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Isle of Man’s Democracy Recipe

December 16th, 2021 by dk

Isle of Man was not among the 110 nations invited to President Biden’s Summit for Democracy last week. Isle of Man is not quite an independent nation, but it was still a mistake. What could the United States possibly learn from IOM’s Tynwald, which has met annually since 979 AD? A lot.

Isle of Man’s legislators control most of the regulations that control daily life, but they rely on Great Britain for all military decisions and many monetary ones. Isle of Man is roughly analogous to the U.S. Virgin Islands — autonomous, but protected. It’s a country but not a nation.

Still, maintaining a representative parliament for more than a millennia would have brought to the summit valuable lessons on resiliency. Lesson No. 1 would have been that maintaining a military is sometimes not worth the trouble. (Costa Rica and other smallish countries would no doubt agree.)

Isle of Man exerts its influence around the globe in other ways. Following its Norse heritage as a favorite island for burying treasure, IOM is one of those places where modern moguls hide their cash. Downtown Douglas has more banks than restaurants.

It helps to be surrounded by water. There are no populists on the island promising residents a better life by building a wall at its border to keep foreigners out. Ferries and flights are easier to control.

Isle of Man’s tiny size provides its largest benefit. The country is roughly the size of the Eugene metro area, but with a third the population. Approximately 85,000 people (65,000 eligible voters) are represented by 25 House of Keys members. Do the math.

Each member represents a few thousand citizens. Most are elected with fewer than 2,000 votes. (You may have more Facebook friends than that.) Retiring Rep. Peter DeFazio represents over 750,000 of us, receiving 240,000 votes in his last election. Most of those voters have never shaken his hand.

It’s difficult to stay connected to your government when everything you know about it is conveyed through television or social media, where your attention is monetized by and for advertisers. It’s better when people are connected to their decision-makers.

Catholic scholars call it “subsidiarity.” James Madison called it “enumeration.” Isle of man calls it “normal.” A central authority should perform only those tasks which cannot be performed at a more local level.

Madison’s original Bill of Rights contained 13 amendments. Only one has not yet been woven into our form of government and it was drafted as his first. Madison proposed that each Representative would never have more than 30,000 constituents.

Madison believed running for Congress should be as open to door-knockers as running for Eugene’s city council. The Manx model make it more like being an elected officer for your local neighborhood association. Democracy’s decline requires us to consider Isle of Man’s longevity. It’s time we looked carefully at Madison’s first First Amendment.

To those who ask how Washington, DC would operate with 11,000 members of Congress, I would pose this question in response: Do you want what’s practical or do you want what works?


Don Kahle ( writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and archives past columns at

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