Bemificent Society, Chpt 15

GENERAL MEETING OF THE SOCIETY

THE VOLITIONMENT

 

13 July, 2016

“At our last meeting, you heard the political committee’s recommendation to eliminate the traditional executive branch and substitute, in its place, a functional replacement, the Adminent,” said Martin. “At this meeting, we’ll present our version of the legislative branch, the Volitionment.

“The framers of our U.S. constitution did not make law-making easy.  And advisably so.  Law-making is, indeed, a hazardous business—its effects are generally unpredictable and its cost, wildly underestimated.  Understandably, then, our Founding Fathers established a series of painful steps designed to discourage all but genuinely constructive measures from making it through the process.  Before a proposal ever becomes law, it must enlist a coterie of enthusiastic supporters, be recognized as politically  advantageous by a block of legislators, survive debate over its provisions by both houses of Congress, compromise the two conflicting versions, and obtain the signature of the President if he is so inclined.

“Given the importance of the process to the nation’s wellbeing, its laboriousness would be defensible if it worked as intended.  It does not.  Not, at any rate, in today’s politically-charged, media-infused environment.

“In brief, the lawmaking process is too time-consuming, too exasperating, too expensive, and, worst of all, too fallible.  Emotional clamor is more likely to dominate than common sense, lobbyists’ arguments more likely to prevail than honest research, and more likely to benefit special interests than the common good.  Not surprisingly, then, whatever laws do squeeze through the process are just as likely to damage the public interest as improve it.

“From the above, the political committee, determined that the conventional approach was incompatible with the high standards they set for their proposed Newcapian government.  In their mind, they had no choice but to reject the current legislative system  out of hand.

“When it came to finding a substitute for the legislative process, the committee turned, as has been its wont, to nature for guidance.  And there it was; the human brain—unquestionably, an unexcelled thinking-decision-making machine that seemingly offered a perfect model.  There was, however, a difficulty.  No one understood how it worked.  The brain’s exquisitely intricate methodology, involving the manipulation of billions of neurons, was a closed book impossible to replicate.

“On the other hand, we did know how computers worked, but that was of little consolation because when it came to artificial intelligence, they worked too haltingly to be of only marginal help in the legislative process.  Thus, between the brain’s excessive supply of intelligence and computer’s under supply of the same, the political committee was stuck.  It seemed we had no way to turn.

“That is until Henry proposed a way to circumvent the problem.  Henry, describe your breakthrough idea.

 

“I’m not sure it qualified as an idea and there was nothing breakthrough about it,” Henry began.  “All I did was recite what must be one of the tritest expressions on earth, ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’  My point was that if we so much admired how the human brain works and we have no way of duplicating it, why not simply put it to work?

“My notion wasn’t enthusiastically received.  To the other members of the board it sounded a lot like the legislative branch we had already and we were in the process of rejecting.  We didn’t need another Congress hard at work making decisions that were presumably for the good of the country and failing miserably at the attempt.

“My argument was that the poor showing of Congress should not be blamed on the performance of the human brains involved.  The fault lay in the conditions under which they were forced to labor—conditions in which politicized misinformation contaminated every step in the legislative process.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Rather than fortifying the legislative process, the excessive profusion of brains merely added to the confusion.

“My point was that if we freed the process from politicking, and reduced the number of brains from its present count of 535 to a more workable size of, say, seven we could end  up with an eminently functional, brain-powered system.  To that effect, I proposed a new, law-making system based on these five steps:

Step One, finding the means to generate the most innovative, effective proposals for improving society

Step Two, gathering pertinent data related to each proposal being considered and then subjecting it to comment by informed critics including any suggestions they might have to improve the original idea.

Step Three, organizing the original proposal, related comments, and suggested modifications into a comprehensible package.

Step Four, bringing in the most impartial and brightest individuals to evaluate each proposal and determine its disposition.

Step Five, for those proposals that have the potential for making a major impact on society, establishing monitors that continuously compare the proposal’s actual performance after enactment with its representations before enactment—the monitors being empowered to restrict or retract those measures that have not lived up to expectations

“I’m happy to say that once my associates on the political committee began to think of a democratic process outside its columned boxes, they got behind the project and the Volitionment began to take shape.

“Gretchen, get us started on Step One.

 

“Following Henry’s suggestion,” Gretchen began, “we decided that the best way to determine what laws society needed was to ask the people who were ultimately to be subjected to them.  Which raised one, seemingly imponderable question, ‘which people?  Then Timur finally hit on a compromise solution we could all agree on: everybody.

“Thus Volitionment was designed to allow any citizen to propose any law he desired.  This naturally gave rise to the fear that we would be drowned in a hodgepodge of disorganized submissions overwhelming feasible means could be devised to handle them.  On second thought, however, it occurred to us that a properly designed submission process could reduce the flood of proposals to manageable proportions.

“To make all proposals for new laws quickly comprehensible, we established a strict formatting procedure.  More particularly, they had to respond—in detail and, whenever possible, quantitatively—to the following ten inquiries:

  1. State the proposal’s objective
  2. Explain how the above mission is to be accomplished
  3. Describe how it is to be funded both with respect to its admission phase, its launch, and ongoing expenses
  4. State the proposed law’s estimated impact on the environment and the general economy with particular emphasis on its effect on overall employment
  5. Describe the geographical extent of the law’s application both during its introductory period and its planned configuration when fully developed.
  6. Estimate any burden your proposal would impose on the state for enforcement and public security measures
  7. Detail in full any conflict with existing laws and regulations
  8. Consider the possible abuse of your proposed law by unlawful elements
  9. Relate any collateral damage to society’s interests not otherwise covered in the above including its consumption of scarce resources
  10. Outline the feedback formula(ae) by which your proposed law’s viability is to be judged along with proposed remedial action if necessary

“Each response must be limited to 80 words or less.  However, if the author finds it necessary to amplify his answer, he may do so by attaching supplementary material in the form of graphs, expert opinion, statistical backup, endorsements, and the like.  Presumably, such attachments would make up the bulk of typical submissions.

“As a practical matter, the committee believes submitters with serious intent would turn to the assistance of specialists who would be familiar with the Volitionment’s exacting standards.

“After putting his proposal together in final form, the author must submit it to the Credentials Board for compliance.  Whereas individual board members might well have a strong opinion as to the worthiness of any particular proposal, their function, as impartial referees, is limited to judging it only with respect to its mechanical compliance with the above ten inquiries.  The proposal’s desirability is determined by another board further along in the process.

“A second function of the Credentials Board is charging authors a processing fee the cost of which varies between five and six figures depending on the proposal’s category and the extent of its coverage.  Another sobering characteristic of the charge is that it is non-refundable.  If the author’s proposal is rejected at any stage in the approval process, he has no means of clawing back his payment.

“Given the expense involved in creating a new law, one might assume that it would be just a game for the wealthy.  However, the political committee believes that an author, with a worthwhile idea but without the resources to back it, could generally acquire the necessary funding.  We envision that non-profits and sympathetic, socially-conscience sponsors would come to the rescue.  Additionally, there might well be corporations whose financial interests dovetail with the author’s aims.  Failing such sources, the resourceful author with a popular idea might take advantage of crowd funding.  In short, we are convinced, that one way or another, beneficial proposals would see the light of day.

“It must be admitted that requiring authors to meet the formatting criteria and to pay the processing fee serves the secondary purpose of preventing proposals without merit from clogging the pipeline.

“Within ninety days after a proposal is formally submitted, the Credentials Board is required to either forward it to its next hurdle, the Comments Board, or return it to the applicant with a list of items that impeded its further processing.

“Timur, take us to the second step.

 

“As soon as the author pays his fee, the Comments Board publishes his submission in full,” Timur began.  “A second ninety-day window is then instituted to allow any outside party to register for the privilege of commenting on the proposal.  Registration is free and straightforward requiring only the applicant’s email address and his affiliation, if any, with the proposal at hand.  The system then furnishes the would-be commentator with a key that gives him access proposal’s comment page.

“Contributors can submit as many comments as they choose, but each comment must pertain to only one of the ten inquires previously described.  Furthermore, each comment must be preceded by a three-letter code, “PRO,” “CON,” or “ALT”—the last standing for “alternative.”   Comments must follow the same rules that applied to the original submission—ie, no comment longer than 80 words but links allowed to external supplementary sources.

“In Step Three, at the close of the ninety-day window, the Comments Board’s computer system sorts all the comments by the inquiry to which they apply; by whether the comments are favorable, critical, or recommending adjustment; and, finally, by whether the commentator has or has not been affiliated with the proposal’s subject matter.  As part of its analysis, the computer’s artificial intelligence consolidates similar comments and eliminates irrelevant ones.  The computer’s report is then published in full, including the sorted comments stripped of their originators identities, and layed in the laps of the Judicial Board.  Martin, you wanted to talk about what happens next.”

“Now we’re in Step Four of the procedure that transforms proposals into laws thanks to workings of the Judiciary Boards,” said Martin,“  As each proposal emerges from the comments’ pipeline, a seven-member board is assigned to it..  Of necessity, then, at any given time, a number of such boards might be operating concurrently.  Since these boards are solely responsible for determining the proposals’ fate, the legitimacy of the entire procedure hangs on their competency.  Allow me, then, a few minutes to describe the body from which the Judiciary Board members are randomly selected—i.e., the college of experts.

“As discussed earlier the political committee had no choice but to incorporate flesh and blood human beings in its design of the Volitionment.  The problem, of course, was to find the right flesh and blood.  We needed people that embodied all three of these characteristics: high levels of integrity, intelligence, and independent judgment.  There was, no doubt, a plentitude of estimable people who possessed one or two of these qualities, but they could not be trusted to render the consistently good decisions we required there being no way to prevent the missing features in their psyche from occasionally causing unacceptable misjudgments.

“It was equally true, of course, that, among the general public, there were bound to be people possessed of all three of the requisite characteristics and fully capable of serving our purpose But such people were a rare breed for whom, it seemed, there was no practical way of filtering them out from their far more numerous, if less capable, colleagues.

“It was Gretchen who rescued us from this dilemma.  She pointed out that there was, in fact, a plentiful supply of these personages contained in one identifiable sphere.  We had only to know where to look—that is to say, under our very noses.  Scientists, God bless us.  More particularly, retired, successful scientists.  Intelligent? Obviously.  Integrity?  How could anyone spend a professional adulthood searching for truth without the quest becoming ingrained in his character?  Independent judgment?  A scientist could not have achieved success without it.  There is was, the makings of a College Of Experts in possession of the three cherished qualities we were looking for.

“It goes without saying that the decision to form the College of Experts solely from the scientific community in no way denigrates other professions each of which possesses its own unique set of qualities.  What it came down to was that when one wants somebody to fix a leaky faucet, one, out of simple necessity, turns to plumbers.  That and nothing more.

“In the course of these discussions, the question arose as to the possibility that financial matters might mar the judgment of our experts.  It was always possible that an errant scientist might fall prey to the blandishments that special interests might offer—speaker fees, consultations, expense reimbursements and the like.  To isolate the college from such enticements, we added the requirement that members pledge never to accept any outside payment, for any reason during their three-year term of office—that, in our estimation, being a short enough period to allow even the more vulnerable to honor their pledge.

“Furthermore, to encourage enlistments in the college from only the most altruistic scientists, the political committee decided that the post offer no financial compensation—it being assumed that the inducements of community service, peer recognition, and professional camaraderie would produce enough volunteers to keep the college ranks filled.

“That covers my sketch of the college of experts,” concluded Martin.  “Henry, it was your idea that got the Volitionment started.  You ought to have the honor of winding it up.”

 

“By all means,” said Henry.  “As Martin pointed out, each Judiciary Board is randomly chosen from those members of the college who are not yet committed to other projects.  Once a Judiciary Board has been formed, it is allowed to go on with its work without interference—the committee having decided that it was impossible to prescribe some formulaic methodology that would cover all the circumstances proposals might present.  Nor did the committee make any attempt to formalize the manner in which its members choose to collaborate.  For example, some boards might feel it important to meet personally while others prefer to communicate remotely over the Internet.  Whatever structure they elect, the seven good minds on the board are free to focus on the proposal’s logical display of the facts prepared by the Comment’s Board.  In their investigation they can call on the author, any of the comment contributors, and/or any outside expert opinion they believe might be helpful.  They can look into the alternative suggestions and integrate any of these in their final documentation.

“I’ll leave it up to the Society members to contrast the Volitionment’s calm, impartial, deliberations with Congresses’ two-ring circus with its cast of 535 ostentatious clowns, cacophonous political bands, and high-finance acrobats.

“When the committee turned its attention to defining the boards’ philosophic outlook, it was apparent that, here too, the initiative had to remain with the board itself.  For example, whereas some Judiciary Board members might be influenced by the popularity of a given proposal as indicated by the number of PRO votes cast in its favor, we believe there would be enough skepticism on hand to render an unemotional judgment.

“Nevertheless, the committee did put together a few suggestions that we hoped Judiciary Boards would find instructive.  These are listed below in no particular order in importance:

  • Could the proposal’s aims be accomplished by other than legal means which, inevitably implicates, directly or indirectly, the application of governmental force?
  • The board’s function is to represent, as best it can, the intentions of the author and the comment contributors—not to introduce its own preferences regarding the bill in question.
  • Does the proposal apply equally to all who fall under its provisions?
  • Does the proposal increase or decrease the personal freedom of those it impacts?
  • If the proposal restricts freedoms in any way, is the public good sufficiently enhanced to warrant the limitation?
  • Whereas the board’s access to outside opinions is unrestricted, we caution that boards avoid being overly influenced by a particularly persuasive outside source that might compromise the board’s independence?
  • Does the proposed law tend to reduce social differences or exacerbate them?
  • Are the benefits claimed for the bill widely distributed or limited to a select group?
  • Does the bill tend to enhance the moral character of its targeted population or weaken it?

“The Judiciary Boards are given six months to study the proposals they had been assigned and deliver a verdict.  During this period a proposal’s author is entitled to attend board meetings and, depending on the leniency of the members, is occasionally allowed a chance to defend his creation.  This privilege may be withdrawn at any time, however, if the board fears its objectivity is being compromised.

“By the end of its review period, a Judiciary Board must declare whether it approves the proposal with which it has been entrusted, or rejects the proposal as unfit to be certified, or, alternatively, declare it has failed to arrive at a definitive answer either way.  Whichever the case, the board is obligated to submit a report detailing the reasons for its decision.

“If the board’s review is positive, it turns its report over to the Volitionment’s legal department for drafting a version suitable to be included on the law-books.  In case the proposal is rejected, it is returned to the author who is then free to cashier it or resubmit it suitably modified to satisfy the board’s objections.  Finally, if no decision has been reached, a new board is assembled to start the process over again from scratch.  Whatever the outcome, the original board is disbanded and its members allowed to rejoin their colleagues in the college.

“As a precautionary step, if a proposal is deemed to involve operations critical to the economy, it is shuttled to the feedback commission before being enacted into law.  There a mechanism is attached to the bill that is designed to measure its impact after enactment and compares it to the predictions upon which the bill was predicated.  If the bill meets or exceeds its original expectations, its feedback provisions remain quiescent; however, should a bill fail to measure up to its promised parameters, its feedback mechanism shows its teeth by automatically scaling down the bill’s scope or shutting its operations down altogether.

“That concludes our discussion of the Volitionment.  We hope you have enjoyed it.  See you at the Society’s next meeting when we’ll take up Newcapia’s system of law and order.

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