Tuesday, October 20, 2009

A Republic of No-Confidence

I am personally a fan of a republic as a form of government. I don't understand governmental economic policy and its implications or the ins and outs of international diplomacy anywhere near well enough to make educated judgments about these important issues and frankly I don't want to. I find a lot of the details boring, frustrating, and tedious. Instead, I try to understand the broad issues and then vote for men and women who have the intelligence to understand those issues and whose broad opinions agree with mine. In essence, I don't want a pure democracy, I want a republic.

Couple that with the fact that something like 75% of people in the US will rate themselves as having above average intelligence or decision-making ability and the fact that Congress has an approval rating hovering around 25%, and you get this fun little fact: a Rassmuson survey showed that 51% of Americans rate their understanding of healthcare reform as excellent or good, while only 31% rate their Congressman's understanding as excellent or good.

That means that at least 20% of Americans believe that they understand a major piece of legislation better than the man or woman they elected specifically to understand and evaluate these sorts of issues. Note that this question wasn't asking if people agreed with their Congressman's opinion of the bill - only whether or not they understood it.

How do you have a republic where the citizen have little to no confidence that their elected officials are qualified to do their jobs?


  1. Nick, you make such a good point. I am a little concerned with a pure democracy myself. I say a survey a while ago that said > 60% of Americans say they are more moral than the average American.

    It is an interesting question: how do you empower everyone so that they have a voice while at the same time correcting for the fact that most people understand issues a lot worse than they think they do.

    Although, the fact is I have an excellent understanding of policies. Definitely above average, unlike those darn congressman! :) They should be listening to me!

  2. Take a look at
    'On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not'

    That will add perspective to some of these surveys. People think they know things but in reality I am the only one that does. =:)

  3. Another example of this that we have in Colorado (and I believe exists in California as well) is a so-called "Tax Payer's Bill of Rights" or TABOR. In Colorado any tax increase of any kind at any level of local or state government must be directly approved by voters. Unfortunately, this leads to huge numbers of ballot measures on minute tax issues because (1) the failure rate for these is about 75% and (2) there is a strong correlation between the size of the tax increase and the probability for failure. This means that, for example, this election cycle I have to vote on 1 city, 4 county, 2 school district, 1 fire district, and 2 state taxes, the largest of which is a 0.75% sales tax. I try to be an informed voter, but there is no way I have the time or interest to actually understand the details of 10 different tax proposals - some of which overlap due to the high expected failure rate. I would much rather have a mayor, county commissioner, school board, and state legislature that could figure that out for me, but TABOR is looking out for my right to vote on endless details of minor tax issues.

  4. Yeah, the propositions have reeked havoc on California's budget. "The People" can vote for some proposition to force the government to "build this", "repair that" and at the same time demand taxes either get cut or at least not be raised.

    Such propositions create huge state spending and no new taxes to pay for it.

    People like to blame California's goverenment officials for the budget problems but they need to look at themselves for a large chunk of it.

  5. Nick, I think you make a good point in that we, as a people, generally do not trust congressmen to be able to do their job -- the exact people that we elected to do that job. At first this seems ridiculous -- i.e. if we don't trust their capacity, then why did we hire them in the beginning?

    However, I think the problem comes in the constraint that we can really only "hire" or elect people who want to run. How many times have we come to election day and heard the same old jokes about picking the least of however many evils? The people that we'd probably really trust to read and understand and decide on complex pieces of legislation -- the trained doctors and community leaders and humanitarian aid people, etc -- generally don't run for Congress. I know I wouldn't want to. The closest they get to the process is acting as advisers and giving the occasional testimony before Congress. It's really rather difficult to find someone intelligent and moral enough to be qualified for the job, but crazy enough to want it. (The problem, I surmise, is not necessarily one of actual qualification, but rather of public image of qualification. I know there are a great number of moral, intelligent, qualified people in Congress, but as a whole the body doesn't have the best public image.) This is an inherent problem in a republic. (Though I wholeheartedly agree with you that I greatly prefer a republic to a pure democracy.)

    The question then becomes what to do about it. I'm not really sure. I've sometimes joked about invoking the draft for governmental positions. i.e. We don't have anyone run for or campaign for office -- we just have a massive write-in election for whichever people the electorate thinks is most qualified, and then the people so named are requested to serve -- kind of like jury duty. (This is all tongue-in-cheek, but I'd really love to hear any ideas on how to solve this problem while maintaining the basic republican structure of government.)


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