Tech & Rights

#WeDecide: Direct vs. Representative Democracy: Who Should Make the Decisions?

While all of us should have a say in the collective decisions that deeply affect our lives, many of us would rather spend time with family instead of educating ourselves on VAT thresholds and shipping regulations.

by Orsolya Reich

As we have pointed out in the fourth part of this series, some believe that direct democracy is the only genuine form of democracy. When we give power to representatives to make decisions for us, we make a compromise – a compromise between our ideals and practical reality. We would want to make all those decisions that affect us, it is just that we do not have the necessary resources. Someone needs to bake our bread, repair our broken washing machines, build roads, heal broken bones and so on – if we all tried to make an informed decision on all issues that require a collective decision, we would all starve to death. Or, at the very least, our washing machines would never get repaired. Thus, in order to save time (and money – large-scale referenda are quite expensive to hold!) and have the opportunity to go about our business, we just delegate some of our decision-making power to representatives.

Some of those who share this view also believe that while it was probably a good idea in earlier times to pay a few thousand people to make collective decisions in our names, this is no longer the case. At this current point of technological development, information is easy to get, and holding referenda is much cheaper than before. In Europe almost everyone has easy access to the Internet, we just have to develop a secure enough online platforms and everyone could vote from home or through smartphones. Thus, it is time to get rid of the old compromise, take our power back and make those collective decisions directly.

But is that really the case? Is representative democracy just a sad but necessary compromise we need (or needed) to make in the name of efficiency? Is direct democracy the real form of democracy?

Remember, democracy is short for saying “the system that is worthy of our moral support”. On the one hand, it seems that representative democracies work pretty well: they are reasonably efficient in solving problems, and since most people most of the time accept the decisions made by the representatives, they also tend to be quite stable. They not only work well but are also worthy of our moral support – they publicly treat all people as equals and everyone’s interest matter. On the other hand, however, in the very same representative democracies trust in democratic institutions is getting eroded, turnout is declining and policy making is getting increasingly detached from ordinary people and their preferences. Some remedy is surely need to be found. But from the fact that the current problems of representative democracies need to be remedied it does not follow that we should get rid of representation. Representation is not a sad but necessary compromise.

While all of us should have a say in the collective decisions that deeply affect the background conditions of our lives, many of us prefer to spend our free time with our family instead of educating ourselves on all sorts of matters regarding optimal VAT thresholds for shipping regulations. Many of us would deeply regret having to spend even 10 minutes every evening with logging into the central referenda platform and clicking on the best-looking legislative options. Saying that those of us who do not want to do this are slackers and we do not deserve for our views be taken into account is not a particularly good argument. After all, spending your free time with family (or with almost anything else) over studying shipping regulations is a legitimate preference. It is a fully legitimate desire to want to pay other people to study shipping regulations and take into account your value system and interest when making a decision on how to regulate while you tend your beloveds' needs. If we got rid of representation, we would deny the legitimacy of this and similar fully legitimate desires.

In addition, a pure direct democracy itself would have a number of shortcomings, not lesser than the ones representative democracy suffers from. First, when it comes to referenda, the number of options you can put on a ballot is limited. There is no forum to look for policy decisions that are acceptable for all. Second, since citizens do not have a constituency, they are not accountable to take into account everyone’s needs, and if we decided everything through referenda the chances of falling into a tyranny of majority would be very high.

But this does not mean that we should not have direct democracy at all. The problems of representative democracy are real. People should regain trust in democracy and they should see that there concerns are important to the decision makers. Direct and representative democracy should complement each other.

A pessimistic reader may say here that we are suggesting to mix two systems that we have just shown to be flawed. But this is not the case. You will not have good bread if you have flour or yeast only. But if you have both (and some other ingredients), you may.

Pure direct democracy and pure representative democracy will not make a good democracy. But if you mix them and add a bit of free media and a healthy civil society, chances are that you will have exactly what you need.

We are interested in your thoughts. Do you think that we should have more direct democracy in Europe? If so, what are the issues we should decide by referenda and why? Leave a comment under our Facebook post and discuss your thoughts with us and your fellow readers. And remember to come back next week to read the final part of the WeDecide series. It will be about the EU.

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