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.