What Would Democracy Look Like if it Were Invented Today?

The hung parliament in the UK is drawing attention to one of the Lib Dems’ demands, proportional representation (PR). I don’t have strong feelings about PR, but the issue does make me wonder what democracy would look like if it were invented today. So in the spirit of Robin Hanson’s Futarchy, I offer my vision of a more modern form of democratic governance. I should make clear that I am not offering this as a serious constitutional amendment, though I would not be opposed to some real-world experiments with it.

When democracy was invented, the world was very different than it is today. I can think of two differences that are particularly salient for purposes of creating a form of governance. First, interests were more regional than they are today. Second, the cost of communicating was much higher. These factors made sending regional representatives to a central legislature an obvious democratic strategy. This strategy seems to me to be completely unnecessary in the present age.

Start with the basic principle of one person, one vote, and direct democracy. Imagine, to begin with, that there is a web page that lists all the legislative issues on the agenda. Citizens could log in and vote on any of them. If there were 200 million voters, a bill would pass when it got to 100,000,001 votes (assuming a simple majority system—alternatives to this are beyond the scope of this post, but do not present a serious challenge).

Voting on all the issues would take a fair bit of time; most citizens would not be interested in sitting at their computers and voting all the time. In addition, there is a serious cost to becoming informed enough to know how to vote on specific legislation. Therefore, the web site could facilitate a proxy arrangement. Users could login to their accounts and designate someone else to cast their votes for them. All users would have a choice to keep their votes secret or to let them be publicly known.

People would specialize and compete in proxy services. That is, politicians would try to attract citizens by offering the particular set of policy values that they wished to vote for. If, at any time, a principal did not like how his proxy voted, he could log on to the legislative website and change or revoke his proxy designation. Everything would happen in real time; there would be nothing analogous to legislative elections. Politicians would feel constrained by their principals at all times; a single bad vote could lead to mass abandonment and irrelevance. Political feedback would be nearly instantaneous. After a speech, a politician could check his stats to see if he was gaining or losing principals.

Conditional on the premise that the majority should govern in the first place, I think this sounds like a reasonably attractive system. One might think of it as True Proportional Representation. This is, of course, a cursory sketch; there are many issues that remain to be discussed. For now, I will address just two of them. First, how would the quality of political discourse change? Second, how should proxies be compensated, if at all.

I think (but am not confident) that the quality of political discourse would improve. Right now, virtually no politician can win by telling the truth or saying reasonable things. Under this new system, there would at least be some market for truth-telling politicians. Furthermore, you would get a greater number of wonkish politicians who try to impress by their thorough command of the issues. Niche political markets would get serviced under the new system. On the other hand, this cuts both ways. People might proxy to circus clowns, porn stars, comedians, or radio DJs.

Finally, what should be the role of money in this system? Should money be kept out of it entirely? In this case, only the idle rich could serve as proxies. An alternative would be for the state to pay a salary to every proxy in proportion to how many principal-votes he casts throughout the year. When proxies lose principals, their salary would go down. When they gain them, their salary would increase. An even more intriguing possibility would be to allow any and all side payments and let the market determine compensation. Citizens could pay politicians directly for their services, or politicians could pay citizens to be allowed to represent them. Proxies could have a policy of negotiating a price for their votes and then distributing the proceeds to their principals. I think a lot of people would reflexively think of this as undemocratic, though it is hard to articulate why.

I can think of a number of reasons why True Proportional Representation might be a bad idea, but nevertheless I think I’d like to see someone try it. Most likely it is just trading one set of problems for another one. We might find, however, that the new problems are more tolerable.

11 replies to “What Would Democracy Look Like if it Were Invented Today?

  1. Pete

    I’m trying to sort out how this type of system would affect different groups:

    My gut reaction is that it would hurt the old, the poor, and the uneducated. For them, access to high-speed internet is limited, which makes it more costly for them to research policies or proxies. It also makes the cost of monitoring high relative to someone with high-speed internet. At the very least, I’d like to see such a system accompanied by more availability of high-speed internet at libraries and other public places, to try to off-set the burdens this system places on those without it.

    Of course, it would also benefit those who speak little English. These people would almost certainly find a wealth of information developing in their native language, and someone who can cater to their needs would have a greater chance of getting elected. I view this as a positive but anti-foreign bias probably means many Americans will dislike this as well.

    Overall this sounds like a fairly elitist system to me. Bryan Caplan would definitely argue that it would lead to better policies, and I don’t think I can disagree, but a lot of people would be alienated in making this a reality.

    What groups am I failing to consider?

  2. Eli Post author

    Pete, that’s interesting because while I was writing the post, I thought it was all very populist. I mean, what is more populist than having a referendum on every issue? I’m not saying you’re wrong—you raise good points about how it may favor rich techies over the poor, elderly, or uneducated. I still wonder a) if it discriminates against these groups more than the current system, b) how far away we are from broadband and computer fluency being truly universal, and c) if entrepreneuring politicians wouldn’t rush to teach some of these groups basic computer skills and provide them with political-internet kiosks (plastered with ads for their proxy services, perhaps). I’ll have to think more about this elitism issue—thanks for raising it.

  3. Cosmin L. Neagu

    As it stands now the current system favours the the old, the poor, and the uneducated.
    Maybe some kind of hybrid would work better. Everyone could choose to vote once every 4 years OR take a more active approach as described in the article. This won’t change much for the majority of people but would bring a bit of change.

    Competition helps evolution and I think all systems should allow some room for competition.
    Unfortunately the current political systems allow for very little if any competition to themselves.

  4. Blair

    I’m generally a fan. I’m going to ignore the equality of access aspects for this post, although I agree it’s important. Some things to think over, which spring to mind:

    * Let’s start with the obvious “mob rule” concern. Voters end up voting for “infinite bread and circuses”. Do we in need any kind of checks and balances against the “tyranny of the majority” or would a truly “pro democracy” stance preclude this?

    * When allocating finite resources, choices need to be made. Many might agree that education and health care deserve more moeny, but perhaps most also agree that taxes need to be lower. Holding a referendum on each individual decision doesn’t seem to be an optimal way to frame allocation / prioritisation decisions. Is it really a suitable mechanism for e.g establishing budgets? What might be a good way to do that?

    * Note that if budgets aren’t included in the “direct democracy” framework, most of the “real” decisions will end up getting made by the people who decide what gets funded.

    * Then there’s the whole meta-issue of how legislation gets drafted. Is the collaborative? Which version gets to be the one to go to referendum? On a related note, do we need to figure out how to prevent legislation spamming? If anyone can propose legislation, should it be OK for anyone to propose a million laws? OK, how about just a hundred? Do we hold mini-referenda among subject matter experts to find the best wording?

    * How, exactly, does the proxy voting scheme work? It’s perfectly reasonable that I might trust Bob to be well informed on health care, while I agree with Alice when it comes to defense. Is the legislation tagged in any way? Who decides the tags? What to do about tag conflicts?

    * Would there be any limits to the rate of societal change allowed? Do the “meta rules” of the system need to be protected in some way? Similar to the first point, e.g. can we vote to remove a certain group’s “human rights”? Do we have levels of immutability? If we vote on something, can someone propose changing it back straight away, or not?

    * The press and media would seem to have more power in a direct democracy than they already do. How do we protect against an attacker who owns the media? We already have this problem, but barring other checks and balances, suddenly we have this mechanism whereby we could potentially make disastrous decisions very quickly.

    * How do we handle situations where decisions need to be made, but not enough people care enough to vote? For example, some capital investment reaches end-of-life and we need to decide whether to renovate or scrap it. Would it be OK for the issue be decided by the minority who do vote? Similarly, how about unsexy policy areas like “helium conservation”, “bovine reproductive health issues” or whatever? How do we decide what things require a majority, and what things won’t?

    * Would a direct democracy implementation allow for long-term planning? Would our ability to stick to, say, a 20 year course of action be better or worse than it is now, and would that be a good or a bad thing for society as a whole?

    * How do (what were formerly) political appointments work now? High court judges? (do we still need those?), diplomats? How about generals? Can we fire public servants? Can we “fire” judges? Do we need some people with “tenure”?

    * How would international diplomacy work in this kind of a scenario? Would international treaties appear as proposals? Would declaring war be decided by referendum?

    * Is radical governmental transparency compatible with achieving military and foreign policy objectives? Does that matter? (bearing in mind that we have to *vote* on our course of action, as a matter of public record). Do we care that we might be at a relative disadvantage vis-a-vis states which can keep secrets from us ? How would we handle situations like trade negotiations?

    Anyway, that was a fun thought experiment.

  5. Lars

    The only way to know if a computer system has been compromised is by checking the data. In this case you would check if the votes match what the people actually voted for. You can’t make this system anonymous for that reason.

  6. Jonas

    There are indeed a few things which would be vastly different, for example:

    Media — would look a whole lot different. Most of the important political issues of the day have strong economic interests behind them. It is worth a lot of money to frame a question in terms of “meddle with employment” versus “everyone should be able to live on their salary”. Media would become a lot closer with the economic interests and there would be no place for independent journalism if it was in economic interest to focus more directly on the average voter, and less on politicians.

    Accountability — would also differ from today. This would have effects on who would become politicians. There is nothing better than having your hand forced in a political issue by the federal government, the EU, or other international agreements. No one can hold you accountable for those decisions. This would be the norm.

    The Internet — and other free forms of communication would be economically unviable or just declared illegal. All it takes is one evening paper screaming out “Children are abused on the Internet! Politician: I can make it stop, just click my button.” (Preferrably before the general public uses the Internet, of course.) This is applicable to any new phenomenon in society which threatens existing power structures.

    Very different strategies are required to push your agenda on parliament or to the general public. If it’s not already clear, I believe we should strive to have decisions made by more knowledgeable people, not less.

    More importantly, any discussion about democracy should always be centered around media, about how political consensus is achieved among the public, and about accountability. Voting is just an implementation detail.

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