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Welcome to the Age of Autonomy

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Fareed ZakariaDo we have too much democracy? That is essentially the argument Fareed Zakaria is making in The Future of Freedom.

The republican notion of government and society has been slipping away from us, according to Zakaria, and he makes a pretty compelling case.

  • Are you concerned about too many special interests having too much sway over Washington policy? Blame Congress for ending closed committee hearings in the 1970s. Now lobbyists — whose numbers have grown substantially since the change — know every vote and every comment that a congressman makes, and this gives the lobbyists a substantial advantage.
  • Do you think there is too much pork barrel spending in our annual budgets? Blame campaign finance reform limiting the size of contributions, which makes politicians work harder on raising money and pander more to special interests.
  • Have lawyers hi-jacked the legal system in the name of partners’ profits? Blame increased competition brought on by the end of restrictions on legal advertising.
  • Are accountants no longer providing proper oversight for the likes of Enron and WorldCom? Again, the desire to increase competition allowed accounting firms to start charging commissions, rather than relying on hourly rates.

These and other failings of 20th Century American democracy are contributing to a growing disillusionment with the democratic process, according to Zakaria. Fewer people are voting, even fewer trust Washington and there are troubling signs that our social fabric is coming undone.

The situation isn’t hopeless, however. Zakaria does offer a few concrete ideas for reform. For example, the burdensome tax code could be re-written by a board of appointed commissioners, eliminating single-industry tax breaks and other unnecessary loopholes, maybe even switching our tax base to consumption rather than income. This alone could generate $200 billion in additional revenue. Congress would then vote up or down, with no amendments, on the new tax plan.

I say, why stop there? Why not create a similiar commission to create a budgetary road map that eliminates pork and gives Congress and the president only limited power to deviate from that road map, at least for five years, while Congress itself is reformed more along its original ideal.

And part of that ideal, which Zakaria only briefly touches on, is that U.S. Senators are not supposed to be elected. They are supposed to be appointed by state legislatures. Undoing this “reform” would go along way toward restoring faith in Congress and returning the Senate to the elder statesmen status it should hold.

The way of democracies that become too democratic, Zakaria argues, might very well be tyranny. Just like the Athenians 2,500 years ago, we could someday decide we prefer an authoritarian government rather than the dysfunction of pure democracy.

I’m not sure things are that dire. While we’ve archived an age of individual autonomy unknown to previous generations, we do have a fairly well designed system still in place. So long as the government maintains enough power to marshall a standing army and police forces sufficient to keeping the peace, I think most people are going to be content to let the government meander along, and let those who care about it do the voting and the legislating and the fidgeting over arcane policy questions. The Age of Autonomy may be the next logical step in a stable democracy’s development. That is a bit of a historicist’s view, which Karl Popper would reject, I kind of like the idea of the Age of Autonomy (my phrase, not Zakaria’s). It means people have greater individual freedom, and it is a freedom that can only be obtained in a secure and stable society. In the Age of Autonomy, people trade off, if they so wish, participation in the process for greater liberty to pursue other interests. It can only happen where people feel safe to do so. It is the ultimate expression of the triumph of democracy.

Zakaria, I think, might disagree. Clearly, though, some balance must be struck between the modern man’s desire for nearly unlimited autonomy, and society’s need to maintain order and cohesion. Reversing some of the democratizing steps of the last 30 years might help, but we’re never going to roll back the clock completely or perfectly. We also need to find ways to mold our government to these new realities, keeping our eye on the ball, which is security and stability and continuing freedom.

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About Howard Owens

  • A coworker and I spent some time debating some of these very issues yesterday. I have been preaching the “democracy is not freedom” mantra for a while now, so I’ll have to pick up the book to see how it substantiates or suborns my own views.

    I’m curious, though. How would restoring the Senate to a legislature-appointed body make any difference? I’ve heard this before, but I haven’t studied anything to describe what the practical difference would be.

  • The Senate is supposed to be a body of elder statesment removed from the fray of electoral politics. They would be more immune (though no system would make them totally immune) from the influence of special interests. They wouldn’t need to raise campaign funds. Their only office-keeping concern would be keeping half+1 of their home-state legislature happy. They could focus, then, more on long-term concerns rather than exclusiviely the politics of the moment. They would be the adult supervision for the more rambuncious House.

  • Hmmm, I’m not sure I buy it. Isn’t it equally likely that they would still need to raise campaign funds, this time campaigning for the legislators instead of the people of their state? Heck, with that sort of limited group of “voters,” wouldn’t it be much easier to “buy votes” and just provide a direct quid pro quo to the legislators in exchange for the appointment?

    I don’t see how they would really be more immune from the influence of special interests as well. It might be a touch harder for lobbyists to give them cash, since there would theoretically be no campaign finance funds to launder it through, but that’s already somewhat limited, and the lobbyist groups are still managing to get their lobbying done.

    Like I said, I’m not against the idea, but I fail to see how things might really improve.

  • I don’t see how it cannot but improve. Sure, a senator might (and probably should) do campaigning on behalf of the legislators who vote for him, but that wouldn’t be a major focus of his time. In a state like California, a senator needs several million dollars to credibly run for re-election. That makes the senator nearly a full-time fundraiser year around.

    Also, senators (all elected officials really) are supposed to represent, not legislate by polls. Since senators would be relieved of the burden of appealing directly to voters, they would have the ability to move beyond expediancy and take a longer-term view of policy issues.

    The idea is to insulate the senate from the electoral emotions of the day, make them less responsive to hot button issues and more responsive to good policy.

    Yes, the senators will be answerable to their state legislators and will need to do some limited pandering there, but it would take a far more powerful block than any legislature could probably muster to make a senator a total patsy to a narrow interest. I just can’t see how a senator, under such a system, wouldn’t be more free to vote his conscious rather than vote according to poll numbers or lobbyist’s dollars. You can argue, well he’s still going to be raising money for legislators, but since he’s no longer personally dependent on those dollars, he’s in a stronger position to tell a lobbyist to piss off.

  • You’re far more optimistic than I am. Since a Senator would no longer be responsible to the voters, they might be less responsive to hot button issues, but sometimes that might not be a good thing. And if you think a Senator is ever going to tell a lobbyist “no thanks” when offered something, you’ve definitely got a better image of human nature than I do. 8^)

  • What would be the incentive for the senator to accept something (obviously a very vague term) from a lobbyist? The lobbyist can do nothing to help the senator retain his job.

  • I don’t think lobbyists are promising reelection now. I think the something most often promised has little or nothing to do with the job, and everything to do with off-the-books perks (all expense paid trips) or after-retirement perks (a paid position doing nothing for some firm somewhere) or things of that nature.

    if they don’t, they certainly would. 8^)

    Besides, it’s probably easier for a lobbyist to own a few legislators than to own a large segment of the voting public, so job retention might be an easier thing to promise under a legislature-drivien system.

    Still, I’m all in favor of returning it to the system originally defined by the Constitution, I just don’t see it as the solution to…well… anything.