My Idle Theory of politics is that, in busy societies, most people are simply too busy to interest themselves in affairs of state. They will be for the most part happy to delegate the authority to make decisions in these matters to capable persons, while they get on with their own business.
And by affairs of state, I mean matters which concern the whole of society, such as the enactment of laws which govern everyone, the construction of roads or bridges which everyone may use, and the raising of armies into which everyone may be conscripted.
And in the busiest of societies, matters of state may be left in the hands of a single individual: a king. This king will deal with all the affairs of state, and make all the decisions.
But as a society becomes more idle, more people will interest themselves in affairs of state, and wish their opinions to be taken into account. And this people will initially be a relatively small aristocracy, who surround the king, and advise him and debate with him. And gradually monarchical rule will give way to aristocratic rule.
And as the same society becomes yet more idle, yet more people will interest themselves in affairs of state, and these also will be also be included in the debates about affairs of state. And they will need chambers in which to debate, and votes to be tallied. And at this point we have arrived at democracy.
If throughout most of human history, societies have been governed by kings, it was because they were busy societies. And in a country such as England, for much of the past thousand years it would seem to have been governed by an aristocracy, with the king of England as primus inter pares. It was really only a few centuries ago that England became a parliamentary democracy, in which power was invested entirely in its parliament rather than in its king, who remained king in name only.
And that means that in countries like England, there has been less than 400 years of parliamentary democracy, after several thousand years of rule by kings and aristocrats. And it’s an astoundingly short period of time. We have very little experience of this democracy. And nor do our elected representatives, many of whom seem to regard themselves as kings or aristocrats once elected (e.g. Immanuel Macron, who likened himself to Jupiter).
Is this very surprising? What is likely to happen when an absolute monarchy is toppled, and new elected leaders take the monarch’s place? They will rule like the monarchs they replaced. And so when Kaiser Wiilhelm II of Germany was overthrown, he was soon replaced by Adolf Hitler. And when Nicholas II of Russia was overthrown, he was soon replaced by Lenin and Stalin. One dictator was simply replaced by another in societies in which people expected to be told what they should do, because they had no experience of anything else.
However the same thing didn’t happen in America after the American colonists overthrew King George III of England circa 1776. A new tyrant like Hitler or Stalin did not arise immediately to step into the shoes of the king. But by 1776, the king of England had already become a token king. The real power in England (or Britain as it had by then become) was invested in its parliament. And so the American colonists naturally created for themselves a parliamentary democracy like that of Britain. There were precious few working representative governments at that time, the Roman republic having long since passed away. And also the American colonists were for the most part Englishmen. And so it was only natural for them to recreate British parliamentary democracy in America, complete with most of its law. But in doing so they arguably improved upon that democracy by drawing up a written Constitution and a Bill of Rights.
So the newly formed USA did not collapse into tyranny. Instead it developed and improved upon an existing model of representative government. And it also acted to encourage the introduction of similar parliamentary democracies elsewhere, some of which may have included further improvements.
We should perhaps think of these representative democracies as a new kind of technology, not essentially different from other technologies. It’s only about 100 years since the first powered aircraft took to the air, but in that time there have been innumerable improvements in them. And there really ought to be the same sort of improvements being made in representative governments, always with a view to giving more people a say in their own government. But after the innovation of parliamentary government in England, and its further refinement in America a century or two later, there seems to have been precious little further development, except that now almost all nations have similar representative governments.
What kind of innovations am I thinking about? I’m wondering whether, in our increasingly wired world of high speed communication, whether we actually still need to have debating chambers like parliaments where representatives of the people gather to discuss affairs of state? We already have online debates and discussions, with online voting. And no doubt this technology will continue to improve, most likely by leaps an bounds.
And yesterday I was pointing out that most MPs in Britain have no idea what most of the constituents they represent think about anything. What’s to stop them recording their opinions in a database that anyone can consult, so that MPs can have a very good idea of what their constituents think about almost everything?
In a couple of weeks time, the American people are voting in the US midterm elections of senators and congressmen. They only get this opportunity once every 4 years. And there are all the signs that American representative government has become unrepresentative of the Americans it is supposed to represent. For the people are hardly ever consulted. The same is true in Britain. And in much of Europe as well. We are reaching a point of crisis.
It’s unlikely that any legislature will ever vote to reduce its own powers, and disperse power more evenly – just as it is seldom likely that kings will give up their thrones. But what seems more likely to happen is that the locus of debate about affairs of state will shift out of parliaments and congresses into the wider population outside those places. We’ll become a wired democracy in which everything is being discussed everywhere, all the time, with parliaments and congresses and senates being places where relatively little debate takes place. And perhaps this is happening already, and has been happening since the technological innovation of the internet allowed ordinary people to be seen and heard all around the world. And many people (e.g. smokers) wish to have a voice in their own government, which they currently sadly lack.
If nothing else, our current crisis of democracy is almost certainly going to result in further political innovation, if there is not going to be a collapse back into tyranny, as so easily happens.