Direct democracy

So I’m trying to imagine what the future will be like. We know that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others, but does that mean we’re stuck with it in its present form? The game for today is to imagine some incremental improvements to our current democratic system. For the time being, I’m lumping the US and the UK together, along with much of the rest of the world and ignoring the real differences between them.

Let’s take an example of an idea that’s part habit and part policy that I would imagine would substantially change the way democracy feels to the average punter. I just got back from Switzerland, and I was astonished to find that they have referenda many times a year, especially at the local level, but even up to the national level too. Switzerland is divided into cantons (much like states in the US), and then seemingly subdivided at almost the village level. So, as far as I can tell, people will be given ballots at least a couple of times a year on with a list of 10 or so questions that they can vote on, which range (as far as I can tell) from whether to have red or blue bunting at the village fair to whether or not Switzerland should adopt the Euro. This is in stark contrast to the UK, say, where asking the public’s opinion about something straight out is considered risque and undesirable.

Does this more referendum-driven approach work for Switzerland? Even if it does, would it work in the UK or the US? I’m not really in a position to answer either question, but I’ll briefly consider them both and then play around with an idea that grew out of them.

Who was the Swiss economist (SHB???) who argued that the level of direct democracy in the different cantons was correlated with happiness? This could just be because the richer cantons have smarter, happier people, and so trust them to vote more often, and they make better judgements, and feel more enfranchised. The point is – i don’t know how with just 20 or 30 (???) cantons, he could possibly hope to control for how many people, how many questions, what types of questions, wealth, education, blah blah…

One argument for why greater levels of direct democracy might improve the way the country is run is based on the Condorset Theorem (or Paradox???). Put simply – if I’m 51% likely to make the right decision, and you’re 51% likely to make the right decision (and we’re statistically independent), then if we pick the majority view, then the more people the better. Of course, we aren’t all statistically independent of each other because it sometimes feels like most of Britain votes whichever way The Sun tells them to, and if we take the alternative case where we’re each only 49% likely to make the right decision, then the more of us vote together, the worse we’ll all be.

I’m now rehashing the argument that SHB set out when we talked about this last week, when he pointed out that maybe the real reason why we like democracy is not because it’s the most efficient system for generating correct decisions, but because it offers things that we prize more highly…???

Let’s try taking things to extremes. Let’s imagine that the various employees and, especially, directors, of Diebold have been ruthlessly and publicly culled, and that electronic voting machines are considered magically safe. Or, better still, that the servers on the government’s web site are powered by ground-up unicorn horns, and so we can all vote online with impunity. I’m back to imagining a world where machines do all the dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, leaving us with swathes of leisure time in each week to write poetry, read the newspaper and vote on every little decision.

But I’ve only ever lived in democracy-by-proxy. We have elected representatives for a number of reasons, including:
they spend all their time becoming experts and specialists in various areas, so that they can make informed decisions
elections are expensive in time and money to organise and participate in
they’re wiser, more compassionate and fairer than the average joe
However, if people have enough leisure time to familiarise themselves fully with the issues, and elections are run at the click of the button then we’re left to face the real question: do we actually want people to decide for themselves?
In a funny kind of way, democracy today rests on an assumed inequality and friction: only the rich and educated have a real chance at getting voted into a position of power in the current system, so even if the hoi-pelloi get to choose between them, there are so many gilded hoops separating the terraced houses and secondary comprehensives from Downing Street that there’s little chance of a complete upset in a general election. But if you were to offer people frequent referenda in a frictionless way (assuming everyone has or is given a PC and broadband), I imagine government would be faced with a popular voice become more garrulous and much more hearty in its demands.

Let me give one good reason why more direct and interactive democracy is A Good Thing. Right now, you have one yay-or-nay every 5 years or so. There are really only two parties which stand a chance of getting into power, and tactical voting??? coalitions??? so if you want to maximise the impact of your vote on the election, you end up voting for one of them. So you have to compress all of the past decisions, rhetoric, promises and stances into the lesser of two evils. It’s like collapsing an intricately high dimensional space onto a line. Usually, that line runs the continuum from left to right. But there are many, many issues which could run orthogonal to that line. Authoritarianism/liberalism, adopting the Euro, gun laws, the Iraq war, money on roads or public transport etc. Right now, I vote based on the two or three most important issues, because those are the ones where I feel strongly about having my voice heard. And even if those handful all fall on the same side of the 1D line, I can’t signal my views about any of the myriad other orthogonal issues through my vote. In reality, I accept that things are more complicated than this, because decisions are rarely binary and because we vote in large part about what we think personally about the major figures and their likely future policy decisions.

Of course, one issue is that people might be expected to vote selfishly. Why should the 45 million people who only ever visit London once a year want to pay billions of pounds to improve the Underground? Why do I care if the Post Office delivers to the Orkney Islands? This is probably why the Swiss referenda tend to occur more at the local level than the national level.


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