Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is better government structure possible?

George Bush said things would be a lot easier if he were a dictator. But it's a wrongheaded idea, and not just for the obvious reasons. Being a dictator means personally making decisions that affect millions of people, and it can only be easy if you make bad decisions. Good decisions must be carefully reasoned and planned, and given the sheer diversity of the decisions a government must make, a dictator is incapable of doing an effective job of making them all. It is not a matter of benevolency or malevolency; it is a matter of human computational ability.

But if one person is incapable of making many diverse decisions that impact all facets of society, then 300 individuals separately asked to do the same will also fail at the task. But in a democracy, our governments are designed to work in just this way. Every legislator that we elect is expected to review and consider and deliberate over every proposal in the legislature, in order to make an informed vote. But for legislators to do this thoroughly and effectively is impossible. In order to make decisions, the effects of those decisions must be predicted in advance, and to make predictions, the person requires specific knowledge and experience related to those facets of society to which the proposal applies.

But rarely does any given legislator have that necessary knowledge and experience.

We expect our legislators to vote on every bill as though they had done this careful deliberation themselves, but they rarely do. Any given legislator rarely has the education and experience to grok the impact of any given bill; therefore, they must turn to other people to help them decide.

Now, here's where my understanding of government gets a fuzzy, but I'll say what I think typically happens. Firstly, subsets of the legislators form multi-partisan comittees to make decisions on individual issues. These comittees make their decisions based on a comittee-distilled version of their own understanding, combined with advice from people who they believe to be experts. After deliberating for awhile, each party represented in the comittee decides what it wants and then the comittee members inform the remainder of the legislators (who were not in the comittee) what the party's decision will be. Then, for most bills, the legislators in each party vote on the bill as a bloc.

Now, I may have some details wrong, and I expect it differs between governments somewhat, but what I want to point out is that our "democratic" decision-making has a strong dependence on 3rd party input--lobbyists and experts in various fields.

This is a systemic weakness which bypasses the intended democracy of the system. As an ideological democratic principle, the lawmaking power of individuals who are not elected should be limited as much as possible. But as a practical matter, the important thing is what kind of influence these third parties are having--whether they are contributing to good governance or detracting from it. It seems to me that many of them--most obviously the ones we spitefully call "lobbyists"--are having a negative impact on our countries. Now, when I say countries I mean all representative democracies; as far as I know, pesky lobbyists are a common trait among all of them.

Now, let us define lobbyists in this article as people whose interest is not in the common good, but rather in some minority within society, such as drug companies, specific churches, or gun associations. It may happen that lobbyists push for something that is good for society, but this is coincidental. Some lobbyists actually believe they are working for the common good, but their vision is limited by their affiliation with a group; other lobbyists just do as they are paid to do.

Theoretically, lobbyists should be unnecessary and ineffectual in a democracy, since it was the people who elected decision-makers. Practically, lobbyists should not be trusted, since their agenda is based neither on the will of the people, nor on common good. To the contrary, it is to be expected that lobbyists' agendas often deviate from both. Indeed, everyone reading this has probably noticed this to some degree.

Therefore, I believe a country would work more effectively if lobbyists, or their effects, were minimized.

Last night a little idea came to me. There exist "think-tank" organizations that analyze aspects of our society and make recommendations to government through lobbying and other means. For example... er, I don't have one, dammit. But what if the government itself were a think-tank? What if the elected legislators actually had the education and smarts to resolve tough problems without much external input? It would be improve democracy and the functioning of the government by reducing the influence of paid lobbyists.

So how could we ensure that politicians are experts in the fields in which they must make decisions? I haven't quite figured that out, but right now it's not humanly possible, a fact I find distressing. Our governments would work better if they accomodated human limitations.

Now I'd like to point out one of the reasons democracy can't work as well as some think it ought to. Democracy is about decision making by the people, but what if the people aren't prepared to make the decisions they are given? I think this is a common case. Most commonly, the people are asked to choose a candidate, but the information they have to go on isn't very good. I have an "average Joe" point of view, as I'm not politically active, and what I see is that:
  • The media doesn't usually provide easily-comprehended information about candidates' or parties' platforms. It focuses too much on the race itself, and on "strategies" of candidates rather than on the issues or on important attributes of the candidates, such as integrity.
  • The candidates' and parties' often do a poor job of expressing their own platforms, and cloud the issues using negative campaigning, which boils down to "vote for me because the other guy sucks."
  • Televised debates are often amazingly uncivil, with candidates talking over one another and usually not answering the questions actually asked by the moderator.
I keep hearing people encouraging people to vote, and some even go so far as to claim that everyone should be required to vote. But this plea isn't accompanied by a desire for voters to know what the heck they're voting for. Uninformed decisions are bad decisions. I strongly think that people shouldn't vote unless they have a half-decent knowledge of the parties and candidates.

I suppose that's why I'm not planning to vote in Canada's federal election on Jan. 23. I don't have any knowledge about the local candidates beyond their names, although I just found CBC's Canada Votes web site, which has basic information about all the local candidates, along with riding boundaries... it's interesting how blogging leads me to find stuff out. If I stumble upon a little more info, maybe I'll vote after all. Of course, our retarded electoral system doesn't encourage me at all.

Anyway, my point is that the quality of our decisions depends in large measure on the quality of our knowledge. We shouldn't vote, and our politicians shouldn't vote, unless and until they understand their choices, and perhaps a different government structure could enhance politicians' understanding.

Basically, the idea I had was to create several sub-governments--several elected bodies, each of which serves a different function. One group would be in charge of health care, another education, another communications, another intellectual industries. There would be one "meta" or "master" government, whose responsibility would be to determine the divisions of power between these groups, to resolve disputes about scope of power, and to set ground rules that all the sub-governments must follow. In case of disputes, one possible resolution would be to allow joint decisions between multiple sub-legislatures. Major changes to the distribution of power would require an election. In essense, the meta government would act more like a set of elected judges than a normal legislature.

Each of the sub-governments would hold an election on a regular schedule, perhaps every three or four years. For convenience, all the sub-governments would hold their sub-elections at the same time. Normally, citizens would not vote in every sub-election, because citizens would not be familiar with the issues in every sub-election. To work properly, this system would require a cultural shift in thinking. Citizens would need to realize that good decisions come from good knowledge, and that they should not vote in a given sub-election without familiarity with relevant issues, parties and candidates. Perhaps the system could remind voters of this by prohibiting anyone from voting in every sub-election. So if there were 10 partial goverments, citizens could vote in up to 9.

The determination of budgets needs careful consideration, though I may be ill-equipped to do so. The master government could sets the budget of each sub-government, but there is some question as to how informed their decisions would be. The sub-governments could set their own budgets, but I suspect that they would tend to continually revise the budget upward in order to get a bigger piece of the overall "pie". Overall, the former seems more promising.

To a limited extent, we already have sub-governments. For example, public school boards have power to make decisions about education, and they are usually elected. I bet this works better than if the legislature itself took on the responsibilities of the board. And when there is a school board election, only those people who have a specific interest in schools will take part in voting or running for office.

Doesn't this improve the quality of school-related decisions? If not, then I suppose my multi-government idea wouldn't work very well either. If so, perhaps it deserves your consideration.

One more interesting and potentially useful property of this structure is that is dynamic. The structure of a normal government is fixed--typically it is set forth in the constitution, where it is almost impossible to change. A meta government, by contrast, is specifically elected to determine how government functions, so it could actively address systemic problems that would otherwise plague the country. The only thing that would be unalterable might be the structure of the meta government itself (were the meta government allowed to change its own powers and structure, the risk arises that it would continually grant itself more power.)

Of course, my idea falls clearly into the "dreaming" category. So if you're only interested in pragmatics, don't bother to read this post. What, you already did? Ha! Gotcha!


Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.

Qwertie said...

I hope the U.S. health care system improves too. My mother is permanently bedridden with many ailments (in Hawaii) so I have some personal interest in it, even though I live in Canada.