Direct Democracy

Also: How the people could govern themselves without the need for a ruling class, 1999/8/29

In the more distant past, most of the available resources were enjoyed only by a small elite, while the majority of the population served as a relatively passive pool of labourers and servants. The general trend of the recent centuries is that an ever larger and larger percentage of the population in all the countries around the world has been becoming full-fledged citizens, who demand equal share of all available resources, and the participation in the decision making process. Recently even the citizens of the well established representative democracies have become increasingly frustrated with the fact that they have little or no influence on the decisions affecting their lives, except that they are allowed to vote once every four or five years to select their representatives, who as a rule are then not obliged to respect the wishes of their constituents during their term in office.

In the small communities existing at the time of the dawn of human civilization it was easy to have a Direct Democracy in which everybody could participate in a communal decision making process. It is believed that once the size of these communities exceeded the threshold of about 10 thousand people, Direct Democracy ceased to be practical in the absence of effective communication means, and gradually succumbed in competition with oligarchy. Although a big improvement over an unlimited monarchy, even the present day representative democracy is still nothing else than a milder form of oligarchy, which is a system in which the actual power is executed by a relatively small group of people.

With the rapid advance of modern communication means, and especially the Internet, there is a new hope that the true, i.e., direct, democracy could become practical again even on the scale of the present day population of the World. And indeed, more and more people are advocating the introduction of some form of the Direct Democracy (DD) as it is also indicated by the growing number of web pages dedicated to DD.

Transition to DD will most probably be a long and complicated process. It may be plagued by the same dark sides of the human nature that cause the failures of the representative democracy. However, I believe, that as the overall level of education and access to information will increase, some form of DD is inevitable. DD will be a rather decentralized system. All decisions that can be make locally, will be made locally. And a transition from an adversarial to a cooperative society will have to be made.

I think that the technology for the participation of all the people in a country in the everyday decision making is already available. The technology of the automated banking machines (ATM) could easily be adopted for this purpose, so that everybody could participate, even people who do not have home computers or any access to Internet. Such dedicated ATM-like voting machines (or one could try to secure cooperation of the banks and use the already existing network of the ATMs, at least for a transitional period) could be positioned throughout communities so that most of the people could easily reach them. Everybody would have a unique ID card (in the future one would switch to more sophisticated methods of identification, such as electronic fingerprints or voice recognition, that are just now emerging) that would gain them access to the machine, and could answer a series of yes-no (referenda-like) questions concerning the current issues of the nation (province, city, community). The voting results would be binding for the executive. The questions could be made known for example every week through all available media. People would be able to answer the questions any time during the week after the questions had been posted. For more important issues longer time for discussion could be allocated.

Some of remaining issues to solve: Who and how will formulate the questions for the weekly (or so) voting? How to make the electronic network between the voting stations and the tallying centre absolutely safe and incorruptable so that no hacker could tamper with the results?

In the meantime (or as an integral element of the DD system), one could use the yearly filling the Income Tax Returns as a possible element of the process of gradual transition to DD (in addition to an ever increasing use of referenda). I have noticed that Elections Canada has alredy started to use the 1997 income tax return form as a medium of keeping voter lists up to date. As the part of filling an Income Tax Return, every citizen would indicate how their tax contribution should be allocated among various governmental (national) expenditures. The government would then only administer the collected funds and spend them according to the collective wish of the citizens. After a while, people would be able to make very responsible decisions when they would be faced with the impact of their previous decisions (fund allocations in previous years). To avoid large disruptions during this learning process, one could start only with a small percentage of the total national budget to be allocated directly by people in the first year, with the rest being allocated by the government in the same way as at present. The percentage of the budget determined directly by citizens would increase gradually to the full 100% over a certain number of years. In order that this works, it would have to be transparent though what was the impact of the people's decisions and what was the impact of the bureaucrats' allocation of the portion of the budget still under their jurisdiction.