Democracy and DNA
The thirst for freedom–for individualism within a social setting–is in our blood. It’s a force of human nature as powerful as our urge to walk, to procreate, to explore and know the world. Much of human nature is self-interested, but that self-interest includes a desire to avoid domination while living harmoniously with others: to share autonomy and control at least the more important aspects of our lives.
Despite the claims of many politicians and bosses, most of us grow up to live our lives in a reasonably balanced and responsible way. After all, society is our natural environment. Collectively, we are the tissue of the human race. Developing in the womb, we mimic the evolution of our entire species: transforming ourselves from a single cell to an aquatic creature (complete with gills and vestigial tail) and finally a nursing mammal that, as soon as our wobbly legs can carry us, zooms off to explore the limits of our house, the city, and foreign lands. Some of us have even bathed in the light of alien worlds, and we’re not about to stop there.
As we mature, our minds race to keep pace with our bodies’ astonishing changes. Psychologically, we surrender our place at the center of a childish universe to reap the rewards of adult society. We learn that some kind of voluntary, reciprocal moral behavior is needed to keep that society together. We learn to compromise, collaborate, and delay gratification. We suppress much of the anger, fear, and pride that do not build strong individuals, but isolates them. Through education and experience, we become the sentient beings anticipated by our collective name: Homo sapiens.
And as we mature, our capacity for individual and collective action grows. We make mistakes, but we learn from them and build steadily on that knowledge. Ox-carts give way to automobiles, and kings are replaced by parliaments, but we don’t stop after the first good symphony or vaccine. Each accomplishment only whets our appetite for more. If we can’t achieve great things ourselves, we help those who do by raising children, paying taxes, giving to charities, voting, and volunteering. By adding our voice to the grand polyphony of life, we become not just the beneficiaries of progress, but its authors.
Most of all, learning to be human means learning to be free. The goal of this brief text is to show how our natural, biological drive toward physical and psychological maturity individually triggers our equivalent growth toward political and economic autonomy collectively. It shows how, despite periodic setbacks–both imposed and self-induced–our quest for personal and shared autonomy is on track. Freedom is more than a good idea: it’s our genetic heritage. Exercising that freedom in the form of direct, consensual participation in the political and economic decisions that affect us most has been the goal of our eons-long experiments in self-governance. Achieving it in a practical, widespread, and sustainable way will be an evolutionary step as significant as the first human footprint on dry land or on the surface of the moon.The big idea here is that, left unimpeded, our destiny is to collaboratively control the conditions of our own existence. Here is a preview of those conditions necessary and sufficient to achieve that shared autonomy–ideas explored in this text. Consensual democracy requires us to:
Once our guardians and their boosters see that the world doesn’t end when their circle of power expands to include the rest of us, a wealth of reasons will spontaneously appear for sustaining our experiment–just as arguments in favor of feudalism, mercantilism, slavery, and the divine right of kings all evaporated when more democratic systems took their place. Eventually, the day will come when we can conceive of no other way of living, and we will wonder why our ancestors put up with so much frustration, injustice, and waste for so long.
In a way, this text is a blueprint–an owner’s manual–for a wondrous machine you’ve always possessed but seldom used. Its components have been tested by time, its design has been blessed by some of the world’s best thinkers–but some assembly is required. That much-maligned and misunderstood advocate of practical government, Niccolo Machiavelli, said that to govern is to imagine; to make believe and make beliefs.1 How much better our world will be when we imagine, then realize, institutions that promote the best in each of us.
Yet living free does not mean living without risk, even when following freedom’s rule book. Consensual democracy in politics and economics is not about guaranteeing a desired outcome but about perfecting an essential process. The only outcome that is truly guaranteed by consensual democracy is the enhanced legitimacy of binding decisions and our greater commitment to making them work. To the degree that consent, not coercion, motivates us to obey our own rules, respect each other’s rights, and preserve the natural world around us, the fruits of consensual democracy–of direct participation in the economic and political matters that affect us most–will include a better life.
- 1. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Hill Thompson. New York: The Heritage Press. 1954.
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