277. Democracy – Comment on a Proposal

Obama1This short post adds to a recent dis­cus­sion in The World Post:

Berggruen, Nicholas and Nathan Gardels (8 April 2014) “Post-Party Democ­racy Can Restore the Rule of the Many Over Money”. The World Post, online @ http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nathan-gardels/post-party-democracy_b_5108263.html?utm_hp_ref=world

Kudos to the writ­ers for even think­ing about the democ­racy prob­lem. The Amer­i­can ver­sion of shielded plu­toc­racy con­cealed in a pop­ulist sleeve is def­i­nitely no longer a model that imag­i­na­tions like mine (and a few bil­lion oth­ers) out­side of the United States aspire to. The wed­ding cake pro­posal in this arti­cle is already famil­iar in parts. Think of the pro­gres­sion from town gov­ern­ments to national rep­re­sen­ta­tion and you have some inkling of the space for incom­pe­tence and manip­u­la­tion.

The actual man­age­ment of social, eco­nomic and polit­i­cal choices which are of cit­i­zen inter­est is at the heart of the gov­er­nance prob­lem, whether it is some kind of demo­c­ra­tic gov­er­nance or a more arbi­trary alter­na­tive. Votes offer an option of yes or no. Life is harder than that. There is an inher­ent prob­lem with binary choices in a com­plex soci­ety. Most impor­tant ques­tions are nuanced. We could take almost any votable ques­tion and find within it a host of other ques­tions. Most respon­dents will not have the imag­i­na­tion to see the imping­ing issues on the lead query. That is their responses will be shal­low, and in any real polit­i­cal cam­paign eas­ily swayed by par­ti­san argu­ment.

For any new polit­i­cal sys­tem to make a fresh con­tri­bu­tion, it needs to deal with get­ting sophis­ti­cated responses from a largely unin­formed pop­u­lace. That is, it needs to find a way to encour­age large num­bers of peo­ple to make con­sid­ered responses to cas­cades of entailed prob­lems, and then arrive at a work­able out­come. Even in terms of Inter­net tech­nol­ogy that is rather dif­fi­cult. At a human level it is excep­tion­ally dif­fi­cult to hold the atten­tion of enough of the peo­ple for enough of the time to extract some­thing valu­able. And who is to actu­ally make these demo­c­ra­tic choices? Aver­age read­ing age is less than 14 years. In sup­pos­edly advanced states like Amer­ica and Aus­tralia, func­tional illit­er­acy (as in not being able to read labels on bot­tles) hov­ers around 50% of the pop­u­la­tion. I sus­pect that func­tional innu­mer­acy approaches about 70%. I read some­where that about 7% of Amer­i­cans had even the most ele­men­tary grasp of basic sci­en­tific prin­ci­ples (3% in China). None of these peo­ple are going away any­time soon. Of the 50% who can read a jam jar, most would not be able to com­pre­hend this post. In other words, mean­ing­ful democ­racy in com­plex soci­eties is a very hard prob­lem.

Per­haps the best begin­ning for improv­ing national gov­er­nance would be to find some kind of tech­ni­cal com­pro­mise between mean­ing­less yes/no votes and pre­sent­ing the rather nuanced issues behind impor­tant ques­tions. That is, only a small minor­ity of peo­ple are going to fol­low a post­ing like this for the sim­ple rea­son that only a minor­ity of peo­ple (even amongst those with a col­lege edu­ca­tion) are com­fort­able with extended prose argu­men­ta­tion. A sam­ple com­pro­mise might be a com­pe­tent edi­tor extract­ing the salient argu­ment points in (for exam­ple) com­pet­ing analy­ses of polit­i­cal choices, and link­ing them into a visual net­work, a mind map. Clever tech­nol­ogy might over­lay that mind map with sim­i­lar visual net­works from other arti­cles to show up dom­i­nant themes. Data min­ing tech­nolo­gies, in a crude way, are going in this direc­tion already. For any­one inter­ested, I have infor­mally explored some of the ter­ri­tory in the gov­er­nance prob­lem in a cou­ple of recent essays: “The Democ­racy Prob­lem” at http://www.academia.edu/3997584/The_Democracy_Problem and “What will be the dom­i­nant ide­olo­gies of the 21st Cen­tury” at http://www.academia.edu/5681348/What_will_be_the_dominant_ideologies_of_the_21st_Century .

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