Sunday, February 3, 2008

Just a wild thought

The curse of our times is size, the size of institutions of all sorts, private and public. There have always been nominally huge institutions, such as the Roman Empire, but till modern times all were limited by one simple but stark fact: nothing, not people, not goods, not even information, could get from one place to another any faster than a man can walk. (Over long distances, humans can match the pace of horses, or even exceed them.)

That fact placed a great limitation on the ability of any apparently large institution to in fact act as a coherent whole. Large institutions through most of the history of humankind in reality acted more on general conceptions or philosophies than by unified or centralized decision-making.

All that began to change with the advent of the Industrial Revolution, the second major change in human culture in all the history of the species (the first being the Agricultural Revolution)--or rather the beginning of a change, for the revolution is by no means over but rather is continuing all around us. The chiefest effect of this revolution has been a staggering shrinkage in times, times to move things around the world and especially times to move information around the world.

In consequence, over the last century or so humankind has been exposed, for the very first time, to huge institutions that can act in a coordinated, monolithic way, thereby bringing their entire force to bear almost instantly on any matter that draws their now-enhanced attention. That is not a small matter: it may be the biggest matter our species has ever had to deal with.

One inevitable byproduct of the new order is that institutions become almost indomitable. If you think you could make an automobile better and cheaper than any out there right now, or publish a better daily newspaper, or any of a host of things, the answer is So what? Just try to actually do so. It'll never happen, even if you really and clearly could do the things you claim. The entry bar, in sheerly economic terms, is simply far too high.

On occasion, major entities may collapse owing to a level of incompetence in central management so great that even a ponderous institutional inertia can't halt decline, but society is already organized to discourage if not halt such collapses (consider the term bailout, as applied over the decades to everything from automobile makers to lenders).

It is well-known fact that it is nigh unto impossible to dislodge a sitting Representative or Senator unless he or she has done something stupendously stupid and criminal, and even then it is not easy. Moreover, the influence of money on elections is pretty well impossible to overstate. Candidates at every level tend to make much of the degree of contributions they receive from "little people", but the reality is that it is the contributions from big spenders that fuel meaningful campaigns.

So what can be done about at least the governmental problem? Realistically, I suspect not much. But as a thought experiment, where we are free to mentally redesign our institutions as we please, it is not an utterly intractable problem.

How do we begin? By recognizing that there is no long-term effective way to stop money from coming in to campaigns. The most draconian laws and eagle-eyed supervision would soon relax back to politics as usual: such is human nature. Instead, we need to think of a way to make it difficult for money to be the dominant factor in elections. And the only way to do that is to keep the size of the constituency small--small enough that knowledge of the candidate can realistically depend on personal contact, and where the spending of money on advertising is overkill.

What I have is not some carefully worked-out scheme with the i's dotted and t's crossed. Rather, it is the germ of an idea. Suppose we made our lowest level of elections comprise an electoral block of, oh, roughly two thousand persons (which is maybe 1,350 qualified voters). In rural areas, that might be one town, or even a whole county; in urban areas, it might be as little as one square block. But it is certainly manageable, since we already vote by precincts (or whatever they're called in this or that locale) on that size scale (the national average is 1,100 voters per precinct). Let's keep using that term, then, precinct, for the lowest electoral level.

A precinct averaging 2,000 citizens elects a precinct representative. A group of such representatives would sit on a council, the lowest level of actual government. Such a council would ideally comprise some small and odd number of precincts, no fewer than five and no more than nine--let's say seven.

That council--let's call it Level 1 government--then elects one of its members to sit on the council constituting the next-highest level of government, Level 2, whose councils also number 7 members. That council, in turn, does the same thing, and so on up the ladder.

How do the numbers work? Assuming a round 300 million Americans, like this:

  • Level 1: 21,429 councils representing 14,000 citizens each
  • Level 2: 3,061 councils representing 98,000 citizens each
  • Level 3: 437 councils representing 686,000 citizens each
  • Level 4: 62 councils representing 4,802,000 citizens each
  • Level 5: 9 councils representing 33,614,000 citizens each
  • Level 6 (9 members): 1 council representing all citizens
Obviously, any such scheme discards all present governmental distinctions, from states on down. But there are rough equivalences; Level 4, for example, is not far out of alignment with what is currently the state level. Level 2 corresponds very closely with the current county level (there are 3,077 current counties in the U.S.). Level 5 corresponds with the concept of "region", and regional state alliances have been growing in modern times. Level 3 has no real current counterpart; it would be like regions of states. Level 1, the closest to the citizenry and the only directly elected one, would correspond roughly, at least in less-populated areas, to the town (or "city" as many towns call themselves).

So that the system does not arbitrarily destroy "natural" interest blocks, it should allow the actual size of a precinct to vary from roughly 1,300 citizens to 2,700 citizens (a 2:1 ratio), so precinct lines can be drawn that keep neighborhoods together as much as reason allows. To deal with the "one person, one vote" issue, each popularly elected representative would get to vote the number of citizens he or she represents: a representative from a precinct of population 1,750 gets 1,750 votes on the Level 1 council; a representative at level 2 votes the combined total of the Level 1 councils he or she represents, and so on. That allows some flexibility in determining precinct (and other levels') boundaries without degrading or boosting any citizen's vote, and by keeping the maximum allowable ratio from most- to least-populous down to 2;1, does not grant any geographical interest block an unduly strong voice. ("Voice" differs from vote: an area with three representatives has more voice than the same area with two representatives, even if the voting powers are identical.)

The chief virtue here is that all representatives are addressing a base population block so small that it is feasible to literally meet each and every one of one's constituents (indeed, that would likely be a political necessity), and in which any interested citizen can get to know the candidate very well indeed (they are probably neighbors). The scale of the electorate means that throwing money at a campaign is largely futile, in that there is no economical way to make money produce a targeted message to so few people, and in any event the poorest-funded candidate can still make a full and highly personal case at the expense of no more than shoe leather. And that, in turn, means that any interested citizen could be a realistic candidate: neither cash nor party support is essential.

The drawback is obvious, but not, I feel, fatal. It is that beyond the Level-1 stage of government, all representation is indirect. The council of nine that constitutes the national legislative body is made up of people each elected by only a microscopic fraction of the populace. But so what? Each has been voted up by a succession of lower councils, whose ultimate authority is always actual voters. (Recall that till 1913, U.S. Senators were elected indirectly--State legislatures selected them.)

If individuals elected by a modest-sized body of their neighbors are not qualified to select one of their number to properly represent their combined constituents' interests, why are those electors in a cumulated mass to be supposed capable of doing the job better? The electors know the people they elect at the precinct level; at levels above that, they would know--as we today know--only a distant, artificially concocted and media-filtered image of candidates, whereas the people they directly elected would know one another, and one anothers' abilities, very well indeed.

Those who might think that a national legislative council of nine members is too small (though why it would be "too small" is less clear) could skip the proposed top level and just let Level 5 be the top: 45 members. But the reality is, as anyone with any real-life experience of decision-making knows, that even nine is probably two too many for maximum effectiveness.

As a generality, governments would be wise to observe the practices of businesses run with the steep incentive of profit. As a trivial but illuminating example, consider the pattern of chips used in Las Vegas casinos: $1, $5, $25, $100 (and up): no "dimes". Why do we waste money coining dimes and printing $10 bills? Habit, sheer habit; they are useless extravagances. Likewise, where is the corporation, however large, whose top management comprises hundreds of nominally equal executives? (Much less two distinct managerial entities--why do we in the modern world need a Senate?) Each level in the proposed system would handle such matters as are appropriate to it. Are 435 men and women somehow better able to come to a reasoned, argued, rational conclusion about any given matter than would nine? I cannot for the life of me imagine who would think so, or why.

Another objection would be the time demands on representatives above the lowest level. Those at the top would be, in effect, simultaneously serving on six different councils. There are several points here. One is that there are ways to work around this, albeit a bit complex (for example, electing, at the lowest level, a candidate and, as a "running mate", an alternate, who could fill in for the chief candidate in cases of illness or other absence, and who could take the seat if that representative were sent on to higher levels). But another consideration is that maybe we do altogether too much legislating as it is. If every council sat once a week (on staggered days, of course), there would be no problem. (Indeed, representatives serving only at the lowest level or two would probably be, as they are now in most small towns and counties, part-time only.)

Is this a panacea, the best possible form of government? Of course not. But what it is, I believe, is a vast improvement over the squalid mess we have now. At the very least, it is a starting point for discussions of ways to rethink our current mess from the bottom up.

No comments: