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Some Caveats


I definitely like the idea of immediate granular authority, but I have thought of some caveats, a few minor and two major. I'll start with the minor ones.

I've already discussed the problem of disenfranchisement with respect to the first and second solutions.

Then there's what I think of as the “everything is pork” problem. Suppose the federal budget had a line item for, say, highway construction in West Virginia. If everyone got to vote on that one item, wouldn't it be voted down, since it doesn't benefit the majority? And wouldn't the same be true for almost any other item? I'm not sure it would be a problem, though. Maybe we'd set up a general budget for highway construction, and apportion it among the states in some standard way. Or maybe we'd take the libertarian approach and declare that shutting down most of the government is a good idea.

I also worry that the law might become too granular. If there were too many details, the law wouldn't be understandable, and then nobody would be able to obey it. On the other hand, present law isn't exactly a model of simplicity, yet we somehow manage to muddle through.

The real problem, and the first of the two major caveats, is that the law might change too quickly to be understandable. You might have to keep an eye on the current drinking age, to know if you were legal or not; or you might start building a fence around your house, only to have your neighborhood association vote that you aren't allowed to.

I'm reminded of the justification for BuSab, the Bureau of Sabotage, in Frank Herbert's story The Tactful Saboteur.

“Before he begins training,” McKie said, and his voice took on a solemn, lecturing tone, “the potential saboteur is shown the entire sordid record of history. The do-gooders succeeded once … long ago. They eliminated virtually all red tape from government. This great machine with its power over human lives slipped into high speed. It moved faster and faster.” McKie's voice grew louder. “Laws were conceived and passed in the same hour! Appropriations came and were gone in a fortnight. New bureaus flashed into existence for the most insubstantial reasons.”

McKie took a deep breath, realizing he'd put sincere emotional weight behind his words.

“Fascinating,” Bolin said. “Efficient government, eh?”

“Efficient?” McKie's voice was filled with outrage. “It was like a great wheel thrown suddenly out of balance! The whole structure of government was in imminent danger of fragmenting before a handful of people, wise with hindsight, used measures of desperation and started what was called the Sabotage Corps.”

That story, by the way, and the later novels Whipping Star and The Dosadi Experiment, are my favorite Herbert stories after the original Dune. Although the three are set in the same universe, they go in completely different directions, which is one of the things I like about them.

The second major caveat is that I don't trust people. You know those polls that come out every so often, reporting that a majority of people believe in UFOs or whatever? Well, true democracy would put that majority in charge. Would you trust it not to fund lots of UFO research? Or, more importantly, to uphold the principle of separation of church and state, or of freedom of speech even for unpopular speech? I sure wouldn't. On other other hand, I'm not sure I believe those polls are correct.

Years ago, I cut out and saved a column by George Will. I knew it would be relevant here, but I didn't realize just how relevant until I dug it up and re-read it. Will starts out talking about the problem of efficient government, specifically, about something Gov. Ventura was doing.

He is campaigning to get the Legislature to submit to referendum a constitutional amendment to establish a unicameral legislature.


He says that eliminating one legislative chamber would “streamline” government, making it more transparent and less of a “maze” of choke points. Unicameralism would make government more “efficient” and intelligible to average citizens, would “re-connect” them to government and “re-engage” them in policy-making by closing the “gap” between government and the people.

ALL THAT is largely correct. Which is why unicameralism is a mistake.

He then makes a connection to the problem of majority rule.

… efficiency did not trump all other values. It ranked below liberty and deliberative democracy.

The political catechism of the Madisonian moment was approximately this:

What is the worst outcome of politics? Tyranny. To what form of tyranny are democracies prey? Tyranny of the majority. Solution? Minimize the likelihood of durable oppressive majorities by maximizing the number of minorities—factions—that will coalesce only into unstable, transitory majorities.

The next bit is funny because of the choice of words.

… the essence of deliberative democracy is representation: The people do not decide issues, they decide who will decide.

The fact that people do not decide issues is exactly the problem I've been talking about!

I'll quote the conclusion, too, just because it is good writing.

Bicameralism is, as Ventura says, conducive to gridlock. But there are 6 billion people on this planet and about 5.7 billion of them would be better off if they lived under governments more susceptible to gridlock. Gridlock is not an American problem, it is an American achievement.


  See Also

  Convergent Evolution
  Solution, A

@ May (2002)