Democracy à la Carte

I’ve been pondering the notion of democracy. This is not new for me. I’ve looked around and asked myself, ‘If democracy is so great, why is it not more widely adopted’. I don’t mean why don’t other countries try it? And I don’t mean to confound the issue by arguing that a republic is not a democracy, the last refuge of the desperate.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. 

H. L. Mencken

Mencken offers more critique in his Notes on Democracy.

What I wonder is why, if it’s so good, why don’t companies structure democratically? Why not the military? I’ve always found this particularly humorous: An autocratic, socialised structure defending democracy. Some of the biggest democratic flag-wavers are military and ex-military.

I know that most military members in the US would be lucky to work flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Some speak of the mental illness and homelessness of military veterans, but this misses the direction of the arrow of causation. These people had a free ride, room, and board on Uncle Sam’s dime in the States—some other denomination elsewhere. It’s really no wonder that one wouldn’t want to give these people a voice in military affairs, and yet they do get a voice in civilian affairs. It’s a good thing almost half of Americans eligible to vote don’t.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

I’ve already mentioned that democracy is a sham and its best feature is the illusion of control. I suppose if I come up with something better, I might write about it. Until then, it’s just one of many mediocre options.

Interestingly, some people’s options are asinine. Frank Karsten hawking his book and ideology on Beyond Democracy thinks that downsizing is the answer. Hans-Hermann Hoppe agrees, as he posits in several essays in Democracy: The God that Failed. I don’t disagree, but his basic point seems to be that 300MM people deciding is too much, so perhaps 10MM or 20MM might work better. What’s the limit? Why not 150? How is conflict among this smaller political units adjudicated? With this downsizing, how does the system control the urge for upsizing? In the end, this feels like more Libertarian, anarcho-capitalistic mental masturbation, which as I type this feels redundant. Unfortunately, the common denominator is people, and that’s Achilles’ heel.

Defending Democracy

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 

Sir Winston Chirchill

I am not a defender of or apologist for Democracy. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, but save for the rhetorical promises Democracy is nothing but weak links. Turtles all the way down. It’s another failed Enlightenment experiment. Sure, you can argue that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy—or at least implemented it at any scale—, but specious Enlightenment ideals pushed it forward into the mainstream.

The Achilles’ heel of Democracy is the principle-agent problem, the same one that separates management (CEOs) from owners (shareholders). Incentives are different.

Achilles’ Heel

Plato published his solution is Republic, but this proposal was naive at best. The notion that meritocracy is something real or that we can appropriately understand dimensions and measures in order to create the right incentives is another weak link.

Plato’s Republic

We see the same problem controlling elected officials. Time and again, we elect them, and time and again, they disappoint. We, the People, are the principles, and the elected are our agents. People in the US (and in so-called ‘democratic’ societies) have the vote, and yet—per the oft-cited definition of insanity—, they perform the same action and continue to expect different results; in fact; they are always surprised). At its core, it’s an incentive and accountability problem.

Kenneth Arrow wrote about the Impossibility Theorem, where he proved mathematically that no voting system would yield optimal results. Democracy is cursed with mediocrity. We like to soft-pedal the notion of mediocrity with the euphemism of compromise, another Ancient Greek legacy of moderation. If this makes you feel better, who am I to break the delusion? Cognitive dissonance is a powerful palliative.

μηδέν άγαν

Do Nothing in Excess, Delphic Oracle Inscription

Interestingly enough, many people clamour for term limits (a subversion of democracy) because they can’t help themselves from voting for the same shit politicians over and again. They rationalise it and say it is to defend against the other guy’s vote because they’d have never voted for shit representation.

This is often couched as ‘save me from myself’, but it is just as aptly cast as ‘save me from democracy’. I suppose a heroin addict might have the same thoughts.