Finishing the Job

This Memorial Day, as we remember the sacrifices made for our liberty and security, it behooves us to meditate upon how to reduce such costs going forward, as well as not squander what our war dead have earned.

The obvious short term path to reduce our future war deaths is to elect either Ron Paul or Gary Johnson and bring home our troops from the current quagmires and forgo our role as the world’s policeman. But perhaps this would squander what our recent war dead have dearly earned. And would it be honorable to leave either Iraq or Afghanistan in a state of civil war? And can we as a Christian nation stand aside for genocide while remaining a rich nation with the mightiest military on earth? Finally, would such a policy minimize our war deaths in the long run? What kind of world would we leave our grandchildren with Russia or China as the most powerful patroller of the seas?

The foreign policy of the libertarian Republicans is dubious in the abstract, but with a full accounting of the effects of our current policies, including foreign civilians killed as well as depletions on our arsenal and treasury, cannot be ruled out. Saddam Hussein was a monster who killed many thousands of his own people, but many thousands of Iraqis have been killed under our attempts at more benevolent rule. Our efforts in Afghanistan have been more effectively benevolent as the Taliban was even more monstrous, and low level civil war is the norm in that mountainous tribal land.

We intended better for both lands, of course. And the Bush goal of introducing democracy to the Arab world as an offset to radical Islam is indeed admirable! But we cannot afford the liberal luxury of measuring our actions by our intent. Conservatism calls for a higher standard: what are the actual results of our policies? Regarding our attempts at imposing democracy through military might, the results are mixed at best.

This is no critique of our troops. They have done their job more than well enough. The problem is political. Many nations resist democracy.

One proven remedy is to wield the iron fist. During World War II the allies bombed cities, including firebombs and nuclear weapons. This was true shock and awe! It worked. The local populations were rendered docile and they listened intently to our civics lessons. But we would rightly be considered monsters if we resorted to such brutal strategies under these less dire circumstances.

Another proven solution is outright colonialism. It worked for the British. They spread free trade and rule of law around the world and did so at a profit. The British Empire might stand today had they not squandered their assets on socialized medicine and World War I. But once again, we have an unpalatable solution. Colonialism runs against our founding ideology. Furthermore, running a colony at a profit runs afoul of United Nations laws, laws we helped create.

No, to better impose democracy whenever a tyrannical society earns our wrath, we need to understand why that society resisted democracy in the first place. To do so we must upgrade the simplistic civics lessons taught in too many of our public schools. All too often our adolescents are taught that democracy is majority rule, and that majority rule is the ideal.

Majority rule can be evil. It is evil in any deeply divided land, including educated civilized lands such as Northern Ireland. In such lands the largest faction, be it tribal or religious, persecutes the rest. Minorities often fare better under dictatorship, empire or secession. When we topple dictators or colonial powers in favor of majority rule, we often exchange one evil for another, sometimes greater, evil. And the gallantry of our soldiers is thus wasted.

Our great republic has elements of majority, and even plurality, rule, but it also has many exceptions: filibusters in the Senate, judicial review, enumerated powers, federalism, unanimous juries, and the Bill of Rights. Our republic works because it limits majority rule. If we wish to spread the blessings of law and liberty, we need to spread the complete package, not the Cliff Notes summary taught in our public schools.

But perhaps this is too ambitious an undertaking. The ideas that led to our Constitution and our reverence for rule of law evolved over hundreds of years. We had practice in elections and federalism long before the American Revolution. Many of our traditions of liberty extend back to feudal England and even before. To impose such a complicated tradition of checks and balances and legal traditions upon a barbarian land or a land long used to emperors is a long term undertaking, too long for a superpower which wishes not to be a true empire.

We need to dig deeper into our democratic traditions, outside the narrow synopsis taught in our public schools. Go back far enough into our past and you will find a democratic tradition robust enough to work for unwashed blood-feuding barbarians. The schools usually teach that democracy arose in Athens. Then the Romans had a go at it. Then the idea disappeared until we revived the concept. The summary is overly prideful and dangerously wrong.

We are not the first post Roman republic by any means. And Rome is not the only inspiration for our system of government. Northern Europe has democratic traditions that go back to antiquity, back to the days of tribalism, blood feuds, illiteracy and bad table manners. I refer to the Vikings and the ancient Teutonic tribes which harassed the Romans before. They practiced democracy, but it was not majority rule. They had a better system. When a candidate or proposal was put before the assembly of warriors, those who favored the proposal beat on their shields with their spears. Those who disagreed shouted him/it down. They measured not noses (or fingers) but sentiment. A motion favored by a majority but hated by a sizeable minority would lose to a motion which produced broader consensus.

Each barbarian warrior could voice his opinion on every proposal or candidate vs. merely stating his favorite. Elections thus worked with more than two proposals or candidates to consider at a time. There was no need for complex parliamentary procedures or primary elections to winnow down the choices to two – processes which can be gamed to produce great division.

We cannot scale this direct democratic format to modern nations with larger jurisdictions and higher populations. But we can experience the same advantages with a better voting system: Range Voting. Replace the shield beating and shouting with numerical scores and you have a system easily implemented with the same technology used to process standardized tests for decades. You have already seen Range Voting in action. Judges use it to determine best high diver and best figure skater. Teachers use it to determine high school valedictorian. (Grade points are in effect a 0 to 4 range vote.)

Range Voting does not always find the majority (or plurality) favored candidate. Range Voting attempts something far better: to minimize Bayesian Regret. That is, Range Voting seeks to find the candidate that is least bad overall. Consider an election in Iraq. A Kurdish Separatist, a Baathist or a Shiite fundamentalist would each have a large faction of strong support – despite very strong opposition. With a plurality takes all voting system, one of the latter two could win an election and thus throw the country into civil war. With Range Voting a capitalist or a social democrat who solicits support from all three factions would have a much better chance of winning an election. For example, with a 0-10 range ballot, a Kurd might give a 10 to the separatist and zeroes to the Baathist and the Shiite fundamentalist. But he would likely hedge his bets by giving intermediate scores to his favorites among the more conciliatory candidates. Similarly, a Sunni Arab might give a 10 to the Baathist and zeroes to the other tribal factions, but still give nonzero scores to the non tribal candidates. A unifying president is the likely result. Self government is possible and the U.S. troops can come home.

To spread this improved version of democracy abroad, we might first have to practice it at home. This might be a good idea, as our own system breaks down when more than two serious candidates are on the ballot. This was harmless enough when it led Clinton to beat Bush and Bush to beat Gore, but when divisions were deeper, it led to the bloodiest war in U.S. history, whose losses we commemorate this day. While perhaps our devastation was deserved, due to the injustice of slavery, let us hope we can resolve today’s injustices by less bloody means, both here and abroad.