Inciting Democracy: A Practical Proposal for Creating a Good Society
Questions and Concerns
B. Is Democracy Possible and Desirable?
1. Is Democratic Decision-Making Possible in a Large Society?
Is it really possible to practice participatory democracy in a large society? How could we make cooperative decisions among millions of people?
We have only begun to use the knowledge and technology developed over the last few centuries that should make widespread democracy much more viable. At the time of the American Revolution, large distances and slow travel made direct face-to-face decision-making impossible for the large and dispersed U.S. population. At that time, electing a representative who could go to the capital and fashion legislation with other representatives by majority vote seemed like the best democratic process possible. The founders of this country presumed that people would elect wise men who would, in good faith, represent them. Now, two hundred years later, it is easy to see the limitations of this system: advertising, money, and hype distort both the electoral and legislative processes. Even the worthiest representatives are flawed human beings, subject to the lure of power, wealth, and fame. They often act on their own behalf or that of their sponsors, not on behalf of the common good.
However, we now have available to us incredibly powerful communication technologies — including telephones, mass-distribution newspapers, radio, television, email and the Internet — that allow us to communicate with people all over the world. If these technologies were used to convey solid information and to allow citizens to exchange opinions, then everyone could be far better informed. Moreover, if everyone knew the basics of cooperative discussion (speaking clearly and succinctly, listening carefully, summarizing agreements and disagreements, and synthesizing solutions), people could work together more effectively to fashion consensual agreements.
As I envision it, a good democratic process would be based on small discussion and decision groups. People would meet face-to-face with people who lived nearby to make all decisions affecting their local group. They would also appoint one or two representatives who would attend neighborhood-wide council meetings and ratify decisions on neighborhood issues. These representatives would be held strictly accountable to the will of their local group: they could only agree to measures that their local group endorsed. If a proposal at a neighborhood council meeting were not endorsed by every representative of every local group, then the representatives would formulate new proposals that each representative would then take back to her local group for more discussion and approval. Discussion of proposals would shift back and forth between local groups and the neighborhood council until all of the local groups consented to a final proposal.
It won’t work. We know because we haven’t tried it. — English Proverb
In a similar manner, representatives from the neighborhood councils — who were similarly held accountable to the neighborhood councils —would make community-wide decisions in community councils. Councils of representatives at the city, region, nation, and world level would make decisions in the same fashion. Such a tiered decision-making process would enable everyone in society to have control over all decisions that affected them with a minimum of hierarchy and bureaucracy.
This process could only work if there were effective means for discussing proposals, making cooperative decisions, and resolving conflicts, and only if everyone were skilled in using these techniques. Fortunately, great advances have been made in the fields of interpersonal communication, mediation, conflict resolution, and cooperative decision-making. Currently, few people know these techniques, but in a good society, I imagine that everyone would learn them in grade school and would be adept at using them by the time they reached adulthood.
2. Is There Enough Time for Real Democracy?
How would people find the time to learn about a variety of issues, discuss them with others, and make good societal decisions?
Currently, many of society’s resources are devoted to producing unimportant (sometimes totally useless) consumer items and then advertising them enough to attract buyers. In a good society, I expect we could eliminate most of this waste. This would free up vast resources of time and effort.
In addition, in our current society, much effort is devoted to determining who is entitled to own goods or property and who is entitled to receive services. Additional effort is devoted to enforcing these property rules. Much of the banking, insurance, and real estate industries is devoted to these tasks as well as much of the judiciary system, prison system, police, military, and private security firms. In a good society in which everyone had all her basic needs met and no one owned much more than anyone else, these tasks would require far less effort and far fewer resources.
Moreover, I expect that in a good society there would be no idle rich people and no unemployed poor people. Every able-bodied person would work throughout her life. In such a fully employed society, people would be able to work fewer hours each week than they do now. Consequently, they would have more time for childrearing, visiting with friends, and engaging in civic affairs.
I also expect that in a good society civic responsibilities would be more evenly distributed. Right now, only business managers and government officials spend much time making decisions, and they often spend all their working time attending meetings and making far-reaching decisions. Most ordinary people — overworked and disempowered — spend little time on management or civic affairs. Instead, they spend their free time entertaining themselves and trying to recover from the stress of their jobs. In a good society, I expect no one would spend all her time making societal decisions and everyone would spend some time doing so.
Moreover, decision-making would probably be a lot easier than now. Currently, many issues are raised only to inflame people so they will support particular politicians or endorse particular measures that enrich a special interest group. In a good society in which everyone had her basic needs met and in which the culture encouraged frugality, sharing, and cooperation, there would probably be much less of this needless wrangling. People would strive to find mutually acceptable solutions to conflicts, not constantly bludgeon their opponents. Better decisions would be made with more input from more people. Once a decision was made, it would probably not have to be revisited for a long time.
3. Would People Want to Spend Time on Societal Decision-Making?
Would people want to spend so much time on decision-making? Wouldn’t some people decline to participate?
Most people currently find civic affairs boring or trifling. However, in a good society in which people made important decisions, they would likely have much greater interest. The process could also be a lot more fun. Decision-making would give people a chance to interact with their neighbors, to work toward meaningful goals that directly affected their lives, and to develop creative solutions. If practiced well, I imagine decision-making could be as enjoyable as sporting events. Certainly, the results would be much more meaningful to everyone involved. Still, some people would probably decline to participate. This would be fine; no one would be forced to participate.