Tuesday, July 3, 2007
Freedom, self-governance, and the essential dignity of the human being from which all other values follow. You would be hard pressed to find a person in America who does not agree with these essential values. They are part of the American experience. Similarly essential to the image of America is progress. Let's avoid for the moment the intangible progress towards more "correct" values and consider only the simple reality of technical progress, the progress of reaching agreed upon goals more effectively and efficiently. Now lets consider the bizarre circumstance that these two essential America subjects are utterly divorced from one another: rarely do we substantially revise the form of American governance to better ensure our shared values. We are a country which split the atom and sent men to the moon (both of which at great financial and manual cost) and yet we cannot seem to ensure that each person is able to vote or that each vote is properly counted. This is not an insurmountable problem: we can solve it, but our system does not encourage revision. Despite being liberal themselves, the founding fathers created a profoundly conservative government. This was a wise thing to do. Governments slide towards tyranny, but you could at least slow that slide down so that the people had time and freedom to resist. Substantive changes to the American government (at least in principle) require amending the Constitution, a combination of two thirds majorities in the states or federal representative system (see this excellent page describing the details of the process). This conservatism unfortunately leads to stagnation: its ridiculous to imagine that in 200 years we haven't found any more democratic, fair or free way of running a country and yet (excepting a few extremely important amendments) our country functions exactly the way it did 200 years ago. This is unacceptable to the American mind. We are a people moving to the future: if our government remains static then we have admitted defeat, particularly because a static government does not stay the same. The "resting" state of a government is to grow more powerful. So what can we do about it? This blog entry is about ideas I have had. They aren't necessarily good ideas, but they are a place to start. Number One: Separate Implementation from Objective The current constitution, for example, mixes implementation and objective throughout the document. It is therefore unclear what the objective of the instantiation of the state is and, if the implementation is working. If the implementation is bad, it is unclear what precise parts of the document ought to be changed. This is bad because it makes sense that implementations should be easier to change than objectives. An objective is a statement of value: this is a desirable outcome, but an implementation is acceptable if it works (and if it doesn't violate other objectives.) I would say that the objective of the American Government is to ensure the rights of the people. The people have the right to self-governance, freedom of expression, life and property. These should be the values expressed in the objectives section of our constitution and they should be very difficult to change. The rest of the constitution should be devoted to creating a structure of government which best secures those rights. Currently we have a three part government where balance of powers is meant to assure that no single group of people can utilize power without being checked by other groups of people. But how do we know three branches is really the appropriate number? Perhaps 4 better minimizes corruption while maximizing efficiency. In a scientific republic, we should be able to experiment with implementations in order to find the best one. I think its time for a new constitution. Perhaps we as a people should focus on more immediate problems first: the war in Iraq, health care, campaign finance reform, etc, but in the long run the only way to get a better government is to retool it. There are at present no more frontiers like the ones our Forefathers had in which to experiment with new forms of governance. We must either make an active and conscientious push to change our government or face permanent stagnation. Number Two: Create a Randomly Sampled Legislature In the current cultural context, the power of the elite to rule is essentially guaranteed by the nature of our electoral systems. Since elections are contests played out in the media, those with more money (and power) almost always do better than those with less. Of course, elections also provide (purportedly) to give us the most qualified politicians and there is perhaps a certain wisdom to having a governing class since governance may require a certain amount of expertise1. Yet a democracy should put a check on a system which favors the powerful. A check which is sure to reflect the will of the people is a randomly selected legislature of sufficient size and carefully chosen powers. The way this would work is that your social security number or some other identifying information is randomly selected and then you receive a summons. You spend the next month in an intensive training program meant to acquaint you with the functions of the government and then you take your place in a congress like body whose job is to oversee and approve legislation produced in the other houses of government (and possibly propose your own). Your term lasts for one year, in which your employer is required to pay your salary (or in which you receive a salary if you are unemployed). After a year you resume your job. Such a legislature would be virtually assured to represent the will of the people unfiltered by politics. Many people object to this plan without good justification because they are unwilling to admit that they do not trust the people to govern. If this is actually the case, then I suggest we come clean and admit to ourselves that we do not believe in self governance. I, for one, do. Number Three: Spontaneously Organizing Government Imagine the following system. Each citizen has a vote which they may cast directly in the federal legislative body. There are no elections, and in principle each citizen directly represents himself. But you may also give your vote anonymously to another citizen. This person knows that he represents votes in addition to his own, but is not aware of whose votes they are. Now when she votes, she casts all the votes she is responsible for. She may also choose to delegate her votes to others and so on and so forth, although a single person is not allowed to have any more votes than would produce a total meaningful voting body of less than, say, 1000 people. A meaningful voting body is one in which a single person can produce laws alone. In a population of five people there are the following ways to distribute votes: [1 1 1 1 1] : each citizen represents him or herself directly, this is meaningful [2 1 0 1 1] : this is allowed [2 2 0 0 1] : two citizens have given their vote away to two different citizens and one has kept it. This is also meaningful, since no citizen has total control of the legislature [2 3 0 0 0] : this is not a meaningful government, since 3 still controls the legislature. [4 0 0 0 1] : this distribution is not allowed, since 3 controls the legislature completely. [5 0 0 0 0] : this is also obviously not allowed Obviously a system like this would have to be maintained by a computer (running open source software, perphaps). The logic behind this system is as follows: you are far more likely to be able to determine the competence of those around you, with whom you are intimately familiar, than the competence of two candidates whom you have never met. In turn, those to whom you delegate now are likely to be able to make a judgment about who is better suited than they are to votes and so on. Given that we are all connected to every other person by approximately six degrees of separation (more or less), its likely that your vote will find its way to the most competent person. Since the system is computerized, you always receive a notice when your vote changes hands AND when it is cast, along with a summary of the law it was used to affirm or deny. If you dislike the way your vote has been used, you can revoke it from the given piece of legislation. This system preserves the benefits of having a dedicated governing class while providing the individual with substantially more power. I often hear arguments against this system because constructing it would be a technological challenge and because it would be expensive to run and maintain. This seems particularly ridiculous in a culture which spent approximately $20 Billion on the Manhattan Project and has already spent $441,979,400,95 on the War in Iraq, a way which we probably wouldn't even be stuck in except for a defective democracy. The point is that in principle we have the right and need to produce a healthy government. We should not roll over like dogs - we have the power, the rights, and the resources to solve these problems. We simply need the will. I'd love to hear feedback about these ideas. Thanks for reading. 1 I suspect that the only expertise that the ruling classes have is an expertise in subterfuge.