The ability to make decisions is one of the most important cornerstones of democracy. Rarely though do we take the time to stare our decision making systems down, even though we sometimes seem to be caught in their headlights.
As the discussions about a new constitution for Iceland have been going on and on in parliament, relentlessly sapping our collective tolerance for meaningless yammer, it’s hard not to imagine that if only we had some way to put the constitution to a public referendum, we might be able to get a conclusive answer.
Of course, we’ve already done that. The constitution was put to a referendum last autumn, to which the public responded with a resounding yes. By all traditional measures of democratic decision-making, it should have been adopted by now. The reason it isn’t is that in this country, the parliament, rather than the people, is sovereign. No constitutional changes can be adopted without parliament having the final say.
Filibustering is a fascinating thing. It’s a mechanism which emerges in our decision-making system as a side-effect of the way in which our parliament conducts deliberations. The deliberations go on until they are done, at which point a decision is made. But if the deliberations are never done, a decision can be postponed indefinitely.
So while the Icelandic people have long since made up their mind about the new constitution—five months ago and counting—the parliament is stuck in the proverbial holding pattern of doom. It’s clear who doesn’t want there to be a new constitution (hint: Independence and Progressive Parties), and it’s pretty clear who doesn’t want to be forced into a position of having to admit to not wanting the new constitution (hint: Social Democrats, give or take). What isn’t clear is what recourse the general public has when their parliament has forsaken them.
If this seems like a flaw in the system, it’s because it is. Can we do better?
For the last several years I’ve been thinking about the way we make decisions in societies, and the way in which we often sacrifice our ideals on the altar of expectations. This line of thinking has led to the development of a number of systems broadly termed “liquid democracy”: electronic voting and deliberation systems geared towards helping people make better decisions together.
In the Pirate Party, for whom I’ve become a candidate, we use one of these systems of my design to make decisions. Anybody can propose an idea, and after a rudimentary sanity check it goes into a process where anybody can comment and propose changes to the proposal, after which the entire thing goes to a vote. If people don’t want to participate in every election, they can choose delegates who carry their vote—not indefinitely, merely until the member decides otherwise. Highly granular and transparent representation mixed with direct democracy!
There are, as far as I have been able to see, no natural limitations to how much such a system can be scaled up. It may well be possible that towns, cities, or even countries could use methods like these to organise themselves. I wouldn’t propose such a thing quite yet—there are still a lot of details that need testing and some important problems that need solving—but I think it’s the way to go.
The core tenet of modern democracy is “compromise early, compromise often.” This needs to stop. We’ve been sacrificing away our hopes and dreams for too long, collateral damage of a broken political process. With more direct democracy, it’s possible for us to start using our collective ability to make decisions, regardless what the filibusters want.
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