The Worst Form Of Government (Except For Everything Else We’ve Tried)

Churchill famously called democracy “the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”—referring presumably to the relative success of his native Britain, the US, and more generally Western Europe and today most of the first world.

I claim that Churchill was importantly wrong. Not (necessarily) wrong about the relative success of Britain/​US/​etc, but about those countries’ governments being well-described as simple democracy. Rather, I claim, the formula which has worked well in e.g. Britain and the US diverges from pure democracy in a crucial load-bearing way; that formula works better than pure democracy both in theory and in practice, and when thinking about good governance structures we should emulate the full formula rather than pure democracy.

Specifically, the actual governance formula which is “worst except for everything else we’ve tried” is:

  • Give a de-facto veto to each major faction

  • Within each major faction, do pure democracy.

A Stylized Tale of Democracy

Let’s start with the obvious failure mode of pure democracy: suppose a country consists of 51% group A, 49% group B, and both groups hate each other and have centuries-long blood feuds. Some first world country decides to invade, topple the local dictator, and hold democratic elections for a new government. Group A extremist candidate wins with a 51% majority, promising to enact divine vengeance upon the B’s for their centuries of evil deeds. Group B promptly rebels, and the country descends into civil war.

This is obviously a stylized, oversimplified picture, but… well, according to wikipedia the three largest ethnic groups in Iraq are the Shiites (14 million), Sunni arabs (9 million), and Sunni Kurds (4.7 million), which would make the Shiites just over 50% (excluding the various smaller groups)[1]. In the 2005 elections, the Shiites claimed 48% of the seats—not quite a majority but close enough to dominate political decisions in practice. Before long, the government was led by a highly sectarian Shiite, who generally tried to limit the power of Sunnis and Kurds. In response, around 2013/​2014, outright Sunni rebellion coalesced around ISIL and Iraq plunged into civil war.

Now, I’m not about to claim that this was democracy at its purest—the US presumably put its thumb on the scales, the elections were presumably less than ideal, Iraq’s political groups presumably don’t perfectly cleave into two camps, etc. But the outcome matches the prediction of the oversimplified model well enough that I expect the oversimplified model captures the main drivers basically-correctly.

So what formula should have been applied in Iraq, instead?

The Recipe Which Works In Practice

In its infancy, the US certainly had a large minority which was politically at odds with the majority: the old North/​South split. The solution was a two-house Congress. Both houses of Congress were democratically elected, but the votes were differently weighted (one population-weighted, one a fixed number of votes per state), in such a way that both groups would have a de-facto veto on new legislation. In other words: each major faction received a de-facto veto. That was the key to preventing the obvious failure mode.

Particularly strong evidence for this model came later on in US history. As new states were added, the Southern states were at risk of losing their de-facto veto. This came to a head with Kansas: by late 1860 it became clear that Kansas was likely to be added as a state and would align with the Northern faction, fully eliminating the Southern veto. In response, South Carolina formally seceded in December 1860, followed by five more Southern states in January, and another five over the next few months. And so began the US civil war.

The case of the US civil war makes the formula particularly clear: give each major faction a de-facto veto, and then run democracy within the factions. In the US, civil war broke out exactly when their ad-hoc method for giving the second-largest faction a de-facto veto failed.

(Aside: I expect many people to respond “ok, but wasn’t it better to have that war than not, since it ended slavery in the Southern states?”. A full proper reply would have to get into the details of how much conditions for former slaves actually improved and how counterfactual the war was for that improvement and how that tallies up against the direct costs of war, but as a not-full reply I’ll say “civil war bad, would rather not have civil war all else equal”. And regardless, it is at least a clear failure of governance that a civil war broke out.)

Now imagine how Iraq might have gone had the same formula been applied there: a government in which Shiites, Sunnis, and maybe Kurds each had a de-facto veto, and democratic elections were performed within each group. My best guess is that ISIL and the Iraqi civil war would basically not have happened.

Some Takeaways

Once we see de-facto vetos for minority factions as a feature rather than a bug of governance systems, there are some immediate political implications. In the US, the most obvious is that the much-maligned electoral college system is perhaps pretty important; pure majority vote would not necessarily be better (though it does depend on the numbers). And those historical occasions when a single political party dominates both houses of Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court are dangerous times—times when the country is at unusually high risk of civil war or comparable internal strife.

But I’m actually more interested in the implications at a smaller scale—governance of companies or organizations, agreements between multiple stakeholders, that sort of thing. “De-facto veto for each major faction, plus democracy within factions” isn’t just a formula for countries, it’s a formula for peaceful resolution to any battle for control—a way to defer later disagreements until later, without worrying that one faction will later be able to override everybody else’ interests.

So next time you find yourself in complicated negotiations with roommates, cofounders, the board of an org which may or may not be OpenAI, etc, consider an agreement which settles current live issues however is adequate and defers future issues by assigning each main faction a veto, with voting within-factions. Unlike simple democracy, that formula will avoid a costly falling-out of the group.

  1. ^

    These numbers are from when I first drafted this post a couple years ago, and were probably not fully up-to-date even then.