On Philosophy

February 26, 2007

For The People

Filed under: Political Philosophy — Peter @ 12:18 am

When discussing justice and its role in society I illustrated some ways in which a representative democracy (a system of government in which people elect representatives) could fail to be responsive to the concerns of the people who make it up, if they are a minority. I am a big fan of government for the people, meaning a government that is responsive to needs of the people it governs, but I am not a big fan of government by the people. The people, or at least the majority of them, can be unjust, intolerant, and as a whole not necessarily the force you would rationally want behind decisions. But in order to prevent the government from becoming corrupt, and ceasing to listen to the people at all, some measure of government by the people is often seen as needed. Obviously representative democracy is less a government by the people than direct democracy (a system of government where the people vote directly on all issues) is, and thus is some ways a representative democracy is a superior system.

But even representative democracy is imperfect. One problem is that representatives are elected by region, but people with a common interest may be spread out evenly about the nation. In such a case these people would only be able to insure that their issues were addressed by moving so that they become a majority, or at least a large enough percentage of the population so that addressing the issues they care about would be worthwhile. But people shouldn’t have to move to be represented. Thus it would probably be beneficial to remove the geographical boundaries that are usually in place to decide who a representative represents. One way of doing this would be to allow people to vote for any representative they wished at election time. Representatives that got a certain minimal level of votes would be allowed to serve in the government. Getting more votes then is necessary could bestow other privileges, such as being able to secure desired committee appointments, ect. But, on the downside, this would result in a real headache for voters, since there would be so many potential representatives to choose between. If the nation had a healthy multi-party system this could be fixed by allowing voters to instead vote for a political party, and then each party would be able to put forward a number of representatives proportional to the votes they received.

Another possibility is to give the people additional ways to influence the government, in addition to voting for representatives. It is true that people can already challenge the constitutionality of laws, but to do that is a long and involved process. Instead people should be able to directly challenge the justice of a law, meaning that they can attempt to get the law repealed if it is unjust, even if that law isn’t strictly unconstitutional, because the constitution does not forbid every form of injustice. In addition to this it would make sense to give people the opportunity to vote on some laws directly. For example, anti-corruption laws always have a hard time making headway in the US congress because too many members of that body benefit from the very corruption they are trying to outlaw. On the other hand if the people were allowed to vote on such a law I am sure that it would pass by a wide margin, which would probably be for the best. But, although this arrangement might be an improvement in some situations, it isn’t a perfect solution. An injustice might be allowed to stand simply because the courts don’t see it as such, or because the courts are themselves unjust.

So perhaps putting people into place by voting for them is just the wrong solution to government accountability. After all, it is a rather indirect way of holding the government responsible for its actions, as they can do basically whatever they want once they are in office, and only listen to their voters around election years. There are other ways of doing things. For example, government officials could receive their positions based on an impartial merit system (such as some kind of test), and could move up based on seniority. To keep the government in line we could have a body of ordinary citizens, chosen randomly each year, who are given investigatory powers and the ability to remove officials from their posts if the majority agree that they aren’t acting in the best interests of the people. I don’t know, however, if a group of randomly selected citizens is sufficiently competent to do this job, which makes me sad. But if they were it would certainly motivate the government to keep its citizens happy. I’m not sure if it would be more just than a standard democracy, however, because even if the government was acting unjustly the majority of citizens supervising the government would have to agree that they deserved to be removed because of it. So perhaps it would be better then if a minority of them were able to remove members of the government, given sufficient cause, but I will leave things as they stand, since it is not my intention to go into every possible detail here.

My point in raising these possibilities is not to endorse one or the other of them. My point is that all of them may be superior to our current way of doing things. So why do we keep trying to run our government in the same way? Is it because we are too traditional, or is it because the people who have the power to change it like it the way that it is? Neither is a good reason to avoid trying new things. Now it is true that there is always the possibility that alternative systems might be worse than our current one, but that is simply a good reason to try things on a smaller scale first and then work up to nationwide, not a reason to turn our backs on the possibility of change altogether.

1 Comment

  1. I agree that the American system of doing everything by region seems flawed. Who says people in the same region always have the same interests? People complain about “red states vs. blue states,” but actually the system is designed in such a way that it assumes that particular states will have clearly different interests. The current problem is that states aren’t different enough(!), since in most states one party only beats the other by 10% or so, meaning 40% of people in the state dislike their representatives.

    I think one interesting way of doing things would be to say, “Instead of having to vote by state or vote by a preset list of things, everyone should just put down whatever they want for their category in a primary election, then the top 50 categories will be used as ‘states’ for the Senate.” So, the Slashdot crowd could try to get “nerd” onto the ballot by selecting that during the primary, and then in the real election, they could select a candidate to represent nerds from across the country. Similarly, “soccer moms” might try to get their own representative and probably so would some religious or ethnic groups. People whose group doesn’t make it into the top 50 would be able to select a new group for themselves, and all groups would be open to all if you want to switch groups next election. So, even if there was a “Black” group, non-blacks could join it if they wanted — but at the cost of not being able to vote in some other group. I don’t think there would be many people who try to sabotage other groups, since then they wouldn’t be able to vote in their own groups. (You sometimes hear people say that since such-and-such primary is open, people from the opposite party are going to come and vote for a loser candidate, but that never seems to happen.)

    Anyhow, I think that would be an interesting system, and possibly better at making sure everyone’s voice is heard.

    Comment by Carl — February 26, 2007 @ 2:19 am

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