What if we all had real direct, equal control over our government?

I’d like you to tell me if I’ve missed any snags in this fictional and imaginary scenario?

Picture a possible future please? One where technology has advanced in a way that would remove the practical barriers to us all participating in every decision that our governments take.

Not only would we be able to participate in every decision that we would normally feel like getting involved in, in this scenario, we would even have found a way of dealing with the fact that the biggest barriers to participation are our ability to commit our time and energy to the questions in hand — including the ones that we don’t really care about.

This possibility would be created because we had worked out, somehow, how to use artificial intelligence (AI) in an amazing way, to work out what decision each of us would take in a given situation, if we were able to be present, and that we had the time to express a coherent preference.

Because we are seeing that technology is getting a lot better at guessing our preferences, perhaps this part of the scenario isn’t too far-fetched?

This would mean that government would be given a very reliable guesstimate on what we would all would actually do if we were there, ‘in the room’, when a question were being asked.

Imagine that we could then use yet more incredible new techniques to aggregate those decisions so that our government could say that everyone was fairly represented, and that the decisions that were being made were genuinely the most popular ones that we had all participated in (albeit by proxy using a well-calibrated guesstimate of our likely decisions).

Governments would be able to ask a question, and get an answer from every one of us that it could use. Imagine a Prime Minister behaving like a game show host, saying “we asked every voter in this country what the current Interest Rates should be, and they told us…… 1.6%!”

We could take it even further. If this AI were fully functioning, it wouldn’t need to restrict itself big questions like monetary policy. It could consider rules on local planning matters, or what medical procedures a particular hospital could provide. It could set criminal penalties, determine food regulations, make decisions on armaments and even our foreign policy. It could declare war, or make treaties.

In this scenario, we’re envisaging a very direct input into law-making, and that our government would be a direct representation of the expressed will of the people (or a very close equivalent).

In considering this possible future, for the moment, please put aside your doubts about how closely this AI can predict our decisions. Remember, a good system would show us a random selection of decisions that we had ‘made’ and we’d be able to correct and calibrate it.

Imagine this all working very well, for the sake of this scenario.

We could go even further and use these amazing powers to break through our reliance on the rule of law to give us real democratic control over every decision. Individual citizenship applications could get the thumbs up or thumbs down from the forum of public opinion. We could prosecute individual criminals or even govern every aspect of each other’s lives using a very democratic version of the prerogative of kings.

The boundaries between the public and the private could also be a democratic decision of course, so let us not just focus on the most dystopian scenario. We may decide that parents decisions about their own children’s behaviour is a private matter… or not.

In my head, I have a list of the things that could go wrong if this were to ever happen. I’d be interested to know what problems you would foresee are though?

My list is as follows:

  • Regular ‘tyranny of the majority’ moments (could be resolved if the AI was clever enough to use consensual exercises like weighting, trade-offs, etc)
  • Dissonance — we could make loads of decisions that are inconsistent with each other — a Scandinavian welfare system paid for by Cayman Islands tax-rates
  • The Aristotle problems — this would be a governance that wouldn’t consider ‘virtue’ — it would be short-termist, policy would be a simple auction-house of personal interests (see ‘tyranny of the majority’) and it wouldn’t base decisions on anything that we would call ‘wisdom’ (professional judgement and skills, a deference to intellect evidence, reflection/deliberation etc)
  • Unpredictable — we would find it hard to guess what decisions government would make and this would make it hard to plan. It would also be oppressive as the lack of consistency would leave us uncertain that our planned behaviour would meet approval
  • Inefficient — because of the lack of expertise available, even decisions that are good in principle could be administered by a government machine that isn’t experienced. Rookie errors would be the order of the day. Of course, this system may actually decide to have a professional administrative class of its own, but this scenario has to be seen as an alternative to ours and we should expect it to have fewer ‘Sir Humphreys’ than we have at the moment
  • Intrusive (depending on how ‘liberal’ this government actually is) — it may decide the allow a fairly broad ‘private sphere’ or it may want to dictate how many sheets of toilet paper we are allowed each day
  • Uncompetitive — other systems of government are available. If this ‘democracy’ makes worse decisions than less democratic rivals, it may result in defeat or a defection of our ‘voters’ to what they see as a better state. One that immediately abolishes any kind of democracy.

Have I missed any obvious problems? Let me know in the comments or tweet me at @paul0evans1?

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