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How to make decisions in a democracy


I’ll say up front that I don’t know the answer. Everything that’s been tried up till now has real problems, so I’d like to throw some ideas out there. The current discussion about (the difficulty of) decision-making in the General Assemblies at #OccupyWallStreet is what jogged me to post.

Update, Nov. 16, 2011. Law enforcement is clearing out the encampments of #Occupy. That’s dictatorial, but it suggests a broadening of tactics, which would have been a good idea in any case. Too few people have the financial freedom to camp. Winter is unfriendly to campers. The Occupations could move to shift work. Groups of hundreds or thousands, whatever can be mustered, occupy for four hours, and then their replacements move in. 24/7/365. Also, come up with other actions people can take. Refusal to pay taxes (for the very brave), door-to-door explanation of ideas and suggestions for action, continuing to move money away from Big Finance, start by boycotting of the Koch Empire (Did you know they make Quilted Northern toilet paper? I didn’t either.) move on the boycotting the next worst nasties, and so on through a hundred things we could all help with.

That takes organization and the ability to make relevant decisions in real time. Neither of those can be achieved by General Assemblies. So exploring better ways to organize is more relevant than ever, unless the movement is to fall right back into old ways that haven’t proven resistant to cooptation.

It’s important to remember that democracy has to work all the time. Failure is not an option. When it fails briefly, governance ratchets toward anti-democratic. Before you know it there’s an undemocratic elite at work and you’re struggling with monopolies, or corruption, or wars. The fact that a method sometimes, or even often, works is not good enough.

So, first, democratic decision-making methods that sometimes fail:

  • Direct popular majority vote. Sometimes called “tyranny of the majority” because it can be so anti-democratic in its treatment of large minorities.
  • Indirect popular vote, e.g. Electoral College. If it has no real power, it has the same problems as direct popular vote. If it does have power, it’s liable to ignoring the will of the people, i.e. being anti-democratic, at the least, and corrupt at the worst.
  • Super-majority vote. This is an attempt to prevent the exclusion of large minorities. In practice, it gives veto power to minorities, which is also anti-democratic. Decision-making becomes too slow and unwieldy to respond adequately to reality. (Look at California trying to deal with its budget mess.) Another effect in practice can be the formation of a much smaller group of real decision-makers who then use the official consensus process as window-dressing. (E.g. European Union in the current financial crisis, Spokes Councils in OWS General Assemblies.)
  • Decision-making by committee. Another way of trying to achieve consensus decisions. The problems are that responsibility becomes spread too thin, and social dynamics play a larger role than the merits of the case. Both of those factors make it easy to take bad decisions.

Whenever large numbers of people have to come to a decision together, structural factors work anti-democratically. It’s not bad outside influences that corrupt the process (although they can). It’s decision-making by large numbers of people that doesn’t work. Since the will of large numbers of people is the essence of democracy, we have a problem.

Right now, the idea is that voters steer government. But voters are proving terrible at governing. Who wants to do all the homework involved? You have to know the issues, study the background facts, and evaluate implications. It’s a full time job, and most voters already have a full time job.

It’s much easier to tell when something is wrong. And it’s much easier to mobilize voters to throw the bums out.

The problem of preserving democracy should be approached from the other end. Instead of trying to steer government, voters should be smashing messes into small enough pieces to cart away. Preventing the ratchet toward elitism can only be done by continual corrections. Without them, the inevitable imperfections in any system will ultimately lead to failure. Voters are well-positioned to provide corrections. It’s hard to suborn such a large group. And, practically by definition, most of them won’t be part of the elite, so they won’t be blinded by class loyalties.

As for how to implement it, votes could be held every so often (once a year?) to recall hopeless administrators or reverse decisions that people feel aren’t working out. (That and all the ideas here are more completely discussed in Re-imagining Democracy, Government, Decision-making.)

Voters might — I think would — be able to provide course corrections, but that still means somebody has to hold the actual steering wheel. Somebody has to do the business of government, so there is the question of how any decisions get made in this system.

To answer that it’s worth thinking about what government actually is. (When it’s not a pot for personal power and riches.) Government is a lot of tedious housekeeping for the social good, in other words for no direct benefit. It’s cleaning up other people’s messes and sorting out stupid fights and trying to come up with rules to keep the messes and fights to a minimum. It takes very skilled, knowledgeable, and fairly unselfish people to do that.

The bad news is that we’re terrible at finding those people. The good news is that I don’t think we have to.

What we’ve done so far is used a purely random system. The lottery may be genetic, as in hereditary monarchies, or it may be by self-selection, as it is in democracies. (There are no job-related qualifications to run for office. Anyone can play.) And even though the random systems produce plenty of charlatans and failures, we have survived. So randomness, by itself, need not be feared.

If we improved the pool from which random selections are made, we might improve the whole process. We could still have the democratic advantages of randomness for preventing elitism, and yet reduce the disadvantage of having complete amateurs running the show.

I think it’s actually easy to come up with an improved selection process.

Let people self-select to put themselves in the pool and list their background showing their administrative abilities. People would then review the pool to winnow it to those who actually have successfully administered something, whether it’s the yearly school fair or an aluminum smelter. It could work somewhat like rating schemes on the web. Readers would rate some limited number of resumes.

One big difference is essential, however. Other people’s ratings should not be visible. It’s important for the ratings to be independent, otherwise they immediately fall into confirmation of the earliest favorites. The ratings should be purely a pass-no pass based on whether the candidate has the experience they say they have. Candidates for positions requiring special knowledge would be reviewed by people with the relevant education or work experience.

The process would be most convenient if computerized, but even without computers, all you’d need is central locations for the lists, like public libraries or meeting places, to make it work. If it turns out people can’t be bothered with ratings voluntarily, it could be a jury duty type of obligation.

The administrator would then be randomly selected, i.e. by lottery, from the candidates still in the pool after that. The pool could be refreshed on an ongoing basis, and numerous administrators could be drawn from each relevant pool. In other words, you wouldn’t go through the whole process every time the community needs a municipal dogcatcher.

The administrator would stay in as long as they kept doing a good job by various metrics, or until the voters chucked them out. Administrators at higher levels, such as state, province, or nation, could be chosen from the pool of those who’d done a good job (as evidenced by no recalls or few complaints) at a lower level.

There are several advantages to that system. Anyone can play, and yet there are some job-related qualifications. There are no unrelated job qualifications, such as being rich or looking good on television. People who prove incompetent can be ousted on a regular basis. There are no obvious points at which an elite group of insiders could develop. And it could even be easy to ensure that administrators reflect the composition of the general population by limiting the lottery to candidates who meet gender or racial criteria.

Of course, there are bound to be disadvantages, too. They’d become evident if the system was tried.

Ideally, it would be a method that allows competent administrators to do the tedious work of government without at the same time hijacking it for themselves.

Or, in an OWS context, it could identify order-keepers and finance officers and media relations experts who could approach their work with experience and professionalism. But their actions would be subject to public scrutiny. They’d operate in the open, not in a clique, and they’d be subject to recall if they did their jobs badly. I see a system of randomly selected, knowledgeable, responsible individuals who are answerable to the group as a much more democratic solution to the problem of unwieldy General Assemblies than the formation of inner Spokes Councils who have power because they took it.

What the system doesn’t do is decide overall policy. People still have to agree on the social contract, the constitution, on some statement of principles. In an OWS context, people still need to decide whether they care about non-financial inequalities, like sexism. Or whether they care about the use of violence. Or meetings held at times when the people who are the point of the meetings can’t attend.

Once there is a statement of principles, however, the function-or-be-fired system does show the way toward finding people to actually carry out those principles in practice, and to getting rid of them if they don’t.