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Point of view: Experiments with Democratic Governance

In this post we hear from Georgian book publisher and BIN member, Giorgi Arziani, on the difficulties faced by Democracy in the 21st century, and an idea as to how we can possibly help it.

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“Democracy is in Crisis” is a very common title for numerous articles. However, Trump, Brexit, Eastern Europe, Russia, Turkey, Iran or China lie beyond the scope of this essay. In no way am I suggesting any solutions, nor am I providing a comprehensive analysis of the problems. In this essay I would like just to touch upon some of very basic issues of representative democracy, that has caught my thoughts in the last days.

To begin with, there are a lot of problems with the electoral systems themselves. The scope of the problems here is extremely wide and deserves a separate essay (to say the least), so I suggest you a good article, ‘Electoral dysfunction: Why democracy is always unfair’, which provides with an elaborative analysis of some of the problems. Still, I believe, every country can find a system that suits it at a particular period of time, and these problems can be compensated by the fair execution of the established rules so that the political actors can adapt, promote their agenda and perform accordingly. But free – and, to the greatest possible extent, fair – elections do not alone guarantee the virtues of democracy.

Another problem is the politicians, as they are oriented to receiving dividends from their positions, and perform according to their egoistic interests. Every political system has its operating rules, which restrain every politician with numerous formal and informal rules, trade-offs, party discipline, etc. Common sense suggests that there is a negative selection in politics, meaning that a political success of an actor is proportional to his or her dishonesty. Look at the polls: no one trusts politicians; as a result politics itself is often jeopardized (How often have you heard the phrase: “let’s not make it political”, when debating over different issues?).

But let’s be honest, politics is an art of the possible and what can an idealist put against the stunts of political technologists and commercial Mass Media? Many historians suggest that modern democracy was born as a side effect of inter-elite compromises, so the best-case scenario is when the elites (in order to retain power) cooperate, become more efficient and develop their societies, so that their status and privileges will not be threatened. One of the positive externalities of this is the well being of the society in general. However this situation seems to lack some virtues.

Another spectrum of the problems lies within the voters themselves. We can imagine (and modern technologies can provide us with the means) a society where every citizen can vote on every issue. We can add blockchain, so that there will be no voter frauds, but will this system be the most effective or the fairest one? Voters are usually extremely ill informed and easily manipulated, which is a case for a broader human problem of Bounded Rationality. And it seems to me that there is no effective way we can make everyone pay attention to the current affairs and critically analyze it: some are interested in football, others in politics; some people paint, others ride a bike. The motivation that lies behind these activities is the same, but the application is different. Also the chances that a ballot of a particular voter will be the decisive one are close to zero. In addition to that, politics has a very indirect impact on the life of the supposed particular voter. This makes it seemingly pointless for an individual to invest resources into the better understanding of current affairs (that are basically the function of a Black Box). Moreover, Mass Media, which is supposed to play a role as a fourth branch of power, needs viewers, and works as an entertainer (politicians sometimes do this as well), and has the same problems that other branches have (trade-offs, supremacy of loyalty over ability and discipline); Social networks rely on the algorithmically identified preferences of their users to present them with news that avoids challenging their global outlook, creating bubbles of like-minded, seldom tested ideals.

So basically the voters are left alone with their instincts and moral beliefs, their individual decisions have a very indirect impact on real politics, at the same time doing politics, both on local and higher levels, requires overcoming extremely high entry-barriers.

What can be done?

Humanity has been experimenting with democracy and freedoms for thousands of years, and it is only for the past two hundred years that democracy has become synonymous with elections. This was not a case before. To cut a long story short, I would like to quote Aristotle, who, when comparing Athens to Sparta said, that Sparta is not a democratic polis, since there are only elections but no sortition [where politicians are picked at random from a larger pool of candidates], and elections are the tool of the aristocracy. So what is an ideal form of democracy?

I advise you to read about the classical republican tradition in the works of Quentin Skinner and Philip Pettit, who suggest that the direct participation of the citizens in Re(s)Public-an affairs is a democratic ideal that we all need (I find these thoughts nicely fitting the ideals of the movement for Deliberative democracy). The core thesis that underlies Republicanism as a political philosophy is the understanding of freedom as non-domination in the first place and not reducing it just to the negative or positive concepts of freedom. One of the ways to achieve it is to have equal chances to govern and be governed for some time by holding government positions. Their work resulted in the comeback of sortition, an ancient tool for democratic participation. A very concise explanation of sortition can be found in a good, though a bit radical, Ted talk by Brett Hennig “Sortition – doing democracy differently”.

At the moment I am writing a draft of a project, which aims to implement sortition on local self-governance level alongside with the participatory budgeting. The idea is simple: people in each place directly decide on how to spend budget money themselves. But they do it not through plebiscite, which suggests that around 40-50% of ill-informed voters get to decide to how to allocate scarce recourses. They will do it in a more effective way, through participation in the work of permanent committees, which are formed with the help of sortition and rotation mechanisms. The procedure will be similar to the court procedure of jury selection with some nuances. The citizens will receive letters inviting them to take part in decision-making process. This is the first stage selection: people who are interested in the issues and are motivated will reply. The second selection stage is a compulsory intensive issue-oriented training, after which a citizen becomes eligible to participate in sortition. The committee members later are changed by rotation. The work of such a committee is organized as an open public debate/hearing with the participation of experts and concerned parties. The decisions are made by voting within the committee.

To my mind this kind of civil institutions will make the local self-governance less corrupt in broader meaning if this word; it will provide a real tool of direct democracy and participation in decision-making for people, who are concerned and are motivated to work for the benefits of their communities. Rotation mechanisms will ensure, that the committees will be open to newcomers (hence in a long run they will not become corrupted) and at the same time will allow people to save the experience and expertise and transfer it to the new members.

This will be the best school of citizenship that might change the very texture of the society. It will raise the social capital and allow new idealistic leaders to appear and at the same time will ensure that the decision-making process will be effective and professional. A work in such institutions will teach how to cooperate and meet half way; the citizens will get better informed about complex social, political and economic issues and learn to take responsibility for the well being of their communities.

Democracy and Freedom need experience as well as a real infrastructure. Going to the election polls once in four years does not seem to be the best example of such infrastructure.

Giorgi Arziani is a Georgian-based book publisher and a member of the Borjomi Innovators Network 2018.

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