Here I propose a new political system that will become possible in a society where all its citizens will be connected to the Internet. Its main philosophy is inspired in the free market mechanism, and I will call it semi-direct democracy. The main points of this model are: i) the substitution of political parties by a set of non-profit political organisations specialized to deal with most aspects of the executive and the legislative power; and ii) the introduction of a constant electronic scrutiny by the citizens of the activities of these organisations. The emergence of this system will be enhanced by the increasing need for more representativity and transparency in public affairs, on one hand, and the increasing incapacity of the actual political system to deal with an increasingly complex society, on the other.
Semi-direct democracy, e-government, e-democracy.
A new political system is badly needed. People are looking with increasing distrust and alienation to politics. Political parties have failed to adapt to an educated society and a global economy, and have lost much of their power, influence, and even their reason of being. Scandals, corruption, and lobby influences, only contribute to further widen this gap between citizens and politicians. The hopeless attempts of governments to follow public-opinion polling, only demonstrate the agony of this decrepit political system. But what should be the alternative?
As the public impatience with governments rises, the inexorable progress of democratisation, together with the widespread availability of the information technologies, are turning the people themselves (not the media!) into the new fourth branch of political power, alongside with the executive, legislative and judiciary. The recent technologies, in special the Internet, have the potential to greatly increase the democratic participation of citizens in the framework of new political systems. I present in this letter the baselines of such a possible system.
The advent of the digital era is about to change radically every aspect of our society. In particular, the Internet, with its flexibility, speed, ubiquity, ease of use and feedback capabilities, is rapidly connecting people and computers around the world. Information is being set free from the bound of paper, and begins to flow quickly, cleanly, cheaply, and without any respect for hierarchies or bureaucracies. A few seconds are enough to share a message between thousands of computers scattered around the world. It is not surprising to say that the Internet is bringing the world to the eve of one of the greatest revolutions in history: the information revolution. Politics will not escape from it.
This revolution is paving the way towards a long desired, and also feared, political system: the direct democracy. Although its principle is appealing, “decisions that concern all are decided by all”, I have serious doubts about its applicability. The system proposed in this letter, that I call Semi-Direct Democracy (SDD), was inspired on the possibilities of a connected society and was designed to avoid the disadvantages of direct democracy.
2. What’s wrong with the actual political system?
The actual political system is in deep crisis. The increasing number of absentees in the election polls (superior to 50% in some cases), is a clear sign of the apathy of the electors for their representatives. That does not mean that politicians are now more corrupt or irresponsible than they were in the past, or that people are less interested in politics. The problem lies in the essence of the actual framework of representative democracy.
Mainly inherited from the French Revolution, our political system is tailored to a relatively unsophisticated and poorly educated society. To a great extent it failed to accompany the technological evolutions, and its consequent social changes, that occurred mainly in the second half of this century. While citizens become richer, better educated, and more demanding, a closed group of politicians continue to do their business in an old fashioned way.
At the same time, the economy globalises and becomes more complex while social problems become more acute. This leads us to the heart problem of the present political system: its incapability to reach knowledgeable decisions upon complex problems involving a tantalising amount of information. In a desperate attempt to solve these problems, politicians were forced to create heavy and expensive bureaucracies full of kafkian labyrinths. The consequences are well known: inefficiency, rigidity and lack of control.
On the other hand, we have a more educated and informed population willing to have a voice in important political decisions. But practically the only voice they can have is to choose, about every four years, between a handful of political parties, often very similar in political content and form.
3. Let them choose!
The system, here proposed, is inspired in the free market philosophy. A market is basically a “place” where a set of agents exchange information in order to reach agreement and take decisions on subjects involving conflicting interests. Provided the agents are fully rational and completely informed, t he free market is the best mechanism to decide on complex issues involving either common or conflicting interests. Unfortunately, the use of the free market paradigm in politics has been very restricted.
A political centralised system may be adequate for small and simple societies. A small tribe may be ruled by a single individual capable to choose what is best for all members of the community. But, no matter how clever a man can be, it will be ineffective to manage, in the same way, a modern city. The solution is to let people decide upon their lives, whereas the leader take hold only of the legislation and co-ordination activities.
In the same way, if political issues becomes too complex for a government, the solution is to distribute, directly or indirectly, some political responsibilities to the citizens. By transferring the decisions to the population, we are using a market philosophy in politics to accomplish two goals: i) decisions are more democratic, and ii) citizens will have more freedom to choose, and higher responsibility and control on politics.
Nevertheless, the free market paradigm has well known deficiencies. Due to lack of rationality or information of the agents (or incorrect use of it), the market can easily be settled far from optimal decisions, and without any external control it can easily become chaotic, e.g., the Great Depression or the crashes in stock markets. Moreover, a inherent tendency for the majority of people to choose simplistic and short-term solutions may well produce highly undesirable results.
So, this brings back the old dilemma: how to give power to the people without falling in the irrationality and vanity of the masses? The solution here presented involves the creation of a set of intermediary institutions between the citizens and the political decision centres, while preserving the State and some of its institutions, even if with some modifications.
4. The Semi-Direct Democracy
The Internet is the culmination of a series of technological innovations that is giving new exciting possibilities to innovate politics. Take the example of some small cities, like San Antonio, in California, where a set of comprehensive and interactive WebPages were built to inform the residents of major activities in the municipality. Moreover, electronic fora allow citizens to discuss revelant issues, and, is some cases, they can “vote” directly on important projects.
If this new concept is helping local communities to better solve their problems, why not apply it to a whole country? I believe that an electronic democracy can be implement in some countries. Up to know, the best known proposal for an electronic democracy is the direct democracy. The supporters of this model claim that all decisions should be subjected to a direct referendum on the Internet. I do not foresee any viability for this system: the issues are too complex, and people have no time, or knowledge, to decide upon them.
If the free market is the best decision mechanism but direct democracy is not viable, what is the alternative? I believe that the model here presented, the Semi-Direct Democracy (SDD), is the answer to transform the actual representative democracy into an interactive representative system.
There are two central points in the SDD (see Fig 1): i) the substitution of the political parties, and most public departments, by specialised Non-profit Political Organisations (NPO); and ii) the possibility of citizens to have a wider political participation and to exert a tight control on the activities of these organisations.
Let me clarify some points concerning the SDD. First, the meaning of “non-profit political organisations”. These organisations are paid by public money (proportionally to the number of votes they received), but at the same time they have great autonomy to choose its members and to spend or rise money. These organisations are separately elected to take charge of specific public departments for a fixed period of time.
Second, the electronic control by the citizens on these organisations is expressed in two ways. In one hand the political strength of a NPO is proportional to the number of supporters – this being continuously revised. On the other hand, by allowing a direct participation of voters, giving them more referendum options, the right of veto, the right to submit bills to the parliament, the right to replace a NPO. In this way, the SDD is in constant consonance with the citizens.
Third, although it is necessary to introduce a deep modification in the constitution, the role of parliaments as a discussion forum for laws will continue almost unchanged. The number of representatives is proportional to the strength of each NPO. The main difference from the actual system, is the obligation to submit to public decision on important laws or political decisions.
Fourth, the Prime Minister, and some ministers like defence and foreign affairs, will continue to be chosen by direct elections for a fixed mandate. However the remaining government will be composed by the set of the most voted organisations in each field. Some control mechanisms may be implemented, for instance the possibility to dismiss a NPO if the number of supports falls below a certain number.
In my opinion the SDD is a viable system able to restore the interest and confidence of people on politics. These are the main advantages:
- Ministries and public institutions will be run by specialised and democratically elected institutions with accumulated know-how, not by ephemeral political figures.
- Citizens will be closer to their representatives (more feedback implies more responsibility).
- The actual political culture of demagogy will be replaced by a pragmatic culture of efficiency.
- The influence of lobbies and pressure groups is largely decreased.
- While it is still a representative democracy, it refrains, and relieves, the citizens from voting directly on every subject.
5. The dark side of SDD
No political system is perfect. First of all, it should be mentioned that the SDD could not be implemented in any country. A small and homogeneous country, with a well educated population and strong democratic traditions will be the best candidate for the implementation of this system.
Scandinavian countries fit these criteria, but Portugal is definitely not prepared for it. Furthermore, the introduction of a SDD should not be abrupt, but smooth and gradual. This gives time for the adaptation of organisations and citizens.
There are several objections that can be raised to the SDD system, namely:
- Citizens are not capable to wisely decide on many complex issues
- Lack of a common ideology leads to perpetuating disputes
- Increase the strength of lobbies
A natural objection to this system is that, without a common political ideology, disputes and cleavage between organisation will turn the country into chaos. This is unlikely to happen since organisations occupy different niches in the public sector, and in cases of overlapping, the constant scrutiny of the population will force cooperation whenever it is necessary. Moreover diverse ideas help the search for alternative solutions, thus creating a more creative political environment.
There is also a possibility that strong lobbies, helped by the media, may soon form an oligopoly capable to control most of these governmental organisations. Clearly this risk exists, since lobbies have always been present within all kinds of government. The most efficient way to control the action of these groups is to extend the powers to a wider public, which is exactly the nature of the SDD. Therefore, I think that the SDD will strike a devastating blow at the special interest groups and lobbies who prevail in most parliaments.
Another objection is that, influenced by the media, demagogy and populism, with all their irrationality, will prevail. For example, proposals for drastic tax reduction may well appear, to which a collapse in social security, for instance, may follow, or a cutting in funding on vital, but apparently useless services, like science. This risk exists, but I believe that a smooth and slow transition period for people to adapt to this system will suffice for them to learn how to avoid these extremes.
In conclusion, let me comment on one of the strongest objections to a more participative democracy. It is the old argument that people are not aware of the complexity of the problems, so that they are not prepared to take wise decisions. This same argument was used against the early stages of democracy in America, to each I recall the answer of Thomas Jefferson “If people are not prepared to decide, we have to educate them in order to be prepared”.
Responsibility is the result of freedom to make decisions and accept the consequences. A society is only responsible when its citizens participate in public decisions. For the first time in history we have the conditions and the technological means to bring to reality a long waited dream: to give everybody a voice in public affairs. Due to the nature of the free market in which it is inspired, the SDD has the means to become an effective information oriented system.
The SDD is neither a direct democracy or the elimination of the State, but a considerable innovation of representative democracy. I am aware that the scope and applicability of this system may give rise to strong criticism and discussion. However, I thing that the ideas here presented deserve reflection, and it is my hope that it may initiate a much-needed discussion on new alternatives to public participation in the actual democracy.
- Pedro Arroja, Abcissas, Areal (1993).
- J. M. Epstein and V. Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from Bottom Up, Brookings Institution Press (1998).
- L. K.Grossman, The Electronic Republic, Penguim (1995).
- Fredrich Hayek, the Constitution of Liberty, Chicago University Press (1960).
- Kevin Kelly, Out of Control, Addison Wesley (1994).
- B. Arthur, S. Durlauf, and D. Lane, Economy as an Evolving Complex System, Perseus Books (1987).