Has democracy passed it’s sell-by date?

Some while back I posted on whether democracy really was the least worst option (see here).  I have been musing on this again recently.  It feels to me like the real value in democracy is that it prevents concentration of power in a few people, without route to changing the people – “no taxation without representation”, as the old cry went.  It also importantly provides relatively robust checks and balances via independance between the various arms of government such as making legislation and judiciary, as Prithvi pointed out on my last post.  Democracy has delvered aginst this ability pretty well, but I wonder if that is what we now require.

Let me expand.  If I look at the world today, by far the most important topic for humanity is the impact of global warming.  The outcomes that are being seen today are not especially surprising – they were predicted quite some while back.  There seems to be surprise in some quarters that the path is not as predicted – that’s hardly surprising when you take a system as complex as the earth! (see here for recent example on sea level rises).  Now, it is reasonable to assume that the earth’s system will self-correct at some point (the gaia hypothesis, basically) … but the time to do that and the route to getting there may not be to humanities advantage – anyone fancy sea levels 80 metres higher than today?

How does this relate to democracy?  Well, democracy is based on the will of the people, as delivered by the leaders that they choose.  People are known to be short-term decision makers.  The herds willingness to put up with adverse changes to prevent something that they cannot see is woefully low.  And, you see this in spades from their representatives, as they try to limit legislation so that the short-term pain is minimised.  You can see it on the current financial crisis with  the efforts to ‘buy X’ in various countries, where X is their country – not so much overtly, but there is plenty done under the covers.  And, the financial crisis will be a mere pimple of the bottom of the impacts from climate change.  Anyone want to open a book on the first water-war? (Egypt is my favourite, though Bangladesh also feels iffy).

If you look at what it takes to navigate these types of situation well – for example in shipwrecks or wars, what often seems to be required is effectively benevolent dictatorship.  Historically, we’ve been able to have democratic oversight of these dictators, but I would assert that that’s only because the situation is contained both in time and scope.  Climate change will affect almost everything, for centuries.  Democratic oversight, at least based on the will of people (no matter what their biases or level of education) doesn’t feel like it will deliver.

Another way of putting the critical gap?  There will again be taxation without representation.  Generations who aren’t even born yet will live with the consequences of what we decide.  In the face of not dictatorship but system change, Democracy, together with the short-termism and self-interest that exemplifies the behaviour of people en-mass, disenfranchises the yet-to-be-born.

So, you may be asking, what alternative do I propose? – democracy is after all often called the least worst option.  Well, at one level, I hope I have the humility to say that I don’t know.  But, I do have a thought.  One aspect of democracy that has been missed in the seperation of powers is someone to talk about what is good science, and to be listened to by the electorate.  I think it might be interesting if all politicians were REQUIRED to have ALL their statements accredited.  They can say what they like, but can expect everything to be critiqued, not by opposition (who spin just as badly), but by a completely independant group.  And, for the education of the electorate  (which really means school-children) to be a lot more robust on what is and is not good science/statistics, and what mental biases are.  I might even go as far as only allowing people to vote if they have passed the UK equivalent of a GCSE in the key skills.  Of course, to be effective you’d really need something like that across the world.  And, even then you realy need a global policy making group that has unheard of authority – for example, to declare entire countries ‘not worth saving’ and look to move the people instead … and even, if the outcome is really bad, to pick which group of hundreds of millions of people survive.  If ever there was a time for global one-person, one vote, this is it.  But the people better be educated enough to decide for the yet to be born.  And, the level of power involved in a few leaders might be scary, but might be required.

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2 Responses to Has democracy passed it’s sell-by date?

  1. David Khan says:

    So we perhaps, in a similar fashion to the tsc question on banking qualifications, we may ask what medical qualifications a health minister has ( for example).

    It’s interesting to see how Venice copes with rising water level, albeit that’s more due to the city sinking than sea level rising

  2. Tim Perkin says:

    This is the purpose of having a second house (for example our house of lords or the US senate).
    In the case of the UK the aim is that the house of lords is filled with people who have a broad range of expertise – scientific, political, (religious/ethical)?, arts etc. and that these people are appointed for longer terms (life).
    This results in providing a more expert and longer term view of what is needed for society as a check and balance against the more whimsical house of commons. And crucially without the need to pander to an electorate
    You could say that hereditary peerages provided a means to safeguard future generations (although only for the lucky few whose interests aligned with the peers).

    On a separate point – I disagree that it is “reasonable to assume that the earth will self correct at some point”.
    The Gaia hypothesis explains that there are negative-feedback loops that will result in a stable outcome from a system for a broad range of inputs – but not an infinite range of inputs. If you go beyond a certain bound for these inputs the system will no longer support equilibrium and crucially **even if you return to the original level of input** – an irreversible change may well take place.

    As a trivial example – if you take an egg out of the fridge and heat it a small amount (to room temperature) and then return it to the fridge it will largely return to the state that it was before you took it out of the fridge. However if you boil the egg, returning the egg to the fridge will not result in the egg going back to it’s un-boiled state. There is a break-point for the egg at which it goes through an irreversible change.

    It may turn out that the current causes of climate change all take place within the bounds of the planet’s negative-feedback loops, but it is certainly not a foregone conclusion.

    For a broader discussion of the principle John Gribbin’s Deep Simplicity and Garret Hardin’s Living Within Limits are both good books

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