Democracy’s awful little secret

Federal debating society meetsIt may be that democracy doesn’t scale up well. Just raw, dumb mathematics putting a lid on rule by the people. If so, the 1/3 billion of us in this continent-sized nation are in trouble when we want democracy to be more than in name only.

Those voters who stay at home in droves give us the line “So what? One vote, why bother?” And of course we say “Because Florida 2000,” however lame we know it sounds.

The problem is, they’re right — it’s the perfectly bad “consumer value proposition.” They don’t get anything for their vote that they wouldn’t get by staying at home. And if there’s one thing we certainly are, it’s a nation of consumers. That typically leaves us muttering something about “more education.”

Then a couple of observations kind of bumped together for me that I found provocative: Iceland and ancient Athens.

Iceland-presidentIceland, of course, managed to dodge the bullet during the 2008 banking meltdown by the simple expedient of tossing out the gunmen — unlike the rest of the world, Iceland simply allowed the diseased banks to succumb to their own corruption. I took this as a heroic act of democracy in action, and kind of marveled at why Iceland could do such a thing, while the US could not.

Scratching the surface, though, I learned that Iceland — the nation — has a total population that’s about half that of my hometown, Austin.

That they are able to educate themselves so well and maintain a moral compass pointing to a democratic “true north” seem to support an idea that we should probably pay more attention to — democracy as a system that does not scale up well.

The arithmetic is inherent: in a small electorate, a participant’s vote carries more weight than in a large one. As it gets larger, the “consumer value proposition” of voting — well, we see well enough how that turns out.

For the history-minded, it’s worth noting that in ancient Athens, birthplace of democracy, the electorate was less than 30,000. The Agora seated even fewer (about 6,000), and Plato recommended an ideal maximum of 5,000 citizens in his Laws, companion piece to The Republic.

athensIt’s easy to imagine: you can readily gather a coalition of 60 – 75 of your colleagues, which could have a substantial impact on the outcome of a vote of a 6,000 person electorate. With just one more degree of separation — a “two-hop” — each of your 60 have their own 60, and you’ve got 3,600 on your side.

That is a qualitatively different dynamic than with an electorate of millions — it puts any such personal coalition-building way out of reach.

Since the days of ancient Athens, though, attempts to increase the scale of democracy have given us the questionable hack of “representative democracy.” What could possibly go wrong!?

It may even be safe to generalize: the smaller and the more local a political entity is, the more frequent the political outcomes will be that we’re willing to call “democratic.”

What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude.
— Thomas Paine, in Rights of Man

…who recognized the differences in scale, but didn’t understand the consequences of it.

Wealth we employ more for use than for show, and place the real disgrace of poverty not in owning to the fact but in declining the struggle against it. Our public men have, besides politics, their private affairs to attend to, and our ordinary citizens, though occupied with the pursuits of industry, are still fair judges of public matters.

— Pericles

…who got it right.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *