Eli Dourado

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.