Equality by lot

Paul Rosenfeld: <em>The Extinction of Politics</em>

A post by Paul Rosenfeld.

To readers of this blog the idea that random selection should play a central role in government may seem like common sense, but clearly it’s not. 341 followers (344 at last count!) represent a statistically invisible group on a planet of 7 billion. We aren’t a minority and we aren’t a fringe group (not even a lunatic fringe); from the perspective of politics we simply don’t exist (at least not in the U.S.). Our sense of things is anything but common, it is exceedingly rare. If we ever hope to see this thinking converted into action that will have to change. Somehow we must convince enough people to put our movement on the map. For this, we will need a highly effective argument, because the people we wish to persuade are living under the thrall of a myth.

The average citizen of our globe believes fervently in something which they call “The Democratic Process”. Voting is its central tenet. No matter how often it fails them they rarely waver in their devotion. And like true believers, fundamentalists even, each further obstacle is taken as a sign; the path is righteous but rocky, we must purify our faith and trudge ever onward. When we are finally worthy, the Democratic Process will at last deliver us. The road to true reverence has been long. Following the rise of the Third Estate there came the fall of property qualifications; then the secret ballot; voting by freed slaves; direct election of Senators; the ballot initiative and finally women were included. None of this brought deliverance and so today’s mantra is “corporate cash”. If only we can somehow stay the floodgates of corporate influence which pervert the process of “True” Democracy, then at long long last we will finally enter the promised land.

The origin of this myth is difficult to place. I suspect Christian infused political philosophy from the Enlightenment has played a role. The centuries of demagoguery which followed have probably reinforced this thinking as well. But I also believe it goes deeper than this, or any intellectual history. I think that the faith in “one man, one vote” strikes directly to our core. I believe, quite literally, that it is in our blood. We humans are defined by a set of political behaviors which are transmitted from one generation to the next. The relative importance of genetics vs. culture in this transmission is probably debatable, but either way the behavior is a given (in the short term at least). We’re stuck with it. We may not care for it today but this behavior served our ancestors well for thousands of generations. It won’t change overnight.

The fight for sortition goes against all this. To say we’re engaged in an uphill battle is a profound understatement. We’re at the bottom of an enormous cliff armed only with our wits and our fingernails. In this context we must be extremely creative. To promote our cause as a struggle for good government or social justice may be literally correct, but it falls far short of the mark in my opinion. If we are to have any chance of success at all we must seek to actually demolish the myth of one man, one vote! We will never be able to scale this cliff, but perhaps with the right combination of words we may undermine it to the point of collapse. Long odds no doubt, but I believe it’s the only play we have.

My point is (and I’ll expand in a moment), there’s a definite scientific basis for demonstrating the utter futility of democratic politics (in my opinion). As surely as Copernicus put an end to geocentricity Darwin should have put an end to voting. The fact that this hasn’t happened yet I would attribute to cultural forces every bit as strong as the one’s which forced Galileo to recant heliocentrism before the Pope more than a century after Copernicus. Ideas which are central to the established order do not die easily.

To a limited extent Darwin has helped upend Christian notions about human behavior. Few people today will attempt to smear sexuality as “sin”, and we sometimes rationalize acts of aggression as having a territorial or sexual origin. But our 18th Century models of political behavior are still firmly rooted in pre-Darwinian modes of thinking. If we re-evaluate our institutions in the context of their historic biological development we may be able to demonstrate the absurdity of politics as a tool for governing human society in the 21st Century. We can fight for sortition on the basis of social justice but it would be far more powerful, I think, to argue for sortition as a matter of manifest biological inevitability.

But enough already. Please forgive me, I’m trying desperately to be succinct and I haven’t even gotten to my point yet. So without further yammering here is my “thesis”. I don’t imagine it’s a new idea and I have absolutely no academic credentials to furnish gravitas but I hope you’ll hear me out anyhow…

***

Like other primates, homo sapiens have always competed for resources. The earth’s carrying capacity is finite and each creature must struggle for its share. As a consequence, within any group, individuals are forever maneuvering to achieve dominance; between groups, there is a perpetual conflict over boundaries. Within the group, navigating contradictions between individual and collective priorities is a complex process with plenty of gray area but one thing is crystal clear. The group which manages its internal conflict most efficiently will be best equipped to compete externally with groups inhabiting adjacent domains. This management process is called politics.

To be very blunt, politics is the process of maintaining group hierarchical relationships with a minimum of overt physical violence. Efficient resolution of internal conflict ensures that a maximum of violent potential will be available for external defense of the established domain and (ideally) conquest of neighboring domains. Anarchy and internecine conflict are weaknesses that will be exploited by better organized surrounding groups. This imperative for efficiency leads inevitably to voting. As a matter of biological necessity homo sapiens learned to sublimate their violent tendencies (most of the time) in favor of majority rule. It helps to keep the group strong.

There is nothing moral or ethical about this process. We shouldn’t (as most do) conflate majority rule with the common good. These are two entirely different concepts. Majority rule is a biological survival tactic utilized by many species. Homo sapiens adorn the process with language, culture and even technology, but every creature living in a herd or pack does something vaguely similar. The “common good” is an intellectual abstraction created by humans. It is often identified with another abstraction called social justice.

Majority rule has nothing to do with social justice; quite the opposite in fact. It may seem counterintuitive, but majority rule is actively destructive of social justice. Politics is a process of forming factions and maneuvering for dominance. The result will inevitably be stratification. This is true even for normal species (like Chimpanzees or Wolves), in which all individuals perform the same (interchangeable) function. It is especially true for Homo sapiens, who have complicated their society with a practice known as labor specialization. Agriculture, written language, metal working, the wheel; they’re all impressive developments, but none of these negated humanity’s subservience to the fundamental laws of ecology. The earth’s carrying capacity remained finite, human populations continued to compete for resources and the most successful social organization was that which maximized its military output. This called for peaceful resolution of internal conflicts (whenever possible) and maximum economic exploitation (so that resources could be monopolized by the military).

Majority rule was perfectly consistent with this new lifestyle but there are two caveats which we must bear in mind.

Majority rule represents the the deliberate suppression of violence in favor of political maneuvering. This social truce holds only so long as the various parties each possess a credible threat of violence in the event that politics breaks down. When a faction (such as the peasantry) is disarmed, disorganized, or without military training, they will inevitably lose their political rights and descend to the level of slavery.
The logical end of majority rule is monarchy. The constant political maneuvering of individuals and factions must inevitably trend towards a winner takes all conclusion. Even today, despite all our “democratic” pretensions in the U.S., one might easily imagine a scenario in which President Jeb Bush (following an act of nuclear terrorism) suspends the electoral process, under the pretext that “terrorists” have infiltrated the Democratic party. A perpetual dynasty of Bush leaders would be a plausible outcome. Most people imagine that democracy and monarchy are different animals, but they are actually cousins.

Universal Suffrage was the most substantial development of the modern era; coming on the heels of technological milestones (like firearms and printing) which made peasants and slum dwellers far more dangerous than ever before. Following the general disfranchisement of the Medieval period these newfound political rights were seen as a revolutionary advancement. However, several centuries of mass politics has demonstrated (beyond any reasonable doubt) that the primitive impulses of fear, hatred and greed remain the primary forces motivating voters – forces easily manipulated by the powerful. If reason were the principal factor in politics, universal suffrage would indeed have been a revolutionary step. But that, sadly, was not the case.

***

Majority rule was a necessary adaptation allowing homo sapiens to survive in the pre-industrial era but it is highly unsuitable as a primary mechanism for ordering human society in the 21st Century. Unfortunately, it’s supported by a body of myth as well entrenched as geocentrism in the middle ages. And underneath that myth there may actually be an instinctual bias (something even more powerful than the Pope I fear!). In this context, Kleroterians represent a lone voice in the wilderness; a voice entirely inaudible to most humans. In my opinion, our best hope for actually being heard lies in attacking the mythology of one man, one vote head on.

(The foregoing was condensed from a much longer essay. A version of that original essay may be located here.)