I was talking with some friends of mine, recently, on-line about whether or not Representative Democracies are the best option we have to deal with the world’s increasingly critical problems.
One of them said said:
“Frankly, I think representative democracy is the best tool available to deal with modern 21st Century social and public policy given that democracy is very imperfect form of government but the all the alternatives are far less desirable. Of course, I am all ears if political theorists and politicians can conceive and implement a new form of governance than those over the last several millennia.”
And I agreed with that assertion, though I found it disappointing when juxtaposed with something else that he said (and to which I also agreed). He said:
“Regardless of governance type, I unable to imagine how public policy at the international level needed for global problems, such as climate change, can be addressed rapidly and effectively. The problem is simply too complex, the decisional bodies involved too diverse, and the combined resources required too enormous to do so.”
Earlier in the exchange, this friend had written a detailed discussion of how Representative Democracies work, and in that he referred to the fact that the actors at all levels in such Democracies are all (or almost all) making their choices based on their self interests. This includes the voters on the street, the elected officials and the lobbyists who represent special interests.
From this, I get that Representative Democracies are a method of governance in which competing self-interests have achieved a state of relatively stable balance.
But, self-interests are not the only possible inputs to governance.
Common interests could, and should, be valid inputs as well.
Indeed, we as a species are failing to come to grips with the problems we are facing globally because we haven’t been able to find a way to transcend our self-interests to work for our common good.
Of course the following criticisms of the common good idea could be raised at once:
1. It is extremely unlikely that any group or groups focused on common interests could wrest the power to set governmental policy away from the intrenched self-interests.
2. And hasn’t this been tried before? And wasn’t it called, in its purest form, Communism?
I haven’t any answer for the first criticism. Though I would love to hear some good ideas.
I do note that within our current Representative Democratic systems, there are many NGOs operating. And many of those are focused on issues concerning our common good. But I also note that while they are sincere, and while they do good work, they are nowhere near to wresting control away from the forces that focus on self-interests.
On the second point, I would assert that Communism is not the only system we can formulate that holds our common interests as its highest goal.
A system of governance could be conceived in which there was a Prime Directive (i.e., the highest priority) of governance. And that Prime Directive would be to maximize the quality of life for all of us; both for now and into the indefinite future.
That would certainly be in our global common interest. Singapore, is perhaps the one place I’ve seen that seems to have a glimmer of this.
But beyond the primacy of the Prime Directive, we would all be free to do as we pleased; each in accordance with his or her own special interests.
So, for example, if someone wanted to form a company to go out cut trees for wood, the government would allow them to do so – so long as they did not cut trees faster than they could grow back and so long as nothing they did resulted in a net degradation of the environment we all share.
Capitalists could still be Capitalists.
But their possible activities would be constrained by the Prime Directive if those activities came into conflict with the Prime Directive.
In other words, the common good would always trump self-interest. But, so long as the common good was not threatened, the freedom to do as you like would be guaranteed (Probably as the Second Directive).
I think you can all see the basic idea here which is that what we lack with our current Representative Democracies is any meaningful acknowledgement of our common interests.
And the lack of this puts us in a very untenable place indeed when you consider my friend’s two quotes, above.
After I wrote this, another friend pointed out to me an idea that’s been known and discussed in academia and elsewhere for some time. It is called “The Tragedy of the Commons” (see Here). And, his comment was that this idea correlated, quite significantly with the ideas I’ve been exploring here.
So, I went and read the Wikipedia article on The Tragedy of the Common and I quite agreed – there’s a good match.