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.”
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. 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.
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. There is an optimum between complete anarchy and totalitarianism that leads to best outcomes. 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:
- 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:
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 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 government, not the absence of 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 objective methods. As a voter, it’s much harder to evaluate the integrity of a judge, unless you have a record of their rulings. How many voters would take time to study such a record, or know how to interpret it? 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 can 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 people 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.
And this leaves aside the entire question of whether or not voting is conducted fairly. And the non-proportional representation baked into the Constitution of the United States. I’ll leave that discussion to a future post.