Sometimes a review sets off a small chain reaction. Not long after posting my review of Can Democracy Work? the author of Beasts and Gods send me a review copy of her book. That review was followed by a message from bioinformatician and former Belgian Pirate Party member Klaas Mensaert. Would I be interested in reviewing his book The Flaws That Kill Our Democracy? As I was already in the middle of a large two-part review on democracy, another perspective seemed very welcome.
This is a small self-published tract that, at 127 pages, will take you no time to read. Rather than the dramatic overhaul suggested by Brannen in Against Democracy (voter ignorance is the problem, epistocracy – a rule of the knowledgeable – the solution) or by Fuller in In Defence of Democracy (the system is the problem, Athenian-style mass participation the solution), Mensaert suggests tinkering with the system of representative democracy. There are quite a few similarities though with the problems that Mensaert sees and those that Fuller highlighted in both her books.
So what are the flaws that kill our democracy? Two, closely intertwined problems that feed into each other are highlighted here: centralization and exclusive political parties. Our democracies are not all that democratic, says Mensaert, because most countries are governed by a small number of large parties. One obvious extreme is the USA which is effectively a two-party system governed by Republicans and Democrats. The UK, where I currently live, is not much better with Conservatives and Labour dominating politics. This centralization is encouraged because political parties are exclusive: as a citizen, you can only vote for, associate with, and participate in one party.
This leads to some problems downstream. One problem that most people will recognize is that you will virtually always agree with some but not all of a party’s ideas. For example, you might agree with one party on economic issues, but with another on environmental issues. It encourages political polarization and tribalism, where people with political preferences other than yours are seen as enemies and obstacles, rather than fellow human beings with whom we will need to cooperate to solve problems. Party exclusivity also forces parties to become generalists. Those that fight for a specific, narrow cause are rarely able to take off. Lastly, something that Fuller also noted, having a small number of people in charge makes the whole edifice fragile and vulnerable to forces from within (populists, coalitions, and polarization) and without (wealthy corporations, lobbyists, the media, and foreign influences).
“One particular advantage of decentralization is anti-fragility: we can allow some political parties to fail and draw lessons from it. To be clear, anti-fragility is not the same as resilience.”
To solve these problems, Mensaert draws on the ideas of three people, one of whom you will probably know, mathematician Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one you might know, philosopher Karl Popper, and one you probably have never heard of, Russian political scientist and sociologist Moisey Ostrogorski (1854-1921).
The solution Mensaert envisions is decentralization, something which Ostrogorski was already agitating for in his 1902 book Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties. We need many, smaller parties who focus on specific topics. Where would these come from? Mensaert makes the point that they already exist. Many organizations such as NGOs are fighting for specific causes but are not (yet) political parties, though they might try and lobby them. Relaxing the rules around the formation of political parties would allow many more interests to become directly involved in politics. This does require party inclusivity: people must be allowed to vote for and associate with multiple parties.
Mensaert sees one particular advantage of such a system, which is Taleb’s idea of anti-fragility. As mentioned above, our current political system is fragile to external and internal forces. A few parties pretty much dictate the rules of the system. Like many banks, most parties are “too big to fail” – it would destabilise the whole edifice. It allows the persistence of political systems that are broken or corrupt but that we are powerless to fix. This can lead to extreme events (Taleb calls them Black Swans), such as severe economic crises or the rapid rise of dictatorships. With many, smaller parties, we can allow some to fail and draw lessons from it. To be clear, anti-fragility is not the same as resilience. As Mensaert explains, fragile systems are harmed by variation and fluctuation, resilient systems are minimally affected, but anti-fragile systems benefit, they can adapt and compensate for frequent, small mistakes.
“Bottom-up social engineering […] would see repeated iterations of solutions being tried out, evaluated, and improved, which is much like how Popper thought we should practice science.”
This is also where Popper comes in. Biologists will mostly know him from his ideas on scientific methodology: he proposed empirical falsification, the testing and falsifying of ideas by experimentation. But he was also in favour of bottom-up social engineering. In other words, how do we build a society? Do we have leaders (benevolent or otherwise) impose a grand masterplan from above (top-down social engineering)? Or do we allow piecemeal attempts by grassroots organisations and citizens to solve problems (bottom-up social engineering)? In the latter, we would see repeated iterations of solutions being tried out, evaluated, and improved, which is much like how Popper thought we should practice science. You can see how Mensaert’s proposed landscape of many, small political parties agrees very well with this idea.
Two final ideas that Mensaert proposes worth mentioning here are a new model of political representation and symmetric voting. He draws parallels with a court of law where lawyers present evidence, and judges pass verdicts. Mensaert envisions a similar split between party representatives who can only propose laws and people representatives who can only vote on them. He hopes this will engender more real discussion and cooperation. People’s representatives should be elected through a symmetric voting system, which is one where you can vote in favour, neutral, or against someone. Mensaert provides several numerical examples (which I will not detail here) to show the reader how the outcomes of voting systems differ when voters cannot express a difference between neutral and negative attitudes (you can only vote for something), or between neutral and positive attitudes (you can only vote against something).
The Flaws That Kill Our Democracy is a neat little book that raises valid concerns and suggests, at the face of it, interesting solutions. I like the scientist’s flair and ideas Mensaert sometimes brings to this topic. For example, he mentions gene duplication as a biological example of an anti-fragile bottom-up form of specialization. And, regarding voting systems, he calls propositions that cannot be rejected undemocratic, the way theories that cannot be falsified are unscientific. As he mentions in his preface, this book is not a closed or final solution. Next to interesting reading, I think it therefore makes great study material for coursework in political theory. The book is short enough that you can have students read it and discuss and pick apart its ideas in a classroom setting.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
The Flaws That Kill Our Democracy paperback or ebook
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: