A scientific approach to government
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NOTE: this is a work in progress. Feedback is welcome - comments, questions, or pointers to related stuff. Please email me.
Governments around the world are failing us. They haven't adequately addressed the most dire problem: climate change. Most people are poor and/or miserable. In the U.S., democracy has been subverted by billionaires. Systems designed 200 years ago don't work in the presence of concentrated wealth and ubiquitous social media.
Suppose we could start from scratch and design a brand new kind of government. What might we do differently?
I argue for government based on ideas borrowed from science, namely:
Current government systems are based on the idea of "leader" or "representative". We elect leaders, and they select and implement policies. I think this is a flawed model - it's like letting the Pope decide the laws of planetary motion. In the system I propose, there are no leaders of this sort. Policy decisions are made on the basis of experimental results, not prejudice and intuition.
Note: I'm interested here in long-term government policies, like taxes, health care, and environmental regulation. There will always be unexpected short-term crises; for those we need competent leaders who can make good decisions. That's outside of the scope of this essay (though some of its ideas apply there as well).
The scientific method was developed to explain the physical world. It involves several related ideas:
New theories may meet resistance - organized religion tries to suppress science that contradicts its belief systems; oil and tobacco companies fight science that threatens their profits. The scientific community itself can form internal power structures that suppress research that threatens dominant paradigms. The scientific method is designed to resist these pressures. Disproven theories must be discarded, no matter how entrenched and powerful their supporters. The truth - even if there's initially overwhelming opposition to it - eventually wins.
It's worth noting that:
The scientific method has been successful in a range of "hard science" domains: physics, chemistry, astronomy, engineering, biology, medicine, and so on. It has converged to universally accepted core theories in these areas.
In other areas - economics, psychology, sociology, humanities - there have been efforts to use the scientific method. The results have been less successful, because in the social domain it's hard to:
Using science in government will face these same difficulties.
Governmental systems may include electoral, legislative, and executive structures. Governments define economic systems: regulation of industry and commerce, who owns what, taxes and distribution of wealth, access to natural resources, and so on. So by "government system" I include the economic system.
Many forms of government have been tried: democracy, oligarchy, dictatorship, monarchy. With a few exceptions, they've all failed in various ways.
They've chosen bad policies, with bad results. They haven't addressed the overwhelmingly most important issue: climate change (or the related issue of overpopulation). They've allowed an ever-increasing wealth gap. Most countries, including the U.S., have policies that maximize the short-term wealth of a few Plutocrats, at the expense of everyone else and of the future of the Earth. The majority of human beings lead unsatisfying and hopeless lives. Stress, anxiety, depression, and societal discord are rampant.
The systems themselves often are unstable - they often don't work as originally designed for more than a few decades. All communist governments have quickly been taken over by opportunists and transformed into dictatorships or oligarchies. In the U.S., corporations and billionaires have figured out how to buy the electoral process, and have created an oligarchy with the facade of a democracy.
The American founding fathers did their best to define a stable system. But they couldn't anticipate that wealth would become so concentrated, that the negative effects of economic activity could be so extreme, and that information systems would become so centralized.
Governments and the processes behind them - even in democracies - often damage societies. This is particularly acute in the U.S., where one of political parties has adopted a strategy of manipulating their supporters a) to hate people of other races, other countries, and other opinions; b) to distrust science, and to be unable to distinguish facts from lies; c) to put personal short-term interests ahead of everything else. America is an angry, unhappy place. I think that scientific government can change this.
Can we borrow and adapt ideas from science to create governmental systems that work better - that make people happier, and that adapt to changes in the world?
Science has theories, government has policies. In the same way that we can use (objective, quantitative) experiments to evaluate theories, we can (in many cases) use experiments to evaluate policies. The general idea:
My thinking about this was inspired by the documentary Sex, Drugs, and Democracy, which describes Holland's approach to social issues such as sex education, drug use and prostitution. They identified figures of merit: the rates of drug abuse, crime, teen pregnancy, STDs, violence against women, poverty, and so on. They experimented with novel policies, such as legalizing and regulating drug use instead of criminalizing it. They found that these policies greatly improved the figures of merit; for many of them, Holland is the best in the world. Sadly, few other countries learned from this success story; American social policies are still rooted in Old Testament principles of punishment and revenge, which exacerbate the problems they try to solve.
Inspired by Holland's example, I propose a new form of government - "Scientific Government" - which uses scientific principles to find effective policies. In the U.S., Scientific Government would largely replace the executive and legislative branches, at the national, state, and local levels.
At the core of Scientific Government is a "figure of merit" M(t) - a single quantitative time-varying measure of how well governmental policies are working. M(t) might include components such as
The definition of M(t) must specify precisely how each component is measured. For example, for happiness we'd need to specify
We then must specify how these components are combined; some sort of weighted average, again with a robustness mechanism. We never try to optimize its components separately - e.g. a policy might reduce crime to zero but decrease happiness.
It could be argued that M(t) should have only one component, happiness. Perhaps the other components are all reflected in this, and measuring them separately is counter-productive. This is possible, but I suspect that measuring a subjective quantity like happiness is noisy compared to other components, and would make it difficult to perform experiments.
The "figure of merit" idea is inspired by the "gross national happiness" concept articulated by Bhutan's King Jigme Singye Wangchuck in 1972. He proposed an index based on nine factors; see https://ophi.org.uk/policy/national-policy/gross-national-happiness-index/.
An ideal government gives people what they want, and it can't tell them what they want. So it must include a democractic component.
In the current U.S. government, the democratic component involves voting for candidates and for ballot measures (i.e. policies). Both of these are fundamentally flawed. Voting for candidates devolves into name recognition and identity politics; voting for policies perpetuates bad policies.
In Scientific Government, the democratic component is the selection of M(t): it's decided via periodic popular elections. There must be constraints on how M(t) is defined:
Any society will inevitably have disagreement and contentious discourse. One of the goals of scientific government is to move this discourse to the highest level - well-defined differences of opinion about what society should be - rather than personalities, identity politics, lies, and propaganda.
Once M(t) has been established, the general flow of scientific government is:
If other countries or societies have previously adopted P, it may not be necessary to do an experiment; it may be possible to estimate P's effect on M(t) from the exiting data.
There are a number of potential problems in doing social experiments:
Some areas of government policy that might be addressed by the scientific approach:
The "scientific method" described earlier is an ideal. In practice, scientists needs money for salaries and equipment. Most modern societies, recognizing the economic value of science, have created organizational structures to support science.
These structures have three main pieces, which provide a form of "checks and balances":
The scientific organization has been more corruption-resistant than government. Why is this?
There have been attempts to corrupt the scientific structure.
What are the functions of scientific government?
What is a plausible organizational structure for Scientific Government? I think a good starting point is to 1) piggyback on the existing organizational structure of science; 2) in extending this to a government, use the same underlying principles: meritocracy, distribution of power, transparency, etc.
Here's a possible structure for scientific government:
In designing the above structure, we need to anticipate various kinds of corruption.
Note: it's possible and desirable that a new academic field of "government studies" arise, which would focus on how to conduct policy experiments. People who want to go into government could major in this.
A continuous transition would have to start small. One idea is to identify an area of state or national government policy that's not highly political, and that's amenable to experiments. Set up a small version of the above structure, and use it optimize policy in the area. Maybe when people see how well it works they'll think about expanding the domain.
Another way of starting small would be for a community or small town (of enlightened people) to jointly agree to govern themselves scientifically. Their success would spread to other towns and eventually to larger scale.
But maybe it's more feasible that scientific government could rise out of the ruins of a completely failed existing government.
In any case, scientific government will have a hard time getting started in a society where lost of people hate each other, hate government, and don't understand or trust science. These conditions currently exist in the U.S. So a necessary first step is to reduce these factors in the context of existing government (if that's possible).
The most important government issues are now global. Dealing with them on a national level doesn't work - e.g. no country is willing to drastically reduce its carbon emissions because doing so would place it at an economic disadvantage. For such issues, scientific government at the national level is insufficient, especially if it's adopted only by a few countries.
So ideally we should have a global scientific government, whose domain is global issues: resource usage, environment, population, immigration, trade etc.
I'm on the fence about whether the idea of "nation" has any place in the future. I don't think we need national governments to preserve cultural diversity (which I view as a good thing). In any case, national governments can continue to exist separately from the global government, and could determine policies that are purely internal to that country.