Democracy hits its ceiling

Every aircraft has a maximum altitude it can reach — its ceiling — that depends upon its power, weight, and wings. Indeed, lots of systems, be they mechanical, social, or biological, have their upper limits. The human body can only live for at most 120 years. We can only run so fast. My computer can’t download files as fast as I’d like.

The same thing applies to systems of government faced with complexity. Any given government can only handle a certain degree of complexity. If, for example, the Roman Senate tried to tackle today’s problems, it would fail utterly; it just wasn’t equipped with what was needed.

Human societies have steadily grown in complexity. The earliest hunter-gatherer groups broke up into troops of a few dozen people, which were organized into clans of perhaps a few hundred people. The troops lived almost independently, congregating into the clan perhaps once a year to swap genes. Governance was informal. There were no laws and no rulers. If somebody misbehaved, the group handled the problem by discussion.

This worked well so long as people were living as hunter-gatherers, but once the Agricultural Revolution got rolling, populations climbed and people started living in larger groups. These groups were too big to solve their problems with a family pow-wow. The old, simple structure of human societies had reached its ceiling.

The problems facing these societies were more complicated. For the first time, people had lots of possessions, and human greed being what it is, there were lots of disputes over exactly who owned what. Moreover, many of these disputes were between people who didn’t know each other personally.

The problem was tackled with a government structure called a “chiefdom”. One person was selected to be the chief — different societies had different procedures for picking the chief. That chief then resolved the disputes. There were, of course, lots of disputes over who got to be the chief, and those disputes were usually settled by violence.

Chiefdoms usually had just one layer of hierarchy: there was the chief, and there were the people, and there was nobody in between.

Societies continued to expand and grow more complex. Pretty soon there were so many people in a society that they generated more disputes than one chief could adjudge. The chiefdom reached its ceiling, but there was an easy patch: delegation of power. The chief gave secondary power to a new tier of sub-chiefs who dealt with the petty details.

Thus, chiefdoms evolved into kingdoms, which were basically multi-tiered chiefdoms. The top chief (the king) had subordinate chiefs, who might have their own subordinate chiefs. At the bottom of the pyramid, of course, were the people.

All of these structures had one profound flaw: the chiefs would grab up all the goodies for themselves, impoverishing the people. There wasn’t anything the people could do about this — at first. But as populations climbed, there were more and more people and it became harder and harder for kings to keep the people under their thumb. Kingdoms were starting to reach their ceilings. At first there were just popular revolts, which were always put down brutally, but those revolts increased in frequency and magnitude. The first crack in the wall was the English Civil War, which forced the king to concede some power to the people. The American Revolution kicked off a whole series of shifts in power from the kings to the people. But even today, democracy is still confined to a minority of the human population. There are still a lot of kingdoms on this planet, although they go by different names.

But now we have a new problem. It has been creeping up on us for decades. The American government has done an impressive job of keeping up with the problems, but recent developments have revealed the tragic fact that democracy has reached its ceiling.

The problem arises from the increasing population of the planet, which has created complicated new problems. A few million people burning coal two centuries ago didn’t have much effect, but billions of people burning coal, oil, and gas have created a problem called ‘global warming’. The dramatic improvements in trade have made it possible for a Laotian peasant to put an American worker out of a job. The mighty leaps in computer technology have resulted in lots of people being replaced by robots. All this wonderful progress is creating lots of horrible and completely new problems.

But here’s the thing: the problems we face today are far too complicated for any citizen to grasp. We’ve tried to cope by giving lots of power to experts who do understand particular problems. But the decisions those experts make seem, to the uninformed citizenry, crazy.

For example, any economist will tell you that free trade enriches everybody, that tariffs only impoverish people. Yet the average American sees only the job losses, not understanding how free trade actually creates more jobs than it destroys. The jobs lost are plain to see when a factory shuts down, but the jobs created are spread all over the economy and thus are invisible. Hence, when experts fight tariffs, citizens think that the experts must be up to something evil.

Climate change is another good example. Scientists have been warning citizens for decades — DECADES — that carbon emissions would end up costing trillions of dollars. But citizens couldn’t understand the science and so dismissed the warnings of the scientists.

I could go on and on with examples like this; they’re everywhere. But the conclusion should be obvious: our society has created problems that the citizens don’t understand. As a result, citizens all over the developed world are revolting against the whole system. They really don’t know who to blame, so they blame everybody. They see a conspiracy of the rich/intelligentsia/politicians/experts to exploit them, and so they respond with a generalized revulsion to everything and everybody.

This explains why Mr. Trump was elected; he promised to ‘drain the swamp’, but he never really said what ‘the swamp’ was. He was elected to tear everything down. In the UK, Brexit was the revolt of the populists against those faceless bureaucrats in the EU. We’ve seen the same thing happening all over the developed world: people are electing strongmen who promise to tear down the system and… and… well, they’ll figure it out somehow.

The results, of course, are catastrophic. Mr. Trump is far and away the most catastrophically bad President in American history, and he has set America on a path to becoming a has-been superpower. Brexit, if it actually takes place, will wreak great damage to the economy of the UK. All these “anti-establishment” politicians are indeed tearing the whole system down.

The problem is not a right-wing problem. We see exactly the same attitudes on the left as on the right. In America, Bernie Sanders is the left wing ideologue promising to drain the swamp. Progressives in America increasingly talk in apocalyptic terms about how the entire rotten structure must come down.

The problem isn’t the structure, it’s the citizens. They simply cannot understand the problems facing society and they reject the complicated compromises that the experts hammer out. In order to function, a democracy requires an informed citizenry, but it is no longer possible to have an informed citizenry — there’s more information than any citizen can take in. Thus, democracy has reached its ceiling; it can no longer serve society’s needs.

So, what’s the next system after democracy? What can climb to a higher ceiling? What’s the solution?
There isn’t any. If the people don’t rule, then they will blame all their problems on the government, and they will revolt. It doesn’t matter if the government is perfect and makes all the right decisions. Some people will do well and some people will do poorly and the losers will blame their problems on the government.

How about a brutal but benevolent government? What if we had a government populated by enlightened politicians whose only desire was the betterment of the people, but recognizing how easily the ingrates might revolt, maintained strict control?

Such a government is possible, and we already have an experiment in that direction: the current Chinese government. It combines a genuine desire to improve the lot of the people with an iron determination to remain in power. The problem is that they can’t root out corruption. Power creates too many avenues for corruption to flourish.

So what will happen? My guess is that we’ll descend into oscillating totalitarian governments, first on the right, then on the left, until we eventually destroy ourselves. The underlying truth here is that Homo Sapiens is not sapient enough to handle the society it has created. It is the species that has reached its ceiling.

Master of Science, Physics, 1975. Computer Game Designer. Interactive Storytelling.

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