Monday, November 11, 2013

Democracy By Sampling

If you had stopped by my house last Saturday, you would have seen me seated on the front porch in a folding chair, watching a presentation on a laptop connected to a notebook computer, which was in turn operated by a woman seated in another folding chair.  The woman works for a contractor to the U. S. Department of Commerce.  The contractor, Abt SRBI, performs high-tech surveys for government agencies.  Instead of pencils and clipboards, the woman brought along the aforementioned technology that she used to show me the options I had for each answer, as well as photographs and other information related to the survey questions.  My subject today is not so much the actual content of the survey (which she requested I keep confidential so as not to bias other potential participants), but the entire process of which the survey was a part, which I'm calling "democracy by sampling."

One vital aspect of engineering ethics is to consider all the stakeholders in a given case, including members of the public liable to be affected by a proposed course of action.  I think it's okay for me to say this much about the survey:  it dealt with a proposed program that the Department of Commerce may implement, and would entail substantial costs to be borne by the U. S. taxpayer.  The program would address an environmental issue which it turns out I have discussed in this space in the past, and it would deal with it in a way that struck me as egregiously boneheaded.  And I told them so.

But unless you, gentle reader, are one of the 1500 or so people nationwide selected to participate in this survey, if you wish to register your opinion on this subject with the government, you are out of luck.  This is unfair, but all too symptomatic of a disheartening trend that has picked up the momentum of an avalanche in recent years.

The ideal of democratic government is that it is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "of the people, by the people, for the people."  The preposition in question here is "by."  Ultimately, the authority of government is to vest in the people governed.  The means by which this power is exercised in our type of government is through the legislative branch, meaning Congress.  Originally, the only role of the executive branch was to see that the laws were "faithfully executed." 

But beginning in the Progressive era of the early 1900s, a different view of government arose, which can be summarized as government by experts.  The basic idea is that modern life is too complex to leave governance solely to the slow, messy process of legislating laws.  Instead, new powers should devolve upon educated specialists in such fields as finance, technology and its regulation, commerce, and human relations, and we should allow these experts to make such rules as they think best—rules that have the full force of law.  So far, any agency of this type still holds before its face a mask of democracy, in that the agencies exercising such power have to be established by Congress.  But there are so many of them now that Congress can no longer exercise anything like proper oversight anymore.  The result is that executive agencies like the Department of Commerce and its divisions are left to their own devices and desires.

I will grant this to the Department:  in commissioning the survey I participated in, they are genuinely seeking the input of the public, or at least a sample thereof.  They didn't have to do that—as far as I know, they could just haul off and implement the new program they're considering without asking anybody, and we would all just have to live with it.  So they are at least making a gesture toward the idea of democracy.  But it is an ineffectual gesture, in my opinion.

As a part of the survey, I had an opportunity to "vote" for or against the program, and to give reasons for doing so.  But this "vote" is to real voting as hypocrisy is to holiness.  What if we "voted" to elect the President this way?  It would save tons of money and trouble.  Instead of the Electoral College and all that campaign fundraising and advertising and so on, we'd just hand the whole thing over to Abt SRBI, whose experts would come up with a carefully selected sample of 1500 or so voters, and the rest of us would just wait to find out the results, as determined by the experts.  So much more efficient—so much more scientific.

And so much more opposed to the basic notion of rule by law, and not by men.  One of the big reasons that the thirteen British colonies broke away from England was that they were being taxed by those whom they did not elect.  Based on the information I received during the survey, the proposed program would have done exactly that—nothing was mentioned about any enabling legislation.  This sort of thing happens all the time.  The Environmental Protection Agency's decision to categorize carbon dioxide as a pollutant is a shining example of how unelected bureaucrats can unilaterally proclaim costly regulations, and those injured are forced to undertake expensive legal battles as their only recourse. 

The Department of Commerce deserves one small cheer for consulting me about their idea.  But the whole executive branch gets a loud razz for continuing its drive toward government by bureaucracy that has compromised freedom and due process in this country so severely, that some days I wonder if we can ever get them back again.

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