Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Direct Democracy or Representative Republic?

My Ideal Constitution, Part III: Method of choosing who governs

Once the structure of governing bodies is in place, we have to devise a way to fill those bodies with actual people. It is almost universally agreed that the governed should have some say in who those people are. The debate here is just how much say they should have. Advocates of giving them direct power argue for a more of a democracy; advocates of giving them indirect power argue for more of a republic.

In a pure democracy, there are no middle-men representatives, and every decision is simply put up to a majority vote. This means that the majority always gets its way, but it’s also practically impossible to get things done in countries with lots of people. Less pure forms of democracy do have elected representatives, but they are tied to the popular vote very very closely, and prevented from using their individual discretion. For instance, they may be required to vote in accordance with the official position of their party. Democracy advocates also favor shorter term lengths, which dissuades politicians from breaking from popular opinion. Essentially, varying degrees of democracy correlate with how likely the majority is to get its way. The more power the people have to choose their lawmakers, the more power they have to shape the laws themselves.

This is simultaneously democracy’s biggest advantage and its biggest disadvantage. The upside is that the majority is heard. Popular input is taken into account, which means whatever the government does is favored by most people.

The downside is that oftentimes, the people don’t know what the fuck they’re doing.

As the length of these blog entries should indicate, governance is an incredibly complicated matter. Sound, just, open-minded, legitimate and wise governance requires levels of knowledge, expertise, intellect, attention, and depth of thought that most people are simply unable or unprepared to give it. You can’t blame them! People have lives to live! They have their own bills to pay, jobs to do, families to raise, and hobbies to pursue. Even in a highly educated and literate nation like our own, not everybody can be informed enough to make wise policy decisions. Too many people are too ignorant, too preoccupied, too intolerant, too fickle, and too apathetic to be entrusted with complete, direct, and immediate control over how the government should operate. It’s not elitism, and it doesn’t mean they’re inferior people. They’re just less qualified people.

Modern polling only backs up these claims. Upon request, alarmingly high percentages of Americans were willing to sign petitions to “Get the government out of Medicare!”, “End women’s suffrage!” or “Keep Dihydrogen-Monoxide out of our water supply!”. And the bigger the government becomes, the more and more complex these decisions become. For instance, take food regulations. How are everyday people with jobs supposed to know how to vote on a bill that, say, adjusts the amount of rat feces permissible in one square-meter of rice? There are millions of technical details on the minutiae of government regulations that only experts are qualified in dealing with, and only the experts should. It’s impossible to disseminate the information necessary to make good decisions on these things to the entire populace, so indirect governance has a huge advantage here.

Republics are founded on the idea that the most qualified people should be the ones calling the shots, and that they should be free to use their own discretion on how to call them. While this should be done with public input, the power of that public input needs to be checked, just like the power of all other government bodies. If 1000 everyday people were to take a vote on a very challenging, probing, and important issue, they may or may not make a wise decision. But if those same 1000 people were to instead vote on who the 100 smartest and most knowledgeable among them were, and those 100 in turn voted for who the 10 most qualified among them were, and those ten took a vote on the same question, the decision reached by the 10 would probably be a better one.

It is for this reason that I generally prefer keeping the power of the people on specific lawmaking questions indirect. I recognize that there are downsides to this, and that a balance needs to be struck. One downside is that indirect power concentrates the public’s input into the middle men, and as I described earlier, concentrated power can be scary. Those middle-men are much easier to buy off than are the populace at large. However, they’re also more difficult to fool via propaganda, since elected representatives are usually much more informed and politically involved than the population at large. I’m willing to accept that trade-off. A democratic republic that checks popular input allows the majority to be heard most of the time, but also allows the experts to overrule them when necessary. Considering how objectively wrong the majority can often be, that's a good thing.


  1. Your grasp of the underlying challenges to a direct democracy is a good one. But I argue that a system of direct democracy might be designed that overcomes them:

    1. I just saw your comment now, and unfortunately it's 3:34 AM haha. I'm too tired to engage it now with my full mental faculties intact, but I'll be sure to dive in tomorrow and give you my thoughts. From what I can see your site seems a deeply intellectual and thought-provoking place which I'm excited to visit, even though I confess I'm skeptical about your premise.

    2. Some thoughts:

      "Private self-governance of public safety, where profit and market share would always be in play, more widely opens a backdoor to our darker human nature."

      "our own elected representatives, each subject to a recall vote, ought to select these experts as impartially as human nature allows."

      Why do you trust the human nature of politicians more than you trust the human nature of businessmen? The temptation and ability to place personal enrichment over the common good exist equally for both. For example, both can be bought off. The question is, which system is a more effective check on those "dark" parts of human nature? Direct elections are a highly imperfect check on politicians for several reasons:
      a)they only need a slim majority, or sometimes merely a plurality, in order to retain office, which decreases their incentive to stick up for minority rights
      b) they are elected based on many different factors at once, since government controls many different things, so poor performance in one area can often be masked by support for another
      c) politicians do not deal with the people they're serving on a voluntary basis, in the sense that you're not free to disengage with the politician if you are displeased by his performance. if the majority likes him/her, you're stuck with him, and that person may wield force on you without your consent.

      Now compare these checks to those offered by the free market. The objective of gaining popular support in a free market is not to win reelection, but to maximize profit. This creates an incentive to please as many people as possible, rather than an incentive to please only however many are necessary to ensure one's reelection. So for instance, say both a politician and a businessman's practices are supported by 60% of the local population. The politician has no personal incentive to improve on that figure; he merely has an incentive to keep the support he has, and the other 40% can be damned. However, the businessman has the same incentive has had before - profit - since the other 40% can make him even more money. The gap between 60% and 70% support is no different to him than the gap between 45% and 55%. This is not so for a politician.

      A second advantage of the free market as a regulator is that it enables more diversity, because the same group needn't regulate everything. If one politician is corrupt/stupid/misguided, and he's in charge of appointing 20 experts that regulate 20 different things, perhaps only 12 of those experts will do a good job. But if the people want to keep the 12, they have to accept the 8 incompetent ones, because the politician's policies on everything come as one complete package. In private business, however, the citizens can engage only with those specific individual regulators they wish to do business with, and forgo the others. This also enables higher specificity and expertise in one individual field, rather than one politician having to make appointment decisions in lots of varied fields.

      In conclusion, leaving individuals free to decide things on their own enables far greater flexibility of solutions which cannot be dreamed up by central planners, no matter how democratically elected they are. I suppose my core objection to your premise is that you favor collectivism over individualism; as a supporter of direct democracy, you continually use "we the people" as a synonym for "whatever the majority decides." They are not synonymous, and those in the minority are part of "we the people" too. The only way to fully protect minority rights is to protect the rights of the smallest possible minority - the individual. It is to this unit only that our rights are assigned.