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Monday, September 5, 2011

Democracy


I often repeat the famous Kent Brockman (of The Simpson’s): “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: democracy simply doesn’t work.”
A friend of mine, however, argued that democracy works perfectly. If you presume the function of government is to remain in power and prevent rebellion or revolt while keeping the people complacent, he said, then democracy is the best system of government that ever existed. By allowing people the “right” to vote, you offer them a compelling illusion of control over their leaders. If you don’t like this guy, you can vote him out later, and you’ll only have to wait three, four, five years tops. That’s not long at all. No need, in that case, to storm the streets and drag him from the palace to behead him in the city square. Just don’t vote for him, and he has to walk away, head downcast in shame.
That’s a cynical viewpoint, but I find it hard to disagree. Certainly in most other ways, democracy drops the ball time and time again. Democratic government is being ruled by committee. Anyone who has ever sat on a committee knows that good ideas end up getting tweaked to make other people happy until you end up withe some concept that no one is excited about. Committees often produce the mental equivalent of oatmeal. Blank, unoffensive, no one loathes it, but no one loves it, either. Everyone is mildly dissatisfied. Should a miracle happen and a true leader get elected as “committee chair” they will swiftly be bogged down in a swamp of argument and pettiness. There is no decisive, swift action that can be taken in committee.
We have a complex system of checks and balances in place to prevent just such far-reaching activity. Checks and balances are great in theory, but all the checks and balances in the world didn’t stop Trudeau from declaring martial law over a pair of kidnappings, or Dubya from invading Iraq on the myth of “Weapons of Mass Destruction.” I guess swift and decisive is possible... but why is it always something bad or violent or both? Why can’t a democratic government “swiftly” decide to eliminate poverty or effectively educate its people?
The problem lies in the fact that democracy is “rule by the people” and people are stupid. Kay from MIB said it best: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.” Talk to a single person and you can have a thoughtful, insightful, interesting conversation. Watch one of those silly “town hall” style meetings and the room becomes belligerent or overwhelmingly sycophantic, depending on their mood. It’s kind of creepy, really, how easily the masses become a mob. We riot over a lost Stanley Cup, for pity’s sake. How pathetic is that? At least, that’s how it starts, then the riot gains its own momentum and it becomes a mindless stampede. If you were brave enough to get in the middle of things and lucky enough to obtain a truthful answer from one of the Vancouver rioters, his answer to a question of “Why are you rioting?” would probably be “Huh? Dunno.”
So what’s the solution? Science fiction, as it sometimes does, has seen the way long before the rest of us did. Artificial intelligence. Movies like I, Robot or Matrix or Terminator paint the rise of intelligent machines as the (potential) end of mankind. But you must remember in all cases where the machines try to kill us, we are fighting them. Usually they bear us no ill will until we start doing what we do best: attack. Would Skynet have sought to wipe us out as a species if we just behaved ourselves and obediently fell in line? Sure, it would put us to work in factories, but is that really much worse than what we’ve got going on right now? We’d still have plenty of room for professionals: educators, doctors, scientists. No lawyers, though, and is that really such a horrible thing?
I for one embrace our future mechanical overlords. Maybe an artificial intelligence won’t use compassion, decency, morality or pity influence its decisions. Neither do politicians. At least Skynet would be capable of logic, and that’s a trait that democracy just can’t seem to grasp.

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