The election circus has packed up and left town, as we all direct our gossip glands away from the carnies and back to the Hollywood tabloids for another three years. But in three years, elections will still suck. I want to ask: do we still need elections at all?
Direct vs indirect democracy
The form of democracy we are accustomed to is known as a representative, or indirect democracy. A small subset of the population are elected to represent the larger community. Our population of 22,000,000 people elected 150 people to go and make decisions on our behalf in the House of Representatives.
The other form of democracy is pure, or direct democracy, where each citizen votes directly on each decision. This is the system Athens had, back when Socrates, Plato and Aristotle hung out.
A ‘new way’ that’s 2,500 years old
Ancient Athenian democracy allowed all citizens a direct vote on the policies of the state. This was not like holding referendums on special occasions, such as our vote on the republic in 1999. All policy decisions were directly determined by the citizens. Granted, they only counted adult men as citizens, and excluded slaves and immigrants, but it was still 30,000 people out of a total population of 250,000.
And they didn’t just have an OK Gross Domestic Product. They invented things like philosophy, mathematics, physics and biology, and flourished as the “cradle of Western civilisation”. Maybe they were on to something.
So why do we have a representative democracy? There are three key arguments.
1 – The ‘too hard’ basket
The first and most basic argument against direct democracy is that it would be too complex and time-consuming to let so many people vote on every little thing.
Hang on. The current political system is failing to provide adequate communications infrastructure, so we should keep it around?
The technology exists now. Australia has been voting people off Big Brother on a weekly basis for twelve years – what now seems like aeons before smart-phones and broadband. This problem is now solved, and we should be re-assessing our limitations.
2 – The blame game
The second argument against direct democracy is that, with so many votes, the impact of each vote becomes negligible. Individuals feel their vote is worthless, and they become detached from the consequences of their decisions.
However, I don’t see how the recent election was immune to this same criticism. Donkey votes happen enough that we have a name for them. The difference is that we’re only voting every three years.
What a representative democracy allows us to do, to our own detriment, is nominate someone to blame. Citizens can blame the representative for being a fool; and the representative can blame their predecessor, the opposition, or the media for their mistakes. Having a representative helps us detach from the consequences of our decisions.
3 – The elitists
The third, and strongest, argument to keep a representative democracy is that large portions of the population are not fit to grasp what’s truly in their own best interests. They are not virtuous or educated enough to make good and wise choices for themselves, let alone everyone else.
I could use the same rebuttal as I had for the first argument, and point out that if the current system has failed to provide adequate education, this is not a good reason to keep it. But I think there is a deeper problem.
Do you honestly want to empower people who inform themselves with TV Week; or throw their rubbish out the car window; or run across busy roads with prams; or spike people’s drinks? If you think these people are on a level playing field and should have as much say as everyone else, I don’t want you in charge either.
However, when deciding who makes the cut, consider the level of education our ancestors received. According to the ‘Flynn effect‘, IQ levels rise over time. A person with average intelligence now would get a genius score on an IQ test if they travelled a hundred years into the past. Bear in mind how long ago Athens was using direct democracy. If the people from the past were fit for government, even our most lacklustre performers should be absolutely caning it, right?
Not necessarily. As the world gets continuously more complex, we adapt. Today’s world has more factors to govern than the ancient world did. It makes sense that standards for leadership remain always ahead of a shifting average.
The horizon moves as we move, always out of reach from the majority. The big question, then, is can our current system of government move as fast as this? Will they remain our best and brightest, no matter how far and fast the population at large progresses? Or is there some point we reach where their response time will slow us down? Are we reaching that point now?
Politicians should be working to make themselves obsolete
Lifting the standards of education and virtue to a point where we can self govern would be a tremendous, but fatal, accomplishment for the politicians. They are not motivated to put themselves out of a job. If we leave it up to them, we will never get there.
A practical, short term compromise
The old solution would be to have a guess at how things could be better, write some pamphlets about it, then overthrow the government with violent revolution. Now, we can create free and open source software prototypes, and test out different models as we collect empirical data.
The population could record what their votes would have been for the next few years, and compare it to how the politicians actually behave, and what the consequences were for those decisions. At the very least, we end up with a powerful polling tool that the representatives will have to listen to, if it’s used by enough people.
Where to from here?
It is impossible to sketch out a detailed solution here – though watch this space.
If you’re interested in developing a prototype, please contact me.
If you’re interested in options and discussion already on the table, check out: