Well we’ve seen some pretty amazing democratic results in the past few days. The consensus seems to be that democracy is a great thing so I’d like to take a hard look at that in the face of a result that doesn’t seem so great.
First let’s understand that the purpose of democracy is not to ensure the best possible results. No one who implemented the process thought it was going to solve all problems and generate optimal choices for their organization. What they needed was a way to secure legitimacy — to be able to act with the support and investment of the affected populations. Corporations, for example, are very rarely democratic. Sure the board may vote but they aren’t representing the company’s population — the labour pool — but rather shareholders or other external interests. Corporations don’t need to be democratic because they have a totally different mechanism for generating legitimacy: the labour contract. They pay you, you do what they say, or you find another employer. It’s actually a pretty good mechanism in its intended context and is arguably better at decision making than a democracy. Also almost equally not in the case of publicly held companies since it admits to only one genuine objective: constant growth. All other “mission statements” are myths the company tells itself to seem like part of a more complex, more nuanced environment. But nonetheless, the system has almost perfect legitimacy — you can’t argue that the company has no right to tell you to do your job (as agreed in that contract).
So where does legitimacy come from when we’re talking about governments?
There was a time when that answer was pretty simple: divine right. Given an all-powerful deity or deities, if the population believed that a particular individual was divinely selected to fulfill the role of leader then, well, that was that. Perfect legitimacy. This became muddy fast. Questions about the nature of the deity, the existence of the divine, and of course whether or not the leader was actually divinely decreed all undermine the method. It’s fine while the population is too poor to care (cf. Maslow) or insufficiently educated to ask the right questions, but as soon as any significant element of the population (and your worst fear here is probably the priesthood itself) is sophisticated enough to question the roots of that premise — divine right — legitimacy is hard to hold on to.
And so enter democracy in all its forms. Whether or not the method creates good decisions, it unquestionably has legitimacy. Witness the Brexit vote: everyone is wondering whether that result was a good idea but no one is wondering whether it was legitimately arrived at. Legitimacy is unexamined. Democracy is so powerful a legitimizer that we don’t even think to ask whether the vote of all citizens should be a legitimate way to make decisions. And that’s risky. That’s a question that should be front and centre: should a government care what the majority of its citizens want today? Are they equipped to answer the question at hand? We know they will reliably tell you what they want (well, the buyer’s remorse evident after the Brexit vote might suggest even that is not necessarily true) but is the population at large equipped to tell you what they need?
They are, I think, but the question has to be framed very carefully. “Should we leave the European Union?”, for example, is a hopelessly complex question buried in some very simple text. It doesn’t imply anything about what it would actually mean to leave the EU. It doesn’t give us any information about what will replace the things that are lost. It doesn’t really give use any information at all, since it turns out it’s possible to not be in the EU and yet have a very similar treaty in place — being out of the EU can mean having all the privileges and obligations of a member except a vote. It seems unlikely that Leave voters were hoping for that result. This leaves the population to do its own research, which it won’t.
Sure we can say they should. But they won’t. We can’t wish the population would behave a certain way but rather we have to design systems that accommodate how they will behave. This is User Interface Design 101 — when users use your thing wrong, the correct response is never “they should read the manual”. They won’t. You have to cope with that, not wish you had a different (and probably fictional) population.
And so the many forms of representative democracy exist. They solve (partially, imperfectly) that problem by putting supposed experts in the role of handling the details. This works pretty well. Sure we have trends where our representatives deliberately ignore their obligation and vote with their hearts instead of doing the research, but at least when that happens we have individuals we can take to task for it. That’s their job and when they fail we can do something about it. If we want to. Failing to research a topic before voting is, for them, a violation of the public trust. I have strong feelings about how that should be handled. It should certainly be handled with vastly more force than we apply today since, let me repeat, that is their job. When they fail at this minimal description of their obligation, their vote is the same as a public vote except that they get to vote for thousands or millions of people on their behalf. Without consulting them.
So we have through trial and error found a way to make legitimate decisions on behalf of a population. Not great decisions, but at least legitimate ones. And we have a further refinement that allows us to ensure that the direct voters have an obligation to consider the question seriously and in all its complexity. They research. They debate. They consider. Things we have no time to do in any detail. And for most of us, no interest.
So the Brexit vote, by going to a deeply flawed method of decision making, couching a horrendously complicated question with a million sub-questions as a single simple question that the public is free to read any number of ways, was a totally legitimate decision based on zero information. That is about the most irresponsible thing I can imagine a government doing in good faith: guarantee legitimacy to an uninformed decision.