December 30, 2002
By the People

Conservatives love to go on and on about how great this country is, but if it's so great how do you explain the DMV, Trent Lott, and the Corps of Engineers? Liberals love to go on and on about how awful this country is, but if it's so awful how do you explain the Stealth Fighter, my wife, and Sam Adams beer? In truth, as is typical with political opinions, both are completely right, and both are utterly wrong (usually at the same time, c.f. Streisand, Barbara). The United States, like pretty much all modern representational governments, is not the paragon of efficiency or virtue, it is instead a shining example of the principle of "least worst".

It's amazingly easy to find more efficient, effective methods of government. Without question the most efficient and effective possible is a dictatorship. No, really! History is replete with examples of well-run, relatively enlightened dictatorships. Ramses, Chin, Augustus, Charlemagne, Shaka, Capac, and Tokugawa are just a short list of comparatively just despots who lead their peoples to glory and prosperity.

Of course, we all know there are some glaring problems with the dictatorship style of government. First and foremost the enlightened, wise, and charismatic dictator has this annoying habit of ending up dead. Most are such egomaniacs their eventual demise simply never occurs to them. Even worse, the ones who do plan on a successor tend to entrust their dynasties to their son or nephew, who typically hasn't been seen sober in a decade or more.

Even when the successor isn't obviously insane or immediately incompetent, absolute power tends to be corrosive over time. It is a rare bird indeed who can resist wanting to decapitate yet another rich party boy caught boinking a rebellious daughter, greedy housewife trying to steal her neighbor's cookware, or cranky old man throwing rocks at effete (but effective) bureaucrats because they're trampling his azaleas. Most importantly, without fail, there is simply no way to get rid of these kinds of rulers short of "accident" (murder), "disease" (poison), "old age" (better poison), or revolution.

Communism, on the face of it, presents a far more elegant system of government, avoiding all the pitfalls of a dictatorship. In reality, pure communism is almost an "un-government". At root, it simply means everyone owns everything (see Happy May Day for more details).

Of course, anyone with the common sense god gave oatmeal immediately sees communism is completely unworkable in the real world. Its disconnect with the human condition is so staggeringly apparent that the only people who really buy into it are intellectuals and the hormone-addled twenty-somethings they are teaching. By requiring a fundamental change in human nature to function it strays dangerously near religious ground, and the thought police required to enforce the doctrines that make it tick are far too easy to use as a path to absolute power.

Socialism would at first seem a happy medium ground between the two camps. It spreads the decision making around to a select few, but not so many as to allow the ignorant rabble to run the country into the ground. At the same time it keeps the decision making process simplified enough to react quickly to crises whenever they arise. These enlightened leaders delegate their power to their enlightened bureaucracy, which carry out their plans with brilliant efficiency. Because these enlightened leaders would of course be selected only from the most learned of the society, it remains to this day fantastically popular with higher-level academics and garden variety elitists around the world.

Unfortunately what actually ends up happening is the best and brightest selected to lead this utopian ideal tend to be neither. Either they're machiavellian cutthroats interested only in stealing whatever isn't nailed down and routing it all into Swiss bank accounts for the enjoyment of their growing collection of mistresses, or they're ivory-tower academics who, when they aren't busy arguing over the best time to have tea, treat the society as a giant laboratory useful only for deciding if, for example, businessmen really are the only people qualified to run a business. This conglomeration usually wraps itself in a Byzantine bureaucracy that quickly ossifies, fixing the people in amber, trapping them in an entire country run by a DMV.

Theocracy has been popular of late, especially around the sunnier regions of the planet. Unfortunately such governments have so far only proven it is in fact possible to combine the efficiency of socialism, the concrete reality-based beliefs of communism, and top them off cherry-like with a wild eyed lunatic of a leader, creating a system of government that is even worse than its constituent parts.

This leaves us with the red-headed stepchild of all systems of government, democracy. Of any system of government, it (and its representational variants) is probably the least efficient, least effective form yet invented by mankind. By spreading power as widely as possible, it guarantees no one visionary will ever have enough to enact really effective laws. By allowing everyone, anyone, a say in government it ensures the vast majority of that government's time will be wasted on endless, pointless, passionate debates about the shape of toilet seats.

In essence, democracy locks a society into a perpetual state of crisis management. Long-term planning becomes impossible because leaders never look further than the next all-to-soon election. The only time any problem gets solved is when it becomes so glaring and obvious a four year old with glasses can see it. As any academic, pundit, or elitist celebrity will tell you (in private if not in public), the common people are only occasionally able to govern themselves, and even then only badly.

In spite of all this, democracy actually has many powerful features working in its favor. It provides rich and ambitious people many paths to power. It ensures only the most important ideas are turned into law. It prevents the coalescing of power into the hands of a dangerous few, or one. It requires no modification of natural human behavior, choosing instead to balance one need, one greed, against the other to achieve a safe, relatively effective whole.

Most important of all, and most unique of all, modern representational democracies provide many extremely powerful methods of self-correction. First and foremost is a free and unfettered press. Democracies can only function when everyone knows what is going on. In fact, democracy simply wasn't possible on a large scale in the ancient world because it was so difficult to inform the public. Pundits may bemoan its many and varied biases, but without this populist counterweight there is no accountability of the elite to the common people.

By including formal mechanisms of change inside the core documents of the government, democracies guarantee long-term flexibility in the face of adverse and unknown future conditions. The United States today is not in fact the country our founding fathers created. It's better.

Finally, by their very inefficiency democracies guarantee stability and liberty. History has proven time and again that efficient, effective government is efficient only at rape, effective only at pillage. Such efficient governments succeed only rarely, when a combination of genes, education, and flat-out luck combine to allow a single person (nearly always a man) to claw his way to the top and rule well in spite of the difficulties.

But by investing power in a person instead of an idea, by bending knees instead of opening eyes, these societies hook their prosperity to the mortality of a man, ignoring the immortality of the ideas behind him. Such societies hold a revolver to their head every time their leader dies, spinning the cylinder and pulling the trigger with each new successor. Sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the chamber is empty, and the trigger clicks without harm.

But sometimes it doesn't.

So take heart America! Take heart Japan, Britain, France, Germany, and the dozens of other representational governments! Wear your "least worst" mantle proudly! After all, "least worst" gave you electricity. "Least worst" paved the road to your house. "Least worst" ensured it was a reporter who listened to your complaint in your home, instead of a soldier taking evidence in your cell. "Least worst", my friend, put a human being on the moon less than seventy years after we learned to fly.

Posted by scott at December 30, 2002 08:05 PM

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