July 18, 2022The Intersectionliberal democracy

The operating system of liberal democracy needs a major upgrade

Unless it embraces the open and the digital, democracy itself is in danger.

Mint This is from The Intersection column that appears every other Monday in Mint.

Let’s take a few steps back from the current controversies over the conduct of our legislators — and indeed their counterparts in democracies around the world — and reflect on the logic of the representative democracy.

The basic idea is that the best form of government is one by popular consent, and since it is impractical to get everyone’s opinion on every issue, people elect a few hundred representatives who act on their behalf. An added advantage of this method is that the representatives will apply their mind to complex issues of public policy and moderate impulsive, reckless and extremist tendencies that can take hold of public opinion from time to time. The representatives will have a natural incentive to develop professional expertise in public policy matters and also to uphold the interests of their constituents in the political negotiations conducted in the legislature.

Parliament, The Biography

I am not an admirer of Winston Churchill. But he managed to get some great lines.

Even the staunchest supporter of representative democracy will concede that this is not how it works in practice. We know that reality is quite different from the prospectus. The thing is, as Chris Bryant recounts in his engrossing two volume history of the British parliament, it has been so since the beginning. Yet democracy, as Churchill put it, is the worst form of government — except for all the others that have been tried.”

We need not yield to the risky temptation of trying out a new” form of government: liberal democracy remains the most enlightened way for a society to organise itself. But we can — and we must — explore ways its mechanism can be improved. Indeed, if citizens of democracies around the world are dissatisfied with their systems, it is because we are still using industrial age mechanisms well into the information age.

Most parliaments are optimised for industrial age speeds of travel and communications.

Bryant’s analysis might disagree, but two centuries ago it was perhaps conceivable that a few hundred MPs had the time and capacity to properly interact with their constituents, understand their needs, educate themselves on the technicalities of policy issues and vote in accordance with their personal judgement. Can an MP who represents 3 million people really represent them? If we expand the Lok Sabha ten times and presume we get closer to a realistic ratio for representativeness, a chamber of 5450 MPs will either by dysfunctional or a mere rubber stamp.

Next, let’s say that most MPs spend a lot of their time educating themselves on policy issues, it is still impossible for them to have an informed view on important technical details on the sheer number of matters that come before them. Just try keeping up with the legislative briefs that the good people at PRS Legislative Research publish on a regular basis. It is not humanly possible for legislators to know enough about the bills that they are called upon to pass even if each of them had a big staff of policy analysts, which they don’t. This is not just an Indian problem.

Finally, electoral politics ensures that legislators are instruments of party leaders than advocates of their constituents’ interests. Even if we did not have the anti-defection law, party support is key to getting elected. In any case, constituencies are too large and it’s hard to know what voters think on even the most pressing issues. So in general, legislators around the world end up toeing the the party line.

My notes have my thoughts in progress on this theme

Now consider this. If we combine the methodology of open source software development, with platforms like wikis we can harness voice and expertise from the whole of society to come up with good statutes and amend them as and when necessary. In other words, both vox populi and technical expertise can be easily harnessed using proven, commonly available technology. The architecture of digital democracy needs to be open, publicly debated and thoughtfully designed. Note that this is not some computerised’ decision-making that takes humans out of the loop, but rather, a more effective way to aggregate human genius.

The distribution of political power is a reason why I advocate restructuring the Rajya Sabha

What happens to our age-old parliaments? I think parliaments do perform an important function: they allocate political power and confer it with legitimacy. Digital democracy will continue to need parliaments to make high-level political choices, allocate public funds and hold the executive accountable. MPs are not merely agents of their constituents, but consolidators of constituents’ interests with that of the larger collective. They should have the power to depart from public opinion or expert determination, but in a digital democracy there will be a baseline.

Ultimately, the aim of digital democracy is to assign the right job to the right entity: enable every citizen with an effective voice, aggregate society’s expertise in making laws and leverage political legitimacy that derives from elections. Think of it as separation of competencies.

The executive too needs to be reimagined for the information age, and that is the topic for a future column. But I think an overhauling of the parliamentary structure is overdue, and getting urgent by the day. Political polarisation in the United States, Britain, France and India is perhaps masking an underlying dissatisfaction with the system” itself, even as the Chinese authoritarian model advertises its competent superiority.

Unless it embraces the open and the digital, democracy itself is in danger.

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