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Save Democracy-Abolish Voting: A review

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In an important post, Simon writes: When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, unmodified by the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy, it should be treated by the non-partisan media for what it is, not normalised as just more of the same. If we treat a plutocracy as a democracy, democracy dies.  This poses the question: what can be done about this? A brilliant new book by Paul Evans, Save Democracy – Abolish Voting, has some ideas. To see the issue here, suppose you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit. You would think yourself ill-used if the jury disregarded relevant evidence or if a rich man who irrationally disliked you bought his way onto the jury or bribed them with false promises. And yet this

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In an important post, Simon writes:

When politics becomes the whims and mad schemes of a small minority that only listen to themselves, unmodified by the normal checks and balances of a functioning democracy, it should be treated by the non-partisan media for what it is, not normalised as just more of the same. If we treat a plutocracy as a democracy, democracy dies. 

This poses the question: what can be done about this? A brilliant new book by Paul Evans, Save Democracy – Abolish Voting, has some ideas. BEB6F621-652F-4FD7-ACBD-85270E8202C6-202x300 (1)

To see the issue here, suppose you were charged with a crime you didn’t commit. You would think yourself ill-used if the jury disregarded relevant evidence or if a rich man who irrationally disliked you bought his way onto the jury or bribed them with false promises. And yet this sort of behaviour is accepted as the norm in politics. We apply much lower standards to the making of laws than we do to the application of them.

Our political system does little to ensure that voters are well-informed or careful. Paul says:

If we wanted to design a system in a way that helps wealthy and charismatic people con everyone easily, we could barely design anything better than electoral politics.

Not only does the system take little care about the information that goes into a vote, it is also careless about the information that comes from it. Take the Brexit vote. What sort of Brexit did people want? Was it a desire for Brexit at all or a protest against the “elite” or a call for immigration controls? If it was the latter, is this because such controls are desired for social/cultural reasons or as a (mistaken) way of increasing wages? If voters did want Brexit, was this for intrinsic reasons (national sovereignty) or as a means of achieving something else and if so what?

The referendum told us nothing about these questions. As Paul says, "the vote is such a feeble instrument of control." On such an important issue, people conveyed less information to the government than they do in the most quotidian trip to Tesco.

What we need, then, are ways both to equalize political power and to make government more sensitive to the people’s wishes. Paul’s proposal here is to give everyone a “personal democratic budget” which they could spend on all the possible forms of political influence - lobbyists, thinktanks, journalists and so on. People could spend this directly, or they could delegate it to syndicates of professional buyers. Political parties would then compete to appeal to these influencers.

I prefer to think of this as a thought experiment, an answer to the question: what is required to have a democracy in which people have both equal say and can convey information to their rulers? The fact that the proposals seem outlandish just shows how far we are from a well-functioning democracy.

Although this is a slim volume, it poses some deep questions which deserve far more attention than they’re getting, such as:

 - Isn’t there a trade-off between liberty and democracy? Liberty requires that plutocrats can buy influence via the media, thinktanks and lobbyists. As Simon says: “freedom is in reality just a freedom to sustain a plutocracy.” Democracy, by contrast, requires that we all have equal political say which requires tight limits on plutocrats’ power. Paul hopes that personal democratic budgets will compete away such influence thanks to being given tax breaks. This might not be sufficient.

 - How do issues get onto the agenda? The remarkable thing about Brexit is that the arcane obsession of a few rich older men has become the dominant political issue, whilst other issues (such as worker democracy) are off the table. This reminds us of what Steven Lukes said – that inequality of political power manifests itself in part in what becomes an issue and what doesn’t. Do Paul’s proposals do enough to ensure a more diverse agenda?

 - Who actually wants democracy? Paul stresses the difference between democracy and politics: democracy entails an equal say; politics is about us getting what we want. I fear that politics has become like a football match in which everybody wants their side to win but nobody cares about the quality or honesty of the game. The constituency which wants a better democracy is a small one.

 - Should politicians serve our preferences or our interests? Paul acknowledges that democracy will sometimes require acceding to irrational preferences. In a well-functioning democracy, such cases should be limited because debate should wise people up. But it won’t always do so. This poses Jason Brennan’s question: what is so valuable about democracy?

 - What (if any) material economic conditions must be in place to ensure we have a well-functioning democracy in which politicians serve us all rather than the 1% (pdf)? Obviously, plutocrats will oppose any move towards equalizing political power. It might therefore be that democracy is only possible under greater economic equality than we currently have.

Even if you think Paul has the wrong solution, he is at least asking the right question. And given that so few are doing even this, he's done a massive public service. 

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