My Ideal Constitution, Part III: Method of choosing who governs
Once the structure of governing bodies is in place, we have to devise a way to fill those bodies with actual people. It is almost universally agreed that the governed should have some say in who those people are. The debate here is just how much say they should have. Advocates of giving them direct power argue for a more of a democracy; advocates of giving them indirect power argue for more of a republic.
In a pure democracy, there are no middle-men representatives, and every decision is simply put up to a majority vote. This means that the majority always gets its way, but it’s also practically impossible to get things done in countries with lots of people. Less pure forms of democracy do have elected representatives, but they are tied to the popular vote very very closely, and prevented from using their individual discretion. For instance, they may be required to vote in accordance with the official position of their party. Democracy advocates also favor shorter term lengths, which dissuades politicians from breaking from popular opinion. Essentially, varying degrees of democracy correlate with how likely the majority is to get its way. The more power the people have to choose their lawmakers, the more power they have to shape the laws themselves.
This is simultaneously democracy’s biggest advantage and its biggest disadvantage. The upside is that the majority is heard. Popular input is taken into account, which means whatever the government does is favored by most people.
The downside is that oftentimes, the people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.
As the length of these blog entries should indicate, governance is an incredibly complicated matter. Sound, just, open-minded, legitimate and wise governance requires levels of knowledge, expertise, intellect, attention, and depth of thought that most people are simply unable or unprepared to give it. You can’t blame them! People have lives to live! They have their own bills to pay, jobs to do, families to raise, and hobbies to pursue. Even in a highly educated and literate nation like our own, not everybody can be informed enough to make wise policy decisions. Too many people are too ignorant, too preoccupied, too intolerant, too fickle, and too apathetic to be entrusted with complete, direct, and immediate control over how the government should operate. It’s not elitism, and it doesn’t mean they’re inferior people. They’re just less qualified people.
Modern polling only backs up these claims. Upon request, alarmingly high percentages of Americans were willing to sign petitions to “Get the government out of Medicare!”, “End women’s suffrage!” or “Keep Dihydrogen-Monoxide out of our water supply!”. And the bigger the government becomes, the more and more complex these decisions become. For instance, take food regulations. How are everyday people with jobs supposed to know how to vote on a bill that, say, adjusts the amount of rat feces permissible in one square-meter of rice? There are millions of technical details on the minutiae of government regulations that only experts are qualified in dealing with, and only the experts should. It’s impossible to disseminate the information necessary to make good decisions on these things to the entire populace, so indirect governance has a huge advantage here.
Republics are founded on the idea that the most qualified people should be the ones calling the shots, and that they should be free to use their own discretion on how to call them. While this should be done with public input, the power of that public input needs to be checked, just like the power of all other government bodies. If 1000 everyday people were to take a vote on a very challenging, probing, and important issue, they may or may not make a wise decision. But if those same 1000 people were to instead vote on who the 100 smartest and most knowledgeable among them were, and those 100 in turn voted for who the 10 most qualified among them were, and those ten took a vote on the same question, the decision reached by the 10 would probably be a better one.
It is for this reason that I generally prefer keeping the power of the people on specific lawmaking questions indirect. I recognize that there are downsides to this, and that a balance needs to be struck. One downside is that indirect power concentrates the public’s input into the middle men, and as I described earlier, concentrated power can be scary. Those middle-men are much easier to buy off than are the populace at large. However, they’re also more difficult to fool via propaganda, since elected representatives are usually much more informed and politically involved than the population at large. I’m willing to accept that trade-off. A democratic republic that checks popular input allows the majority to be heard most of the time, but also allows the experts to overrule them when necessary. Considering how objectively wrong the majority can often be, that's a good thing.