Enhancing Democracy To Improve Government



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.     8-15

ABSTRACT:  Primary reasons for instances of governmental narrow-mindedness and corruption are advanced, along with some psychological aspects of human beings that make these practices commonplace.  Structural rules are proposed that would counteract these human proclivities.

KEY WORDS:  government, corruption, graft, good government

Regarding every form of government, there have been complaints about abuses of power and failures to act properly with respect to various parts of the constituency.  Kings behead persons partly on the basis of personal feelings and loyalties.  Presidents often favor one social, political, business, or ethnic class over others.  Persons in the king’s court and the Constitutional government help each other to find opportunities for secret or inappropriate financial gain.  Some welfare officials judge the needs of persons of one color differently than those of people of other colors.  If we look at these things fairly we can see that these behaviors all illustrate aspects of being human, yet to have the complexly organized societies that we have requires a significant degree of fairness from those in authority in order to retain citizen loyalty and acquiescence to being governed.

The current situation in the United States, in which the winning party in each election does everything in its power to move the whole country toward its goals before it loses power to the other party that then tries to move the whole country in another direction, results in abrupt changes in policy (a tug-or-war between the two major parties) that sabotages efficient progress.  It is asserted here that the country as a whole would be better off if parties and officials had to work together during all administrations no matter who is “in power.”

The key conditions that lead to governmental malfeasance are—

1. People who rise to the top in pyramidal status systems tend to be those who want more status and wealth.  When at the top, they truly believe that they should have financial and other status benefits and that they are justified in taking them.  Unfortunately people who rise to the top in a large competitive system are not the most honest or responsible of people, so while they may wield power effectively, they almost always in some ways steal or otherwise subvert the fairness of a democracy.

2. People naturally form groups with people who are like themselves and join with like people to accomplish tasks.  So, politicians, elected officials, top bureaucrats, etc. tend to get together and group according to their beliefs related to governing.  The problem that results is a narrowed vision of the task and of the constituency.

3. People naturally feel more comfortable with and favor people who are like themselves (same family or clan, same ethnic group, same religion, same educational level, etc.), and this results in favoritism (conscious or unconscious) in government.

4. When an official is isolated from the citizenry much of the time, he loses some of the relationship that he has had with those people back home, who come to seem like numbers or obstacles rather than people when he is trying to complete tasks.  Empathy failure is even worse with regard to those who are different from one than it is toward people who are similar to one.  Congresspersons purposely spending some time in their districts counteracts this to some extent, but people with whom one works in Washington inevitably become more important than the constituents for all but a few politicians.

5. Since government officials with views different from one’s own can keep one from succeeding in passing legislation or “bringing home the pork,” they tend to view those with other views as opponents in a battle, rather than as important representatives of the variety of viewpoints that need to be considered in order to produce the best laws and programs for the nation as a whole.  This view of government as a battle erodes cooperation and makes for standoffs and “government shut downs.”  It is a short step from “opponents” to “villains,” and this short step is frequently taken for purposes of attempted humiliation or to make the voters think that one is “fighting for them.”

(The result of the above items is that elected officials, bureaucrats, and politicians frequently end up representing favored and familiar groups and not anyone else, when their job should be in most instances to do the best they can with regard to everyone in the country.  This is a key point regarding governance—that while elected officials should look out for the needs and rights of the residents of their districts, they have an even more important responsibility to make the government and country as a whole work well.  Some of us may have ideas about changing society in fundamental ways, and it is fine to advocate for these, but these ideas should be subject to the judgment of the voters as a whole and should not in any sense be forced on the country by leaders.  It is important to take note of whether as a leader or an advocate one is trying to force one’s ideas on others rather than believing that the judgment of a properly informed electorate should take precedence.)

6. For democracy to work, it must have representation of all of the various groups and views in the constituency, and if we believe in democracy, we believe that equal rights and voting should determine the actions of the government.  Therefore, to use means other than communication (arm-twisting, vote-trading, extortion, blackmail, publically impugning “opponents,” armed insurrection) in order to boost one’s own goals at the expense of others’ goals is to not believe in democracy.  Believing in democracy means accepting that the outcomes of the system as it is constructed, where you win some and lose some, will produce the best possible outcomes for the group as a whole.  In other words, you may be outvoted sometimes, but in those times you should reflect on the fact that majority rule may in general result in the best choices over the long haul, even if those are not your choices.  It is understandable that we all, officials included, can be frustrated with each other when we differ, but this should be a stimulus for finding necessary compromises rather than a signal to “fight” harder.  (Of course, if government becomes too corrupt, then armed revolution may be the solution, but it is far better to keep government on the right path now than to live through a revolution or civil war.)

7. Besides the stealing of government funds, government officials often fail the country by promising constituents more than the constituents can afford, for it is the constituents and not the government who ultimately pay for any government action.  The Federal budget is so huge that the government has probably lost effective control over it, and this allows Congresspersons to push for legislation that is “needed” even though it can’t be paid for without raising taxes and then blame “the budget” or the people in control of funding bills for the failure of their “needed” legislation to be funded even though it is the law of the land.


Assuming that the most desirable government is one in which the officials, regardless of party or belief, work cooperatively and collegially toward finding ways to achieve important goals for the country as a whole in ways that benefit the maximum number of citizens, there are some structural arrangements that if implemented and adhered to would to some degree alleviate some of the problems above.

1. Since voters know very little about the day-to-day behavior of their elected officials, power desires on the part of elected officials are currently blunted through the envy, anger, and criticisms of others, largely through the press.  The electorate would be better served by persons in government positions who are more motivated by concern for others than by power, and candidates could be challenged to reveal which type of person they are before an election.  Unfortunately it is unlikely that enough of the current electorate will accept that powerful candidates pose serious risks to the country (including a greater inclination to go to war), since the electorate still seems to favor candidates who look and act “strong” (apparently because such persons appear to guarantee that we will be protected from external harm).

2. Do away with the spoils system, in which many of the workers for a given official (Congressperson or President) are from that person’s political party or are being rewarded with positions for their campaign contributions, etc.  It should be policy or law that advisors and assistants must be picked to include the whole spectrum of political views and be picked mainly with respect to merit.   Rules could be devised that would help to achieve this diversity in all hiring and appointing.  Replacing officials appointed by a previous administration should have to be justified by provable performance concerns and not on political beliefs.  Naturally a president will want to have advisors who see the world the way he or she does, but he or she should also always have some advisors with different views.

It will be objected that the bickering that would result as individuals insisted on their views rather than those of others would prevent the work from getting done, but this situation would be exactly what is needed for persons at all levels (Congresspersons, cabinets, assistants, committee members, etc.) to learn how to work together—to understand each others’ views and to work toward the best possible compromises regardless.  (Remember that the principle here is that the best results for a democracy come from variety and compromise.)  Strict time limits could be required for any task group to reach this consensus, after which all of the work of the group would be nullified and the group disbanded.  If this were the price, compromises would be more frequent.

Some will object that with this change, it would be impossible for committees or advisory groups to keep secrets so that they can surprise their opponents later and in doing so, gain advantage.  Yes, there would be no such thing as advantage for “your side,” since the goal would be to do the best for the country as a whole.  The system whereby one of the two major parties is “in power” and then the other is “in power” creates a see-saw path for the country when it is quite rare that any party has enough votes to claim a “mandate.”  Greater progress with less discourtesy and fighting will be achieved by having everybody representing all of the people rather than 30 to 40 percent of the people.

3. Require a funding mechanism for every bill or group action before it can be adopted or implemented, which would force the Congress to right then and there raise the tax rate for the coming year, establish another source of income, or take the money from another already established purpose.  There would be no haggling later over a funding bill, because the cost of each action of Congress would be calculated and action taken to fund it immediately.  The total of funding commitments made like this would be added up to finalize the next year’s tax rates.  (The point here is to emphasize responsibility for one’s actions and to restrict opportunities to talk big while avoiding responsibility.)

4. Require all legislation and committee actions to be accompanied by a written assessment of how they will impact all of a standard list of various constituency groups (financial sector, farmers, various minorities, retail business, manufacturing, children, the health of the nation, the environment, etc.).  Something of this nature is now required for certain types of bills with regard to environmental concerns, but this would be expanded to include all major effects.  A group writing this impact statement would always be composed of persons with varied viewpoints, and this could be done without expensive task forces or reports, unless the issues and potential consequences required that level of analysis.

5. Criminalize any effort to improperly sway the processes of government for the benefit of any group or individual.  There will always be efforts to persuade and influence, and as long as they are attempts to bring about the best possible outcomes (outcomes which take into account the interests of all citizens and major groups, even though some governmental actions may benefit some more than others, depending on the various needs of the different groups and individuals), this is legitimate.  (Approval of funds for highways in one part of the country may be separate from approval of funds for highways in another part of the country, but it is a matter of fairness that all assume that the one will be followed by the other, so that all expect to benefit sooner or later.)  When effort is made to benefit some more than others, and this is not due to agreed-upon, particular, acceptable goals, then it degrades the cooperative process and builds resentment and grudges.  “Lobbying” would be permitted, but evidence that it was one-sided would result in restricted access to government officials.  In other words, lobbying would be restricted to efforts to convince officials that a certain action would be of benefit to (or at least not harmful to) everyone.  (Advocacy by individuals for their own beliefs and purposes would never be restricted.)

6. Provide for sanction or immediate firing of government employees and officials who ignore requests of citizens for legitimate services.  Bias and personal idiosyncracies of employees and officials lead to some citizens getting more and better services than others, and this must be controlled, since it diminishes faith in the democracy.

7. Provide that amendment of a bill in Congress may be done only by the author of the bill.  (This is to prevent attempts to pass unrelated legislation using other bills as vehicles.)

8. Every bill should be considered in an up-or-down vote if it either is passed on from committee to the floor of the House or Senate or is voted out of committee by one or the other legislative body as a whole by majority vote.

9. Provide for all citizens on a weekly basis via the internet the results of all laws passed (text or summary by an impartial body and how each elected official voted).

10. Outlaw vote trading by elected officials as an ethical violation.

11.  Since the preceding is an ambitious program that will require hard work on the part of officials and employees, education and training must be provided annually to all government employees and officials in the skills needed to work together cooperatively and civilly.

  • training in getting to know and understand all others (colleagues, employees, citizens, constituents)
  • training in empathy, as a key skill for understanding others
  • training in finding win-win solutions, where everyone (or at least the maximum possible number of citizens) benefits
  • training in tolerance, through understanding and empathy

In reflecting on the above, it will be apparent that the goal of this proposal is to rein in the personal goals of government officials (and the goals of political parties) and make the welfare of all the people more important.  To believe in democracy, as described here, means accepting it with some grace when “the system” (which we claim to adore) results in our losing a vote, since losing that vote is “the will of the people” as embodied in the processes and actions of our system of government.  We can still have our personal goals as officials and functionaries, but they will be subject to the workings of the system and the votes of the citizens.  These changes would make clear that your personal goals are no more important or meaningful than the goals of any other citizen, official, or functionary, unless they serve to benefit everyone.  Some may prefer other ways of doing business, such as the use of pure power to get one’s way, and they will be invited to make this preference clear to constituents and to colleagues (i.e., that they do not “believe” in democracy) prior to being elected.

Many readers may be leery of giving up the present system in which various groups with different agendas fight each other for dominance, by name-calling, guilt by association, character assassination, blackmail, extortion, lying through the press, etc.  These readers are urged to consider the outcomes of the two approaches.  Since there are more and more citizens who believe wrongly that they should be able to have their way on various issues, instead of finding the best possible compromises, our Congress is currently basically incapable of doing enough of the necessary work of government, and the country is suffering from this inability.  There is no power or authority that dictates that you as an individual citizen should be able to have your way and to force others to do as you want.  Only a more cooperative assumption about how government should work can help us out of this stalemate.  Think seriously about whether you “believe in” democracy (i.e., the will of the people) and whether you want your elected officials to “fight for you” (get what you personally want and get all they can for your group even if other citizens go without) or work with their colleagues to find the best possible solutions to the country’s problems.