This post is part of a series about government.
One idea (or more precisely, a family of ideas) that was proposed in order to solve the problems of a representative democracy is direct democracy. In a direct democracy, people do not elect representatives once every few years, who make all the decisions by themselves, and therefore, as explained previously, end up advancing only their own self-interests. Instead, people can propose laws and amendments and vote on them directly. A variation is where citizens may delegate their legislative and voting power to trustworthy experts of their choosing, which they can appoint, replace, or dismiss at any time (not just once every few years).
For most of history, this ideas was technically impossible to implement. Most of the population was illiterate, and was completely lacking the knowledge or the ability necessary to make decisions on state affairs. There were also no modern means of communication, so any referendum was very costly and slow.
However, with the advent of modern computer and communication technologies, in particular the revolutions of the internet and smartphones, it is now feasible to build systems that can technically support direct democracy. Here is one way how this could work.
There would be a smartphone and web application through which each citizen could propose a new law or an amendment to an existing law. The length of the proposal would be short, so that it can be clear (unlike existing bills that are very long and require a very trained lawyer to understand and interpret).
Each citizen could search for propositions according to topics and keywords, and add or retract their support from any proposition. If one person sees that his proposal is very similar to another person’s proposal, they can decide to unite their proposals, and inform the people who added their support for the proposals to check if they still agree with the combined proposal and vote for or against it. The proposer could also post his proposition on Facebook so that his friends would see it and possibly add their vote to support it.
A proposition becomes official law only after a sufficient number of voters support it (it could be a majority of those who are eligible to vote, or some other rule). After this happens, this new law can be cancelled only if another proposition for its cancellation is raised and then accepted by a majority.
The citizens can decide that they would vote in this manner only on the important types of issues. Small matters, e.g. deciding whether the left or the right side of each street should be designated for no parking, may be considered as best left for the decision of government experts. But in principle, the citizens can be involved in all decisions, whereas today their ability to be involved is virtually nonexistent.
The long struggle to make the government obey the public will
How could the citizens actually force the government to execute the decisions voted on and accepted by the majority of citizens? After all, the politicians are very creative in finding ways to say “yes, of course we’ll do it”, but then use the funds to help their rich friends at the expense of the public. The answer is: it will be a long struggle, but at least the citizens will have the means that might allow them to win it.
Suppose that in a direct democracy, a new resolution is accepted. However, a year goes by, and the citizens see that the government did not do what the resolution says it must do. So the citizens can propose and pass a more specific resolution, such as: the government shall allocate 10 million dollars to implement the resolution. Suppose the government says “yes, of course”, but politicians being very creative, they will write a long document whose title is exactly what the public voted for, but in a very small sub-item buried somewhere in the document, they will write that the money should be transferred to one of their rich friends, of course under the camouflage of a public bid that only he can win.
After a while, citizens will understand what happened, and they will pass another resolution for transparency of government actions. They could say that any government official who is transferring money is obligated to put his fingerprint on the transaction and record it on computers that have open interfaces to the public, so that everyone could know who transferred what amount to whom, and the fingerprint is sufficient evidence to indict someone in a court of law of the crime of embezzlement (the purpose of fingerprinting is to prevent politicians from disavowing responsibility and blaming their secretary with embezzlement). With this publicly available information, even high school students could write a script “find the corruption” that will automatically scan all this information to identify transfers of money which were done illegally and against the public will.
Of course, the government will try to resist this as well. So the public will have to pass more laws, saying that the police could go into the parliament’s archives and investigate the data, and the courts could prosecute corrupt politicians and send them to jail, and any person who exposes corruption would get a bonus.
Of course, the wealthy interests would try to affect public opinion in their favor and against the interests of the public, through commercials that would try to promote certain business ventures. Or the wealthy might try to frighten the public, saying that they would take their business abroad if strict anti-corruption measures are enforced.
It will be a long struggle between the interests of the public on the one hand and the interests of the economic and political elite on the other hand, but at least this struggle will take place, there will be a public debate, the voice of the public will be heard and will have some weight. Whereas today, people cast some piece of paper once every few years, and sometimes gather in a demonstration to shout some slogans on the street, but in effect, the will of most citizens is ignored.
Democracy, direct or representative, works better the more the citizens are well educated and well informed. Otherwise, the process is influenced by demagoguery, as Socrates has warned.
There is a lot more to say about this topic, and we may expand upon it in the future.