Article

On Democracy

The drubbing received by the Republicans in the recent midterm election may seem like a vindication of the democratic process.  While I’m relieved at the results, I still have deep misgivings about the system. It seems the Republicans lost not because of any great qualities of democracy, but because a significant portion of voters who thought the Republicans were the "party of god" have now changed their minds. Well thank goodness they now think god is on the Democrats’ side. That’s reassuring.

As Winston Churchill once said: 

"Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

In the modern world, most people accept it as an article of faith that democracy is the be-all and end-all of government. For most, it is the goal to which all nations should aspire.  But I submit that this notion is somewhat akin to a religious belief.  We can certainly agree on the fact that democracy has its shortcomings, but very few dare question its legitimacy.

In this essay, I will join those select few.  I will show that democracy is at best, a brittle compromise, and at worst a more successful older sibling of ordinary tyranny.  Let’s look at the logical foundations of democracy, as if we were to argue the premises of logic in the same way:

We decide the outcome of elections–the truth or justice of any proposition based on its popularity. Put another way, if we could get six people out of ten to agree the sky is red, then the sky would be considered to be red.  But real truths cannot be decided in this way.  Even a child knows this.  So why is it that the strongest nations of the world choose to decide our most fundamental questions based on this assumption?

I think it goes back to Churchill’s quote.  At no time in history, has there ever been shown to be a system of government, which functions better on the whole than representative democracy.  Some of us consider the founding texts of our democracies to be sacred, immutable, and incapable of improvement.  Part of this, I think, stems from the same reticence people have to challenge Scripture.  Before people established what they called "laws of God," and the "laws of man," chaos ruled the world.

Growth of civilization can be traced to the building of codes and laws (as well as agriculture and technology). Our race memory is imbued with this reality. We also have a very fresh memory of tens of millions of deaths in the 20th century, which were the direct result of communism, fascism, and all types of inhuman and immoral monolithic governments.  The West and most of the rest of the world has settled on democracy as its savior from the grinding maw of humanity’s abuse of power. So, the idea of changing what’s ‘working’ scares a lot of people.  They fear it would open the door to new kinds of despotism, backsliding, and descent into the kind of hell only bad government can create.

Some are just as eager as I am to see democracy improved upon, and have responded by suggesting that market anarchy could be the solution to the shortcomings of democracy. In the interest of full disclosure I need to reveal my own bias: I’m not an anarchist–my view is that some kind of government will always be needed.

In most of my writings, I find fundamental truths to be most visible through analyzing the tension of opposites. In terms of government, there is an irony to the fact that the greatest freedom is not obtained by complete absence of rules.  Human beings need direction and guidance, or they become aimless and unfocused.  People need a consistent set of rules, so they can plan and figure out how they want to live. My intention here is not to get into a complete analysis of the pros-and-cons of market anarchy.  What I will propose is that given increasing amounts of computing power, it will someday be possible to simulate economies and societies, and to determine objectively through modeling what the best policy would be for providing the greatest freedom and prosperity.

For example, I would submit that a correct and just income or sales tax could be devised through computer modeling.  One which maximized economic growth and freedom, as well as delivery of services. I think anarchists biggest problem with taxation comes from their fundamental disagreement with the role of government.  But whether via taxes or payments to private industry, certain functions of government must be provided:

  • infrastructure
  • product safety and labeling standards
  • trade policy
  • resolving citizen disputes and punishing crimes
  • defending territorial integrity, (until such time as a unified planetary government structure can be formed)
  • funding education, science, and space exploration 

To name a few. I’m sure that even anarchists would miss these services if they were gone. In keeping with reciprocal altruism, society also needs to take care of its most vulnerable members (so that when we ourselves fall, we may expect to be cared for). I’m not so sure that private individuals could handle these types of responsibilities, without evolving into precisely the same type of bureaucracies anarchists hate.  In short, the type of anarchy most market anarchists describe is not really anarchy at all.  It is merely a shifting of the responsibility for maintaining order from the public sector to the private.

But back to our current situation.  I want to analyze two propositions from the 2006 California election, to show just how vulnerable our democracy is to manipulation and unintended consequences. These are by no means the only or even the best examples:

Proposition 83

Also known as "Jessica’s Law." Jessica’s law, (which passed in California by a landslide) provided additional punishments to convicted sex offenders, following their release from prison. It would be extremely difficult to find a more reprehensible group of people than those who’ve been convicted of sex crimes against children.  On that point, I completely agree.  But let’s look at what Jessica’s law imposes on such offenders: an additional monitoring and registration requirement, much lengthier sentences, and the requirement that such convicts not reside within 2000 feet of either a park or a school.  On the face of it, this sounds reasonable: why subject children to the risk of such predators living and lurking nearby?

But let’s look at what this 2000 foot requirement actually does.  If one is to take the map of nearly any city, and draw 2000 foot circles around every school or park with in that city, one will quickly see there is literally no place left for such a person to live.  Add to this the fact that such offenders already have their names in a national database registry, and are regularly picketed and harassed when they try to live anywhere. 

Adding more draconian requirements to their already impossible predicament of finding housing after their release from prison simply ensures they will never be able to rejoin society.  If a person cannot find housing in the city, they will never find a job in the city. They may flee the country or go underground. If they’re forced to relocate to rural areas, there will be less supervision, and greater alienation. People in rural areas are not going to want to sexual predators nearby, either.  ("Jessica" was murdered in a rural area. John Couey, who murdered her was a family acquaintance who lived nearby. "Jessica’s Law" would therefore not have stopped "Jessica" from being murdered.) So this proposition is a step towards eventual creation of sexual leper colonies.  Essentially, taxpayer-funded halfway-houses, which will be the only place left for a sex offender, who has according to the law, already served his or her time.

So what we have established, essentially, is a life sentence for sex crimes, or double jeopardy, which is against the constitution, or both.  Did people realize this when they voted yes on proposition 83? I highly doubt it.  Did people realize this would effectively end any opportunity for rehabilitation? Did anyone consider offering sex offenders the option of "chemical castration" instead of a life sentence? No. 

What people voted on, was a question of whether or not their children should be protected.  Put this way, the logic was impossible to resist.  "Jessica" was attacked by a repeat sex offender.  Therefore, "Jessica" will have died in vain if we don’t pass this law.  Who could resist?  Who could live with themselves if they voted no?

It’s emotional blackmail, and also a false dichotomy, or excluded middle: "Either vote for this, or you support child molesters." This ignores all sorts of other solutions which might work better, and require less public money, but would be less emotionally appealing.

If we want the best outcomes, we need a much more dispassionate approach to setting policy.

Proposition 85

Proposition 85 came in masquerading as a "parent’s-rights" measure.  Nevermind this misguided measure had already been defeated once at the polls as proposition 73 in 2005.  It was defeated again this year, but both times it was by a narrow margin.  Mirroring the split in American culture over abortion, this divisive issue failed both times by only a few percentage points.

Let’s look at what prop 85 would have done: prohibited minors from getting abortions without parental consent.  Now it’s abundantly clear that many of the 1.5 million annual abortions in the U.S. would be completely unnecessary if not for the religious insistence on abstinence-only education, and the accompanying lack of universal availability of contraceptives to sexually active teens.  The abortion rates are far lower in more mature societies which accept teen sexuality:

In developed countries with high abortion rates, use of abortion is likely to fall rapidly when a range of contraceptive methods become widely available and effectively used. Legalization of abortion and access to abortion services do not lead to increased reliance on abortion for fertility control in the long term; in developed countries with these conditions, the predominant trend in abortion rates has been downward. –International Family Planning Perspectives –1999, Henshaw, Singh, Haas

So you take an extremely vulnerable population–teenagers–whose communication with their parents has totally broken down.  And you pass a law, which essentially treats them as non-persons. Even though they are clearly persons (by the very fact that they are capable of reproducing!). This authoritarian measure would have ensured that parents who have not earned the right to be trusted by their own children, would have now been able to further break that trust by forcing their child to have a child against their will. Such state-sponsored tyranny could have forced young girls to run away from home, promoted family violence or self-abortion, and further confused the concepts of fear and shame with sexuality and pregnancy.  This nightmare came within two or three percentage points of passage in our so-called democracy. Disgusting.

Fortunately sanity prevailed, but this measure should never have made it onto the ballot in the first place.  And it’s completely outrageous that the theocrats, who sponsored it the first time, couldn’t take no for an answer, and had to come back for seconds. Only the religious could attempt such lunacy. Only our flawed system could allow it.

We need wise and limited government, not no government.  We need rule based on individual rights, and reduction of human suffering–not popularity.  People in this country who take a driving test have to have more specific knowledge than that which is required of voters–which is to say, nothing. People who haven’t studied the issues are in no position to make important decisions.

Voters can vote themselves money and services from the public treasury, they can obligate their children with 30 year bonds, they can pass laws against unpopular minorities such as gays who would like to marry, and they can vote down vital taxes on fossil energy which would help speed the energy transition. It may seem technically correct to give every person one vote on these issues. But it doesn’t make sense for the country as a whole. Tax rates and decisions on bonds should be made by economists, or people who understand their ramifications. Judges should be evaluated by their peers or the legislature. As a voter, it’s much harder to evaluate the skill or record of a judge. And a judge is absolutely the last office which should be subject to a popularity contest. They are supposed to be impartial and immune from influence.

This "tyranny of the majority", which results from one-person, one-vote, (whether in the name of god or not) is in no way morally superior to the tyranny of despots. It just fools us into thinking we are doing the right thing because the majority of peole may agree. We only have to look at past beliefs like the flat earth, or past practices like slavery, to see how often the majority has been wrong.


Comments (6 comments)

GF / November 12th, 2006, 8:57 am / #1

Sean,

As you spoke about, or alluded to, many people are not competent to vote… and if they are on one issue, often not on another. On one hand I would like to see some base criteria that would help discern who is truly eligible… but it can’t be ones level of education, as we know knowledge doesn’t always come through formal education. Perhaps a written test to disern a certain IQ, or knowledge base.. Well, what if you haven’t the best reading skills, but follow radio news or educational internet audio on politics and logical reasoning…and or tv news. Maybe an option would be a written or oral test to prove a minimum base of knowledge. But who will decide whats on the test?
Its a difficult question. Restrictions could go overboard. Our right to vote is sacred. But obligations come with rights. There’s got to be some way to do this. AS you’e said..we have to pass tests to drive, ..

As to tyranny of the majority …
I found an . interesting paper from
Center for the Study of
Democracy(University of California, Irvine)
on “The Tyranny of the Super-Majority:
How Majority Rule Protects Minorities”

http://repositories.cdlib.org/csd/02-07

from the abstract… and some other excerpts;
This paper demonstrates that majority rule offers more protection to the worst-off minority than any other system, in that it maximizes the ability to overturn an unfavorable outcome. It is known (May 1952, Dahl 1956) that majority
ule is the only decision rule that completely respects political equality.However, it is frequently argued that other decision rules (such as system of checks and balances, which are implicitly super-majoritarian) better serve the goals of protecting minorities rights and preserving stability. This paper argues
that this trade-off is illusory and that majority rule actually provides most protection to minorities. Furthermore it does so precisely because of the instabilityinherent in majority rule, which overcomes the problem of majority tyranny.
Majority rule offers most protection to minorities because it makes it easiest for a minority to form a coalition that can overturn an unacceptable outcome. Super-majority rules can certainly protect (or rather privilege) some minorities, but only at the expense of others.
It is not logically possible for every minority to be privileged over every other minority. Super-majority rules make the status quo hard to overturn and thus privilege minorities who
favor the status quo over those who favor changing it. Arguments in favor of supermajoritarian nstitutions have tended to be built on the assumption that the threat to rights from government action or a change in the law is greater than the threat from government
inaction or the maintenance of current laws. Given the history of the United States thisassumption is problematic, especially given the use of super-majoritarian institutions to mpede the extension of civil rights. Furthermore, given uncertainty about legal
interpretation, technology, social mores and preferences over the timescale involved inconstitutional choice, any assumptions about where the threat to rights are likely to lie are
inevitably heroic. While super-majoritarian rules are only able to protect some minorities at the expenseof others, the instability resulting from global cycling under majority rule offers an
alternative approach to the problem of the tyranny of the majority. The costs of instability resulting from cycling have been overstated–theoretically we no longer expect unrestricted or
“chaotic� outcomes, and the countries that practice relatively unchecked majority rule are quite stable. Nevertheless, the possibility of cycling seems to lead to inclusive politics, in
that it is always necessary to assemble a broad coalition, and any coalition can be split.There is no “tyranny of the majority� because there is no single, cohesive majority ready to
dominate everyone else. This, of course, is essentially the “extended republic� argument
made by James Madison at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and in Federalist I U

Christopher Gorton de la Paz / November 12th, 2006, 8:08 pm / #2

I agree with you on the draconian Proposition 83. It is similar to what Washington state voters passed years ago to combat drug peddlers. They allowed the state legislature to enact further punitive measures against those charged, not even convicted, with possession. If they are found to be within 1,000 feet of a school bus stop (regardless of the time or date of the offense) the prosecutor can tack on extra time to the sentence. Furthermore, an unintelligent electorate has stripped the sentencing judges of their discretion and allowed the legislature to dictate the lengths of sentences based upon a grid devised not by lawyers and judges but the layperson legislature. Unfortunately most people do not care until someone they know; someone they think deserves lenient circumstances gets hammered by the system they have created.

Plato did not trust democracy (partly because it was a democratic majority in the jury that convicted his mentor Socrates). Democracy was one step above tyranny in Plato’s dialogue The Republic.

Also, driving is considered a privilege and voting is considered a right. The reason we put tests on those who wish to drive is because of this idea. Placing restrictions or testing those who should be able to vote, while noble in idea, is something that I think will never happen in this country. Too many will rise up in protest (the masses who think that the founder’s thoughts are akin to the Christians who believe the Bible is the literal word of God).

I am also glad that there are more people who realize that not everything written by the founders should be considered sacred. I feel that the founders were rational men of the Enlightenment who realized that they were not perfect nor should their “constitution� be considered holy and thus untouchable.

BlackSun / November 13th, 2006, 7:28 am / #3

GF, and Christopher, thanks for the insightful comments. For the most part, my post is a lament, because it’s clear not much is going to change with regard to voter education. Right now, we are vulnerable to what Noam Chomsky has called “manufactured consent,” whereby the parties with the biggest advertising budgets win the day. If a voter has not heard of an issue or read the position papers, s/he will make up their mind based on soundbites and ads. It’s that simple.

Anecdotal evidence shows that many men go right for the sports page, and women for the fashion and entertainment section in the paper. It always worked in my favor, because in restaurants or cafeterias, often times the front page was left discarded.

I used to joke when I was in college that newspapers should be sold in two sections: first you have to buy the front page, and take a short news-quiz. Then you can get the rest of the paper. But alas, in our democracy, most people don’t bother.

I don’t realistically suspect that voting will ever be put on a par with driving as a privilege. But both potentially affect others, so both priveleges should have a requirement for some minimum level of competence to be demonstrated.

Lastly, GF, I don’t know how the study which claims there are no “single cohesive” tyrannical majorities could have missed the religious right!

Aaron Kinney / November 13th, 2006, 11:40 am / #4

Oh my God! The good ol’ MA vs. Gov topic. I reaaaalllllly need to write a response to this one and post it at The Radical Libertarian.

To be sure, my response will be a refutation, or attempt thereof. But dont take it the wrong way, as you know that we are very good friends, and indeed in the big scheme of things, on the same side. :)

William Prophet / November 13th, 2006, 4:02 pm / #5

Sean,
Which do you think would be harder to create: a computer modeling system that can devise a correct and just income and/or sales tax, or a computer modeling system that can predict stock performance? A stockbroker that was once an engineer gave me a sales pitch and showed me a software package that he claimed could do just that – predict stock performance based on historical data. He claimed that his father created it and the two of them continuously improve it. I was a bit reluctant to give it a shot, even though he showed me some of his past predictions vs. actual performance, and touted the success. Who knows, perhaps it was a scam, or perhaps he and his father really pulled it off. My thinking is that if it were true it would change investing as we know it (as well as make him and his father almost instant millionaires, which was a part of my reason to suspect his claims). In any case, my thoughts are that the stock market is almost unpredictable due to human emotion (as a result of all other external factors such as , hurricanes, war, laws, religion, etc., etc.). So, I simply wonder how possible it would be to pull it off effectively for taxes.

Regarding Jessica’s law, I have to admit I voted for it, as many other parents did. Like you said, it’s an emotional decision, and I failed to think logically about it, even though I know someone that could potentially be ruled by it … someone that I consider to be a friend and not a threat to my child. This scenario reminds me of the intersection at Vanowen and Schoolcraft – very dangerous for kids to cross to get to school due to the lack of light signal. The street is painted and a crossing guard is present, however the last crossing guard was hit by cars at least twice before dying of natural causes. Cars routinely drive up to 50 mph, and often speed by as the crossing guard is already walking the children accross. Parents (including myself) have complained for years about it, yet nothing gets done. I’m sure that a light will be installed as soon as a child is hit … just an unfortunate matter of time.

Prop 85 – what more can be said, other than it would have been sad when some of the daughters of the bill’s creators, proponents, and voters died from seeking and obtaining illegal abortions, had it passed. Sorry for the run on sentence – writting’s not my forte and I don’t have much time to write, however this is an EXTREMELY important issue. Spending a week witnessing the client counselling (both before the procedure and after) at an abortion clinic should be mandatory education for all middle school children. If so, we’d never have propositions like this one.

Finally, you suggest that those that have fallen are some of the vulnerable members of our society that need to be taken care of. I would like to explicitly add to that group children, especially infants. It saddens me to think about the millions of baby boys that are annually subjected to medically unecessary (and sometimes physically detrimental) circumcision – all in the name of religion, ignorance, ego, ambivalence, weakness, profit, etc., etc. I consider circumcision to be infantile genital mutilation, and would love to see the practice abolished around the world (along with female circumcision of minors). A U.S. federal law currently exists making female circumcision of a minor illegal, and Georgia is the only state that has a law barring female circumcision of a minor (as a result of a lawsuit … see above legal stoplight reasoning). As far as I know there aren’t any laws in America forbiding circumcision of a male minor, however I’m all in favor of a Government that makes that law a possibility. Unfortunately the great challenge is that, as you once told me, 50% of the population is below average (in all regards). Call me an egotistic agnostic – I don’t care, as long as people stop butchering baby boys and girls, just as human sacrifice was once in fasion. Sad, but at least we’re making progress, albeit VERY slowly.

p.s. Thanks for an incredible journal! I’ve been reading for years (since day one) and wish more people cared as much about human issues as you do (hence the double entendre of my license plate – DOUKARE – hint Tom Lyekis). Hopefully I’ll have more time in the future to do more research and better educate myself before voting, as I have in the past. Oh, by the way, what type of hybrid did you buy? I’m thinking about a Prius. Adios.

BlackSun / November 17th, 2006, 7:58 am / #6

@Aaron, look forward to reading your entry on Market Anarchy, we are indeed good friends, and I think we share goals for a better world and differ only slightly on the best method to achieve it.

@William, thanks for your incredibly supportive comments. I’ll be posting on circumcision in the near future. Re: hybrids, wait for the 2008 Prius. It’s reported to be pluggable, and therefore able to get 100MPG. (First 20 miles or so per day would be in electric-only mode.)

Re: computer models, right now, decisions involving credit approvals are made entirely by computer. In fact, many banks cannot override the computers’ decisions about loans, even if a banker wants to. Decisions regarding production and distribution of goods are made almost entirely automatically based on “just-in-time-delivery” order systems. These calculations would be too complex to be made effectively by humans.

Right now computers can’t pick stocks 100% of the time, or manage the economy. But that doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. The problem with AI is that we quickly take it for granted. Every time a computer takes over a task formerly done by a human, we then set about minimizing the perceived difficulty of the task. I think it’s basically a tendency that simply helps people feel superior. But it won’t last. Computers are going to be eventually able to do every job humans can, and many jobs we can’t.

The reason is because computers are inherently faster than humans. We operate at 200Hz, computers operate at 3GHz. Right now, we are still smarter, because we have vastly more neural connections than the biggest computers, and we use parallel processing while current computers don’t. But they are doubling in power every 18 months. They perform tasks repeatably without mistakes, and most of all, they can immediately communicate precise knowledge (which may have taken years to accumulate) to other computers.

Humans’ brain capacity is growing only incrementally, and we will not be able to keep up. Therefore, within the next 20-50 years, human society will most likely have no choice but to turn over our most important decisions to machines.

According to Ray Kurzweil, by 2020 an average $1,000 computer will have the same processing power as the human brain.

People will make fun of me now, as I cite the words of Star-Trek character ‘Locutus of Borg.’ But I’ll talk to you in 2036. We’ll either be in caves because of the religious fanatics, or the machines will be running things. I’m very serious about this, and you can quote me:

“Resistance is Futile.”

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