I voted. Did you?

One of the recurring parlor games on social media is "confess your unpopular opinion."

Here's one of mine: I have a hard time trusting democracy. 

Don't get me wrong...I believe absolutely in the importance of self-government, and think it's one of the non-negotiable features of a true civilization. If you don't get to decide your own destiny, you're not really living freely.

But here's one of the hazards of self-government: Every mechanism that it uses to keep working involves feedback, and if the feedback going into the system isn't good, it's really hard for the system to succeed.

School boards are a terrific example. I once heard someone say that a bad school system is a form of slow-motion community suicide. That's a bit on the strong side, but it's ultimately true. If you have a place with a bad educational system (and a reputation for it), then most self-interested people are going to make a choice to opt out of the system -- either by moving away or by choosing an alternative, like private schools or homeschooling.

In the long run, after a generation or two of this, the only people left in the community are going to be products of the same underperforming school system. And unless they're suddenly overcome by some bolt out of the blue, then they're probably not going to see the need to do better. And even if the leaders see fit to do better, there's a very good chance that the voters and taxpayers won't. It's not uncommon to hear people saying "If it was good enough for me, it's good enough for my kids."

Since things like school systems tend to be an important part of a community's self-identity, it's really hard to say "our schools aren't good enough" without people taking it personally. Constructive criticism doesn't always get you very far, especially when it's about something that can be central to someone's identity.

None of this is to say that we're better off with outsiders endowing us with their own supposed enlightenment about what makes for a better system. One of my overwhelming apprehensions about the Federal government taking a role in education is that it's really easy to set a bad standard, and to create incentives that cause everyone to converge on a lowest common denominator. If the Federal government says that your funding depends on the outcome of a single test, then everyone's going to start teaching to that test -- even if it's not a very good one. 

Moreover, a national educational system is subject to the very same shortcomings as a state or a community system -- just on a much bigger scale, with magnified consequences (not to mention magnified incentives for people to try to manipulate the system to get what they want). Everyone knows that America doesn't do especially well in the supposed world rankings for school performance. But what have we really done on a national scale to initiate a turnaround of any sort, at least since the Sputnik scare lit a fire under math and science education in the Cold War?

The only thing that can really ensure that we're moving in the right direction is a very big dose of self-criticism. Not just on matters like school board votes, but on anything that involves self-government. If we aren't actively criticizing ourselves, actively demanding that we try harder to do better, actively grabbing the reins of history to force ourselves to go in the right direction -- or at least to consciously ask ourselves at every turn whether we're really getting better -- then we're almost certainly letting ourselves passively enter a negative feedback loop. The moment we think we're good enough is the moment we're committing to a slow-motion community suicide.

There's always the opposite temptation, which is to believe that with just a little bit more power, just a little bit more control, just a little bit more reach into people's lives, that we'll find a way to make everything perfect. There are people who campaign for school board (and for every other office) who like to imply that they're the ones who can make everything perfect, if only you'll let them do a little bit more, expand their portfolio just a little bit, or engineer just a little more of their utopian vision into the framework of whatever we're doing. This is a dangerous temptation, too, because it usually rewards failure with even more power -- and you've heard the excuses: "This would have worked, but we didn't have enough resources. Give us just a little more and we'll deliver on the promise."

We can't ever be satisfied that what we have is good enough. It has to be a perpetual struggle to find ways to get and be and do better than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we shouldn't revere our history or respect the people who came before us. But it does mean that we can't ever imagine that there was a perfect past that we have to restore, and we can't ever let ourselves believe that if we got just enough power, we'd be able to make everything perfect. Both of those are wild conceits, and they're sure to leave our every endeavor of self-government in a ditch. 

So that's why I have a hard time with democracy. Not that there's any reasonable substitute for it -- I am firmly committed to a (small-r, small-d) republican democracy. But I know that it doesn't work out just by accident or good fortune. I know that it wasn't perfect before, it's not perfect now, and it won't be perfect tomorrow. The only thing of which I really am sure is that the only way to make sure it comes close to working right is if we're all skeptics -- of the system, of each other, and of ourselves. Not cynics, but true skeptics. 

We have to constantly ask, "Is this really the best we can do?" And if we ever think the answer is "Yes", then the new question becomes "Then what are we missing?" Because it's never good enough.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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