Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Direct Democracy, Representative Democracy

"Efficient decision making inevitably requires delegation, yet it is precisely delegation that causes problems of legitimacy."

Fukuyama was referring to the functioning of international decision-making bodies in that quote, but his quote could just as easily have referred to any system in which decisions need to be made on behalf of a group of people: say, the Australian government for instance.

Like most democratic governments today, the Australian government functions on a model of representative democracy (for convenience's sake, I overlook that we are in fact a Constitutional Monarchy as irrelevant to the examination of the workings of democracy). We do not function on a system of direct democracy.

I view this as a good thing. Direct democracy has the failing, first of all, that polling the people for a decision on every topic is woefully inefficient - so inefficient that doing so would probably lead to a complete failure of effective government in my opinion. Perhaps improvements in efficiency of vote-counting can be made, but that doesn't address the second problem.

One of the major proponents of representative democracy was Edmund Burke. He favoured the Trustee model of representation, claiming that an elected representative should be able to exercise their own judgement on an issue even if it opposed the will of the people who elected the representative. (Compare this with the Delegate model of representation).

The suggestion by Burke (and if Wikipedia's info is accurate, J S Mill) seems to be that common people are too stupid to make the right decisions on their own behalf, and need to elect an enlightened, educated man (it would of course be a man) to do it for them. I don't think people are stupid. But I don't think people are superhuman either: the level of expertise and amount of time needed to effectively make all the decisions that need to be made by a government on a daily basis make it a full-time job. So a full-time job is exactly what it becomes: authority to make the decisions of government is entrusted to elected representatives who devote all there time to, in theory, familiarising themselves with issues and making informed decisions so that the rest of the population has time to actually live their lives.

The trade-off of such trusteeship is that the population loses some say in what the elected representatives can actually do. Whether or not this is a good thing depends, I guess, on what particular issue or event is on the agenda for the populace and its elected representatives. But broadly speaking, I believe it's a good thing because it allows a democratic government to function at all. Absent serious improvements in the efficiency of vote-gathering as well as stellar improvements in the human race's ability to analyse information and act on it, representative democracy has the advantage over direct democracy in that it can actually work.

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