“In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Like many disasters, it began with a great promotional idea. Britain’s leading environmental science institute was about to commission a new polar research vessel. To highlight their achievement and increase public engagement they decided to let the public name the ship in an online contest.
Public response was both predictable and disappointing. A BBC radio presenter heard of the promotion and weighed in publicly with a fun suggestion: Boaty McBoatface. His idea took off and won by a huge margin. Coming in a distant second was the name of a cancer-striken toddler who had become the momentary darling of British tabloids. Other notable entries included: It’s Bloody Cold Here and Boatimus Prime. Near the bottom finished a few more relevant nominations, heroic British scientists and explorers relatively unknown to the TV-watching public.
The soul-sucking killjoys who run the Natural Environment Research Council made the controversial decision to disregard the overwhelming will of The People. Britain’s most advanced polar research platform will be christened the RRS David Attenborough. That name earned a tiny fraction of the contest votes.
There isn’t always an adult in the room. In groups, we often do stupid things, things we later regret. While giving a research vessel a stupid name would have been demeaning to the men and women who served onboard, no one would have gotten hurt. The FTSE 100 would have remained untouched. No bond downgrades would be announced.
Sometimes we’re not so lucky.
As democratic ideals take hold globally, becoming the de facto standard for political legitimacy, democratic processes are beginning to show troubling weaknesses. Disasters loom in the dark alleys of majority rule. From Trump to Brexit to the convulsions of the Arab Spring, democracy is experiencing some growing pains.
We’re being reminded that effective, representative government requires more than just letting people vote on stuff. Nothing mystical happens inside a voting machine to transform half-informed opinions into policy gold. Solid, effective democracy does not magically emerge from elections. Institutions and process that support democracy must adapt to fresh demands. Voting will not solve all of our problems.
Since human beings began living in social groups larger than clans or tribes we have faced a consistent challenge. How do we build decision-making structures for these large groups which are smart enough to make competent decisions, but also retain their members’ agency?
For the first time in human development, we seem to have arrived at a global consensus on the best solution to this problem – representative democracy. We may have found the best way for human societies to organize themselves, but we’re still struggling to work out the details. Like Churchill said, democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.
Democracy can be summarized as government by majority-rule. Structures may vary, from direct to representative, but a democracy is organized on the principle that public policy disagreements are resolved by an appeal to the will of a majority. Legitimate governments are built on the expressed will of their citizens.
Democracies suffer from two frustrating weaknesses. The first is justice. Majorities might thwart the greed or violence of a few, but who will stand in the way of an angry electoral mob? Majorities can as easily be assembled toward lynching as problem-solving.
The other problem is expertise. We make fairly good decisions for ourselves when we understand the subject matter and we have a personal stake in the outcome. We make consistently terrible decisions when we have little understanding of their implications and the decision involves consequences which are distant in time and dispersed in impact. Without direct personal concern for an outcome or an appreciation of consequences, novelty, entertainment, bigotry, and outright graft heavily influence electoral outcomes. Described another way, we make our best decisions in our personal lives and our worst decisions in politics.
Democracy places equal weight on the opinions of a seasoned climate science expert and that Hibyyjobby lady from the Trump rally. It is impossible to assemble a majority of geniuses. Democracies struggle to arrive at smart solutions to complex, expert problems.
Our Founders recognized democracy’s Boaty McBoatface problem and worked hard to limit it. They were suspicious of democracy, instead choosing to construct a republic, which has evolved into a form of “representative democracy.” Public will in our system is expressed through the election of representatives. Actions of those representatives are checked by laws and shared power among other layers of representatives. Those laws (most of them) are subject to amendment, but altering the most critical and precious of those laws requires nearly impossible levels of public unanimity.
In order to make expert decisions possible in a fundamentally representative system, we sometimes insulate public decision makers from direct public scrutiny. We delegate power to bureaucrats. Some of our most effective public institutions, like the Federal Reserve and the NSA, are also our most politically independent. Holding a public vote on every change in the Fed’s discount rate, or on every drone strike, would be a nightmare bordering on farce. For our government to be capable of performing certain expert tasks, it must enjoy a some discretion.
If the Fed chairman was appointed by the likes of Louis Gohmert, hilarity would ensure, followed shortly thereafter by its twin – tragedy. On the other hand, remove these institutions from all accountability and even the best ones would sour. If the Fed chairman could not be summoned to face his mental inferiors in Congress, we would all eventually suffer. Balance is key. Achieving that balance depends on our willingness to create and sustain intelligent, accountable processes.
Public will is now our de facto standard for legitimate authority on a global basis. That is an enormous human achievement that deserves to be considered The End of History. Yet, we do not have smooth sailing ahead. Each great challenge we overcome opens the door to its evolutionary successor. Winning just means graduating up to better and better problems.
Our challenge now is to stabilize this representative system, to build systems of administration that can continue to channel public opinion into sound public policy while public participation expands. In the course of that effort, sometimes we get David Attenborough. Sometimes we get Boaty McBoatface. Sometimes we get a Kennedy. Sometimes we get a Trump. How do we ensure more of the first and less of the latter?
Developing a more nuanced understanding of the meaning and extent of so-called “democracy” might help. More democracy does not necessarily produce better government, just like more people in a room shouting does not mean more people have been heard. Each step in the direction of greater representation must be accompanied by adjustments in our expectations.
If we’re going to insist on wider democracy, perhaps we should temper our ambitions for government. A simple equation might be helpful. As a system grows more delicately sensitive to public will, its capacity to perform complex, expert tasks declines. At the other end, if a system comes uncoupled from public opinion, it becomes similarly incapable of meeting public needs. Again, balance is key.
The ballot box is not a miraculous decision-making machine, a political Magic Eight Ball. More democracy is not the solution to every public policy problem. Boaty McBoatface is not a story about silly voters. The failure in this story happened in a boardroom among a group of experts. No one with a rudimentary understanding of social media should have imagined that a public process conducted in that manner, on that subject matter, would yield a credible outcome. Process matters.
This was not a failure of the masses, but a failure of elites. Planners placed too much weight on a poorly constructed process. Voting works better as a decision-making mechanism if someone is paying careful attention to what we’re voting on and how.
Making democracy work as we broaden representation requires awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of the voting process. Donald Trump and Brexit are elite failures, outcomes of processes constructed by delusional “experts” out of touch with conditions on the ground.
Voting works well when we use it to express big picture values, or to select representatives who will work within an established process. It breaks when when ask it to perform feats of public policy magic. A brief, vomit-stained ride on the RRS Boaty McBoatface may be just what we need. Once our stomachs settle we may be a bit less lazy in our approach to voting and democracy.