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Imagine that the democratic system was allowed to progress so that a direct democracy now existed in your country. Now everybody can vote on all political issues electronically or via electronic voting stations. Politicians are unemployed, but civil servants still work to carry out the actions as voted by all the citizens of the country. How do you think such a system would work in practice over the short and long term?

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You mean like Switzerland? – JordiVilaplana Jan 13 at 16:57
Under this new system who proposes the questions to be voted on? Who compiles the options? How is national security defended? – Scott Downey Jan 13 at 17:15
@ScottDowney, is the obvious choice ;-) – bob0the0mighty Jan 13 at 21:28
From the above linked article: "* Instead of seeing it as a fair system under which 'everyone' has equal rights, the critics saw it as the numerically preponderant poor tyrannizing the rich.*" Fascinating – Todd Wilcox Jan 13 at 22:06
See this faction where "... a neural implant that constantly seeks the user's opinion on aspects of Demarchist life." – JDługosz Jan 14 at 5:00

13 Answers 13

up vote 31 down vote accepted

First, you'd have to figure out exactly how it would work.

Will every single government decision be made by a referendum? Suppose the government still has welfare programs to help the poor. Will we have a vote on whether Fred Smith should receive benefits? Then the next day on whether Sally Jones should receive benefits? Etc. You might say of course not, we would have a set of objective criteria and it would be up to civil servants to apply them. But even so, the present criteria are very complex, involving income, assets, number of people in the family, etc. Many government regulations are thousands of pages long. Would we vote on each sentence, one by one?

Who would decide what gets voted on, what the choices are, and how they are described? Hey, if I get to decide what goes on the ballot, I'd gladly support your system! Like, "Should we declare war on Ruritania (a) today or (b) tomorrow?" That's obviously a biased question, there should really be a choice of "never". But who decides when a question is biased, and what makes it fair? Very realistically, politicians today often try to frame a question so that whether you answer yes or no, you are agreeing with them. Activists are always conducting opinion polls carefully phrased so that they are happy with any answer you give. One that comes to mind asked, "Which is more important, (a) balancing the budget or (b) cutting taxes?" A majority answered "(a)", and so they declared that the people were opposed to tax cuts. If the majority had said (b) then they could have said, "Oh well, I guess we'll just have to run up more deficits." Many would say that the right answer is to cut spending, but that wasn't even given as a choice. I could give many similar examples.

You could say that you'll avoid this problem by allowing anyone to propose a referendum. But if literally anyone in the country can call a referendum at any time, then wouldn't we have thousands of referendums every day? How could people possibly find time to even cast their vote on them all, never mind study the issue so they could make an informed decision? Sure, you could say that someone will have the job of deciding which proposals are reasonable and which are not, but then you're right back to, Who makes that decision?

It's easy to write on a piece of paper, "All reasonable options will be given and the wording will be unbiased." But how do you make that happen? At some point a person has to decide that this question is reasonable and fairly worded.

What happens when two votes contradict each other? Again, using opinion polls as a reference point, pollsters are well aware that subtle differences in wording can give very different results. For example, in one experimental poll, they asked at one point whether all citizens should get free health care "provided by the government". Later in the same poll they asked if citizens should get free health care "paid for with tax dollars". Presumably those two questions mean the same thing. Yet, I forget the exact numbers now, many people answered yes to the first question and no to the second. This was on the same poll, so it was the very same people.

As you note, you would have to have civil servants to carry out the policies that people voted on. Who chooses the civil servants? Personally, I've come to the conclusion that referendums under our current system are almost useless, because even if a referendum passes overwhelmingly, if the politicians and the bureaucrats don't like it, they just don't carry it out. Sometimes they make excuses: we're working on it, it's very complicated, see we enforced it one or two times, etc. Other times they flat out say they won't do it because they think it's wrong.

I conclude that 100% direct democracy is wildly impractical, or at least, that no one has yet figured out how to do it.

Perhaps you could make it work for a small number of high-level questions. Should we declare war on X? Should we ban handguns? Should we outlaw abortion? Etc. But even there, one can easily imagine all sorts of possible half-way positions. Like in between "anyone can buy any weapons whenever he likes" and "all weapons are banned" there are all sorts of possible half-way positions.

Assuming you found some way around these problems, you certainly would not eliminate politicians and lobbyists, at least not without a whole lot of further policies. Yes, you could write on a piece of paper, "there will be no politicians and all citizens will have an equal voice". But will you make it illegal for people to encourage their friends and neighbors to vote one way or the other? If so, your society is not free at all. If not, how do you draw the line between "chatting with your friends", "writing a letter to the editor or posting a column on the Internet now and then", and "making a career of political action". If you have no rules about what sort of political action people can engage in, then some people will devote their lives to convincing others to vote their way, and they will get people who agree with them to support them. I think that's pretty much the definition of a "politician". If you say that there will be restrictions on political action, than who enforces these rules, and how do you ensure they do it fairly? I used to be an officer in a Political Action Committee, and I saw first hand how the people responsible for enforcing campaign laws could come down hard on groups they didn't like while giving groups they did like every benefit of the doubt.

Addendum — Switzerland

I see that the OP has made a few comments about Switzerland. I don't claim to know a lot about how Swiss politics, but based on what I know, here are some thoughts. (I'm glad to hear comments from anyone who knows more about how it works in practice.)

Switzerland may well have the most "direct democracy" of any country in the world. They have a provision in their constitution for holding referendums, and it is frequently used. I just checked and found one source that said there have been about 250 proposed constitutional amendments in the past 150 years (obviously not all passed), and there are a dozen or so other referendums in a typical year.

But Switzerland makes no attempt to make ALL government decisions by referendum. They still have a parliament and an administration. Switzerland's system of referendums serves as much to shape debates in parliament as to be used in practice. That is, if a majority of parliament favor a law that has strong opposition from the people, opposing parties can threaten to call a referendum. Often the threat is enough to lead to compromise, and they never actually call a referendum. So their referendums are not primarily a means of setting the national agenda, but rather a brake on extremism by the coalition in power. In my humble opinion, this is far more practical than 100% direct democracy.

It takes 50,000 signatures on a petition to call a referendum. In theory, anyone can write up a proposal and try to collect signatures. In practice, collecting 50,000 signatures is a lot of work and requires a lot of people. Also in practice, the political parties will quickly line up for or against any given proposal. So the Swiss system does not eliminate political parties or politicians in any sense.

What Switzerland's system DOES do is, (a) prevent the ruling coalition from ramming through policies that the majority of the people oppose; and (b) give the people a way to force the government to address issues that it would rather avoid.

Given that they still have an elected parliament and political parties, I presume that in general, if a policy is popular with the people, there will be a significant faction supporting it in the government. I mean, if 60% of the people favor X, it may well be that the ruling parties oppose X, but there will still be a strong minority in parliament that support it. So for almost any serious proposal, there will be politicians in the political system who support it and will fight for it.

In my opinion, this sort of mixed representative democracy slash direct democracy system is far more practical than 100% direct democracy.

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Pretty comprehensive and well argued answer. In reply I would point to Switzerland who implement their version of direct democracy sure it not 100% but its more than other countries and resulted in a stable system for many years. This is an evidence that progress to increased democracy is possible without leading to chaos. – ejectamenta Jan 13 at 19:25
As long as your "never" vote on Ruritania can be revisited next Tuesday when they invade Germany. – GalacticCowboy Jan 13 at 21:36
@GalacticCowboy Sure. "Never" was not really the right word, I was just contrasting with "today" and "tomorrow". I presume any policy should be subject to change in light of changing circumstances or new information. "New information" often consisting of, "we tried this and it didn't work". – Jay Jan 14 at 6:51
that's exactly it, Switzerland have a progressive democracy that is in advance of most other countries. They have introduced some safeguards, maybe because of experience or maybe because of the current stage of development of their system. If anything comes from this topic I hope it would be the idea that democracy does not have to be fixed by a unchanging constitution, but that it can develop and improve to better meet the needs of society. Progress is common to most systems existing in a dynamic environment (for instance most commercial organisations). – ejectamenta Jan 14 at 9:57
Notes about Switzerland (unordered) : (a) There is no ruling coalition. The executive power is hold conjointly by 7 people, elected by the parliament. This means that each of the 4 biggest parties (out of ~7) have generally 1 or 2 representative there. (b) Referendums apply to any law passed by the parliament, but law proposal by the people only apply to amendments of the constitution. (c) These are not meant to set up the political agenda, but are sometimes used as such by the political parties. (d) The change from ~feodal to this form of democracy lead to a civil war. (a tiny one but still) – Kolaru Jan 14 at 14:55

It would be complete chaos, with manipulation of the masses become crucially important to those who have the means to do so.

Consider that most people make decisions based on very little, or very biased information:

The guy I listen to on local radio said that Orcas kidnap babies from their cribs and eat them, so I'm voting to allow the Japanese whaling fleets into our territorial waters!

Not only:

  1. Would the rich be able to manipulate public opinion on a level never before encountered.

Donald Trump has the money to launch any number of propaganda campaigns which would reach millions. He could also announce certain ridiculous promises if a certain issue is voted in. For example: I'll shave my head if the whaling fleets are allowed into our territorial waters. How many idiots would say: "OMG, I TOTALLY WANNA SEE TRUMP DO THAT!" VOTE.


  1. Famous people (the likes of Miley Cyrus, etc.) would have an incredible amount of power is swinging votes toward one side of an issue or another, even in foreign countries.

Miley Cyrus tweeted her anger at the government of British Columbia, Canada organizing a Black Bear cull. Their numbers had reached the point where they were coming into towns looking for food - like people's pets. How many idiots would be swayed by Cyrus's completely uninformed, ignorant stance that killing even a single "innocent animal" is murder? Sure, the local town people know that these animals are dangerous, but the more numerous unaffected citizens in the bigger cities might out-vote the locals on this issue.

The fact is that most people DO NOT understand the implications of the decisions that legislators make. Sometimes the legislators themselves fail to consider certain information, or implement flawed or biased decisions based on their ideology, campaign promises, as political favors, etc.

Allowing the ignorant to chime in, however, is a recipe for complete disaster.

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One could argue that this is a problem with democracy in general - in many ways it's more of a popularity contest than it is a rational objective selection of the best candidate. – I Stanley Jan 13 at 17:11
@IStanley - while that's true, there's still certain checks and balances in place in order to not allow any single megalomaniac from completely polarizing public opinion and doing something extreme. The general idea is that competent people are elected. We know that's not the case, but at the same time some competent politicians do get in. However, if you look at the population as a whole, the vast majority are not that well informed, or educated. I'd rather take my chances with the politicians, than with Billy-Bob's and Billy-Ray's opinions. – AndreiROM Jan 13 at 17:16
This view does have some caveats; in a non-mandatory voting country, for example, it's possible that only the most engaged and informed would vote anyway. It's also possible that the most swivel-eyed would too, of course :) – Whelkaholism Jan 13 at 17:36
I suppose a better way of putting it would be the people with the strongest opinions on how the country should be run would vote. Oh dear. – Whelkaholism Jan 13 at 17:38
Re: this answer, that's precisely the outcome I would expect. Even now, party politics is mostly a popularity show using fear, ideology, data mining and public talking skills instead of demonstrating competency. However, doing the opposite and taking decisions away from the uninformed masses and letting experts decide (technocracy) would quickly have the masses blame the experts and revolt... – Cygon Jan 14 at 14:48

Mob rule - the rise of Tyrants - see ancient Greek history.

This was discussed by the US Founding Fathers. They studied the history of democracy and came to the same conclusion: Direct Democracy is very unstable and prone to the rise of Personality Cults - Tyrants as they were called in Greek History.

The French Revolution devolved into mob rule in many places, mostly cities. People were arrested and/or executed on the opinions of the mob and nothing else.

When you have mob rule, your rights are dependent upon the goodwill of the mob and nothing more.

Do something to make the mob mad, and they vote to kill you, and you're dead.

That is much harder to accomplish through a slow moving representative democracy.

The very things that can make representative democracy annoying are the same things that protect your civilization from the emotions and whims of the mob.

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Certainly not - Plato, in his Republic clearly outlines how a tyrant comes to power by manipulating the mob, then using the mob to bring his enemies to court and have them executed. – Prinz Jan 13 at 18:26
Why does technology change anything? You are saying that everyone gets to vote. I submit to the mob for a vote that we execute you. I promise them your property and bank accounts if they vote "yes". They vote "yes", you get killed and we take your property. Modern or not, technology has nothing to do with it. – Prinz Jan 13 at 18:42
Why? Because people oftentimes want what others have. Especially if you are rich. You ask what kind of DD would allow a vote like that - I gave you two clear historical examples, which you rejected because they were old. Because you appear to be bigoted against other time cultures, let's use a current example. In the US, the majority of citizens in most States voted to reject gay marriage via DD. Were they right or wrong? – Prinz Jan 13 at 18:56
If the system doesn't allow us to call a vote to kill you and steal your property, then that must mean that someone decides what questions are allowed to be voted on and what questions are not. I volunteer to be that person. – Jay Jan 13 at 19:09
@sdrawkcabdear - depending upon what you mean by the "current system" (e.g. the US has a bunch of structural impediments to doing exactly what you propose), the issue is probability - not possibility. Although the same outcome for both "systems" is possible, they are not equally probable. It is far more probable with a mob rule system than a representative system designed to prevent what you describe (again, the US system is a good example). – Prinz Jan 13 at 20:32

It is obvious from your commenting that you believe that this system would be highly advantageous to current representative democracy. Like many other answers here I have some concerns.

Firstly, your assumption:

Politicians are unemployed, but civil servants still work to carry out the actions as voted by all the citizens of the country.

I am doubtful about this. In a direct democracy, you would need more, not less, politicians. Somebody needs to form all those referenda, administrate the voting, provide subject information, and implement the results. Those people are going to be politicians, if not by name, then by task. They will be very influential to the daily political life, and I see no plausible way to prevent their personal beliefs (or impact of the decision on them personally or on their friends and family) from impacting how they go on about their tasks (other than, say, having some sort of mindless drone or robot be responsible for this - this is worldbuilding.SE after all).

I have the impression that you assume this to be the tasks of the "civil servants" in your direct democracy. At the end of the day, if the real power ends up in the hands of appointed (not voted) civil servants who keep their job indefinitely, you have constructed a tyranny of technocrats. Incidentally, this is a common complaint about the European Union, where highly influental positions are filled by employees who get appointed rather than voted, and who remain in their post indefinitely and without any public validation. If those "civil servants" are, on the other hand, voted, then where is the difference to a politician?

Now to the core of your question:

How do you think such a system would work in practice over the short and long term?

Perfectly implemented, a direct democracy where almost anything gets voted on by a large fraction of society all the time (this is my assumption what you have in mind) would probably mean that the legislation would usually closely approximate the current sentiment of the majority of society about every issue. This sounds great, but has (besides rather obvious advantages) also tremendous disadvantages:

  • Minority rights stop to exist. Right now, one substantial benefit of representative democracy is that even minorities have (or should have) representation in parlament. If every issue gets decided by majority vote, a topic that is crucial to a small part of society but irrelevant or disadvantageous to the rest is essentially a lost cause.

(sidenote: I sense that you will argue that the majority will surely see the importance for the minority, and vote accordingly. As an example to the contrary, I live in Switzerland. As you mention elsewhere, in Switzerland indeed many important issues are already directly voted upon. This has sometimes interesting and illustrative effects. For instance, in the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, women were not allowed to vote until 1991. There were many, many referenda to give them voting rights like everywhere else in the Western world, which always got shot down based on ludicrous reasons by the male part of the population. I think this anecdote gives us a good feel for what would happen to underrepresented minoritoes in a pure direct democracy.)

  • Unpopular but necessary changes are impossible to implement. Good luck getting direct democracy approval for any change that will increase taxation for the majority of citizens.

  • Facts are (even more) irrelevant to political decision making. On all but the most simply decisions only a tiny fraction of voters actually have reasonable information to decide, hence people follow their heart and fall prey to all sorts of decision making fallacies.

(another sidenote: In Switzerland this is arguably already happening to many public votes. Many of the most contested issues are decided by both sides painting extreme and dark pictures of the future should the other side win, and at the end of the day the side that triumphs was more able to convince that Switzerland will burn should the other side win. Facts are not even a sidenote in some of those votes, and we are talking about one of the most educated countries in the world.)

  • Public attention is a fickle beast. The law of the direct democracy land changes all the time based on media reports or current events, and hence based on what the public currently considers the most important topics right now. Consequently, media are even more important and powerful, essentially replacing politicians as the entities that steer the country.

Due to this, over the medium to long run, some issues will arise that are again not voted on (taxation, basic rights, etc.). Otherwise, direct democracy land will slowly sink into chaos and anarchy, simply because it will be completely unable to reform and break down due to internal societal conflicts.

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Firstly I am in favour of democratic progression, I asked the question because I think it is an important one, as seen in all the interesting discussions. Civil servants are like employee's they are employed on the basis of qualifications to do the job, there could be voted in (like stack overflow moderators) there should be safeguards to prevent corruption, for instance corrupt and ineffective civil servants could get voted out. Your Swiss example reminds me of the recent Scotland referendum and all the media manipulation! It was a great however that they allowed this referendum to happen. – ejectamenta Jan 14 at 9:40
"Minority rights stop to exist." It is called by some "dictatorship of the 51%". However, as in Switzerland, you can fight against that by setting different level of vote, as it is done in federation. For example, your fellow Appenzeller can not vote on the politics of Geneva. – Kolaru Jan 14 at 15:10
Dictatorship of 51%? that's a lot of dictators! would they be all acting as dictators to each other? There was a time where there were a million little Hitlers, the cause was fascism, the very opposite of direct democracy – ejectamenta Jan 14 at 19:44
@ejectamenta, No, they would be acting together as a dictatorship to the 49%. And, if you think the rise of Hitler was the result of fascism then you need to study history. Hitler copied fascist concepts from Mussolini after he came to power, not before. – Prinz Jan 14 at 20:52
I said that the cause of the German people being like little Hitlers was because of Hitler's fascism, I don't claim Hitler invented the concept, (Machiavelli?) Having said that, you are quite right I am not a historian. – ejectamenta Jan 15 at 9:45

The ancient Greek philosophers were contemptuous of Democracy for a good reason, the mob would be swayed by Demagogues and make their choices based on the passions of the moment, rather than through reason or calculation.

In the History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides has many examples of the Athenian jury being swayed by Demagogues into making rash or poor decisions. While he may be biased since one of the decisions was to exile him for breaking off a naval engagement to save sailors of floundering ships in his fleet, events like the Mytilenian Debate and the Sicilian Expedition are very strong evidence that he was correct.

In order to govern, and in order for politics to even work (politics is defined as "a means of allocating scarce resources" in Organizational Theory), passions of the moment need to be placed in the background, so questions can be examined and answers developed. In ancient Greece, efforts were made to prevent the formation of what might be called voting blocks by having Jurors (voters) selected at random for each day's debates, and the organizing body (the Boule) made up of citizens selected by lot to serve for a year and having only one term for life, but this did nothing to dampen the effects of the Demagogues.

The American Founders separated the organs of state to ensure that no one person could gather power exclusively int their hands, even to the point of initially having different election systems for each branch of government (the Congress was and is elected by popular vote, while the Senate was appointed by the various State legislatures and the President is elected by a system of electoral college votes). In Switzerland, anyone can put a question for a referendum, and given sufficient signatures the legislature is compelled to examine the question, but are under no obligation to pass any legislation related to the question if they so wish, nor come to any predetermined answer (i.e. the question may be framed in such a way as to suggest or force a particular answer, but Swiss legislators are not compelled to answer the question in the "desired" manner).

So any "direct" system needs to have some sort of "dampening" mechanism to prevent voters from being overwhelmed by emotion and enacting laws on that basis.

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This is the answer. To know how a true democracy would affect society, look no further than ancient Athens, Greece. The word "democracy" has its roots in the Greek word "demagogue." – Greg Burghardt Jan 14 at 4:38
@GregBurghardt, that's a nice example of demagogic -- both democracy and demagogue come from demos. Correlation does not imply causation. – o.m. Jan 14 at 6:30
@o.m. - You are correct. Both words have the same root in Greek. – Greg Burghardt Jan 14 at 13:42
The system existing in Greece in 500BC cannot not be directly compared to today. However maybe it is the only example we can compare against since the Swiss model is only a partial implementation. Still observations about using damping mechanisms are useful. Nowadays however we have technology to assist, much less general levels of violence, there are legal frameworks in place to limit extremism and computer technology can help with implementation issues. – ejectamenta Feb 5 at 16:09

Like Andrei, I believe that it would result in chaos. Some more thoughts in that regard:

  • Direct democracy has problems when multiple related questions are asked. Do you want lower taxes? Do you want a lower public debt? Do you want decent schools? Do you want a strong national defense? If the answer to all four questions is "yes," what then?
  • On a related note, direct democracy has problems when it comes to negotiating compromise solutions. Say you have 10 trillion in spending priorities and 9 trillion in taxes. Do you call for another vote on both issues? Just on spending? Just on taxes?
  • There will be people who are working full time shaping public opinion, aka politicians. By pretending that they are concerned citizens like any other, they deceive the public. Better have them admit their party membership.
  • Last but not least, people with a real job and a real life can't afford to vote on all the issues. That leaves the crackpots and single-issue fanatics.

I'm not qualified to decide on a revision of the fire safety rules for apartment buildings. Neither are my elected representatives, but those representatives have the time to listen to many different interest groups, and perhaps even the budget for a staff which does research for them.

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@ejectamenta, then the people who control the questions set the agenda. And regarding politicians, imagine some guy tries to organize a vote on a minimum wage. He speaks in the neighborhood, he speaks in front of the town hall, and then people think he should speak in the capital. He says "sorry, I can't afford the bus ticket, and I can't afford to take the time off from work." So the supporters let a hat go ground to collect money. Does that make the speaker a politician? – o.m. Jan 13 at 17:51
@ejectamenta, I don't believe that political parties "belong" to special interest groups. Sure, special interests try to influence parties, but a well-organized party is more resilient to that than unorganized individuals. – o.m. Jan 13 at 18:11
@o.m. And if we have a law that says he's not allowed to collect money to engage in political action, then people who are independently wealthy and don't need to hold down a job, i.e. the rich, have way more political influence than the working class. Indeed, we have a law in the U.S. today that says that a candidate for public office cannot use campaign contributions to pay his living expenses, and that you cannot evade this rule by saying it was a personal gift and not a campaign contribution. As a campaign for federal office is pretty much a full time job for a year or more, this means ... – Jay Jan 13 at 19:19
... that only people who can afford to not work for a year can run for federal office. That is, you must be rich to run for federal office. It is literally AGAINST THE LAW for a middle class or poor person to run for federal office in the U.S. today – Jay Jan 13 at 19:20
@sdrawkcabdear Please read my post. I explained what I meant: to run for Federal office you have to be able to take a year or more off work to campaign, and you are not allowed to use campaign contributions or gifts to support yourself. I did not say or mean that the law explicitly says, "middle class people are not allowed to run for office", but rather that the law makes it almost impossible. – Jay Jan 14 at 6:58

Surprisingly there are some things we pay politicians for. There are a few issues its is hard to deal with without full time legislators.


Some topics are complex and so the laws controlling them have to be complex, the nuclear treaty with Iran would have to be multistep, and would require a strong understanding of the process of making nuclear weapons, Iran's current capabilities and the balance in the region. It would take days and weeks to learn enough about these issues to make an informed vote.


There are congressional committees that provide oversight for covert operations, direct democracy would require that everything the government knows is public information so we can vote on it.


There is only X money in the government's budget if everything everyone wanted got funded we would spend 5X or 10X. So a compromise needs to be reached where some things don't get funded, or taxes go up. Its very easy for part time legislators(direct democracy) to just dig in their heels and say I want thing Y and I refuse to compromise. Full time legislators spend time figuring out what others can and cant give up and have pressure on them from their constituents to balance the budget and keep the government running.


A subset of complexity. It is easier to fool a part time legislator so it would become more common. Bury a important clause funding some random thing deep in a bill where people will miss it. Propose and vote on important legislation the night of the Grammies so most people won't pay attention to it.

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Interesting points. Civil servants provide a lot of the work that you mention, they are supposed to be non-political. There's no reason why civil servants would not still be needed to manage the machinery of government, just like you need engineers to fix your car regardless of who is driving it. At the moment politicians do the trickery for their own advancement, but yeh sure, they would have to be many safe guards to prevent civil servant corruption. – ejectamenta Jan 13 at 18:10
@ejectamenta I don't see how civil servants help any of this. Civil servants tend to be decision executors not decision makers. These are all problems with part time decision makers, how would civil servants help? – sdrawkcabdear Jan 13 at 20:09
The politicians job is to appeal to voters and manipulate the political machine, there is no requirement to be intelligent (remember Ronald Reagan?). There is also the wisdom of the crowd (Jury's are a form of DD by the population), if you ask the audience they rarely get it wrong. That's not to say that the average is better than the best, however they are less corruptible (hence their use in juries). – ejectamenta Jan 14 at 9:48

I was thinking about how a truly direct democracy could work in which there would be no politicians even for announcing votes. The lowest form of government would be cities and towns including the country side around those cities and towns. Each town or city would have voting stations that people would go to vote.

For the first stage of voting people would go to their polling stations and write in what issues they think should be voted on as well as deciding what choices other people could choose to vote on for the issue they wrote in and what level of government that issue would be for.

For the second stage of voting people would look at posted issues and give each issue they find that they want to vote on a thumbs up and thumbs down issues they find that they don't want to vote on. The voting machines would then add up the thumbs up to thumbs down ratio each person gave and then divide by the number of people who used the thumbs up and thumbs down feature for voting to find the average ratio of thumbs ups to thumbs downs. Next the voting machines would delete the same ratio of issues as the average ratio of thumbs downs from each person. The issues with the highest ratio of thumbs downs to thumbs ups would be deleted.

For the third stage of voting people would thumbs up the issues that they can find that are left over from step two that they want to vote on and thumbs down issues they don't want to vote on. The voting machines would then delete the same ratio of issues as the ratio of issues deleted from stage two and using the same formula of deleting the issues with the highest thumbs down to thumbs up ratios. This process would repeat until there would be the same number of issues left as the average number of thumbs ups people gave in step two.

For stage four people would vote on the issues that had been selected. For issues that have more than two options people would rank the options and the option that would come in last would count for no votes, second to last one vote, third to last two votes, and so on. The option that would receive the most votes would be the option that would be chosen. For issues that would be quantitative people would write in the number they prefer and the average would be the number that would be the decision.

For the fifth stage of voting people would come back to their voting stations and look up what the decision for each issue would be which would automatically get posted by the computers.

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First of all, if you want it to work, you need to prepare you country. It is quite clear that if you just drop it now without warning, it will be disastrous. Not because a direct democracy system must be flawed, but because the change is to brutal.

To get were they are, French people went through 4 different styles of republic (it is now the 5th), at least two dictatorship and a brief return to monarchy. Monarchists probably said that the problems arises because the new system was bad. It is not the case, the transition in Britain were much smoother.

So what preparation do you need to achieve a smooth transition to direct democracy ?

Reform education

Stupid people take stupid decisions. In elective democracy, you can hope that whatever happen even stupid people will elect smart representative, with DD you can not.

The actual education's goal is to make everybody capable to find a work and become a happy average Joe. The actual system (depend on where you live actually, I speak here about Switzerland where I live) is probably not bad, but surely not sufficient for our goal.

You need to add lectures about:

  • Manipulation and how to avoid being manipulated, to avoid fore example the mob effect described by Prinz ;
  • Reading statistics, because when you are a politician you need to read a lot of them and it is not trivial ;
  • Politics, diplomacy, well everything else you need to be a good politician.

And that is the point, to become relatively good in a discipline, everyone needs a corresponding formation.

That will delay the transition of several decades, since you want mainly "politically educated" people to take parts in your DD. You can of course reduce the delay by offering this lectures to adults.

Reform work code

As it as been mentioned in other answers, making politics takes time. Reducing works hours seems reasonable to expend "politics hours". You could even actually pay people the time passed on politics (after all that's a service they give to the nation, isn't it ?)

How to sustain such changes is beyond the scope of this answer.

That is for the minimal preparation. Now how will your DD be shaped ? First of all a question, you went everybody to (be able to) vote, that is the legislative power. But who will hold the executive power, and thus the power to propose law.

First of all you need to choose interesting proposals. Once it is done, I propose to allow application for a "writing committee" who's task will be to actually write a law based on the proposition. The people who made the proposition can choose whoever they want for the committee, which will be of course given juridical support.

But how to choose the "interesting proposals" ? In the spirit of a DD, here are some possibilities :

Reddit like

Proposition gain points when they are voted up, loses point with time, and if they are near the top for a certain time, they are chosen.

As for Reddit, everybody can submit, everybody can vote, and the all stuff can be divided by topics to allow you to focus on your interests.

The makers of proposal should be anonymous until the funding of the writing committee, to avoid external pressures or corruption.


Everybody have a little place where to put a proposal. Each day some of them are picked at random and then the writing committee funded. It allows ugly looking proposals to be funded.

That is it. Of course you can make it better by putting up the system for each level of government (nation, state, district, city, whatever), and strongly decentralising the decisions. It will avoid a too much effect of "dictatorship of the 51%".

By teaching that politeness implies "do not vote on subject that do not directly concern you", you can even crush the effect a bit more.

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This is not an answer per se, but a reflection on AndreiROM's:

This (AndreiROM's) answer is too simplistic; it is a straw man fallacy. A society can be described as a massive simulation of individual agents in which localized emergent behaviour inexplicably arises. Each of you proposed examples may have moderating counter-effects; the crux is that we lack the computational power to predict high-level outcomes. You underlying assumption is not necessarily true - Friedman's book The Word Is Flat describes real-world instances in which collective decisions may exceed the intelligence of any individual member. I do concede that any direct democracy would need be designed from the ground up to be a positively reinforced system, and not one that would - as you suggest - devolve into a quivering mass of indecision. For example, zones-of-governance in a direct democracy would only encompass the affected individuals, thereby mitigating your last point.

That said: As social and computational sciences improve, the probability of any system to remain impervious to outside tampering decreases. In the far, far future (ala Asimov's Foundation), it may even be possible to manipulate society in scientifically rigorously and procedural manner. As with dynamic programming, you would progress by breaking your problem into simpler pieces. Recently published have been two articles with terrifying implications. The first describes a class of people, "harbingers of failure", which act as a marker for products destined to flop. Taken to a possible conclusion, people with such tastes would eventually become ostracized as products targeting their preferences become cancelled in the marketing research pipeline. Though there is no cause/effect correlation, these "harbingers of failure" could possibly become "causes of failure" - and this is a form of control. Examples such as this are why I so dislike the utopian ideologies of Iain Bank's "Culture".

Published at almost the same time was research into modifying (mollifying) and controlling carpenter ant behaviour. I'm not suggesting this research is applicable to humans, or even amoral, but that it arose from a curiosuity in social systems. From the paper: "[research] will allow us to expose the general organizational principles underlying complex social systems". Ethically, at which point has social science crossed the line - that the application of such understanding becomes too easily applied?

As humans, we fail to realize how many of our conscious decisions are actual instinctual, and based on currently intractable problems (imagine a human bitcoin network), such as the inability to predict complex social systems or the feedback loop described in this answer. I think that once these constraints are defeated, not only will society collapse, but humans themselves will break. Sometimes, the best methods are trial and error - the good news is, perhaps we do live in a indeterminate universe in which such control remains firmly in the field of fiction.

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+1 for the idea that there will still need to be multiple levels of government – Selenog Jan 14 at 9:50

Most likely the first thing people would do is start voting to delegate certain powers to, well, delegates.

The functions of the civil service you've already covered. Although you don't say so, I expect you're assuming there will still be courts instead of direct democratic referenda to determine court cases: otherwise I think a means to appoint judges would be high on the agenda.

Next up for debate would be functions of the executive. Not all countries formally divide power in this way of course, but the functions are still identifiable. The mass of the body politic will not want to vote on every single foreign policy issue that arises (whether or not to issue a statement on X, Y and Z that's happening in countries A, B, and C, and if so which of the wordings proposed by diplomats to actually use). They would prefer to appoint someone to do most of that job while remaining answerable to the electorate and required to act in line with certain law and policy that has been directly voted on.

So, while formally-speaking "politicians" might be out of a job, it's honestly difficult to completely withhold that word from an elected police chief, district attorney, or dogcatcher general, and it would be difficult to withhold it from whatever directly-elected delegated roles emerge from your system.

And so on, probably including some functions of the legislature. Presumably there are some things that most current governments claim as their right, but that this new society will withhold from the delegates who perform the functions of government on their behalf, exactly as the new USA withheld certain rights that most governments of the time claimed as a result of their formal relationship to a single sovereign. A new system is the biggest single opportunity to change whatever you're most unhappy about.

This is all assuming nothing catastrophic happens that the new and untested system is ill-equipped to deal with (military coup or whatever), eventually you reach a new compromise as to what is delegated and to what degree. Political systems are so complex that it's easy to assume that any perturbation will cause complete collapse of society, let alone inventing a new system from scratch and hoping it will survive. Certainly in fiction it's fairly easy to turn any potential weakness of a simple hypothesised system into a fatal flaw. One might even argue that this precautionary instinct is a major plank of conservatism ;-)

As a rule of thumb, a sudden change to a political system will be followed by some use of the new opportunities, and some reversion towards old certainties (which will often be characterised as reactionary). Of course there aren't too many practical examples to study of a change so absolute as what you describe, so the circumstances under which it comes about will probably be very significant in affecting how people react to it.

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A good analysis, however I don't envisage a revolution more an evolution. Firstly there would be a public recognition the concept that the current system of democracy can and should progress towards an optimal system. Once this is acknowledged and accepted, gradual incremental changes are made with each change being monitored and analysed as you would do in a scientific experiment. – ejectamenta Jan 14 at 12:34

In the U.S. the government is separated into three branches Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.

I believe that the Legislative portion of the government can be made to work under direct democracy, but specific people would still need to be elected to executive and judicial positions. The function of interpretation of law, could be carried out partially by the people, and partially by elected judges.

In a direct democracy any citizen could potentially draft a bill and anyone can vote on it. There would most likely be a massive number of proposals and therefore some sort of collaborative online electronic system and secure voting devices would be needed to organize all the possible bills and allow voting on them. Think drafting bills by Wikipedia and rating them like forum posts, and running for office on twitter (but not literally).

Here is a sort of proposed set of operating rules for such a government.

Create a collaborative online system which allows for...
1) The creation of bills
    a) Bills would be created and edited by voulunteers in a collaborative online system similar in concept to Wikipedia.
    b) If someone makes a change to the wording it counts as a separate version and is voted on separately.
    c) After reading a bill a person could up-vote or down-vote that specific version of the bill.
    d) A person would be allowed to vote on as many bills as they want and change their vote as often as wanted.
    e) People would be able to search for bills in the system based on content and rating. For instance the majority of people may only be interested in searching for bills that have a rating of +100,000 votes or more.
    f) If a sufficient number of people have not voted on a bill it just sits in the system.
        i) Gradually people will find each bill as they search for bills that suit their own interests.
        ii) The bill may gradually build up or loose votes.
        iii) Of course specific individuals or groups may actively promote bills to speed up that process.
        iv) A short list of bills having the highest rating could be periodically advertised to the public. That solves the problem of the average person being inundated with referendums.
        v) Once the up/down rating of the bill passes some threshold it would become law. For example it could become law if 2/3 of the population supports it, and be repealed if less than 1/2 supports it.
        vi) To prevent voter fraud, such a system would require some sort of secure credentials for each citizen that could be verified by the voting system as each vote is cast.
        vii) The votes and who cast them would need to be stored in the system, but the technology could be built so that no user would have access to the votes of specific individuals.

2) The creation of elected executive positions.
    a) Volunteers would propose the creation of executive positions in the government.
        i) The description of the position and its legal authorities would be created and edited by volunteers using the collaborative online environment.
        ii) Separate versions of the position's description would count as a separate revision and be voted on separately.
        iii) If a sufficient number of persons vote for the creation of the position then it is established and candidates are allowed to run for office.
        iv) It would be up to the public to ensure that they did not create conflicting positions. Specifically any individuals who knew of other existing positions would be allowed to comment on any problems with the proposed position.
    b) candidates submit their names into the system along with a description of their goals and positions on certain issues.
    i) people are allowed to comment on the positions and the person running (or their staff) may reply.
        ii) Certain questions and responses may be up/down voted in the system.
        iii) The voter uses the platform description and Q&A to decide on weather to vote for the candidate.
        iv) Voters may choose any one of the candidates that are registered in the system.
        v) The candidate with the most votes is elected and executes the office. Once in office, voters may change their vote. If another candidate gains a larger number of votes then they take the office.

3) The removal of elected executive positions.
    a) If enough people downvote a specific position (for example 1/2 of the voters) it is eliminated.

4) The creation of elected judicial positions.
    a) This is done the same way as with creation of executive positions.

    b) Those in the judicial branch take the responsibility of resolving any conflicts in the law.
        i) If a conflict is found the judge puts up the conflicting laws for review by the people.
        ii) The conflicting laws are both posted and a description of why the Judge thinks they conflict.
        iii) The judge will not enforce either law until the conflict is resolved.
        iv) Volunteers review both laws and propose changes. The changes go through the normal voting process.

5) The removal of elected judicial positions.
    a) If enough people downvote a specific position it is eliminated.

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What if "society" was 30 people living in the middle of nowhere? Clearly it would then be practical for most things to decided by everyone.

Therefore I expect that "society" will have to devide every time it got too big, or have people that are not members doing a lot of the work. So the masters get to vote by the slaves do not.

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reddit is a kind of society, users vote things they like up and they rise in prominence (sort of like setting an agenda), stack exchange is also like a kind of society, users have reputation through their positive engagement in the forum. Higher ranking users get to make important decisions (like ability to moderate). These systems work effectively with millions of users, I am not sure scaling up an electronic direct democracy would be such a problem. – ejectamenta Jan 15 at 9:53
@ejectamenta, in both cases there are "kings" that can override what the users decide, and remove users they don't like. – Ian Ringrose Jan 15 at 19:13
There are kings, but the function of kings could still be provided by the members, eg. a jury acts like a king in the court to make the final decision on important cases, to avoid judicial corruption. If this DD system has been judged the best in courts I don't see why it should not be good enough in democracy. – ejectamenta Feb 5 at 16:22
To decide on matters of law requires comprehensive legal knowledge however Juries randomly selected from the population are able to deal with complex cases when explained to them and in the majority of cases make good decisions even when under extreme influences from lawyers acting for the defense or prosecution. – ejectamenta Feb 5 at 16:25
@ejectamenta, but there is a judge to keep the process fair, would it work without a judge controlling the lawyers? – Ian Ringrose Feb 5 at 22:53

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