The Future of Democracy

Many people worry that there is not enough democracy in the world; I worry that we may not go beyond democracy.

In an influential essay published in 1989 and in a subsequent book. Francis Fukuyama claimed that liberal democracy was the final form of human government, the “end point of mankind’s ideological evolution”. Every country would eventually become democratic, and there would be no fundamental change in political organization from then on. This would be a shame, because there may be better forms of political organization that we can aspire to. But the spread of democracy may actually make it harder to discover these alternatives. To see why we need to understand something that may at first appear counterintuitive.

Democracy doesn’t give most people what they want; in fact, it leads to majority dissatisfaction. When Barack Obama won the 2012 election with 51 percent of the vote, for example, it wasn’t just the 49 percent who voted against him who were unhappy with the result. Most of those who voted for Obama were disappointed too, – because Obama ran on a platform that did not represent the ideal policy bundle of more than just a few voters. In every election, voters are forced to choose between a tiny selection of candidates, none of whom they particularly like. Everyone will be disappointed no matter which candidate wins, because nobody had a chance to vote for their ideal manifesto to begin with.

The reason for this lack of choice lies in the tendency of political parties to converge towards identical positions. This is a pervasive feature of modern democracies and tends to anchor society in the political middle ground. The resulting social stability has obvious advantages, in that it helps guard against political extremism. But it has less understood disadvantages too. In particular, it hinders the development of better political systems.

Societies are complex systems, and like all such systems they can sometimes get stuck in suboptimal states. In biological systems, too, bad designs can persist despite their obvious disadvantages. A good example is the appendix. This organ used to play a part in our ancestors’ digestive process, but now it is useless and we would be better off without it. It not only does us no good but also occasionally does harm. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year for appendicitis in the United States alone, and several hundred die from it. So why hasn’t natural selection eliminated the appendix? Why does it still exist?

One intriguing suggestion, put forward by the evolutionary biologists Randolph Nesse and George Williams, is that the appendix persists because individuals with a smaller and thinner appendix are more vulnerable to appendicitis. So the normal tendency for useless organs to atrophy away to nothing is blocked, in the case of the appendix by natural selection itself. Perhaps this idea will turn out not to be correct, but it does illustrate how the persistence of something can conceivably be explained by the very factors that make it disadvantageous.

Democracy is like the appendix. The very thing that makes majority dissatisfaction inevitable in a democracy , – the voting mechanism, – also makes it hard for a better political system to develop. The reforms that would be necessary to pave the way for alternative systems of governance lie well outside the safe middle ground of the median voter. Politicians advocating such reforms are unlikely, therefore, to be voted into office.

For example, one route to discovering alternative forms of governance may begin with the secession of a few cities from their parent nations, or in the creation of new cities from scratch, operating under rules different from the rest of the country. It’s hard to imagine elected politicians getting away with such things, however, even if they wanted to. The only historical precedents so far have occurred in autocratic regimes, where leaders do not have to worry about reelection. The wave of special economic zones in China in the 1980’s, beginning with Shenzhen, was driven by a small cadre of unelected officials headed by Deng Xiaoping.

I think we should worry that democracy may turn out to be a historical cul-de-sac, a place that looks pleasant enough from far away but doesn’t lead anywhere better.

Democracy is Like the Appendix
by Dylan Evans
from What Should We Be Worried About?
The 2013 Edge Question

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

What we can do

It is easier to create new systems than it is to change existing ones.