The Arizona Desert Lamp

Where are the Jamahiriyahs of yesteryear?

Posted in Campus, Politics by Connor Mendenhall on 13 January 2009
Beards required.

Come on, can't we try a jirga council for just a week?

Evan makes a convincing argument that ASUA ain’t that representative at all. But it leaves me with one question—why should students want a more representative student government? It would be very easy to reduce student/senator ratios to one by simply referring every student government matter to a campuswide referendum. But there’s no clamor for returning power to the hands of the common man because most folks recognize the folly and inefficiency of direct democracy (and the comparative insignificance of student government). We’ve already met survey-ocracy, direct representation’s stupid deformed kid brother, and the results aren’t promising. Allocating a set number of seats to various colleges or student constituencies might be a smarter system, but I don’t see much virtue in representation for representation’s sake.

Which leads me to another question—why isn’t there more variation in student government systems? All the PAC-10 schools that Evan referenced have more or less the same structure: a student body president and a few elected executives, and a senate to make policy and dole out cash. Size and basis of representation varies, but where are they hiding all the bicameral legislatures and Houses of Lords and jirga councils? Even UC Berkeley has a dull old senate instead of a People’s Bolivarian Revolutionary Organizing Committee or something. If anywhere’s a good place to try out a wacky new system of government, it’s a college campus, where student politicians will subject it to all the fatuous disputes and retarded scandals of real politicians without, you know, actually mattering that much.

A book I recently read (geek alert! Robert Heinlein!) turned me on to representation contracts, which are an interesting idea that might quell chronic gripes about under-representation in ASUA. Under this system, Senate size would be unspecified. Rather than winning votes, candidates would have to convince, say, 500 students to sign a contract granting them political agency. Meet the requirements, and you get a seat in the Senate—at least until somebody rescinds their support.

Okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. But there are lots of everyday electoral innovations that we could try, like instant runoff voting (which is becoming more popular with student governments) and “none of the above” on the ballot. Hell, UA rarely sees a successful ballot initiative. Couldn’t we shake it up a little bit? I can think of a couple reasons why we don’t.

First off, decision costs might actually be very low in student governments, which can’t tax with the same glee as real governments, and don’t infringe individual rights quite as often (I’ve made the argument before that ASUA isn’t so much a government as it is a handout brigade). When ninety percent of campus doesn’t give a damn about the number of balloons on the homecoming float, constitutional choice and bargaining costs don’t really come into play the same way they would if Tommy Bruce was bulldozing your grandma’s house to build a freeway. Even less so over a very limited time horizon—if you’re in and out in four years, it’s hard to Get Excited!

Second, like real government, the president-senate structure combined with plurality voting is a nice, stable equilibrium for student politicians themselves. Throw in some election regulations and the chance to hand cash to your constituents, and you’ve got a pleasant, self-sustaining system for the next Reptilian Humanoid Ruling Class.

Maybe I’ll never see my quixotic dream of abolishing ASUA altogether come true. But if we’ve got to have a student government, couldn’t we at least try to make it an interesting one?

(photo via flickr user Feinstein International Center)

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2 Responses

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  1. Evan Lisull said, on 13 January 2009 at 8:55 am

    1. The main benefit I see is that it provides specified representation. Although the basis is mostly based on schools, there are also seats allocated for off-campus students, on-campus students (UW has incorporated the RHA within its Senate, an idea that I like), Greek life, etc. etc. etc. This means an increased likelihood in having a broader variety of voices within the conversation, a wider range of ideas, highlighting of issues that get ignored, etc.

    2. Mostly, IMHO, for the same reason that there’s very little distinction between state governments — within the US, a representative republic with a divided government is the preferred method. It’s also, incidentally, proven to be wildly successful. Even within clubs, you have separation of powers, etc., etc.

  2. Connor Mendenhall said, on 13 January 2009 at 9:36 am

    I’m with you on specified representation. Assigning seats by school and constituency is *better* representation, not more direct representation, and we shouldn’t conflate the two.


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