The bug in democracy’s code

book extract #1

This is an extract from my forthcoming book “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting” which will be published by The Democratic Society on the 16th November 2017 [launch event]. It is taken from the Introduction to the book.

The bug in democracy’s code

The variety of liberal democracy used in Europe and North America has created untold growth, prosperity and inter-democracy peace. It has been a fantastically successful experiment and no generation of humanity is as lucky as ours.

Its continuing positive development is not assured, however. One of its fatal flaws is that politicians are stuck in something that looks a lot like the prisoner’s dilemma where, in a climate of distrust, their default setting is to accuse each other, however opaquely, of being liars and thieves. Because of this, politicians fail to defend the idea of democratic governance itself.

As we will see, electoral politics has several other similar defects that may be flaring up more painfully than ever in the digital age, dragging democracy into what looks like its greatest modern crisis. As democracy becomes more crudely direct in the way that it has done in recent years, it was always only a matter of time before a wealthy, media-savvy demagogue would be able to walk through the middle. Trump, like Silvio Berlusconi before him, is what we are likely to get when electoral politics can be gamed at the expense of democracy.

Similarly, in 2016, the UK had one of its occasional trysts with direct democracy, calling a referendum on its continued membership of the European Union. The ballot was widely seen as a political move by a modernising political leadership that was designed to deal with disruptive Euroscepticism in the governing Conservative Party rather than being a serious, costed option for the government to take.

With huge and unchartered implications, Brexit was only ever likely to happen following a referendum. It was a decision that few ever expected a British parliament to support of its own volition. MPs and the political commentariat were widely surprised by the narrow leave vote, and the consequences are yet to be fully understood — not least by the people who are supposed to have ultimate control over a democratic government — the ordinary voters.

I shall argue that, if we want people to tell us what kind of governance they really want, there are better ways of doing this than asking them to vote for candidates or take part in a referendum. In other areas of our lives, we use other processes to send signals and make better decisions than the ones we use with politics. There is no reason we should cling on to the outdated tradition of holding ballots when we could have much more comprehensive control over government by other means.

In The Myth of the Rational Voter, Bryan Caplan lists the ways voters make faulty reflexive decisions about the strategies their governments should use to achieve their aims. From a market-enthusiast perspective, he argues that “rationality” — the way that we chose our jobs or our purchases — has good outcomes, but the “irrational rationality” of voting has the opposite effect.

Citizens are not always capable of understanding why society isn’t working the way they want. This isn’t because they are stupid. It is because, often, no one on their own is qualified enough to direct the kind of big democratic decisions that states make using their political or democratic processes. Opportunistic politicians can step into this vacuum and point to popular scapegoats of the kind Caplan mentions — free markets, foreigners, corporations. These are presented as the obstacles that are stopping us from having the prosperity we want. They seem to be attractive answers because few voters can focus and think about the big complex issues of statecraft on their own.

When ordinary voters fail to engage, they are not being apathetic. If anything, it is rational to focus our energies mainly on to the things that we can control. We are not being irresponsible, lazy or stupid when we don’t spend time learning all about macroeconomics or diplomacy. We’ve usually got better things that we could be doing with our time.

So if politicians decide to get ordinary voters behind any particular scheme, we are not likely to have the information we need to evaluate it properly in the first place. By allowing ourselves to be flattered into making decisions on issues we’re unqualified to decide upon, we’re doing things on our own behalf that could be done in a more suitable way. Direct participation is not the same thing as looking after our own interests in the best way. As the legal aphorism goes: “A man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client.” If we wanted to design a system in a way that helps wealthy and charismatic people con everyone easily, we could barely design anything better than electoral politics.

Micro-managing politicians: the curse of activism

In the past, citizens usually had little option but to step back and let politicians squabble about how they can get the economy working well. Most of the time, voters will let them make the strategic decisions, and then judge them on their competence and how well they have represented our interests when the next election comes around.

The big change that has happened in recent years is that there is a greater expectation that politicians can or should be micromanaged by their political clients, the voters (or at least, the most active voters). The desire to micromanage is there, at least in part, because the level of trust between politicians and the most active voters has withered.

There are plenty of factors that have contributed to this change. We have never had such a high expectation of being able to interact with professionals in other areas of our lives, especially in the shallow and capricious way that “clicktivism” lets us do it. We have never been so capable of watching our politicians as we are today — and the more we see of them, the more we stop believing that they care about us as much as they care about newspaper editors, party bosses or fellow members of the social caste that dominates politics.

There are other factors that figure here as well. With the collapse of the newsgathering business model, it has never been as easy as it is today to make trouble for politicians who aren’t serving particular vocal interests. It is hardly surprising that trust in politics is collapsing everywhere we look.

A particularly worrying development is the rise of what the US academic, Eitan D. Hersh describes as “political hobbyism” or “poli-hobbyism”. Hersh notes that, in an age or relative safety and stability, political activism has changed from being a pursuit that was less polarised, even though it was played for fairly high stakes, to one that is more bitterly partisan.

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For more information about “Save Democracy — Abolish Voting’, click here.

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