Why Not All Votes Should Be Equal
A thought experiment on the practicalities of direct democracy
The idea of having a democracy without elected representatives would have, just years ago, seemed to be a contradiction in terms.
Yet the first incarnation of democracy, in the city-states of Ancient Greece over 2000 years ago, had no real necessity for political conduits.
Theirs was a direct democracy; a system in which individual citizens had full sovereignty over their own political engagement.
Of course, few were actually considered citizens, and therefore, the means of organising such a political society was not all too complicated.
As populations grew, so did the need for more practical, less direct forms of democratic engagement.
The British parliamentary model was certainly the first formalised version of a system that allowed citizens to lend their sovereignty to a representative, rather than engage fully themselves.
There are elements of direct democracy included, of course — referendums, petitions, protest, etcetera. — but the bulk of political interaction in the UK, and the rest of the Western world is through representative, not direct, democracy.
In states with populations of multiple millions, such a model inherently makes sense.
Yet, such a model is ripe for abuse and misuse.
As soon as sovereignty is stripped from the individual, even in the form of lending the vote to a representative, that sovereignty can be pooled, coerced and misappropriated in ways in which individual sovereignty cannot.
For the last 400 or so years, we have had no option but to accept this method, this model, flaws and all, because the sheer complexity of an alternative — a system in which 70 million people or 300 million people or 7 billion people each had individual political agency — was unfathomable.
That is no longer the case.
We are now on the precipice of a technological era that could allow individuals to reclaim their own political sovereignty.
Any concerns around the security or viability of such a system are political, rather than functional.
We could rid ourselves of the political class entirely, to be replaced by a technocratic civil service whose function is to enact the wishes of the electorate.
There is, however, one key issue with any form of direct democracy (or any democracy, really) and that is, a lack of knowledge, education or information within a state’s citizenry, and as a result, a lack of truly considered political deliberation.
It is not enough to simply vote on an issue, a token gesture. To be a true political being, with autonomy and sovereignty, one must grapple with the issue and become informed.
Of course, it for this very reason representative democracy exists — in theory, to make up the shortfall of knowledge and will within the general populace, by allowing a conduit to act on your behalf, giving them tacit and explicit consent via a vote.
The problem arises when the conduit is no better informed (or in some rare cases less politically willing) than those they are meant to represent.
This information-deficit and anti-intellectual bias — certainly in British politics, the “we’ve had enough of experts” rhetoric — means that our representative democracy is no more deliberative than would be any direct democracy.
Brexit (we were always going to come to the topic eventually, I’m afraid) is the praxis, the pure definition and culmination of the weaknesses and failures of both the political class (our representative democracy) and the public (direct democracy).
A failure to engage with information, be willing to listen to experts, understand the issue in depth.
If then, Brexit was a failure of both representative and direct democracy, why would anyone advocate a full adoption of direct democracy? If the citizenry can’t be trusted to inform themselves on one ‘simple’ issue, how on earth can they be expected to inform themselves on the full gamete of political issues required to be a fully engaged, sovereign individual?
The answer lies in a fundamental misattributing of political sovereignty, something that goes all the way back to Plato: one man, one vote.
Some peoples’ votes should be worth more than others’.
Admit it, you winced at that statement. Inherently, that feels like an elitist, if not borderline Fascist, assertion. To suggest anything other than pure equality in terms of political capital per individual seems quite unpleasant, certainly for anyone left of centre.
But what if it could be calculated precisely?
Imagine that instead of money, society was run on political engagement.
Let’s say we provide a baseline — universal basic income of both knowledge and capital — then anyone who seeks to go beyond that can gain in both.
Everyone is given a political sovereignty score of 1 each month, as of the age of 16 (or 18 if you’re a prude).
A 1 is the basis. The average. With a 1, your life is just about comfortable enough. You could survive.
But by engaging in the political process, your vote political sovereignty score increases.
Read a report on homelessness — +0.01
Get involved in the administrative duties of local government — +0.05
Vote on a local issue — +0.005
Vote on a national issue — +0.02
Instead of currency, our political capital becomes our exchange mechanism.
Want to buy some groceries? That’ll cost you 0.02 sovereignty.
Want a new car? that’s 1.3 sovereignty. Better get informed and engaged to save up for it!
Set a cap per person. No one can go beyond a certain threshold. Once that threshold is hit, the sovereignty is pooled and divided out into the community.
As importantly, though it is used as currency, it is also used to denote and quantify actual sovereignty.
A person with 1.9 sovereignty can vote on an issue and be weighted 1.9 times that of a person with just 1. That means for the purposes of rational self-interest, you would want to increase your sovereignty — just like in a capitalist economy you seek to increase your capital.
The more sovereignty you have, the more your vote towards what you want/need will count.
Each month, your sovereignty resets to 1 plus a small positive weighting increase for each month you’ve hit a certain threshold (say 1.5).
Combining the concepts of UBI, game theory and gamification, (using algorithms for the numerics and blockchain or similar for the security) you create an entirely new type of economy — a political one.
It may sound complex, weird or even entirely unfeasible, but the reality is we’re already engaging in such a model: it’s just that we use capital as an additional step. Because ultimately, capital ≈ sovereignty.
Individuals and corporations with billions of dollars, lobbying US senators, have far more political sovereignty than Joe Bloggs paying his taxes each year.
This method just skips the middle man of monetary currency but also curtails the excesses of a capitalist economy.
Perhaps in the future, your vote will matter more than mine.
And, you know what? That will be a good thing.
Jackson Rawlings is a political philosopher, writer and thinker with some big ideas about how we can change the world for the better.