Cor baby, that’s really free.

One of my pet subjects is the fact that in (free democratic) systems of governance, there must be institutions that are not free and democratic, not in the sense of the popular “one man one vote” mantra.

OK, so most people quickly see that total freedom for popular decision-making is a recipe for anarchy, not democracy, which demands institutions to defend and preserve rights and freedoms of individuals and groups from other individuals and groups. There are “greater goods” than individual rights and freedoms. And it is easy to see that pragmatically authority has to be delegated to elected representatives or delegates in order to achieve timely decisions and actions on behalf of the electorate.

However what is harder to see, because it appears paradoxical at first, is that some of those institutions must also have intrinsically “elitist” non-democratic arrangements.

At the very least they need to have meritocratic arrangements that are insulated from direct popular democracy. They require a caucas of people “who know better”. Of course they have to be “trusted” to know better, trusted to make “unpopular” decisions without the question of direct public decision-making input. There must ultimately be free and democratic sanctions, answerable to the “popular” constituency when that trust is lost, but that trust does not have to be sought on the same timescale as the operational decisions of that population.

Of course any sophisticated national government with a history knows about meritocratic appointees to high-ranking public servant positions, high-court judges and the like. These will be appointed democratically (well, by political horse-trading maybe) by one or other house of popular elected government institutions (one level removed from popular vote) and on tenures longer than the popular election cycle of those elected institutions (a second level of insulation from popular voting).

That way the appointers can consider their candidate appointees independently of their electoral considerations, and merited in terms of greater considerations of quality, value, truth and good. Of course the higher (public) profile the particular positions, the greater the (public) political pressures anyway, but the principle is well established.

This is rarely noticed however in new / young institutions embracing the free & democratic “dogma”. And the “received wisdom” view of evolution, particularly in the power of crowds empowered by free access to communications media and technologies, is to completely overlook this issue, and to positively rail against any hint of attempted, even suggested, control by higher “authority”. Two or three posts into a discussion on the subject and some well-intentioned individual – supported by a crowd baying for blood –  is invoking liberty and personal freedoms, accusations of control-freakery or pretensions of higher knowledge, screaming “censorship” and pointing out Hitler, Mao and Stalin and the historical lessons of fascism. Well, all the easy bits ayway, the popular received wisdom of the lesson, minus anything else of value – necessarily of greater value, since by defintion they will be valued by fewer of the population – paradoxically, the opposite of democratic. (There’s a name for that syndrome – counting how many posts before someone makes a “fascist” reference in a  contentious correspondence thread – lost it for a moment.)

 Anyway, memes always promulgate the easy to understand bits, never the valuable subtleties.

I have pointed out before that excellent inventions like Wikipedia are wonderfully valuable in capturing high quality knowledge where the content is uncontentious and low profile … anywhere where it is “political” the mechanism fails and is replaced (devalued) with a power of conflicting wills and attrition, often disguised by many layers of rhetorical and ironic game-play.

Encyclopedia Brittanica seems to understand this – avoiding falling for the obvious Wikipedia model. Somethings, to be definitive, need to be authoritative. W3C itself knows this [Figure 7 Semantic Web Layers], by having “trust” at the top of its architectural stack of web technologies, but those using the power of mass communications often ride over this with their personal democratic dogma.

Some things need to be managed by those with the pretensions, the presumption, the wisdom …. to know better. That’s really, really, really free.

[Post Note – Hooray, and even Wikipedia itself has seen the error of its (simple popular) democratic ways …. nobody said the alternative was easy, just better … as with any publicly shared reference data, publication can be fast, but quality can take a little time. ]

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