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Thursday, October 19, 2017

Direct Republican Democracy?

A recent article in Slate explains that Camilo Casas is running for Boulder City Council on a unique platform: he will use an app to allow the city's voters to tell him how to vote "on any issue up for a vote before the council."   The app will enable voters to express their preferences on each council vote, and he will vote however the majority dictates.  The article discusses some of the practical implementation problems his idea faces; for example, low-income people or senior citizens may not have access to the app, and Russians seeking to infiltrate Boulder politics might hack it.  In this post, however, I want to analyze the conceptual underpinnings of his idea. 

Most basically, Casas' proposal challenges the admittedly oversimplified dichotomy between (direct) democracies and republics.  In a direct democracy, citizens gather together to debate and ultimately vote on public issues.  New England town meetings are perhaps the quintessential example of direct democracy in the modern world.  Public initiatives and referenda also allow citizens to participate directly in determining government policy, albeit without as much personal interaction.  In a republic, in contrast, citizens elect representatives to craft laws and resolve other matters of public importance.  Though the public is expected to generally monitor representatives' actions, representatives -- at least in theory -- are elected for their judgment and wisdom (and ideology), precisely because they will be making so many decisions on the public's behalf.  A republican government is based upon a division of labor: citizens delegate to government officials the hard work of learning policy issues, reviewing the details of legislation, and managing the government's affairs, so that citizens can spend most of their time focusing primarily on their private lives.  Citizens may even delegate to private groups (such as the NRDC or NRA) or political parties primary responsibility for monitoring government officials' efficacy, relying on endorsements or party nominations as a basis for casting their votes on Election Day.   

Direct democracies ostensibly require much more time, knowledge, and effort on the part of citizens than republican forms of government.  Citizens in a direct democracy have the opportunity to vote on myriad issues; in a republic, they are limited to choosing from among a limited number of candidates in a set number of elections.  On the other hand, direct democracy limits agency costs because the principals -- citizens -- directly make decisions for themselves.  In a republic, the principals delegate power to agents -- elected representatives -- who face strong incentives to act in self-interested ways against the principals' best interests.  In other words, elected representatives are often tempted to favor special interests or their large contributors over the general public. 

Casas' proposal arguably merges direct democracy and republican government (call it "Direct Republican Democracy"?) because he faces election as a city council member, yet he promises to do exactly what the public tells him via the app on each council vote.  Viewed from a slightly different perspective, of course, Casas is instead reducing himself to a stand-in, simply providing a convenient means for citizens to engage in direct democracy .  (Of course, the effects of this transition are limited since Casas is only one member on the city council, but if he is successful, one could imagine numerous candidates adopting such policies).  His proposal is intriguing because it is aimed at entirely eliminating agency costs by giving the electorate exactly what it wants on each issue that arises before the council, without allowing him to pursue his self-interest instead.  It is also consistent with the Supreme Court's embrace of direct democracy in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

Casas' proposal also implicates another dichotomy: between the "delegate" theory of representation and the "trustee" theory.  A representative who views herself as a "delegate" believes her primary responsibility is to faithfully represent, communicate, and advance her constituents' views (or at least the views of a majority of her constituents) before the legislative body to which she belongs.  A representative who sees herself as a "trustee," in contrast, will listen carefully to her constituents' views, but ultimately apply her own best judgment in voting on issues.  Edmund Burke is well-known for forcefully defending the trustee view of representation to the Electors of Bristol in 1774.  Of course, the trustee theory may have inherent limits, since a representative who consistently strays too far from her electorate's wishes is likely to be voted out of office, whether in a primary or general election.  Casas is campaigning on a promise to be the ultimate delegate, one who completely sets aside his own beliefs and blindly follows his constituents' wishes. 

I have three initial reactions to his proposal.  First, it requires citizens to engage in politics full-time to achieve their desired policy outcomes.  Under our current model, even a publicly-minded citizen is free to focus on politics around election time, learn about the candidates, vote for the one whose views she most supports, and then spend most of the rest of the year primarily on her own pursuits.  Under Casas' model, citizens are forced to be constantly engaged in politics because, unless they follow local council proceedings and submit votes on his app, opponents may outvote their policy preferences.  Despite persistent calls for greater public involvement in politics, I think many citizens would resent and oppose such a persistent, significant drain on their time.  They would likely prefer that periodic elections for representatives carry some foreseeable policy consequences for the following year or two.  In other words, a vote for Casas is literally a vote for nothing except the need to fight to have your views voted into law for the duration of his term.  A vote for a competitor who supports your policy views, in contrast, gives you the best of both worlds -- a chance to have your views be adopted into law without having to devote the next few years of your life to continuous monitoring of the city council and casting votes via an app. Of course, under our current system, voters sometimes must pressure elected representatives to vote a certain way through protests or phone call campaigns, but that tends to be the exception, not the rule.  Moreover, voters often can rely on interest groups or local community groups to monitor and lobby elected representatives on their behalf.  In Casas' system, in contrast, outcomes unavoidably depend on voters' persistent personal participation. 

Second, in theory, Casas' proposal should lead to lower-quality governmental decisions, although crowdsourcing advocates would likely disagree.  Currently, substantive decisions on how to vote on issues are made by an elected representative who has chosen to specialize in politics and -- at least in theory -- take the time to learn about the details of various policy alternatives.  Under Casas' approach, his vote on every question will be determined by the general public, which may be far less informed on the pertinent issues and the likely consequences of different approaches.  Indeed, to the extent that participants in his app-based polls change from week to week or even minute to minute, Casas may find himself taking internally inconsistent positions and voting incoherently.  In other words, because the "real" decisionmakers in Casas' system are subject to change, their collective policy preferences are subject to change much more than any elected official's preferences.  While this may not be an insurmountable problem when elections occur years apart, it could lead to terrible consequences when numerous related decisions are being made minutes apart over the course of a meeting or weeks apart over the course of a few meetings. 

Third, it's not clear that Casas' system would accurately measure public sentiment, to the extent such a concept exists.  Rather, the final tally on any particular issue on his app is more likely to reflect public whipping operations, propaganda campaigns, and mobilization efforts than an "objective" nose count of the population.  Groups that feel intensely about an issue, would benefit greatly from a particular policy, or face substantial costs as a result of it would have substantial incentive to use social media and other means to generate as much support on the app for their position as possible.  When the costs or benefits of a policy are diffuse, however, there will not be as much incentive for interested parties to mobilize.  Consequently, Casas' system could lead to even more rent seeking and socially inefficient policies.  While public choice theory teaches that policy is already distorted by such incentive structures, Casas' proposal would intensify their consequences by removing an elected official's independent judgment as an ultimate "check" on interest groups' advocacy.   With Casas' app, the better organized, more motivated group wins automatically. 

In short, Casas' proposal provides much to think about.  It invites us to reexamine our rationales for self-government and the limits we believe our necessary for such a system to function smoothly.  It forces us to reassess whether our elected representatives add value to government, or instead are imperfect, potentially extraneous intermediaries who, with sufficient technological developments, can one day be eliminated from the system.  And it forces us to consider whether, even aside from issues involving fundamental rights where countermajoritarian structures are usually deemed most justified, the majority should truly get exactly what it wants.  Though I applaud Casas' creativity, I think I'd vote against him. 

Posted by Michael T. Morley on October 19, 2017 at 09:29 PM | Permalink


And cue the rise of voting bots.

500,000 votes cast in a district of 2,500 voters.

This will be fun.

Posted by: YesterdayIKilledAMammoth | Oct 23, 2017 10:00:44 PM

"Under our current model, even a publicly-minded citizen is free to focus on politics around election time, learn about the candidates, vote for the one whose views she most supports, and then spend most of the rest of the year primarily on her own pursuits."

And look where that got the Japanese, put in concentration camps in Califonia.

Or look where it got investors in October 1987 and October 2007.

Perhaps we would have better government if we didn't assume that they are more likely, than us, to resist the temptations to give tax cuts to special interests or spend money on the military-industrial complex that needs to be spent on universal healthcare (like we have universal police and fire departments).

Posted by: Atom Unit | Oct 20, 2017 1:40:47 AM

"It forces us to reassess whether our elected representatives add value to government, or instead are imperfect, potentially extraneous intermediaries who, with sufficient technological developments, can one day be eliminated from the system."

Most likely we think OUR representatives add value to government and we think the other party's representatives should be replaced by their voters.
Democrats would not have called Bush 'Hitler' if they didn't think that his voters would do a better job than him; same with republicans and Obama.

Posted by: Trump specialized in politics? | Oct 20, 2017 1:31:41 AM

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