2010/03/15

Let's improve our democracy, a work in progress (I)

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Germany's consitution dates back to 1949 and was adopted for the whole of Germany in 1990. The only really big push for more democracy in Western Germany post-'49 came with the Brandt government in 1969:

"Wir wollen mehr Demokratie wagen."
"Wir stehen nicht am Ende unserer Demokratie, wir fangen erst richtig an"

"We want to dare more democracy."
"We aren't at the end of our democracy, we've only just begun"


I like this attitude. A state should be a work in progress, up to its constitution; the society should always strive for its improvement. This includes democratisation (Brandt meant a in part the democratisation of the economy, though).

The diversity of (nation) states in the world offers us with a huge repertoire of alternatives and lessons learned. We should be able to find superior solutions than our old ones and to figure out how to integrate some of them into our system of government.

This doesn't really happen nowadays. Politicians are content with their powers and most pro-democracy forces in the society emphasize the superiority of and (their loyalty to) our political system so much that they forget about working on its improvement. This is probably the worst effect of left and right wing extremism in Germany.
It's difficult to improve something that you declare "great" in it defence against critics whom you dislike.

I am especially unsatisfied with the legitimacy and accuracy of political representation in Germany.

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Today I want to write about one general direction towards improvements. The system is in my opinion quite primitive and not optimized yet. We have basically two levels of governance: The legislative and the gubernative. The latter is empowered by the former through laws to issue legal ordinances and to slightly modify their budget to handle topics without lengthy parliamentary discussions.

This makes sense, for many small topics mean way too much work for a (single) parliament. The current workload of laws per year is already too high as it is. It's already implausible to believe that a member of parliament has really read all bills that (s)he voted for. The parliament copes with the workload by assigning a few MPs to investigate a bill in detail and to report the findings to their factions in the parliament.

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Acts of governance should be understood as having two most important characteristics: The strength of required legitimacy and their importance. Both should correlate positively more often than not.
An example for the strength of required legitimacy: You would not want to allow a chancellor to change the constitution. This should require a parliamentary (super)majority or a plebiscite majority. Meanwhile, neither of both should be necessary to move some per cent of a construction budget to another construction budget.
The strength of required legitimacy sets the minimum workload for the stronger sources of legitimacy, such as plebiscite and parliament.

The other important characteristic is importance. The parliament is probably not yet fully occupied with what the former criteria allocated as its workload. It can do more, but what should it care about? The important things, of course.
It could give a secretary of defence a general budget without specifying what he should do with it. That's generally not the preferred mode of operation. The use of the budget is important, and thus the parliament defines a budget with sub-titles and sets the allocation of resources (usually based on the government's commendation).
Likewise, it's custom to ratify all international treaties in the parliament because this kind of treaty is considered to be important no matter how trivial its content is. Most such treaties are actually based on some standard form (such as the OECD standard non-double taxation treaty standard form).

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In the end, there are different topics with a different 'optimal' level for their handling. This may be cabinet's legal ordinances, parliament, both parliaments, parliament super majority, for example.

Finally, there's the case of an even greater demand for legitimation; the sovereign itself needs to decide. This is the case that requires a plebiscite in countries where the people are the sovereign as in Germany.

I do not believe that the legitimacy of representative democracy is strong enough for topics like war or peace, changes of constitution or permanent delegation of cabinet or legislative competences to a multinational body. I consider only the sovereign itself - the people - as the legitimate decisionmaker on such topics.


Article 20, Abs. 2 or the German constitution actually says something similar:

Art 20
...
(2) Alle Staatsgewalt geht vom Volke aus. Sie wird vom Volke in Wahlen und Abstimmungen und durch besondere Organe der Gesetzgebung, der vollziehenden Gewalt und der Rechtsprechung ausgeübt.
...

(Article 20
...
(2) All authority stems from the People. The people exercise authority in elections and votes and through special organs of legislative, executive and judicative.
...)

The "votes" (Abstimmungen) part is quite rudimentary today - and non-existing on the federal level. We had no plebiscite on the NATO, WEU, EG, reunification, EU, Euro currency and Lisbon treaty.
Some village can have a plebiscite on whether it wants to support an airport project or not; that's about the level of our direct democracy.

The Swiss have much more, and they demonstrate that it works well. Their political system isn't perfect and should not be adopted as a whole, but they offer an irrefutable proof of concept for plebiscites.

A major obstacle to federal German plebiscites (ranking behind politician's thirst for power, of course) is a German myth. This myth basically asserts that plebiscites have helped to bring down the Weimar Republic. That's rubbish, and I wrote about this before.


Many people are skeptical of the people's ability to rule wisely through plebiscites.
The first obvious counter-argument is of course that the people only need to meet the quality of politician's decisions. We all know that the latter are often outright terrible. I shudder to think of the possibility of a future German chancellor who comes close to any of these politicians: Bush2, Scharping, Lafontaine, Gisy, Blair, Schäuble or Putin (to name jsut a few examples). Well, actually I already shudder to think of Merkel or half of her ministers.

Yet, the real problem with the distrust against the voters is a fundamental one: A democratic-minded person cannot have such a distrust. You're either democratically-minded and believe in the idea of democracy & bottom-up power - or you're an authoritarian-minded person who trusts into technocrats or hopes for a benevolent dictator. You cannot distrust the voters and be a democratic-minded person at once (in my opinion).

Voters aren't perfect, but I trust them more than I do trust politicians. Top politicians passed a selection process based in great part on their thirst for power and their ruthlessness in the competition with others. The average voter is better than that.

There's also a difference between an electorate that only discusses about plebiscites and one that actually voted in some for years. Responsibility comes from the necessity to be responsible.



We should treat our democracy as a work in progress and keep looking for possible improvement - and implement convincing proposals. The alternative is to stick with an unnecessarily defective system till some great crisis, for crisis seems to be the exogenous shock that enables great changes in systems of governance. Sadly, such shocks don't lead to improvements nearly as reliably as well thought-out improvements without desperation.

The inclusion of federal plebiscites is a very promising proposal for an improvement of our system of government. It could help to improve the legitimacy of the most important decisions.


Sven Ortmann
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9 comments:

  1. Look at the american states for examples of how easy it is to get broken laws passed by plebiscite.

    Typical examples are things like passing a law to cut taxes and at the same time passing a law to pay for some project, all while passing a law to have a balanced budget.

    California is the current poster child example.

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  2. "Many people are skeptical of the people's ability to rule wisely through plebiscites.
    The first obvious counter-argument is of course that the people only need to meet the quality of politician's decisions."

    Look at Greece for an example how a representative democracy can fail just as badly.

    Poor performance of agents does not necessarily discredit the system in use.
    You need systematic or empirical evidence to link poor perforcmance to the system in use, not mere anecdotes.

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  3. (Assuming that a plebiscite is desirable)
    It is very difficult to actually "measure" the political thoughts of the plebiscite using most "democratic" voting systems now in place. Voting 3 times every 4 years (for example) is just not enough.

    Voting per category
    For some categories people are "left". For other categories they are "right". Would it be better to separate the vote per category?
    * Security & Privacy
    * Health care
    * Warfare
    * Education
    * Infrastructure
    * Crime & Law
    * Financial (related to the essence/definition of money, usury and banking)
    * Economics (related to trade)
    * Tax&Funding regulations(abolish income tax or not? Accept foreign debt to international bankers or not? for example)
    are some examples of categories voters could choose representatives for.

    Overall balancing - the voting per category
    The big difficulty as Ael already pointed out is to balance all these categories, some overall votes may be needed to prevent/limit conflicts between the different categories.

    A possible measure to balance between them:
    1) have a separate overall vote about the distribution of funds and/or a vote ranking the importance between the different categories.
    for example:
    * Warfare (10% of tax) ranking 1
    * Education ( 5% of tax) ranking 5
    * Infrastructure (20% of tax) ranking 3
    ...
    2) have an overall vote to choose the one responsible for making sure an overall plan is formed which most closely follows the wishes of the plebiscite.

    But the main concern would still be to educate the people
    John Taylor Gatto has some excellent ideas regarding this.

    The plebiscites need to self-organize
    I don't think a bunch of unorganized individuals can be very effective. And I do not believe this organization should be imposed from the top. In history this was usually in the form of blood or religion. Idealistically their plans should not be about there own groups, but how their groups plans to improve the entire nation. Political parties have proven in many cases not to be sufficiently adequate for this task, since usually the large majority of the public is not a member of any political party. Idealistically 95%+ of the population should be represented by such "ideological groups" so that they will have:
    * a face
    * unified voice
    * structure leadership
    * a representative to make deals with
    People don't have to belong to such groups for their entire life, and should switch according with their belief, in order that they will be properly represented. You may even have some groups only focussed on financial&economic ideals, others only focussed on educations ideals etc.

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  4. Look at it from an economic efficiency point of view. An executive makes hundreds of decisions a day. It takes time and effort to simply understand the question before an effective decision can be made.

    If everyone has to come up to speed on a decision, it vastly increases the cost of that decision.

    This is why some form of agent structure makes sense. Now, assume that those making decisions don't really effectively spend their time coming up to speed to make a good decision. You now have what is an extremely expensive magic 8 ball.

    Besides, the value of a democracy has nothing to do with making good decisions. Rather, its value lies in preventing bad outcomes.

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  5. @Ael:

    "In the end, there are different topics with a different 'optimal' level for their handling. This may be cabinet's legal ordinances, parliament, both parliaments, parliament super majority, for example."

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  6. oh, one more thing. I strongly disagree with the contention that you cannot be a democratic-minded person and distrust the voters at the same time.

    It all depends on what you expect from your democracy (and your government). Obtaining good governments and avoiding bad governments are two entirely different things.

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  7. It's not about obtaining good and avoiding bad.

    It's about trusting the voter's ability to make a good decision in his own interest.

    How could you trust him when it's about thousands of topics at once in a parliament election, but not trust him when it's a decision about a single bill that was debated publicly for weeks or months?

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  8. I have low expectations of voters, collectively, being able to make a good decision. However, the mere fact that a decision is being made enables a lot of good things about a representative democracy.

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  9. Let's improve our democracy... Perhaps we should start asking questions about the big picture...

    Do we need a Referendum For A New Democracy?

    Are you concerned about the future of democracy? Do you feel democracy is under attack by extreme greed in countries around the world? Are you sick and tired of: living in fear, corporate greed, growing police state, government for the rich, working more but having less?

    Can we use both elections and random selection (in the way we select government officials) to rid democracy of undue influence by extreme wealth and wealth-dominated mass media campaigns?

    The world's first democracy (Athenian democracy, 600 B.C.) used both elections and random selection. Even Aristotle (the cofounder of Western thought) promoted the use of random selection as the best way to protect democracy. The idea of randomly selecting (after screening) juries remains from Athenian democracy, but not randomly selecting (after screening) government officials. Why is it used only for individual justice and not also for social justice? Who wins from that? ...the extremely wealthy?

    What is the best way to combine elections and random selection to protect democracy in today's world? Can we use elections as the way to screen candidates, and random selection as the way to do the final selection? Who wins from that? ...the people?

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