A Conversation for Democracy

A better way?

Post 1

Dad n Dave

I have often thought over the last few years that there must be a better way to run countries than to have the systems that we currently have in place.

It seems that I am not the only one to become just a little cynical about some of the antics of politicians. One of the problems is that it is impossible to tell if a politician from one side of politics is really vehemently opposed to a suggestion or policy from the other side because he or she thinks it is a bad idea or, simply, because some points can be scored. The prime aim of politicians has become one of getting elected - not to form the best policy.

This is extremely frustrating, as I am sure that many good ideas have not been followed and some very bad ideas have been implemented on grounds that are purely "form over substance".

Furthermore, politics increasingly seems to be the art of taking from everyone and giving to the marginal voters. "Safe" voters get ignored and the major parties seek to identify safe electorates as they carve up the country. There is then undoubtedly a lot of money misdirected to win votes in the marginal seats. Eventually, game theory suggests that voters will come to realise that they need to be viewed as swinging voters and will adjust their collective behaviour accordingly.

At the same time, we have developed the concept of a "career politician". Many chief executives feel that their best contribution is in the first five years and that, by 10 years, they have outlived their period of greatest utility for an organisation.

There is an obvious parallel with some of our long-standing politicians. They sit comfortably in their "safe" electorates, never seriously concerned for the plight of what they offensively and almost sneeringly refer to as "ordinary people". The unashamed way in which politicians spend our taxes and exempt themselves from various nasties that apply to the "ordinary people" represents the height of arrogance.

Is it any surprise that politicians are viewed so unfavourably by many in the community?

If one were to construct a psychological profile of the ideal type of person to be involved in running the country, what type of attributes would we expect to see?

Altruism? Selflessness? Humility? Balance? Strong sense of duty? Trustworthiness? Honesty?

What does it take to be a successful politician?

I am not at all sure, but I suspect that these qualities would almost be the opposite of what we want.

Self-promotion? Pride? Arrogance? Stubbornness? Dishonesty? "Whatever it Takes"

What does this tell us?

We are systematically selecting a large number of the one type of personality to run our countries. While we need a balance, the people we are systematically selecting a large number of may be exactly the wrong sort of people. We need to have more involvement from exactly those people who shy away from politics in its current form.

I am told that Plato identified that the only clear disqualification for someone to run the country is a desire to actually do the job. I am only about 2000 years behind his thinking. But maybe this is right.

We probably could do no worse than if we introduced a bit of randomness in to the process so that we had a mix of personalities that reflects better the make up of the population. With a statutory limit on the term someone serves and, perhaps, a mandatory test for sanity (which is certainly not a pre-requisite at the moment for politicians), we almost certainly would get a better balance.

Maybe then we could get a proper functioning of parliament, reasoned, quality debate between people with the right motives for getting the job done to the best of their ability. It should not matter where a good idea comes from. If it really is a good idea, then it should be supported.

I have thought of a couple of different models that may be able to achieve the objective of getting a better balance in politics. For example, some elements of the selection of jury rosters could be employed either to select candidates for elections or for identifying rotating members of ministries.

Perhaps there could be a system where you are informed that you will form part of a three-person team in, say, the ministry for health. You then have a period of two years to learn about the area before joining two members, who had already been in place for 2 and 4 years respectively, replacing a person who had been there for 6 years. Your joint task would be to come up with policy and proposals and then to have it debated in the house, by professional debaters who are paid bonuses on the basis of getting the house to vote for their side (these debaters would alternate between the affirmative and negative so that their remuneration basis was fair). The level of continuity on this ministry would help to ensure that it is not entirely ambushed by the bureaucrats.

No doubt there are many models and I understand that there are a number of committees that run on exactly these types of formulae. Naturally, the career politicians would not support any change to the status quo. But with time, who knows what might happen. I think that it is not working properly at the moment.

A better way? yes please

Post 2

Researcher 177832

I agree that there are many problems with the current democratic systems. Most of these seem to relate to 'big money' politics and the influence of various lobyists.
I heard one suggestion a while ago to turn the upper house (the senate here in Aus.) into a random selection of the population (minus non-citizens, criminals etc) rather than a bunch of people elected as reward for some unkown favour they had done the party which nominated them. This way almost anybody could be asked to serve a term in the house and would have to have at least some of the qualities you mention in order to want to do so. With people serving a single term the issue of parliamentary superannuation and other perks becomes less of an issue.
Not a perfect solution but hey, I've yet to see one that is :^)

sanity tests and criminals

Post 3


Seems odd that you only propose testing the sanity of candidates. What about some system to ensure that the people doing the electing have some understanding of the issues? I ask having first hand experience of an instance in which someone in the UK had managed to put their dog on the register of electors.

The dog would probably have been as capable of having an informed opinion about the candidates as the idiot that put it on the register in the first place.

Then you have the thorny problem of setting the criteria by which you decide who can and can't vote. Exclude the dogs on the basis that they are a special interest group (sticks, bones, walks and sod the economy), people whose IQ is below a certain level, insurance salesmen and other criminals.

Criminals are an interesting problem. If the definition of 'criminal' is left to the established power elite then it is easy to disqualify anyone who presents a threat to the status quo. In many countries it is still a crime to have the wrong political affiliations.

So why exclude people whose ideas about what should be legal are different from those with a position to maintain? A lot of people out there have rationally defensible opinions about marijuana that could easily land them in jail, if they are seen to stand up for the freedom they believe in. (I'm not one of those people, but I support their stance.)

Of course, it's not a crime to support that nice Mr Blair and his war on drugs. He has such a lovely smile, therefore we can trust him and if he chooses to identify some or other group as criminal then he must know what he's doing. He's the prime minister, after all. (The fact that the policies don't work is irrelevant.) Try actually interviewing voters in the run up to an election, and listen to the criteria on which they make their choices, before you laugh at what I'm saying.

People can be amazingly stupid, and will vote for the most unbelievable things. A certain Adolph Hitler was able to persuade the people of his country to elect him into power, then to do away with formal democracy, then to define for himself who was 'in' and who was 'out'. He may have depended on force to maintain his position at the end of his career, but to get started he relied on charisma and playing the crowd.

Interviewing him to determine his sanity may have prevented him being allowed to stand for public office in the first place. But interviewing Lady Astor would have had the same effect - everybody at the time knew that women were unfit to vote and to believe otherwise was obviously a sign of some defect of judgement.

Fortunately technology provides a solution. We should empower the UN to create a 'Matrix'-type machine that we can all be plugged into and live out our lives in the illusion that we know what is going on in the world, and that our opinions matter. Bill Gates would probably get the contract for the OS too.

sanity tests and criminals

Post 4

Dad n Dave

I guess that you have actually given another reason for the random selection of parliamentary representatives. Not only are the candidates systematically the wrong type of personality but the voters are not necessarily sane or rational. In fact, they can't be; if they were they would start to vote out the incumbent as a matter of course in order to assure themselves of a reasonable share of the goodies directed to marginal seats.

sanity tests and criminals

Post 5


Would a random crowd of people be any better at running the country than the people we entrust with the job right now? Maybe not, but they would at least be representative of the entire population, unless you start excluding particular groups.

I have a friend who was charged by the city police with driving his rubber dinghy at 14 knots in a 7 knot zone. As there is no way to record this on your driving record (Washington State) it was tried as a criminal case and he is now technically a criminal. For random selection to be fair I believe you would have to allow everyone an equal chance of being picked, regardless of their mental state or attitude to the law.

You would still have the problem encountered by jury 'call-ups' - the smartest people generally find ways to get out of what they see as an onerous public service. And of course some smart alec pressure group would start complaining that there needs to be some positive discrimination in favour of their group.

Perhaps some all-powerful dictator is needed to order people to 'do the job and shut up'?

Incidentally, I read somewhere that Italy has one of the most democratic governments in the world. Virtually everyone gets a go as Prime Minister at some point because the government changes so often. How do you feel about stability in government?

Stability and Public Duty

Post 6

Dad n Dave

Certainly, some stability in government is desirable. However, a balance needs to be struck, just as it does in a successful company, between retaining the "corporate memory" and also turning over the dead wood. I think that you really do need to avoid the type of entrenchment of power such as that which we see in dictatorships and some of the extremely political stable democracies, such as ... well, Japan for instance, in which the system becomes ripe for corruption. You also need to avoid excessive turnover in government as this would serve only to increase the power and influence of the bureaucrats. I think that the rolling team gets close to this balance.

In respect to jury duty, I agree that some of the best brains currently apply that brain power to avoid jury duty. People with legal training are exempted because they know too much about the operation of legal proceedings. Many people avoid it on the basis of specific circumstances at the time that they are called - as an aside, perhaps these people should be invited to nominate a date on which they would be available, so that they could then plan around the commitment.

However, I think that the attitude might be different if there was a system of representative government in which there was social pressure on everyone to do their duty if asked and there was a reasonable notice period, providing that the penalty for doing so was not great. In respect to foregone earnings, for example, maybe the pay rate for each individual would need to be linked to a function of a minimum and a multiple of taxable income as most recently reported, coupled with pension entitlements or assistance to re-enter the workforce.

Regarding the minorities seeking more than fair representation - well I have never had a lot of time for "positive discrimination" that is unashamedly sexist, racist or otherwise tells people that they should regard themselves as being fundamentally different to others. By some criterion, we are all part of at least one narrowly defined minority. It would be more constructive for people to regard themselves as people working for the common good as opposed to being primarily representing some specific narrowly defined group. In any case, however, I think that statistically fair representation is a great starting point for minorities who feel underrepresented in the current system.

Should criminals be eligible? In principle I see no necessity to exclude those who have been convicted and have been penalised. However, I would draw the line at capital offence crimes such as murder and other crimes that exhibit blatant disregard for other people, as I see altruism as being a very desirable quality in those responsible for government.

Should insane people be eligible? Well I guess they are now. So, in the first instance at least, to save questions as to the subjectivity in defining who is and who is not sane, one might be best to rely on the law of large numbers and rational arguments of the professional debaters to ensure that truly insane policy never makes it to law.

An all-powerful dictator? .... I see a use for a role that is sort of like a referee or umpire - an impartial operator who has the job of making sure that the rules are being followed and is responsible for seeking a vote from the people if there is to be a change in the rules, but who otherwise takes no part in the decision making process of government.

Stability and Public Duty

Post 7



so how do we persuade everyone else to adopt this system?

Rats! I knew there was a catch.

Post 8

Dad n Dave

While having the idea in cyberspace is a start, I don't know if the media is likely to champion the cause, given the amount of advertising revenue that they extract from political parties. And entrenched politicians are unlikely to be keen.

I'll give it some more thought while I watch the tennis.

Catch 22.

Post 9

Dad n Dave

Many of the people who I have spoken to on this topic think that it is a good idea. And there is certainly a ground swell of cynicism developing around the world against the confrontational but destructive style that has developed in two party politics. Getting any change in the system is difficult, however, as there would be a lot of vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Part of the problem is a "catch 22" - the advocates almost need to be politicians themselves, who then do themselves out of a job. Still, ideas are patient and, in my country at least, independents are getting an increasing level of support. I find that opportunities to present these arguments arise frequently, as people around the world often openly criticise an element of their own democratic systems. Comments here and there will help. Maybe some keen political science or consitutional law student might stumble across this discussion and be able to take the ideas here as a basis for a thesis - maybe draft up an alternative constitution as a PhD topic.

Catch 22.

Post 10


Greetings funsters.

My housemates and i were discussion the goverment by random just the other nite. A sort of 'jury service' scheme. i don't know if the best brains would avoid the job - i suspect that they would want to do it - find it an interesting challenge - so long as its sufficiently well paid.

I suppose you will still need government departments, some kind of premier and a civil service. Still - could work, and as you say could hardly be as bad as what there is at the moment.

On a (fairly) related note did you hear about the protesters at the G8 meeting in Genoa? 4 brits and many other nationalities of protesters got battered by the italian police in a raid on the protesters convergence centre. An italian youth was killed. What were yu saying about italy again?


Catch 22.

Post 11



the british system relies on a permanent civil service, with long-termers advising elected representatives - cabinet ministers. The US system seems to have to create entire administrations after election, hence the relatively long hand-over period after elections.

presumably then, the above comment pre-supposes that the british system is inherently better than the american (suppresses grin and tries to remain impartial) in at least one respect.

randomly picking the 'cabinet' could be fun, and with proper marketing you could probably persuade most people to rise to the challenge - pointy finger on tv, 'it could be you!' - leastways the majority would not want to be seen shirking their duty with rupert murdoch making a documentary about them. who would get to be 'big brother' in this situation?

but how do you get the vested interests to accept a change in the system that allows for truly representative government like this? maybe start with an experimental, limited responsibility, body that takes on some of the lesser responsibilies of government?

pardon my lack of capitals. been drunk all weekend, and arguing with yanks about similar stuff.


Catch 22.

Post 12

Dad n Dave

I recall a "Yes Prime Minister" (or "Yes Minister") show in which Sir Humphrey was criticised for not having a commitment to the policy that was being championed by the government. His response was that, to do so would mean that at various times he would have been all for nationalising and then all for privatising .... (continuing on with a number of policy opposites) and then above all he would have been a stark raving lunatic.

The problem with this logic for not having a commitment is that it presupposes that there is a necessity for a permanent secretary.

What is the rationale for having a permanent secretary in the British system? Maybe it could be dispensed with in a system where there is random element in the selection of the ministers.

Someone mentioned to me that the rolling committee does have a successful precedent in some academic roles.

We still have the problem of the vested interests, but maybe some journalists I know would be interested in running with this.

Catch 22.

Post 13

Dad n Dave

I think we need to set up a "True Democracy Party", the sole purpose of which is to be the last political party to be in government.

All of the above

Post 14

Researcher 191404

Hey people, I am perhaps the person you've been looking for, a law student with sufficient study in constitutional matters, and also someone a bit critical.

Anyway, the trouble with this jury system idea (although it seems to have got a lot of support here) is that it doesn't fix the system. The system as it stands is a two party system, one in power and one in opposition, with a second chamber (or House of Lords) whose comments are only persuasive arguments and needn't be followed.

With the PM controlling everything through his Party (and the whips -- they must have fun!!) then it gets less and less democratic and more and more dictatorship. And getting some random people to propose some policies isn't going to fix anything.

I would say more but I have to go now.

All of the above

Post 15

Dad n Dave

I think that part of the problem is that we now have career politicians, who mix their genuine belief in what is the best for the country with the need to maximise votes at each election. They tend to oppose some good ideas and then mislead or bend the truth simply on the basis that they can thereby maximise votes. They also get more tarnished the longer that they stay in politics.

Random selection to get into parliament would free people in parliament to vote in accordance with their real views of what is best. I don't want anyone involved in running the country for more than 6 years (plus 2 at the start for familiarisation only).

I am by no means a fan of Maggie Thatcher and this is a little off the track, but I do recall one statement from her when she was asked if Australia should move to a republic with an elected head of state. She said, "Those of you who think that a politician would make a better head of state than an hereditary monarch ........ ought, perhaps, to meet more politicians".

All of the above

Post 16


It seems to me that a more fundamental injection of democracy is needed. Simply adding an element of chance to a system where too few still hold the reigns doesn't seem enough. Further devolution to regions is a start, but the real problem is how to get the general public more enthused with politics. Mind you, what is often seen as apathy is probably more likely to be a rejection of mainstream party policies.
Giving us all more creative influence on policy, rather than seeking approval for a ready-sewn-up package would make us feel that we have some effect.
I think the points made about those in power not giving it away, particularly to people who aren't asking for it, are quite right. Perhaps that suggests that grass-roots organisations are the way forward - community groups, trade and students unions, pensioners associations, tenants associations etc. Of course getting taken seriously without hard cash is always difficult - they need to really be MASS organisations, who can't be ignored.
Of course there are some areas where centralisation is necessary, but putting people in control of their own destinies (to the extent that humans can be!) seems fundamental to my understanding of the very concept of democracy.


All of the above

Post 17


Weel, what about, for example, going to war. Now I can understand that an army cannot fight a war democratically, and that effective fighting requires heirachy, discopline, and for soldiers to obey orders. However, I feel very strongly that there should be ultimate democratic control of the war strategy, and indeed whether we should go to war or not. There have been a lot of polls against the UK following the States into war in the Middle East, yet I suspect that it will happen this year.

Democratic deficit. A very important one. I personally would like to see democracy extended nationally to include a public veto on declaring war; and for democracy also to extend locally and globally to allow people to have a proportionate voice in the decisions that effect them. Its either that or some bizarre oligarghy of the "great and good" making and influencing decisions to thier own agendas behind closed doors.

All of the above

Post 18


Hear hear to a veto on war! I think it's disgusting that Blair is pushing us into a war that countless polls have shown the British people to be firmly against. Those of us (the majority) who are against the war need to utilise all our democratic rights to tell Blair that we will not stand for it. A good turn out at the Stop the War Coalition demo in London on 28th September (www.stopwar.org.uk) would send a clear message to the government. Also letting MPs know how you feel (just in case they get a chance to say anything on this matter!!).
Sorry, this has got a bit UK-centric - I tend to forget that the net is worldwide!! But the movements are there in every country and are not hard to find.

All of the above

Post 19


Hi Fred,

I've been to loads of anti war demos, to each Mayday 'riot,' to protests and reclaiming of the streets. To be honest I am disillusioned with the effectiveness of such demos. I was at an anti-arms trade protest on Sep 11 last year, which was just the weirdest thing - as we were hemmed in by police I suspect that we are some of the only peepl not to see 'events unfold' live on telly.

I'm not sure any of those protests achieved diddly squat, although I'd love for u to convince me otherwise. I'm collecting whire poppy seeds to try to plant a subtle message at the door of every arms factory, but I dunno if that will work either.

I reckon democracy is the answer, cos most people aint that stupid, but at the moment what we have is a sham imitation of government 'by and for the people' in the UK, the US and pretty much everywhere really.

All of the above

Post 20


Hi Jen,

True, 'tis a sham, but the fact that they are sham democracies rather than open dictatorships means that there's only so far they can go against the will of the people. But if we all sit back all the time and watch then that line is moved a whole lot further on. Yeah, some of the smaller events are simply ignored by the gov. and sidelined by the press with the help of some inconsequential "my husband slept with the next door neighbours dog" story. But they help build up the necessary networks of people for a really big hit when it really matters - and this is one of those times. The region is pretty unstable as it is, without an all-out western invasion. With the concentration of wobbly dictatorships and nuclear-weapons-states in the area this could be quite a strong bid for WW3. But, on the upside, most of Bushes allies seem to be against a war (even puppy-dog Blair is indecisive) and if they know that they have the support of their people to say NO then peace looks possible. But we need to tell them!

Anyway, bye for now


ps. I'll look out for purple people on the demo!! But hopefully it'll be so well-attended that you can't even find the people you know!!

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