The future of democracy

by Brian Beedham – The Economist 6/17/95

by Brian Beedham – The Economist 6/17/95

HERE is the nightmare. A country, having succumbed to the lure of electronic democracy, and duly wired its voters into the Internet, decides that it will henceforth make its laws by letting anybody who so desires send a proposal into the information highway, after which every adult citizen will be invited to vote on these ideas, each Saturday evening. On Friday night a race riot in, say, Bradford–or Buffalo or Beziers or Boohum–kills half a dozen white people. The Internet hums, the e-mail crackles. Zap comes next day’s empurpled answer: out with all Pakistanis/Hispanics/Algerians/Turks.

[Electronic voting need not be "instant". It can follow prescribed rules for deliberation. The US Congress has had electronic voting for 2 decades, and nobody says this has made them move too fast. – editor] And here is the rose-tinted dream. The people’s elected representatives, having yet again failed to balance the budget, suddenly realise that the sensible thing to do is to put the problem to the people themselves. All the various possibilities are electronically presented to the voters. The voters express their assorted preferences. The contradictions in their answers are laid out for their further examination. They vote again. After a couple of months or so of furrowed-brow button-pressing, bingo, a budget virtuously balanced to the majority’s satisfaction.

Neither nightmare nor dream is likely to become reality. Most ordinary men and women are probably not foolish enough to risk the first or technologically arrogant enough to believe they can manage the second. Yet between these extremes of what technology might do to politics lies some fascinating new territory, well worth exploring.

The great electronic leap forward of the 1990s (see pages 21-23) is clearly going to make it even harder for the machinery of democracy to remain in its present steam-engine stage. For the past couple of centuries–except in Switzerland, and to some extent recently in Australia and parts of the United States–democracy has meant a system by which the people vote every few years to elect a handful of representatives, who in between these elections take all the important decisions. For two reasons, this sort of democracy may no longer be sufficient. Something more direct, more fully democratic, may have to be more universally attempted – decisions by vote of the whole people:

Anti-deference, anti-lobbyist

  1. Reason number one is that the gap between ordinary people and parliamentarians is far narrower now than it was in Edmund Burke’s days, and indeed for a long time after Burke. During the 20th century, most people in the democracies have become much better educated than they used to be, and much richer, and have more spare time in which to think about what goes on around them. Above all, they are on the whole a great deal better informed. First books and newspapers, then the radio, then television and now the artillery of the Internet bombard them with ideas, facts and figures. They are regularly asked what their opinion is about important matters, and their representatives in parliament know they had better pay attention to what the opinion polls report.

    This is probably the chief explanation of why politicians are currently in such bad odour in so much of the democratic world. It is not just that, as is often said, government has failed to provide what the people want. Governments have failed in some countries; in others they are doing their job with reasonable efficiency. The point is that, everywhere, ordinary people are now in a better position to examine what their representatives are up to, observe their errors, smirk or snarl about their sexual and financial peccadillos, and wonder whether it is really a good idea to let such a collection do so much of the business of politics. The people are no longer so ready to proffer the deference their representatives used to expect — and too often still do.

  2. The second reason for taking a serious look at direct democracy is that it may be better than the parliamentary sort at coping with one of the chief weaknesses of late-20th-century democracy. This is democracy’s vulnerability to lobbyists. In the relatively humdrum, de-ideologised politics of post-communist days, the lobbyist is getting even more powerful than he used to be; and democrats are right to be worried.

    There is in principle nothing wrong with lobbying; the people who take decisions, in any field, should be the target of as much argument and persuasion as possible. Lobbying goes wrong when special interests use their money to cross the line between persuading politicians and buying them. In dealing with a relative handful of elected politicians, the lobbyist has many ways of doing that, ranging from "entertainment" to the straight insertion of cash into the parliamentarian’s pocket or the legal pouring of millions into the coffers of American politicians’ campaign funds. When the lobbyist faces an entire electorate, on the other hand, bribery and vote-buying are virtually impossible. Nobody has enough money to bribe everybody.

    It is true that rich propagandists, even though they cannot bribe the mass of voters, can gull them into taking foolish decisions. Silvio Berlusconi did it in Italy last Sunday (see page 51). It has happened, spectacularly, more than once in California. But the nervous can take heart from the record of Switzerland, which has long put most of its big decisions to the vote of the whole people. The Swiss have developed an admirable ability to resist the blandishments of both Big Money and cheap emotion. In particular, the fear that special interests will use direct democracy to get themselves budget-busting goodies should be eased by the fact that Switzerland has not only a tolerable budget deficit but also one of the rich world’s smaller public debts. Unless you believe that God designed the Swiss differently from everybody else, it is hard to argue that only they can do these things. The Swiss have just had more practice.

    If other countries want to move deeper into direct democracy, they should note how it is best done. Some subjects are more amenable than others to the whole-people vote. Great constitutional issues ("Do you want your country to be part of a federal Europe?") and specific local decisions ("Shall we expand the town’s hospital or its high school this year?") fall more naturally into this category than arcane financial measures, some of which even the Swiss treat with care. And a solid list of signatures should be needed to bring any subject to the vote.

    Nothing unconstitutional can of course be laid before the people, though the people can change the constitution if they wish. It is necessary to vote fairly frequently–the Swiss trudge to the polls four times a year–if the voters are to do their task properly (which includes learning how to spot what the selfish propagandist is up to, and correcting the voters’ own earlier mistakes without too much delay). Above all, trudging to vote is far better than just prodding a button, because it gives you more time to think. The new electronics is an excellent way of putting more information at the voters’ disposal, but it is not the best way for those voters to express the conclusion they come to. Much better, having digested the arguments for and against, that they should walk calmly to the polling station.

    [We’ve already abandoned this bucholic fantasy with mail balloting, with no apparent degradation of the process. -editor]

Done with care, direct democracy works. The more political responsibility ordinary people are given, the more responsibly most of them will vote. This helps to produce something closer to true government by the people. And that, after all, is the way the logic of the 20th century points. If democrats have spent much of the century telling fascists and communists that they ought to trust the people, can democrats now tell the people themselves that this trust operates only once every few years?