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?
- Anybody can ask a question
- Anybody can answer
- The best answers are voted up and rise to the top
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.
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 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.
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.
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:
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:
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:
(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.)
(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.)
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.
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.
Like Andrei, I believe that it would result in chaos. Some more thoughts in that regard:
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.
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.
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.
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 ?
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:
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 :
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.
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.
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.
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.
2) The creation of elected executive positions.
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.