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Pure Democracy

Entry 1667, on 2014-07-18 at 14:30:34 (Rating 2, Politics)

In my previous blog post I discussed why I think we should vote, but at the same time noted that practically speaking it was pointless and that the democratic system is fundamentally hopelessly flawed. I also intimated that I thought there might be something better. But what could it be?

Well I think that most people agree that people should be able to decide as much as possible how to govern themselves, and that is fundamentally what democracy is all about. But there are two types of democracies: direct (also known as pure) democracies and representative democracies. The second is what all modern democratic countries use - and that is the problem.

In a representative democracy the people vote for political representatives to govern on their behalf. In a pure democracy the people themselves make the decisions.

There are clear problems with the representative type: do the representatives actually do what the voters want, or do they break their election promises; what do the voters do if they change their mind before the next election; how do ideas flow between the representatives and voters; and what do the voters do if none of the politicians represent their views?

Look at the problems with modern democracies and it is clear that they all get back to the politicians not genuinely representing the wishes of the people they represent. For example, here in New Zealand our government sold state assets even though a clear majority didn't want them to.

But direct democracy has been impossible for mainly practical reasons. How can the people make decisions when they are required to given the amount of effort and cost involved in any sort of decision making process like a referendum? And can the people be trusted to make good decisions or is that better trusted to professional politicians?

You can probably tell by now that I think we should be moving towards a more direct democracy but how can we overcome the problems?

Well the first one can be fixed with technology. Anyone who wants to participate in decision making in a first world country would have some sort of technology which would allow that. Clearly the internet would be my first choice but even a standard phone can be used if necessary. And if even that isn't acceptable it should be possible to set up some sort of pen and paper system at a community center like a school, post office, etc. But I would hope that with the rapidly increasing acceptance of technology that those would be mostly unnecessary.

So there could be votes set up on major issues which would effectively be binding referenda. I know the details require some work: when is an issue significant enough to require a vote because we wouldn't want to be wasting them every minor administrative decision, how would the questions be worded to avoid bias, how would publicity (or propaganda) on votes be controlled, and how would identity control be done to avoid fraud?

None of these problems are easy but they certainly aren't insurmountable either. The major point I am trying to make is that we should make a commitment to introduce direct democracy. Once that decision is made the details can be worked through.

But I haven't talked about the second issue yet: can the people be trusted to make good decisions? Well I have two answers to that: first, the wisdom of crowds is a well documented phenomenon and I do think that on average the majority would make good decisions; and second, even if they make bad decisions they were still their decisions to make.

If initially people make decisions to do populist things like tax cuts they might find the end result isn't what they wanted and a they might be more careful in the future. But I think that more balanced and overall better decisions would result eventually.

So that's how to fix democracy: make it direct, make it pure.

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Comment 1 (4088) by GadgetDon on 2014-07-18 at 16:49:08:

There's an old joke that democracy is three wolves and a sheep voting about what to have for dinner. It's an old joke because there's a lot of truism in it.

California, the state I live in, has a strong referendum law. It was used in the past to make it very hard to raise property taxes. Desert Hot Springs, the city I'm living in, is in real financial trouble. As in "can we pay the salaries of the Police" trouble, not just "shall we host some big social stuff for the community" trouble. A vote on increasing property taxes failed.

And recently, the citizenry voted to ban same sex marriage. This was overridden in the federal courts. I've got problems with how this was done (the state refused to raise a defense when it was challenged in court and when groups that had supported the measure tried to raise a defense they were told they weren't a party to the lawsuit). But however one feels both about the issue itself or the way the lawsuit was handled, it shows the risk of direct democracy voting on the rights of a minority.

As for the "flaws" of representative democracy - that's always going to be where you stand. A representative voting against the views his constituents on a position you oppose is betraying the people he represents. A representative voting against the views of his constituents on a position you support is taking a courageous step and representing their long-term interests. (Just like ads supporting the position you hold explain the issue while ads opposing it are propaganda hit pieces.)

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Comment 2 (4089) by OJB on 2014-07-18 at 22:40:10:

Yeah I think it's more like 3 sheep and one wolf though, but the sheep let the wolf choose dinner anyway because they've been sucked into thinking the wolf knows best.

I take your point regarding the majority doing the wrong thing, such as voting against same sex marriage. But it is only the wrong thing from my perspective (as a social liberal) and yours, I guess. Maybe, if the majority really wanted it, a same-sex marriage ban was the right thing at this particular time?

Maybe my point really was that in a real democracy the majority should have the freedom to do the wrong thing. Also, what evidence is there that our representatives to the right thing any more often than the majority would?

Unfortunately when a representative takes a stand against the views of the people who elected him he seems to be rarely doing something for their long-term good. It seems to me that more often he is doing something for his own long term good or for the good of his rich sponsors!

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