Government is Broken Because People are Broken–So How Do We Fix It?

This is a reply to a discussion on Facebook.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to copy/paste the post that started the discussion, then my reply, below.  The discussion “ran the gamut” through partisan politics, the need to regulate businesses, the problems with regulating business, corruption in government, etc.  My response, below, is after many, MANY other comments, but I hope you’ll get the “jist” of the discussion from what I’m putting in this blog post.  I encourage people to continue the discussion in the comments section!

Original Post (Erin W.)
May 14th, 2013
if there ever were a week to start leaning libertarian, this would be it….. 🙂 i invite people on both sides of the isles to consider the possibility that BOTH sides are corrupt. this is not so we can become more cynical, it’s so we can learn to hold our OWN favorite politicans just as accountable as we hold the ones we didn’t vote for.nothing really changes unless republicans start caring more about corruption in their OWN party than in the other, and democrats start caring more about corruption in their OWN party than in the other. democrats will never eradicate corruption in the republican party and republicans will never eradicate corruption in the republican party. change only comes when we start with ourselves. that is what it means to be the change.

to republicans i plead- look into the crimes you see happening now. now look back at previous administrations and recognize with humility the SAME THINGS HAPPENING. to democrats i plead- look into the crimes you saw happening in previous administrations. now look at the current administration and recognize with humility the SAME THINGS HAPPENING.

few of us want to believe it. we are much more comfortable with the soothing idea that our side is wonderful and the other side is corrupt. we rationalize and justify with great effort to avoid challenging our easy way of looking at things. our desire to be right is often so much more powerful than our desire to see what’s really going on.

we cannot begin to heal our nation until we can recognize this.

i don’t know how to help in this process. i wish i knew. i suppose i can start with me. i can do my best to be the change.

My Response

The fact is, neither conservatives, liberals, business, nor government merit more trust than the others.  They’re all just “people.”  What happens when you give a person authority over another person?  Most people will immediately begin to exercise it unrighteously.  I’ve worked for enough small businesses to see that one doesn’t have to be more than a low-level assistant manager at a “po-dunk” shack-of-a-business to start exercising unrighteous dominion over everyone whose current position is lesser than one’s own.

So, the real question is, how do we manage the human tendency to behave thus?

Clearly elections don’t work; we just end up with “leaders” who are good at playing to the public sensibilities.  This is a “macrocosm” of high school student government fiascos–and basically the same sorts of people get elected.  The only main difference is how sophisticated their deceptions are, and how many people they’ve duped into helping them do it.  Sure, they don’t promise “free Cheetos for everyone,” but they do dangle silly, unreasonable incentives that their given parties are favoring at the moment.  “Immediately deport all illegal immigrants!”  “Cut all emissions in half by 2020!”  What the claims are really doesn’t matter; they’re designed to get votes and place those running in positions of power and comfort.  Think your party/candidate is different?  You probably just haven’t really dug into the implications of its/his/her promises, yet.  (Note: you may need a doctorate degree in a particular field to do so meaningfully.)  So, let’s look at other ways of dealing with this problem of humans needing leadership, but nearly every human being someone who should NOT lead other humans.

I’d almost further the idea of a simple “lottery” to elect people to office.  This would weed out those actively seeking power (since those people are almost always the ones who SHOULD NOT have power), and ensure an even demographic of rich/poor/black/white/Ivy Leage/community college, etc.–and thus ensure fair representation in the same way that random sampling ensures representative/valid statistical outcomes.  Sadly, not everyone is actually decent at leadership or smart–or especially WISE–enough to get things done sensibly.  (Note: education does not equal competence!  Most of our greatest, most renowned thinkers dropped out of school and got any degrees they had “meritoriously,” after having done something worthwhile that they weren’t formally educated in.)  So, from this, we’d end up with, essentially, a farm run by the farm animals.  This might sound egalitarian and all that, but in reality, most people just aren’t cut out for the kinds of responsibilities that are required of those who lead a nation (or even a small city, or even a Best Buy).  I wrote an essay on the topic of why not all people should be taught to be “leaders”, in case you’re interested: “What it Means to Be Yourself—and Why You Should Buck Current Trends in Education”.

So, if elections guarantee that we get power-hungry, corrupt, and usually feckless leaders, and random sampling guarantees that MOST of our leaders will be feckless, unqualified (i.e. lacking the necessary skills and talents), and spineless (since they’re inexperienced at commanding people)–and still corrupt, in the end; then what is a good system of government?

Let’s look at a benevolent dictatorship!  Monarchy is basically the same thing as a benevolent dictatorship, but is couched in more pretense of “propriety.”  Despite our cultural preferences, this is much more sane than any other option–so long as the dictator is extremely benevolent, extremely wise, extremely ethical, and extremely intelligent.  Some such people exist and history has record of them!  Sadly, their successors are almost always the opposite.  For a Biblical example, look at Solomon versus his son, Rehoboam.  The latter was so feckless, entitled, greedy, power-hungry, and unwise that he raised taxes to the point of dividing the kingdom of Israel into two pieces (which later shattered into countless more pieces)–and they’ve been at war (under various names) ever since.  For a contemporary example (a little less stark, but good enough for my purposes), look at Getúlio Dornelles Vargas, who freed Brazil’s under class, only to be succeeded by a long chain of military despots who reversed all the good he’d done (and then some).  (See my poem, “The Cowardly Artist,” for a reference to him and his successors.)

Oligarchy doesn’t work because it has all the same flaws as Representative Democracy–albeit trending toward more competency and less “deadlock” among legislators–but has even more tendency toward corruption than our current form of government, by way of having more obvious, more vulnerable, “points of attack” for would-be bribers to exploit, and less accountability, since there are fewer people of equal position to “check and balance” them.

Pure direct democracy is much like the “circus” of random selection, but adds a huge layer of complexity to getting anything done, and would basically guarantee our destruction the first time we get attacked by another nation (militarily), by way of not having a clear, fast, and efficient power structure.  Also, who’s going to tally the votes?  There’s your “quota of corruption!”  I tend to like a lot of things about adding elements of direct democracy to other forms of government, but doing it as a pure, direct democracy is fatal.

So, how would you handle this?

Should we place our trust in those who “know better” and trust that they actually do, and won’t take advantage of us?  How would you ensure it’s so?

Should we trust the under-qualified masses to somehow figure it out?  How do we mitigate the risks?

Do we combine several forms of government, much as the Founding Fathers did–only different?  How do we avoid their mistakes without creating even more serious ones?

Should the people really be allowed to run things?  If so, what do we do when the people make bad choices?  Do we let them do it, anyway, hoping that the mistakes aren’t fatal, and that we’ll all eventually learn from them?  If we don’t allow it, then we don’t really have democracy, now, do we?(!)  How do we ensure that we do learn from them in a timely fashion, rather than simply passing around (often-pointless) blame and fear, as we do now?  Are we, as a society, anywhere near mature enough for this level of responsibility?  If not, who is, and how do we find them?

Personally, I currently favor somehow putting reasonable, minimal, safeties in place, but letting the public make all the mistakes they want until we finally “grow up” and stop being rash, easy to bribe (with “cookies” from our leaders, as above), overly-emotional (i.e. avoiding near-solutions because of the problems their flaws created–rather than seeking to perfect them), etc.  Honestly, though, this solution also scares me because I don’t believe we’re ready for it–and that the only way to become ready for it is to simply do it.  This will almost certainly result in a dysfunctional society for a decade or more (or just a few years if we’re really quick on the uptake), and people are likely to die of starvation, in riots, and in plenty other “creative” ways.  It will leave scars–but will we let them cripple us or teach us?  I just don’t know how people would react…

Please share your thoughts, below.


Update 6-25-13: Erin W. pointed out a parallel to the famous Stanford Prison Experiment, which I find quite apt.  For those not familiar with it, here’s a link:

Do you think this closely related or a stretch?