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:

  • Mandate consensus, not win-lose contests. As we’ll see, decisions arrived at through an iterative process of ever-widening stakeholder consent are qualitatively better and have lower cost of enforcement than decisions imposed by a guardians–not just because fewer people oppose them, but because more people are committed to making them work. One-time, majority-rule contests produce winners and losers; and nobody likes to lose. Such contests decide everything and settle nothing. Decentralized information gathering, personal deliberation, and serial (and often multiple-choice) voting–all aimed at approaching consensus–lie at the heart of shared autonomy.
  • Emphasize contracts, not compulsion. By definition, contracts are voluntary, reciprocal, and based on informed consent. They contain duties, obligations, and the means to evaluate performance, enforce key provisions, and resolve disputes. By making the theoretical “social contract” between citizens and government more literal, we harness the power of voluntarism and reduce dependence on state coercion. By making the traditional “employment contract” more participative and extending it to all of a company’s material stakeholders, we take corporate governance out of the hands of those who might abuse it and distribute it more fairly among all those contribute resources, leadership, inspiration and perspiration.
  • Reject involuntary hierarchies in favor of heterarchy. Human beings love all kinds of pecking orders, from those based on good looks and talent to wealth and useful skills. Good hierarchies turn bad when they become involuntary and coercive: roles become castes and mobility–upward, downward, and lateral–is constrained. Under heterarchy, society’s major functions are coordinated by collaborative groups, not authoritarians, reducing opportunities for exploitation and abuse.
  • Create a culture of material stakeholders. People can’t participate in every political and economic decision, at every time and place, and few would want to try. Instead, consensual democracy creates a fluid system in which participation is based on common sense, practical need, and individual capability and motivation. While we may all be stakeholders in all of society’s functions, we are material stakeholders in a relative few–and that’s where consensual participation begins.
  • Acquire the skills of shared autonomy. We are born with certain aptitudes–athletic, artistic, and otherwise–but they need cultivation to grow. More than anything else, consensual democracy means a lifelong commitment to the learning and teaching process: the more we participate, the better we do it–a skill we can share and pass on to later generations.
  • Substitute participation for representation whenever possible. Juries are a cornerstone of Western justice–and for good reason. Some system of citizen jury-commissioners–people randomly selected from a pool of qualified candidates who are willing to serve for a limited time but cannot seek to join a specific jury-commission–will perform many functions now monopolized by well-insulated guardian elites.
  • Engage in political as well as economic “markets.” In a consensual democracy, it should be no more difficult–or easy–to run for executive office or sponsor a ballot initiative than it is to start a business; and the degree of difficulty of that public action should be proportional to its social power or collective cost. Agenda-setting and decision-making at all levels are open to material stakeholders willing to devote the time and effort needed for meaningful participation.
  • Naturally, whole books could be written about any of these key principles. A brief text like this can only sketch a few good reasons why these factors are essential, but reason alone can’t do the job. Overcoming our eons-old tradition of anti-democratic, guardian-based politics and economics can be achieved only by experience–through true education–not rhetoric. All a book like this can do is encourage guardians and their disciples to become skeptics and put their cherished assumptions to the test. Widespread consensual democracy is idealistic, to be sure, but no more so than guardianism’s own starry-eyed premise: that a few  privileged people are always more capable than the whole in determining the requirements for, then realizing, a good life. The real question is not one of idealism, but which ideals are worth pursuing, which have the fewest unintended bad consequences, and which bring out the best–and not the worst–in human nature.

    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. 1. Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Translated by Hill Thompson. New York: The Heritage Press. 1954.

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