Jared Diamond has sounded a clarion call in his most recent and interestingly provocative book, The World Until Yesterday. Diamond has thought a lot about the evolution of human life and the processes of enabling and managing those lives; he has also spent big chunks of his life digging (literally in some cases) through the primitive world (he says traditional) and the early existence of intelligent beings as far back as 11,000 years. Several truly interesting and usefully important insights emerge from his histories.
First, although humans were more adept at a lot of simple rudimentary techniques than most people today know or believe, our species remained for most of those 11,000 years in a primitive state of organization. Families, clans and tribes constituted the core organizational units of society. There were few or no states as we know them today, for the simple reason that, for most of that history, the only form of communication was individually spoken sounds/words. There was, therefore, no ability for larger groups of people to know each other well enough to organize their lives on a larger scale.
Second, when writing, printing and other very recent (last 100 years or so) means of modern communication came along, the pace and content of that communication ramped up amazingly quickly, which, in turn, stimulated the growth of human skills and the spread of innovation in all areas of human activity, including, very importantly, governance. The collective systems we now call nation-states became ubiquitous, and have continued to change and evolve.
Third, in the last 500 years we have witnessed a variety of forms of governance around the globe, including Kings and Queens and other lesser forms of royal governance, as well as religious powers, some of which still exist in form if not substance. It is quite clear now, of course, that those particular forms of governance have largely outlived their times and in only a few years (viewed in the span of 11,000 years) will be completely gone.
Fourth, we have seen various forms of dictatorships and how, with difficulty and pain, each has run its horrible course, even in the present — witness Nazi Germany, the communist Soviet Union and, currently, the forerunners of the Arab Spring.
It is only in the last 250 years, in a variety of ways and places, that those democracies as we think of them today have emerged. There have been some strange and tragic takes on democracy in its relative infancy. Imagine trying to explain to 25th century Americans that a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a legitimate goal for the Russian Revolution at the beginning of the 20th century That state has happily morphed away from its original simple fraud on the people in whose name the dictatorship sought to rule, and is struggling today to become a modern democratic state, albeit somewhat different from our model.
In Europe and other parts of the world, so-called representative democracies have been emerging for a couple of hundred years. Those models have been based primarily on parliamentary systems which we and they are discovering (with some confusion and pain) are quite different from our model of separation of the executive and legislative functions.
Today, far too many of us tend to think, reflexively and automatically, that our American form of democracy is the ultimate expression of human self-governance, that it has long been perfected and should be able to serve us and the whole world in its present form forevermore.
Our presumption is, of course, well, RIDICULOUS!
Why should we think for a minute that the evolution of governance has reached its pinnacle in the American system? On the contrary, any rational person looking at the matter objectively has to believe either that our American Democracy has failed us (Exhibit A: Congress?) and we’re doomed to the same destiny as the monarchies which preceded us or, for the glass-half-full types, that our system of governance is still evolving to meet and reflect the changing natures of humans and their modern lives. What they can’t honestly assert is that this system, at this moment, is already perfect.
If thought of in these terms, many Americans might be able to come together and agree that at a minimum we should be thinking hard about how today we could improve our system. For example, how can we make timelier and better decisions? How best to spend our national wealth (or deficit) and run our country? Where is our vision and foresight?
Perhaps we should look at some other countries’ systems and how they fared differently from ours and why.
For example, China has in the last 20 years apparently been able to make big decisions and loosen the reins on its citizens at the same time. They seem to be well aware and even nervous about public opinion. Still it is true that, to American eyes, the Chinese still look to be excessively centralized and oppressive; their system is very different from ours, to be sure, but has elements that we could benefit from knowing more about. At least, we should be open-minded to the possibility of learning.
While we invented our democracy in a world as it existed over 200 years ago, the Chinese are doing it in a different era, and thus may be able to shape their system to the modern world better than our 200-year-old system is able to do today.
What are the biggest failings of American democracy today? There are many. To name a few of the biggest ones:
- The perpetual stalemate in the legislative branch, and our consequent inability to reach compromises on major issues which require long term planning and perspectives such as spending, taxation and debt management;
- Improper distribution of voting power and rights, which has modified and distorted the competitive balance in our representative system. For example, Democrat candidates for the House of Representatives in 2012 received, overall, more than 1 million more votes than their Republican counterparts, but Republicans maintain a 33-seat edge in that chamber. The strict constructionists among us may prefer NOT to recall that our House of Representatives was intended to be the body that would most immediately reflect changes in public sentiment.
That has been turned on its head by both campaign finance problems, which ironically gives too much power to too few people despite the internet’s ability to attract millions of small supporters, and gerrymandering the borders of House seats to protect one party or the other.
The result is that the Senate has in recent years become more the indicative source of changing public sentiment despite the fact that Senators have six-year terms.
- Abuse of the filibuster process, originally intended to protect minority rights but now a bludgeon used to thwart any hint of progress the Senate struggles to find and display.
We do need to first admit to ourselves that we have systemic governance problems which appear only to get worse with time. If we face that reality perhaps we can find some consensus on how to begin to seriously to look for a path to solutions. That is simply how perfecting evolution occurs.
Our problems are not exclusively legislative. In the past 100 years — since the Interstate Commerce Commission became the first independent regulatory agency in 1905 — we have blanketed every level of government with a vast crazy quilt of regulation. Taken one by one, much of that regulation was well intended and even essential to the operation of a fair and balanced modern society. Taken as a whole, however, it becomes a mind-numbing morass most people would agree is stultifying innovation, growth and modern human functioning at large. We have to address that problem head on as well because, absent a rethinking of our approach, it will inevitably simply compound further and will only get worse.
Happily, various new ideas are beginning to emerge, including some innovative ones like Tri-Sector Governance, in which both the public and both private sectors work together in a pragmatic and organized way to address the management of many societal activities in which all sectors have important and vital roles and interests that further regulation can do little to help.
Regulation is a reasonable and rational approach to preventing many bad outcomes, but, with very rare exceptions utterly fails at making good things happen. This type of operational collaboration (as distinct from political collaboration) is beginning to show signs of helping to make parts of modern society work better.
From time to time presidential and/or Congressional Commissions of wise, grey heads, beyond political fear or favor, have studied big problems like social security and health in society and that type of non-partisan problem has occasionally bypassed endless political gridlock. Perhaps we should think about better institutionalizing that process and give it more significance in our whole governance system.
So back to Jared Diamond. He has done modern society a big favor in documenting how some past societies became extinct because they failed to observe and/or react to the forces driving them in that direction until they had already passed a point of no return. His Guns, Germs and Steel and then Collapse and most recently The World Until Yesterday are together an amazing warning about what lies ahead for our system and lives as well as pointing out in constructive ways what we can do about it.
He points the way to how society can learn from previous governance evolutions (or extinctions) how to adjust and further evolve in better directions. Just a quick look at what happened to ancient Greece (as well as today’s Greece) and Rome and most recently Great Britain should give us sufficient warning. While we today primarily focus on the Arab world and its revolutions including al Qaeda and terrorism, we have largely lost sight of the even bigger problem we have, which simply said is OURSELVES and our process of governance.
A word to the wise is said to be sufficient. The beginning of better wisdom today would be for all our public officials (for starters) to read Diamond’s books and begin to think about how we can go forward together and create a new governance future for our children and grandchildren and beyond.