MAKING REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY REPRESENTATIVE


© 2018 Paul Charles Gregory

In most talk about democracy, fundamental distinctions are violated. For example, there is praise of democracy when what is meant is an open society, or liberty, or freedom of speech and the rule of law, or the division of powers and checks & balances, or a liberal culture. These things are related, but distinct. They are preconditions for democracy understood as a form of government, but they are not constitutive (i.e. not sufficient). Against this background, I argue that the word “democracy” should again be understood, as originally, to mean a specific method of decision-making in politics. And I propose a novel mechanism to this end. Before describing that mechanism, though, I explain the thinking behind it and the problems it is designed to resolve.
There are in any country decisions to be made on what infrastructure to build, what foreign and defence policy to pursue, how to design taxation, on legislation in matters of the inception and the end of life, and so on. Ideally these decisions would be taken on the basis of the dictate of reason, structurally similar to the way in which “truth” or “knowledge” is determined in the natural sciences. “Reason” falls short because citizens have conflicting values and priorities, but there is nonetheless often space for compromise such that decisions might be described as reasonable, or based on reason, or substantially consensual. Or, to take the negative formulation, at present, many decisions taken throughout the supposedly democratic world can only be described as unreasonable, poorly informed and non-consensual.
The assumption made here is that a deep democracy, as opposed to populism, generates, more reliably than other mechanisms, political decisions that are closest to what is reasonable, beneficial and just. Common criticisms of democracy are, I contend, criticisms of populism and other distortions of democracy. Such criticisms are easy to make in an unconstructive way. Here the case is made in an implicit way by presenting a superior model.
There is a separate philosophical argument for democracy, along human rights lines, as expressive of human dignity, which says that, even if another system, such as a paternalistic one, produced results that were more reasonable, beneficial and just, democracy would be ethically preferable because it upholds sovereignty and freedom. (As young adults may be granted the right to go their own way even if that way seems unwise.) The baseline contention here, though, is, simply, that, on the whole, democracy produces better governance. When governments make disastrous decisions, as opposed to easy-to-correct mistakes, often but not always the cause lies with a failure of democratic process.
One principle here is that, in a democracy, any citizen who wishes to must be able to register their opinion or perspective or preferred representative with at least some precision and without the effort of doing so being onerous. Clearly, our present democracies fail here grossly. If our vote is not to go wasted, we usually have a choice of two or three or four bundles of policies packaged by their relevant party. There is no pick and choose. In order to express support for one line in one policy area we are constrained to vote for other lines in other areas that we may completely reject. A party or politician gathers votes on one issue, some more on another issue, and yet more on others, depending on the focus of the individual voters, and then claims to have a majority and a mandate. In fact, the party may have only little support for each of its policies. People will have voted for different things.
It is mistakenly supposed that the aggregation of countless and changeable opinions, some well-informed, others not, some held passionately, others light-headedly, of countless millions of citizens necessitates reducing the choice to that of a few political parties or their leaders, or to left, centre and right. This was indeed the case in the twentieth century. Meanwhile times and technology have moved on.
I propose a disruptive model of representative democracy that obviates the need for political parties and party preselection of candidates. The scheme allows political parties to continue, but they would no longer have a monopoly of power. Think tanks would become stronger, being different to parties since they cannot discipline their adherents. I have called this disruptive model “Fuzzy Democracy”, adopting the word fuzzy from logic and informatics. An alternative word would be approximative.
Under the proposed scheme, citizens can vote by conviction and without recourse to tactical considerations, i.e. irrespective of how others might vote. No vote need go wasted, and one votes for any candidate wherever located. This mechanism also enables the unity of a country to be re-asserted, or lived. Fuzzy democracy is designed for any advanced country free from sectarianism. It enables any successful candidate to represent a personal (or virtual) constituency that is country-wide rather than being geographical. Fuzzy democracy is, therefore, also an antidote to nimbyism.
There would be thousands of candidates, each of whom would need to meet the usual criteria (i.e. personal endorsement by a few hundred voters and a modest cash deposit). Previously, this would have necessitated an unmanageably long ballot paper. Meanwhile we have computers with search algorithms. There would be obvious if expensive safeguards to ensure the transparency, secrecy and robustness of the electoral process at dedicated venues. No expense need be spared since the expense of poor government far exceeds any conceivable cost of electoral administration.
Election is by obtaining a set number of votes, whereby a candidate may receive proxy votes from elected candidates with surplus votes or by transfer from candidates who have fallen far short. This scheme generates representation without obvious falsification. Once a voter has cast his or her vote, the matter is out of their hands. The voter has had the freedom of choice from among thousands, and has expressed faith in the good judgement, political orientation and character of their preferred candidate to make proper use of their vote. There are no alternative votes or second choices. Ordinary voting should enable some precision, but it should not be so complicated as to discourage people from voting.
How does the voter find their way among the thousands of candidates? (Indeed, how, at a personal level, does anyone ever meet a future partner, this being far more complicated?) You might know a candidate, or of a candidate, through your line of work or your cultural interests, or from your time in education, or through engagement in civil society, and so on. You might alternatively identify like-minded individuals from among those standing through a think-tank, a political party, or you might know of them through the mass media on the strength of past political performance or achievements in other areas. Anyone with a passing interest in politics will probably know of several candidates they think sufficiently well of. You would check out several candidate websites, not thousands, and make a choice.
Apart from countering the widespread sentiment that our present electoral systems fail to be representative or seriously legitimate, at a philosophical level fuzzy democracy seeks to counter the concentration of power in just a few hands. Power is dispersed, and decisions emerge from a coalition of representatives addressing the matter concerned. I.e. the coalitions are ad-hoc.
There could a safeguard against the winner-takes-all phenomenon which is the bane of so much of contemporary life. To prevent any one celebrity candidate amassing too many votes and so being able, with this power of patronage, to handpick loyal backers and pack the assembly, there might be an upper limit on how many surplus votes any one candidate can obtain. Some voters would then have to be prepared with a second choice. The overriding principle here is the avoidance of excessive concentration of power.
The appointment of cabinet members or equivalent would be by election by the representatives much as already happens in some countries and with safeguards for stability such as dismissal only by a constructive (i.e. positive) vote for a replacement. This would reduce the power of prime ministers and presidents. Fuzzy democracy is consistent with the separation of the powers of executive and legislature.
Fuzzy democracy deflects the pressure for referenda and constitutes a powerful alternative to so-called direct democracy. Indeed, its implicit criticism of our present systems is that these amount, in practice, to plebiscites every few years about which party or parties, or which individuals, may continue in power or assume temporary and limited dictatorship. Fuzzy democracy is the alternative to the popular idea of direct democracy and its well-known defects: There are disputes about how any referendum question is to be formulated. The choices are always binary, and so needlessly divisive. There are too many issues to be decided (we’d have to be voting full-time daily). And in most countries people do not have the maturity to vote on the issue put before them – they typically see a referendum in terms of support for or rejection of specific personalities or parties. Not even the Swiss have direct democracy – they have representative democracy with a strong direct component and an exceptionally mature electorate.
Over the years and in different countries, various arrangements have been made to remedy the obvious defects of traditional electoral systems. There is proportional representation, which assumes representation must always be filtered by political parties. There are alternative vote systems, and schemes with two rounds of voting. These were defensible second-best mechanisms in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, we have smart phones, yet our democratic structures are still shaped much as in the era of the first steam locomotives. From energy generation through to information processing, from medicine to transport, everyone – but everyone – in industry, business and society has moved on. Except those holding or seeking political power.
Fuzzy democracy is directed against the tyranny of majorities since it enables minority opinions to be heard. A candidate with idiosyncratic or original ideas can win enough support to be elected even if his or her ideas are out of step with or else well ahead of their time. No candidate need be nice to all and sundry, or spend time and energy canvassing for votes beyond the number prescribed for election. Each candidate could be his or her own man and would pander to no-one.
It might be objected that fuzzy democracy would be too complicated for many people, leading to low turnouts and so making parliaments less representative. But people would still be at liberty to follow the electoral advice of their chosen political party, which could recommend a local candidate much as happens now. Apart from this, though, there is no good reason to regard high turnout as desirable. Better surely that those who go to vote should be well-informed and motivated, than that their sincerely held voice should be drowned out by ignorant others who regard, or are encouraged to regard, the electoral process as a kind of beauty parade.
Here it is instructive, epistemologically, to compare the way in which a consensus is arrived at in matters of scientific truth. In the natural sciences, there is no popular vote (in formal terms, there is not one man, one vote) to establish a hypothesis. There is an informal hierarchy whereby those who are acknowledged to be better informed are accorded more credence than those whose knowledge is rudimentary. Opinions and judgements are filtered. In fuzzy democracy the process itself must needs be formal, but otherwise there are similarities of structure. Decision-making power is vested ultimately in those whose judgement in general and knowledge of the matters concerned are widely trusted.
Apart from fuzzy democracy as a method for electing representatives, there is a need for separate assemblies for the several grand areas of political decision-making. It is preposterous to have a single parliament, representative or party to cover matters as diverse as high finance, taxation, defence & foreign affairs, education, health, social security, employment law, the administration of justice, infrastructure, plus so-called ethical issues. The number of assemblies would need to be kept manageable, and there would be some overlap, which could easily be accommodated by joint stewardship or appeal to a senior chamber. To avoid elections becoming too frequent and so burdensome, the duration of the assemblies could be longer at present. This would also encourage better decisions for the long term.
A start would be made, least controversially, by demanding the creation of separate assemblies to address “ethical” issues, these encompassing not only matters around the inception and end of life but also our treatment of animals, the availability of recreational drugs and the scope of parental rights. Starting here would largely avoid the trap of the left-right divide. This base would enable the principle of fuzzy democracy to become familiar and, eventually, widespread.