Design an ideal government

Suppose you had the ability to instantly change the government to fix everything that’s broken about it. You can change term limits, replace congress with an advisory panel, give some or all of the presidents powers to a different government branch, rewrite the entire constitution, whatever you want.
Now without quibbling about specific policies you’d change, how would you structure the government to ensure the best possible government for the greatest number of people?
I’m assuming that some form of democracy (or at least a republic) is essential to guard against rule by elite, so pure dictatorships are non-starters. But you can propose a limited dictatorship as long as there is some form of check-n-balance.

The sorts of questions I’m asking are:

What, if anything, would you do to correct the partisan bickering of the current 2-party system? Would you change the system to somehow encourage multiple parties, for instance? If so, how?

What, if anything, would you do to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups in the lawmaking process?

What procedural changes would you make to congress to prevent abuses. For instance, “bundling” of good and bad bills (ie, sticking a ridiculous earmark or a clearly inappropriate corporate tax break into a bill about homeland security so congress is forced to vote for both parts or neither)?

What, if anything, would you change to ensure the people making decisions are the best qualified, rather than the most photogenic on television?

Given unlimited scope to reinvent anything, how would you “fix” the system?

Why on earth would you assume that having more than two parties would mean *less *partisan bickering?

More importantly, why would you assume “partisan bickering” is a bad thing? The early-20th-Century Progressives did – they had a professional-technocratic approach to government and preached “There is no Democratic or Republican way to pave a street” – it is their legacy that so many local governments today have “nonpartisan” elections and city-manager government – but it’s not hard to see the ways in which they were wrong. Which streets get paved and which don’t, and who gets taxed how much to pay for them, are essentially political questions that involve competing group interests and cannot be reduced to the results of scientifically irreproachable formulas purporting to produce a socially optimal prescription. And it is impossible even to think of devising formulas that would produce an optimal public policy on such questions as abortion or school prayer or gay marriage.

For my part, I would do everything possible to encourage the emergence of a multiparty system – not to discourage “partisan bickering,” but for many other reasons given here.

N.B., because I see confusion on this point all the time: A multiparty system is not the same thing as a parliamentary system. The distinguishing characteristic of a parliamentary system is that the legislature chooses the executive, so the “gridlock” situation, the executive and legislature being controlled by different and opposed parties, never emerges (or else, ends in a vote of no confidence and new elections). You can have a parliamentary system with two parties in parliament or with 20. In the presidential or separation-of-powers system, the executive is independently elected by the people (or some variation – for the U.S. presidency we use the Electoral College), has an independent electoral mandate, and is in a position to oppose the legislature. And you can have a separation-of-powers system with two parties in the legislature, or with one party (like most states of the American South between Reconstruction and 1960s), or with 20 – and with the chief executive elected as the nominee of one party, or a coalition. (See electoral fusion, which, unfortunately, is illegal in most U.S. states.)

The reason partisan’s bicker is because there is power to be gained, and spoils to be divided, amongst the winners. If you take away the potential for spoils there is nothing to bicker over.

I tried to come at this question in a round-a-bout way via my ‘Robbie the Robot’ thread a few days back, but couldn’t drum up any interest.

How about this for starters?

  • Spending anything more than the previous years budget, with an increase for CPI and population growth, requires a Congressional supermajority and should expect a veto, in any case. That would reduce the probability of that event to extreme circumstances only, and that would require bi-or-tri-partisan support. Acts of war, major catastrophes, etc.

  • As long as we have fiat money, the Fed is only allowed to dial up, or down, interest rates in order to stay within a pre-defined inflation range. Say, 0-2%.

  • Government functions are paid for by a flat tax on energy consumption at the retail end. That should spur alternative energy investment, reduce carbon emissions, and prevent the whole trading favors between Detroit-Alaska-cars-oil constituencies. Should also concentrate our minds on better energy policy and energy security.

  • Offset the tax increases on energy by reducing payroll taxes on the poorest Americans to zero.

  • Reduce Capital gains and dividends taxes to zero. These accomplish very little and are impediments to job creation.

  • Any tax increase requires a supermajority. Once upon a time, it took an amendment to the Constitution to impose an income tax. Now we throw around multi-billion dollar tax increases with a wave of the hand, like they are the government’s God-given right to dial up and down at will.

  • Increase EITC-type credits for the working poor. They can spend it on what they want: education for their kids, housing, healthcare, whatever. It will depend on their particular life circumstances. Instead of launching a bunch of governmental departments to help with this life need, or that life need, we should just give the people the money and let them spend it as they see fit.

  • Make all of the ‘helpful’ government programs voluntary. Social Security and Medicare come to mind. You don’t have to pay into it if you don’t want to. But don’t expect anything out of it.

  • Require a supermajority to enact any sort of trade barrier, regulation, busines restriction, etc. As far as I’m concerned these sorts of things are infringements on our Constitutional freedoms. And amendments to the Constitution require more than just a simple majority.

I can think of a lot of other things. But the more you take decisions out of the hands of politicians, and the more you put them in the hands of the people, the less there is for politicians to bicker about. Because they won’t have any power to do anything about it, anyway.

The Progressives tried to achieve that in California by providing for ballot initiatives, by which the voters can do an end-run around the parties and legislature. The results, as any Californian would tell you, have been a mixed bag. When Schwarzenegger took office promising to slash the state budget he found it was full of annual allocations both he and the legislature were powerless to touch, because they had been decreed by ballot initiative. The problem is, the people of any political unit larger than a New England township are not a deliberative body and cannot be organized as one. If you propose in a legislative assembly to cut tax A and introduce new expenditure B, someone is bound to jump up and say, “So how is B to be paid for?” But it’s easy to get both measures passed as ballot initiatives, even in the same election.

For a start, I’d let people have second choices count when they vote. Basically, you count up everyone’s votes, find out which candidate has the least, and redistribute the votes for that person. Keep on doing that until you have a winner. Ideally each individual voter would make that decision themselves, but if that is too time-intensive to count, or considered too troublesome for the average voter to look up every Joe Nobody candidate, you could at least let each candidate decide who their votes would go to (making this information publically available, of course).

That way, people will be encouraged to vote for the candidate that reflects how they think the government should run, instead of the current system where you have to vote for one of the big two if you want to have any say at all.

This would encourage not only third-party candidates, but would also mean that the Democrats and Republicans could run two candidates (a fiscal conservative and a Religious Righter, for instance) without spoiling themselves. It would mean someone might win who had fewer first-choice votes, but I think it would be better to elect someone who everyone thinks is a good second choice than someone loved by 40% of the country and hated by the other 60%.

Yes, I know. I lived there for a few of those initiatives. Great political and special-interest theatre, if nothing else.

But I guess that sorta proves my point. Why should 51% of a voting population be able to impose a tax increase, or impose a regulation, on the other 49%? That seems to violate (what I always thought was) fundamental principles of our Constitution and the framework of our founding fathers. The fathers didn’t ‘found’ California, I know. Please throw me a bone on that one.

I completely agree with you that once you get a forum bigger than a New England townhall, you run into all sorts of inefficiences and obstructions to optimal outcomes. So why even try? Isn’t that almost evidence in itself that a referendum-like approach can’t work? Why even bother?

I like the spirit of these SDMB threads because they force us to reel back and refresh our memories, or at least reconsider, what (1) we want the government to do and (2) what we can all agree on it NEEDS to do. And then go from there.

Does a state government really need to fund stem-cell research? Does a federal government need to get involved with a rain-forest exhibit in Iowa or a Bridge-to-a-tiny-island in Alaska?

I would argue “Of course not”.

We can probably agree on common defense, an independent judiciary, and an electoral process that safeguards the rights of its citizens. Check. It’s after that where things start to get a little contentious.

Which is good. That’s what deliberative bodies are for, and why the SDMB can be a fun and engaging place to be.

Does the government have an obligation to provide for the basic health and education needs of its citizens? Mmmmm. Maybe. Let’s talk about it. We may be actually debating more the ‘how’ rather than the ‘if’.

Does the government have an obligation to bail out a horribly mismanaged company? Hell, no. At least, that’s my opinion. But once you give it that power, you immediately open up the ‘bickering’ argument of the OP, because now there are spoils to be gained and benefits to be realized from the bickering.

Sorry for the long-winded response.

Exactly right. Lobbyists and powerful interests exist in Washington because Washington has a huge amount of power. For all the blathering about ‘good government’, you will never, ever eliminate corruption from a system that centralizes so much power in the hands of a few hundred individuals. Never.

Government needs to be streamlined. It needs to get out of the business of picking winners and losers, subsidizing industries and regulating anything that isn’t directly tied to safety and stability of the economy as a whole.

Eliminate ALL industry subsidies. Government has no business manipulating the markets through subsidy. That includes this ridiculous notion of the government spending billions of dollars to promote ‘energy independence’.

Go through the tens of thousands of pages of government regulations and eliminate the myriad web of regulations that have been built up over the years because of the regulatory capture of special interests, who distort and pervert regulations to feather their nests instead of safeguarding the public.

Institute a cap on regulations. If you propose a new regulation of an industry, you must propose an offsetting regulatory reduction somewhere else. This would force government to constantly look at past regulations and evaluate whether they did what they were supposed to.

Institute some sort of dynamic measuring and scoring system for regulations. Any proposed regulation should have to do the following:

  • Describe the problem that needs regulation
  • Describe in detail why the current market cannot solve the problem.
  • Include measures for testing the efficacy of the regulation.

After one year and five years, the regulation must be reviewed, and the measures of efficacy tested to see if the regulation had an effect. If not, the regulation has to go back for review and be re-voted on by the Congress, or it expires.

Far, far too many regulations are passed based on vague descriptions of the problem they are meant to address, and only the vaguest of notions of exactly how they are supposed to fix the problem. Often it’s just handwaving like, “Our farm industry is in dire need of help. Family farms are failing, and we run the risk of losing our vital agriculture interests. That’s why HR-OU812 is so important - it funds our family farms and provides support to those hurt by the present economic conditions.” Mom and apple pie. And in the end, the new bill is 500 pages long, and in the details turns out to be packed with handouts and giveaways to big agribusiness and actually hurts the people it was intended to help.

Give the president a line-item veto. Stop the insane process of attaching earmarks to bills, or attaching pork to popular bills that no one can vote against.

But most of all, cut the size of government. Make regulations objective instead of subjective. Take away the government’s ability to micro-manage industry, and you’ll take away industry’s need to micro-manage government.

Firstly, I think the ideal government is no government. But pushing that aside, I rather like America’s government, with one small exception: that which is not constitutional has a built-in, unremovable sunset clause. I feel strongly that there are laws on the books which would not be passed if proposed today, but which, for weird political reasons, cannot be met with a law nullifying them. For instance, there is no way today’s congress could consider marijuana a schedule I drug, but I do not think we can reasonably expect them to reschedule it (yet).

That this suggestion would also add considerable overhead to the legislative body I consider a feature, not a bug.

I have often toyed with adding accountability into laws in ways that would nullify them, which is to say, the laws themselves must indicate what counts as a success of this law, and if a law is shown to have failed to meet the conditions, it is automatically nullified. Unfortunately not all laws are susceptible to this; and furthermore, I am not sure how it could actually be implimented with any kind of reliability. Just an ongoing thought project of mine.

This sounds good, except that I cannot possibly imagine the criteria for deciding whether something is directly tied to the “safety and stability of the economy as a whole.”

I love the sunset idea. Bush actually played it cleverly, but in reverse, with the tax cuts and the 529 college-savings plans. He bet they would become so popular there would be no way they could expire. The jury is still out on this, of course, but it looks promising.

I wish Bush was as clever with a bunch of other things. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

Why the hell does the ATF exist? Beats me. I know somewhere, in the past, it was a way to tax black-market moonshining. What is it doing now? Hell if I know.

The Department of Education? That budget looks like it has grown to the neighborhood of $60 billion per year. And this is a governmental body that didn’t even exist a few decades ago. Do we all feel like we’re gettin’ better edified? Are we getting a good return on that $60 billion per year? Didn’t think so.

Department of Energy? That also didn’t even exist until the 1970s. How’s that one doing? Are we getting good value for our billions there? How about NASA?

Protection from sugar imports? Rubber-soled shoes? Light trucks? Waiting for the FDA to approve a drug so they can buy it legally? The list goes on and on.

For the next administration I don’t expect a wholesale rollback of rules and regulations. That seems too politically far-fetched. But please, can’t we at least STOP where we’re at? And no more? Or Sam’s idea of offsets?

The same thing, actually. Fighting black market alcohol is actually quite violent, from what I’ve read, but receives little press because of where it happens. Moonshine is not really an urban phenomenon.

To some extent, “protectionism” can be sensible, IMO. While I am against all tariffs on goods from other free market economies, I would have absolutely no problem on prohibitive tariffs on goods from countries without free markets. How to deal with emerging markets? I don’t know. I think it is fair to say, for example, that China is slowly changing its ways (possibly even to avoid what happened with the USSR), and I would like to encourage that, but yet I feel like we really are exploiting people in China by buying their goods.

Election by petition, rather than by districts.

As Heinlein put it:

I haven’t heard that one before. Can you explain it to me?

Maybe. But who decides whether American consumers ‘deserve’ or ‘don’t deserve’ cheaper goods from non-free-market countries. It’s going to be some politician, somewhere, with a special interest to protect and all of the shenanigans that come with that.

The following WSJ Op-Ed piece doesn’t directly address this issue, I know, but I thought it was interesting none the less given the subject matter. I also don’t know why they felt the need to take a dig at Democrats in the last line, except that it’s the WSJ Op-Ed page.

Sep 6, 2008

Trade protectionism is typically defended as a way to protect American jobs, even if it doesn’t. But who wins when we impose tariffs even if there are no American jobs to defend?

With the exception of high-end footwear, more than 95% of the shoes Americans wear are produced outside the U.S. Yet the U.S. still imposes a tax on imported shoes that can reach as high as 67%, a legacy (believe it or not) of the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930. Shoe tariffs raise more money than auto tariffs, and the tax is applied most heavily on the lowest-priced imported footwear.

“This is the most regressive policy in America today,” says Ed Gresser of the Progressive Policy Institute. “The biggest victims are poor, single mothers.” He’s right. The tariff steals about $5 billion a year from U.S. consumers, and a family that shops at Payless or Wal-Mart typically pays a $5 duty on a $15 pair of sneakers.

As with all tariffs, this one also creates perverse winners. Under current trade law, tariffs on fabric-soled shoes are only about one-third as high as tariffs on rubber-soled shoes. So one company, E.S. Originals of New York, has a patent for a process to imbed fabric into rubber soles. The sole purpose of this process is to get around the higher tariff. Shoe companies spend $40 million a year on royalties to pay for the imbedding technology – which is an income transfer from low-income Americans to one company. One of the firms lobbying for retaining shoe tariffs is . . . E.S. Originals.

A coalition of retailers and shoe companies has been trying to build support to repeal the shoe tax, and it already has support from 157 U.S. House Members of both parties. The argument for doing so has gained momentum as import prices have climbed more than 20% so far this year thanks to the weak dollar. We hear that Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel would like to repeal the tariff but feels constrained because under Congressional rules he’d have to raise taxes or cut spending by $2 billion a year to replace the lost revenue. Congress could always save the $2 billion by spending less, but it’s politically so much easier to reduce the standard of living of working families by keeping an unjust tax.

Democrats in Denver last week talked a lot about burdens facing the working class. Repealing the shoe tariff is one quick way to make that more than just another political slogan.

OK, disclaimer 1: There is no governmental system that will give you perfect governance. The behavior of those in power is a function of their wisdom & conscience, not something any constitutional system can perfectly guarantee.

and disclaimer 2: I’m not even going to try to describe a platonic ideal of good government in this, but I will suggest some proposals that could in theory improve what we’ve got. (Arguably this should be another thread.)

A. Governments that use an electoral college should take advantage of it, rather than reducing it to an arbitrary mathematical formula. The US President could be elected by, say, professors of history rather than the general populace.

B. Legislative districts should not be the only way legislators are elected. Unicameral legislators can use mixed-member proportional or have a few at-large seats. Multicamerals can have at least one house with districts, & at least one at-large.

C. Principles of ecological sustainability should be enshrined in constitutions alongside civil rights.

D. Independent prosecutors are vital. Simply electing an Attorney General separately goes a long way toward impeding corruption.


The problem with voting people into office by districts, is that some people’s views & needs will not be represented. That is, if 100,001 people are in favor of the .02 Titanium Tax, & 99,999 are **opposed to** the .02 Titanium Tax, 99,999 people’s views will not be represented.

If you vote nationally, by petition, X number of signatures on a petition gets you elected. Thus, everybody has somebody who represents their views or supports their issues. It’s not a “win or go hungry” situation.

BTW–this tends to support issue-based candidates, rather than Party-based ones. For obvious reasons.

What’s an example of a petition? Is it like a California referendum that describes a specific issue, or is it more like party platform with lots of ‘planks’?

Bickering is fine. I envy the raucousness of Taiwan politics. Two-party politics is not fine. We need to bring in proportional representation. We also need to increase the size of Congress. Congressional districts are too large, & Congressmen too remote from their constituents.

‘The only constitutional rule relating to the size of the House says: “The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand.”[2]’
We’re at about 1/20 of that now.

Strictly enforced penalties for bribery. Campaign financing is often bribery in fact, due to the fungibility of money. Ergo, the need to discourage bribery must sometimes trump “freedom of the [campaign’s] press.” Communication between a candidate & his political allies should be less restricted than under McCain-Feingold, but the ability to contribute directly to his organization should be more restricted.

This is the responsibility of a legislature’s committees. The change I would first recommend would be that any vetoing authority should be able to send a bill back as many times as it takes to clear out the jive. (Which is weird, since the monarchical veto gives me hives.)

Oh, yeah. I’ve done most of two posts without thinking of this. See my next answer.

Abolish the popular election of officeholders. Candidates have to qualify in some kind of blind test, not be voted in. What that test looks like, I haven’t determined.

Well, in this case, I do. I do not think it is consistent. While I doubt we can craft consistent government, this particular case is pretty simple, once we cross the hurdle of what counts as a free market.

Of course. But what is the alternative? It is not just politicians that serve special interests; so would importers. I only ask for protectionism to hide behind modicum of consistency. If we are for free markets, then we should be for free markets. Importing goods from non-free markets is, to me, inconsistent, possibly immoral, and maybe distortive. I do not believe capitalism, as such, is exploitative; but to the extent that there are real incentives to deal with non-free markets it can be.