Towards a More Direct Democracy

Members of parliaments all over the world have to face a huge amount of diverse proposals, and take decisions in a limited amount of time. Legislation is often slowly passed, and with a lot of problematic provisions.

In many cases the MPs are not familiar with the intricate details of the matter at hand, and they either rely on a pool of party experts (which may or may not exist), or they make their decisions based on intuition and on what their party has promised to the voters.

There’s also the lobbying problem — MPs get “lured” by interest groups and lobbyists into proposing and voting legislation that benefits certain companies or industries. In poorer countries and in places where democracy is still “young”, MPs may even get paid directly for introducing a given legislation.

One of the recent examples where all of these problems manifested was the net neutrality regulation passed by the European Parliament. The MEPs had sleepless nights in order to accept the regulation until a self-imposed deadline (based on presidency change), few of them have any technical understanding about the Internet, and there has been a lot of pressure by Telecoms (pressure, which had rather poor argumentation, but nevertheless effective, because the Telecoms have greater access to MEPs than regular experts and net activists).

Such examples show the weakness in the current democratic systems. Elected members cannot be know-it-alls, and even in the European Parliament they cannot rely on independent experts, which not only explain the specifics in an understandable way, but also point out the issues that one decision may lead to.

What MPs should do is weigh the pros and cons of a given legislation, in regard to the people that elected them, and having all the details explained, vote accordingly. But with the lack of time and capacity, that almost never happens in reality.

In reality, there are party decisions. Individual MPs are often just voting placeholders for the party decisions, and sometimes they don’t even know what they are voting on (and that’s not always because of their lack of mental capacity, excuse my rude remark).

Having elected members of parliament has been a “good enough” solution in the past, as technology did not allow any other adequate means of representation (and representation is key for a democracy). But that’s not the case anymore — technology, and more specifically — the internet, does offer a lot of solutions, and almost all areas of public life have benefited from them. With rare exceptions like democracy (or scientific publishing).

The internet allows for a way more direct democracy than we are used to. And I don’t mean (just) electronic voting — it is a kind of a hack to put give a little more life to the legacy system. What I mean is a more direct way of participation — based on expertise, for example.

For each decision that requires expertise (e.g. from software specialists, accountants, architects, etc., or a combination of those), a group of such experts from the citizens can be selected at random. Something like jury duty. The group can and should be rather larger — many times larger than a national assembly. In order not to have a purely expert decision, not all of the people in the group should be experts. Say, 20% can be chosen completely randomly, or specifically from people who do not have any qualification. Even MPs can participate in the group.

The group would then discuss the issue online, with their real names, and would vote on the matter. Everyone will have an equal vote (maybe MPs can have a weightier vote).

Each citizen has to participate in up to a number of such groups per year, so that it does not take a significant amount of his own time.

That way many issues can be expertly discussed and decided upon in parallel, and that can be done by the people themselves, not proxies. And while the “proxies” (or MPs) are limited in number and can be lobbied in private or even bribed, this will be much harder to put forward for a dispersed, randomized group of individuals.

And people love to discuss the matters of the day — on facebook, for example, where they bear no responsibility for their opinion. What the above setup will change is simply the fact that their vote will ultimately matter.

And that’s one of the issues of democracy today — there is a low turnout almost everywhere, and it’s getting lower, because people feel that their vote doesn’t matter. Which isn’t necessarily true, but perception is what counts.

At present there are some attempts at employing technology for a more direct democracy. One example is the European Citizen’ Initiative, which is s deeply bureaucratic way to send petitions to the European Commission. The idea described above is not about sending petitions, but about a direct vote for the issues currently being faced. And with that vote comes the respective responsibility, which we all bear as citizens.

MPs can still have a role, of course. At least in a transition period they must absolutely continue to exist. They can propose new legislation, they can participate in the groups, and they can convince the voting group that the legislation is right. Instead of doing once-every-four-years campaigns on who will pass the best legislation, they will have to be more specific and defend publicly what they propose. Not just for the spectacle of the live discussions in the national assemblies, but for the votes of the people.

Of course, I realize there can be no arrangement without issues. And I’m aware that experts can be dependent on their employers, and in that way make the system similar to what fascist Italy had. And if people discuss and vote with their real identities, they can be bullied or their votes can be bought. There can be more uninformed decisions, if people don’t realize the responsibility.

But there can be various safeguards for all of these, and “the devil is in the details”, as usual. A majority of MPs can have the right to veto a decision and thus a new group can be formed; citizens can gain temporary and partial immunity while discussing and voting; corporations who try to influence their employees can be fined severely, and so on. I’m convinced that the right balance exists, and that even if such a system has problems initially, it will progress to a better state than our current democracies.

Such a system assumes everyone can use the internet — and that probably is going to be the case in 15 years. And it may not be applicable to all countries, at least not today, but some countries like mine already have the data about each citizen — including their current job description and education.

But it is not a proposal for tomorrow — it’s a proposal for the decades to come. And I know it sounds controversial or even utopian, but surely representative democracy sounded controversial and utopian in its early days. As everything else, I think democracy must change in order to survive.