Why a New Election Method is Required: The Failure of Current Systems
Bankrupt European economies and the out-of-control U.S. debt are problems symptomatic of democracies. Democracy was tried by Ancient Greeks, and similar problems occurred in ancient times. Plato, in the The Republic, listed several problems of democracy, among them:
- Democracies encourage mediocre leadership.
- Leaders must pander to the selfish desires of their constituents.
- Leaders focus on short-term goals to get elected, and
- Democracies tend to spend more than they take in.(1)
Plato’s proposal was to create a communist-type government that was run by philosopher-kings, Ancient Greece’s version of the technocrat. His idea was to assign the most qualified and skilled person to perform important tasks of leadership and education.
While sympathetic to Plato’s desire to create a better society, Aristotle shot down many of Plato’s ideas in his Politics. For one thing, Aristotle understood that the most skilled people may not motivate the average citizen. He argued that one mother with 5 children could better educate them than a philosopher-king responsible for 1,000 children. First, the mother would be personally motivated to care for each child, while the teacher could not give such personal attention to all. Secondly, the teacher would primarily be motivated by the desire to seek an income for himself, and the learning by students he taught would be a byproduct, not the primary concern of the teacher.
Our contemporary societies reflect both the problems with democracy that concerned Plato, and the problems with technocrats that concerned Aristotle. California’s referenda are examples of the inability of democracies to control money, for whenever a tax is put on the ballot it is voted down, but whenever a benefit is proposed it is approved. An understanding of human nature can predict this result. The mediocre quality of leadership can also be found to result from the method of election, and the way politicians must pander to the parties that fund them. This process disqualifies candidates that would exercise good judgement in leadership, and creates candidates that will follow the platform advocated by largest donors. Such platforms never reflect the best interests of a nation as a whole.
History has shown that republican principles that restrain the baser impulses of both citizens and leaders produce happier and more prosperous societies. From Hammurabi’s Code, and the Twelve Tables of Rome, to the United States Constitution, legal systems that transcend and restrain both individual and group selfishness will be found at the core of such societies. The United States’ recent decline is a reflection of abandoning its Constitutional principles. Europe’s woes also reflect a loss of connection to the historical lessons of European history.
The European Union’s recent fascination with appointed technocrats has cost it the support of the average person. The elites of the world–whether the Soviets of the 20th century, or the 21st century aristocracies of Europe and America–have proven that they will inevitably ask the masses to pay for their mistakes. The European bankers have asked for increasing austerity from Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The United States’ elites bailed out the banks that committed fraud, and let honest small banks fail as a result of the housing bubble that fraud and related government loan guarantees created. The ruling elites appear to put their own interests first every time. While societies need qualified leaders, they need rules that restrict the behavior of such leaders.
A New Election Model
Three things are required of good leaders: (1) skill, (2) popular support from citizens, and (3) separation from financial conflicts of interest. Today’s European and American systems of government fail to produce leaders with these qualities. Therefore, a new election process is in order. This should be a three-step process:
- To assure that a potential candidate for office has the necessary skills for a job, any applicant for an office show pass a test on his knowledge of the purpose of the position, the laws that govern it, and any special skills required to perform the task. China’s thousand-year empire required civil service exams, we should at least ask candidates to prove their knowledge of the Constitution.
- To assure that the candidate has the support of the electorate, elections should be held in which citizens vote for the candidate of their choice.
- To assure that financial interests cannot control the outcome of the election, there should be a lottery from among a group of the top candidates receiving popular votes—for example the top four.
This proposed election process would need to be part of a larger constitutional system that would both reflect the lessons learned from history and the lessons we have learned more recently. Many of these are discussed in my book Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, Version 4.0.
(1) See, Robert Kane, “Democracy, Politics, Ethics” in Through the Moral Maze: Searching for Absolute Values in a Pluralistic World, (Paragon House, 1994), pp. 120-121.
It is a practical matter to find and qualify candidates for public management. The modern electoral process is designed to to ensure that elected representatives have the requisite competencies, credibility, and character that would lead to good decision making and good public policies. Society is comprised of a diversity of functions and goals that have to be reconciled and balanced. On the other hand, elected officials are only as good as the people and special interest groups who put candidates into office. Our American system of government was made only for a moral and religious people ( John Adams ). Herein, lay the inner strength of the American system of governance and justice. However, this premise is counter balanced by the First Amendment that prohibits the establishment of a national religion. We are a nation of laws as opposed to rule by passions. Having said this, the kinds of fiscal mismanagement that you had mention that led to the current recession were the result of ineffective regulations, improper insider dealings and immoral decisions. As it seems, John Adams was for the most part correct in his understanding of Constitutional principles, morality and a well functioning republic. It is the superior man that understands virtue; whereas the lesser man understands only profits. In the Confucian society, teacher-scholars held a higher social status over the merchant class. It’s unlikely that a revision of the electoral processes would lead to improved conscientious behaviors and better decisions by our government leaders. The fact of the matter is that wealthy donors have excess influence on public management. Lessons can be learned from history. They erred on the side of passion, ambition and hubris. A faster approach to improving the current political system is to pull back the shroud of secrecy of wealthy donors and expose their excessive influence on government. In the past this has been the role of investigative journalism, to shed light on the dark back room dealings of wealthy patrons and publicly elected officials. A newly judicial committee ought to be created and chaired by the leaders of religious communities. In short the righteous or religious factions of society must given access to have oversight privileges to keep the political processes open to investigative scrutiny and keep elected officials honest.
Robert, It is human nature to respond to the people who pay you or give you power. For example, it is common for a Harvard Law student to be “politically correct” in school so he can get the best grades from his politically correct teachers then, after getting hired by a Wall Street Firm, he will exude the values of Wall Street. Unless extremely religious, people inevitably put the values of those who would bring them personal success over the values of the whole.
In the current system, that power is given by political parties and their backers—the factions Madison so deplored. The founders wanted our representatives to be leaders who worked for the citizens, and the well-being of the states. Today our politicians tend to be mediocre puppets of the factions that write the laws the pass and speeches they read on teleprompters. What I proposed would decouple the election process from such factions by guaranteeing that they could not control the outcome of an election with money.
Controlling the behavior of the candidate once elected is a different issue, and in my book I suggested several things that could be done to improve on that. One of them is to have representatives paid by the states that send them, rather than the present system where they have the ability to raise taxes to pay themselves, their staff, their offices, and their franked mail. Originally the founders expected the representatives would behave as “gentlemen” and serve voluntarily. If the states controlled their pay, they would be more concerned about the constituents they work for once they get into office. In my book I advocating paying Senators in a different way, but still avoiding conflicts of interest that have so infiltrated our system of government.
As always, Gordon writes a thoughful and informed article.
Just a couple of random thoughts:
1. About Democracy (despite all its flaws, as per Plato and Aristotle): I am reminded of Churchill’d words: “A terrible system, except that all other systems are even worse.”
2. About forms of government (words that end on -cracy): consider for instance democracy, technocracy, plutocracy, kleptocracy and meritocracy. America has become a plutocracy, some would say verging on kleptocracy (Bernie Madoff, most of the governors of Illinois, etc.).
Gordon seems to suggest that mere European-style technocracy isn’t the answer either. Meritocracy may be the way to go, as was happening in China to some extent…
A true meritocracy would combine the best of the practical- material disciplines and the best of the philosophic-ethical disciplines. The US Constitution comes very close to meeting these conditions; but it has fallen short in practice. Public education, media and common knowledge have been slighted or skewed with narrow self interests. The politics of wealth, power and parasitic greed have over taken common sense. It’s an unhealthy condition found in both the Western world and China. Surprisingly, the synthesis of the Western and Chinese practice of meritocracy may very well hold the solution to the problems of modern government. History is waiting for a people and country to emerge that can blaze the trail of a true meritocracy.
Tom, Thanks for your comment. In this article I was reworking our republican form of democracy with a couple of tweaks on the election system that would (a) help prevent kleptocracy, and (b) include enough meritocracy that the elected officials be competent. I think you are right that China recognizes, perhaps more than the United States, that administrative competence is important to a social system.