21 August 2007

Thinking outside the (political) box

Thinking through my fingers offers a better way to find a nominee for the office of president of the United States. It involves a series of extended replies and responses on a range of questions, recorded in advance and available simultaneously. It differs in many significant ways from the current "debate" system which is little more than a set of sound bites - read the original post for details.

It's a good suggestion - definitely, in my book, a better way.

It is accompanied by the caveat that it "is unrealistic and improbable", but I dispute that. Improbable, perhaps, because the US has a firmly established plutocratic system in which money controls and vested interest would shy away from the idea of a system which threw open the selection process and gave a fair chance to popular candidates coming up from behind. But not unrealistic; it would be easier to arrange than many television extravaganzas. (Before anyone takes me up on that: yes, I agree, the UK has vested interest too, and money is important here also, although both work through less blatantly obvious mechanisms.) It is only unrealistic and improbable as long as settled opinion amongst the electorate is happy with the status quo and does not demand a change.

If you want improbable, try this one - which I also regard as perfectly realistic if it were ever put into practice.

I will put aside my usual advocacy of Single Transferable Vote (STV) systems (already used in various places, including Eire and, for city elections, Cambridge, Mass.) in favour of something more radical. STV is my tactical choice, potentially achievable. My real, philosophical, preference is (and has always been) election by lot.

In many of the classical Hellene "city states" which gave us the word democracy, many public offices were allocated by lottery. The names of all citizens went into a hat, and a name was pulled out, and ... bingo, meet Percy Small, yanked suddenly from his quiet life on the 7-11 checkout to become head of the armed forces.

Even I regard that as unrealistic in a large modern society. I would like my department of public health to be run by somebody with relevant knowledge and experience. But I see no reason why Percy Small should not become my member of parliament or congressional representative. Of course, something more sophisticated, compact and tamperproof than a hat would have to be found - but we already have such systems in place for jury service. If twelve randomly selected members of the public can decide whether I am innocent or guilty, I see no reason why 650 of them (or whatever your local number of representatives happens to be) shouldn't make the laws under which they and I will live. And perhaps there are worse ways to choose a chief executive as well.

As a replacement for voting in elections, lottery has many advantages.

The first is that there would be an end to canvassing, huge financial expenditure, lies or exaggerations, pressure and lobby groups, all aimed at shaping our voting behaviour - there would no longer be any point in any of that activity.

Then there is the elimination of time servers. Nothing the legislator or executive does will extend or abbreviate her/his term of service, so no decision will ever be made with an eye to the next election.

Corruption would not go away, but it shouldn't increase either ... and a corrupted incumbent would last only until the next replacement, the corruptor's investment would be of very short term value.

Vested interest would have no say.

The holder of the office would always be "one of us", not a member of a political élite. Every decision s/he made would apply to her/him as well as to the rest of us - because at the end of her/his term, s/he would return to her/his previous occupation (protection of existing employment would of course be necessary; I suggest that the state takes over the incumbent's existing salary, allowing her/his employer to recruit a temporary replacement at minimal cost and dramatically reducing the current expenditure on chief executives).

On the flip side of the previous point, as time and a half went by, as legislators and executives returned to their ordinary lives, the population would acquire a growing body of knowledge and understanding of the problems and possibilities of power - and with it, perhaps, a greater civic maturity.

I could go on ... but that'll do. Either you like the idea or you don't .... and, either way, it's not (alas) going to happen. Jim's idea, however, is perfectly achievable - if enough citizens demand it. We have, in the UK, a regular weekly radio programme called Any Questions which would provide a good basis of existing expertise for starting the planning.

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