We all appreciate the dictum “one person, one vote” for democratic elections. Do we all understand why it works?
If by “work” you means yields the bets possible fair outcome, then the answer is that it does not really work unless all citizens are well-informed and the majority are relatively sane. That’s hardly ever true, no matter what country you live in. But normally by a “working democracy” we mean that the government is merely fairly elected, that everyone potentially has a say, and that the ignorant economists (the species homoeconimus) who say “I don’t vote because I know my vote does not count,” are the real losers (if all homoeconomi voted then the USA would probably not have their current President) who the general populace must suffer. In this “fair vote” sense a democracy serves it’s purpose, provided there are no violent distortions.
In the USA, and many other large capitalist democracies there are however many distortions. Campaigning is one. Political parties are another. Political advertising a third. You can add campaign financing into the distortions too, but the distortion of democracy does not start with the influence of big money, it begins with political parties and with campaign promises in the first place. An ideal democracy does not require political parties and campaigns. Many people might think that prior to the Internet age an Ideal Democracy was almost impossible to establish in any country much larger than a few hundred thousand, because to be free of political parties one needed voters who could in principle get to know the character of the political candidates. Since that was assumed to be impossible political parties conveniently aggregated candidates into fictional factions, and voters could then make simple-minded decisions based upon just a handful, or fewer, party manifestos. There was no messy need to evaluate several different unique candidates for political office.
A Fair Electoral System Free of Corruption
In the Internet age this justification for the fiction that many candidates all think the same has vanished, because every citizen can look up their local candidates curriculum vitae online, either from the comfort of home or at their nearest library. We persist with a party political system only out of tradition. It is time that changed, so I urge people everywhere to begin pressing their governments to hold referenda on the compulsory disbanding of political parties, so that all candidates for political office can run as independents.
What few people realise is that this ideal of democracy, where all candidates are free from partisan beholdings, was possible well before the internet era. In fact, just such a fair and just electoral systems has been in practice for over a century now. Moreover, it has been operating globally, in over 70 countries for at least 75 years. It is the Bahá’í electoral system. I urge readers to find out about the Bahá’í process of elections. They start with annual local body elections, Every adult is eligible, they elect counsels of 9 members, and the counsels appoint a chair, secretary, treasurer, but all nine members have equal say, and their decisions get put to a community referenda in community meetings spread across a city each Bahá’í month. (The Bahá’í calendar has 5 intercalary days and 19 months of 19 days.) Separate elections are held each year locally in order to elect representatives who will in the succeeding year, travel to a national conference where these delegates elect the Bahá’í national council, again composed of nine members, drawn from among these delegates. Every four years a national council representative from each country where a Bahá’í national council has been established, will travel to an international conference to elect the world-wide governing Bahá’í representative council of (again) 9 members, known as the Bahá’í Universal House of Justice.
The Bahá’í also appoint certain learned and respected individuals to act in continental regions like roving ambassadors, who are free agents more or less, but who have no authority over other Bahá’í, they serve only as counsellors.
But if you think this systems sounds wonderful, it gets better. The Bahá’í elections are explicitly free form campaigning. Partly because every adult Bahá’í is eligible locally), but mainly to avoid the disunity and schisms of partisanship and campaigning. There are thus zero fights and zero abuses and zero advertisements in the Bahá’í community elections. Instead, every eligible Bahá’í voter is called upon to pray and mediate and with good conscience vote for the members they think best exemplify moral virtues of wise leadership, fairness, recognised ability, and mature experience.
If you think I’m making this up, think again. Look up your local Bahá’í community (they will be online or in the telephone directory) and ask them about their election system. You will find all I’ve related is true. It’s phenomenal, and beautiful.
What’s even better, the Bahá’í electoral system could easily be implemented secularly, in any country, of any size. It is a perfect model for an ideal and corruption free democracy.
Fairness in the Private Sector
I began this essay thinking about voting in corporate board rooms and shareholder conference, would you believe. The Bahá’í system just filtered up into my consciousness and so I began with the Bahá’í system to set the stage for the next bit. (My late father, a former New Zealand MP once gave an excellent public speech about the Bahá’í electoral system.) I was listening to a talk by Joseph Stiglitz, who regularly touches upon injustices in economics and politics of almost every kind. At one point when he was talking about inequality and the influence of the super wealthy capitalists in politics, who are effectively creating oligarchies all over the world, especially in the USA and Russia, the thought occurred to me that quite a bit could be remedied if corporations were also run according to fair voting systems, rather than majority shareholder rank.
Voting according to one’s shareholdings sounds like a nice idea, but it really is a terrible distortion, which I think is a huge contributor to insane and messed-up corporate decision making. When the most important decisions of large corporations are placed in the hands of the few, debate is stifled, consultation is suppressed, minority but possibly better ideas get quelled, and the result is what we see in the world today, heartless, greedy, and objectively stupid corporations. We get corporations who make decisions against their own long term strategic interests, who ignore global environmental disasters on the horizon, and who commit injustice after injustice against society.
Allowing all shareholders to exercise equal voting power sounds ridiculous though, right? How could that ever work? Well, I think it can. Let’s examine some of the reasons why people might defend voting based on share-holding ranking, and then we will see why these reasons are weak and counter-productive, and why fears about giving free reign to all shareholders are unfounded.
- Owner Privilege — this is a terrible defence of excess voting power. People who establish companies are usually good entrepreneurs, but that means they often have different skill sets than those optimised for maintaining and running a company sustainably. For one thing, entrepreneurs are always looking for new things. Besides this, few company founders or owners rarely have majority voting power, people like Mark Zuckerberg are extremely rare. Indeed, it is usually against the interests of the company as a whole to give one small group more voting power than other shareholders, because it encourages dictatorship and discourages the spark of genius sometimes found in a lone voice, a maverick, who might often have a lot of dumb ideas, but every so often will hit upon something brilliant no one else thought of, the proverbial Black Swan. Excess voting power to the few strongly discourages the beneficial types of Black Swans in business decisions.
- Leaders Know Better — often true, leaders should be in position because they are smart and know what is good for a company. But no one is omniscient. The best leaders listen carefully to all points of view, and when they know they are correct, on moral and economic grounds, they can persuade the other voters in frank and open consultation. So it is a myth that great leaders need the majority voting power. Great leaders can persuade and encourage and will take the time to engage in consultation with all shareholders, to form a united decision. Weak leaders rule by dictate and hunger for power.
- Mob Rule is Destructive — no it isn’t. Leaders who are fearful shareholders will organize and take-over are again weak leaders. Besides, shareholders all have their stake in the company at interest, and they will not be voting so that their positions are in jeopardy. While this means reducing employee salaries and bonuses is hard to get a positive vote on, that should not trouble good corporate leaders, because the power of a company is in their human capital. This is what the leaders should invest in. There are always other things that can be cut back. But even so, if high salaries and bonuses will cause a company to become bankrupt, the management simply need to open the books and share this information with employee shareholders, who (generally) will/should not want to lose their jobs, and so they will not vote for high wages if it means the destruction of the company. Most employer–employee disputes have this character, there seems a point of conflict, but there is always a deeper common ground.
- Consultation and Persuasion Take too Much Time — not true, not always. A company whose managers have the trust of their employees can get through deep and meaningful consultation efficiently and effectively, precisely because there is trust. Without trust any consultation starts with defence and wariness, and that is the true cause of lengthy consultations. Good leaders avoid that possibility by always being honest and open and always consulting on important decisions that effect shareholders and employees. Because they consult early in processes, consult often, and consult honestly, consultation is usually brief and agreeable.
This is a lot like debugging software. The more you commit changes to a shared repository, the faster the debugging process. “Commit early and commit often” is the rule for software development.
IN summary, there are few justifiable reasons for a few people holding the majority of voting power in a company. In fact, the more equitably voting power is shared, approaching one-person one-vote, the healthier a company will be, provided trust is established and everyone has a shared vision and willingness to always seek unity. This allows difference of opinion, which is bets handled using open consultation.
Unfortunately, very few leaders know how to practice the art of consultation. The traditional “Roberts Rules” are not sufficient. In a proper consultation process everyone should be encouraged by a chairperson to speak, venture their opinion, then be detached, once their opinion is aired it is the property of the whole group. The chairperson should not allow bullying, and should not give undue time to participants who have already made their point. Finally, in all matters unity should be sought, not immediately put to a vote, if after some time reasonable discussion is exhausted then the matter should be put to a majority vote with all participants having the same weight of vote. I would also recommend any reader go and look at the Bahá’í Principles of consultation, they are as good a model for business as the Bahá’í electoral system is for secular government.