Needed: Intelligent Representative Democracy

28Sep11

Democratic systems — notably but not only the American one — have been dysfunctional for a long time.  Current dissatisfaction with such systems provides an opportunity to push for reform.  This quick note suggests a few changes to improve the quality of democratic government.

1.  Prohibit ignorant voting.  If you don’t know what a person or an issue is about, you should not be voting on him/her/it.  Admittedly, deciding whether someone is a competent voter may be as difficult as deciding whether s/he is a competent parent.  Despite such difficulty, people (and laws) can and do draw lines, provide training, and take other steps to reduce incompetence.  It is reasonable to require voters to understand certain fundamentals about what they are voting on.

2.  Require politicians to meet basic qualifications.  Again, while the qualifications will surely be controversial, the core idea is not.  People who run for office do need to be competent.  They should not be elected merely because they have strong financial backing and can hire marketing experts to help them become popular.  To serve the public well at any level of government, and especially at the most visible national levels, a candidate needs to meet, and maintain, at least some minimum degree of intelligence and experience.

3.  Reduce uninformed policymaking.  This follows from points (1) and (2).  If a public official is not smart and experienced enough to understand a proposed law, and has not bothered to become sufficiently informed to pass a simple test on its contents, s/he has no business voting on it.  The question should instead be left to others (e.g., fellow congressional representatives) who do qualify.

4.  Empower informed individuals.  To further develop the foregoing points, questions of law, government, and policy should generally be decided by people who are positioned to make good decisions.  Too often, judges and juries decide matters that lie beyond their training, and that attorneys present to them in distorted terms; regulators impose poorly informed regulations; politicians propose counterproductive laws; and as noted above, voters rely on emotion and rumor rather than knowledge to decide complex matters.  Instead, the issues in such situations should be clarified and narrowed (if not also decided) by people who do understand such matters.  Again, it will not always be easy to figure out who has that level of understanding.  It will take a while to develop acceptable guidelines.  Nonetheless, some such effort is essential if we are to avoid the alternative of running the country by the seat of our pants.

In offering these suggestions, I reject the idea that simplistic and universal voting is a kind of magic.  It has not worked well at all, in many countries over a period of many years.  More accurately, voting is like computing:  garbage in, garbage out.  For purposes of good government, the quality of votes is at least as important as the number of votes.

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One Response to “Needed: Intelligent Representative Democracy”

  1. As attractive as what you propose is to intelligent and educated people, it’s actually anathema to a truly free society. I want to live in a truly free society (and I’m not claiming this one actually is that), warts and all. Further, I do believe that the dynamic power of our society is, at least in part, driven by the disparity. Sometimes it’s that uneducated kook coming from left field that offers that grain of a new idea no one ever considered.

    I do, however, have extremely strong views on our broken education system. If intelligence (the lack thereof) is the problem, a good education is at least one answer.


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