I was recently inspired by Ryan Holiday’s new book Lives of The Stoics for many reasons, but one in particular has prompted this article today: the decision by the Stoics to eventually get involved in politics.
Up until about the third wave or so of the Stoicism philosophical school, the Stoics had kept their noses out of politics and refused to interfere with how people live. You either went to their school or you ignored them and they ignored you.
But at a key moment, they decided that they were doing the world a disservice by keeping their philosophy out of the political arena, and some key Stoics travelled to Rome to defend an attack on Greece. From that moment on, Stoicism has played an influential role on the world political stage.
I feel I may be due to make this transition myself. Until now, I’ve basically kept my philosophy of integrity (very similar and heavily influenced by Stoicism) confined to personal issues within my own niche BROJO community, for each individual to apply to themselves, and I’ve kept my nose out of the higher level social and political issues such as healthcare and law & order.
But after a few decades on this planet witnessing politicians run various countries around the world with almost no regard to honesty, truth, the greater good, reason, science, or even just good common sense, I feel it would be a breach of my own values to stay completely silent on the matter.
It feels like watching a drunk person get behind the wheel of a car and doing nothing about it. I usually abstain from voting simply because my values demand that I only vote for someone whom I believe is an adequate leader. I don’t vote based on who is better than the other; I hold all applicants to the high standard of leadership required for the successful management of an entire country, and it’s very rare that any candidate makes the grade.
Such leaders do exist, it’s just that they’re never politicians. They’re off winning Nobel prizes, or starting world-changing companies, or even living humble lives yet having a remarkably helpful effect on anyone who comes near them. The people who we are forced to choose from as politicians are nearly all needy, greedy, self-absorbed, unqualified, short-sighted, easily corruptible, and often display the emotional maturity of young teens.
So for whatever good it’s worth, what follows is a series with my take on the application of truth and honesty to the most important socio-political issues of our time. (Note: when I give examples I am mostly referencing politicians from New Zealand, Australia, USA and the UK.)
Let’s begin with the core issue, politics itself – the problems inherent in a democracy:
Democracy’s fatal flaw
There is a fatal flaw in any democracy where the leaders are voted in: getting votes becomes their primary incentive. The best leaders have the success of their followers as their priority. Democratically elected leaders do not.
When politicians are dependent on votes, they are unable to do what’s best for the country even if they wanted to, because if they did they would probably lose votes. Making the necessary decisions for long-term changes that are based in reason, humanism, science and truth often require painful short-term sacrifices, and few politicians are courageous enough to take the risk.
Most of the changes we need to bring about a high quality of life for all citizens would take decades to actualise.
There is no democractic government in the world that’s willing to bet on being able to win elections for decades without fail on a platform of honesty and actually helpful policies, so they’re forced to focus short-term and ask themselves, “How do we ensure they like us enough right now to vote for us in a couple of years?”
Now, this wouldn’t be a problem if people actually voted for what is best for their country. But that’s not how it works.
People can’t even choose what’s best for themselves at an individual level. If they could, we’d never see high rates of obesity, suicide, mental illness and crime, and your average citizen would report feeling highly self-confident, fully satisfied with their job, and able to form and maintain deep, loving relationships.
Most people struggle with self-sabotage on a daily basis. Expecting the average citizen to vote in such a way that’s best for the country, let alone best for themselves, is ludicrous, especially when you consider just how uninformed the average voter is about who they’re voting for. We vote based on how influenced we are by the candidate’s marketing, and anyone who’s been fooled by the fancy image on a box with the crappy product inside knows how dangerous marketing can be.
And even if people had the ability to at least vote for what’s selfishly best for themselves, they’re unable to because politicians around the world have discovered a simple trick: if you want votes, you just need to make empty promises. You don’t even need to follow through on those promises – come next election, you just make new, better promises, and everyone forgets that you didn’t deliver. Politicians rarely deliver anyway, so we don’t expect it or measure it accurately.
We get angry at politicians for being dishonest, but we’re the ones who enable and participate in a system that prevents honest leaders from succeeding. Honest people can’t even make it into parliament/the senate, because if they refuse to play the false-promises game we end up voting against them for the blowhard who promises impossible outcomes that he can’t even control.
An honest person cannot succeed in a democracy as it currently stands.
Unless the system for voting changes in a fundamental way. The issue is that being dishonest is a good way to win votes. If we can change this, we can correct the entire system.
If we can create a system that rewards honesty and transparency, and punishes deception and corruption, we can fill our parliaments with honest people who will be much more likely do what’s best for society in the long-term, based on facts and reason rather than marketing and feelings.
Imagine if the more honest, reliable, rational and compassionate you were, the more votes you got. Imagine if being fake, dishonest, greedy, needy and petty made you lose votes, or even made you ineligible for consideration. What would be the final outcome of such a system?
Think about it this way, which matters more: policies, or character?
Is it better to have a party full of con-artists who make promises for specific short-sighted outcomes which they cannot guarantee control over (or indeed have any real interest in manifesting), or to have a leadership team full of hardworking, honest people of integrity who have the public’s best interest at heart? Would you even need to know the policies of people with integrity to be able to trust them to do a better job than a normal politician?
We’d need some sort of independent, incorruptible vetting service. Perhaps a group of individuals whohave a single purpose: to carefully analyse, review, measure and publish the evidence of integrity for all potential politicians. We could employ double-blind measures, so the judges never know who they’re judging and cannot be swayed by personal preferences.
We design this rating system – one where only proven acts of helpful integrity are scored – and in the end, the people with the most points win. Points are given for actions taken that benefit society, and removed for actions taken that deceive or hurt people. It would be like if the system that selects people for jury-duty only searched for the most rational, skeptical, legally-qualified experts in crime and justice.
What kind of ‘integrity actions’ are we talking about? Most likely, things that measurably improve the wellbeing of individuals or groups, psychologically, physically, and socially.
Participation in community programs for troubled youths that reduce crime rates; volunteer work to help the needy; publication of papers or books that provide helpful information to the general public; healthcare initiates that measurably reduce disease or injury rates; entrepreneurial ventures that reduce suffering for those who enlist; small good deeds and a sterling reputation in the local community for proven acts of kindness.
Our candidates couldn’t just talk about doing these things, they’d have to already be doing them before even being considered for a leadership role!
The current democratic system acts like a job interview without a resume or referees – we just take their word as gospel that they will deliver after they get the job. I’d much rather hire someone with proven results and experience and excellent references, wouldn’t you?
Such a vetting system wouldn’t be flawless of course, no systems ever are, but it would almost certainly be a massive improvement over our current system of asking Joe Public who he feels is the best person to lead, based on him being manipulated by marketing campaigns.
The only thing we as the public would need to vote on is improvements in the vetting system itself, and then we’d just accept whichever leaders it produced. We could probably even incorporate Artifical Intelligence algorithms that are carefully designed to maximise human wellbeing. We could even create a star-rating review system where individuals can be nominated (with supporting evidence of verifiable good deeds) and reviewed.
The system would then continue to monitor those elected, and as soon as their points dropped for any reasons of verified dishonesty or corruption, they’d lose the job and be replaced. Those with high integrity could survive for the decades required to complete the big transformations that society needs, while any corrupted or low-performing members would be ousted instantaneously without having to wait for an election year.
Hopefully, with such a system, the leaders chosen would not actually be campaigning at all. It’s similar to other systems previously explored which involve randomly selecting members of the public for leadership positions, but without the high risk of accidentally selecting ill-prepared, uneducated, inexperienced or unqualified laymen.
One major issue with any voting-based democracy is that the people who most want the job are the least suited for it, so we’ve become complacent about having to choose the lesser evil every election year rather than actually getting the best person for the job. I noticed this the first time Donald Trump ran for President of the USA against Hillary Clinton. I couldn’t help thinking, “In a country with more than 250 million people, these are your top two?! No chance, surely!”
Imagine top scientists, social workers, teachers, lawyers, coaches, athletes, tribal chiefs and CEOs being unexpectedly chosen by the system, based on their proven success and humanism. Their reluctance to do the job would actually serve as their greatest strength – preventing self-serving hidden motives and neediness for voter approval.
Imagine the Minister of Health being the most successful doctor in the country who’s also a well-revered director of a top hospital. Imagine the Minister of Justice being a forensic psychologist who recently published the most successful offending-prevention strategies ever used. Imagine the Speaker of the House being the most experienced debate moderator we’ve got. Imagine the Minister for Transport being a genius-level mathematician who can solve the traffic problem with a chalkboard, a calculator, and a budget for free buses and trains.
Imagine a Prime Minister or President who is already proven to be one of the most helpful, trusted, and effective leaders in the entire country!
We could move from a democracy to a true meritocracy, without any need for deceptive campaigning or marketing, just a system based on trusting factual evidence aimed at increased human wellbeing to lead us slowly but surely to selecting leaders that are simply the best people for the job.