Post No.: 0147
A direct democracy (or pure democracy) is a form of democracy where citizens directly vote to decide on political matters, as opposed to electing representatives who in turn decide on political matters on the population’s behalf (as in the case of a representative democracy). It’s a little bit like always employing referenda (or referendums) to decide upon local and/or national political matters such as laws.
Direct democracies are good because there is no centralisation of power, everyone has a more direct say in matters (rather than relying on representatives to speak on their behalf and constantly checking if they’re properly doing so), and since everyone (who has a vote) has a direct say then all backgrounds should be proportionally represented too.
So why, in the natural selection of cultural memes, aren’t direct democracies more popular across the world? Why are elected representative democracies the far more fit and dominant form of democracy across the world instead? (Not that ‘more fit or dominant’ necessarily means ‘right’.)
A system of publicly-elected representatives is more often desired because the vast majority of citizens don’t want to spend their day-to-day lives part-time running a country – we’d rather (arguably rationally) empower a few individuals to do all that hard work on our behalf so that we can do what we really want to do with our days or evenings instead. Running a country is typically complicated and specialist work in this modern world too (e.g. being a health or education secretary and understanding the ins-and-outs of running an advanced healthcare or education system) so there’s an epistemic justification for employing specialists who will (or should) focus and dedicate their time on a specialty to do a more competent job than part-timers could do, and who are then also directly accountable for their area of responsibility too.
For being full-time dedicated to the task, they’re generally better informed and can also see issues holistically rather than piecemeal – for seeing the fuller picture, they can weigh out trade-offs, balance competing public interests, prioritise certain furry issues over others and take into account budget limitations (too frequently, the public just collectively demands everything without considering enough the practical and/or budgetary constraints of what they demand from a finite pool of public funds; and most people don’t want to pay more in taxes to increase this pool of public funds either!) But then there’s therefore a strong argument that politicians should not have any or too many secondary employments whilst they are Members of Parliament (or equivalent) so that they can concentrate on serving the public and their speciality (this may then arguably call for a slight increase to their salaries?) There are arguments against this though, including that second jobs prevent ‘career politicians’ and give them experience of other, real-world, employment.
There’s also less bureaucracy in representative democracies in the sense that urgent decisions don’t require the organisation of the entire population to get together and discuss a course of action first before acting, especially when an emergency is calling for expediency. And confidential information (including national secrets) is more easily kept confidential rather than needing to be disclosed to the entire population for their consideration in a way that won’t disclose it to the rest of the world too.
Direct democracies have drawbacks and difficulties in other ways too. For example, like elected representative democracies, they too suffer from the influence of those with powerful financial interests, such as in the form of propaganda (e.g. false claims or promises to the public) and threats (e.g. corporations threatening to take their jobs elsewhere if they don’t get their way). Those in the general population are as suggestible as anyone else, or arguably more so for their general lack of expertise.
What people want and what people choose, or what people choose and what’s best for them, don’t always align too (e.g. many people want to eat a lot of junk food yet don’t want to be obese and sustain diseases caused by obesity) so paternalism can have benefits for society – but if politicians try to do what they think is in the public’s interests but the public disagree then it’s strongly arguably up to the politicians to convince the public of what they think is the best solution.
There is apparently a lot of research documenting the extent of the ignorance of the general public on matters of politics, economics, sociology and law – if a problem is information-intensive and complex (and most political, economic, social and legal problems at the national, international and often even local level are) then the ignorance of the general public tends to be even worse. Many citizens hold very strong political opinions despite knowing so little (or really, many citizens hold very strong political opinions precisely because of knowing so little, because the less of something one understands, the simpler and more black-or-white it seems, which leads to strong and oversimplistic views).
People frequently query what’s going on or why some negotiations are taking so long in Parliament, as if MPs are keeping secrets or doing nothing – yet these people haven’t checked out the Hansard (UK Parliament) or at least followed the news in detail (i.e. not just the headlines and summaries). This kind of information is all freely accessible and online in the public domain, for citizens in countries like the UK at least, but people generally don’t want to do a lot of reading or watching of what’s happening in politics. They’re interested, but most don’t have the time or are too lazy (yet nonetheless aren’t short of vehement views).
The epistemic incompetence of clueless voters likely skews results – hence why compulsory voting, which is highly controversial, has its problems, unless maybe if there’s a ‘no candidate/no preference’ option. (Forcing people to vote would also be against individual liberty.) We’re sometimes looking for the best decisions, not the average decisions, thus any errors, even with large population sizes, don’t cancel out in these cases – counting the votes of clueless laypeople only, on aggregate, drags the consensus away from the most informed decision. Although in many situations a compromise is the best solution, a compromise isn’t always the best solution because rather than be good for everybody, it can be good for nobody.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion but that doesn’t make every opinion a well-informed one. Of course, many elected representatives have been found to be totally clueless too! But one could point out that they’ve either been directly elected by people who were clueless about their cluelessness, or selected into cabinet positions by people who were directly elected themselves.
Some members of the public also have a bad habit of using referenda as opportunities to demonstrate their general dissatisfaction with the current government or some other grievance, rather than purely and solely confining their deliberations to the referendum question put forward to them (i.e. ‘protest votes’). A good number of citizens will spite the current government (and therefore maybe their own country) to make a statement about something that has little or nothing to do with the question put before them. Many intend to only scare the government with a close result but sometimes their protest option actually wins.
There are therefore huge pragmatic reasons for using elected representatives over a direct democracy. But whether arguably better outcomes or pragmatism should take priority over arguably morally better procedures or principles is debateable. In the main, citizens in representative democracies accept the trade-offs between this pragmatism and having a direct say in political matters, as long as we have a direct say in who represent us. Certainly, many democracies use a combination of representatives and referenda (direct votes), initiatives (petitions to force a public vote) and recalls (the ability to force any representative out of office at any time via a public vote) whenever or wherever they see fit. Woof!
Whatever the reasons for direct democracies being a relative rarity in the world – like economic markets deciding what’s popular and what’s not – ‘political markets’ or polities around the world have evidently overwhelmingly decided or accepted that direct democracies aren’t that fit; at least for the foreseeable meantime. Maybe most people don’t care enough about politics? But then they’ll get whatever they’re given and they’ll have no one else to blame. Maybe most people would really rather other people make and enforce the rules they live by?
Maybe a lot of people prefer to continue as mere armchair critics – to criticise others instead of being the ones who’ll be directly accountable for any decisions? (Then again, even undesirable referenda results are blamed on politicians! Did they mislead voters or are voters easily misled?) Or maybe many people just simply don’t know that there could be other forms of democracy (thus further highlighting their general lack of epistemic capability regarding politics)? Whatever the reasons, people around the world are not voting with their words, actions and feet for more direct democracies.
And it is indeed ironic and irrational that the more some groups feel that their current government isn’t working for them, the less they’ll feel like voting or getting actively involved in political concerns. How will the political market forces correct if so? Why should politicians supply you what you seek if you are not making demands? It may be a long, multi-generational road but get it started/keep it going. Whether in a direct or representative democracy, or any other form of governance – these are precisely the sorts of people who must become more active in promoting what matters to them, not less.
Individually your voices may be hushed but collectively you shall be thunderous.