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Yes, Democracy Is in Trouble

Responding to: Is Democracy in Trouble?

Hi John,

I think you make some excellent points and your suggestions are certainly sensible, but I also think there is a bigger beast to slay. The problems we have now are no more 'wicked' than any we have had in the past, however, we certainly need to adopt more modern explanations so that we can navigate their 'complex interdependencies'. I suggest the root of the problem comes from our obsession with the who-should-rule question, and our lack of innovation in policy-making, which can be improved once we understand a little more about where policy comes from.

Furthermore it does no more good to lament the issues we face: there will always be problems, and we will always have to solve them, and because of that we will always have such 'wicked' problems of increasing complexity, and 'contradictory ... requirements'. These point to nothing more than our systems themselves requiring improvement. Jones speaks of these 'wicked' problems as though the problem is some how to blame, but there is nothing inherently wicked about the universe or the problems it challenges us with, and there is a simpler (and more reassuring) explanation: some of our explanations are wicked, and more particularly it is bad philosophy that helps create and propagate these wicked things. This is why there is no definitive formulation, and why they have no 'stopping rule'. However, there is hope because when the problem is now how we interact and the ideas we cultivate, and the question becomes how do we do away with wicked explanations, and wicked policy?

I agree that Parliament is where the improvement needs to happen, but to suggest that we could keep electing the same people and achieve superior results cannot possibly fix the problems we face, because our true problem is with how we solve problems. Only by fixing the process of policy creation and removal can we ensure that we are able to avoid the bad explanations that produce bad policy.

Karl Popper suggests a criterion for judging democracies which is both objective and powerful: the quality of a democracy is how easy it is to remove bad policy without violence. Canonical democracy is able to do such a thing, however, we are by no means efficient at it. How are we to define 'bad policy', though? The answer is simple: the ease of varying policy is inversely related to how good it is. If we think about each extreme, it becomes clearer to see why, as a policy that is easy to vary must have little connection to reality, and a policy that is very deeply connected with reality must only have a very small number of possible forms (where any change to the 'why' would take it further from the truth). In actuality it is exceedingly difficult to make a policy so perfect it is impossible to improve upon, however, since our options for policies are diverse and finite, it is easy to compare them, and when no suitable explanation can be found to inspire policy we must create new ones.

This is truly where policy comes from: it is a creative endeavour that comes from our understanding of the world. It is the creation of new options that allows us to solve the wicked problems of today, and thus to 'fix' our parliament we must first 'fix' our method of creating new options. There are good reasons to believe that parties are not the vessel that can take us there, at least not in their current form. I don't doubt that a loosening of political discipline would move us in that direction, but to believe we can do it forever with canonical parties ignores the fact that parties are not the source of good debate or good policy, and thus there must be better methods of creating good policy, and solving wicked problems. I've written about this political philosophy just a few days ago:

I contend that if we were able to solve the problem of the explanations behind policy there will be no requirement to educate or train those involved with politics, because those best suited to create novel policy options are already qualified. The question is how to utilize them.

Finally, I'm starting a novel political party in an attempt to address the philosophical issues plaguing our parliament. It doesn't conform to the methods or structures of canonical parties, and may be able to win 6 senate seats with only 1% of the primary vote (with a trick I call the Senate Preference Hack). If you're interested, it is named the Neutral Voting Bloc and the website is

-- Max