Lessons and Visions of Direct Democracy

Lot of people question the very idea of direct democracy. The dysfunction of the democratic decision making processes in the western world seems to prove them right. And to ask all people to vote on ever more complicated or delicate issues seems ill advised. To make a good case for this thinking they often hint at two decisions of the Swiss people in the recent past: the vote to curb immigration and the vote to ban minarets. Direct democracy seems to be prone to populism and group egoism. The relevant question, however, is whether there are better alternatives we know. And whether the results of direct democracy are not superior to all other models.

Alternatives to direct democracy

There are mainly two alternatives seen in how we organize the political decision making process: representative democracy or strong leadership.

In a representative democracy, a small and representatively elected group of people is trusted with and dedicated to the task of thinking through relevant issues and decide in the best interest of the governed people. They take away this burden and responsibility from the people, who have not the time or the intellectual capacity or both to make up their minds properly.

As we see more and more dysfunction, the pursuit of particular interests, and lobbyism/corruption in the decision making processes of representative democracies (see for example the paralysis in the US), successful examples of strong leadership are seen as a viable alternative: For example the successful leadership of the founding father of Singapore Lee Kwan Yew or the massive economic success of the «directed and strictly merit based democracy» in China. It would be a mess if China would become a truly democratic state – and surely not governable.

The benevolent dictator

The best system one can imagine is that of a benevolent and omnipotent dictator. Lots of systems are built up on this concept: teachers in schools, bosses in companies, priests in churches, conductors in orchestras, royals in kingdoms. They are all following on the positive role model of parents in a family. Parents are omnipotent and benevolent – in most of the cases. And for the relatively rare cases something is really going wrong, there are social correction mechanisms: Withdrawal of the parental custody – and more generally speaking: the removal of the dictator, as late as the deviation from the path of benevolence is too grave to be endured by most of the people. Or running away, if possible. Some countries do not allow their people to leave and build walls around them – a strong indicator of what’s going wrong. In companies, people just leave their managers.

But if you have a closer look at all these systems except of family, where only a few people linked by family bonds are governed, dictatorship is limited to a few years, revolution almost always occurs at teenage age, and in the end dependency inverts, then we get another picture. In the long run even the most benevolent dictator gets misled by his power, gets used to exercising his decisions without contradiction – especially if it is absolute power like being a king or a strong and undisputed leader. And even if one leader is blessed with not being misled by his power, his surrounding gets corrupt by being near the absolute power and next generations at latest get corrupt. We have seen it all the way in the history of states, companies, churches, etc. And it always takes very long and is very costly/bloody to correct the unavoidably misguided development.

The knowledgeable and unselfish representative

Looking at how our representative democracies work throughout the western world, at how satisfied the represented constituencies are and at how those systems are able to cope with the real challenges of today and the future, it seems to be clear, that they don’t work anymore and need significant reforms. The question is, if the very concept of a representative democracy could still work in our times. It gives much too much power in the hands of much too less people, who are corrupted by big money lobbyists and particular interests. Our societies and areas of government have grown so big, that there is a total disconnect between representatives and the represented people. Politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and pollsters all live and act in a very closed and detached community.

Additionally to not being unselfish and not working in the best interest of the whole society – if it would be known, the concept of knowledgeable matter experts does not stand any test anymore. Looking at what profiles flock to politics and of how complex and divers relevant matters became, we are right to assume that our representative politicians could not be capable of deciding all these issues properly, even if they wanted. They rely more and more purely on external experts, consultants, lobbyists, and pollsters who themselves are not democratically legitimated at all.

Direct democracy as the only logical development

We see the rise of power of people and the loss of power of elites everywhere – and it works. Be it gathering and distributing knowledge (Wikipedia), filming and broadcasting news (Youtube), finding and booking hotels (Tripadvisor), selling and buying used goods (eBay), finding and promoting business partners (LinkedIn), investing and getting funded with Start-ups (Kickstarter) – and it just has begun. We will see this in more and more industries and areas of living.

The question to what it boils down in the end is the following: Do I prefer to live in a society where in the worst case a few incompetent and corrupt representatives decide – guided by lobbyists? Or do I prefer to live in a society where in the worst case an undisputed, detached and omnipotent leader with a corrupt surrounding decides? Or do I prefer to live in a society where all people are able to decide – with surely all the worst and best cases assembled?

Cases of critics and why they are solved best

The two examples mentioned above about the Swiss votes on controversial topics are the best showcases, why the system of direct democracy works best. In almost all other countries of Europe, the same plebiscite would have resulted in similar results.

Most critics argue therefore, that this is the best example, why you should not let people vote on all topics. There are topics normal people should not be allowed to vote on – only mature and knowledgeable people. But these «mature and knowledgeable» people most of the time belong to a very privileged group that does not feel the same problems normal people do.

Let’s compare how different political systems solve these issues. In Austria, where I am from, people feel the same resentments against immigrants. They have to send their children to public primary schools, where a significant part of pupils does not speak the country’s official language. They live in neighborhoods, where the majority of inhabitants are immigrants and social problems occur. The political class does not address and solve these problems. They simply put critics in the corner of racists and ignore the problems as non-existent. And they let radical political parties gain strength, because they at least address these problems – even though they do not present workable solutions. In the system of a representative democracy, these radical parties gain strengths till they are able to influence the political decision process. And then they are even involved in other political decisions, even their voters would not have wanted them to decide.

In Switzerland with its direct democracy, plebiscites serve as a topic-specific wake-up call to the neglecting governing class and certain organizations. After the vote banning the building of minarets even Islamic organizations in Switzerland went public and said that they have not done enough to explain moderate Islam and to propose solutions to tame extremism. Switzerland has a long history of mostly religious or cultural plebiscites that first led to intolerant results. After working and solving the underlying problems, the next vote on the same topic resulted in reversing these intolerant results. (See also my post «The Good of the Swiss Vote on Minaret Building»)

If people are trusted to decide, they will vote responsibly. In Switzerland people voted against extending mandatory holidays from 4 to 6 weeks. They voted to increase the value added tax to fund the retirement system. They voted to build a massive and hugely expensive train tunnel through the Alps to protect environment. These are all examples where politicians in other countries think they would not get these results because people are too narrow minded, too egoistic or do not thinking big enough.

Imaging the future of direct democracy

Direct democracy is not meant to be leadership-less. It does not mean that all people have to think through all topics. And it does not mean that all topics have to be decided by all people. Imagine a direct democracy as being the agile synthesis of all three models.

There have to be strong leaders for each of these topics. If it is about genetic technology, then there will be genetic technologists and their critics that lead the public opinion making process. If it is about medical systems, there will be doctors, insurance companies and consumer advocates that lead the public opinion making process. And of course, there will be political parties that try to influence the decision making process according to the interests of their particular constituencies.

As a citizen, I can decide whether this topic is relevant enough for me to take part in the decision process at all. And if it is relevant enough for me, I can decide to trust a specific political party (for topic X it is political party A, for topic Y it is political party B) and vote following their recommendations. Or I can decide to trust a specific organization or a specific person (for topic X Mr A, for topic Y Ms B). Or I can decide to make up my mind myself by consulting different sources.

If there is a topic that I am knowledgeable about and even care enough, I can decide to be a temporary leader and take up responsibility. I can try to make the case for my point of view and to convince others to be led by me in this matter. There are actually enough platforms that help to promote opinions even for normal people. And in the future, there will be better ways to organize this process.

Furthermore it’s not the idea that all topics have to be decided by all people all the time. There are representatives elected to legislate and govern. But each and every decision has to be transparent. For each and every decision there has to be the possibility to conduct a referendum, if enough people sign a petition asking for. And there has to be the right to initiate a legislation process, if enough people sign a petition asking for. This way, voters don’t have to give away their vote for a long legislation period. And they don’t have to give their vote always to the same political party for whatever topic. You can decide every time, if and whom and how. That grounds politicians to the real will of the people. And that’s the direction we have to reform our political systems (and our companies as well).

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