2014-04-10

Who Are We? Who Are We Not?

First Jason Brennan and then Kevin Vallier respond to the claim at Salon.com that "in a democracy, the government is us." Both do a decent job, as far as it goes, but I can't help but think that all of these ideas seem so terribly old-fashioned.

What I mean is that "modern" representative democracy was designed over two centuries ago. Those who designed it did a good job, in my opinion, but they lived in a world that was very different from ours today. Back then, news traveled on the order of weeks and months; today, you can track it in real time. Back then, there were real technological and time constraints around traveling between two important cities; today, it takes about twenty-four hours to travel from your home town to the farthest point on the globe. Back then, the scope of what central governments had to do was quite small, while the scope of local governance was both more important and more participatory than is the case today.

In the end, I think representative democracy, aka "the American system," was the perfect innovation for its time and place in history. Over the centuries, it has evolved to meet our most urgent needs. Nonetheless, if we were tasked to design a new system from scratch, it wouldn't just look different than the current one, it would look radically different.

Reasonable people can disagree about the particulars of the "social safety net" and the various social issues that become legalized under a hypothetical new system. Politics will always be politics. Setting all that aside, however, I think a new and modern form of government would take into account the following important points.

  1. The current state of telecommunications technology: It should be extremely low-cost to collect a unanimous vote on anything. Set up a computerized ballot, or even just a robo-call, and the people could literally vote on everything, if they so chose. It goes without saying that tax collections, too, could be managed this way. 
  2. The education of the populace: News travels fast these days, and information is available at the touch of a button. We simply no longer live in a world in which we require "experts" to represent us in the civic arena. We can do it ourselves. Coupled with Point #1, above, this basically spells the complete obsolescence of professional politicians.
  3. Greater personal freedom: However you define it, personal freedom has the potential to reach a high-water mark in our lifetime, if we choose to allow it. For reasons outlined by Points 1 and 2, it seems clear enough that most of our governing can happen quite effectively at the local and individual levels. There is little need to get "Washington" involved in anything that happens where I live, extenuating circumstances notwithstanding. The more locally we manage our problems, the less our choices have the potential to adversely impact unrelated parties on the other side of the country. This is to our benefit as well as to theirs.
  4. Greater migratory freedom: Relevant to Points 1 and 3, people can now uproot themselves and move to greener pastures more easily than at any other time in history. Embracing this means that people can "vote with their feet" and thus hold local governments more accountable than they have been in the past. Greater accountability means better outcomes for citizens. 
My view is that the most important thing that the Information Age has given us is the ability to manage virtually all aspects of our lives from the comfort of our own homes. We pay our taxes online, why shouldn't we vote online? We gather news and information at home, why should we be forced to rely on the so-called "expertise" of politicians?

The main problem with this, as far as I can tell, is that those who favor a large and expansive central government would have less power to enforce their will on the rest of us. While that sounds attractive to libertarian types, I must acknowledge that it would spell the end of social democracy. Considering, however, that I've just argued for the end of modern democracy as we currently understand it, it stands to reason that social democracy would be tossed out, too.

We live in a glorious, technologically advanced, wealthy age in history. We should consider reducing the administrative constraints of "modern" representative democracy. We should explore new ways to govern ourselves. This need not be a violent or disruptive process. So long as we can pull a few of these things off without compromising anyone's quality of life, I think this kind of innovation is worth exploring.