Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The Flaws of Representative Democracy

Posted in response to a question on Quora:
What are the flaws of representative democracy?
Samuel Green and Tyrone Coupland posted particularly fine answers.  I'd like to comment on them.

Green points out that all people aren't equal.  The structural problem with Representative Democracy is that we've failed to capitalize on that important fact.  Plato, if not others before him, felt democracy could not work because 'ordinary people' are 'too easily swayed by the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians'.  He failed to note that some folks are more easily swayed than others, and that some individuals are not swayed at all.  Yet, Plato's faulty view of democracy has survived through the ages and forms the cornerstone of political thought today.

The weakness in this concept is twofold.  The first is the notion that the only proper view of democracy is as a condition in which all the people make all the decisions.  The second is the failure to recognize that 'the people' is made up of many individuals: some good, some bad; some skilled, some unskilled; some with integrity, some deceitful; some brilliant, some dull; some sociable, some unfriendly; some interested in politics, some not.  The task of representative democracy is to sift through these many types of individuals and elevate those best suited to serve as advocates of the common good.

Green also points out the futility of voting.  The word "voting" invokes an image of individuals visiting polls and expressing a preference for one or another of the options made available to them by political parties.  Voting is not limited to that vision; we can vote in many ways, some more powerful than the ballot.

When the people vote for candidates chosen by political parties, the government is controlled, not in the voters, but by those who choose the candidates.  Voting for options provided by others does not give the people control of their government.  It is neither free nor democratic.  It is top-down, not bottom-up, and, as such, is the antithesis of democracy.  It expresses our status as subjects of those who defined our options.

Thus, Green has identified two flaws in the most common current rendition of representative democracy:  Failure to capitalize on the diversity of humanity and letting select groups usurp the people's right to choose their best representatives.   Both can be corrected.

Coupland describes the fallacy of listening to a minority opinion, a problem inherent in a world dominated by one-way communication and the heart of Plato's lament.  In Plato's time 'the emotional and deceptive rhetoric of ambitious politicians' was spread by orators.  Although the technology of communication has advanced since then, its effectiveness has not improved because such communication, whether the printed word or the broadcast word, is uni-directional - from an author or an announcer to an audience.  One-way communication, unfortunately and inaccurately, assumes the author or announcer has greater knowledge than the audience.  Not only is that rarely (if ever) true, it tends to propagate the inadequacies and biases of the source.

We know, intuitively, that true knowledge cannot be attained unless assertions are challenged and the underlying concepts examined.  In other words, the acquisition of knowledge requires discourse.  It is, and must be, a multi-directional undertaking. At present, our political infrastructure does not encourage public examination of public issues.  (Aside:  Unfortunately, Quora, too, offers a poor platform for discourse.  It does not encourage the detailed examination of ideas required for the thoughtful development of concepts.  If Green or Coupland were inclined to comment on this post, their comments would be buried in a way that suppresses dialogue and inhibits careful analysis.)

Coupland suggests that allowing "more direct input for those who are interested in participating might create a more informed and interested populace.  That can only be a good thing."  This echoes the thought of Dr. Alasdair MacIntyre at Notre Dame University, who says:

"Human beings, as the kind of creatures we are, need the internal goods that can only be acquired through participation in politics if we are to flourish."

Coupland provided a list of flaws in representative democracy.  This list is worthy of study.  I'd like to suggest that some of the listed flaws are a direct result of the top-down nature of modern political systems that pass themselves off as being representative but exclude large chunks of their citizens from representation.  They result from letting political party leaders set the agendas and choose the candidates for which the people vote.  This is particularly true of Coupland's first three items.

The fourth item raises the important issue of lobbying.  As Coupland says, "Polticians are not experts in all the areas they pass legislation on ...".  In a representative democracy, representatives are not required to have any special knowledge or training.  They are selected because they are believed to have the intellect and disposition to assimilate the information necessary to make sound decisions in the best interests of the people.

Since laws passed by a legislative body apply to the community, we anticipate that all interested parties will present their arguments for and against pending legislation.  Our legislatures hold hearings to facilitate this presentation of information. Since the hearing rooms will not hold all the people with an interest in the matter, interested parties designate agents, called lobbyists, to present the information for them.

The theory is that our representatives will weigh the information presented by lobbyists objectively, enact laws that benefit the community and reject laws that are harmful.  However, at present, it doesn't work like that.  Although hearings are held, they are for merely for show.  The actual decisions are made by our lawmakers outside the hearing room, under the influence of lobbyists.

It is the free access lobbyists have to our lawmakers that defeats a very sound concept.  The lobbyists wine and dine lawmakers, provide them with exotic vacations, hire members of their family, promise them future employment and, by more subterfuges than I can relate, corrupt the people elected to represent the public interest.  The result is the cesspool we currently endure.

If we are to eliminate this kind of corruption, we must deny lobbyists free access to our legislators.  Our elected representatives are in service for the length of their term - just like members of our armed forces - and like members of our armed forces, they should be maintained at a government installation.  The facilities at the installation can be as palatial as need be, with golf courses, marinas, and all forms of educational and entertainment facilities, but access to the facility should be restricted.  Those wishing to affect pending legislation should present their arguments, publicly, in hearing rooms provided for the purpose - and that should be the absolute limit of their personal contact with our elected representatives.

Do we have the stomach for such a solution?  We sequester juries in important cases.  Should the conduct of our government be deemed less worthy of objectivity?

Coupland seems to favor direct democracy, but he's also aware of its shortcomings.  I wonder if, he would consider conceiving a 'different' approach to selecting representatives.  Dr. Jane Mansbridge, in a paper titled, "A 'Selection Model' of Political Representation", said:

"As a general rule, the higher the probability that the objectives of principal and agent may be aligned, the more efficient it is for the principal to invest resources ex ante, in selecting the required type, rather than ex post, in monitoring and sanctioning.  If these objectives are well aligned, citizens will be better served by a constituent-representative relationship based primarily on selection than by one based primarily on monitoring and sanctions.  From a normative perspective, the selection model also tends to focus the attention of both citizens and representatives on the common interest."

It should not be too difficult for thoughtful people to conceive a political process that lets every member of the community participate in the selection of representatives whose objectives are aligned with their own.

My comments have reached an unseemly length, and, as I said, Quora is a poor platform for a detailed examination of complex issues.  Suffice it to say, Representative Democracy, a bottom-up concept, has been forestalled by a top-down political mechanism. If anyone can suggest an open forum where a careful, detailed study of this problem can thrive, please let me know.


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