July 20, 2004

Why Democracy?

[Ed: Tonight KQED aired a program on democracy which I found quite fascinating. Democracy, the process of creative and collaborative decision-making, is something I'm particularly passionate about and something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. This year, I'd written a couple of articles for Vox-Populi Nebraska on why real democracy works and what we can do to make it work for us. Here is the first of my articles which was published in VPN last May about why democracy works. ]

Everyone likes to joke that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. In the United States, we pride ourselves on being the oldest constitutional democracy, yet many people believe we need to limit our democracy, especially during perilous times. Many people in the US find they are frustrated with democracy and think that things would be better if we just let a few smart people make the decisions. Besides we are all too busy and too cynical to get involved.

Today the war on terrorism has created a situation where many important decisions are being made unilaterally and without consultation with even our elected representatives or our allies, much less checking in with ordinary Americans. The fear of terrorism has encouraged people to blindly support the President because they believe he must know more about what is going on and so can make the right decisions for us. Many people are looking for a strong leader who boldly makes decisions even if these decisions go against the will of the majority of people. Many people define this as leadership.

Yet, is it true that a few smart people or one strong leader will do a better job than groups that make decisions democratically? Should we entrust our future to a small group who will make the most important decisions for us? Decisions such as whether we will go to war or not, or how our economy is run? The answer is no. And here is why that is.

Democracy is just stumbling along to the right decision instead of going straight forward to the wrong one. -- Laurence J. Peter

After World War II, an MIT researcher, Alex Bavelas, conducted a study about different communication networks and how their structures affected the ability for groups to solve problems. He designed one group to use communication that was essentially a circular chain where each person could only communicate with his immediate neighbors. This group was forced to use a democratic process to solve the problems. Another group used a star-like model where one individual could communicate with everyone, yet, they could only communicate with each other through that central person. This modeled the classic authoritarian process. When he asked them to perform simple tasks, the authoritarian group was much faster at coming up with the answers to the problems given. Yet, what Bavelas found was when the task was made more complex and had more subtle issues to resolve, the democratic group was consistently able to solve the tasks more rapidly, with better outcomes and the members of the group maintained higher morale.

The fundamental flaw in the centralized groups was their rigidity. The “leaders” in these groups failed because they were too busy to pay attention to vital information coming from their peripheral “subordinates” – information suggesting that the leader’s assumptions might need to be reexamined. The leaders were so absorbed in plowing ahead with their given agendas that they were apt to discard or ignore a valuable idea from the periphery – seeing it as impractical or tangential. These leaders tended to make a mistake very common among heads of state – to assume that because they had access to information from several sources they could see the masked face of the future. [1]

The authoritarian leader is blinded by his own sense of power and a belief that he has all the answers.

Since then, other studies have shown that groups using democratic processes are much better at reaching good outcomes on complex issues than authoritarian groups. Furthermore, history has shown that authoritarian societies carry fatal flaws that cause them to eventually destroy themselves. Witness the failures of Nazism under Hitler and the collapse of the Stalinist communist states of the USSR and China in the 20th century. Saddam Hussein was also victim of this problem as his “subordinates” didn’t even inform him that he didn’t have any credible WMD to deploy, which if he knew that, might have led him to halt or delay the invasion last year. And Mao never understood that it was his own misguided scientific policies (as promulgated by Lysenko), which were responsible for the terrible famine that killed millions and millions of Chinese mid-20th Century.

The fact that democratic processes lead to better outcomes for complex problems is not too surprising because it models how the natural world works. Scientists have found that nature is filled with entities made of many cooperating individual participants which lead to complex systems. These complex systems continuously adjust to any new incoming data encountered by the participants. Nature excels at designing effective feedback systems. Examples of this include the earth’s atmospheric system and all biological systems. One timely example is how we are losing the battle with infectious diseases because they are adjusting (i.e., evolving) to the antibiotics we have devised.

Today as our world confronts some of the most complex problems mankind has ever faced – global financial and economic systems that are entwined and capable of catastrophic failures, extraordinarily lethal weapons and materials that are available to the angriest and most alienated individuals (you don’t need a state to have a nuclear weapon capable of blowing up a city), intolerance and violence that seems to be ratcheting up every year, an increasingly worrisome situation in the middle East, growing populations putting pressure on the capacity of the world, and then there is global warming looming over all of our futures – it seems we humans must start using the most effective methods for charting our path through the next few decades if we are to survive.

This means we have to start using and trusting democracy to find the best solutions and come up with the best decisions on each step of the way. None of us, not even the smartest, can do this alone. This means we are all responsible for finding solutions to our problems. It is not enough to wait for our leaders to set the course – they might not even see the right path. No one will have enough information to solve the problems on their own, but working together, pooling our knowledge and our insights, we can find a path through the thicket of catastrophes waiting to debilitate and damage our world and our futures. Today, we are all leaders in this together and we are all responsible for contributing to solutions for our problems.

Next time, I’ll write about some ideas about how we can help make this happen and some of the minimal requirements for making democracy work for us.

[1] Philip Slater, A Dream Deferred: America’s Discontent and the Search for a New Democratic Ideal, Beacon Press, 1991, page 11.

Posted by Mary at July 20, 2004 06:50 AM | Philosophy | Technorati links |

Mary, it's always fun to read something you've written on the blog and think halfway through, 'I've got to post a link to this.' And then realize a moment later, 'Hey, this is already on my site. Good deal.' Thanks for sharing.

These leaders tended to make a mistake very common among heads of state – to assume that because they had access to information from several sources they could see the masked face of the future.

Very accurate description of the pre-Iraq situation, where plenty of people at the bottom of the decision making and information sharing food chain came to more sensible conclusions than the leadership. I think something else happens at the top of a hierarchy, related but more subtle, which is that you trust too much what is told to you.

I mean, the reason they come to believe in this greater vision of theirs is because of this privileged information. And they regard this source of power with what appears to be such a level of respect that it partly wipes out their bs detectors and natural skepticism. You could see this happen with the Congress, where they were so sure that White House information must be the straight dope, that they ignored what should have been big, blaring warning lights. In reality, they could have hardly made a worse decision had they been sitting at home getting all their information from the tube like the rest of us.

Posted by: natasha at July 20, 2004 11:30 AM

These leaders tended to make a mistake very common among heads of state – to assume that because they had access to information from several sources they could see the masked face of the future.

This explanation assumes that they are properly motivated but just have an unrealistic trust in their data. I'm not so sure that's the case.

Everyone makes decisions based on their estimate of how good they will feel as a result. As animals we are all stuck with that basic biological mechanism.

Ideologues feel good when they make decisons that fit with their preconceived world-view.

Con artists feel good when they profit at your expense.

A good leader is one who feels very good when they make the right decisions for the people they lead.

I'd much rather have a leader with that kind of personal integrity than any of the others - regardless of their data.

Posted by: flyguy at July 22, 2004 07:16 AM