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The balance of powers

A recent discussion on LinkedIn group URBANIST asked “Should Mayors Rule the World?” Some suggested that mayors are “just human”, and therefore imperfect, and that a better solution would be “direct democracy.”

But this solution misunderstands where we have arrived, and why we have arrived at where we are today.

There’s a tension in governance between technocracy—”the government or control of society or industry by an elite of technical experts”—and democracy—”a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state”. Most of us interested in the city are professionals, and have a bias towards expert knowledge, and therefore technocracy. Most planners bemoan the influence of politics and politicians in city-building. But politics is just the face of democracy.

This tension goes back to the Athenian Greeks, who ruled their city through a direct democracy, though only the landed elite were allowed to participate. Democracy was criticised by Plato in The Republic. He thought that cities should be ruled by knowledge, and that knowledge requires expertise and skill. He used the example of a ship: do we want it guided by a knowledgeable captain, or by the whims of the crew?

And this introduces a third tension: the need for stable guidance, otherwise known as leadership. Where we have arrived now, in representative democracies, is a particular accommodation between the demands of:

  • the constancy of leadership
  • the knowledge of experts
  • the demands of the people

What particular accommodation would be better?

I don’t accept the quick response “direct democracy.” There are many problems with direct democracy, and though the whole ball and dice of governance is worth examining, I think that anyone who is quick to advocate for direct democracy is not dealing with the problems of direct democracy, which include:

  • the tyranny of the majority: “the scenario in which decisions made by a majority place its interests above those of an individual or minority group, constituting active oppression comparable to that of tyrants and despots.”
  • demagoguery: “political leadership in a democracy which appeals to the emotions, fears, prejudices, and ignorance of the lower classes in order to gain power and promote political motives.”
  • the madness of crowds: basically, the capacity of rumours and false beliefs to propagate through a populate, leading to speculative bubbles, moral panics, witch-hunts, and other nasty stuff.

The founders of the American Republic thought that all state power was dangerous, and therefore introduced the concept of checks and balances to their design.* This suggests that the various powers should be set against each other, so that no power can gain complete control.

If we are dissatisfied with this particular accommodation between these disparate powers—leadership, knowledge, popular will—what will the new accommodation look like?

That’s one question we want to explore here.

* The Wikipedia article attributes early American political thinking to Greek and French sources. But another account, which has considerable scholarly support, attributes these ideas to the Iroquois Confederacy.

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