The Liberal Democracy Operating System Needs a Big Update

Let’s take a step back from the current controversies over the conduct of our legislators – and indeed their counterparts in democracies around the world – and reflect on the logic of representative democracy.

The basic idea is that the best form of government is that of popular consent, and since it is impractical to have everyone’s opinion on every issue, the people elect a few hundred representatives who act in their name. An added benefit of this method is that representatives can apply their minds to complex issues of public policy and impulsive, reckless, and extremist moderate tendencies that may grip public opinion from time to time. They also have a natural incentive to develop professional expertise in public policy and to represent the interests of their constituents in political negotiations conducted in the Legislative Assembly.

Even the strongest supporter of representative democracy will concede that this is not how it works in practice. We know that the reality is quite different from the prospectus. The fact is, as Chris Bryant recounts in his captivating two-volume history of the British parliament, it has been that way from the start. Yet democracy, as Winston Churchill said, is “the worst form of government – except all the others that have been tried”.

We must not give in to the risky temptation to try a “new” form of government: liberal democracy remains the most enlightened way for a society to organize itself. But we can – and must – explore ways to improve its mechanism. Indeed, if citizens of democracies around the world are dissatisfied with their systems, it is because we are still using the mechanisms of the industrial age long before the information age.

Bryant’s analysis might disagree, but two centuries ago it was perhaps conceivable that a few hundred MPs had the time and ability to properly interact with their constituents, understand their needs, learn about the technical aspects of the policy and vote on it according to their personal judgment. But can an MP who represents 3 million people really represent them? If we expand the Lok Sabha tenfold and assume we get closer to a realistic ratio, a chamber of 5,450 MPs will be either dysfunctional or a mere rubber stamp.

Second, let’s say that most MPs spend a lot of time researching political issues: it is always impossible for them to get an informed view of the important technical details of the sheer number of issues that come before them. Try to follow the legislative briefs that the good folks at PRS Legislative Research post regularly. It is not humanly possible for legislators to know enough about all the bills they are called upon to pass, even if each of them had a large group of political analysts, which does not is not the case. It’s not just an Indian problem.

Finally, electoral politics ensures that legislators are more instruments of party leaders than advocates for the interests of their constituents. Even if we didn’t have the anti-defection law, party support is essential to get elected. In any case, the constituencies are too big and it is difficult to know what the voters think, even on the most pressing issues. So, in general, legislators around the world end up toeing the party line.

Consider this now. If we combine the methodology of open source software development with platforms such as wikis, we can harness the voice and expertise of all of society to come up with good laws and change them if necessary. Vox populi and technical expertise can thus be easily harnessed using proven technology. The architecture of a digital democracy must be open, publicly debated and thoughtfully designed. Note that this is not “computerized” decision-making that takes humans out of the loop, but rather a more efficient way to aggregate human genius.

What happens to our secular parliaments? I think parliaments perform an important function: they distribute political power and give it legitimacy. Digital democracy will continue to need parliaments to make high-level political choices, allocate public funds and hold the executive to account. MPs should have the power to deviate from public opinion or the decision of experts. After all, they are not merely agents of their constituents, but consolidators of constituents’ interests with those of the larger collective. However, digital democracy will set baselines. Ultimately, the goal of such a digital upgrade is to assign the right work to the right entity: to give every citizen an effective voice, to aggregate society’s expertise in law-making and leverage the political legitimacy that comes from elections. Think of it as a separation of skills.

The executive also needs to be redesigned for the information age and that is a topic for a future column. But I think an overhaul of the parliamentary structure is overdue and becoming urgent day by day. Political polarization in the US, UK, France and India may be masking an underlying discontent with the ‘system’ itself, even as China’s authoritarian model heralds its competent superiority .

Unless it embraces the open and the digital, democracy itself is in danger.

Nitin Pai is co-founder and director of The Takshashila Institution, an independent center for public policy research and education

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