In his recent book, “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves,” Matt Ridley identifies a defining trait that makes the human species different from all others. It is the characteristic that has generated an explosion of both prosperity and population growth over the last several millennia.
A human’s capacity to exchange things – goods as well as ideas – has led to the division of labor, specialization, greater efficiency and innovation. In turn, exchange has led to unprecedented human progress.
One critical ingredient in expanding the virtuous cycle of exchange is our cooperative nature. Studies show the more people trust each other in a society, the more prosperous that society is. Trust facilitates exchange, allowing participants to focus energies on greater specialization and efficiencies.
Ridley’s book focuses on markets. His observations, however, also hold true for political systems, which govern many aspects of human affairs.
Today’s democratic governments provide a framework to capitalize on our capacity for exchange. Candidates campaign for votes based on the merits of their ideas. Many borrow ideas from primary opponents, offering them up in the general election. Once elected, they often swap and steal policies from the opposing party. This system is designed to produce incremental change through compromise.
We have seen great progress in the political sphere. Government is more transparent. Corruption is down. Decisions today bear little resemblance to the back-room deals and patronage system witnessed only a generation ago. Technology and the modern media have helped create a feedback loop between the electorate and officials so both groups can keep a gauge on popular sentiment and positions taken on issues. These developments have helped facilitate greater exchange of ideas.
Despite this progress, we face a crisis. The machinery necessary for the exchange of ideas has encountered major obstacles. A stasis has crept into our political system due to the polarization of the electorate into warring camps. Polarization makes it difficult for officials to exchange ideas, find common ground and advance an agenda.
Instead, they are compelled to cater to extremists or risk a challenger. In recent years, such polarization has had a direct effect on the U.S. economy as Congress deadlocked over the debt ceiling, expiration of the Bush tax cuts and now the sequester.
There are many reasons for this stasis, but a significant contributing cause is the continued acceptance of gerrymandering, which involves manipulating the redistricting process to achieve a predetermined outcome in elections. It works by packing voters of one party into a few districts in order to deplete their electoral strength. Gerrymandering eliminates any incentive politicians have to compete for votes through the exchange of ideas.
Currently, we have a bill pending in the General Assembly that embodies the worst of this recent trend. Senate Bill 325 seeks to undo the 2011 Wake County school board election by packing African-American voters into a district and putting several recently elected Democratic board members into the same district. Most troubling, this move comes after the Republicans gerrymandered districts only months before the 2011 election and still lost all five seats due to voter outrage. SB 325 torpedoes recent efforts to produce community consensus on vital issues.
Fortunately, there are small glimmers of hope. Republican and Democratic leaders in the N.C. House recently introduced House Bill 606, which would create a nonpartisan commission of professionals to handle legislative redistricting in the future. In theory, new districts would be more reflective of a community’s diverse viewpoints, allowing politicians to find common ground with one another.
Gerrymandering underscores the need to understand the goals to be achieved through democracy. When considering reforms aimed at campaign finance, nonpartisan elections, ethics and voter fraud, we should consider their effect at an operational level where the mechanics of democracy function. Do they help or hinder the exchange of ideas?
By understanding the crucial role exchange plays in producing prosperity, we can focus on meaningful action. The idea of “Good Government” rests not on naïve idealism. It is central to our civilization’s ability to continue its forward march.
Mack Paul, former chairman
of the Wake County Democratic Party, is an attorney in Raleigh.