Monday, April 25, 2011

Thank goodness we have a representative democracy with checks and balances

Sophia Rosenfeld had a piece titled "Beware of Republicans bearing ‘common sense’" in yesterday's Washington Post. I quote from it:
Once democracy is established and consolidated, common sense is rarely a match for the messy and complicated business of governing. No matter how many times politicians invoke the term today, there can be no such thing as a single, simple, common-sensical solution to the problems confronting the nation. The mind-boggling complexity of the issues surrounding climate change, economic recovery, multiple wars and, yes, federal and state budget deficits outstrips the authority of common sense either as the basis of workable policies or as a critique of those already on the table.
Rosenfeld looks back on the founding fathers with a lot of mythology. I think there are two big issues:

  • The founding fathers had more than "common sense", and people like Madison, Hamilton and Jay not to mention Robert Morris and Franklin did an amazing job of developing the Constitution that has functioned for a couple of centuries and been a model for many other governments.
  • They got a lot wrong, especially if one looks at the Articles of Confederation. Imagine a government without an executive branch, with no national currency, no power of taxation to pay for the military services fighting a war, etc.
The Constitution set up the House of Representatives as a vehicle for representative democracy (which I don't think existed in class-divided England much less the British Empire of the time), but provided checks and balances of the Senate, the Executive branch and the Judiciary. It also left the development to George Washington, who amply justified the judgment that he could be trusted. Finally, it was brief leaving room for development and correction in the processes for its implementation and it included provisions that allowed amendments.

A special report on democracy in California in the current Economist magazine attributes the decline in that state to reforms seeking more democracy gone wrong. California allows not only recalls and referendums but also initiatives that if passed can not be changed by the legislature. Moreover, the legislature is small (80 members of the Assembly and 40 of the Senate) as compared with the size of the state population, and has short term limits (maximum of 3 terms of 2 years for the Assembly and 2 terms of 4 years for the Senate). There are also a dozen statewide elected offices. According to the Economist, the voters don't understand the ballot propositions on which they are voting, much less the relations among them and the effect of their votes on the choices made by government, nor does the legislative body have the expertise to make good choices even if they had the power to do so. The whole system makes one appreciate more and more the work of the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

A basic problem is the incredible ignorance of the public. Look for example at the following table which shows the percent of correct answers on a number of questions of what should be universally understood knowledge (taken from the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2004):
 Do you want to leave important decisions on your future to public opinion, or do you hope that they will be made by experts in government, with checks and balances to keep the more stupid results being fixed in stone?

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