One of the topics that’s popped up a few times recently in things I have been watching and reading is the concept of delegate democracy. This is covered in Wikipedia under Delegative Democracy (or Liquid Democracy) but neither that or the work by Guillermo O’Donnell really covers the version I would like to highlight.
I’m currently reading the excellent History of the Future in 100 Objects by Adrian Hon. In the chapter titled “The Steward Medal” we find a definition as follows:
This was a welcome change from the laughable ‘vote every few years’ notion of democracy used in many countries. Experiments with direct democracy fared little better. The endless series of projects, laws, charities, taxes, and initiatives that required, or at least invited, votes from citizens made it impossible for the average voter to make informed decisions; just look at California’s ballots in the early 20th century. As Alex Briand, a landscape designer from Toulouse, put it at the time, “I know I should be reading up on all of these new laws, but honestly I don’t have the time. I might as well just close my eyes and press a button, for all I know. I’d like to say to someone smart, ‘You decide!'”
In the end, that’s the route that many people took: they delegated their voting authority to bodies they trusted to make informed decisions on their behalf. As such, it shared a lot in common with representative democracy, but crucially, each citizen could choose their own individual representation for different kinds of votes. You might delegate votes on economic issues to a respected professor and votes on environmental issues to a principled non-profit. While some people accumulated thousands or even millions of delegated votes – numbers similar to elected representatives – the point was that citizens did not have to compromise in their choice of delegates when it came to specific issues.
I find the concept of this very appealing as it means I can delegate my democratic impetus to Ben Goldacre for decisions about the NHS, Brian Cox for decisions about the science budget, perhaps Emma Mulqueeny for education, the Open Rights Group for privacy issues, etc, etc. I don’t know anyone I would trust to make military decisions so maybe I would keep that influence to myself or I’d be prepared to listen to candidates who would like me to give them that role.
The important thing is what position those delegates would have. It would certainly not be my intention that they would directly augment, never mind replace, the existing system of elected representatives in Parliament. However, ministerial decision makers and parliamentarians would have to articulate very good reasons to implement a particular new policy or piece of legislation if delegates in that area, representing significant portions of the population, disagreed with them.
Recently I’ve been watching the recordings of the select committee meetings for the Digital Democracy Commission (more of which to come). A lot of that has been people discussing how they would like to see the UK democratic institutions reorganised rather than necessarily about the impact of digital. After all – it’s only a tool. While those kinds of changes are almost certainly outside the remit of that Commission I think it would be very good to have a second one which explicitly looks at the kind of things that have come up in that discussion – including the idea of delegated democracy.
Bearing in mind the outcome of the proportional representation referendum we may be a long way from any kind of substantive change but everything has to start somewhere.
[Yes, I didn’t manage a post yesterday but 3 in four days isn’t bad. Onwards!]