The Liberal Future: Direct Democracy vs Representative Democracy

This is something I’ve talked about here before, but only in comments, and it’s a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I’d better make it a main post.

My single biggest political issue, the one I care about more than any other, is making Britain’s democracy something closer to functional. If we could get the constitutional changes I want — freedom of speech, proper federal assemblies for the English regions, increased devolution to Scotland and Wales, a fully-elected second chamber, no monarchy (or no role whatsoever for the monarchy in the lawmaking process, at the very least), no involvement of the Church in government, and every level of government elected by STV (or AV in the case of single-member roles like the Mayor of London), I would gladly let my political opponents have everything their own way, on every issue, for a full Parliament, because a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe, while with a broken one like we have now it’s impossible to fix any of the major problems facing our economy, our environment, and our society.

So why, if democracy is so important to me (and the fact that the two major parties have spent this entire Parliament blocking those reforms while the Lib Dems have spent the entire Parliament fighting for them is, more than anything else, why I stay in the party despite any problems I have with the current government — it’s proof that they really are still better than the rest) why do I find the whole concept of referendums somewhat repellent?

There are many reasons, but it boils down to the same reason why I think that representative democracy is a real solution to many of our problems. It’s that I think people giving their informed opinions can only end up making the world a better place.

Most of us don’t have a real understanding of most of the business of government. I certainly don’t.  There are issues — constitutional issues, civil liberties, technological issues, LGBT+ rights, copyright law — where I have very strong opinions based on serious long-term study of the facts and ideas in question. There are other issues — health, education, economic equality, the environment — where I have some idea of what kind of outcome I’d like to see, but no idea which of several competing policies might bring about those outcomes. And there are yet others — most economic issues, most foreign policy — where I simply don’t have a clue.

I suspect this is the case for 95% of people, or more. The areas that we know about may be vastly different, but everyone cares about some political issue enough to have an informed opinion about it, and everyone has blind spots where they’re clueless.

Now, in a referendum, the chances of any individual actually having a clue about that particular issue are small — and as we’ve seen with both the AV referendum and the Scottish independence referendum, the campaigns generate so much more heat than light that it’s effectively impossible for an ordinary voter to educate herself on the subject once a campaign has started. This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.

This might suggest that democracy itself is fundamentally flawed, were it not for the fact that we have representatives.

For all that professional politicians are a despised class, they are people who are paid to spend all their working lives becoming experts on every aspect of governance at their level (that not all of them do so is partly due to the stupid system we have). Where they don’t have the expertise themselves, they defer to colleagues — in the same party so at least theoretically sharing the same values — who do. So in a representative democracy, such as I’d like to see (and, to the extent that we have one, in our present system), legislation is made by people who know what they’re talking about on every issue — something most of us (who have jobs that involve things other than knowing about every detail of politics) don’t have the time or inclination for.

So surely, then, this means that we should just have rule by our betters, and not bother with elections at all, if people don’t know as much as the politicians?

No — and this is the important bit about representative democracy, but it’s the bit that gets ignored, or glossed over, or not explained properly when we talk about this — because representative democracy is a great way of cancelling out ignorance and getting only the right answers out. It’s not a perfect way, but it’s very good.

Say you, I, and a neighbour all lived in the constituency of Hornsey & Wood Green (which I’ve picked for the example because it has one of the better current MPs), and we all have very different areas of knowledge. My big issue is democratic reform, yours is equality for LGBT+ people, and our neighbour’s is ending female genital mutilation.

I look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone is good on democratic reform, and vote for her. You look at the candidates, see that Lynne Featherstone was one of the main people responsible for bringing in same-sex marriage, and vote for her. Our neighbour looks at the candidates, sees that Lynne Featherstone is campaigning to end FGM in developing countries, and votes for her. If a candidate is good on all our individual issues (and on schools, on health, on taxation, and on whatever other issues people in the area care about) then all the people who know about those areas can vote for her.

The result is that I know that the candidate I vote for is good on the areas I care about, and assume she will be good on the other issues, because she’s paid to investigate them all (and she obviously comes to the same conclusions I do where we’ve got the same information). But if I’m wrong in that assumption — if she’s very good on civil liberties but lousy on education, say — then all the people who care about education will vote for someone else.

This means that in a properly functioning representative democracy, what you end up with is a result that is better than any individual voter would have come up with, because it presumes everyone is competent in the areas that they care about, and that their competencies reinforce each other and cancel out their incompetencies. Someone who is good on most issues will be more likely to get elected than someone who is only good on one or two. Referendums, on the other hand, presume that everyone is equally competent at everything, which is dangerous nonsense.

Direct democracy is a tool for demagogues. Representative democracy is a tool for the people. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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13 Responses to The Liberal Future: Direct Democracy vs Representative Democracy

  1. evilsoup says:

    a properly working democracy can fix any problem, no matter how severe,

    A properly working democracy cannot exist in a Capitalist economy. Even with all you reforms, capitalists will still control the media, will still be able to afford the most and most persuasive lobbyists, and so on. Your reforms don’t go far enough.

  2. Steve Baron says:

    Andrew, a very well written but deceptively cunning attempt to dispel direct democracy.

    Without writing a similar thesis I would briefly say that direct democracy does not, nor would it, ever replace so called ‘representative democracy’ (it’s party democracy actually). Direct democracy is simply an adjunct to party democracy and holds politicians to account operating as a check and balance. If we look at the history of party democracy we can see numerous examples of atrocious decisions by these so called informed and intelligent people.

    To suggest the public cannot become informed on an issue up for referendum is plain arrogance and hubris, especially when most politicians don’t always understand what they are voting for in Parliament themselves. Numerous studies have shown that people basically make intelligent decisions in a referendum and we only need to look towards Switzerland to see that.

    Neither do voters agree with everything a political party wants to do once in government. Once in Parliament they lie, even after signing pledges regarding an issue like putting up student fees. The Westminster system is unfortunately a take it or leave it option and probably one of the reason huge numbers refuse to vote. Direct democracy allows voters to cherry pick policy they want, which a government is ignoring, or when they don’t agree with what a government plans to do.

    As for an ignorant public, as you are suggesting they are, I would recommend you read “The Vision of the Anointed”, by renowned US economist and author Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute along with “The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki.

    I would suggest that the days of political elitism are coming to an end. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ direct democracy will ever be available to voters, it’s only a matter of ‘when’.

    Direct democracy is a matter I have written on extensively and if you care to become informed on the matter rather than smoothly gloss over the subject as you have done in this post, I suggest you visit our website where you will find a number of experts and politicians discussing the topic in several videos. This website has recently been upgraded and goes live within the next day or two.

    Steve Baron B.A (Hons.)

    Author, Political Commentator & Investment Manager
    Founder of Better Democracy New Zealand

    • “so called ‘representative democracy’ (it’s party democracy actually)”
      There is nothing about representative democracy that requires the existence of parties, and there are systems with parties which are far from representative. Inaccurately redefining common terms and then insisting that your new term is correct is one of the great signs of crankery.

      “To suggest the public cannot become informed on an issue up for referendum is plain arrogance and hubris”
      You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean. To claim that none of us are omniscient is the *opposite* of hubris.

      “The Westminster system is unfortunately a take it or leave it option”
      You will note that nowhere in this post have I defended the Westminster system, which I think completely unfit for purpose.

      “renowned US economist and author Thomas Sowell, a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute”
      s/renowned US economist and author/far-right libertarian blowhard

      ““The Wisdom of Crowds” by James Surowiecki.”
      A book I have read multiple times, own multiple copies of, and which doesn’t actually contradict anything I’ve said here, despite the way it’s often misread.

      “Direct democracy allows voters to cherry pick policy they want”
      Another downside. Many policies that sound great in isolation only work when part of a consistent programme of government. As the simplest possible example, increases in spending sound good, as do cuts in taxes. “Cherry-picking” ends with both being chosen.

      Rev. Andrew Hickey
      Author, political commentator, political candidate, musician, computer programmer, technical writer, media pundit, scientist, and Batmanologist.

    • Iain Coleman says:

      Under direct democracy, how does a country set a budget?

      Iain Coleman, Certificate of Cycling Proficiency (Foundation)
      Internet reader
      Blog commenter
      Washer of dishes

    • prankster36 says:

      I’m interested in the “deceptively cunning” part. Does he mean that you’re trying to fool people into thinking you’re more cunning than you are? Does he think you claimed to be stupid, but are lying? Does he simply like needless adjectives that are unnecessary and unrequired?

      The Right Rev. Brigadier Sir Charles A. “Mos Def” Prankster (Miss)

      Olympic Gold-medal Rocket Sled Champion

  3. evanravitz says:

    Oregon for the last 3 election cycles solves the confused voter problem by having randomly-selected citizen “juries” hold open hearings and deliberate on video to produce information like representatives get: People in “decision science” have advocated for this kind of thing for decades, but ONLY Oregon has tried it, of the 24 US States with ballot initiatives.

    • Steve Baron says:

      You are assuming voters are confused and that is a very big assumption based on very little fact. Voters are far smarter that hubristic commentators give them credit for. I would personally trust the collective wisdom of millions of voters before I would trust the collective wisdom of a few hundred Members of Parliament. If I didn’t I would be too scared to drive down the street or use the services of my fellow citizens because I would think they were just too dumb and threatening to walk outside my door.

  4. D says:

    The problem with this is that it imagines politics is about finding the ‘right’ answers: a very Rousseauian idea which I have noticed plagues Liberal Democrats, rendering them unable to actually interact with real people (aka, voters).

    The problem is that most of the time politics is not about working out the best way to achieve a given objective, but rather deciding which objective we should be pursuing.

    Take, for example, drugs policy. Is the aim of drugs policy to reduce the total harm done by drugs, or is it to try to reduce the number of people who take drugs? It is entirely possible that policies that will achieve one of those ends might go directly against the other (for example, decriminalisation might reduce the total harm done, at the cost of increasing the number of users; whereas our current prohibitory policies might actually be decreasing use, at the cost of increasing total harm).

    This, incidentally, is why there is no such things as ‘evidence-based policy’. All evidence can tell you is that if you do X, then Y will be the result (sometimes it can’t even tell you that, but in the best case it can). But policy isn’t about how to achieve a given result: policy is about deciding what result you ought to be trying to achieve.

    Evidence is the map: it can tell you how to get places. But a map can’t tell you where you should be going, only how to get there.

    Democracy, then, is not about harnessing the ‘jury theorem’, because a jury has to find the answer to a single objective question: ‘Did X happen?’

    Democracy, in contrast, is about mediating between groups in a population with different values.

    There is therefore not a ‘right’ answer, in the general case, to any political question, and any defence of democracy which relies on the jury theorem (as yours does, with the refinement of using representatives to satisfy the requirement that the probability of each individual voter being correct is greater than even) is fundamentally misconceived: it is answering the wrong question.

    And this is, I think, the fundamental reason why Liberal Democrats have failed and will continue to fail to break out into widespread electoral support: because the majority of the population vote on values, not on the idea that there is a technocratic ‘right’ answer to every question that we could find if only we got enough informed intelligent people to look at the problem and then used jury theorem to average out their answers.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Except that the argument I made in my post *also* applies, in exactly the same way, to finding what the “right” objective is. Nowhere did I say that the “right” answer to a question is one that delivers any particular outcome — I even explicitly said the opposite.
      Likewise, nowhere have I argued for “evidence-based policy”, which I think is very wrong for all the reasons you suggest (see for example ).
      Please confine your arguments to disagreeing with things I’ve actually said, not what a straw Lib Dem in your imagination said…

      • D says:

        Except that the argument I made in my post *also* applies, in exactly the same way, to finding what the “right” objective is

        It doesn’t, though.

        Your argument seems to me to be that the object of individual constituency elections is to find the ‘best’ representative, the one who is most ‘competent’. And that therefore the person elected from each constituency is more likely to be ‘generally competent’ than the alternatives, and that this ‘general competence’ will then carry through into the Parliament, meaning that Parliament as a whole is more likely to come to the ‘right’ answer on any given question.

        So you’re claiming basically that to have a referendum is basically like running the jury theorem once: and the jury theorem shows that if the probability of each individual voter being right is greater than evens, then the more voters you have the more likely they are to be right. But if they are more likely to be wrong than right, then the more you ask the worse the chance of getting the right answer.

        And you say that on any random given answer the individual voter is more likely to be wrong than right. This is how I interpret your comment: ‘This means that in a referendum, noise swamps signal, and the chance of getting the “right” answer (where “right” is the one that will actually make most people happiest, or that most people would choose had they all the facts, or however you want to define it) is no better than chance.’

        However, you’re saying that by electing a representative on multiple issues, then you raise the chance of electing the ‘correct’ candidate so that the average chance of a voter voting for the ‘most competent’ candidate becomes greater than evens, and as a result there is a good chance that the candidate so elected is the ‘best’ (by some definition: I’m sure there are people who would disagree violently with your assertion that ‘one of the better current MPs’, perhaps because they disagree with her stances on democratic reform and same-sex marriage, for example).

        Then you are saying that the fact that those MPs so elected are more generally competent, plus their ability to spend more time studying the issues, means that on the arbitrary questions that come before Parliament their answers are more likely than evens to be right, and so by the jury theorem a free vote of MPs is very likely to come up with the ‘right’ answer: certainly more likely than a referendum of the general population, who are not more likely to be right than wrong on any given question.

        And this is your defence of representative democracy.

        Is that not a fair summary of your thesis?

        • It is, as far as it goes, except that your reframing in terms of competency is only part of what I was saying, and is something *you* have introduced, not something I said. The argument works equally well if you state it as “someone who shares my values in areas to which I have given a lot of thought is likely, in other areas they have thought about, to have the values I would have if I gave those areas similar thought”.
          If I vote for someone who, on every issue I actually care about, agrees with me, it is fairly likely (though of course by no means certain) that she shares my values and thus on areas I don’t understand will, after understanding the issue, come to the same conclusion that I would come up with had I the time and inclination to investigate myself.
          Thus if I value a fairer democracy, more rights for LGBT+ people, and increased freedom of speech, and I see a candidate who also values those things, then they are likely to come to the conclusion I would most approve of on, say, the situation in the Middle East, which I have very little understanding of, *precisely because we have shared values*.

          • D says:

            The argument works equally well if you state it as “someone who shares my values in areas to which I have given a lot of thought is likely, in other areas they have thought about, to have the values I would have if I gave those areas similar thought”.

            No, it doesn’t.

            Because your argument rests on that idea that those people are more likely than you to come up with the right answer as being why you wouldn’t want to have more referendums (and yes that is an acceptable plural).

            Take the drugs policy example. Now, we can agree that people who haven’t studied the area will be less likely to know what causes will have what effects, etc etc. So I could be wrong about what actions will achieve my preferred aims. So I would be well advised to hand over the decision as to what actions should be implemented to someone who shares my values, but who has more time to study the issues than I do, trusting that they are likely to come to the same conclusions that I would, given the time to study.

            However, they are not more likely than me to know what I think the goal ought to be

            So, say there was a referendum and the question was: ‘Should our drugs policy be based on trying to reduce as far as possible the total harm caused by drugs, even if that means the number of people who use drugs will increase?’

            Now, that question doesn’t have a ‘right’ answer. It’s a question about what people value. My answer to that question cannot, by definition, be ‘wrong’ because it is my answer. Your answer might be the same or different but it cannot be wrong.

            And, crucially, there is no more likelihood of my representative answering the same way I would, if I had the time to study, because having time to study is not going to change my views on what goal we ought to be pursuing (whereas it might, for example, change my views on how best to pursue that goal).

            So your two arguments against referendums — that they are no more likely than chance to come up with the ‘right’ answer, and that representatives who have time to study the issues are more likely to come up with the right answer — fall down when there is no ‘right’ answer to the question.

            When a referendum is on a question to which there is a ‘right’ answer, then your argument is entirely correct: they are no more likely than chance to produce the right answer, and having representatives is a better way to find that right answer.

            However when they are functioning as, basically, a big opinion poll; as a way to find out what the population’s views are on a given issue, rather than as a way to determine a ‘correct’ answer; then your arguments do not apply.

            This is because your thesis rests on the premise that I am less likely than evens to know the right answer to an arbitrary given question. This is true when the question is one that has a right answer, but not true when the questions is, ‘What you you think about this?’. In that situation I am (by definition) 100% guaranteed to know the correct answer because I know my own mind.

            Your argument therefore falls down in situations where the referendum question is a question of values, not one where there is a ‘right’ answer; and as most of the big important questions in politics are questions of values (the rest being merely implementation detail) you are wrong to come down so firmly against referenda (that is also an acceptable plural).

  5. plok says:

    My goodness, all those “no, it doesn’t”ses! That’s a pretty aggressive tone you’ve got going there, Mr. D; poor Andrew just keeps on being so very wrong, it seems…

    Your own arguments have rather a lot of holes in them. For example:

    “Crucially, there is no more likelihood of my representative answering the same way I would, if I had the time to study, because having time to study is not going to change my views on what goal we ought to be pursuing (whereas it might, for example, change my views on how best to pursue that goal).”

    I’m so glad you said “crucially”, there, because it’s going to save me a lot of typing. Perhaps in your worldview the things you call values are somehow natural and inherent, but in mine it is far more common for a person’s mind to be changed by looking into a subject more deeply, than it is for their
    objectives to remain unaltered even in the presence of better information. I guess it also bears mentioning that there can be “wrong answers” about goals and objectives, even on the dreaded “drugs policy”. I don’t mean to suggest people don’t, or can’t, or shouldn’t, have differing opinions about things, but…what was it DeGaulle said? “I respect my enemies’ opinions; but I cannot tolerate them.” Sometimes there is no right answer, but sometimes there is.

    It seems to me that when you talk about “values” here you are really referring to principles…and I’m a bit like Henry Adams, in that I see each of these as the occasional foe of the other. I think Andrew and I
    probably disagree slightly about the place and value of referenda, but I don’t see him shutting the door on changing his mind because his values say he must, whereas you seem to be laying out a scheme in which that door’s not only closed but welded shut, all the people atomized principle-carriers who don’t give their opinion so much as they recite their creed…and this seems pretty darn technocratic itself, for something that’s supposed to be a criticism of technocrats! Similarly, your defence of referenda seems to
    me to incorporate a far more pronounced devaluation of direct democracy, than Andrew’s argument against referenda? Or at least it does if you’re being serious about a referendum being “just an opinion poll”. It’s more than that, I think: as no one is being asked to “give their opinion” when they’re in the ballot box, but instead they’re being asked to decide something. To decide upon a course of action, say.

    I apologize if this seems a little snarky, but ye gods! “No, it doesn’t.” Well actually it might, eh?

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