Unanimous direct democracy

I was recently introduced to a few positive arguments for this in R. P. Wolff’s In Defense of Anarchism. Lacking the book to cite, he was absorbed with the problems of democracy, namely, the triumphant majoritarian democracy, in the manner that the minority suffers exclusion from representative processes and alienation in their laws. Philosophically he thinks contemporary liberalism leads to an illegitimate government, and anarchism is the only legitimate form of governance.

He proposed a possible method in which unanimity might be lost (as is the case in any large enough governed society), but directness and egalitarianism sustained and an authentic “rule by the people” enacted: socially-funded television sets, installed at large community centers or subsidized for private homes, with featured debates at every election season. Specialists, e.g., in fields like economics, American history and foreign policy, could feature, from various recesses of the political spectrum, to explain the more complicated issues in a collaborative, unpedantic effort. Middle Eastern history, for example, could be briefly clarified before candidates discuss their stances. (Of course, biases would find an entry point through specialists. Further discussion is necessary for this.) At the end of the week of debates, once issues are clarified and nominees understood, the remote control could be used to cast a vote for each member of the household according to the census. This system would greatly increase voter participation, and make domestic politics worthwhile for the average citizen, returning policy-making to everyone affected.

This is an idea of working within the current society on a system for better voter say: it should be judged on these merits as such.

Is it feasible? Is it at all admirable? Discuss.

21 thoughts on “Unanimous direct democracy

  1. We could change to “Instant Run Off Voting” where you have the right to pick three political candidates upon an order of preference. Stephan Hill’s book “Ten Steps To Repair American Democracy” goes into this along with other suggestions to how we could improve things.

    There is also the methods used by the Greeks of Classical Athens where representatives were selected by a lottery from among all eligible citizens. That gives you a true cross section of the populace and likely would be even better than anything else.

    Of course those who benefit from the existing status quo would be opposed to all of this.

    • In rank voting, there’s a strange phenomenon where candidates can win that do not have any one majority’s vote, and the transitivity quality for preference is not preserved. I think Lewis Carroll first demonstrated this. In action, this would be very frustrating for voters.

      The voter lottery of Athens doesn’t fix the educational gap, though.

    • We have much the same problem in that in close elections only a relatively tiny majority of voters are satisfied with the decision. Everyone else voted for a candidate that lost.

  2. Good luck getting the average voter to watch these debates, or getting unbiased “specialists.” And God help us if the booboisie starts casting direct votes on issue, as I presume is proposed here.

    • 1) The average voter would have access to a television to watch the debates, creating accessibility, and citizens would be reinvigorated with the promise of actual sway. Actually watching the debates isn’t guaranteed – but it’s reasonable to suppose that with increased community focus on politics, people would encourage people and engagement would be self-sustaining.

      2) As already noted, getting unbiased specialists is a difficulty. Mostly a problem, though, of recruiting specialists from various political allegiances to bring together contrasting opinions to present.

      3) The uneducated class could very easily become the politically-educated class through this system, and make more informed opinions. If you’re fond of complaining about the ignorant masses, it would seem you should support this idea, to be consistent.

      (Had this posted early, but accidentally not in reply.)

  3. It is not efficient for everyone to get involved in every policy issue. Nor is it efficient for every citizen to learn the policy details necessary to cast an informed vote. Everyone has their comparative advantage and that means not everyone is meant to be a voter.

    If you believe that everyone should have the option to cast a vote on policy issues, why not add a constraint? Introduce direct democracy, but you get only X number of votes. I’d prefer that everyone had a base number of votes, plus additional votes in proportion for how much net taxes they paid. However I’m fine with an equal number of votes.

    This way everyone could be involved in policy making, but they’d have to pick their battles carefully.

    • As a progressive instead of a libertarian I have a different take on who gets to vote and how many they get. Only citizens of a polity vote and some period of public service is required for citizenship. Let’s say a base of 2 years. Additional public service gets more votes.

    • “Public service” is an ambiguous phrase, though.

      I make donut burgers for drunk people at 3 in the morning on weekends. Why is my work not considered “public service” and the work of a DMV employee is?

      Ambiguity is the mother of all despotisms, Dr A. What you really mean, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that people who work for the government for a certain period of time should get more votes. That’s tyranny writ large.

    • To remove some ambiguity….public service could include military service, conservation work ala the CCC, unskilled/low skilled medical care, unskilled/low skilled work on infrastructure.

    • This is still a system that favors government work over work in other spheres of society, though.

      Again: Why is, say, volunteer work for CCC (for which you get paid a small stipend, so it’s not really volunteer work anyway) deserving of more votes than volunteer work at your local YMCA?

      It’s not. It’s tyranny writ large.

      To be fair, I think the whole more-votes-for-those-who-deserve-it idea is a terrible one to begin with. I just don’t see much wrong with the current system. Where the democratic process does fail, like in California, you find that this failing is due to the abandonment of the representative system in favor of “direct” democracy.

    • “Again: Why is, say, volunteer work for CCC (for which you get paid a small stipend, so it’s not really volunteer work anyway) deserving of more votes than volunteer work at your local YMCA?”

      It’s not. Volunteer work at the YMCA would be fine; or through churches or any non-profit organization. Public service doesn’t have to go through the gummint.

    • So, to take this a little further, a Mormon doing missionary work for the LDS church would, under a Progressive voting system, get more votes than a slob drinking beer and making donut burgers all day in Texas?

    • I’m not so much interested in more votes/fewer votes as get’s a vote/doesn’t get a vote. What I would like to see is citizenship based on public service. A mormon doing missionary work is note engaged in public service. A mormon picking up trash from the roadside is engaged in public service.

    • Ah gotcha. Thanks for the clarification. That’s actually not a bad idea, although “citizenship” might be a tricky issue…

  4. Is it admirable? Yes. Writing a book about something that you’re passionate about is an admirable accomplishment. Is it feasible? No.

    Doesn’t liberal democracy in the West already look like Wolff’s utopia, though? For example: If you want to find a specialist on a certain topic, you can. If you want to watch political debates between candidates, you can. If you want to get analysis on said debates from people, you can. If you’d rather watch paint dry than participate in what amounts to a glorified popularity contest, you can. The fact that people don’t, or won’t, do these things before casting their votes suggests that voting in an informed manner is just not that important to them. I don’t see how turning elections into a glorified season of American Idol would change this.

    If anything, I’d argue that liberal democracy is already much less authoritarian than Wolff’s utopia.

  5. I think voting is not important to them because they don’t feel like they can make an impact. When voting is done instantly in front of a television screen, with a digital register, and the community feels the unity of political engagement, there would probably be more interest. It’s true the average person can find all those things, and if interested, would. But imagine the cessation of the process with billions of dollars of campaigning with the introduction of a singular month of intensive debate and specialist commentary.

    American Idol is also less commercialized and demagogic than the current campaign system, and occasionally has better singers. Maybe we can learn from it.

    I’d like you to elaborate on how Wolff’s system might be more authoritarian.

    • A good response William, and one that forces me to write a long response.

      Firstly, though, the authoritarianism of Wolff’s system. I’ll use the television sets. During the month-long campaign, would any other television be allowed on-air? If so, what type of commercials would be allowed to be aired? Certainly beer commercials, retirement account commercials, automotive commercials, and campaign commercials would have to be banned, if the purity of the new system is to remain intact, no?

      Regarding participation in governance through voting, I’ll be a bit more direct by breaking down your thoughts in segments:

      I think voting is not important to them because they don’t feel like they can make an impact.

      Nope. It’s because we are “too busy” or “not interested.” This is why old folks tend to do most of the voting. Apathy is simply not an issue when it comes to electoral politics in the United States.

      When voting is done instantly in front of a television screen, with a digital register, and the community feels the unity of political engagement, there would probably be more interest.

      You are right that there may be more interest, but I don’t see how this is necessarily a good thing. What benefits would it bring to our society? To ourselves as individuals? The phrase “unity of political engagement” also suggests, to me, that your conception of “politics” is still a bit skewed (I blame your high school civics teacher). “Politics” is about conflict. Nothing more, nothing less. So when people engage in the political process they are competing with each other for power (or, less often, liberty). In liberal democracies, we vote not because we want or need everyone to have a say, but because we have managed to temper conflicts so well that we have actually achieved a way to get those conflicts out in the open, debate them out in the open, and allow anyone who would like to the chance to have their say on the matter. This does not mean that there is anything like “unity” when it comes to the democratic process, aside from the fact that we are all limited in how much we can exert our will over others.

      And how does one feel the unity of something, politically I mean? I think it’s time for you to read up on Dr J’s old writings about fascism…

    • Part of the problem is that elections are held on a day when most people are working. So they either have to try to get to the polls before work, or going to the polls after work. Usually in both cases they will have to stand in line in order to vote. Which to at least some might be seen as not being worth the bother.

      Seniors are often eligible to obtain absentee ballots instead of having to go to the polls to vote. So for them it is less trouble to vote, which may be one of the reasons why they vote more often than younger people do.

    • An interesting point Jerome, but do you think lines would be longer or shorter if elections were held on weekends? 🙂

    • @Brandon Uh oh, a link to Jacques. And it’s long. Alright, I will return. The comments are getting too crowded anyway. (I also didn’t mean unity of engagement in any literal way – more just that ferocity prompts action.)

      One point though – that study by the Washington Post has an immediate flaw, and that is that the listed answers are not exhaustive. Most participants would be likely to align with whatever resonants with them best, and there is not even an option for “I feel like my vote won’t make a difference.” In fact, the available answer most similar to that is probably “Not interested.” (Why are they uninterested? Could it be because they feel their vote just doesn’t matter?) So if anything, this poll might help my view that the lack of voting is due to feelings of ineffectiveness.

      It might seem bad form to criticize the results of a disinterested survey, but this poll is definitely poorly designed.

      Imagine an election with ten candidates, and only thirty voters. Each vote has a major sway. We wouldn’t imagine people would be “Too busy” to cast their vot in this scenario – because they directly feel the power of their choice. Getting American voting to be more direct would help with voter turnout, I have no doubt.

    • William,

      You raise a good point about the design of the survey, but WaPo mentions that it was conducted specifically with already registered voters, which implies that the survey’s respondents are already politically engaged (or at least interested). That’s probably why “my vote doesn’t matter” was left off the questionnaire.

      Again I don’t disagree that direct democracy would enhance voter turnout, I just don’t see how this could be a good thing.

      As a reminder, I’m a democrat. (You or others reading this might be interested in the dialogue I had with Chhay Lin – one of NOL‘s resident anarcho-capitalists – awhile back.)

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