Do 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.