Is democracy the least evil?

The old saying goes:

“Democracy is the worst system of government… except for all the others.”

Is that really true?

We haven’t really come up with all that many systems of government to choose from: tribalism, feudalism, despotism, and the twin brothers we hold dear: democracy and republicanism.  But are democracy and republicanism really that much better than the others?  I contend that they aren’t.  They are better in a way, because a plurality of people in a democracy will probably end up getting something close to what they want, but they can still act despotically towards a large minority.

I contend that what has protected our society and others that are generally free and prosperous are not the democratic tendencies but rather constitutional and institutional guarantees.  The bill of rights, separation of powers, checks and balances and a culture of freedom have been the bulwark against despotism in America, and our republican system has very little to do with it.

This is what makes me worried.  All of these good institutional measures are deteriorating.  Of the all the amendments in the bill of rights, the first is the only one which has maintained its health.  The 9th and 10th amendments, which are supposed to guarantee all the rights that didn’t end up enshrined in the constitution, are no longer even considered by courts.  Our due process rights, guaranteed in anendments 4, 5, and 6, are being eroded by the goings-on in Guantanamo and the shady tactics of the drug war.

But it isn’t only the bill of rights that is coughing and sputtering, the executive branch over the years has continually claimed more and more power.  Checks and balances are falling by the wayside and the powers aren’t all that separated.  The culture of the people in this country is becoming polarized into big-government Republicans and big-government Democrats.  We may yet discover a despotic democracy.

So, is there something better than democracy?  I would say yes: voluntarism.  Each person selects their rulers, and is able to change their mind on a fairly regular basis.  If you and I select different rulers, we have to follow different rules.  I’ve expanded on this in some old posts and might do so some more, but there is no chance of being ruled by a despot under this system, as there is in all the others.

That wasn’t the point I was necessarily trying to make here, though. The important point is that it takes strong institutions and a fair set of ground rules to guarantee freedom, and the system of government is secondary.  We need to make sure we maintain and nourish our institutions of freedom so that our society will remain healthy.  I’d rather live under a dictatorship that guarantees my rights than a democracy that guarantees none.

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Village Free School

A very good friend of mine from college is one of the founders of a very interesting place. It’s called the Village Free School in Portland, Oregon. I’m afraid to say very much about it because I don’t want to tell you lies, I’m honestly not entirely familiar with what they do, other than that they are a very good school and their philosophy seems to be in line with my own.

My understanding of what a “free school” is is rudimentary. I think that the essential idea is that the kids and teachers work together to determine what the lesson will be on and how it will be taught. Whatever topics are piquing the interest of the kids at any given time are explored thoroughly until their curiosity and interest has been satiated. Teachers are there to facilitate, and I’m sure they can inject any good ideas they might have into the learning process if they are so inclined.

I compare this to my experience in lower and middle school. I went to a Montessori style school from pre-kindergarten until I entered undergraduate. The way our school worked was that we had to fulfill certain requirements; say, four “humanities” assignments, three “math and science” assignments, and two “writing” assignments. We were given fairly large leeway to do these things, and a range of activities to choose from. You could generally also “think outside the box.”

For example, my favorite activity was the “shark report,” where you choose a type of shark and write a few paragraphs about it, making sure to answer some basic questions. One day, a friend and I were working on an assignment, and my pencil point hitting the paper was bothering him a lot. So, we got together and decided to learn cursive (I think this was in the second grade). All we got done in a single day was one shark report, but since it was in cursive, we had impressed the teacher enough that she said it was okay. That’s the kind of good feeling that comes from taking initiative, following through, and accomplishing something you can be proud of, and that feeling can only come when you have the freedom to do those things.

The free school seems like it’s even more along the lines of what I support. I support freedom, in all its forms, and giving people, especially kids, the ability to learn responsibility, entrepreneurship, and self-motivation. I think the free school is an exemplar of this attitude, whereas public school is the exact opposite.

The Village Free School in Portland is accepting gifts of money or materials so that they can continue their mission of providing a great learning environment for their students.  Just taking a look at the materials they are looking for gives you a sense of the enabling environment they are building.  I plan to donate and I hope you will too.

Kids Rights: rites

Kids have to be protected and guarded by their parents, this is a biological fact. And yet, all human beings have rights by their very nature to freedom and the pursuit of happiness. These values can sometimes conflict, and when they do it can be difficult to sort out who should have the say: the kids or their parents.

This is why most societies around the world have rites. Once children go through these rites, they become adults in the eyes of the community, and that is the point at which they are given the full freedom accorded to every human being. In my opinion, smart parents will give them a good deal of freedom before this point to prepare them, but once the person goes through the rite of passage, they are guaranteed both adult freedom and adult responsibility.

Unfortunately, in our country, we don’t really have something like this. Some religious organizations still have something along these lines — Bar Mitzvahs, Confirmations, or Rumspringa for example. And there are a few things we can point to — getting your driver’s license, graduating high school, turning 21 — that might give the young person an inkling that they are expected to be an adult, but all of these are based on age.

All people are different, and there isn’t a specific age at which people are ready to be an adult with all the rights and responsibilities that attach to it. Some people as young as 14 or 15 are ready, whereas others might not be ready until 22 or even older.

I’ve been trying to think of different ways that something like this could come about in our society.

  • John McCain has a plan for expanding a national service system, where people would volunteer to go into the military or into a domestic program like Americorps for two years before or after college.  Many think his idea is to make this mandatory, which I am dead set against, but if it were simply encouraged as a good idea it could fit this bill.
  • Rites like this have traditionally been some sort of test, either of strength, or courage, or moral turpitude.  It could be like that, sort of like the SAT of being a responsible person.
  • One friend suggests that it could be something like what a teenager in the video game The Sims II has to do:  choose an aspiration like love, money, books, or family.  Maybe they could have to do some sort of project toward that end, like an eagle scout would, for example.
  • Another possibility would be to have a program where people who die donate their estates to a fund that gives young adults some “starting out money.”  Once they take that money, their parents aren’t supposed to give them any more.  This could help to equalize society in a pretty interesting way, giving poorer kids a shot at making it and lessening the number of trust fund kids.  If you believe in taxation, you could create a system like this using taxes.

Any possibility, I think, should be purely voluntary, but that doesn’t mean they can’t start a tradition or even a strong social more to follow them, which after all, are pretty much what rites of passage are.
The whole reason for my idea is to eliminate the current levels of age discrimination in the law, those arbitrary ages preventing people from driving, drinking, voting, suing, buying things and all the things that responsible adults get to do, and responsible young people should be able to also.

Do you have any ideas?

Kids Rights: voting

There are far too many freedoms that are denied to children in our society.

I’ve always thought that children and young adults, while definitely in need of guidance, would also be better off learning how to govern themselves and make intelligent choices at a younger age. In order to learn these things, they need to be given the opportunity and the freedom to decide some things for themselves.

I don’t have kids of my own, yet, so my opinion may change when I do, but I hope not.

I intend to be doing many posts on this theme on various topics. The first I’d like to address is voting.

Why does the right to vote accrue to us in this country at the age of 18? Like many age restrictions, it is entirely arbitrary. Some young people at the age of 14 are more informed and smarter than the average adult, and there is no reason to keep them out of the ballot box. Other young people are less informed, but it is likely that they will simply not want to vote. Children in this way are just like the general population.

I am interested in hearing arguments as to why the voting age shouldn’t be lowered or done away with altogether. If you are old enough to know how to work the machinery of voting (and most kids use far more advanced computer systems every day), you are old enough to make a decision for yourself how you wish to be governed.

I’m not a big fan of voting in general, because I don’t think it is of any use given the system we are living under now. Perhaps in a different system, things might be better. But I think that whether to vote and who to vote for is a decision that each person should be able to make for themselves. Children are people too, and deserve to be counted.

So, I am proposing that the voting age be lowered to 0. I don’t know if this requires a constitutional amendment, as lowering it to 18 did, but if it does, then I am proposing that we make such an amendment.

Please, won’t someone think of the children?