How do we prevent the corruption of the concentration of power, while allowing those who have the expertise needed to make informed decisions on complicated topics to be empowered to make those decisions?
How do we balance the need for experts to have more influence on decision making in critical areas, with the need for power to be distributed among those that are affected by decisions?
At the heart of non-authoritarianism and democracy is the principle of avoiding unfair concentration of power into the hands of a few people. Power corrupts, and history has shown us that people with concentrated power have a disturbing tendency to abuse it to enrich themselves and entrench their advantage over everyone else.
This is not just true of humans, but is a primate tendency. Apes and monkeys will also develop hierarchies of haves and have nots. While this is not always the case of every human society, it is common enough to be a major political consideration.
The movement away from authoritarian autocracies like monarchies toward liberal democracies was motivated by this very concern, and the incidence of extreme concentration of wealth and power in the hands of authoritarian leaders is found as the rule throughout the 2nd and 3rd world, North Korea being one of many extreme examples where the elite family live in the lap of luxury while the majority of the nation serve their whims or starve.
“I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves ; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.”
― Thomas Jefferson, Letters of Thomas Jefferson
Thus, the safe distribution of power in democracy requires letting as many of the stakeholders who will be affected by a decision have a say in the decision making process. This is the foundational tenet of democracy vs autocracy, free markets vs party economic policies, and in some ways science vs. religion, where anyone who wants to propose or challenge a hypothesis is free to do so as long as they can provide the proof, regardless of their race, gender, or position in society.
A Lack of Democratic Principles
In authoritarian non-democratic countries like China or Iran, there is no pretense of democracy. A group of insiders controls every aspect of the society. The degree to which they consider the needs of the people varies, but it is in every case secondary to the maintenance of the power of the rulers. You only have to see how they treat those who even speak of regime change to understand this is true. In “democratic” countries like the US, democratic principles are given mouth service but not truly practiced, while the shell of democracy creates friction and an inability to do long term planning or get anything of consequence done.
There are several examples of non-democratic processes in the US government:
- While there is a popular election for president, the actual election that chooses who will be president is held by the electoral college, a group of political insiders. Furthermore, the candidates for president are chosen by a process of campaign contribution and party politics, and so even if the party candidates were voted for directly, the options available would not actually reflect the will of the people.
- Congress members are also pre-selected by their ability to do well in campaign finance running, a measure of their allegiance to wealthy interests, not competence or experience.
- The Judicial branch and cabinet members are selected by the president, who as previously stated has been selected by political insiders, not the people.
A Case Against Pure Democracy
So thus we could argue that the members of all the branches of government are selected by a small group of insiders, and not actually selected by merit or the will of the people. The insiders who control this system provide a justification for this lack of democracy. It is argued that the public does not have the background knowledge to make an informed choice. I would argue that there are cases where this is true. For example, the public should not be called to vote and have a final say on topics like:
- Specific wartime military tactics
- Detailed decisions regarding energy grids or infrastructure
- Changes to constitutional law
- Handling of specific strategies regarding medical issues like the global pandemic
- Interpreting details of the implications of the science behind global warming
We can probably all agree that while it should not be the general public that is responsible for decision making regarding these topics, neither should it be left to political insiders who are appointed because of party allegiance or due to their obedience to a 3rd party vested interest. To date, there is no case where the ability to participate in the management of a government process is purely meritocratic. The closest would be the judiciary branch.
In the US government, there is one legal entity whose membership is explicitly based on specialized knowledge; the Judiciary Branch of government.
The judicial branch of the US government is in charge of deciding the meaning of laws, how to apply them to real situations, and whether a law breaks the rules of the US Constitution. The US Constitution is the highest law of the United States. The U.S. Supreme Court, the highest court in the United States, is part of the judicial branch. The Supreme Court is made up of 9 judges called justices who are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. The justices hear cases that have made their way up through the court system.
The main task of the Supreme Court is to decide cases that may differ from the U.S. Constitution. Once the Supreme Court makes a decision in a case, it can only be changed by a later Supreme Court decision or by changing or amending the Constitution. This is a very important power that can affect the lives of many people.
So we can think of the US Supreme Court as a non-elected body of experts in the laws.
Aside from this, there is the Cabinet, where the president appoints experts to inform him or her about specific topics like Defence, Energy, Labor, etc. Like the Justices they are appointed, but unlike the Justices, these appointees do not need to have any particular expertise other than allegiance to the president, and don’t have any actual power except to counsel the President.
One last type of government body is the Federal Agency, such as Department of Defence or the Department of Health and Human Services, and under these Agencies are Organizations like the NIH (National Institutes of Health.) Directors are also appointed, but are expected to have considerable expertise, and so there is meritocracy to a degree, and these bodies are mostly bureaucracies with employees hired based on credentials and are not expected to ideate and decide on national policy.
So all experts in the government are actually appointees of a person who was not actually elected by the people and who, due to party politics, usually has close to, or below 50% approval rating by the people. Presidential appointments are extremely problematic in governments like the US for several reasons:
- With the contentious bipartisanship of elections, appointees are disliked and distrusted by approximately 50% of the population.
- The political nature of office requires that the person appointed is someone who is inside the camp of the president and their party, instead of being the person or people most qualified for the job.
- Because of 4 year election cycles, the Cabinet members cannot do any long term planning. This is in contrast to non-democratic authoritarian countries like China who are able to do long term planning because they do not have to consider election cycles.
A Case for Stable Bodies of Experts
There is another problem with the way appointments are done. At the time of the creation of the US constitution, there were few categories of deeply specialized knowledge, and constitutional law was one of them. The wisdom behind the judiciary branch is that we could not expect the general public to have the background knowledge to understand or accountability to make fair decisions regarding constitutional law.
However, in our ever more complicated world there are more and more situations and issues where the general public is not informed enough, and is unlikely to be able to spend the energy and time required to become informed enough, to make any reasonable decision regarding the issue. The same can be said about legislators for that matter. In the case of legislators understanding complicated topics that affect the nation, it is left to industry lobbyists to “inform” the legislators about the issue. Legislators can, and do, call in bodies of experts to hear testimonials on the subject, but this is not required and these experts have no say in the process.
In the case of countries where citizen- initiated referendums are common, it is commonplace for industry PR firms to launch sometimes dishonest campaigns in order to sway an uninformed public to their side. The Brexit is an example of this where pro and con interests used propaganda to support their positions instead of having an honest discussion about the repercussions.
And so the conundrum of expert bodies in government has to meet the following contradictory design constraints:
- Bring democracy to decision making, preventing the concentration of power into the hands of a few people, and
- Allow for those with expertise to weigh in on topics that are too complicated for the general public to be equipped to navigate.
The Meritocratic Solution
The solution to these design constraints involve the creation of meritocratic bodies of experts who can discuss and democratically decide on issues related to their expertise. These experts are not voted on or appointed, but instead their qualification, as well as any conflicts of interest, are confirmed as a result of a 3rd party verification process somewhat similar to a credit score, wherein their expertise is investigated. The process would involve researching things like education records, work history, investments, and company affiliations. The results of this investigation would be transparent on the platform.
A body of experts would be called upon to engage in a process of ideation, prioritization, and decision making around topics that face the government that relate to their expertise.
If a situation involves many disciplines, there would be a Forby.com style conversation within each discipline, as well as one that includes all the relevant disciplines. These conversation platforms allow participants to discuss the idea with each other, rate the validity of arguments, and search for comments and positions within the discussion. By formalizing a discussion that includes all the relevant disciplines, we avoid the current issue wherein solutions are chosen by people with a narrow focus on a subset of the considerations.
As an example, let’s take the US position on global warming.
Without being an expert, I would imagine that the following disciplines should be considered:
- Climate Science
While the members of the individual bodies (such as all official Climate Scientists) ideate and discuss perspectives and options amongst themselves, the larger group would consider perspectives and options presented by the smaller groups. All of these discussions would be transparent and available to the public. The public could click on any member of the group making an argument and see their qualifications and interest conflicts.
The power these groups would have over actions could vary. For example, some societies might want to allow these bodies to actually make decisions and take action by default. Other societies may want to vote on whether the bodies are empowered to take action on a case by case basis. Other societies who have highly educated populations might choose to have the expert bodies act simply as advisory bodies, and the people actually vote.
“A primary object should be the education of our youth in the science of government. In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important? And what duty more pressing than communicating it to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”
Regardless, this solution has the following benefits:
- It bypasses the corruption and temporary nature of political appointments,
- It broadens the decision making power and accountability out to include all those with expertise, and
- Allows democratic societies to do long term planning by having stable bodies of experts that are not dependent on election cycles.
Can you find any flaws with this reasoning?
If so, leave a comment!