Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Can we have democracy without politicians?

A while ago, I tentatively offered an argument that – while people are still in favour of elected governments (where they pick the people who then sit in the legislature and legislate on their behalf) - they may no longer wish them to be peopled with politicians.

By politicians, I mean people with the kind of characteristics that we associate with the word. You know the sort of thing - slimy, scheming, backstabbers who will try and leave everyone with the short-term illusion that they are agreed with, and a longer-term sense of personal betrayal.

I’ve banged on about different models of representation in the past – jurist and clerical, for example. But I’d be interested in what other people think about this?

Do we want to be represented by people who are more prepared to show their working? More prepared to place themselves open to consultation, put stuff on the record, explain themselves, and be prepared to defend their decisions?

Would the public accept someone who says this to them:
  • You’ve elected me (or at least the people who live near you rejected me less forcefully than they rejected any of my rivals at the last election)
  • I’ve asked you your views on a particular policy
  • I’ve asked others what their view are
  • I’ve done a reasonable survey of the evidence
  • I’ve spoken to a few experts
  • I’ve spoken to my party colleagues who have shown me where I need to be consistent with other policy commitments that I’ve made
  • I’ve made my decision and cast my vote in Parliament
  • I didn’t cast the vote the way you would have liked me to, but I think I’ve done the best thing for the nation as a whole
  • Will you vote for me again next time please?
In addition, this person would sometimes need to say...
  • You’ve elected me (etc, etc)
  • You’ve lobbied me on an issue that I’m not really able to be active on (for whatever reason)
  • I’ve delegated my decision-making on this issue to another representative that I trust, and that person has .... (gone through the process outlined above)
  • We haven’t voted in a way that you would like us to, but I think I’ve done the best thing for the nation as a whole
  • Will you vote for me again next time please?
Now, remember, if this model is to work, these people need to be incentivsed to do this - not the other things that they could be doing. The answer to the final question is crucial (allowing, obviously for a bit of churn).

If this were a model that works, then it opens a space for the kind of hyper-interactive individuals that social networking sites are creating – a new sort of non-politician representative.
So, here (at last) is my question:

Is this a model that would work, or is the old model – the politician model – the least-worst one on offer?

Let me know your verdict?


Tom Freeman said...

I suspect there’s a version of Gresham’s law in operation, by which bad politics drives out good. If you try to explain a complex and contentious position and how you reached it, you’re going to have a hard time up against someone who’s happy to hit you hard and fast with some punchy soundbites and pander to people’s prejudices.

You're talking here about individual representatives – but how many voters really know much about their MP or other candidates? The main factor in most voting decisions is party affiliation. And most of these voters’ changes in voting behaviour are largely driven by the activities of the party leaderships (as portrayed in the mass media).

So either electoral politics would have to become more decentralised, with local candidates and representatives having higher profiles and more independence from the party machine (fewer MPs with larger constituencies?), or the party leaderships would need to become more discursive etc. And the media would have to be on side. It seems unlikely...

cian said...

I think the main problem is that most people lack the time and energy to evaluate somebody's record. I suspect this is for perfectly sound evolutionary reasons - thinking takes energy (literally), and energy is something all life tries to minimize its use of. So we've developed tricks for making "good enough" decisions "efficiently" (quickly, and for minimum energy exertion).

In the case of making decisions this means we rely on heuristics. There seems to be something moving over there, so its probably a good idea to move somewhere safer. And that's why voters are so prone to electoral tricks, and are likely to vote for somebody who appears trustworthy. Or vote according to the suggestions of people we trust. Additionally you have the problems that emotions and hormones affect how we make decisions.

People don't make decisions "rationally" (in the economic/public choice theory sense), and systems designed under the assumption that they do are doomed to failure.

Anthony said...

I posted a response too long for these comments here