- John Barrdear - http://john.barrdear.com -

The endless, cacophonic debates of pure democracy

Believing in something and being willing to act on it are two different things. It is terribly difficult to confront authority. Confrontation itself is hard. It’s awkward; uncomfortable. Your face may flush, you might sweat, or stammer. Worse, you can find your mind slipping. Your memory may fail you, the speed or rigour of your thought may lessen and the strength of your argument weaken as a result.

When the confrontation is with authority the difficulty is even worse. Many people have an instinctive acquiescence towards figures of power or authority. It can feel wrong in the gut to openly disagree with them. If you fear that the confrontation may result in bridges being burned, or if you feel that you owe the figure of authority in some way, it can be impossible.

Understand that I am not referring to the discussion of something that you feel ought to change with people you consider your peers. That is easy and even serves as a sort of release-valve for tension on the topic by letting you know that you’re not alone in your beliefs. A simple suggestion to a figure of seniority can often be comfortably managed by most. I am speaking of a push for change; seeking actively to change the actions, if not the very mindset, of an authority figure who may be reticent to the idea.

This is one of the reasons, if not the ultimate justification, for anonymous ballots. The safety of anonymity can free people of their inhibitions and allow them to speak as they truly feel. But what of organisations that do not have a democratic structure? What of the hierarchical power structures of firms and government agencies, of schools and universities and charities?

Hierarchies allow for genuine decision making over the endless, cacophonic debates of pure democracy, but they come at the cost of hampering information flow (at an extreme, it becomes unidirectional) and making people at the bottom feel ineffective or inconsequential.

As a society, we seem to have settled on the idea of power being locally hierarchical, but globally competitive between those separate hierarchies. This concept works best when those hierarchies compete not just in the ideas that they represent, but also for the individuals that they are made up from. The competition for individuals should mean that there is a countervailing force to the negative aspects of hierarchies: in order to attract and keep the best people, the hierarchy must work to involve those people in its thinking.

I am fine with this concept – I do not support radical decentralisation – but we need to recognise that people are not free to costlessly move between hierarchies. This means that the incentive to involve them in the hierarchies’ thinking processes is lessened. It seems reasonable to assume that as the cost of moving to another hierarchy as a fraction of individual benefit gained goes down, the more involved a person will be invited to be. In equilibrium, we would therefore expect the degree of involvement to decrease monotonically as you move down any given hierarchy.

While I do not wish for a pure democracy in everything, I think that the optimum would involve deliberate mechanisms for allowing ideas and information to pass upwards through a hierarchy. Perhaps an open market for ideas on each level, with those “voted best” being passed up to the level above?

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#1 Pingback By Optimal power structures at John Barrdear On 25 February 2008 @ 8:22 am

[…] recently wrote that: Hierarchies [of power] allow for genuine decision making over the endless, cacophonic debates […]

#2 Pingback By Power proportional to knowledge | John Barrdear On 15 October 2008 @ 10:45 pm

[…] but I found myself nodding to this – it’s a fair concern.  I’ve wondered before about democracy versus hierarchy and optimal power structures.  I would note, however, that Arnold’s ideal of the […]