Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ How Direct Democracy Would Work

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Aug 12, 1997

Posted to HotWired 12 Aug 97

Some of the more pointed comments in this thread have dealt with the question of how a direct democracy would work. An account of how it would work would also allay some of the concerns about anarchy reigning supreme.

That said, I don't have a full-fledged proposal. Nor could I, because the mechanisms would have to be resolved through a good deal of discussion.

But I can make some relevant points:

  • Direct democracy is not simply a series of referenda on every national policy issue. To attempt to do that is to attempt to have each citizen emulate the task of legislator. There is, as some posters have proposed, no reason why it would work.

  • Direct democracy is, by necessity, not a form of centralized government. It requires a devolution of powers into the smallest jurisdictional unit possible. A consequence of direct democracy is the development of distinct communities, each with slightly different definitions of how society should function (echos of John Stuart Mill here).

  • Direct Democracy does not work without inviolate civil rights. Some posters have raised questions about what the majority might do to the minority. Just as representative democracies have checks on the power of the elected representatives, so also must a direct democracy.

  • In a direct democracy, there is less emphasis on legislation, and more emphasis on agreement and protocol. The internet is a good example of this. The WWW consortium has no legislative powers over internet users. Yet they define HTML as a protocol, which becomes standard, because people willingly adopt that protocol for their communications.

  • In a direct democracy, the agenda, as well as the outcome, is set by the people. Gerrymandered referendum questions, such as we have seen in both Canada and the United States, will play at best only a small role, because people won't support putting them to the vote.

Some other comments...

  • Participation is key to the effective functioning of a direct democracy. In some cases... like the routing of a highway, for example, people will be motivated to participate. In others, like the allocation of their tax dollars, they will want to participate rather than leave it to a default. But...

  • Not every participates in everything. A lot of issues will become the domain of local jurisdictions. A lot of issues will be decided primarily by people with an interest in those issues. Just as I play no role in the definition of usenet (since I never use it) so also a person who has no interest in hog farming probably won't participate much in legislation surrounding that industry.

  • Education is critical. In a system of direct democracy, it is necessary that people be able to read, write, and exercise good reason and judgement. It would also help if they knew a little history, geography, could calculate fractions, and understood basic economic concepts.

  • Access is critical. For a direct democracy to work, people must have access to (a) information on the topic they are discussing, (b) information about other people's views, (c) some means of distributing their own view, and (d) some means of weighing in with their opinion (for example, voting).

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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