I questioned in my post, Sparrowhawk and Liberty, how we view Liberty today. I asserted that many people are enslaved to their impulses or beliefs, rather than seeking Liberty. This brings up another series of questions about how we govern ourselves, and whether we apply principles of democracy today. To illustrate this, I will use our subdivision’s governance as an example of small democracy.
For data points, our subdivision experiment began over 20 years ago, when the land development company began to sell lots. West Virginia requires that subdivisions submit Restrictive Covenants with the county, and that each landowner sign these at the time of purchase of the land. The county has the authority to set out the minimum requirements for subdivision ordinances, such as road width and grade, minimum lot size, annual dues, etc. Beyond those, the land developer can add other restrictions, which are usually intended to entice buyers with a sense of buying into a certain type of community. For instance, we cannot build a structure of less than 900 square feet (a single-wide trailer is 850 sqf), or have more chickens or grazing animals that for personal use (chicken houses usually hold 40,000 to 50,000 birds, so none of that noise and mess). Otherwise, we are at Liberty to do with our land as we please.
Ours is a small subdivision, and thus democracy, in comparison to most social units. We have about two dozen land owners, several of whom own multiple lots. I have stated previously, that the more close the unit of governance, the more influence we can and should have. Getting hyped-up about the presidential race is nearly meaningless these days, as we are a fraction of a percent of those trying to turn his (or maybe, someday her) ear. Your state representatives might actually come to a townhall style meeting in your locality. Our county politicians show up at the firehall to campaign at fundraiser dinners. In our subdivision, I can walk over and chat with our small board members… that’s when I am not one of them.
Backing up, the origins of democracy is credited to Athenian rule. The Greek governments were city-states, thus equivalent to New York, Chicago, and San Francisco running themselves. Every citizen, limited to male land owners, was expected to hold any government role, selected by lottery. When your number came up, you might be called to debate in the Senate, rule on a court, collect taxes, etc. Thus, democracy expected that everyone had skills and knowledge sufficient to carry out any task. Leaders were appointed, not elected. And, the majority of people were not involved, because they were women, merchants or laborers, or slaves. Any wonder that Thomas Jefferson put in the phrase, “all men are created equal”, and James Madison included, “We the people”, into our Declaration of Independence and Constitutions… oh, wait a minute, they did not let women, merchants and laborers, or slaves participate in government… hmmm.
I have heard the idea that direct, Athenian style democracy can only function in populations of fewer than 200,000 participants. Our Founders did not select direct democracy, but representative democracy. Hence, we have elections to select our representatives from our local leaders to our congressional leaders and whoever is in the White House. Thus, the question arrises for our small democracy of our subdivision, do we follow an Athenian model or representative model.
As to our subdivision board, we have all of three positions: president, secretary, and treasurer. We used to try to get a vice-president, but we did not have enough nominations or volunteers, so that we scrapped that position when we revised the Bylaws (our Constitution). From our couple of dozen land owners, each year we select one position, for a three year appointment, with a limit of two consecutive terms. This sometimes seems like musical chairs, with no chair eliminated, when a board member fulfills one position to step into another position a year or two later.
Of our thirty lots, we have several different levels of engagement by the land owners. We have a few full-time residents. We have weekenders/vacation home owners. We have hunters, who arrive annually for deer season, in their massive trucks (no mud on the sides), cooking canned beans and weinies, and not showering for a week. And, absentee owners, who are holding onto the land for investment reasons. Work backward through the list and guess who attends meetings, or at least will vote by proxy ballot. Thus, our two dozen owners become dwindled down to about a dozen who might actually participate in holding a board position. The first limit to democracy is those who are willing.
Now taking that group, we must consider the skill and knowledge that each potential volunteer might possess. The original board members, all of whom have moved on in life, selling their property to others, seemed to view their positions absolute authority. They held meetings without informing the membership. They made decisions without seeking opinions from the members. And, they spent the association’s money without seeking agreement from the members. Their legacy are the two gates, costing over $3,500 that do not lock (they sent threatening letters demanding that each land owner pay for the keys or they would be locked out… we threatened to toss the locks into the woods). I call them the National Park Service gates, for all they broadcast to driver’s by is “These people have MONEY”.
The basic skills needed to be on the board include being able to look at a calendar to set the date for the annual meeting, to send out notices of the meeting and minutes after the meeting, to run a meeting (no need for formal protocols or Robert’s Rule of Order, just introduce the members, verify a quorum, read last year’s minutes, address this year’s agenda, set a budget, schmooze), to keep an accurate membership list, to notice what is going on about the subdivision, to set up road cleaning every other year, to collect annual dues, to write checks for this work, to pay for the post office box, and to balance the checkbook. Once several of us held a Revolt against the original board (who had stopped holding any meetings for several years), we set about running our small democracy. Yet, these basic skills were often found lacking among the willing fraction of the dozen who would come to meetings.
I shall spare the details, but use this as an illustration of the limits of democracy. If we have not had training or mentoring, formally or informally, in basic leadership, how can we step up leadership positions in society? Without knowledge, we are left to the whims of ego or greed. How often do we end up with elected officials who appear to most motivated by the fame of the position, the financial rewards, or the belief that rules of morality do not apply to them or the (mostly) women (other than their wives) with whom they have sexual affairs?
What are the consequences of lacking these skills or willingness to exercise them in our communities? Our small democracy even faces this question as the number of qualified and willing participants dwindles with each selection of board members. Do we bring on someone untested? Do we keep appointing the same handful of those who have demonstrated leadership abilities? Do we put in someone who needs one of the former to guide them through the process for their term? I suspect the alternatives of anarchy, no governance, or despotism are worse than an inefficient democracy.