to be cited), we would not have a problem. But that is not the case. It isn’t that your representatives are necessarily bad, or ill-intentioned, or especially corruptible people. It is, in fact, that they are in one very important sense very much like the people who vote for them and whom they are supposed to be representing: they are not saints. Just like their constituents, under the right stresses, they will cave to serve ends they were presumably not elected to serve. They stray too often quite dramatically from their original mission even with the best intentions. They do so with documented regularity. They do this because the pressures arrayed against them are immense, and getting bigger. They are expected to spend great quantities of their time soliciting fortunes merely for the chance to remain in office long enough to accomplish even very modest effects. They must literally “buy time” to accomplish anything. And the price of “political time” — time in office — is in the millions; collectively, in the billions. And if deep-pocketed interests offer them the resources to buy time in office, how can the legislator avoid not paying special attention to these interests? It is either compromise, or stick to your principles and be outspent at the next election. Moreover, to accomplish anything requires establishing connections and forming relations with many well-heeled interests over a very long time. As a well-intentioned elected legislator, you no doubt enter the representation business believing that somehow in time your persuasive powers will in the end move these moneyed interest to partake in your identification and your sympathy with your constituents. But to pull that off, you must stay in office and make a career of it. And since the political business is a high maintenance enterprise, somebody must make a serious financial investment in you, as a legislator, for that to happen. Thus, as an elected legislator, others become invested in you and you must become invested in the process of keeping them invested. This is called “capture” by political philosopher Alex Guerrero. The original point of representing the interests of constituents affected by the decisions you help to make fall by the wayside. You say, “we can always kick the bums out, right?” But the pool of bums from which the replacements will come will be under the same pressure. The system facilitates capture and makes it all but impossible to resist.

Does it ever happen that elected politicians, the best of them, actually succeed in moving mountains of money to democratically responsive ends? Does it ever happen that the moneyed interests actually fail to get what they want? The science is in. Political scientists in the United States, Canada, the UK and around Continental Europe have conducted massive studies on decades of survey data comparing what people in electoral democracies say they want and what their law-makers deliver. If your annual income is in ninetieth percentile — over about $150,000 in 2017 dollars, the answer is yes. Then — and only then — more often than not politicians do what you want. Otherwise, no luck. So, unless ten percent of the population is the new meaning of the word “majority” in a democracy, we are not talking “democracy” anymore.

Is democracy dead?

We don’t mean in South American banana republics, or countries in the heart of Africa or the fringes of Asia decorated with faux presidents, or in “struggling” democracies anywhere. The verdict from the experts is that it is dead right here, in the U. S. And in the U. K. and in other parts of the Western Europe, too.

In a landmark 2014 study, political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern), looking at data from over two decades, conclude:

In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites and/or with organized interests, they generally lose. Moreover… even when fairly large majorities of Americans favor policy change, they generally do not get it.

“Economic élite domination” is the term of art Gilens and Page use, eschewing the “O” word — oligarchy — to describe the situation. Others are not so coy.

Gilens’ infamous line: the difference the popularity of a policy to the average citizen makes to the probability that it will be adopted: notice the slope (you may need a ruler).
Democracy or?

Supposing you still believe in democracy, what’s to be done?

Martin Gilens believes we can through a massive concerted effort work to reform electoral democracy so that it is more representative. But it is hard to see how this can happen through existing political mechanisms which have become what they are for the express purpose of concentrating power in the hands of those who obviously value that power. Of what value is the abdication of power to them? Why should they give it up? Do we really think they somehow amassed such power inadvertently? That all they need is to be reminded that democracy is hurting and they will forthwith cough up the authority? There may have been a point earlier in this development when serious reform of the democratic representational infrastructure was a possibility. Is that still true?

Some of us do not think it is. Moreover, the reform must be radical and go to the core of the representational defect. Attempts at reform have been made in the past. That we are here again in greater need than ever of more reform is testimony of their lack of success. The problem is elections are not a viable way to achieve legitimate representation at the scale of large democracies. Indeed, electoral representation begins to breakdown as soon as the numbers exceed more than a few hundred. By the time we reach millions, the effect is virtually homeopathic. The problem is that large electoral structures cannot accommodate the realities of such numbers. Ideal democracies are small. The U.S. Supreme Court would be a paradigm example where the transparency of direct democracy is evident.

But direct democracy — even apart from the mechanics of pulling it off for electorates of millions for which a technological solution is conceivable — has an epistemological worry. There is nothing intrinsic to crowds that makes them wiser decision makers. The practical problem of educating law-makers adequately is immense.

Moral and political philosopher Alex Guerrero suggests representative democracy has two principle advantages over direct democracy

  1. Practical implementation: not everyone can, or wants to, or even should devote resources to government.
  2. Epistemic opportunities to make correct decisions

But the virtues of elected representation are tied to meaningful accountability.

Trump as reductio

A standard tactic in argumentation is to assume a proposition, see what follows from it via incontrovertible rules, and then assess the outcome and note that for it to be true too many other things widely accepted to be true would have to be false. In other words, the conclusion will not fly. It is absurd. Experimental procedures can work that way, too. Suppose a very large number of people are unhappy with their lives in two especially importantly ways: First, materially they do not perceive themselves to be making progress. The economic prospects for their children are no better, if not worse, than they were for their parent’s generation. Second, their sense of community, of taking pride in something they are just in virtue of being the kind of persons they see themselves as — their inherited values, culture, ways of being and doing in the world are no longer treated with respect by the powers that determine the conditions of their lives. Such a population — with neither money nor pride to call their own — is ripe for desperate measures. If someone dazzles these discontents with promises of recovering a mythological time when it seems things were better than now, what do they have to lose? You, invested as you are in a progressive vision, with all your facts, your education, and the wherewithal to wait out the bad times, will not understand them when their patience with your promises is suddenly exhausted. They don’t believe you. Better someone who at least entertains with their lies. There are boring lies and fun lies. You can guess which wins out.

But the problem with electoral representation in democracies pre-dates Trump by decades.

Is democracy inherently flawed?

Somebody asked on a philosophy discussion forum whether democracy was inherently flawed. The short answer is no. People are. But the question does raise a problem about what any system of government must be to be functional for such people — for an inherently flawed demos. Before all else, it must be premised on our flawfulness.

Remember, if humans weren’t this way, what would be the point of government at all? If we were always and everywhere falling over each other to be considerate of each other, we might need bandages, but not government of any sort. So, that not being the case, what sort is best?

There aren’t that many possibilities. Either one person rules, some people do, or nearly all. Briefly, to remind ourselves, here are the pros and cons of each:

First, autocracy is by far the most efficient form. If, in times of stress, we almost always defer to the one wisest and strongest among us to call the shots, why not all the time? Mainly, because the situation suffers from the contingency that even in the best of cases where nothing but high regard for the well-being of the governed drives the autocrat, you can bet such virtue is not heritable. Good autocracies are short-lived. But more fatal, there is the problem of dependency. It is not just that you cannot always be there to decide what is best for your dependents, but when will they ever learn if they aren’t given a chance to fail?

Second, oligarchy — rule by a few — is far more stable. Distributing your eggs among different baskets has a prudential charm. The odds most break or go rotten at once are somewhat lessened. Still, when they do go, they go big time. Few things are more difficult than to take power away from a gang of the powerful. Rolling one autocratic head is easy. The aisles of history are slippery with the blood of the numbers of heads that must sometimes roll when concentrations of power have become entrenched. The virtue of stability that oligarchies have devolves to a vice of entrenchment.

Finally, there is democracy or rule by the many (or at least better than fifty percent of the governed). In theory, at least, it’s been all the rage for some time. There is a continuum between oligarchy and democracy. Rarely, is it ever all — the whole lot — of the governed that is meant by the “people” or demos. Usually, it means a class of “the qualified,” a subset of the governed normally much larger than is the case with a typical oligarchy. But some of the governed are just not in a position to contribute much to governing: animals, children, the mentally deficient. Some we don’t want to contribute to the cause: incarcerated felons, murderers, for example. And some we think shouldn’t for other reasons: we don’t trust or like them: foreigners, and maybe even those too poor to be adequately invested in the material ideals of the majority — which ought to suggest there are some people we don’t want there to be too many of. It would break down community. A community can only handle so much diversity before it ceases to be a community at all, some would argue. And aren’t they right? (Or is any community smaller than the whole of humanity or the rational agents inhabiting the universe not worthy of protection? I leave these critical questions about the scope of democracy open, for now. At some point, though, they will need to be answered.)

Because it’s been fashionable for the past century or so, we will dwell on forms of democracy. It has two core advantages over autocracy and oligarchy, one practical and one moral:

  1. By distributing power, democracy implicates the preponderance of the governed in the business of governing, and
  2. does honor to their, at least, theoretical ability to be rational and responsible agents.

By implicating most, if they screw up, they have only themselves to blame. They were all in on it. Basically, it makes them partners-in-crime but also — just maybe — ready to be adults. It does this by getting the bulk of the governed involved in decision-making that will have real consequences for not only how they will live but even what they take themselves to be, how they regard themselves. The autocrat and oligarch are too easily made targets for blame. The ease of targeting them does nothing good for those who bear the brunt of the autocrat’s or oligarch’s abuse. When it is clear that there is no one but ourselves to blame, the theory goes, we linger less on responsibility and skip ahead to what may be done. The hope is, after a sufficient period of failure, we learn.

But exactly how is the mass of people, the demos, going to govern itself?

Historically, philosophers have not been too keen on democracy. Plato, in The Republic, thought it a prelude to the worst possible form of government: a tyranny, involving an autocrat selected in the desperation that failing democracies leave in their wake. Such autocracies are especially ripe for the worst abuses of governance imaginable. Mob rule — for Plato, another name for democracy — was just a bad idea considering the general lack of wisdom to be found in crowds.

Nevertheless, Plato’s vision of a neatly organized separation of powers each doing what it does best in an epistocracy of sorts, and the whole harmonizing into a sustainable political entity seemed blind to the second virtue of democracy: its potential for inducing maturation in the otherwise childlike individuals comprising the governed population. A method of governing is not merely to be judged on outcome. The process of governing must transform the governed. This is the moral requirement. Otherwise, we are herding cats with no end beyond herding them.

Thus, we have to balance two things: the need for order to prevent Hobbes’ nightmare and the necessary moral space for individuals to show their mettle. To these ends, we need a procedure. What shall it be?

It is a common supposition, but incorrect, that democracy goes together inseparably with elections. We happen to have an electoral representative democracy for historical reasons but there is nothing special about electoral representation — at least as far as achieving the virtues of democracy is concerned. Conceptually, the idea of elections and the regard for the dignity of the individual that democracy gestures at are quite separable. We will return to this point momentarily.

The purest form, direct democracy — where each affected expresses their preference on every stricture, allowance, or decision, is unwieldy on the scale of modern nation states. It may have worked for tiny Greek city states, it may for town halls, the Supreme Court, and other practically enumerable (i.e., small) communities. And though it may become technologically feasible to scale up direct democracy to fit an electorate of millions, the very speed of the facility is one argument against it. There is reason to think that technology, at least in this application, is counterproductive. Humans cannot deliberate at the speed of light. Any attempt to speed it up would be an abdication of responsibility, any facility toward that end morally dubious.

Instead, the idea of choosing proxies, people who share in some credible degree your perspective and values, as your representatives to a governing body is the reigning form democracy takes. Electoral representative democracy is what nearly everybody nowadays thinks is the cat’s pajamas on the shelf of government types. But it has become increasingly clear to a growing contingent of thoughtful people that it is not working as intended. It is not working to produce the best governance possible nor the most responsive. Electing representatives to make grave and consequential decisions for us has ceased to work (if it ever did). Here’s why: it fosters infantilism in the electorate and entrenchment in the proxy, both of which form ripe conditions for the ascendance of a class of oligarchs.

In case you haven’t noticed, we are not living in a democracy. If you thought otherwise, listen to this talk on political inequality given by Martin Gilens at MIT. Gilens advocates reforming the existing electoral system. Whether this is realistic, given the facts Gilens himself presents, strikes some of us as dubious. Why? We’ll talk about that at the meetup. I’m inclined to think, for the very reasons Gilens offers, that the system, as currently structured, that is, as a representative democracy of the electoral type, is fatally flawed and beyond repair.

What might be done about it?

We mentioned indicative or descriptive representation as a method at determining factual information about a target population. It is a standard procedure for generalizing in scientific investigations. Alex Guerrero has suggested we try it as replacement for electoral representation.

Here’s how Guerrero’s proposal would work: groups of people from the governed population would be randomly selected to form single issue legislatures. There might be one legislature for health, one for foreign trade, labor, defense spending, social services, education, transportation, infrastructure, commerce, and so forth. He estimates thirty or so such “single issue lottery-selected legislatures” or SILLs, but the exact number will depend on need. Each legislature would consist of, say, three hundred members, all randomly selected. They would be committed to serve for three years. Their terms would be staggered so that in any one year only one hundred members would be new. They would be educated on the job by the best vetted experts in the legislature’s field of focus. Service would be voluntary but highly incentivized. Service in a SILL would be considered a high honor and would be well-compensated to the tune of somewhere around a million dollars for each of their three years of service. With the service and the compensation would come the obligation, however, to receive no compensation from any other source during and for a long time after the service, on pain of very severe penalties. The idea would be to use both a carrot and a stick to keep these SILLs free of capture.

The SILLs would have the authority to call on experts, to evaluate them, to consult the public and to deliberate with each other in order to pass laws and policies that would affect all of the governed. SILLs would replace congress, and the role of the executive branch would be diminished to that of a service to the government of laws enacted by the SILLs. The judicial branch would remain, however, much the same.

At this point I defer to this selection from Alex Guerrero’s hour long video lecture, “Governing By Lottery: May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor”. It features a question and answer period where the obvious objections are raised and addressed….

Resources on alternatives to electoral democracy

Not everyone has the time to prepare for these meetups so I am offering a graduated list of resources to prepare you for this topic. Starting with a lively video interview with comedian/activist Russell Brand and culminating with Alex Guerrero’s philosophically hedged, watershed philosophical defense of “lottocracy” published in Philosophy & Public Affairs (2014). If you only have time to read only one thing, I recommend Guerreros’ Aeon article.

A more fully annotated version of this piece can be found here.