Tag: Representative democracy

Integrity and democracy.

“Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Thus said Aristotle.

Here’s another quote from more recent times.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

So said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Today’s post started as an ill-defined idea in my head following me reading a recent essay over on Patrice Ayme’s blog.  It was his (her?) post of the 17th July in which was written, “Representative democracy has to be destroyed as an ideal.” and later,

Meanwhile the French People would be well advised to search for a new form of government more appropriate to the modern world, and the increasing democracy we all dearly need.

One does not have to look very far for inspiration: the Confoederatio Helvetica next door, an independent, and central part of the Franks’ Francia, is enjoying a much more direct form of democracy.

that caused me to leave a comment,

I read a deeper malaise in your essay, Patrice, and that is the failure of ‘representative’ democracy in country after country around the world. In fact, it’s inspiring me to write a post over on LfD about the possibilities for truly democratic government.

that, in turn, was replied to by Patrice:

Please go ahead, Paul, and keep me informed! ;-)! And you are completely right. Representative democracy is actually oligarchic representation. Athenians had 80,000 citizens, and 80,000 legislators. France has about 1,000 times more citizens, and one half of a thousandth (1/2,000) fewer legislators. That makes the French democratic index half of a million times less than the Athenians!

Let me step back for a moment.

Over the life of this blog, I have touched on the vulnerability of human life on this planet more than once.  It’s not being at all smart to say that mankind is crapping on its own doorstep and our future is in severe doubt.  The reason I say it’s not smart is simply because millions of people almost certainly think that or something pretty damn close.

Maybe the huge divide between what ‘the man in the street’ knows makes common sense and the terrible lack of common sense shown by so many of our governments is at the root of the problem.  In other words, our representative democratic system isn’t working.

Here’s a letter from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times from just last Tuesday.

Tuesday’s letters: Our democratic system is at risk

There are thoughtful, informed people who are worried that our democratic system of government is not working and the whole enterprise is at risk. I think there is only one solution to the problem: to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

It is foolish to think that the personalities of members of Congress change when they arrive in Washington. A worrisome number were fools, buffoons and rigidly ideological before they were elected, and there is no realistic possibility that anyone or anything can change their personalities after they are elected and while they are in office.

It is a crisis long in the making. Most students finish high school with little or no understanding of American history or the way their government works. There is no understanding of the idea of citizenship and the heavy responsibility imposed on citizens who live in a democratic republic. There has never been so much information so easily available that could allow people to make wise use of their votes. But without the perspective of education and a deep understanding that voting is everything in our system of government, it all may slip away.

Roger C. Benson, St. Petersburg

to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

I wouldn’t argue at all with the wisdom in those words.  But I would add to it.

It’s my sense that many citizens in many countries feel that the whole business of government has got to large, too complicated, too remote and, frankly, has less to do with working “cooperatively with others and solve problems” than with feeding its own mouth.  Take voter turnout.

Graph of voter turnout percentage from 1824 to 2008.
Voter turnout in the USA; 1824 – 2008

Why such high levels of absenteeism; for want of a better description?

Let’s go back to the Athenians as Patrice mentioned.  Plenty on the web to read but this article caught my eye.

Athenian Democracy: a brief overview

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003

· Summary ·

This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Its purpose is to introduce, very briefly, the institutions of the Athenian democracy during the late 5th century BCE through the end of the radical democracy in the late 4th century. This is a companion-piece to “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” also written for the CHS’s discussion series.

· Introduction ·

The city of Athens lived under a radically democratic government from 508 until 322 BCE. Before the earlier date there was democracy to be found here and there in the government of Athens, and democratic institutions survived long after the latter date, but for those 186 years the city of Athens was self-consciously and decidedly democratic, autonomous, aggressive, and prosperous. Democracy in Athens was not limited to giving citizens the right to vote. Athens was not a republic, nor were the People governed by a representative body of legislators. In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains (for the latter, see Aeschin. 3.157).1 The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security. The system evolved over time, suffered two complete breakdowns in the 5th century, and is certainly open to criticism at many points during its history. Nevertheless, it was coherent enough during those two centuries that we can describe it, in general terms, without being too far wrong on any point. And despite its moments of imprudence, injustice, and indecision, it was an experiment remarkable enough to deserve our attention.

The early history of Athenian Democracy and its development is the subject of another article in this series. This general description of how the Athenians governed themselves will focus on the 4th century BCE, both because the democracy was most fully developed during that time and because the majority of our evidence either comes from that period, or describes the the Athenian government during that period.

Now there’s much more to read here for those so interested but I want to highlight a section from the above.  This section:

In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains. The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security.

So from 322 BCE to 2014 AD!

A few days ago, Jeannie needed to change some details regarding her US Social Security payment.  We saw that it could be done online.  As one would expect, setting up online access for Jean meant jumping through a number of security hoops.  All more or less sorted in 20 minutes.

It was clear that it would be incredibly difficult for someone to fraudulently break into her online SSA account. Think of the millions who perfectly happily manage their bank accounts online.

Ergo, there are no technical issues why every single eligible voter in the USA (and many other countries) couldn’t move towards governing themselves in a direct manner just like the Athenians. Indeed, voting in the USA at times of Presidential elections is permitted. But all that is doing is participating in a system that isn’t delivering real democracy.

We need to govern ourselves: “debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains.” Because humanity is facing some issues that are very great indeed!

Or have I missed something bloody obvious?


I opened today’s post with two quotations.  I shall close by offering another two.

“If we don’t hang together, we most assuredly will hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin advising the original continental congress of what became the United States of America.

“A key political question today is: Do you support the well-being of the Earth and the life that the Earth supports?

From a good friend and supporter of this blog who chooses to remain anonymous.  Who then added: “This question has spiritual, natural and rational implications which frame the debate in terms of human values greater than money.”

Looking down the wrong end of the telescope.

Trying to make sense of the utter nonsense of the Rio+G20 summit.

I share the deep frustration that must be felt by millions around the globe at the outcome of the Rio summit meeting, if outcome is the appropriate word!  Martin Lack summarised his anger in a post last Friday and I’m going to publish an extract from his writings because they so perfectly reflect not only his anger but, I suspect, the anger of millions of others.

Adam Vaughan’s blog from Rio for the Guardian newspaper is not for the faint-hearted.  At 2:07 pm today, [Friday 22 June 2012 12.23 EDT, Ed] he quoted David Nussbaum (WWF-UK) as follows:

“It would have been naïve to pin too many hopes on a single conference, but undeniably we expected more from the outcome document. Entitled ‘The Future We Want’, the text doesn’t live up to the aspirations of the title – it’s more a case of ‘The Future We’ll Get If We Rely On Politicians’. Full of weak phrases, and re-confirmations of previous aspirations which they haven’t realised, the text fails to commit governments to actions, targets, timeframes and finance to which we can hold them accountable….What we have is an agreement within the bounds of what they thought politically possible; what we needed was an agreement to address what is scientifically necessary. This is no way to manage our planet!”

Neither would I recommend George Monbiot’s column today – Rio+20 draft text is 283 paragraphs of fluff; unless you are feeling brave:

“World leaders have spent 20 years bracing themselves to express ‘deep concern’ about the world’s environmental crises, but not to do anything about them…Several of the more outrageous deletions proposed by the United States – such as any mention of rights or equity or of common but differentiated responsibilities – have been rebuffed. In other respects the Obama government’s purge has succeeded, striking out such concepts as “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” and the proposed decoupling of economic growth from the use of natural resources.”

I would like to be able to dismiss this as facile criticism from the liberal left. However, in reality, to do so would be to second-guess the scientists who have been telling us for decades that we need action not words. Our children and grandchildren will not forgive us for failing to act.

BUT a conversation I had with Lew L. here in Payson last Friday afternoon helped crystalise some thoughts that I would like to share with you.

Representative democracy a la British House of Commons

The first is about democracy, or more accurately representative democracy.  Lew pointed out that some US Towns still employ direct democratic processes where all the people who attend a Town meeting vote in person for or against the motion.  The challenge for a representative democratic process is that those elected representatives are vulnerable to a wide range of influences and between elections may be taking decisions that the people would neither support nor approve of.

The idea of direct democracy goes back a very long time, as Wikipedia reveals,

The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian Democracy in the 5th century BC,

So it could be argued that the fundamental flaw in the Rio+G20 meeting was not the lack of any real progress by our ‘leaders’, but in our expectations, as in the expectations of ‘you and me’, all across the world.  The money and power that must be intertwined in such games of international politics doesn’t bear thinking about.  It was Lord Acton, the British historian, who said: ‘Power tends to corrupt, absolute power corrupts absolutely‘.

So rather than expecting our representatives and leaders to do what we what them to do and being bitterly disappointed, time and time again, there is another equally valid way of bringing about change – create the change you desire by changing yourself.

As my friend Jon Lavin expressed in a very recent email,

People like something solid to relate to in such changing and unpredictable times and a dogs view is brilliant because dogs just are because they are in the present. All that matters is the ‘now’. Most of our problems can be traced back to our lack of ability to be in the ‘now’. Driven by regrets about the past, and a fear of what the future holds, we carry on hoping that all our problems can be solved by amassing material possessions.

Oh, well. The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.

So that leads on to my second thought, the urgency in tackling what is happening to the Earth’s climate.  In Martin’s second angry post over at Lack of Environment, he writes,

Here in the UK, the weather is literally unbelievable. 100mm of rain falling in one day. At the end of June. It’s ridiculous. Just one problem: It is exactly what the climate models predicted.

Global average temperatures are rising. Since the 1980s, every decade has been warmer than the last. 1998 was a very warm year, but global warming has not stopped; it has morphed into Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD). Some even suggest we should call it Human Induced Rapid Global Overheating (HIRGO) but I prefer ACD, because that is what we are experiencing: It will be decades before it becomes obvious that HIRGO is happening and, if we wait for it to be obvious, there will be no way to stop it.

We need to accept that ACD is a reality; it is an inevitable consequence of a warming atmosphere; one with more moisture in it more of the time and – as I said – it is exactly what the climate models have being tell us would happen for decades. That being the case, how is it that our politicians – seemingly led by members of a supposedly left-of-centre Democratic Party administration in the USA – can have such monumental tunnel vision as to offer up the planet itself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the god of Growth?

But do you see the fundamental error?  The idea that our leaders have to create change: “.. how is it that our politicians …. can have such monumental tunnel vision as to offer up the planet itself as a sacrifice upon the altar of the god of Growth?

As Jon Lavin revealed in his email to me, the agency of change is within each of us. It is not a “thing.” There’s a huge amount of information revealed by a simple Google search on change, the change process, change management process, etc., etc., so I’m not going to add to the noise by quoting the experts.  It’s as simple as Jon wrote:

“The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.”

OK, moving on to my second thought, and for this I want to play a little mind-game.

That is what would be the impact if 50% of the combined populations of North America and Europe decided to save the power of one 60-watt lamp, or equivalent, for 36 hours a year, i.e. turning off one 60-watt lamp for less than one hour a day for a year!

Let’s take this a step at a time.

The combined population of the USA, Canada and Europe is 1,090,487,000 people, i.e. a little over 1 billion.

Thus half that population is 545,243,500 persons.

Saving 60 watts for 36 hours a year is 60 X 36 = 2,160 watts.

Thus 545,243,500 people times 2,160 watts = 1,177,725,960,000 watts.  Which is 1.178 trillion watts. (rounded up)

 I say again: 1.178 trillion watts.

How can one get any notion of what that means?  The best I could find from a web search was this:

The U.S. electric power industry’s total installed generating capacity was 1,119,673 megawatts (MW) as of December 31, 2009—a 1.0-percent increase from 2008.

Ergo, in 2009 the USA had the capability of generating 1,119,673 megawatts.  A megawatt is one million watts so 1,119,673 megawatts is 1,119,673,000,000 watts, or 1.119 trillion watts.

Wow! switching off a 60-watt lamp for less than an hour a day would save 1.178 trillion watts, more than the combined generating capacity of the entire USA in 2009 of 1.119 trillion watts.

I suspect that the current USA generating capacity isn’t that much different and, of course, one can’t run away with the idea that all of that is generated by fossil fuels.

But if I have done my mathematics correctly (and do please check my sums), the simple expediency of turning off one 60-watt lamp for 36 hours a year, if done by just half the populations of North America and Europe, would be the equivalent of saving 105% of the total US generating capacity!

So think about the change you want in your life, and  the lives of your children and grandchildren, and get on with it.  Turn out that light!

“The best way to save the world is to work on our selves.”

And I can do no better in terms of reflecting on the power of our minds, than courtesy of this fabulous video which Christine of 350orbust had last Saturday:

Remembering Fred Rogers.

Final thought!  If one thinks of the way that we trust the Internet for so much these days, and the huge number of people that are now ‘wired’, it doesn’t seem to be beyond the wit of man to come up with a reliable, secure method of direct voting electronically.  Wonder why that hasn’t caught on?