From the People

2004-07-26

Doc wonders: what is a democracy for? His take is that "with a connected citizenry, we are in a position to practice Real Democracy, or something closer to that ideal, for the first time". I'm perhaps more skeptical. The ancient Athenians didn't have elections, which they thought would lead to an oligarchy as the rich bought their way into power (sound familiar, Messrs. Kerry and Bush?). Instead, people were randomly chosen to serve in the governing council. Ah, but I hear you say that we could never run things that way today because political entities such as the USA and the EU are no longer small city-states but instead large conglomerations that contain millions and millions of people. That's true, but what do we conclude from that? That power "from the people" (as Doc puts it) is unrealistic and that we need to accept an oligarchy as the only way to run a modern state? Or that the only remotely legitimate power is as local as humanly possible? Democracy contains an inherent tension because it means literally "people power". Today we have raw, naked power, but very little governance that is people-oriented, personal, or humane. And in large measure the reason can be summed up in one word: centralization. Without deep structural safeguards, power trumps people every time. Legend has it that as he walked out of the Constitutional Convention, Ben Franklin was asked what kind of government had resulted from the deliberations; supposedly he answered: "A republic, if you can keep it." The ancient republics were small and, ideally, governed by the people themselves, who were chosen by lot (not governed by elected oligarchs and unelected bureaucrats as in the modern nation-state). Toward the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson's mantra was "divide the counties into wards". This vision of keeping power as small and local as possible might result in a much safer and saner, and certainly a more humane, world. What would the world look like today if almost all power in, say, America resided at the level of the block or neighborhood (where the "wards" did not exceed, say, the effective range of human group sizes as reflected in Dunbar's number). Here's a clue: in the War of 1812, American militas refused to cross the border into Canada as the power-hungry national government wanted because they knew that their job was to defend against attack, not to invade foreign countries. Are you listening, Mr. Bush?


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal