Modernizing American Democracy for the 21st Century, Part III
This is part III of a four-part series.
By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University
In Part I, we examined why the Founding Fathers designed America’s government as a republic. In Part II, we discussed why a direct democracy could actually be a worse outcome than our current representative form of government. Now we will suggest how we might tweak a pure democracy model to simultaneously minimize corruption and ensure that only informed voters weigh in on the issues.
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Most Americans Are Unprepared to Make Informed Contributions on Many Policy Issues
It’s clear that the 535 lawmakers in Congress are an easy target for special interests to attempt to manipulate. On the other hand, it’s also clear that most of the 330 million Americans are simply ill-prepared to make informed contributions on many of the policy issues that come to the fore.
But maybe there is a way to split the difference between representative and direct democracy, such that we mitigate corruption and prevent ignorance from pushing our country in the wrong direction. One potential solution would be to have some kind of voting proficiency test. The test would be different for each field of policymaking, and would require voters to demonstrate a basic knowledge and understanding of the issue being voted on.
This isn’t nearly as simple as it sounds. Where should the lines be drawn? And who would make such decisions? It is these details that would make the solution difficult.
First, it’s important to note that various lines of expertise will emerge in different places for different issues. For example, the minimum knowledge, skills, and abilities required to vote on a climate change policy would obviously be different than those required to make decisions on economic growth, infrastructure or defense postures. This is because these spheres of knowledge are entirely distinct from one another. As an example, a proficiency test for climate change might cover such areas as how climate change over time and how that change is measured.
By contrast, a proficiency test for economic policy issues would require knowledge of economic philosophies, GDP analyses, trade strategies, stimulus tactics and others. So there really can’t be a “one size fits all” approach. Each policymaking area deserves a carefully tailored assessment tool.
Tests Should Be Designed to Identify Those With a Strong Basic Knowledge on a Given Topic
The spirit of these tests should be such that they are designed to identify those who have a strong basic knowledge on a given topic and those who don’t. But the prerequisite of the test should not limit access to only the most consummate experts in their respective fields. In other words, it should be possible for someone without a college degree or work experience in a given discipline to acquire sufficient proficiency through rigorous self-study.
At the same time, the test shouldn’t be too easy. If these tests are so easy that even voters with little or no knowledge of the subject could pass through deductive reasoning or lucky guesses, they would defeat the purpose of the tests.
Another important question: Who gets to create these tests and the standards by which proficiency is measured? The problem here is that these people would wield a tremendous amount of concentrated influence. As such, they would be susceptible to exploitation and corruption in the same way that some of our legislators are.
For example, the fossil fuel industry might lobby the authors of a climate change proficiency test to skew the questions so that only certain people could pass. In other words, the industry could manipulate a voting outcome. This could happen in virtually any field of policymaking.
To Avoid Corruption Writers of the Tests Should Use a Double-Blind Format
That is why I think the only way to avoid corruption would be to create a test using a double-blind format. Double-blind experiments consist of two groups of test subjects. Neither the experimenters nor the two groups know which group has been exposed to certain stimuli or received medication and which group has received nothing or only a placebo. The idea is to reduce the opportunity for bias on either side. Using this approach, the government could hire an intermediary to confidentially contract foreign experts in various fields of policymaking.
For each subject credentialed experts would be assigned: Environmental sciences, diplomacy, technology, infrastructure, economic growth and stability, civil rights, space exploration, taxation. These experts would draft a basic assessment test in their field.
However, the identities of the experts and the purpose of the tests would not be shared with anyone. So there would be no opportunity for conscious manipulation or foul play on either side. This approach is by no means bulletproof, but it would at least minimize the potential for corruption in the system.
It should be noted that I’m not discussing this proposal in hopes of any personal benefit. If such a plan were instituted, I like most American would likely be excluded from voting on many issues. In my case, I happen to have credentials that would probably afford me the ability to participate in the areas of law, business, hospitality industry regulation and perhaps space policy. That’s about it.
Such limitations exist for every one of my fellow citizens. We are all knowledgeable about something and ignorant in many more fields. This is the nature of living in a time when so much knowledge is available. As author Sam Harris said in a 2010 TED Talk, “Whenever we are talking about facts, certain opinions must be excluded. That is what it is to have a domain of expertise. That is what it is for knowledge to count.”
As such, despite being excluded from, say, climate change conversations, I would take comfort in the fact that those who are entrusted with creating these exams are people who truly know what they’re talking about. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that in 2016 there were almost 90,000 environmental scientists working in the United States. They are consummate professionals in their field and understand climate science and how to interpret it. In terms of deterring corruption, that 90,000 is almost 170 times larger than the number of representatives in Congress, which means that it would be much more difficult for special interests to corrupt any vote on climate change legislation.
Notwithstanding the above discussion, just suggesting something like voting proficiency tests stirs anxiety in many people for many different reasons. And many of these arguments are well-founded, so it’s important that they’re thoroughly considered. In the fourth and final part of this series, we will break down those perspectives in detail, and talk about how concerns might be abated.
About the Author
Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.
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