Is Our Democracy Good Enough?


The elections this week had me reflecting on democracy.

I find much of electoral politics to be madness.

I also find both parties’ political agendas to be frustratingly incomplete. There are many issues that threaten the future of our country, as well as all of humanity, and these issues only make up a small part of either party’s agenda.

Of course, democracy has many benefits.

Why Democracy is Great

1. Peaceful transitions of power.

2. A general check on keeping government from doing extremely awful things.

3. A general willingness to consider expert opinion.

Given our species terrible history of self-government, these three benefits should not be minimized.

But it would be highly surprising to me if our current form of democracy is the best our species will ever do.

So How Might Democracy be Improved?

In terms of substance, I think governance would be better if:

1. There was a tighter connection between delivering results and getting re-elected.

2. Policy creation would weight expert opinion much more than the median voter’s opinion.

3. Political agendas were more connected to existential threats facing our nation and humanity itself.

In short: more accountability, better decision-making, and better issue prioritization.

How Might We Structure Government to Deliver these Improvements?

1. We could change what government does. Reducing the role of government in operational activities (and increasing the role of markets) could increase accountability in these areas. Increasing the role of government in existential threat activities (by creating formal departments for these issues) could increase political prioritization of these issues. Or to put it another way: I would trade having a federal department of education for having a federal department of asteroids and volcanoes.

2. We could change how government selects policies. Per Robin Hanson, we could vote on goals and create prediction markets for policy selection. This could capture the power of expert opinion and market accountability while still allowing citizens to set the government’s agenda.

3. We could increase competition amongst governments. Open borders, charter cities, and voluntary annexation policy regimes could all increase innovation and accountability by forcing governments to compete for citizens.

Our Democracy is Not Good Enough

To answer the title of the post, our democracy is not good enough.

Too often, people think that the problem with government has to do with the fact that their preferred party doesn’t have full control.

But both parties continuously ignore existential threats to our species.

Additionally, people over emphasize the minor, but real, imperfections of our current system (lobbying, voter registration issues, gerrymandering, etc.)

But making our current structures better at the margins doesn’t seem to address the fundamental weakness of our form of democratic government.

What people don’t spend enough time on is debating how we might fundamentally restructure our democracy to increase the probability that our country will thrive and our species survive.

I’m not an expert in governance, so perhaps the ideas I threw out above wouldn’t really work. Personally, I think they’re worth trying, but I could of course be wrong.

But, despite not being an expert on how to improve our democracy, I do feel confident that our current form of governance is leading to suboptimal outcomes that are due, in part, to governmental structure.

And I will continue to think so until, at the very least, we have a federal department of avoiding extinction.

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