Democracies and the wisdom of crowds


in Geek stuff, Law, Politics

There are no perfect democratic systems; all those that have ever existed, that exist now, and that will exist have flaws.

In systems like Canada’s, voters choose between individual candidates. And yet, the platforms and leadership of parties are usually much more important for the direction of policy-making than the identity of individual Members of Parliament. By contrast, there are countries with systems of proportional representation in which the importance given to individuals is too little. That leaves voters without a direct mechanism for electing especially wise or capable people, and can diminish the level of awareness assemblies have to local issues.

On many other dimensions, the structure and character of democratic governments differ – whether the issue is the lobbying system, electoral law, federal versus central states, or something else. Each particular set of circumstances aids some groups (think of how Canada’s first-past-the-post system helps the Bloc Quebecois) while harming others (think of the Greens).

In the end, it isn’t possible for every country to establish a government that incorporates every desirable feature. Quite simply, some of them directly contradict others. What could be possible, however, is to exploit the wisdom of crowds. If we recognize that our system of government has deficiencies that manifest themselves in problematic policies, keeping an eye on policy development in other jurisdictions can serve as a bit of a counter to that. This already happens, for example, as when people turn to Scandinavia when discussing drug or childcare policies.

Taking a step further, it is possible for the political decisions in other democratic places to directly affect the situation in Canada. One major mechanism for this is when courts apply foreign precedents, particularly when dealing with new areas of law, or issues in which societal expectations are changing. Every time a judge presented with a case on gay rights or intellectual property gives consideration to what is happening in Europe or New Zealand or India, they are taking advantage of the diversity in policies that accompanies the diversity in forms of democratic government.

The ultimate example is something like the European Union, which actually incorporates 27 democratic governments and has decision-making power of its own. One of the reasons why it is such an exciting experiment is because of the potential it was for allowing the flaws of each constituent state to be partially counterbalanced by the sensible overall character of the consensus.

Of course, all this is anathema to the kind of old school patriots who are fearful of foreign precedents in domestic courts and cling as much as possible to the original words and meanings of founding documents. That is not an entirely irrational attitude. It is certainly possible that following the wisdom of crowds will produce a worse outcome than going it alone will. Overall, however, I think that a greater degree of international policy coordination is likely to be beneficial. Partly, that is a consequence of the extreme interconnectedness and interdependence of human beings today. The happenings in one political jurisdiction have never been more relevant and important to the inhabitants of all others. That – along with the potential to smooth the rough edges of our domestic political systems – is a major reason for making our sovereignties a bit more porous.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Tristan October 7, 2010 at 3:37 pm

“There are no perfect democratic systems; all those that have ever existed, that exist now, and that will exist have flaws.”

Your analysis of “democracy” keeps leaving out the central question – are these democracies “democratic”? A democracy, if we think according to the concept and not just repeat empty slogans which power has used to legitimate itself (i.e. the way the USSR used the notion of “socialism” to legitimate itself, although the farthest possible thing from socialism according to its idea of worker control over production), means “rule by the people”. What would it mean to have a society which is ruled by the people? Well, it would mean the people were meaningfully involved in the important deliberations and decisions.

There actually are serious models for putting this into practice, although as you trivially pointed out, any such model will be “imperfect”. But, if you thought about the idea of “perfect” means for a second, you might notice that nothing is perfect and the idea of things that are perfect can only be judged on the real impacts they have on reality. I wrote about this here –

If you want to look at some “models” for democracy, you might look at Bakunin’s idea of Federalism (which the Paris Commune called for). The same model, albeit with more emphasis on community but with similar respect for autonomy can be found in certain first nations traditions.

If you want to talk about democracy as it really exists, then you should make the same provisions that you owe to any idea which is captured and used by illegitimate power structures for their own use against the terms genuine meaning. Not to do so is to cast aside the struggles of those for whom what basic political words mean, like democracy and socialism among others, are the basis of real political movements.

Concerning those structures called democratic by those in power, I think your analysis of the problem is deeply flawed, but comes to the right conclusion. You characterize the difficulty of international co-operation as a debate between “old school patriots” who would maintain traditional sovereignty, which in our context means a state run by the local elites, and the EU – where local government gives up some of its legal sovereignty in the name of regional cooperation and integration. The problem with this analysis is it ignores force as a mechanism of influence by which a state’s sovereignty is compromised: client states follow orders, and are not sovereign. Imperial states are not sovereign either, because the rule of law is not a characteristic of empires where different territories have different statuses (this is made more complex in a world of economic imperialism, but the military examples are still classical – i.e. Iraq as a new US colony will follow US orders, but US legislators have no veto or say over what happens there).

The idea of “sovereignty” only makes sense in a kind of Kantian cosmopolitan world with a genuinely democratic league of nations – where law rather than force decides inter-national conflicts.

So, in effect, what you call the making more porous of sovereignty should simply be called the construction through agreement rather than force of new human-faced empires. And we have to do this, because empires built on economic and military agression will not be adequate to the establishment of agreements required to mitigate climate change.

. October 7, 2010 at 5:07 pm

American People Hire High-Powered Lobbyist To Push Interests In Congress

October 6, 2010 | ISSUE 46•40

WASHINGTON—Citing a desire to gain influence in Washington, the American people confirmed Friday that they have hired high-powered D.C. lobbyist Jack Weldon of the firm Patton Boggs to help advance their agenda in Congress.

Known among Beltway insiders for his ability to sway public policy on behalf of massive corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, Monsanto, and AT&T, Weldon, 53, is expected to use his vast network of political connections to give his new client a voice in the legislative process.

Weldon is reportedly charging the American people $795 an hour.

“Unlike R.J. Reynolds, Pfizer, or Bank of America, the U.S. populace lacks the access to public officials required to further its legislative goals,” a statement from the nation read in part. “Jack Weldon gives us that access.”

“His daily presence in the Capitol will ensure the American people finally get a seat at the table,” the statement continued. “And it will allow him to advance our message that everyone, including Americans, deserves to be represented in Washington.”

R.K. October 8, 2010 at 12:28 pm

One question this raises is how much difference there is between ideal policies in different places. This post seems to assume that there are ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ policies that do not depend much on national context.

By contrast, if there really is value in the ‘Canadian’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘British’ way of doing things, encouraging the convergence of policy could be inappropriate.

Tristan October 8, 2010 at 4:15 pm

“One question this raises is how much difference there is between ideal policies in different places. ”

Wherefrom the evaluative frame that determines one as “ideal”? And what propriety does the notion of ideal, or perfection, have in a world where all ideals devalue themselves – fall apart as we put them into place. Is not “effective” or “best fit” or “revolutionary” a better value by which to consider the appropriate policy?

And, is there a “‘Canadian’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘British’ way of doing things”? Who counts as “Canada” – who’s included, who’s excluded from the national strategic interest? Or – does class war, imperfect a notion though it is, better describe the reality of classist societies (which means all societies) than harmony?

And one other thing, is democracy a “policy” at all? Or, is it that much more radical thing – an idea. No one stands on the barricades for a policy.

Tristan October 11, 2010 at 1:50 pm

“What could be possible, however, is to exploit the wisdom of crowds. If we recognize that our system of government has deficiencies that manifest themselves in problematic policies, keeping an eye on policy development in other jurisdictions can serve as a bit of a counter to that. This already happens, for example, as when people turn to Scandinavia when discussing drug or childcare policies.”

Why does this count as “exploiting the wisdom of crowds”? “Crowd” here counts not as the people, but as the elite forces in other countries that name themselves democratic?

And on what grounds would such a system turn to Scandinavia, and not the US when discussing drug or childcare policies? Why Germany and not the UK? How do we decide which “democracy” to listen to?

Milan October 18, 2010 at 12:06 pm

The same way we make any complex policy decision: by looking through the available good quality information and using it to decide what course of action best suits our circumstances.

It’s not a basic process that can be automated, but it is the sort of thing done by courts and governments constantly.

Tristan October 18, 2010 at 4:16 pm

Who decides? And on the basis of who’s interests?

It’s no good talking about where an actor or institution should go out to get good information or advice if they haven’t set a sane goal to pursue in the first place. What we need to do as citizens is change the goal of the Canadian state to something sane – and this can be done either by changing the goals of those on the basis of which goals are currently set, or by changing those who for which the goals are set.

Trying to improve contemporary governments without thematizing a fundamental shift in direction feels like bickering about how to best maintain the cattle cars carrying Jews to the death camps.

. October 21, 2010 at 11:52 am

High-ranking Canadian officials and several of the world’s largest oil companies are fighting attempts by the European Union to deal with climate change. They’re lobbying heavily against a fuel standard provision proposed last year, which they fear will restrict energy imports from Alberta’s oil sands, a high emitter of greenhouse gases.

This informal coalition scored a major victory earlier this March, and is now doing all it can to defend it.

What makes the lobbying push unique is that very little Albertan fuel actually gets sold in Europe. And yet European officials are getting the regular hard sell from oil sands firms and their friends in Canada’s government.

“It is not because we are protecting a customer base [in Europe],” Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner said, “but because we respect the fact that decisions in Europe find their way into other policies around the world.”

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