By Daniel Innerarity

Professor of Political Philosophy, Ikerbasque researcher at the University of the Basque Country and guest professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book is La política en tiempos de indignación (Politics in Times of Indignation).

Two British researchers, Robert Geyer and Samir Rihani, have proposed a mental experiment that would examine the question concerning intelligent systems, and whether they are more important than intelligent persons. They’re asking the question: what would happen if the governors of the Bank of England were replaced by a room full of monkeys? A quick response to this question follows intuition, specifically explaining that this situation would guarantee the collapse of the British economy.

On further reflection, the answer would be quite different. A government composed of monkeys would at least make it clear that we are governed rather by systems than by people. Systems have balances, counterweights and automatic corrections, so that the monkeys would not cause as much damage as one might suppose.

In early February 2017, the question that everyone is asking what a Trump government would mean for the United States and the world as a whole. Is the American political system capable of resisting a president like Trump, or does it finally give in to the dictates of whoever is temporarily running it? The reference to the monkeys is pure chance without any malice whatsoever, since Rajoy, May, Le Pen, Grillo, Orbán or Erdogan could have been used as examples instead.

The answers to these questions are very different and fall into two groups. Those who have a more individualistic view of politics are in this case pessimists; those who look at it systematically tend to be optimists. It is a curious fact that the limits of power now represent hope, when at other times, they have symbolized our desperation.

It continues to be a paradox that we are placing all our hopes on what we have most recently – and with much contempt – dismissed as “the insider club” (high-ranking officials, experts, military people, businessmen or the Republican Party itself), and that this group will effectively limit the power of the president.

The mental experiment proposed by the British professors is interesting because the automatic nature of our initial responses clearly shows the extent to which we are in thrall to a form of thinking centered on individuals and leaders in the short term and the lack of attention to the systemic conditions in which our actions take place. We keep thinking that governing is a heroic act of persons rather than recognizing that it is a question of configuring intelligent systems. It is proof of what Luhmann called “the flight toward the subject”, when political action is reduced to the level of a competition among persons, their programs, their good (or bad) intentions or their ability to serve as moral examples; public attention is mainly interested in the personal qualities of those who lead us, makes us more concerned about identifying the guilty parties than in repairing poor structural designs…

The renovation of our democracies has to be approached in another way. We work too hard at putting all our trust in the idea that our leaders are competent and good persons; we cannot play Russian roulette and guess as to whether they are exemplary people with extraordinary qualities. Democracy involves finding someone to govern us, which implies that our efforts should be focused on the procedures and rules that our leaders must adhere to, and not so much on political casting. We did not design our institutions and their eventual reforms in an effort to select the best people and facilitate their governing activity, but in order to prevent bad people from causing too much damage, though occasionally those same institutions make it difficult for good people to carry out all their projects. Democracy is a system designed to prevent rather than to facilitate, a system that prohibits, balances, limits and protects. This situation, which prevented Obama from carrying out an ambitious health program, could make it difficult for Trump to carry out his promises (or threats).

Everything that involves putting the focus on individuals in order to identify the problems that we have – the theory that what is important is the human being, the person, whether from the perspective of the personal characteristics of the leader or the motivations of the individual voter as a key to rational choice – entails an undervaluation of the systemic properties of society. The main problems that face mankind are problems created by an interdependent and concatenated reality in which the individual components are invisible: unsustainable financial risks and, in general, problems that are caused by a long chain of individual behaviors that may not be evil in and of themselves still result disorderly aggregation. It follows that it is not so much a question of modifying individual behaviors, but of adequately configuring their interaction, and that is precisely the task that we can describe as collective intelligence. It is more effective to improve the procedures than to improve the persons that manage them. We should not expect so much from the virtues of those who make up a system nor fear their defects that much; what really should concern us is whether their interconnection is well organized, as are the rules, processes and structures that configure that interdependence.

Societies are well-governed when they are governed by systems which synthesize a collective intelligence (rules, regulations and procedures) and not when then they are headed by especially gifted or exemplary persons. We could do without intelligent persons, but not without intelligent systems. This is sometimes referred to in other terms: a society is well governed when it withstands the actions of bad rulers.

These two hundred years of democracy have specifically created an institutional constellation in which a set of experiences have crystallized into structures, processes and rules (especially constitutions) that provide democracy with a high level of systemic intelligence. This intelligence does not lie in the persons but in the components that comprise the system so meaning that democracy is in some way independent of the specific persons who act, including those who govern it, and is therefore able to withstand the failures and weaknesses of the individual actors. For this reason, democracy has to be thought of as something that functions with the voter and the average politician; it only survives if the intelligence of the system itself offsets the mediocrity of the actors, including any access to the government by monkeys.