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.