Bottom up or top down, which way is best?
We know better than you. That’s the basic message we hear nowadays – from captains of industry, diplomats, politicians and humans with a claim on the mind of god. But the truth depends on where you’re standing and who’s saying it.
Are you a Monsanto executive talking about how to feed the world? Or are you a farmer talking about what works for your land?
Are you a Western diplomat talking about Middle East peace? Or are you a Middle East citizen talking about your community?
Are you a banker talking about sovereign debt? Or are you unemployed in a capitalist democracy?
Are you an executive responsible for 10,000 employees? Or are you one of those employees?
Are you a pontiff? Or a victim of rape?
Who knows better than you?
Well, you know that no one knows better than you, about you. It is an inevitable facet of being alive that we are the experts on our own experience. This leads us to develop a certain confidence about the veracity of our perspective that we bring unconsciously to our opinions about other things, things that are not actually our own, personal experience. This false confidence is why the useful development of our selves passes inevitably through humility. Humility is a process by which we learn to distinguish between we can really know, because it is our own experience, and what we are deducing, based on the combining of facts we have access to and our experience with similarities. Without an intentional effort to develop awareness and humility, we are mired in a thoughtscape of certitude that serves our perspective but does nothing for the common cause. In other words, no one need know better than you, so long as you are not making decisions for anyone else; if you are making decisions that affect others, it is supremely important that you understand who knows better than you.
So “who knows better” is defined by both access to facts and access to humility. Those with access to facts but without humility are subject to arrogance and self-deceit that depreciates the value and quality of their opinion. Today power is centered around a “top down” approach, whether that be in the form of major multi national corporations or the political elites of industrialized societies, that is substantially lacking in humility – as is demonstrably proven by the Wikileaks revelations. This need not be a bad thing, in and of itself, because many decisions made for the good of the majority are best made at a high level; but if humility is missing from the atmosphere that those decision are made in, the quality of those decisions becomes disastrously poor. And poor decisions made at the top, for vast constituencies, are potentially catastrophic for everyone – witness the quality of current decision making about climate change.
Successful leadership in a successful society brings together facts and humility, often in the position of a ‘public servant’: an acquirer of knowledge who acts on behalf of the greater citizenry to enable high quality, effective and empathic decision making. But even a public servant cannot be a knower of all things and there is bound to be tension between the goods of overlapping constituencies, and that is why we also have politicians. Politicians are supposed to take the informed knowledge and opinions of multiple public servants and fashion policy, meaning that they make the decisions arbitrating between competing ‘goods’. The entire decision making process in advanced and complex societies is substantially dependent on the quality of the public service that feeds information into the decision making process in the first place. That leads us to another very worrying development of the last few decades in many powerful democracies: the public service has, all too often, been co-opted by the private sector. Through a combination of devaluing the work of public servants and attempting to honour the unbridled right of every individual to seek the opportunities that reward them the most, we have corroded the boundaries between public and private service so much that there is now, in many countries, a revolving door between the two.
The best decisions would be taken by those informed by the best knowledge of the issue, steeped in humility and the pursuit of the greater good. Instead we have decisions taken by the supplicants of the rich and the powerful (privately funded politicians), informed by a public service that always has half an eye on the best interests of the private sector for whom they may wish to work in the near future. Humility is not even regarded as a quality worth having, and quite possibly it is seen as a weakness.
So who knows how to fix this?
It is helpful, and important, to recognize the multi-layered truth about decision making and the source of useful knowledge. It is unlikely that any one person is the exclusive holder of the truth, it is more likely that there are a few truths dependent on perspective, and that the best decisions will come from reconciling these to fashion a ‘best possible’ solution. The better version of decision making will incorporate this multi-layered reality in its foundation and structure, such that decisions are made at appropriately different layers for different issues. A decision making process that incorporates this reality will best serve the greater good in more cases than either a single top down or bottom up diktat. While today’s power structures are undoubtedly top heavily and need of radical adjustment, we would do well to consider this nature of the problem, and the best possible solutions before simply electing to turn the hat upside down again. (I say “again” because we have had revolutions before, inspired by a desire to turn the power structure upside down, but they quickly run aground on the rocks of practical realities, and revert to upside up in pretty short order.)
Thankfully, we are already fairly well equipped to make this transition because we have already adopted two important building blocks for better decision making: defining the multiple layers and establishing voting systems. Layers are geographically concentric segmentations of our lands; where continents contain countries, countries contain regions or states, and states contain counties or communities. All this is already practically implemented and established, albeit in need of a large dose of citizen choice in the form of self selection of association. Furthermore many places around the world already have voting systems set up in each of these constituencies, and many also have distinct layers of government at each level of constituency.
So what do we need to add or change?
Ironically, the biggest flaw in today’s democracies is that we have “bottom up” ways of electing politicians to our “top” layers of government. Inherited from our tribal, non-technological heritage we send local representatives up to regional, national and international decision making bodies; where they are quickly overwhelmed by the scope and size of the issues and the large interest groups formed specifically to operate successfully at that higher layer. The exception to this is the presidential model whereby an “executive” is voted for by all the members of the total constituency. However, keenly aware of the potential for corruption in an individual, we make that executive’s decision making power dependent on the support of the elected assembly of local politicians. This has been the “state of the art” structure for politics for over 200 years, and is often lauded for its incorporation of a “balance of power”, or system of “checks and balances”. In our modern world however, this structure is failing us, and fails to deliver the quality of decision making that we could have with a modernized structure that incorporates the advances in our technological capacities over the last two centuries. Modern communications and transport mean that now we can know about and vote for candidates over vast geographies – witness our existing presidential elections as an example of this in practice already.
Instead of a bottom up electoral system to generate top down government, a “layered” electoral structure, with a direct line between every citizen in that constituency and their representative for that layer of government, will yield better decision making by politicians specifically focussed on the issues best addressed at that layer of government. The citizens not only decide who makes decisions on their behalf, but also at which level or layer those decisions are best made. In a multi-layered democracy every citizen votes for a candidate from exactly the same slate of candidates as every other citizen in that same constituency. For instance, for a national assembly: every citizen in the nation votes for a candidate standing for election by all the citizens in the nation; the candidate is not going to the national assembly to represent a local district, they are going to the national assembly to make decisions about national affairs, and only national affairs. That same citizen votes for representatives in local and regional assemblies, who decide which issues are better decided at their level or promoted for decision by a higher layer.
Neither strictly “top down” nor “bottom up”, multi-layered representative democracy generates higher quality decisions by locating the decision making in the appropriate layer of government best able to “know best” (in the opinion of the citizenry) about that particular issue. In the end we know best and we need to structure our decision making bodies to allow us to define the best place for different decisions. We still need humility and quality public servants, but those will be easier to come by when we reform our political systems to disperse our power over appropriate constituencies.
To find out more about how all of this works visit www.standardsoflife.org/mlr