Democracy is not perfect

Mankind has yet to stumble upon a perfect form of government.

March 14, 2021

Robert A Heinlein is one of my favorite authors. His books often present readers with incredibly thought provoking ideas while keeping them invested in an interesting story. On the surface level Heinlein's most recognized book, Starship Troopers, is a story about a boy becoming a man as he serves in the military, and if you're only familiar with the terrible movie Starship Troopers you would think that the book is about a bunch of space fascists conducting xenocide. The first description is only true on the surface level and the second is not true at all. Starship Troopers is really a book about the sacred responsibility people (especially the people who are trusted to participate in elections) have to protect the safety and interests of their communities, it is a book about what it means to be a citizen of a country and about the necessity of a strong military (which was a controversial opinion among Heinlein's Libertarian peers).

Starship Troopers is a good book worth reading, but my favorite of Heinlein's books is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress presents a revolution story of a colony of people living on the moon seeking independence from the governments of Earth. Much of the book is structured similarly to the writings of Aristotle where there would be dialog between three characters, one being the teacher and the other two being students where one student is much more skeptical and stubborn than the other. The lesson that the teacher teaches his students here in the book (which is of course the lesson Heinlein is teaching us) is to question the reasoning and logic behind the types of government and government policies we have become accustomed to.

The book presents a society that has adopted a libertarian style of self governance where there is no need for things like a traditional police force, a system of courts, or even taxes (this was the book that convinced me that taxation is theft) and the protagonists, especially the teacher figure who becomes the ideological leader of the revolution.

At one point in the book the protagonists set up a congress and task them with writing a constitution, this congress never really accomplishes anything (this is a topic for another day) but it is always in the background trying to figure out how to do things. At one point in the book they come up with a draft of a constitution to vote on, Heinlein never directly told us about the contents of this constitution but he alludes to the fact that it was probably heavily based on the American constitution. The teacher figure/ideological leader of the movement wasn't at all satisfied with this draft and this is what he had to say about it:

Comrade Members, like fire and fusion, government is a dangerous servant and a terrible master. You now have freedom—if you can keep it. But do remember that you can lose this freedom more quickly to yourselves than to any other tyrant. Move slowly, be hesitant, puzzle out the consequences of every word. I would not be unhappy if this convention sat for ten years before reporting —but I would be frightened if you took less than a year.
Distrust the obvious, suspect the traditional . . . for in the past mankind not done well when saddling itself with governments. For example, I note in one draft report a proposal for setting up a commission to divide Luna into congressional districts and to reapportion them from time to time according to population.
This is the traditional way; therefore it should be suspect, considered guilty until proved innocent. Perhaps you feel that this is the only way. May I suggest others? Surely where a man lives is the least important thing about him. Constituencies might be formed by dividing people by occupation. . . or by age. . . or even alphabetically. Or they might not be divided, every member elected at large---and do not object that this would make it impossible for any man not widely known throughout Luna to be elected; that might be the best possible thing for Luna.
You might even consider installing the candidates who receive the least number of votes; unpopular men may be just the sort to save you from a new tyranny. Don't reject the idea merely because it seems preposterous—think about it! In past history popularly elected governments have been no better and sometimes far worse than overt tyrannies.
But if representative government turns out to be your intention there still may be ways to achieve it better than the territorial district. For example you each represent about ten thousand human beings, perhaps seven thousand of voting age—and some of you were elected by slim majorities. Suppose instead of election a man were qualified for office by petition signed by four thousand citizens. He would then represent those four thousand affirmatively, with no disgruntled minority, for what would have been a minority in a territorial constituency would all be free to start other petitions or join in them. All would then be represented by men of their choice. Or a man with eight thousand supporters might have two votes in this body. Difficulties, objections, practical points to be worked out—many of them! But you could work them out. . . and thereby avoid the chronic sickness of representative government, the disgruntled minority which feels—correctly!--that it has been disenfranchised.
But, whatever you do, do not let the past be a straitjacket!
I note one proposal to make the Congress a two-house body, Excellent - the more impediments to legislation the better. But, instead of following tradition, I suggest one house legislators, another whose single duty is to repeal laws. Let legislators pass laws only with a two-thirds majority . . . while the repealers are able to cancel any law through a mere one-third minority. Preposterous? Think about it. If a bill is so poor that it cannot command two- thirds of your consents, is it not likely that it would make a poor law? And if a law is disliked by as many as one-third is it not likely that you would be better off without it?
But in writing your constitution let me invite attention the wonderful virtues of the negative! Accentuate the negative! Let your document be studded with things the government is forever forbidden to do. No conscript armies . . . no interference however slight with freedom of press, or speech, or travel, or assembly, or of religion, or of instruction, or communication, or occupation. . . no involuntary taxation. Comrades, if you were to spend five years in a study of history while thinking of more and more things that your governinen should promise never to do and then let your constitution be nothing but those negatives, I would not fear the outcome.
What I fear most are affirmative actions of sober and well-intentioned men, granting to government powers to do something that appears to need doing. Please remember always that the Lunar Authority was created for the noblest of purposes by just such sober and well-intentioned men, all popularly elected. And with that thought I leave you to your labors. Thank you.

We see in this quote many valid criticisms of the systems of government that we are most accustomed to. Winston Churchill once said, "Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

No man-made system is perfect, especially systems where one man or collection of men is given power over others. Like a true Libertarian, Heinlein ends the book without telling the reader what structure of government this fictional society settles on, this is of course done so that Heinlein does not have to accomplish the impossible task of thinking up a perfect system.

But of course despite its flaws, democratic elections are not likely to go anywhere and we should always participate in them. We should seek to elect people who are aware of our system's shortcomings so that they can work to fix them, or at least work around them. And most importantly we should always be skeptical of the norm.