[DRAFT] Stable Democracy
I hate politics.
Ask my friends or my partner or my parents and you might come to believe that I feel differently. But that’s just because I also happen to think that politics is one of the most important things in our lives. We are social creatures and everything great (and horrifying) we can attribute to our species is due to our ability to work together to achieve feats far more impressive than any of us could achieve working purely on our own.
So if we are to continue to reach for the highs that living as a society can bring us—roads, science, entertainment, culture—we need to have rules outlining our goals as a collective and detailing how we can protect ourselves from the harms society can create—wars, subjugation, pollution, cruelty. Politics is deciding who we are as a society. Are we base and cruel and child-like or are we enlightened and magnanimous? Is our purpose simply to continue to expand across the universe unendingly in the pursuit of more materials to consume or perhaps should we focusing on how we can fill the world with love and joy and meaning for the people who are alive right now and are about to be born? I know which I prefer.
In order for a society to function, people need to contribute. Whether you are gathering firewood or farming or working IT or cleaning bathrooms at a Wendy’s, you provide something of value to society in the understanding that society will, in turn, take care of you. But there are some jobs, like many CEOs, that don’t really seem to be adding as much to society as they are taking out. So if these jobs aren’t benefitting society, why do they continue to exist? I argue that it’s because the political system of America, theoretically founded on the idea that every (white, land-owning, male) person should have an equal say in society, actually fails to live up to even this extremely middling promise.
Going to American public school my entire life, I learned in my government and history classes that America was founded on freedom and democracy. We were being persecuted for our religious beliefs so we struck out on our own to find a new world. “No taxation without representation,”1 they chanted as they rebelled against the monarchy and insisted they were the masters of their own destinies.
I suppose I have bought in to this framing of things. After all, it is an enticing idea! It’s the idea that grows out of the very simple first principle:
Every member of a society should have an equal say over the priorities of said society.
People who disagree with me on this will likely argue something like the following:
Perhaps some people get less of a say than others, but the ones with more power tend to be the ones that create the most good for society! If we let them decide our futures for us, they will create more wealth and opportunity that we can all share!
Plutocracy enjoyers rejoice.
We aren’t as democratic as we think
But we aren’t free to leave society, are we? If we behave in antisocial ways in the modern world, we remain to be subject to the laws and norms of societies around us. We are implicitly entered into the social contract without any ability to choose whether we feel it is fair and favorable. And without that ability we really don’t have any power. Sure, if enough people in society decide things are unfair, we could build a critical mass and achieve our ends (through reform or even revolution, if necessary), but then the system has an attractor: barring natural fluctuations from politics and markets, the people in charge of allocating the surplus of the society are incentivized to localize as much wealth as possible in their own pockets under the constraint that the overthrow of society be slightly less favorable on average than allowing society to remain unchanged.
Sure, this approach does fine on average. Certainly this optimum (for the allocators of the surplus) requires that the average person be better off (or at least think they are) than they would be without this organization of society. But what if you convince people that it is strictly necessary that people sleep on the street and suffer from treatable maladies and starve to death and face a life of scorn and fear and isolation? What if we all take as gospel that we should have the largest prison population in the world (both in absolute and per capita terms)… oh—and also they should probably not be allowed to vote. Wouldn’t want the people you’re screwing over to have a taste of power, right?
What if we believed these outlandish things? Then we (the ones with votes and voices and information and power) would take those things as granted and ignore them in our calculus of whether this whole “society” thing is worth it. We can look at our lives and decide we are comfortable and provide the critical mass that keeps society together. Add to that layers of voter disenfranchisement and suppression and a media bent on manufacturing consent for the status quo, and the deal can be further and further from equitable without the boat getting rocked.
We’re “stable” but not okay
Believers of the free market would
Who’s to blame for the breakdown? Why is it that we don’t
Tapping into the will of the people
What do we do about politicians?
How do we get there from here?
We’re told that one of the primary concerns of the founding fathers is that they were being unfairly taxed on their commerce without being provided adequate political representation. Another way of saying it: as a colony of the United Kingdom, the US had its surplus value expropriated by the crown, effectively the capital owners. Wait, was the American Revolution a proto-Marxist uprising?! ↩