Monday, August 11, 2008

Underestimating Voters

Recently I wrote a post where I expressed a rather risky point of view, and a view that deviates from previously expressed ideals of mine. There's some interesting discussion in the comments section, and I'm not entirely convinced I was wrong yet, but the interesting point is my assertion that:
yes, I'm advocating lying to one's constituency, or acting in a way that is tantamount to lying. It's excused here (far as I'm concerned, at least), by the fact that it isn't quite oath-breaking, that it's in the best interest of the nation, and that every other politician (excepting Kucinich) would be doing it too.
Democracy in any form is incredibly challenging, and representative model functions on the basis that citizens can chose lawmakers who will act on behalf of all society. Part of the trust placed in lawmakers is that they will act on our immediate desires, part of the trust is that they will act according to values we share, and part of that trust is that they will act in the absolute best interest of the nation, voter whims and values be damned.

Of course, since no one person has a monopoly on what is best for the nation, it's incredibly hard to figure out how to act in the best interest in a way that isn't opposed to your voter's whims and values. The wrong choice, of course, means a loss of the office, and people get an opportunity to select someone whose sense of national good is more closely aligned with the voters sense of national good. This is good, get-rid-of-the-crook and all that, but it leads to a short-sightedness in government that bothers me, and my love of technocracy. Below, my rough comparison of democracy and technocracy through the lens of the USA:

  • In a pure democracy, the citizens vote directly on the issues, write the legislation, and citizens as a whole act as legislators.
  • In a technocracy, people who are in positions of power exercise all the functions of state, including the ones the generate, modify, and execute laws, and do so with a mind toward the best interest of the state.
  • In representative democracy, technocrats are answerable to citizens at set periods, and technocrats have to act on a version of the national interest that fits in best with voters 2, 4, or 6 year time span.
And this leads in a roundabout way back to underestimating voters. In a pure democracy, the citizens themselves are deemed to be adequately qualified to perform the functions of state. In representative democracy, the citizens are assumed to be unable/unavailable/unnecessary to execute the functions of the state, and so they instead appoint technocrats. From this, it's easy to conclude that we, citizens in a representative democracy, do not deem ourselves fit to rule. But that's a false conclusion, and it's an elitist position.

Yesterday at church the sermon (which will eventually be on the site) concerned the 5th principle agreed to by UU congregations: "The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large". It makes sense in the midst of a list extolling human dignity and justice that democracy would be the only available method of governance. Flawed as it is, it's the only method that repeatedly asks for the consent of the governed in a meaningful way (plebiscites, popular in undemocratic regimes as a way of addressing the consent of the governed, are hardly meaningful). And I'm reminded of a conversation with Terry Arnold why, given the incredible power that facism can concentrate, that a good facists isn't desirable. Any government that derives its power from anything other than continual consent is a false government.

In the post that this is a response to, I left a comment where I said "I'm not sure we have a population that can legitimately offer informed consent on issues like this". That sentence is utterly false; any population can offer consent to government by simple virute of it being a population whose consent is asked for/required. My position on domestic drilling, that it is right to claim to act with the consent of some against the wishes of others, and then to switch it around in the process of drafting legislation, is a false position. It's a betrayal of everyone's trust, and it shows a haughty caluseness that I was hoping I wouldn't get until at least grad school. So, my revised stance:

Domestic drilling isn't worth it. It's one of many options, and while I'm on record in many places for saying that we should keep all options open, we should know when an option just isn't worth it. Domestic drilling has an incredibly small potential yield, and while the absolute supply of oil would increase, the relative supply would be hardly changed. That's at the price of environment we can't get back, of wilderness that can only be despoiled once, and it's an abuse of our government's role as stewards of the environment for present and future generations. Nice as it would be to support it, the only really gain is that it is one less source of flak in a campaign that has innumerable sources of flak. And the whole "hide your real actions in legislative functioning" is a move that helps no one.

The thign to do, and the thign which has been done since I wrote the piece, is to go to the American public and tell them why drilling is a dumb idea. Anything less is patronizing, and is as bad as the "hey, we have oil, but that man wants to keep away the oil so your family can't afford groceries" framing that made this an issue. Fearmongering needs to be consistently countered with reason, and it's to every politicians discredit when they underestimate voters and act without full disclosure.

And, not that my responsibility is huge here, but my previous statement, as wonderfully machiavellian as I wish it was, is a disservice. Here's my apology.

1 comment:

AHS Foliage said...

There is an interesting phenomenon that has been observed, in animal populations as well as humans, that a group of individuals is more intelligent (i.e. makes better choices) than any of the individuals which comprise the group. This would seem to lend scientific legitimacy to the idea of pure democracy (not representative democracy because, as you have pointed out, politicians actively work to deceive their constituents and push their own agendas, even if it is "for the public good") , except for the fact that the opinion of the group is influenced by the information received by each individual, which is moderated by the news media and those in power. So, until we find some way of distributing every bit of information instantaneously and to everyone, pure democracy (and even more so representative democracy) is flawed. Unfortunately, this utter and complete transparency creates other "minor" problems like the end of personal privacy and strategic secrets, etc.