and the looming threat of democracy

Thought I’d venture into a bit of politics today. The channels of communication and social media that are opening around us, like flowers in spring, invite us to reconsider the role of the individual citizen in decision-making processes, at least in democratic countries. Are we not on the cusp of a transforming technology that allows—not just public debate orchestrated by main stream media—but the possibility of real input by ordinary people in the major policy decisions of our various levels of government?

Please join me today for a short thought experiment. Imagine a government website called, where you may navigate to either Federal, State or Municipal government levels. Let’s suppose that we head for the State level. There we find:

  1. An overview of the structure of the State government—who are our representatives, what are the major departments, who is in charge of what, contact information and links etc.
  2. A summary of the current State Budget, together with summaries of previous budgets and a range of charts showing budget allocations in graphical form over various ranges of years. The citizen (you or I or our next door neighbour) can get a sense for where the State government gets its money (mostly from us of course!) and what it is spending it on. In particular a summary of the current levels of debt are prominently visible.
  3. A record of our politicians’ debates in the various houses of government, a current listing of bills being proposed, and written statements from elected representatives as well as public experts on issues of current policy.
  4. And of greatest interest! The VOTING BOOTH: an electronic portal that allows voting citizens (via a user name and password) input into the issues of the day. For example: Should we decrease the cost of the Airport train link to encourage tourists to use it, keep it as it is, or hike it to make more money? On this issue we can read pros and cons from various groups which have some expertise or direct involvement, as well as summaries from politicians and civil servants that have an opinion. There are threads of comments for public debate. Costings of the various alternatives from Treasury are there, as well as a legal analysis, if relevant. And at the bottom, you have a chance to vote: by using (say) one to three of your 10 yearly STATE VOTING COUPONS. If this issue is one that you feel strongly about, you can assign some weighted allocation of votes to the issue, and all our votes are combined to determine a public response to the topic.

Obviously this last point needs some mathematical and sociological expertise to set up, and tinkering no doubt will be needed to get it working well. During the first years of this tentative real-time democracy, perhaps the government would be legally obliged to follow the electorate if a 75% majority was in one direction or another, but only encouraged to follow us if the range was 50%-75%. The role of politicians would move subtly towards framing questions and providing balanced and detailed (!) views of the different sides to issues, persuading us by providing facts and careful reasoning, not just cliches and wishful thinkings.

But are we, the rabble, sensible and intelligent enough to hold some of the reins of power?  Are we really interested and willing? My guess to both of these questions is a tentative yes. We would want to ensure some checks and balances.

And what about all those entrenched and vested interests? That’s also a question.

9 thoughts on “ and the looming threat of democracy

  1. adam

    I think your sugestions should be mandatory for a democratic society. Further, wouldn’t it be useful if all votes where a matter of public record, so that verification tallies can be run independently. I imagine an online database that allows anyone to verify their votes. Perhaps some massive user based online program. One big caviat for me is that the code and everything required to run it should be open to allow independent study, offering individuals another way to get involved in creating the society they will be living in, and decentralizing the proccess. How do you make it as simple as possable so it becomes something that can be easily managed, allowing as much of the work as possable to get done as a matter of people behaving like people do, and at the same time getting the desired outcome of leveraging some of our current technologies to make civil society better, to give people a bigger stake as well as very useful tools to help them in this craft?

  2. adam

    One thought on the state coupon idea. Perhaps a coupon could be used to add weight to your vote, but I think a citizen should be able to vote on any issue or public office position that will directly impact them. One way to think about the possabilities is to consider voting as information flow. Should the citizen of one township be able to vote on the policies and offices of that town. Yes. A more interesting question is should the citizens of the neighboring towns be allowed to vote on the policies and offices of that town also? Although it would take very careful consideration on how to do this, I think the answer is an emphatic yes. Why should we create a border to the flow of information about the concerns of all citizens? What occures in one town DOES effect its neighbors to some degree, and their neighbors to a lesser degree, etc. The idea is similar to me owning a piece of property and deciding I want to put a neuclear reactor on it. Shouldn’t my neighbors have recourse even though its my property? Of course. But how do you weigh voting properly? This is a very slippery slope because absurdity can quickly become apparent when attaching numbers/weights to a system that was not designed brilliantly to begin with. Its not only sustainablility that is key (absurdities will not be sustainable), but also its effectivness to leverage voting as a system of distributed power, giving the underclasses more then meat machine status, and generally creating a better society for all.

    1. njwildberger: tangential thoughts Post author

      Yes, you are opening interesting lines of thought here. In practice I think such a system should start in a limited way, focussing only on major decisions. Once people are comfortable that this is working well, it could be expanded. We would want to guard against special interest groups gathering voters into blocs to railroad through some proposal in their perhaps narrow interests.

  3. Mr. Econotarian

    You would probably enjoy “The Myth of the Rational Voter” by GMU economist Bryan Caplan. He points out that voters typically have political beliefs that are at odds with mainstream economics, including four major biases: make-work, anti-foreign, pessimistic, and anti-market.

    He argues that since having and voting delusional political beliefs are essentially free (there is a very tenuous link between a single vote and the outcome of an election), we get delusional political results, and often politicians are often caught between a rock and a hard place: thanks to advisors, they know what policies would be generally beneficial, but they also know that those policies are not what people want.

    1. adam

      Here are problems I see with voting systems.

      For one, an uneducated/uninformed mass of voters is easy to manipulate. To clarify what I mean by education, I mean what one needs to know for ones own good, this as opposed to “education”, or how to train someone to unthinkingly follow orders. There’s alot of “education” mandated where I come from (U.S.), but not so much for education.

      Another is that votes should be available to all for independent verification. People should feel confident that the tally is legit. This will always be a problem, but Im sure there are steps that can be taken to facilitate increased confidence. One big problem is that without a distributed approach, or at least without some sort of archive and/or live feed of every step of the proccess, there will be serious questions as to tampering. Democratic power should be real, and not smoke and mirrors.

      I don’t think its fair to say, from the perspective of an academic, that the common people are being irrational in their voting when the system itself is very corrupted. I think its only fair to juxtapose “The Myth of the Rational Voter” to the myth of the truly democratic system, or the myth of the self made man, the myth of the “invisible hand” of the free market sytem, or any other number of myths that permeate many western cultures. The myths themselves are as revealing about who we are as the grains of truth in each of them.

      Voting is a type of evidence of the posturings of masses of people. Postures change. In a system that seems out of control in one way, the antidote might be to shift in the opposite direction. This is no different then keeping balance while you walk by shifting your weight from left to right. Nobody blames onyone for being irrational or inconsistant for shifting their weight around, or changing from running to walking, or walking to sitting, unless of course the circumstances dictate irrationality. This voting evidence in itself sits at the empirical side of the “scientific coin”. This is why we should be so critical of how accurate it is. Results are a fundamental peice of data about the current status of our society. Instead of thinking of the current status as irrational, we can think to the importance of the meaning of masses of people converging on centain issues. This approach allows one to bolth be critical of the democratic process while at the same time taking it seriously.

    2. J

      He must have forgotten the category “market fundamentalists”. I guess that would be “mainstream” economics– which is somehow mainstream although it contrasts with public opinion.

      Economics is a metaphysical system posing as a science in order to justify the existing political and social arrangements of our current world, and about as scientific as a medieval exegesis. IMO, we’d do better without the nameless “advisors” you mention whispering in the ears of kings.

  4. Sunny Kalsi

    What you’re describing is very close to an “Ideal” or “Direct” democracy. In fact, Mark Latham tried a form of what you’re suggesting a long time ago in my electorate (I suspect there’d be a lot of prototyping involved to come up with the exact method, and Mark’s was termed “Direct Democracy”, and is close enough to what you’re talking about here). There’d be an email or some such sent out with the topic and some errata, and you could then log in and vote. It was eventually taken down, I suspect because of lack of interest.

    Now, there’s Senator Online (, where the senators effectively act as the people’s proxy. The Pirate Party, which I’m involved in, is trying to code up something similar (see, and other Pirate Parties are using existing voting systems. Unfortunately, framing is a huge part of politics, and a voting system is not sufficient to capture voter opinions — The referendum to become a republic is a classic case.

    The system you suggest sounds OK at first blush but I think there probably needs to be trials and analysis to see if this actually captures voter intent. These things tend to have non-intuitive outcomes. e.g. you could hoard tokens, and use a huge amount at once, or if you lose tokens slowly then you’d “have a go” when your tokens were going to be taken away. Take a look at Tennis and the “Challenge” meta-game to see just how complex the behaviours are!

    I read an article in Freakonomics which suggested that you could vote as many times as you wanted, but you had to pay for it, and every time you voted on a single issue the price would go up by the square of your vote (see The point is, it’s tough to do properly on the one hand, and some people are trying on the other.

    1. njwildberger: tangential thoughts Post author

      Thanks for the interesting comments. I agree that the issue is a delicate one, involving many aspects as well as mathematics. It seems like a topic on which people ought to do some more thinking, and I am glad to hear that such activities are going on.


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