The flaws that kill our democracy by Klaas Mensaert — Book Review by Zjef
“The flaws that kill our democracy” really impressed me.
Klaas distilled 4 years of passionate research and thorough thinking into 109 pages with only the most important technical and historical information. You will need all of your focus and attention to completely comprehend what he’s saying — but it’s all worth it because this book has the potential to become a milestone in history by fundamentally improving politics and democracy.
For this review — I will discuss four things that I believe are the essence of this book!
- Article 42 of the Belgian constitution: So simple yet so difficult!
- The flaws that kill our democracy: Exclusivity and centralisation.
- An upgraded parliament: How can our democracy work better by being more inclusive and decentralised
- An upgraded book: Some ideas for the next versions!
Article 42 of the Belgian Constitution
I’m pretty sure every decent democratic country has this in its constitution in one way or another. It is a simple describing how democracy should be:
Article 42: “The members of both chambers represent the nation and not only their own electors”.
This seems so obvious! Yet if you look at most international democratic politics, it’s hard to imagine that there are a lot of politicians upholding these values. There is an increasing polarisation and the bubble effect is more true than ever. The below graph is a beautiful proof of this. It’s the evolution of the level of agreement in the US congress from 1949 to 2011.
It seems obvious that when people get elected, it is their job to make good decisions for all the people. For this a high level of agreement and connection is required. However, The current evolutions of polarisation show the opposite. Which simply means that there is something undermining our democracy.
Klaas Mensaert — wisely — chose not to attack the integrity of politicians. He went to look for the fundamental driving forces behind this concerning evolution. He shows in a very clear way that the best players of a certain game are the product of the rules of that game. Just like you will never have a healthy democratic government in Monopoly, as long as the rules of monopoly reward having a monopoly. Some of the rules of our current democracies are rewarding behaviours (like polarisation) that directly undermine democracy itself.
The flaws that kill our democracy: Exclusivity and Centralisation
Klaas Mensaert builds a firm case around the flaws in his first two chapters. He does this by referring to other researchers and thinkers. The main ones being Nassim Taleb (author of “Antifragile”) and Moisey Yakovlevich Ostrogorsky (a politician far ahead of his time in 1902). Via all these references, Klaas thoroughly describes what the problems are, and distills them to Exclusivity and Centralisation.
“Centralisation is the process by which the activities of an organisation become concentrated within a particular geographical location group. This moves the important decision-making and planning powers within the center of the organisation.” (Wikipedia of course).
Centralisation is not good or bad. It has its pro’s and con’s. It is just very important to know that — just like a computer — a centralised parliament has a maximum processing capacity. The bigger the organisation or country, the more information and activities there are to process. And the harder it becomes to take everything into account and make the right decisions.
In our increasingly globalised and connected world, there is an enormous amount of information. And democracy has not yet learned how to deal with this. It is lagging behind.
This centralisation-problem is amplified because of the second flaw in our democracy: Politicians waste precious information-processing power on polarisation caused by exclusivity.
What if you’d have to choose one shop every 4 years, and you could only shop at that store for the next 4 years? This would put an enormous amount of pressure on the chooser, and even more it would put an enormous amount of pressure on the shop, because that store has to provide everything.
In politics we can also only vote for one party, and that puts an enormous amount of pressure on the parties. Each party has to have an answer to everything. Each party has to be as good as the whole government itself.
You’d think this is good, but it’s not. You want a government to be amazing, but you don’t need its parts to be good at everything. Just like a rocket engineer doesn’t need to be amazing at business. The most successful rocket companies put their brilliant rocket engineers together with business people, marketeers, sales, software engineers,… and so on.
The basic idea: We need more specialised solutions in order to run a country, not less! With political exclusivity our democracy loses a lot of specialised knowledge, ideas and insights.
And it gets even worse if you combine exclusivity and centralisation.
While there are probably more than a 1000 issues in a country. Elections are being won over only a handful of those issues. This is extremely fragile and can get us into extremely dangerous situations. Like Klaas Mensaert says it in his book: It’s quite troubling that we still have more or less the same political system with which the NAZI’s rose to power.
Luckily, In his last chapter Klaas describes how we can evolve into a more healthy and antifragile democracy aka a democracy that welcomes stress and change with open arms.
An upgraded parliament
So how do we build an antifragile political system that is more inclusive and more decentralised? Or simply said: How do we upgrade our parliaments to act as a well oiled team that has a much higher processing power?
Klaas Mensaert describes how this can be done with only two changes: Two types of representatives, two different ways of electing them.
To improve democracy we should have two types of representatives: party-representatives and people’s representatives.
Party-representatives are the ones we already know. They have a specific ideology, a specific goal or a specific speciality. Because we want inclusivity of more specialised knowledge and insights, we want a wide variety of parties that are specialised in a wide variety of subjects. This has a couple of very interesting side effects:
- Politics becomes more transparent. Organisations that are now influencing politics behind the scenes via lobbying are now incentivised to publicly join the political debate. Lobbying people’s representatives behind the scenes can also be criminalised.
- Ideological and utopian thinking becomes less dominant. Voters can vote for as many parties as they want. In this way you can be for a free market, but also want social and ecological justice. Everyone can vote on what’s important for them.
You might think: “Even more parties? This is going to be mayhem!”. But nothing is further from the truth because parties will not have decision power. The decisions are made by the people’s representatives.
The people’s representatives are not tied to any party and are inherently obliged to listen to all the ideas of the representatives of the elected parties. Their job is to pick the best ideas and to make the best decisions for the good of all (Article 42).
What makes the people’s representatives truly an interesting upgrade for democracy, is the fact that next to voting for them, you can also vote against them.
The “voting against” is something I have seen with Christian Felber’s economy of the common good. It causes decision-making to be much more equal, stable and just. I can therefore only applaud the fact that Klaas incorporates a similar way in his proposal for an upgraded democracy
Next to being more equal and just, “Voting against” has a very important benefit: The connecting politicians get more power, the polarising ones get less.
As examples: Trump would never have gotten elected. Yes, there were a lot of people for him, but next to that there were an enormous amount of US citizens “against” him too. The same is probably true for Bernie Sanders. In Europe — the extreme right that’s on the rise everywhere, would never get the amount of power they have now. Simply because at least half of the population does not want to be represented by an extreme ideology like this.
This does not mean that these voices should not be present and listened to. Many different ideologies have to be present to compete with each other. It will improve each party and therefore the whole government. Still — the ultimate decisions should be made by the people that link all voters and ideologies as much as possible.
When you get the specialised party representatives and the connecting people’s representatives into one government, that government will become more decentralised and more inclusive. This government has a higher processing power and will be more capable, better connected and, of course, more democratic.
An upgraded book
What good is a book review if you don’t have at least some constructive feedback to help improve it for the next print. Here’s two points I have for improving the book.
Frame the solution by using the solution
One big improvement that I immediately saw, was the framing of the third chapter. Framing the solution, by using the solution would give an extra layer to the book.
Klaas should frame the third chapter as a political proposal by one party, which then would be criticised and improved with the help of the other parties (more ideas and more insights). In the end he could describe how this proposal has to be voted upon by the people’s representatives.
It would give this book an even higher level of genius, while actually making it easier for us (the readers) to grasp the idea.
A possible way forward
What Klaas also doesn’t mention in his book, is a way forward. What steps could be taken to get to this upgraded democracy?
I shall propose an idea here just because I like to think about this stuff. This idea would definitely work in Belgium (which has more than 10 parties in its federal parliament).
A simple way forward is to start a new party that walks the talk. A new party that specializes like a party, and acts as people’s representatives.
The specialization is to make the political system more inclusive and decentralised. And its elected representatives would act as the connecting people’s representatives. This party Listens to all the insights of the current parties and their opinions, deciding which solutions are the most useful for specific problems. Basically — if there’s more than one party that you like, you just vote for this new party.
This could work in many other democratic countries, other countries will need other ways forward.
Klaas Mensaert thoroughly did his research and thinking. He wrote this book in such a way that it could be referred to by many people in many different democratic systems. After reading this book you will understand that exclusivity and centralisation have had their time, and that Inclusivity and decentralisation are the way to go for a healthy democratic country.
Yes, this book has the potential to start a wave that will shift the foundations of our democracies.
Are you interested in politics or are you a fan of democracy, then this book is a MUST READ for you.
ps: Find the book via bookfinder, amazon, via Fnac or just do a google search for your nearest book shop
ps2: Go to www.ikvraagdusikben.be