Balanced Democracy 1.0

The best form of government we haven’t tried yet

Imagine a world without corruption, bad politicians, manipulation through propaganda, or politically motivated violence.

In this article I will argue that such a world is not only possible but very much within reach if we switch to Balanced Democracy, a system of government based on two principles:

1. Every member of the community may directly contribute to the making of any policy.

2. Everyone’s power to influence a policy is proportional to the quality of their policy view.

Balanced Democracy. Contributions to each policy area are balanced by the expertise behind them. Photo by Bekir Dönmez on Unsplash

As its first principle indicates, Balanced Democracy is a form of direct democracy. Consequently, it inherits three main advantages.

1. Inclusiveness. The ‘every member’ part of the first principle embraces the true spirit of democracy in its ‘power to the people’ sense and ensures complete inclusiveness with no restrictions.

2. Distributed power. A direct derivative of the first principle is that policy making is a separate process in each policy area.

This feature renders corruption virtually impossible. A group of thousands of decision makers is fiendishly difficult, if not impossible, to bribe or influence, especially since the group of contributors varies by policy area.

3. Direct democracy is the only way to minimize translation loss.

The essence of politics boils down to the following process.

Figure 1. Translation of policy views into policy — a simplified representation of politics in every system of government.

The boxes on the left-hand side of Figure 1 represent the policy views of each member of a certain community (e.g. city or nation) on a specific policy such as healthcare, crime, environmental affairs, or stock market regulation.

On the right-hand side we have the actual policies which prescribe how each member of the community has to act in situations governed by the relevant policy area.

The arrows connecting the two sides represent the translation of policy views into policy.

In a literal sense, Figure 1 depicts the classic form of direct democracy. At the same time, we can extrapolate Figure 1 to represent any political system.

From this perspective, the only difference between different systems of government is who decides whose views get translated into policy. The entire population, those who vote, or a narrow elite? The answers to these questions determine if a system is a representative democracy, meritocracy, autocracy, or another form of government.

What matters most for our discussion is the observation that

as long as the group whose policy views get translated into policy is anything other than the entire population, there is always something lost in translation.

At its core, this idea is identical to the local knowledge problem elucidated by Hayek (1945). Knowledge is distributed across the entire population. Therefore, any subset (say, the political elite) will inevitably lack some information available to those outside the circle of power. The smaller the group, the more people are excluded from it, and the more information is left outside the inner circle.

Thus, political systems that rely on delegation will always remain sub-optimal from the vantage point of the translation process. The problem is exacerbated if the inner circle is small and the same for every policy area, which happens to be the case in most polities today.

In contrast, direct democracy leaves open the theoretical possibility for minimizing this translation loss by allowing every member of society to express their unique perspective.

In addition to the local knowledge problem, there is another issue hard-coded into political models that rely on delegation: the accountability problem.

To judge how good a job policymakers are doing, we need a certain degree of expertise. If we have no idea about a policy (e.g. securities regulation), experts can likely spin every action and its opposite to us in a way that presents their suggested policy as the one and only inevitably logical conclusion.

So to truly hold your delegates accountable, you need to become somewhat of an expert. But doesn’t that very act qualify you to cut out the middleman and have a direct say in that policy area?

In the explanation above I left the interpretation of ‘policy view’ up to the reader.

In order to define its ‘quality’, we need a more specific definition. The easiest and most tangible starting point is factual knowledge.

Knowledge

How much does each member of our community know about each policy area?

The short answer is, we don’t really know. The debate about how generally sophisticated the public is remains open (Kuklinski & Peyton, 2007) since Converse (1964) started it with his seminal paper. By and large there’s little optimism (especially among those who follow in the footsteps of Zaller, 1992) in the literature.

It’s important to keep in mind, however, that policy-specific knowledge has rarely been of primary interest to scholars. Thus, barring a few exceptions like the 7th wave of the European Social Survey centered on the issue of immigration, we don’t have large-scale studies directed at finding out just how much electorate members really know.

Until this injustice is corrected, let us do the next best thing and assume. My guess is if we measured factual knowledge about a randomly selected policy area across the entire population, we would find a distribution like this:

Figure 2 — Distribution of knowledge in a fictional policy area. The X axis represents knowledge of % of all relevant facts.

The feature of Figure 2 that is of particular note is that expertise is unequally distributed across individuals. On the right-hand side you find true experts like Citizen 2. They are aware of close to 100% of all relevant facts, but there are relatively few of them. At the same time, most people including Citizen 1 have some relevant knowledge, but the majority of them know less than half of all the facts.

This is known as a positively skewed distribution and I strongly suspect it represents the distribution of knowledge in most policy areas.

At the same time it’s important to emphasize that the position of specific individuals along the distribution may vary by policy area. Nobody can be an expert at all things. Most likely nobody can be a real expert in more than a handful of fields. Citizen 1, for example, is a relative novice in the policy area represented in Figure 2 (say, healthcare), but they may be an expert at another subject like agriculture.

Quality and Power

My argument for the second principle of Balanced Democracy combines the unequal distribution of knowledge with a basic norm of fairness most of us probably agree with, at least in theory. Simply put,

the word of those who know a lot about a policy area should carry more weight in that area compared to those with little to no knowledge.

When environmental policy is decided, we don’t turn to the best chefs for advice. We don’t ask our most qualified nutritionists to review and improve our transportation laws. We don’t run to our best MMA coaches to help us decide how to best protect ourselves against the catastrophic impact of a pandemic. In the same vein, we probably shouldn’t put too much stock in Citizen 1’s view on healthcare, but should give their opinion a high weight when deciding our agricultural policy.

But what if they devoted weeks of their free time to read up on and critical think about those very subjects? What if they have one good insight that could prove a decisive factor in the public debate? The system of Balanced Democracy allows for their expertise to count while adjusting their influence to the overall quality of their views.

At the same time, factual knowledge alone is not all there is to policy making. The right kind of knowledge is very important, but not by far the whole story. Knowledge can be used, twisted, and manipulated to support a variety of different conclusions.

Moreover, one may can possess all the knowledge in a policy area and then simply choose the policy that best serves their self-interest. Or make up their mind early on, then collect knowledge in a way that supports their initial view.

In short, it matters how knowledge is processed, absorbed, interpreted, and internalized. It matters how we use factual knowledge in our process of arriving at a policy view.

This is precisely what’s embodied in the Right to Transparency (supplementary) principle of Balanced Democracy.

As private individuals, each of us has the freedom to make decisions for ourselves as we wish. The moment we start making decisions for a community, however, members of that community automatically acquire the right to know exactly what we took into account when we made that decision, how, and why.

Thus, the following formula may serve as as first, simplified definition of policy view quality:

quality ≈ knowledge + process

To be more specific, here is my suggested list of what should constitute quality.

In the system of Balanced Democracy, in order to get the highest weight assigned to their contribution to a policy area, a community member has to demonstrate:

  • knowledge of all relevant facts;
  • the vision behind their endorsed policy solution;
  • consideration of how their endorsed policy solution impacts all stakeholders (not just themselves);
  • awareness of their own biases and how they attempted to counter them in their process of arriving at their conclusion. ← Did they keep an open mind or did they cherry-pick facts and arguments that support their initial view? Did they actually consider all alternatives equally or did they simply assume that the current status quo is superior?
  • having chosen their position from several competing alternatives. ← Policies are complex and rarely if ever compressible into yes/no answers. It is reasonable to expect therefore that the process of policy making reflect this complexity.

That sounds like a lot of work. It is, but keep in mind that you only have to demonstrate all of the above to get the highest score. The whole point of power corresponding to impact on policy is that your contribution to any area will be less where you’re unable to fit the above criteria, but it will never be zero.

Now let’s see how quality influences the translation process in Balanced Democracy.

Figure 3. Translation of policy views into policy in Balanced Democracy.

The one key difference between Figure 3 and Figure 1 is the width of the arrows, which signals the difference in citizens’ power to contribute to a policy area, corresponding to the quality of their policy views.

Due to this difference in weights, Balanced Democracy inevitably outperforms direct democracy in terms of translation efficiency. The equal weights assigned to everyone’s contributions in direct democracy ‘wash out’ the difference in quality. In Balanced Democracy, much more of high quality policy views is translated due to their proportionally higher weight.

Note, however, that in Figure 3, Citizen 2 chose not to contribute to Policy n, so their policy view (whose quality we don’t know) in this area is still completely lost. What this shows is that translation loss is not eliminated in Balanced Democracy, it is merely left up to the population and not determined by the system, unlike in the case of any political arrangement that relies on delegation or representation.

Engagement

Engagement is crucial to any political system and Balanced Democracy is no exception.

Political participation is scanty enough as it is, as signaled by the 43.16% of the voting population who didn’t cast a ballot in the last (2018) US election. The United States is not an isolated case in this respect as voter turnout varies between 50–70% in most democracies.

If the simple act of voting deters so many, what percentage of citizens can we realistically expect to undergo the time-consuming process of formulating and expressing high-quality policy views?

I propose two answers to this problem.

The first revolves around incentives.

Today’s political participation is chiefly intrinsically motivated (nobody gets paid to vote, at least not directly). Doing the right thing is a strong motivator, and knowing that your opinion directly influences policy rather than contributing to putting a representative (in many cases the lesser of two evils) in charge may provide a significantly stronger incentive for many of us.

Additionally, we as a community could further expand social norms currently portraying voting as ‘the right thing to do’. More people will choose to dedicate time to community-level decision making if they feel like heroes for doing so.

Next to that, we could also introduce extrinsic motivation into the mix. A simple place to start would be to adapt the schemes that currently compensate citizens for jury duty and provide everyone financial compensation corresponding to the effort they put into policy making.

The second solution involves the recognition that we don’t need everyone to participate in every policy area. We may not even need too many people.

According to its official website, the 115th United States Congress (the most recent to serve a full two-year term) passed 443 instances of legislation that became law. In 2017, the population of the United States was 325 million.

Assuming an even distribution of contributors across all 433 policy areas, our potential participant pool is a whopping 733,000 people for each policy.

Granted, a few qualifiers are in order.

A significant section (say, around 15%) of the population is probably too young to have much knowledge to contribute. Plus, instead of passed legislation we could use the number of bills that made it to committee consideration (2268) or those that were introduced (13,556), both options would drive the above estimate down.

At the same time, the category of policy area may be broader than the scope of specific bills. The Health Savings Act of 2017 (H.R. 35.), for instance, may be viewed as a specific subset of the policy area of healthcare. In addition, one person may contribute to multiple policy areas, driving our estimate for potential participants up.

All things considered, it is likely that we have at least 100,000 contributors to choose from for each policy area. How much could they accomplish?

In the five-year span of April 2016 — April 2020, the English language Wikipedia had, on average, 66,248 active editors per month. These contributors made a staggering 4.7 million monthly edits. In the same time period, the whole of English Wikipedia boasted a monthly average of 9.1 billion total views accessed via 762 million unique devices. Even if we assume that one person used an average of two devices in a given month, that’s 381 million people who benefited from the work of just 66,248.

Expressed in percentages, a mere 0.004% of the whole user community produced all the knowledge everyone benefited from. This estimate is, of course, inflated because it includes views of all pages, not just those that were newly created or edited. All the same, it seems safe to say that the creator/user ratio is not greater than 1:1000 (0.1%).

And all that happened in a fully grassroots, decentralized system backed by no monetary incentives or strong social norms.

In this light, engagement may not be a problem at all.

What Lies Ahead

Balanced Democracy is my vision for an optimal political system. There is much theorizing that needs to happen and many details that need to be ironed out until we can decide whether it is a good vision. As symbolized by the ‘1.0’ in this article’s title, it may take several iterations to get it right.

Moreover, the success of Balanced Democracy hinges on the collective exercise of agreeing on the definition of policy view quality. That won’t be simple, easy, or free of conflict.

At the same time, more difficult social constructs such as right and wrong, moral and immoral, fair and unfair, lie at the very core of our present societal arrangements. All of these have come about as a result of structured thinking undertaken by generations, leading to a widely (but not unanimously) accepted consensus. If we’ve done it not once but many times, what’s to say we can’t do it again?

While we orchestrate the formidable logistical feat of organizing such a debate, there is something very concrete I, you, and everyone else can start doing right away: exercise our Right to Transparency.

Next time a politician talks about a policy, push them for specific detail. What did they take into account from the information available at the time? Whom did they consult, why, and how? Did they decide first and rationalize later or did they keep an open mind? What role did factors like behind-the-scenes power brokering or party lines play in their decision making?

If enough of us keep asking such questions, politicians will be forced to answer. If we push hard for high-quality answers, they will have to answer well enough.

Try as you might to avoid it, politics affects most aspects of your life. It is the very process communities you belong to rely on to make the laws and norms all of you have to live by.

It follows that good politics is a prerequisite to societal progress. Along with coming up with the right kind of vision, we have to fix politics if we want to have a chance of getting to a truly better world.

So let’s do it together, let’s start right now, and let’s do it well.

A political scientist (Ph.D.) and social psychologist (MA) fighting for a better world the only way I know how: on the battlefield of idea(l)s.

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