That condescending clown let through some of my friends who were my age and a few inches taller but he didn't care about that as he discriminated by one criteria alone... height. He did this because the owners of this amusement park decided that this is the standard by which children demonstrate the right level of courage and bladder control. Of course it wasn't fair to be categorized solely on one irrational standard but nobody cared. Fairness was sacrificed as the plan to conduct background checks and personality profiles on all the children just to find the eligible ones, was not cost or time efficient, amongst other problems. The owners best play was to employ my new,
two-dimensional arch-nemesis. My best play was to stuff bits of cardboard from a pizza box into my shoes, and by doing so I just made the cut for the next available ride. Just for a second I had thought that I'd won. Just for one moment I was few layers of cardboard closer to the stars enjoying my victory. Little did I know, that was just a battle and my enemy has been covertly working for the government upholding democratic elections.
He was standing there in his invisible shackles, colorful as you would expect for someone in his position. His job was simple. To stand there with on hand extended and with the other hold a sign on which was written 'you must be this tall to participate'. One would think that slave labor like this, destined to disappoint children, would be nothing but soul crushing and yet he was performing it with the biggest smile on his face. He was the perfect slave. His feet and back will never grow tired. He will endure the weather, the job and he will do it without asking for anything in return. He will never accept a bribe or play favorites. He was fair while doing what his masters required of him. And he wasn't going to help me either. While walking away from the ride, disappointed, I looked back just for a moment and saw him doing his job like nothing ever happened; only now I realized he wasn't smiling. He was laughing, and it was me he was laughing at.
Of course to discuss democracy as a system of government we need to go farther back in time than our childhood memories can take us. To understand the system we need to review its opposition and the most notable voice of critique that democracy ever had is attributed to Plato. A condensed version of his argument is to imagine sailing on a ship on which the captain is elected by the crew. The captain is not selected based on the candidates knowledge of navigation because the crew is not educated enough to judge those skills. Those become secondary to issues such as how well will the crew dine, how long the working hours are, what pay will be offered, and so on. How to appear likeable becomes the key principle in a candidate's platform. Without the necessary knowledge to see through the empty marketing, we elect a captain who is nice, charismatic, and who offered us the most, but who is sailing straight for the rocks. Eventually, we all drown.
You must be this tall to participate
This allegorical description of course is just the framework of the argument for democracy’ s ineffectiveness. Some view this as just a bedtime story that the critics tell to their children although I would disagree. Since the last 2.3 millennia many who continued the work of the student of Socrates were trying to warn us of the sociological, political and economic implications that derive from irrational voting. The story’s changed. One notable reference from Benjamin Franklin was that "Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch". Of course the advocates of the system were reading different tales to their children and so the tango continued. All this changed in the last two centuries when the torch was passed from political and moral philosophers to political and social scientists, economists, statisticians and applied mathematicians. By the use of instruments unattainable to their predecessors they produce empirical evidence which seems to overwhelmingly support the ineffectiveness of the democratic system. Plato would be proud... the voters should not be. Obtaining proof was an unavoidable consequence of advancements in those fields; the hardest part is still in front of us.
The complexity of any political system derives from the social reality in which it is engaged. With every new technological innovation, new study in psychology, developments in medicine and science; a new enemy at our gates we seek to modernize and refine social issues, such as the education of children, re-socialization of inmates, climate management, treatment of workers and many others. We know more about ourselves and the world around us than ever before, and we are learning more exponentially. Correspondingly our perception of the world is growing increasingly complex and our political system needs to adapt to this complexity. However citizens do not want to adapt. An overwhelming majority of neuroscientists advocate that crime is a symptom of brain damage and institutional failure - the medicine is a 'healthy brain program' and economic stability. Unfortunately for as long as the voters are ignorant of the research, motivated by revenge and fear; we segregate our sick in cages of steel and concrete. This is not an isolated issue. Man-made climate change, the drug market, dietary options in school cafeterias, how liberal we are of contact sports and many economic policies constitute just some examples of topics for which the public opinion differs from the consensus the experts have already reached. And the price we pay is stopping the progress of civilization.
We are the human resource officers for our government officials, who over time are recruiting to more and more specialized positions with little to no knowledge of the position requirements. As society progresses it should become harder to be a public servant, yet due to the nature of the system it takes the same amount of effort to become one. We all complain that politicians are deceptive but in lesser numbers we recognize that it is not a character flaw but a job requirement. If the majority of the voters can't verify which policies need to be applied for societies benefit, a career politician finds different ways to convince the public. Even on a local level politicians invest in Public Relations firms, spin doctors and polling companies just to find out what is the perfect tie, haircut, tone of voice, narrative, line of argument, body language that conveys trust... in the land of ignorance, trust makes kings. It is easy to start blaming our leaders, after all it is they who are lying to us. But aren't we all overestimating our abilities on our job interviews? And are we doing so because we like lying, or do we do it because we are suspicious that our competition will not show the same moral restraint, and this way the decision to lie is made for us. But even after recognizing all we have learnt form behavioural economics our recruitment process vastly differs from democratic elections for one simple reason. In our interview scenarios we are severely restricted in how much we can color our candidacy because the HR officers conducting our interviews are trained to distinguish reality from fiction; and it is lack of this training that makes democratic elections dangerous. Without the proper coaching the voter, unable to distinguish true research from propaganda campaigns, is making a decision that originates from trust rather than knowledge; and this in a time where trust is bought in currency of billboards, air time, Armani suits and other marketing tools.
The institution that was always meant to keep the citizens democratically prepared was the education system. Franklin D. Roosevelt said “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education” (1). It is in our classrooms that we were meant to be taught where and how to look for truth, and in many genres we have been, but when it comes to civic knowledge the material is not as comprehensive as to match with our future responsibilities. It is unfortunate, even though all democratic countries have some form of social awareness classes incorporated into their education programs, for most economics and party politics are not part of the curriculum. And without those brushes most of the picture is painted not by an objective learning institution but by politicians themselves and via private, bias media outlets. There are many advocates for civic classes and alternative ways to approach educating the citizens, but even when those changes will be finally realized we will still need to acknowledge the part of society that missed those reforms or the students who just do not want to learn. It also might just be the case that we will not have as much time as those reforms will require to produce results, if they will ever get to be implemented in the first place as some find the idea of an informed electorate threatening to the point of holding back progress.
Despite all those objections democracy had its many strong supporters throughout history. John Stewart Mill was one of them. In one of his most famous works 'Considerations on Representative Government' he argues that democracy represents a sense of collective identity, and that the freedom to choose to live the way you want is inseparable to a citizen's well-being. Mill believed that self-rule represents a productive force that helps the citizens to grow to become more responsible and aware of their importance in the system. In his vision, the realization of the power they hold causes the citizens to start investing in themselves to improve the collective good. It seems a valuable argument that self-governance presents an incentive to become better at governing, but can we trust the citizens to act responsibly?
The only answer that derives from evidence is that we cannot. Mill built his theories on the assumption that humans are naturally rational and responsible. This view is reminiscent of the concept of human exceptionalism that we all convinced ourselves of, just before Charles Darwin gave us reasons to look further into who we are; showing we are not born rational but rather evolve to become so. Even in the era of information the citizens seem not to be interested in learning. The Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) ranks the University of California, Berkeley as the fourth educational institution in the world(2). But the reason Berkeley should be of interest to the voters is because they decided, like some of the other universities, to create a YouTube channel and share some of their lectures with the public. What is surprising and sad though is that those lectures do not attract many viewers. Economics have been viewed below 3,500 times, political science - below 1400 views, Public health, media studies, environmental science, and agriculture and resource economics gathered just below 700 views each. To put this in perspective the new James Bond movie trailer has been viewed more than 12,000,000 times just in its first month online. It doesn't seem that the public gives much attention to making an informed decision.
Despite viewing Mill's theories as hopelessly idealistic, this argument for self-rule is one of my favorite as it elevates democracy into a humanist value system. The principles of equality, and the value and importance of citizens are what makes it so attractive. For humanists, the greatest value in life is represented by the people. They are patriots without borders. It is we who are capable of greatness from creating the Large Hadron Collider to composing symphonies. Humans have achieved a great deal by working together, and we deserve a political system that encapsulates the importance of individuals in constructing societies. Agreeing in this respect with John Stewart Mill puts me in a difficult position because it contradicts Plato whose opinions I also share. If both philosophers are right then both the strengths and weaknesses of democracy lies in self-rule. And so we arrive at an impasse. But what if there was a perfect balance between these perceptions of humanity? What if there was a way to fix the problems that democracy inherited due to its humanist construct without losing any of the liberties it offers - a way to treat the body and leave the soul intact? A very common mistake is to deal with human constructs in idealistic terms. We recognize things as right or wrong, good or bad, virtues and vices. The level of complexity involved in creating political systems that will lead us to a better tomorrow is too great and it will never lead to something ideal, but it can be the best we can strive for. Winston Churchill said that "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time"(3). With all the problems that derive from democratic elections, there is inarguably room there for improvement. What is it that we can do then? The answer just might be in the gray area between those extreme views. Perhaps it is also something we have tried in the past.
In our society, we all have the right to drive a car. Why shouldn't we? Roads are part of the infrastructure which is built from our taxes. Becoming a driver is a liberty that we can all share, but there is something very interesting about the structure of the system in which we acquire our licenses. The driving license authority recognizes that an essential part of becoming a driver is basic training followed by an assessment. As citizens, we have a social responsibility to stand in front of a government institution and demonstrate we are qualified to drive. Only when equipped with the necessary knowledge we are issued with a vote of confidence that we will not unintentionally cause harm to society. Study materials are readily available and there are courses and training programs to prepare for our exams. If a candidate does not pass, all that conveys is that he is not yet ready to join other users of the road, and so that candidate is given guidance to improve his score in the future. This screening process is essential, and it produces drivers who can be trusted on our roads with our safety. The question then becomes, why can't we implement a common sense reform like this in the voting process? Let's look a little...n
We should remember that the practice of passing an exam to drive came into existence as a social reform, which was added long after the first cars had been accepted for public use. The first commercialized cars were operating in the United States in the 1890s but the first state to introduce a mandatory driving exam was Rhode Island in 1908. In the next decades more states made this decision and by 1959 every driver in the US was required to pass an exam before a driver license was issued. In some cases it seems a long time for drivers to be unrestricted behind the wheel but in retrospect, it wasn't that unreasonable. There were just a handful cars on the roads in the early 20th century, and the maximum speed they would reach would be 10 mph, if they were going downhill. The first drivers did not pose a danger to public safety any more than animal-drawn carriages, and no qualification assessment was required in their case. It wasn't until their numbers grew, faster models were introduced, and new regulations rapidly gave birth to the complexity of the signs and rules we see on the roads today that those restrictions were needed. Citizens started to undergo training to accommodate all the changes, government institutions undertook the responsibility of assessing their skills, and the number of accidents plummeted.
Similarly, from when democracy was invented, over 2500 years ago, to now, the knowledge required to govern a country is undeniably greater. The ancient Greeks and Romans were very civilized for their time, yet their socio-economic structure was to no extent close to what they look like in their modern counterparts. We improved education, infrastructure, law, the military, how we deal with internal and external safety threats, technology and sciences, banking, health and many other parts of our life. If we had it in us to rationally develop our liberties on the roads how is it that after all we have learned, as adults, we still stubbornly view democracy as this last absolute liberal practice? If the citizens are not trusted with enough responsibility to decide when to start driving, how is it that we are comfortable with them deciding on delicate and complicated matters of national importance, with absolutely no screening process beyond one restriction that we have all agreed on? And this brings me back to my old enemy.
Every democratic country is withdrawing voting rights of their citizens until they recognize that they are ready. They just define 'ready' differently. They defined it in an age limit, which is exactly what we had been doing in case of the drivers in the past. Like a plywood clown with one hand extended, holding a sign with the other 'You must be this tall to participate', we have decided what is the right number... the number of times the Earth has made a full orbit around the sun since our birth certificates were issued. The number that encapsulates values like maturity, responsibility and knowledge. Most modern democracies seem to be in disagreement about what this number is, but statistically speaking the most common example is 18. Ridiculous... we gain virtues through character building and education. Some get to be responsible when they are 13, some get to live a long life and never come close to the sensation. The only intelligent way to judge the citizens competence is on a case by case basis, not by an inevitability. Especially because our government does not have the excuse of a small budget for not being able to afford an extravagancy like this.
An ever present critique of this approach to our voting practices is that it would result in creating an elite class of citizens who will organize and conspire to first promote legislation that will damage social mobility which will lock them in positions of power, and promote policies that will magnify their influence and income. This view is a common misconception on behalf of the people who think that the screening process needs to be elaborately challenging and thereby exclude whole demographics whose political knowledge does not originate from academic discourse or descendants of an institutional failure. We can very easily adjust the tests difficulty to basic political literacy and following current affairs. This way no demographic will be harmed by the tests standards and we still would get all the corresponding benefits. This kind of test will target and exclude ignorance and irresponsible behavior from the voting booth. It will encourage learning, make sure that voters know all the sides to an argument and expose gaps in their knowledge which they should easily fill with accessible learning materials. With the level of difficulty adjusted to test usefulness and learning materials being easily accessible and potentially free, the danger of elitism is non-existent.
In every recruitment process exists danger of an institutional failure. Human resource officers make mistakes and the candidates are deceptive. But for no other profession the probability of an error is so high as it is in case of politicians. This trait is unique in itself, as it is institutionally acceptable for the electing side to make a decision based in ignorance. And why do we do it? Why do we continue to stand by watching this ship sailing into the abyss while the captain is choosing the course from reading tea leaves? We do it for the principle of freedom. The freedom to choose our own direction even when we have no sense of it. We do it because even though we do not trust ourselves we trust everybody else less. Perhaps we should rethink this, as the course we're choosing is not our own to follow. If I'm making a decision on how to influence society I should owe it to its every member to first demonstrate my competence in the subject. To withhold this information is not only in bad taste, it is disrespectful and we should not stand for it. Today we live in a vastly complicated world. With this complexity we should re-evaluate our liberties, just as we have done before, as some questions need to be reintroduced with time, so we can adjust our perceptions of this world that is ever changing. The number of citizens who do not vote is enormous but the argument of them not being adequately prepared for the event is rarely heard. Most just advocate how little power their voice has over the multitude or that they do not see a good choice in any of the candidates. In any case these opinions are needles scattered between politicians screaming how voting is the ultimate liberty in a democracy, and what every patriot should be involved in. But how virtuous can an irresponsible act be, of casting a vote from ignorance?
To this crowd of giants on whose shoulders I have been standing let me add one more. Niccolò Machiavelli believed that Democracy was the last organized system of government in the close chain of events that follow the distribution of power in societies. He proposed that from anarchy a tyrant will take rule. Tyranny will eventually decay to monarchies which will decay into aristocracies and finally the power will be given to the people. Machiavelli believed that bad decision-making will mark the downfall of society and the descent into anarchy just to start the cycle again. It would be unfortunate if this prognosis is where we are heading, and even more important becomes the question, what should we do to conserve the beauty that surrounds us. Perhaps introducing a more meritocratic election system will once and for all break this chain.