Solon Challenge - Leading Questions, Part One of Four

Q. We may have political problems, but aren’t things like global warming, poverty or the energy shortage more important?

A. Serious problems indeed. Confronting major problems requires healthy governments and international cooperation. Considering this, isn’t the world’s most immediate problem the national dysfunction that haunts nations? Over 100 rate poorly on corruption measures. Only a handful rate well on the scale of democracy. How can you fix a general problem if nations are turned inward fighting themselves?

Q. Why would I want to partake in a mock convention or Solon Challenge?
A. For one, it’s about as much intellectual fun as one can have without breaking the law. Second, here is a chance to ignore the status quo, local tradition or party. Instead, draw up something that counters human tendencies and enlarges modern possibilities.

Q. What’s your favorite constitution?
A. It hasn’t been written yet.

Q. Why not just call for actual constitutional conventions?
A. Formal conventions usually have the wrong persons asking the wrong questions. Mock conventions are freed from the constraint of justifying the status quo. Most nations now have controlling parties, tiny legislatures, fault-ridden mass elections, powerful unitary executives and imaginary budgets. Would you design this kind of polity if you had a blank tablet?
A Solon Challenge might look at current failures and propose something new. For example, the lower body of a three-part legislature might be part-timers who work from home using new study/interaction methods with the Internet. This body could be much larger than a sitting chamber – improving variety and coverage. Using a technique like this project’s Reflective – choosing representation by test and lottery – a Solon Challenge might, for this body, do away with mass elections in place of greater general participation. After all, the most often-voiced reasons for mass elections are the sense of having a say, of participating. Their downside - appeal to prejudice and selfish interest, reliance on propaganda, dependence on wealth - might be somewhat mitigated in an alternative system. The techniques above could “solve” the problems of party control. They might also prove useful in lessening the ancient reliance on the maximum leader and party-controlled judiciaries.
Q. Can you give us an example of a recent re-write that failed?
A. Bolivia. Years and blood have been spent in creating the model that will be voted on in this January. Most nations have a river called Nation which is formed by the tributaries Oligarchy and Populism. Oligarchy, which runs clear and is mostly sterile, typically predominates in the early years. Populism is dammed up. The heavier rains at its source eventually break the damn, as has happened in Bolivia. The Nation river is now a rich and muddy brew.

Predictably, judges will now be elected rather than appointed. This trades the corruption of elite control for the corruption of mob and purchase. In the U.S. states we have the latter corruptions. Millions are raised in Texas for judges who promise to be tougher on crime than their opponent, or who praise themselves as faithful to a party. In Minnesota a new Supreme Court justice won by running a bogus advertisement demeaning his opponent in a fraudulent manner.
A Solon Challenge would consider methods where judges were neither appointed nor elected.
Q. Isn’t this call for ten 2010 mock constitutional conventions just another way of saying you want nations to have actual conventions? In other words, your homeland of the U.S. should replace its 1787 model with a 2010 model, Mexico should replace its 1917 model, and so forth?
A. Not really. Consider that most nations form their founding document when newly formed, breaking away from colonialism or are picking up the pieces after being shattered. There is a “magic moment” when the nation agrees to invent itself. The U.S. had this in 1787; Germany had two magic moments in the 20th century, each after a devastating war.
Time goes by and constitutions become pieces of parchment, often revered like a book said to come from God. The magic moment has passed and now you have what I call a “Solon Paradox:” The more dysfunctional a nation, the more it needs a makeover, the less likely it will come from an existing template. Put another way, those who profit by dysfunction will likely cement their own power in a formal convention. A new U.S. convention, for example, might make the two look-alike parties the cornerstone of government. The 1787 consensus was the diametrically opposite: Government by party is mediocrity; second-rate persons will run it. A new convention would almost certainly salute mass elections – it’s now a rote chant that this kind of representative selection is the high water of republican government. Again, in 1787 there was no such adoration of what some uncharitably called “the mob.” The dean of U.S. political scientists said, fifty years ago, that the “only thing democratic about an American presidential election is an honest tabulation of the ballot.” Even this slim leaving is now contested.

Q. So what is the advantage of a Solon Challenge over an actual convention?
A. There are several advantages. First, the persons who partake do not come from the political or commercial world – they are not necessarily trying to profit in the way that actual delegates would. A convention in 1989 Russia would have seated Communists who felt that their world had crashed down because of enemies within. Their objective would have been to return to the old way, but without the bad guys. An actual convention in the U.S. today would have delegates fighting to retain the advantages of historical accidents, like those that Wyoming have a Senator representing 260,000 and one from California represent 18 million.
Second, the use of the Reflective allows entry of persons with fresh ideas. How do you give voice to the quiet persons who read the papers, who read heavy books, who have thought deeply about modern problems? It seems to me that good fortune is the most important ingredient in coining a solid constitution. That’s anti-science - not a good recipe for success.
Q. So what are the actual chances for any nations to partake in this project?
Wait, there’s one more key advantage of a mock over an actual convention.
The Solon Challenge model promotes the idea of institutional renewal. Jefferson wanted a new foundation every generation. He would have been good on cable news, where exaggeration is expected. But wasn’t he right that a modern constitution should have something built in that will provide regeneration? Every fifty years? Every 100 years? For example, only nine percent think that the U.S. is going in the right direction. Shouldn’t that trigger a genuine reexamination?
Now, to your question of realism. Why would China be opposed to a group of intellectuals conjecturing about a future government? Isn’t that preferable to chance by violence or the mob? Isn’t it more honest, more moderate? There’s no law that says any nation has to take the outcome of a Solon Challenge as the prevailing judgment of the entire nation. It’s a jumping point and how each nation continues the discussion says a lot about the integrity of that nation.
Q. Name some nations that you think might allow a Solon Challenge.
A. The U.S. and China, already mentioned. Israel and neighboring Egypt would be good prospects. The first has no written constitution; the second is in turmoil as it tries to be democratic with a large, discontented population. Many African countries and Italy certainly. Will India remain relatively stabile for another fifty years?
Would Iran allow a Solon Challenge? I doubt it, but wouldn’t it be electric if they did? Its leaders say that freedoms are large there - this would be their proof. I think of the Solon Challenge as the ultimate test of freedom: Will a nation allow a serious examination of how its practices differ from its founding principles and modern standards?
Q. Why do you call this the "Solon Challenge."
A. An early story of constitutional conflict comes from Athens. In disrepair, it turned to Solon who coined a unique constitution, overturning the harsh Draconian system. Solon said his offering was a compromise between excellence and prevailing prejudice.
Q. Can you name one benefit that might come from a Solon Challenge?
A. During the past dozen years Congress has stripped regulation from complex financial instruments called derivatives or credit swaps. At the same time representatives have collected hundreds of millions in so-called campaign donations from the players in these markets. The recent economic collapse resulted, in part, from this deregulation.
A Solon Challenge would have to ask: How do you prevent institutionalized corruption? This is a major question for every nation, not just the United States.

There is a chance for invention. A duel-track legislature is one example.
Q. What is a duel-track legislature?
A portion of the members are elected by the state custom and others gain entry by some measure of merit and lottery selection. The resulting legislature is composed of part political elite and part natural elite. The latter members may enter and remain without being "political" - they may not choose to belong to a party or publish any platform. A duel-track legislature that is split evenly is called a "balanced body." 
Q. What would be the advantage of a duel-track legislature?
There are many. Parties would have to adapt to gain the votes of independents. It would improve critical thinking by having discussions that were not framed by party labels or past antagonisims. It would allow better representation of diverse views and interests. It would cleave the notion that on a white can represent a white district, only a Catholic, only a rich or only a poor one from like districts. It would allow women equality without any need for quotas. The list is long.

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