In Search of Good Governance


It’s time for governance to get a divorce from politics

Michael Shaun Conaway
Publishing Editor
August 23th, 2023

There’s the classic moment in a horror film where the naive young character decides to enter into the building where we know the villain is hiding. At that moment, we want to shout, “NO, DON’T DO IT”. Even knowing that something terrible is going to happen, we can’t take our eyes off the screen.

This is exactly the feeling I get looking at the state of democracies across the world, and especially the US and the UK. Politics and its toxic cousin populism play the role of the villain and the naive young character, that’s us, the everyday people who rely on their governments to provide a secure and safe society. In this era of climate crisis, radical wealth disparity, and rising authoritarianism, it’s clear our governance systems are failing us. And I for one, don’t want to wait around to witness the fate of the naive.

What’s wrong with our democracy?

The answer is in the known pitfalls of democracy in general and representational democracy. Plato in his Republic, argued against democracy. He had seen his teacher Socrates put to death by the democratic government of the Athenian state in 399 BCE for “corrupting the youth” and “impiety.” The travesty and tragic loss of Socrates led Plato to examine the inherent problems with democracy. A number of these issues are at the heart of our failing democracy.

Susceptibility to Demagogues: Plato observed that democratic systems were vulnerable to charismatic leaders who could manipulate public sentiment for their own interests, potentially leading the society astray. Brexit is a prime example of this. The Tory party capitalized on the fear of immigration and blamed the EU for this and other “self-governance” problems. The UK voted for Brexit, likely to the surprise of the Tories, and the fallout has been devastating the economy of the UK.

Influence of Passions: Plato believed that a successful state should be governed by reason rather than emotion. He worried that democratic systems could be overly influenced by the passions and whims of the populace, leading to erratic and potentially harmful policies. The abortion fight in the US is all about the intersection of politics and passion. Right to life and Right to choose have become a rallying cry for both parties to charge up their bases. Over the past 40 years, pushing the passion button has given us an unworkable patchwork of laws and lawsuits. Surely good governance could come up with a rational solution to this issue.

Rule by the Ignorant: Plato believed that governance required wisdom and expertise. In a democracy, however, every citizen, irrespective of their knowledge, experience, or education, has an equal say in decision-making. Plato likened this to allowing a random person, rather than a qualified doctor, to make medical decisions. Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, broke the mold of presidents who educated themselves about the issues that were of great importance to the nation. Reportedly, he preferred his gut feeling on things to research and facts. Plato was concerned with the populace making ill-informed decisions while voting. It’s unlikely that he would have thought that elected leaders would actually rule by ignorance. It took the US democracy to achieve this new low in governance.

Inherent Instability: Plato believed that the democratic focus on individual freedoms and equality could cause internal divisions. These divisions might make the state vulnerable to both internal decay and external threats. He thought that democracy, with its emphasis on individualism and freedom, could eventually degrade into tyranny. Our freedoms overlap, as is seen in economic policy. What’s good for the corporation may not be good for the individual and vice versa. The freedom of an individual’s right to their lifestyle can conflict with the consensus of what an acceptable lifestyle is. Politics emphasizes these divisions and exacerbates the conflict. This creates a democracy with policies that swing from one election to the next.

This last one brings up an additional issue with our current representational democracy: Short Termism, where governance moves away from long-term solutions to problems in favor of short-term wins that play well with their bases.

Looking at this short list of pitfalls, and the examples of the issues that are plaguing our democracies today, there are those that argue that there is no way to fix the system. I disagree, there are many novel approaches that could produce good governance. For the US system, we could dramatically reduce the role that money plays in being elected by adopting public financing of elections. We could also adopt ranked-choice voting and proportional representation to greatly reduce the winner-takes-all results we have today.

Still these are only stop-gap solutions to the large problems that representational democracies face. There are too many powerful players who use politics to game the system to benefit their own ends. Standing at the top of that list would be multinational corporations and billionaires. Their wealth and power has grown unchecked since the 1980s. A governance system that is driven by politics, is one that is vulnerable to gaming. And those with the resources to manipulate the system will do so in a tragedy of the commons race to the bottom.

What we need is a governance system that relies on two main pillars. One is the use of a civil service of technocrats tasked with creating consensus-based expert-driven decision-making and legislation creation. The second is moving to a liquid democracy creating a fluid system mixing direct democracy and representational democracy that is a fit for our digital era. The representative democracy currently practiced across the world was created at a time when travel to participate in the democratic process made it so that citizens needed a representative who could travel by horse and buggy to congresses. Travel time for democracy is nearly instant in the digital era. We don’t need these horse and buggy systems any more.

What we do need is the ability to quickly form consensus decision assemblies informed by experts to be convened, given a mandate and then allowed to serve through the process of creating a consensus to then be dissolved. This is the way that a network can respond to the complexity of this era.

A good example of how this might function would be a hypothetical decision that needs to be made around college education. A group might be convened around incentivising certain types of education responding to the needs of the marketplace based upon the research of technocrats. A second group might be convened around the long term impacts of the costs of higher education. These two decisions might go to a third group who determines universal university fees/incentives to encourage specific long term stability for the youth that are looking forward to a university education.

These groups could be formed digitally, selecting participants randomly from a pool of those who have the specific knowledge to make a good decision. This selection process would radically depoliticize the system. As those who were selected to serve who step down when their work was done, it would dramatically reduce the incentive to make decisions that play to a specific audience. And being a politician would become a thing of the past. A form of direct democracy would take its place.

I offer this idea not as a plan but rather as a vision of how we might reinvent our governance system. We need these visions of an alternative future. We need to see that we are not stuck with the mess of political governance that we are saddled with, one that seems hell bent on destroying our ecosystem and our society for short term political gain.

It’s time to get politics out of governance.

We need to be unafraid to change the things that are no longer working. We need the best ideas from all of us to be elevated to become the new rules by which we govern our world. And we need a governance system built for this digital, AI, everywhere all at once age we live in. I imagine a future where we use AI to help us balance diversity, social and wealth justice inside our sustainable planetary boundaries while helping us transition to long term futures for humanity.

This may be our best way forward given the complexity of our global systems. This then is the time to build frameworks for altruistic AI that is not gameable. Ironically, those in power today are going to be working to make sure they have backdoors into these systems to maintain their power for generations to come. We could use some good governance to achieve that aim.

It’s a vicious cycle that we can disrupt if we keep our eyes on the future.

In the meantime, we’ll be looking for PROOF of a thriving future for humanity.

The Generative Futurist
Editor PROOF

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Proof 61 – In Search of Good Governance

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