Digital Democracy

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“The major problem, one of the major problems, for there are several, with governing people is that of who you get to do it. Or, rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well known and much lamented fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made president should on no account be allowed to do the job. To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem.”

Douglas Adams – Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

When democracy was invented in Ancient Greece they must have felt as if they’d solved the problem of people for good. If you can’t find anyone suitable to rule people then why not get people to rule themselves? Every citizen (women, slaves and children were excluded – okay this was 2,500 years ago) was given the right to vote directly on every piece of legislation. Every political decision was put to a referendum. Today we call this direct democracy. Then it was just called democracy.

The benefits of direct democracy are immediately clear. If every citizen has an equal share of political power, corruption becomes almost impossible. There can be no need for protest, because only a megalomaniac can have any complaints. Direct democracy, to state the obvious, is simply more democratic.

The problems with direct democracy are more subtle. The most common word I hear when I talk about getting more people involved in politics is “apathetic”. What’s the good in running referendums if no-one bothers to show up? It’s a valid question.

I believe political engagement is gaining momentum, but it doesn’t happen by itself. Social pressure can play an important part here. The word ‘idiot’ comes from the ancient greek ‘ ἰδιώτης’ which literally means a private person, someone who is not interested in politics. This had derogatory connotations in ancient Athens, and the word eventually acquired its modern usage.

Tony Blair once said that “the single hardest thing for a practising politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long”. This may be true, but this doesn’t mean that people don’t care. It might just mean that they are busy.

But perhaps it also means that they feel powerless. This wouldn’t be surprising. Russell Brand, in his controversial edition of The New Statesman argues that “apathy is a rational reaction to a system that no longer represents, hears or addresses the vast majority of people”. I don’t agree with everything he says but this much is clear: if people had more power to influence the decisions that affect their lives, they would take more of an interest. This is where direct democracy becomes valuable. < http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/russell-brand-on-revolution>

Harder to counter is the philosophical point that no man should be an arbiter in his own cause. On issues that affect them directly people tend to vote selfishly, regardless of the common good. Thus if the majority of the electorate are smokers, they are unlikely to vote to ban smoking indoors, despite the fact this is clearly in the common good. An aggregate of everyone’s selfish desires does not necessarily add up to an enlightened decision.

A second criticism of direct democracy is even more troubling. The argument is famously made in Henrik Ibsen’s play An Enemy of The People. In the perennially controversial climactic scene, the protagonist Dr. Stockmann stands up in front of the townspeople and opens a can of worms that liberal democracy has never quite managed to close: “The majority is never right! Never, I say! That’s one of the social lies a free, thinking man is bound to rebel against. Who make up the majority in any given country? Is it the wise men, or the fools? I think we must agree that the fools are in a terrible, overwhelming majority, all the wide world over.”

The problem of the “tyranny of the majority” is best demonstrated, ironically, in ancient Athens. Detractors cite a series of examples which show Athenian democratic decisions to be arbitrary and reckless. After all, the world’s first democracy democratically put Socrates to death. And if you think that modern voters would be more dispassionate then look at California, where, according to an article in The Economist:

“…voters have directly amended the state’s constitution or statutes in matters big and small, from how to spend to how to tax, from regulating how fowl should be kept in coops to banning gays from marrying. The latter two initiatives happened to pass on the same ballot in 2008. Thus ‘chickens gained valuable rights in California on the same day that gay men and lesbians lost them’”. < http://www.economist.com/node/15127600>

To avoid the injustice of mob rule Dr. Stockmann argues that power should be handed to an “intellectually distinguished few”. Although this is of course deeply problematic, I’ve always felt that Stockmann has a point. A truly benevolent dictatorship is undoubtedly the best form of rule. You don’t hear Tibetans complaining about The Dalai Lama. The trouble is that the level of wisdom and spiritual purity necessary for such a role is exceedingly hard to come by. And the dangers of picking the wrong dictator are there for all to see in the pages of history.

Elected representatives provide a medium between the risky extremes of dictatorship and direct democracy. People exercise the democratic power to choose representatives, and those intellectually distinguished few, as dedicated full time professionals (one can dream), have time to deliberate and make educated, expert decisions. The general public, it is argued, tend to be ill-informed and more hastily swayed. There is undoubtedly some truth in this: most people are too busy for the in-depth research necessary to reach a balanced conclusion. Contagious media snaps don’t help.

Representative democracy may be less risky than direct democracy or dictatorship, but it’s hardly the best of both worlds. Once every four years we receive a vote. For many of us who live in a safe seat this vote has no impact whatsoever. And if we live in a marginal seat then we have a choice between two candidates who will most likely tow the party line regardless of our views. The idea that a politician consistently represents a cross-section of his constituents’ views on the plethora of diverse issues that are typically debated in a four year term is a myth.

Other than a single vote at election time, the cost of participating in representative politics is absurdly high. Either you need money and influence, or you have to devote your whole life to politics in the hope that one day you will be at the table where the decisions are being made.

Yet this is the system adopted by almost all democratic countries in the world today.

One of the founding fathers James Madison raises the debate between representative democracy, known as a republic, and direct democracy, in Federalist No. 10. One of his arguments in favour of a republic is that a republic can govern greater populations and larger countries than is possible in a direct democracy. In a carefully reasoned piece of writing, this statement stands out; it is given no justification whatsoever.  < http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/fed10.asp>

I can only presume that the limiting factor which seemed so obvious to Madison is one of logistics. In ancient Athens there were roughly 40,000 eligible voters spread over a few square kilometres, but how, in 1787 is one meant to run safe and honest referendums every time a law is passed in a country the size of America? It was so obviously impossible that Madison did not even feel the need to explain the problem.

In the internet age this problem disappears. Digital democracy activists have been transforming the debate about how democracy should be organised. Websites like WHIP.org.uk run live referendums on every bill in the UK Parliament. Voters can now have their voices heard by their MPs at the click of a button. In the 2015 election Richard Wilson ran as an independent candidate for the Stroud constituency with the promise to vote in Parliament according to the results of online referendums of this kind. And in Argentina, where DemocracyOS is WHIP’s equivalent, the Net Party was formed and ran for a seat in the local parliament of Buenos Aires in 2013 with a similar promise.

Democracy OS is a particularly interesting example. It works using a form of direct democracy known as liquid democracy. This video explains liquid democracy very clearly: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fg0_Vhldz-8.

Liquid democracy nicely sidesteps Stockmann’s problem of the ignorant majority, which he goes so far as to call ‘the most dangerous foe to truth and freedom’, by allowing you to delegate your vote to a person of your choice whenever you feel you lack the knowledge to make the right decision. This could be a journalist, an academic or even your MP. Now this works exceedingly well when people are honest about their ignorance and delegate their votes wisely. But if you are too busy or too apathetic to do the research and vote yourself, then how likely is it that you will have time to find a suitable person to vote for you?

One organic way of sifting through the wealth of opinions and ensuring that the most cogent voices are amplified, is employed by the website Represent.cc. It gives people the chance to develop respect for their opinions in certain areas by a system of up-voting like that on Reddit.com. If you read a comment about a particular debate which strikes you as lucid, you can vote it up. Or indeed if you find a comment distasteful you can vote it down. The more up-votes a comment receives the higher up the list of comments it will be, so that the most popular arguments, although not necessarily the wisest, are read first. A person whose comments are consistently voted to the top of debates about say – foreign policy – might make a good choice for you to delegate your votes about foreign policy to.

Most of these innovators are funded by charitable grants, many are self-funded, and some are hardly funded at all. As Chris Yiu, former strategist to Tony Blair and founder of Ungov.uk, said to me on the phone, “It’s 2015, these things don’t cost a fortune.” Most of them do it purely in the hope of making the world fairer. If that doesn’t make you feel optimistic about the future of mankind then nothing will.

If these ideas go some way towards a better, fairer system for voting on policies, there still remains the problem of how to come up with a more collaborative way of writing the policy to be voted on in the first place. Two websites, Ungov.uk and Openpolitics.org.uk are experimenting with open source policy writing in the UK, and there are other older versions elsewhere. These websites, powered by Github, allow anyone to come and amend the existing online political manifesto and then everyone’s contributions are synthesised into a whole. But so far any conflicts have to be resolved by an ‘independent’ arbiter, who picks which bits of policy stay and which bits are dropped. This is really just a subtler form of dictatorship.

Wikipedia uses a much more intelligent and meritocratic system to decide which edits stay and which don’t, and this works very well, but it requires a multitude of users and contributors to function properly. Open-source policy writing is still in its infancy, and even if it could attract a volume of participants comparable with Wikipedia, it is still likely to throw up issues of coherency. By this I mean that if you ask people if they’d like lower taxes I’m sure they will say yes. If you ask people if they want more public spending they will say yes. If you ask people if the deficit should be reduced then they will say yes. Only two out of these three are likely to be achievable. Elected representatives have a chance of forming a coherent strategy for balancing these objectives. Mass participatory open source policy writing, even with the most sophisticated supervision systems (see below) available, is still unlikely to throw up anything other than disjointed fairytale economics. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Editorial_oversight_and_control>

But we should have some faith: we have seen time and time again that with enough participants, intelligent self-organisation arises spontaneously, ant-colony-style, out of seemingly chaotic distributed networks. All you need to do is remove a few blockages and give it some time. I see no reason why the writing of political policy couldn’t work in the same way. Let the chips fall where they may.

For now though, the best that digital democracy has to offer lies in the form of a better line of communication between politicians and constituents. If it’s still best that we elect representatives to deliberate on our behalf, the least we can expect is that they know our views. But that MPs should blindly disregard their own judgement in favour of public opinion is a harder case to make. Edmund Burke, the great orator and political theorist, expresses this balance beautifully:

“Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

In the 241 years since these fine words were spoken communication technology has developed from the printing press to the internet, and yet I don’t believe politicians are any closer to living in ‘unreserved communication’ with their constituents than Burke was with his. This is a disaster waiting to happen. As Democracy OS and Net Party founder Pia Mancini says in her inspiring TED talk, “conflict is bound to happen in a system that has no capacity for dialogue.” Because, make no mistake, that is what we’ve currently got. It is inexcusable that MPs do not have access to better opinion polls of their constituents. It is laughable that in the 21st century the best chance we have of any dialogue with our MP is to attend a surgery in person. WHIP aims to change all that.

Incidentally Edmund Burke was the man who once said: “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing”.

So start voting! WHIP.org.uk