Direct democracy and budget decisions


Paul Cockshott and Karen Renaud have a new paper on electronic direct democracy, “Extending Handivote to Handle Digital Economic Decisions”. It broadens their previous work on standard “yes/no” plebiscites to include voting systems where responses can assume a range of values, multiple issues are decided upon, and there are functional dependencies between items (where, say, the chosen tax level constrains the range of possible expenditures). Among other things, they demonstrate a procedure for finding the optimal feasible mix of expenditure compatible with a balanced budget.  

There is now no technical reason for the broad spending priorities of governments (x% on health, y% on education) to be decided by a professional political class rather than the populace as a whole. If you like the idea of democracy, electoral representation is, at best, a lossy compression of voters’ policy preferences. Multi-candidate ballots are low-bandwidth channels (on the face of it, a vote for Obama over McCain conveys log2(2)=1 bit of information), while the opinions of citizens over all political issues contain a huge amount of information. Elections work by exploiting redundancy in voters’ preferences. As everyone knows, political beliefs on different issues aren’t independent; they are often highly correlated, as with for example stances on abortion rights and attitudes towards global warming. The existence of mutual information between preferences (if someone wants x, there’s an increased likelihood that they also want y) allows the political signal to be compressed into party affiliation or support for some candidate. (The distribution of voter’s favourite “ideal points” in a multidimensional policy space thus maps roughly to a one-dimensional ideological spectrum, which forms the basis for the well-known median-voter theorem.)

This not-terrible system for transmitting popular wishes might have satisficed in the 19th century. But there’s just no point to it now, other than to protect the social privileges of certain groups.


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6 Responses to “Direct democracy and budget decisions”

  1. Chiara Says:

    I wonder why Cockshott and Renaud tied ‘Handivote’ so tightly to mobile phone technology when it seems like any old unique ID system would suffice. I assume it was done in anticipation of future government tenders, or something like that?

    Anyway, all the whiz-bang algorithms in the world can’t overcome the myriad political/philosophical impediments to direct democracy. (I hope.)

  2. Nick Says:

    They say elsewhere that mobile phones were chosen because they’re more widely available (cheaper) than computers or other already-existing possible input devices.

    Not sure what you mean about direct democracy’s insurmountable problems. Care to explain?

  3. Chiara Says:

    Okay, yeah, the accessibility/participation thing makes sense. I forget that not everyone’s excited about getting all up in the democratic process, yo.*

    As for what I said above, I think I’m just giving away my ideological position: I don’t think direct democracy is inherently a swell idea.

    The only way to make public input into spending priorities at all workable is to divide the role of government into vague but discrete categories like education and health, ask even vaguer questions**, restrict the possible answers, and then modulate the results using complex algorithms. Even then, I have a feeling the general populace would direct 107% of the budget towards giving every child a free flag on Anzac Day and other populist, Hez-baiting crap. (Numerical error very much intended.)

    I see paternalistic bureaucracy not as some unwelcome, unavoidable restriction on the democratic ideal, but as a welcome and very necessary translation/facilitation of the stupid, stupid citizenry. (Yeah.. this is what happens when fundamentalist misanthropy meets starry-eyed West Wing idealism.)

    Your point about lossy compression is a good one, though. I think there’d be an enormous shift in the political landscape, even allowing for the, uh, comorbidity of particular values.

    * I remain thrilled to have exercised my right as a Commonwealth citizen to vote in the 2008 London election, despite the fact that it spawned Mayor BoJo.

    ** What on earth does “spend 5% more on hospitals” actually mean, in reality?

  4. Chiara Says:

    (Re: lossy compression, I mean there’d be an enormous shift if it were no longer necessary to pick the ‘best fit’.)

  5. ChrisB Says:

    We don’t have direct democracy not only because we have only recently gained the ability to do it, but also because ever since Burke we have concluded that representative democracy is a superior system.

    There are a number of reasons for this. In part we feel that the model parliamentarian is better informed than the general public, and is more likely to be sensitive to competing interests; in part because Arrow’s Theorem says that it’s theoretically impossible to guarantee that you can sum individual preferences into a general solution; in part because public opinion is not necessarily coherent or consistent. All of these are, however, largely irrelevant.

    The insurmountable problem with direct democracy – with plebiscites, no matter how efficient, working from citizen’s preferences – is that it mistakes the means for the end. The one absolute rule is that the king’s government must be carried on. (That’s an archaic formulation, but it does emphasize that the nation is more than simply the sum of the preferences of its citizens). Decisions have to be taken within reality-based constraints and within the constraints of previous decisions, and these decisions are governed by different standards of morality and desirability than the decisions we take as individuals; cf. Machiavelli.

    The functions of a parliamentary system are
    to elect an executive
    to provide the personnel for the executive
    to provide sufficient legitimacy to that executive
    to blur and diffuse individual solicitations into a policy that’s generally acceptable

    It’s a category error to say that what’s important to the parliament as a parliament is important to the executive as an executive. The fact that in this country there’s a partial coincidence between the members of each group only confuses the issue.

  6. Nick Says:

    Thanks for the comment, Chris.

    Direct democracy isn’t necessarily more vulnerable to preference-aggregation paradoxes (dictatorship, cycling etc) than are other voting procedures, so that’s neither here nor there.

    Sure, elected representatives are on average more educated than the population from which they’re drawn. But, given the restricted class of decisions that can possibly be made by referendum, I doubt this matters much.

    As for the stuff you mention in the last 3 paragraphs – yes, decision-making and implementation are different functions. But an executive could be formed by random sample, for example, rather than elected.

    Glad I’ve been alerted to your blog: it looks good!

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