United States Congressman, Louis Gohmert, claims the Soviets helped Kennedy become President. Rep. Mo Brooks thinks rising sea levels are caused by rocks falling in the ocean. US Senator, James Inhofe, used a snowball to demonstrate that climate change is a hoax. Rep. Matt Gaetz claims the Special Council investigation of Trump is a coup d’etat. Lamar Smith has used his position as head of the House Science Committee to harass climate researchers. Rep. Harry Shiver opposes arming teachers with guns not because it’s a stupid idea, but because most teachers are women.
If it seems like Idiocracy is a Republican phenomenon, spend the day with Democratic Congressman Sheila Jackson Lee, or ask Rep. Carolyn Maloney about vaccines. Or better yet, survey the crop of barely-vetted rookies Democrats will place in the House next spring. If you want to a hear a Democrat sound as dumb as a climate denier, ask them some questions about GMO’s or Monsanto. Republicans hold a lead in the march toward Idiocracy thanks to pioneers like Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin, but Democrats won’t be left behind. The problem is systemic.
A changing environment can convert a once-successful adaptation into an evolutionary liability. Liberal democracies rose to ascendance on a signature trait – breadth of participation. Incorporating the insights and opinions of the governed into public decisions granted flexibility and legitimacy impossible in an autocracy. While monarchies and dictatorships stagnated under their own ossified decision structures, liberal democracies grew rich and powerful. They became so rich and so powerful, that they have transformed the environment in which they live.
Liberal democracies base policy decisions on the power of common sense. In a democracy, my opinion, formed by a careful study of supermarket tabloids and YouTube lectures carries the same weight as your physics PhD. In an agrarian or early industrial society this wasn’t a problem. What was lost through reliance on median opinion was gained in additional legitimacy and stability. As little as half a century ago there was relatively little data, relatively few people producing it, and few critical decisions turning on expert insights. However, in a society producing as much new data every year as humans created in their entire previous evolutionary cycle, common sense is a poor basis for policy.
Democracies have a problem with expertise. When the demand for expert decision-making reaches critical levels, democracies may face a kind of death-spiral. Pressed between dangerous problems demanding complex, unpopular policy choices and public resistance born of ignorance or paranoia, bureaucrats and “sane” political figures begin leveraging anti-democratic methods to enact crucial policy reforms. Voters grow frustrated, then hostile, as “unresponsive” leaders find ways to skirt public opinion to save the country or the world.
Infuriated by the failure of “elites” to respond to public opinion, voters eventually find candidates sufficiently dumb or cynical to indulge their delusions without concern for outcomes. As consequences pile up, faith in government declines in an accelerating negative feedback loop. Voters throw their anger behind even more irresponsible candidates while elites start betting on alternative methods to address public needs.
Does this scenario sound familiar?
Under the best of circumstances democracies struggle to be smarter than their median voter. Channeling public opinion through representatives is supposed to help, but it’s a weak firewall. Shifting power away from legislative authorities onto bureaucracies and the courts provided some relief for a while, but voter revolts are shutting off this pressure valve. As we enter an era in which the ability to process scientific reality is minimal standard for survival, democracy may still be smarter and more nimble than autocratic governments, but that’s not enough of an advantage to guarantee continued supremacy. A newer form of social organization is outperforming democratic governments and eating into their power.
Corporations make decisions by hiring experts. Where government decisionmakers are bound by “rule of law,” a corporation is freer than governments to innovate, favoring informed opinion over public opinion. Even large, relatively sclerotic corporations tend to be more nimble than our government, giving them the ability to address problems and projects governments have neglected.
Corporations are run by human beings (though with increasing input from computer-aided reasoning), and so are subject to the same limitations of expertise and reason that any human institutions face. Their insulation from the voting public helps, but this should not be overestimated. In many ways, corporations face the voters every day, all day, as buyers and sellers express their values in transactions.
Like governments, businesses rely on human reasoning to make decisions and like governments they are strongly influenced by public will. What keeps corporations from ossifying into the same stagnant decision structures as our government is competition and failure.
Even with advice from the smartest experts, a plan can be flawed. A political leader can cruise through a series of disastrous public policy judgments with appeals to herd loyalty and a healthy dose of fake news. By contrast, corporate leaders get to watch their mistakes fail in an open marketplace. A CEO might convince all the magazine editors in the world that the Edsel is a winner, but it’s tough to cheat the market. When the revenue dries up, the party’s over.
Companies may be smarter and more nimble than governments, but much of that flexibility evolved because companies regularly fail. Their collapse can cause pain, but that pain seldom extends far beyond their employees and shareholders. Unproductive business models are snuffed out while superior adaptations spread. A constant churning cycle of creation and destruction breeds flexibility and responsiveness. Put another way, corporations operate on a faster evolutionary cycle than governments.
If the Veterans Administration or the Department of Housing and Urban Development were private entities, they would have disappeared long ago, their functions assumed by new, better organized, more effective institutions. Our present government is in dire need of the cleansing force of undeniable failure, but the consequences would be too dire to imagine. Instead, we seem to be gradually and painfully evolving out of the liberal democracy which prevailed since World War II into something new.
By raw statistical accident our next President, like our last one, might be a serious figure with the training and will to tackle complex problems like climate change or failing infrastructure. Regardless, the basic structure of our system will remain in place to undermine and eventually neuter her efforts. Getting lucky in one election cycle won’t save liberal democracy from itself. If we ever wean ourselves from fossil fuels and see atmospheric carbon levels drop, we’ll owe that development to inventions developed and promoted by organizations faster and smarter than government as we know it. A democracy’s tendency to devolve into Idiocracy is an accelerant that kicks in under strain, pushing a weakened system toward self-immolation.
With government under pressure from Idiocrats and straining against its own inherent limitations, private companies are taking on more and more of the functions we once thought belonged entirely in the public realm. Businesses run the migrant detention centers along the border. Businesses now run many prisons and schools. Private companies are beginning to replace social workers in Texas. Along the margins of liberal democracy where governments haven’t evolved quickly enough businesses are taking up the slack.
Whatever is next after liberal democracy, it seems likely to grant enormous new influence to corporations. How far can businesses be stretched to serve unprofitable public needs? In what’s next after democracy, who gets left behind?
This post is part of a series exploring what’s next after liberal democracy and what we should do to prepare. Much of this material was covered in The Politics of Crazy, though from the perspective of a more optimistic era. The work fits better as a whole, but reading through a 6000+ word piece on a computer seems impractical. When these are complete I’ll gather them into a series of links on a single page.