Democracy Doesn’t Scale

Over the years, I’ve developed a pretty good litmus test for whether or not someone’s a serious person.  Pop quiz: You go to the doctor, he diagnoses you, and prescribes antibiotic X.  Now, did he prescribe antibiotic X because

  1. out of all possible alternatives, it’s the best medicine for your specific condition, body, and circumstances? or
  2. the drug rep for antibiotic X dropped by earlier in the week and whispered sweet nothings in his ear?

If you instinctively answered (1), sorry, but you’re naive.  It’s possible, of course, but it surely ain’t probable.  Not because the doctor’s a hack, mind you, but because of the nature of the transaction: If you feel so bad that he’s prescribing for you in the first place, pretty much any antibiotic is going to make you feel a whole lot better.  And given that they’re all very similar, chemically and functionally….

If you’ve still got an idealized view of the medical profession (thanks, Hollywood!), consider financial advisers.  Same question: Your investment guy takes your check and puts it into mutual fund Z.  Is it because

  1. Fund Z truly has superior performance, based on a long, hard look at your particular life situation?, or
  2. Fund Z’s wholesaler took your investment guy out for golf last weekend?

Here again, your financial guy is on the up-and-up.  It’s just that, like antibiotics, all the major mutual funds are pretty much the same — they’re a bit different around the margins, but for all intents and purposes you could invest the same money in any of them and get basically the same return.  If fund Z is a point or two ahead this year, then you can be sure that fund Y will beat it next year.  Same as it ever was.

Financial guys and doctors know it, too, which is why they’re generally pretty cynical about their professions.  While the public thinks docs and financial guys are experts without portfolio — which impression they enjoy, of course, they wouldn’t be human if they didn’t — docs and financial guys know that 90% of what they do can be, and probably soon will be, automated.  Their real successes, the ones they only share with other pros over drinks, are in that 10%, that the public doesn’t know about and wouldn’t understand anyway.  The real art of medicine (finance) is on the margins.

A counterexample is instructive.  I’ve met a lot of docs and financial guys; too a man they were cynics about their jobs.  I’ve also met a lot of academics and journalists — true believers all.  No one is more confident in xzhyr judgment about vast questions of war and peace than some crop-haired, tatted-out nose-ringer who went straight from boarding school onto the tenure track, or into the newsroom.  These people should be confronted with evidence of their own ignorance pretty much daily.  When I was teaching, for instance, hardly a week went by without an undergrad stumping me with a question… and this in classes that were right in my wheelhouse!

Docs and financial guys with any experience at all might go months without seeing something that stumps them, in other words, yet they’re the first to admit their own ignorance (among other members of the guild, at least).  Professors and journalists would rather be drawn and quartered than admit they don’t know something, though every day must have its surprises for them.

The crucial flaw, I think, is the inability to recognize scale.  The financial world, for instance, is so complex that specialization is necessary — your investment guy, I guarantee you, consults a retirement specialist on any but the most basic questions about your IRA (though of course he might not tell you that).  Ditto medicine — your family doc can tell you to a high degree of accuracy that you’ve got cancer, but the minute he makes the diagnosis he turns you over to the specialist.  A big part of the art of “medicine” and “finance,” then, is knowing the limits of the discipline.  Everyone knows the basics, and because they know the basics, they know it’s impossible to master all of the subject.  A pass in o-chem, in other words, doesn’t qualify you to be an oncologist, any more than a pass on the Series 7 makes you the Wolf of Wall Street.

“Democracy,” such as it is, should work the same way.  In small, organic communities — the kind of place where your kids go to school with the mayor’s kids, and the police chief stops by to have a brew and some barbecue every now and again — elected representatives are truly representative.  I trust Mr. Smith to share my basic worldview and priorities…. not least because Mr. Smith lives three houses down, and we see each other in church every Sunday.  Under those conditions, democracy can and does work….

… but alas, only under those conditions.  Representative government, like medicine and finance, simply doesn’t scale.  Modern life is too complex; there’s just too much to know.  Worst, the kind of person who wants to be a “representative” is the kind of person who naturally gravitates to journalism or academia — a pompous, sanctimonious blowhard, in other words, who despite daily lessons in his own pig-butt ignorance still manages to convince himself that he’s an unlimited expert on life and times.  It simply doesn’t scale.

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12 thoughts on “Democracy Doesn’t Scale

  1. WOPR

    That’s why almost every law is written by interest groups. But, then it leads to the thinking that technical experts should run government. Of course, the technical experts really aren’t that smart either. I remember some business guy mentioning during FDR’s mad alphabet period with the brain trust that he was taking orders from some Harvard grad who had no idea how things worked. I don’t know what the answer is.

    OT: The couch warriors are beating their chests over the VA confiscation plans. I’ll believe there is resistance when it actually happens. If there is then as they say it turns into Electric Boogaloo. My bet is pathetic whimpering and swearing they’ll vote them out of office.

    1. Severian Post author

      That’s the way I’d bet. We might well have the answer soon, as Coonman (being a Democrat) is certainly stupid and hubristic enough to call out the National Guard. I’d wager on some widespread malingering among the NG, but no mutiny… and nobody taking a shot at the troops.

      I think the Fourteen Readers and I ought to form a support group, as apparently we’re the only guys on the Internet who weren’t kicked out of Special Forces for being too badass. It’s really damaging to my self-esteem.

    2. Pickle Rick

      The online badasses who were soooper secret Special Forces tough guys are talking shit, but the real guys who can pull triggers are keeping their mouths shut on enemy networks and quietly talking to each other. That’s how it works.

      Remember that the last royal governor of Virginia didn’t think anyone was going to resist in 1775, not did General Gage think there would be any resistance when he marched out of Boston towards Lexington and Concord to confiscate weapons either. Don’t underestimate what the breaking point is. I think rural Virginia has seen the monuments to their ancestors pulled down to cheers, and a hostile, alien people imported to occupy their home, and this last abuse might spark the boogaloo. They’re learning to hate the enemy in Richmond.

      1. WOPR

        There was an actual organization in the colonies resisting the Crown. Several British officials could attest to the fact that it wasn’t safe doing the King’s business. A few guys talking quietly, while nice, won’t stop what Coonman plans. The first few raids will be televised with overwhelming force. If there is resistance, it will be crushed. That nice 3:00am raid where everyone is asleep. The helicopters will be overhead. A couple armored vehicles and SWAT teams. Everyone picked for reliability. A couple of dead bodies wouldn’t hurt. They went for their guns and the officers felt threatened. See how dangerous these people are.

        You need organization to resist assaults like that and we don’t have that right now.

        1. Publius

          One round of bloodshed won’t be the end of it.

          New Zealanders practiced a whole lot of Irish Democracy with regards to their mandatory buybacks. I don’t think Richmond has the stomach for marching the NG all the way to the Kentucky border. If they spill blood on national TV, well, just because they pull it off one time doesn’t mean that’s the end of it. The redcoats in Boston got acquitted, too, for all the good it did them.

          I ain’t saying the long-promised Boogaloo starts next month, but I ain’t booking my fare to the reeducation camp just yet, either.

      2. Maus

        +1 PR. There’s a reason they’re called the quiet professionals. All the post-9/11 special operator self-promotion is really contrary to the esprit d’cour that pervaded in former times. Bottom line: actions speak louder than words.

  2. MBlanc46

    I’ll pass on the validity of the argument (although the premises are true, so far as I know), but I agree 100% with the conclusion. WRT democracy, not only is small good, small is necessary. And WRT WOPR’s take on the VA gun confiscation, my money’s on his prediction.

  3. TBoone

    Democracy no longer scales. Because we no longer value Honor, Reputation, Decency. We have degenerated, decayed, into a Transactional society. Where my ‘Morals’ are more important than yours. My “Feelings” are more important than yours. Situational. No longer Steadfast. Extractive ‘raider’ focus. Not contributive ‘builder’ mentality. No stake in anything but fleeting “FeelZ”.

    Don’t Tell Me, Show Me. Emperor Shinola has The FeelZ. He FeelZ like he is the boss of ‘you’ and you shall do as he Sayeth. Convinced of his superiority. he decrees. He has access to formidable Power which can overwhelm select targets. Hoping to intimidate the rest. Innocent, decent people will be made to suffer. Pour Encourager Les Autres. What to do? Who do you Trust? Hucksters, frauds and enemy agents will all rush to the ‘front’. Front of those getting attention, limelight and ‘atta boyZ’. This will be fought on many levels/fronts. Good guys are out Lawyered and out monied. Out ‘media_D’.

    We all will do what we can. There is enough money floating around in pockets. Yet ‘routine’ transfer mechanisms will be denied. No payPal or electronic transfers to/for those accused of badThink. It’s Moral_ER than you can imagine. So… it will take time to build tiny networks. Based on Trust. Each ‘transaction’, each interaction needs be viewed as a discreet event. Cash to a PO box was useful last week. Change boxes? Or change networks. Betrayal must be ‘expected’. Yet poorly tolerated.

    Emperor Shinola’s magic copters are high maintenance thirsty beasts. Pray for rain. In the fuel systems. Information is a commodity. More eyes looking at the enforcers… than the enforcers can count. Or control. Only so many storm Troopers. Simple ‘comms’…. word of mouth. Real old school. Like, before cell phones and ‘puters. All become of utility. Sand In The Gears. One grain at a time. Takes patience and time. But will wear down any machine.

    What ‘feelZ’ you? What say you? What Do you? Personal questions…. all

  4. Maus

    The real failure of a democracy based on universal franchise is that people like me refuse to concede authority to idiots undeserving of our respect, let alone our assent to their policies. If enough people simply refuse to go along, the machine will grind to a halt. It won’t be easy or pretty. I accept that I’m as likely to be scrambled rather than fed when the omelet gets made. But the insanity is becoming too tedious to suffer in silent seething contempt. How long must we wait?

    1. Publius

      Franchise was never intended to be universal. The idiots will vote for a dictator if they get the chance. It might take them a while to erode the sandcastle, but they will do it.

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