Monday, 17 December 2012

On Modern Democracy

Lately, I had the opportunity to attend a symposium on democracy, economics and ethics. While there, one of the orators spoke about how democracy had changed over the years and the ideas different philosophers, politicians or even economists had concerning it. In his conclusion, what struck me with great amazement was his lack of any alternatives or optimism on the future of what is generally perceived as the greater of all other forms of governance. The question that we have not seen anyone address is: What are the problems of representative democracy and what can we do about them?

To begin with, a representative democracy is founded on the principle of elected people representing a group of persons, as opposed to direct democracy in which people vote on policy initiatives directly. Now, although the latter would appear to be much better than the former, this would only occur in theory. In practice imagine that every person in every country would have to learn everything about every law, article or paragraph, each time a new law or an amendment to one was going to be passed. What would happen would be a state of sciolism: the quality of showing opinions on at least one subject of which the perpetrator has little or no knowledge, the practice of this, an instance of the practice of this. (definition by Wiktionary). You may only imagine the consequences of such practices. 

A common argument in favour of direct democracy would be that since they had done it in ancient Athens, with the notable example of Pericles, it can be done again. And since the internet would allow us to participate or vote in a subject without having to enter crowded rooms, this issue would also be resolved. Now one issue of internet voting would be the ability of the state to maintain secret ballots. Internet crime is very high during these time, and the state would have to select excellent system administrators of the e-election system so that no manipulation occurs. Nevertheless, if an impenetrable system would be devised, then that might be a good alternative to voting.

The development of such a system, would not necessarily mean that direct democracy is a great idea. One would remind the reader of the great mistakes the Athenian democracy had done like the execution of Socrates, the ostracism of Aristides or the wars against Sparta and other Greek city-states. Unfortunately, when many people are to cast an opinion on something, sciolism is almost always the consequence.

Obviously, no-one would dare to accuse people of sciolism in modern day societies, where a person has to work at least 8 hours per day, and there are indeed times where we would require more than 24 hours in a day just to be able to handle everything. A citizen in ancient times had all the time in the world to discuss and argue about state affairs just because he had slaves doing all the work for them (oh, and you had to be over 30 and male as well to be allowed vote). Now, imagine a working single mother, having to wake up at 07:00 to be at work at 08:00, drop her child at school, work until 17:00 or 18:00, return home, pick up her child from school, cook, shop for groceries, take care of the house and spend some time with her child; she will obviously be dead tired by 22:00 or 23:00 o'clock and at which time nobody would blame her if she had no appetite to read complicated laws which would demand her full attention. One may think of many examples like this one, and in our time, the reason we still choose to elect representatives is for them to do what we cannot. That is keep track with every development in both native and world affairs and have an opinion on it. And that is what they should be getting paid for.

In essence, representative democracy is, in a broad sense, a form of a technocracy; the latter signifying a form of government in which experts in technology would be in control of all decision making. The word has also been used to indicate any kind of management or administration by specialized experts ('technocrats') in any field (for example, the non-elected Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti is considered a technocrat, as are the Troika representatives visiting a country requesting a bail-out). Although it may sound as a good idea that a group of knowledgeable people to control power in a state, instead of politicians, a real-life application may prove otherwise.

The main problem with technocratic systems is that the leaders are not being democratically elected.This would lead to some sort of aristocratic or oligarchic system of governance where the people in power would not be willing to step off and they would be in full control of who would rise to power and who will be edged off. People in power are 99% of the time unwilling to let go of that power. We have witnessed in soviet Russia before its collapse, and the results were anything but spectacular. In addition, defining intelligence would be a difficult task: would a high IQ suffice, or would we require more than that? How about an ability to forecast consequences, or to understand diplomacy, politics and law? How can we measure someone's ability to make proper decisions? A high IQ person does not necessarily make a good politician or decision-maker. Many examples of academics who have failed in the real world can be found (for an economic-wise example have a look at the story of the story of the LTCM Fund).

As we have so far seen technocracy and direct democracy cannot function in real life as their consequences would be too adverse. This statement should at least hold under the current state of affairs; if the situation changes then the statement should also change. This would leave us with the only functional form of democracy in real-life: representative democracy. 

As with all other forms of governance, representative democracy also comes with several caveats: by giving the representatives the power to pass laws or proceed with other decisions, we are essentially granting them with powers over us. Powers, which if used correctly can promote the greater good and if abused they can be the cause of great pains to citizens. Thus, the purpose of a correct form of governance would be to find a way to prevent politicians from abusing their power. How can this occur one may ask if the representatives are allowed to pass laws even concerning their own salaries and allowances?
Democracy Tempted. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Although we would hope that the people we elect are wise enough to put the country's interest as well as that of their fellow citizens before their own, occasionally (not to say very often) this does not appear to be the case. When would man be so altruistic as to pass on more money offered in return for his services? And trust me, almost every one of us would do the same in their position... Thus, in essence what we would have to do is protect democracy from the representatives themselves. 

The big question now is how we are going to achieve that. The answer might actually be much simpler than what one would expect. Forbid the representatives from passing any laws concerning their duties or remuneration, and instead let the people decide about that via a referendum. This referendum, concerning representative remuneration, should occur no often than once every two years. This would allow the people to actually evaluate the work of the representatives and agree or not on whether they should get something for what they have done during that time. The two-year horizon would allow the people to correctly assess the work of the representatives over a significant time span, (in most countries this is approximately half of the representatives' incumbency) and give honest feedback about what they believe. Should the timing of the referendum coincide with elections, then the referendum should occur before the elections in order for the future representatives to prepare with what they are about to face.

On the referendum, a choice between whether people are happy with the current representatives or not should be accompanied with whether the people would like to see representatives' wages increased or decreased as a reward or punishment. In order to avoid vindictive or super-rewarding behaviour, the maximum amount of increase or decrease of a wage would have would be around 10% every 2 years. This would allow the citizens to have a more direct power over their elected representatives, other than the power to elect them every 4-5 years. 

The main issue with this proposal, other than the referendum on the representatives' evaluation, is how to distinguish between what would benefit the representatives wither directly or indirectly, and whether this would be important enough for a referendum. For example, a law which would grant more power to the representatives to alter the constitution without considering any judiciary decisions would be more important than one which would increase public allowances by 2%. This responsibility to examine all the possible effects of a decision should rest on the shoulders of the judiciary sector. In practice, the court would do nothing more than to examine whether a law can give too much power to politicians and thus the law's fate should be decided by a referendum. 

This policy would ensure five things:
1. People have more power over elected representatives. Nowadays, the pubic can only monitor representatives by agreeing whether to re-elect them or not, something that does not appear to have much effect on the latter's decisions. Now, by being able to control how much remuneration they are liable to get, based on their activities, it would mean that people can have much greater confidence that their representatives will choose to do what is best for the common good. In addition, people should be allowed to decide whether they would like to see the powers of the representatives increased or not, and not just watch helplessly on what the elected ones are doing.
2. The power of the representatives is greatly diminished. By not being able to make decisions on themselves, and having their performance evaluated every two years it would mean that greater care should be taken on whether they are indeed promoting something that is good for the society and not something that is just good for them.
3. People can just evaluate the performance of the representatives based on what they have shown them so far. This would be a form of a direct democracy, yet one which would allow citizens to process a much lesser amount of information than the one needed in a real direct democracy. In addition, the referendum concerning a direct or indirect increase in representative power should allow them to be specific on the knowledge they should acquire, something which should be much easier than practically learning about everything.
4. Judiciary power is not increased. This would not lead to some sort of increased power of the judges, as the courts would only be able to express an opinion on whether the decision about to be made should be considered as increasing the power of the representatives and nothing more.
5. Technocracy is avoided. Since power is still in the hands of elected representatives and not other non-elected officials, and now the people have more power over them, no need for imposed experts would be present.

In conclusion, securing a better system for the future does not require any extensive changes in governance. Just very few are needed for a far more democratic system than the one we are currently living in. All it takes for us is to be innovative enough to implement them and think of more.

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