DoesDirectDemocracyScale


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Part of the EmergentDemocracy discussion.

Does Direct Democracy Scale?

You assume, just like JoiIto does in the paper, that DirectDemocracy does not scale. I wonder where that comes from. Specially since I feel that it scales very well to a country with 7 million inhabitants in the middle of Europe. I think you also need to explain why you feel that full direct democracy is ideal, since that departs radically from the old view that while not all people are fit to rule, most people are fit to judge their rulers (source?). -- AlexSchroeder

Alex, whether DirectDemocracy scales is not just a question of numbers. It's also a matter of diversity and education. If you have a well-informated populace that's fairly homogenous, DirectDemocracy is a goal more reasonable than within a diverse population, a significant percentage of which don't grasp the issues. Diversity is a problem because it works against shared understanding: different cultural contexts mean different interpretations, so their may be confusion about the meaning of words and concepts in proposals for vote. The solution is not to have less diversity, but to have more communication... meanwhile one aspect of representative democracy is the cultivation of a common language and context for representatives, and a forum (legislature) to ensure that they all understand clearly what's proposed. (I understand that this is an ideal, not always realized...) -- JonLebkowsky

And yet, Switzerland has four languages and strong (political) differences between rural and urban areas, few people with higher education compared to many other European countries (esp. women) -- so some would argue that "diversity" either not a good indicator, or that even if it were a good indicator, that it is too hard to measure. In any case, it is not a reason to dismiss direct democracy for a specific group of people. I do agree with you that communication is a big issue. If you don't have fairly independent media, then any kind of democracy will not work. Which is why Emergent Democracy seems to me to be just that: Any kind of democracy with a lot of independent commentators and an informed society. I believe it has nothing to do with direct vs. representative democracy (and with that criticism of Joi Ito's paper this discussion got started in the first place). -- AlexSchroeder

Another less cynical reason to use representative democracy is to avoid waste. First, voting costs people a lot of time which they would otherwise be spending on their jobs. Politicians' jobs are to deal with these problems, while the rest of us get on with our lives. Farmers farm so politicians can politik, and politicians politik so farmers can farm. Also, direct democracy wastes money. Referenda are not cheap, especially for a populace of seven million or more. For countries whose referenda run separately from elections, it would be highly irresponsible for the government to call a referendum for either a trivial issue or for one with a foregone conclusion. -- SunirShah

Adam, I rather like most of those statements in your definition, but I think we don't completely understand how emergent democracy works yet (or might work or might be made to work) so don't think we're ready for a hard and fast definition yet - if we ever will be. People might even differ about exactly what plain old democracy is, although we could always look in the dictionary, assuming we consider them the ultimate arbiter. Even though I feel unready to define emergent democracy, I'd tentatively define the process of 'discussing emergent democracy' as discussing the various ways a democracy might be structured so that the deicisions of the democracy as a whole will be smarter then the decisions that would be made if the wisest and best person living there were a benevolent dictator.

Alex, do you know of a true direct democracy of seven million people today? Every individual has not merely the right to vote on every law, but an equal right to propose a law? No role at all reserved for any elected representative - and nothing they can do more easily than most people? I do seem to recall places where any law can be voted on as a referendum if enough people want it, but I think most of the legislating is still done by elected representatives. If you have somewhere different in mind, tell me about it - maybe it WOULD scale. -- DavidWeisman

David, agreed that it is too early to speculate knowledgably as to what might come out of these discussion. But my experience as a consultant teaches me that "scope creep" is one great way to torpedo any project, and accordingly I've learned to at least set *some* parameters before delving into anything. You'll notice that those are pretty loose statements - they're designed to accomodate, as well as to gently demarcate. I think we do need to know what it is we agree upon, if anything. -- AdamGreenfield

There are two more things two note, here. First, what is a "true" direct democracy, David? Do you mean to suggest that in a "true" direct democracy all people vote on all decisions all the time? Before delving into that, my previous question to Adam remains to be answered: I think you also need to explain why you feel that full direct democracy is ideal, since that departs radically from the old view that while not all people are fit to rule, most people are fit to judge their rulers (source?). Second, I could delve into the specific tradeoffs the Swiss system has made, giving my opinion on the various points, discuss changes, etc. But I'm not sure this would be a good approach -- would it convince you that Switzerland is indeed a direct democracy, and would it convince you that it scales? I fear that it will not, because the more specifics I introduce, the more you could claim that this or that cannot be generalized. I think it will be better if we consider only general arguments against direct democracy, and see wether we can argue that it will indeed not scale. -- AlexSchroeder

W/R/T direct democracy, for example, I said "scales poorly," not "does not scale." I've used Switzerland as existence proof that refutes the latter claim, but see nothing in the Swiss experience to defeat the former. -- AdamGreenfield

What does that mean, in concrete terms? It worked in the past for a few hundredthousand Swiss. Does it mean that it will work for 7 million Swiss, but not for 80 million Germans? Or will it fail for 300 million Americans? If some unknown negative effect grows faster than the population, there will be a point where direct democracy will have an adverse effect. But what is it? Where do we see it? Do you have an estimate for the population size limit? Do you see failure indicators somewhere? Without any observable thing to talk about, it is hard to argue. We haven't even reached the stage of speculation; we're still stuck in the realm of doubt and fear. -- AlexSchroeder

OK, consider the case of the United States, and its 300 million citizens. Imagining the success of, say, an annual national referendum is relatively easy, if such a referendum were limited to realtively trivial issues. But take something with really thorny immediate-, mid- and longterm implications, like membership in NAFTA.

What measures can be put into place to increase the likelihood that the hundred million people voting that day have done even a cursory review of the issue, or have attempted to ascertain in good faith what they really believe on the question? And what's to stop them voting the opposite way the next year, at tremendous cost not merely monetarily, as pointed out below, but in terms of momentum and waste and latency and simple frustration? (Note that such reversals may well be desirable regardless of the costs; I'm just posing a question.)

I don't think any of these are necessarily fatal objections, but they are questions which have to be addressed by any would-be advocate of a pure direct approach. To my mind, the "emergent" in ED suggests something which is neither pure direct democracy nor representative democracy, but which permits votes at a "lower" level to inform the decisions of larger groupings without the exposure to corruption that representative forms present. -- AdamGreenfield

I agree with that. The Swiss also had to deal with this. First, referenda only happen when a new law is proposed and enough signatures are collected to oppose it (the exact number doesn not matter, but it is significant, I think it is 50'000 or 100'000 at the moment). Therefore let us only consider initiatives. First, they also require a big number of signatures before they can be handed in. Gathering enough support for your initiative is a major grass-root effort. Once submitted with enough signatures, it gets reviewed by the parliament (some complications omitted), and if found to conflict with existing laws or the constitution in unintended ways, or if too broad, it will be rejected. If accepted, and the people get to decide, they will also get a little booklet with a few pages by both opponents and proponents, and a suggestion by the leading council. So yes, if you think that "pure" or "full" direct democracy means that there are no surrounding traditions, institutions, and control, then it is terribly flawed. But the same is true for most simple political ideas (eg. free markets). -- AlexSchroeder

Another option is LiquidDemocracy. In LiquidDemocracy, everyone does indeed get to vote on every issue. But you can give your vote to a proxy. AND, they can give your vote to their proxy. So, say you don't know much about the space program -- you give your votes on things relating to the space program to someone who has similar political views to you but who knows more about the space program (and they can pass the vote on if they choose).

It seems to me that LiquidDemocracy solves the "ordinary people have no time to learn about every issue" problem.

One way to look at LiquidDemocracy is as representative democracy, but much more fine-grained; you don't have to elect just one guy to represent you on every issue, you can have different specialists for different issues. Second, there is no GerryMandering (at least, not in the process of choosing representatives); your single vote empowers your chosen representative a little bit; you don't have to get more than 50% of the people in your area to vote for the same guy before there is any effect.

More on the idea here (these pages are a bit murky, though; but there are some good "scenarios" in LiquidDemocracyVotingSystem):

http://twistedmatrix.com/users/jh.twistd/python/moin.cgi/LiquidDemocracyVotingSystem

http://purl.net/wiki/python/LiquidDemocracy

-- BayleShanks

I really was intrigued by this idea "What would society be like if voting was so easy as to be nearly automatic? " in [WWW]LiquidDemocracyVotingSystem

One of the weakness of the model, IMHO, was this thought:

"It's easy. Once you choose someone you trust as a recommender, you can basically forget about voting. "

"Of course, it's probably a good idea to check to see where your votes have been going every so often"

Which is not readily easy to understand, that you can forget about voting and figure out, really, how and someone is thinking on an issue. More thoughts on the idea of how active a "voter" should be.

"If your chosen recommender has been voting in a way you disagree with, you can always pick a someone else who you think will give you saner recommendations in the future."

True, and so important. Which brought me to think what would happen if you mixed LiquidDemocracy and the ugly named "BlogRoll". Would it be DirectLiquidDemocracy?

The LiquidDemocracy idea with the modification that you do not "give" away your vote to anyone. Rather you vote in unison with that person on all - x issues. You can change your vote at anytime, so the relationship is founded on trust, as well as how much interest you put into the running of things. This will create local groups such as neighborhoods, work, school, interest groups that will have trusted members who are interested in doing the work. Anyone can easily challenge each other in these smaller circles, thus working to prevent "fat cat" lifetime politicians, unlike the midterm elections in the USA, where something like 90% of the incumbents get re-elected.

What about the idea of, on your WikiVotePage you say - IvoteBayleShanks/All -/AutomobileUsageAtParks. IvoteGreenPeace/AutomobileUsageAtParks

And then at a later time (minutes, years) , I am interested in participating on voting for the zoning of a local GasStation add -/GasStation. IvoteJessieBurns/GasStation. etc. etc.

That way knowledge circles grow.

-- MarkDilley an interesting post in JoiIto s weblog about trust systems http://joi.ito.com/archives/2003/05/11/example_of_usefulness_of_linkedin.html#n006773

The Costs Of Direct Democracy

The only real point made against direct democracy is Sunir's "Referenda are not cheap". But now consider wether it will scale or not: It will not scale if costs increase per person as the population grows. Why should that happen, however? It seems to be that costs per person will actually decrease! -- AlexSchroeder

Sure, but that doesn't mean the total cost is lower. Consider the logarithmic graph. Strictly increasing with a slope less than 1. You have to measure costs against the available resources of the whole collective, and your statement belies a very false assumption that the resources of the collective increase with more people. Note that India and China are not richer than the US. With respect to the Internet, you might have been alive during the dot.com blow out. How many companies' resources were evaporated with the brilliant business plan: "Sure we're giving it away for free, but we plan to make it back in volume!" How many dot.orgs went under because the traffic grew faster than sponsorship or the pockets of the sugar daddies? I'm not anxious at all to grow MeatballWiki past the point where Cliff and I can pay for it. Already I'm months behind on paying the bills for sunir.org. Don't fall into that open source trap of believing that life is free. -- SunirShah

I don't follow the argument. Of course it is going to cost more, if more people are involved. But more people will pay taxes, too. Wether the country itself is rich or poor has nothing to do with the amount of people living in that country. I don't understand the comparison with dotcom business plans, nor with website popularity. -- AlexSchroeder

From a state point of view, it doesn't really matter how many people pay taxes. Just because you've liberalized capital doesn't change the macroeconomic problem of actually having enough capital to pay for things. Sure, you live in one of the richest countries in the world. Switzerland can pay for lots of referenda. Poorer countries cannot always do this, even if they have many more people paying taxes.

With respect to dot coms and dot orgs, for our types of projects, it doesn't matter how many people belong to your organization if the people cannot find enough money to pay for it. These days, if almost everyone on a project is unemployed or a student--including the proprietor--it can be very difficult to raise enough capital to keep projects going. Most major open source projects are now supported by corporations, even if it's through sourceforge.net.

In both cases, the more people you have in the organization, the more expensive the organization becomes. Having a lot of poor people in your organization can actually tank you as they all contribute negatively to the bottom line. Also, the more people you need to poll, the more resources, time and money, that you have to spend. Spending too much time can waste opportunities or fail to respond to crises, and that too can tank your organization.

So, running a direct democracy means having the resources, both time and money, to organize each franchised member. Not every organization can afford to do this, so they shouldn't. States in particular shouldn't waste all that capital that would otherwise be circulating freely in the market. -- SunirShah

Maybe we just differ in how much we are willing to invest into a political system. Clearly, I think that investing the money into such activities as referenda and initiatives is a good thing. Certainly I think these activities deserve a priority on par with buying weapons, building roads, paying police forces, etc. It is just a budget post amongst many. Can you name a poor country that cannot afford to spend time and efford on two or three more votes every year? And there were times when Switzerland was very poor. Note that before the invasion Napoleon in the 19th century, Switzerland had a different constitution, and I don't know any details; Switzerland has been poor in that time up to the first world war. -- AlexSchroeder

I didn't say that I was unwilling to invest in the political system. I said a legitimate reason not to hold referenda is that they cost too much, even in the context of dot.orgs. You suggested that direct democracy scales because it has more people to pay for it. I argued that's an incorrect analysis, and that the opposite is true. But I would hardly argue that it's bad to invest in the political system. In fact, I would argue for more investment. -- SunirShah

I'm more concerned about the lack of stability and consistency that can result from referenda. In California, it is very easy for a group of citizens to get a petition on the ballot, and very difficult for the legislature to prevent "wrong-headed" petitions or amend previously passed petitions. As a result, California law is a mess. Each election deals with more issues than any single individual can possibly understand, so people vote as the interest groups they trust advise (LiquidDemocracy?). Unfortunately, it's possible for mutually contradictory petitions to both make it onto the ballot, and both pass. It's not unusual for the electorate to simultaneously pass tax cuts, major bond issues, and increased education funding, for example. Worse, you run into a tyranny of the majority: densely populated Southern California (which is very arid) can outvote Northern California (which is much less arid) on things like water issues. As a result it's easier to run a water pipeline down to Los Angeles (stealing water from the Sacramento River, which feeds San Francisco Bay) than to pass measures that would encourage Angelenos to conserve water. If Switzerland is an existence proof that DirectDemocracy scales to a nation of 7 million people, then California is an existence proof that it doesn't scale to 36 million people. How are the two implementations different? -- KatherineDerbyshire

It seems to me that California needs a better implementation: Doesn't it have a constitution that prevents a tyranny of the majority, like most democratic systems have? The constitutions prevents the legislative from passing oppressive laws. Doesn't it have a deliberative process that controls what kind of issues get onto the ballot? This process should prevent illegal, unclear, and contradictory issues from getting onto the ballot. -- AlexSchroeder


CategoryEmergentDemocracy