Please Don't Remove Politicians from Politics

"Could Technology Remove Politicians from Politics?" So is the question posed by Motherboard, exploring the idea of a democracy app, where you vote directly on issues. 

I found it on reddit, where it reached #2 in the trending posts section. So it's obviously got the internet pretty pumped. 

I can understand where one's coming from, getting excited about this. People are increasingly upset with how Congress is performing. A lot are worried about Donald Trump as president. Even Trump supporters, presumably more excited, think DC is corrupt, and that Congresspeople really only look out for themselves.

There's some evidence that Congress doesn't really respond to Americans' preferences. Gerrymandering remains an issue for competitiveness--and therefore, responsiveness. Americans keep quitting the parties

There's a strong sense of a major problem and a deep desire for a big shake-up, rather than just another election. And no doubt there are major problems. But please, please do not go with cutting the politicians out of politics as the solution. 

Why It's a Terrible, Awful, No Good Idea

In Motherboard's words:

 "The idea of a political representative evolved out of necessity. Townspeople couldn’t afford to take a day off and ride a horse to the capital. They needed to agree upon one guy who would more or less say what they were thinking, and they voted to pick the right guy for the job."

As if, somehow, the singular reason for not having citizens vote on every single policy decision is that it is too difficult to assemble them all in one place. There's a very good reason to have some sort of professional service making legislative decisions, and not citizens directly. 

The Workload

Think Congress is unproductive today? They are, historically, but let's take a look at the workload:

The very unproductive 112th and 113th Congresses (2011-2014) passed 360 bills per session, or 180 per year. That's one every other day. You might think you can handle that.

But a s mall percentage of bills get passed; they actually had to consider 1,263 bills per year, or 3.5 per day. And this is a very unproductive Congress. Back in the 70's, we were looking at up to seven per day. That's not per working day. That's per calendar day. These bills are hundreds or even thousands of pages long.

I don't know about you, but I can't even make it to the gym regularly. I don't have the time to read through 1000+ pages every single day of my life to keep the country going.

Nor do Congresspeople, even though this is their full-time job--they have huge staffs to help them handle the workload. Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming (who I picked just because I know a staffer) has 12 legislative and research staffers that work for him full time to help him make decisions. 

If you've got the time to do all this work, great--other Americans don't, and it's a terrible way to run a country.

The Decision-Making Complexity

We can use the daunting Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) as an extreme case: it had 2,700 pages. That's the piece of paper being passed. It also had an additional 20,000 pages of regulations on top of it.

To get any sense of this, if you somehow found a few weeks off to read it, you'd need to have a whole lot of context and understanding. Do you understand the complexities of current standing insurance and healthcare regulation the United States? Do you understand economics to wrap your arms around the economic incentives that the many provisions of the ACA created for different actors in the healthcare industry, from suppliers to insurers to consumers? No?

How about legislation related to foreign policy sanctions, trade agreements, housing subsidies, and the risk-balancing that occurs when regulating certain chemicals or pollutants? 

The complexity of decision-making at legislature is incredible. The staffers aren't just there to read legislature and write reports: they're there to help the legislator get their heads around the context of their decisions, and the possible consequences. The Congressional Research Service helps provide much-needed analysis about the state of play and potential consequences of different legislature. 

It's an incredibly difficult job. Voting well means doing the research and consulting with experts in foreign policy, economics, social behavior, healthcare... and all sorts more stuff. Americans don't have the education, the teams of researchers, the experts, or the support to be able to sufficiently understand legislature to make their own decisions. 

The Tyranny of the Masses

So let's just say we solve the above problems. 

In an earlier podcast episode (Demagogues in History.. and Today), we outline that people can kindof go a little nuts in a democracy. In ancient Greece, they'd kill or exile failing generals, and just sometimes kill someone in the city because they didn't like them too much. 

The entire construction of the US was based on the idea of giving the people a voice--but very much avoiding having them make direct decisions. One of the biggest fears of the Founding Fathers was the tyranny of the majority.

[I]n the federal republic of the United States… all authority in it will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests, and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.”

Handing direct decision-making over to the people lets the majority do what they want to the minority, letting whatever passions they have at the time take hold and drive a terrible decision.

We talk a bit more about some of the Founding Fathers' views on democracy and republicanism in our podcast episode, "The Electoral College: WHY!?"

The work of the government is vast, complex, and often simply morally challenging. Having professionals--accountable to the people and supported by staff--making these decisions was the original design of the Constitution, and examples we have of direct democracy tend to end in disaster.

So please: I know we're looking for some radical solutions, but don't remove politicians from politics. 

3 Comments

Erik Fogg

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