dylan_evans's picture
Founder and CEO of Projection Point; Author, The Utopia Experiment

Many people worry that there is not enough democracy in the world; I worry that we might never go beyond democracy.

In an influential essay published in 1989, and in a subsequent book, Francis Fukuyama claimed that liberal democracy was the final form of human government, the "end point of mankind's ideological evolution." Every country would eventually become democratic, and there would be no fundamental change in political organization from then on.

This would be a shame because there may be better forms of political organization that we can aspire to. But the spread of democracy may actually make it harder to discover these alternatives. The mechanism of voting tends to anchor society in the political middle ground. The resulting social stability has obvious advantages, in that it helps guard against political extremism. But it has less understood disadvantages too. In particular, it hinders the development of better political systems.

Societies are complex systems, and like all such systems they can sometimes get stuck in sub-optimal states. In biological systems too, bad designs can persist despite their obvious disadvantages. A good example is the appendix. This organ used to play in a part our ancestors' digestive process, but now it is completely useless, and we'd be better off without it. No only does it not do us any good, but it also occasionally does harm. Hundreds of thousands of people are hospitalized each year for appendicitis in the US alone, and several hundred of them die from it. So why hasn't natural selection eliminated the appendix? Why does it still exist?

One intriguing suggestion put forward by the evolutionary biologists Randolph Nesse and George Williams is that the appendix persists because individuals with a smaller and thinner appendix are more vulnerable to appendicitis. So the normal tendency for useless organs to atrophy away to nothing is blocked, in the case of the appendix, by natural selection itself. Perhaps this idea will turn out not to be correct, but it does illustrate how the persistence of something can conceivably be explained by the very factors that make it disadvantageous.

Democracy is like the appendix. The very thing that makes majority dissatisfaction inevitable in a democracy—the voting mechanism—also makes it hard for a better political system to develop. The reforms that would be necessary to pave the way for alternative systems of governance lie well outside the safe middle ground of the median voter. Politicians advocating such reforms are unlikely, therefore, to be voted into office.

For example, one route to discovering alternative forms of governance may begin with the secession of a few cities from their parent nations, or in the creation of new cities from scratch operating under different rules than those in the rest of the country. It is hard to imagine elected politicians getting away with such things, however, even if they wanted to. The only historical precedents so far have occurred in autocratic regimes, where leaders do not have to worry about re-election. The wave of special economic zones in China in the 1980s, beginning with Shenzhen, was driven by a small cadre of unelected officials headed by Deng Xiaoping. 

I think we should worry that democracy may turn out to be a historical cul-de-sac, a place that looks pleasant enough from far away, but that doesn't lead anywhere better.