The Ideal Determination of Government

Following from a previous sketch on the ideal size of government [1] the following is an attempt to describe some formative directions towards an ideal determination of government. This exploration is, in part, directly influenced by the previous essay, but also by debates over confederate, federal, and unity forms of governance and the notion of representation, influences from various voting systems, especially proportional representation in election and governance, social choice theory and Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, plus previous reviews of deliberative democracy [2]. Of course, engaging in the questions of what is the ideal determination of government is worth starting from the other direction and specifying what determines the worst government type, a kakistocracy [3], rule by the less competent and less scrupulous. Note that this is not describing the actions, but the process that has led to such a government.

Despotism and Beyond

The temporary despot who rules over a large population or region is defined here as the worst determination of government. The despot, who rules with absolute power and whim, can be even more dangerous than the absolute monarch, who at least has a tradition of laws and lineage. There is a possibility that the despot can acquire a sense of responsibility for their subjects, but this is acquired with the wisdom of time. The lasting despot tries to become a monarch, even when motivated by their self-interest alone. The satisfaction of their pleasures by the land and subjects requires both not to go to waste. Further, the despot who rules over a small region or population is not as damaging that as those who rule over the large. The former is not unlike a capricious family patriarch; the latter has absolute power writ large. These distinctions provide some sense of why some medieval states following the Byzantine court title are described as despotates (e.g., Epirus, Arta) by contemporary historians. Small, ruled by autocrats, and short-term, the despotate has very limited utility.

There is a long trajectory across the metrics of the distribution of power, the establishment of positive law, and the selection of government. The absolute monarchy, like the despot, is not bound by law but is at least constrained by lineage and has the responsibility of time. The historian Perry Anderson [3] makes the point however that very few monarchs from early modernity could claim absolute power. In contrast, the constitutional monarch is limited by a prescribed legal framework, of which the Code of Hammurabi is a remarkable first document. Of course, what those limits are and how the authority that establishes and interprets those limits is a subject of reflection and should be treated as a continuum. Historically, constitutional monarchs had their power distributed via a feudal structure, an oligarchy whose members naturally considered themselves aristocrats (the term strictly means "rule by the excellent", hence the support of such as structure by the ancient Hellenic philosophers).

The main problem with these systems is primarily an information problem. The despot, the monarch, the lord, the modern dictator, even when acting in a benevolent fashion, lacks the capacity to know all the various needs of their subjects, they lack the capacity to direct across number and space, and they lack effective feedback mechanisms to determine the correctness of their decisions. Whatever the many normative justifications that are provided, one of the advantages of democracy as a technology is that it is an attempt to resolve issues of information. In a sense, democracy opens up the variables of selection and scope of government for debate: What is the scope and constraints of activity? How long do people hold their positions? How are they selected? With the implementation of these variables in place in a protective manner, it must be a source of some frustration for those who wish to use the process of majority rule to attain despotic power.

Determining The Scope of Government

In reviewing the revolutionary spirit of the United States [4], Arendt argues that a commitment to a Constitutio Libertatis was a determining factor of its success. There is an enormous element of idealism in Arendt's argument and the critical comparison with the French revolution woefully neglects the enormous economic and military circumstantial advantages that the United States had over the French. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the constitution and the scope constraints it places of governance correlates with defining what constitutes the res publica, the proper affairs of public intervention and in distinction to res privata, defining the distribution of the "commonwealth", defining the limits of governance with regards to other political bodies (federal, unitary, supernational), functional components (official languages, legal tender, standards of weights and measures etc), and finally, the means of changing the constitution. As the aggregate of fundamental principles of a political body, a codified constitution will protect itself from the temporary vagaries of majoritarian democratic opinion with more difficult for alteration or amendment, and with interpretation subject to higher levels of judicial expertise through a trias politica separation of the powers [5].

An ideal constitution is highly attentive to scoping issues. It will explicitly state, without ambiguity, the isocratic elements of democracy, in contrast, the majoritarian elements, including the right of people to self-regarding and other-regarding [6] consensual activity. At the end of the scale, the commonwealth is ideally constitutionally defined as economic land i.e., all natural resources, but also with the caveat of activities to manage issues of market failure. Further, the ideal economy scopes itself properly in the geography and population of which it applies. Unitary governments have the advantages of economies of scale, but the disadvantage of does not reflect the heterogeneity of needs. Federal governments, as their own sovereign locus of decision-making power, have the advantage of greater accuracy in information, but with legal and political tensions with the central government. Realistically, the debate between unitary and federal government is less of an issue than the degree of appropriate and specific autonomy granted to constituent decision-makers. Most federal governments are an accident of history rather than efficient resource decision making, with a high variation in a population, they are anti-democratic. The ideal constitution would be unitary, but with a strong recognition of local government to ensure a competition of power and a sensitive market for the provision of public goods.

Direct and Representative Democracy

Governance is broadly distinguished between direct and representative democracy. Typically with direct democracy, citizens are empowered through referendum, initiative, and recall. A more powerful requirement is that of deliberation, which combines the strength of conviction with knowledge, is the movement towards deliberative democracy [7]. Providing the institutional means for people to participate in legislative initiative and review, but from an informed perspective, provides the opportunity for the sort of engaged civic republicanism of the polis.

Nevertheless, it is not realistic to expect citizens to participate in the legislative process as a full-time occupation. In that regard, there is a need for a selection mechanism for representatives (subject to recall etc). From here there is much debate over the number of representatives, how they are determined, their term limits and so forth. Of particular interest is Arrow's Impossibility Theorem [8], which states that when voters have three or more alternatives, no ranked voting system can convert the ranked preferences in community-wide preference whilst also satisfying the criteria of independence of irrelevant alternatives, non-dictatorship, Pareto criterion, unrestricted domain, transitivity. The Theorem, as Arrow pointed out, is more of a challenge and a warning; democratic voting systems will fail sometimes, not all the time.

Proportional Governance

The size of electorates is subject to interest. Usually, there is a regional representational model. This lead to the unfortunate situation where the unitary representation suffers. Instead of such localised representation ideally all representatives are general representatives - a situation which is only possible, of course, if there is another governance structure (e.g., local councils) for the specific local interests. The individual election of general representatives would be frustrated in a practical sense by the sheer number of potential candidates (the Australian Senate ballot paper is now over a metre long in some states). A practical alternative is party lists; little sympathy is given here for those who wish to an independent without any party support - if a candidate cannot find other people to run with them then perhaps national governance is not for them.

Proportional representation is, without a doubt, the fairest method of election (certainly over majoritarian and plurality systems) but is not without its problems, such as issues of complexity (e.g., Hare-Clark) and stability of governments. Two suggestions are offered to resolve both these issues. First is the use of simpler PR systems such as the Jefferson-D'Hondt method [9], and the second proposal is the use of all-party coalition governments. The latter is often overlooked, but it was hinted by Adams [10] when describing that representatives assemblies should represent the population "in miniature", and Mirabeau [11] suggesting that government "should bear the relative proportion to the original [electorate] precisely". The only government in the world which has come close to engaging in such a proposal, except in times of great crisis (national unity governments), has been the Federal Council of Switzerland, which also serves as a collegial head of state.

Terms of Office

The final issue considered here is the ideal term of office for representatives. The shortest is via delegation, where the term is for a specified task and which ends at the completion of that task. At the other end of the scale is heads of state which retain the position as life tenure (e.g., monarchs, pontiff). In elected chambers the overwhelming variation is from 2 to 6 years. The advantage of longer-term offices is primarily stability and cost, whereas the advantage of shorter-term offices is adaptability and responsiveness. Obviously, both are advantageous, so the question is posed, why not a combination? Whilst bi-cameral systems have the historical weight of being considered a class separation between lords and commons, there is no reason why they could not be converted to a "house of initiative" (lower-house) and a "house of review" (upper-house), the former being the body which determines governance and has the shorter term limit, whilst the latter is a body which reviews and has a longer term-limit. Indeed there is even an argument for a limited head-of-state with limited ceremonial and perhaps veto powers.

Beyond Countries

Obviously, the preceding sketch requires further elaboration and detail. However, it is argued that there are various technological and demographic trajectories which are pushing developed countries in particular to the proposals listed. In particular, the distaste for adversarial politics, the desire for more informed decision-making processes, and appropriate allocation of powers and decision-making are of significant interest in contemporary society. Further, the above sketch provides a model which can be extended beyond national borders to transnational organisations. This is, of course, of enormous importance as people inevitably become increasingly globalised and international citizens. The alternative course, is inwardness, isolation, and eventually a collapse towards old-fashioned despotism. Doubtless, there are some would prefer the security of some idealised version of yesterday to the challenges of tomorrow.


1] Lev Lafayette, The Ideal Size of Governments, The Isocracy Network, 2019

2] Lev Lafayette, Deliberative Isocracy : The Antidote to 'Fake News', The Isocracy Network, 2016

3] Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, New Left Books, 1974

4] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, Penguin, 1963

5] John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, Parker and Son, 1859. Note also; Dominco Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, Verso, 2011

6] Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu, Livre XI, De l'esprit des loix, Barrillot et Fils, 1748

7] See: Jon Elster (ed), Deliberative Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 1998 and James Fishkin, When the People Speak. Oxford University Press, 2011

8] Kenneth Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values (2nd edition), Yale University Press, 1963 [FP 1951]

9] Victor D'Hondt, Système pratique et raisonné de représentation proportionnelle, FP 1882

10] John Adams, Thoughts on Government, FP 1776

11] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, comte de Mirabeau, speech to the Assembly of Provence on January 30, 1789

Commenting on this Story will be automatically closed on June 30, 2019.