Mass representative democracy

Among the kids, participatory direct democracy is often taken as the ideal to which democratic polities ought aspire. But at least in theory, the case for representative democracy is strong. Political decisions really matter. They should be made well. But they are hard. Whatever interests and values you hold dear, it takes a lot of work to inform and educate yourself enough to know what political choices would in fact best serve them. This work must be performed in the face of tsunamis of misinformation propounded by those serving interests and values that diverge from yours, but whose partisans are eager to co-opt you. Democracy-skeptical public choice theorists aren’t wrong when they say that most voters are (and ought to be) “rationally ignorant“.

The genius, in theory, of representative democracy is that voters hire specialists to do the information work for them. In a representative democracy, it is not really your job as an ordinary citizen to have a strong view about the details that actually get legislated, like how many tax brackets there should be and how the rates should be structured across them. Your job is one that you (and only you) are eminently well placed to perform — to know your own interests and values, and elect a person who reflects them. That person become a specialist who gets paid to do the work of translating those interests and values into political choices that give them real effect.

This is the standard case for representative democracy you probably learned in civics class. Yet at this point, most of us roll our eyes more than a little at it. I don’t feel remotely represented by my alleged representatives, to whom I have no personal connection and little affinity of values or interest. In the US House of Representatives, I am one of about 750,000 people that my “representative” allegedly represents. In my city, I elect a “supervisor” I have never met who allegedly represents the values and interests of 80,000 of my neighbors. It’s a bit ridiculous. More than a bit. A person who “represents” a population of tens of thousands of people whose only commonality is geography effectively represents no one at all. Elections impose constraints on politician behavior, sure. If you want to keep the gig, you can’t do whatever will offend some least-common-denominator id among your constituents. You must do what it takes to raise funds for the competitive advertising campaigns that “elections” become. The first constraint is “democratic”, but it constitutes so watered down a form of representation that it counts for very little. The second constraint is often antidemocratic, since global-dollar-weighted and local-population-weighted interests and values are in conflict quite often.

Within the guard rails set by these two constraints, what “representatives” do cannot straightforwardly be described as representation. Almost any choice a politician makes would give effect to the values and interests of some of their constituents but not others. Absent the universal information work representative democracy exists to absolve us of, most of us cannot even evaluate whether the choices our representatives make are likely to further or frustrate our interests. The social architecture of contemporary representative democracy is like a how-to manual for the so-called “iron law of oligarchy“. Our institutions immerse our “representatives” among a class of electeds, bureaucratic staff, and professional courtesans. The burdens of the job keep them segregated from the publics they purport to represent. In an organic, social sense, they become bound and accountable much more to their comrades-in-arms within the governing class than they could ever be to the amorphous, conflicted group they call constituents. An economist might describe all this as an “agency problem” but that’s not quite right. There’s not a coherent enough principal whose interests the agent can be said to betray.

Modern representative democracy is simply a system whose predictable result is governance by competing coalitions of insiders, who develop deep relationships and thick connections to one another, while the electorate they notionally serve becomes an inchoate, threatening demon that must be flattered and appeased. The values and interests insiders actually serve may be corrupt and self-serving, or they may be idealistic and selfless, but they cannot accurately be described as “representing” their constituents as a body. Constituents feel unrepresented, because they are. Popular pressure builds for flawed institutions of direct democracy — ballot initiatives, referenda — under which the information problems representative democracy exists to solve run riot, but at least it isn’t always the same fuckers calling all of the shots.

Direct democracy enfranchises the citizenry to decide upon matters of whose details and ramifications they are rationally ignorant, with predictably imperfect results. Contemporary representative democracy creates a corruptible class of specialist-coworkers, who develop their own values and interests and substitute them for the those of their constituents (whose actual values and interests are too diverse and conflicted to make their own strong claim). Is there anyway we could get something that combines the enfranchisement of direct democracy with the informed participation enabled by representation? Yes.

Imagine what an online direct democracy might look like. All of us would be the legislature. Obviously, we wouldn’t meet (or mostly pretend to meet) under a neo-Roman dome in some self-important provincial city. With a legislature of only a few hundred souls, attention must be very carefully allocated. In our current Congress, there’s a whole economy of scarce floor time. (“I yield the remainder of my time to my colleague”, you’ll hear them say.) If all of our legislators were permitted to speak as much as they would, deliberation would take too much time. In fact, most legislators never weigh in at all on most issues that in a broad sense come before the Congress. Congress organizes itself into committees (by arcane means, with corrupt effect), and most matters never make it through and past committees to consideration by the broader chambers. If we had a legislature of 250 million (roughly the voting-eligible population), obviously the vast majority of citizen-legislators’ proposals and bright ideas could not be put before all their citizen colleagues. If only 1% of citizen legislators were to make a proposal each year, we’d all have millions of proposals to evaluate. That’s untenable. So we’d have to design a kind of stochastic parliament, where people’s proposals would initially go to very tiny fractions of “the legislature”. These random samples would constitute ad hoc “committees”, and each citizen would be responsible for serious deliberation on the proposals that come before them in this way, but each participant would field only a modest number of such proposals. Following deliberation and potentially modification at this stage, these ad hoc committees would vote to promote or kill the proposal. If they promote, the same procedure would recur but with a larger sample, and less scope for deliberation and modification. The number of such proposals that could be promoted to higher levels of review would be limited and so competitively rationed: only those gathering the most support would gain scarce “slots” compelling the broad polity to review them. Finally, the tournament-winning, most promoted proposals would get plenary up or down votes, like a vote on the House floor.

You can imagine this kind of thing, but it would do little to address the problems we invented representative democracy to solve. To function well, our citizenry would have to be extraordinarily engaged and informed, and it would take up all of their time. It would be like permanent jury duty.

But what if we elected representatives to participate in this kind of mass-democracy framework? Instead of electing one per 800,000 or one per 80,000, what if we self-affiliated into groups of common interest of no more than, say, 1000 souls, for whom personal, physical “town meetings” could be regularly arranged? Obviously, not everyone would wish to attend all of these meetings, but everyone could if they wished. With no more than 1000 constituents, an elected could become at least acquainted with her full constituency. She could be accessible and available to them all. She could maintain direct relationships with a substantial fraction of the people she represents, and be motivated and held to account by those relationships, by gratitude and shame experienced personally rather than by abstract shifts in what some consultant claims the polls say.

Instead of a few hundred Congresspeople, we’d have 250,000 representatives whose full-time job it would be to stay and live among and interact with their constituents, and participate in the online legislature. There would be no Congressional offices in Washington, no risk of going native among colleagues who become much closer than constituents. At a municipal level, there would be no councilmen or supervisors at City Hall. In my San Francisco, there would be roughly 800 legislators and any of us who cared to would know our representative and interact with her as much or as little as we pleased.

This proposal recognizes that the hard part of being a representative, or at least what ought to be the hard part, is not fundraising, rising through committees, learning the personalities and peccadillos of influential colleagues so that you can “legislate effectively”. The hard part of being a representative is representing. The problem we should devote ourselves to is the challenge of making one person’s voice become a capable stand-in for many others’ necessarily absent. The legitimacy of our entire system of government depends upon this thin reed, the quality of the bond between elected and constituency. When that bond becomes as attenuated and deflected as it has under current institutions, “democracy” fails to confer very much legitimacy at all, or to be effective at serving the interests of the people on whose behalf it claims to rule.

This proposal recognizes also that human beings are best motivated and held accountable by direct relationships to other human beings. Pecuniary incentives are course-grained, and always susceptible to corruption. Career incentives — they’ll serve the people because they want to be reelected! — are wildly insufficient. The range of things a politician may do and still get reelected is wide, and can deviate a great deal from their constituents’ interests. Career incentives are easy for outsiders to game. If you serve constituencies that may not entirely be those you supposedly represent, there may be a gig on K Street or a place in the party bureaucracy for you. The foundational error of the neoliberal period was the conceit that aligning financial incentives to social goods was easy, so market success and contribution to social welfare could, to a first approximation, be equated. Market success, alas, in the market for political careers as much as cigarette sales, can be welfare destructive rather than socially valuable. The best work results from intrinsic devotion to excellence plus human relationships that help steer a person’s excellence towards ends that a community values. People need to be well paid not so financial incentives direct their work, but so that financial anxieties and ambitions don’t misdirect, eclipse, distort, occlude the fragile foundations of real human achievement. Our representatives should be paid well, and should serve and live among tangible human communities whose interests they know and experience through organic personal relationships.

So “expand the House” from 435 to, um, 250,000, and put it online. Obviously, this is an idea that can’t be put into immediate practice at a national level. We have a lot to learn before we’ll trust large-scale stochastic deliberative assemblies to resolve political questions with extraordinarily high stakes. However, it is a vision that we should be working towards. Whatever you think of “crypto”, one thing that proposals like this highlight is the need for extremely trustworthy networked computation infrastructures that are credibly neutral, that are not subject to the discretion of some party that owns or operates the machines. If you want to run a legislature over a network, there can’t be a company that manages the database that might potentially manipulate it. You need the system to produce very persuasive, public evidence of its integrity at all times. I don’t think public blockchains in anything like their contemporary forms will get us there, but they are working prototypes of this sort of trustworthy computation. They are also sites of experimentation in (rudimentary, badly flawed) online deliberative assemblies such as “DAOs“. There is plenty to hate about contemporary crypto, but in the midst of all the scam and speculation there are emerging fascinating “petrie dishes” for experimental democracy, to which it is worth paying some attention, and cheering useful innovation. Most of cryptoland is understandably but unfortunately cynical of representative models of democracy. But the usual alternative — “governance tokens” directly voted, like shares of stock in a traditional corporation — performs poorly. Token-voting is plutocratic by design, and outcomes tend to be dominated by insiders and activists while much larger “rationally ignorant” groups just “HODL” (hold) their tokens for speculative purposes without voting them. The interests of stakeholders who are not tokenholders get ignored entirey. (See Vitalik Buterin’s lengthy critique of “coin voting”.)

Legislation is, in computer lingo, a very stateful application. Online deliberative assemblies will need to keep precise track of large numbers of lengthy documents and particular revisions thereof, which cannot be done on contemporary blockchains at a reasonable cost and speed. But it would not be so difficult to repurpose some of the technologies that underlie contemporary crypto to build bespoke, city-scale legislatures that could be operated affordably and generate compelling evidence of their integrity. Cities should give “mass representative democracy” a try, soon. If you live in a city of any size, do you feel, today, like you are adequately represented in city government? If not, what hope do we have to make representative democracy work at a state or national scale? We are collectively, and correctly, coming to understand that we’ve never really had the kind of Our Democracy that talking heads on MSNBC are constantly telling us we must save. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and build institutions we’ll have reason to be less cynical about.

Update History:

  • 8-Jan-2022, 12:50 a.m. PST: “ballot initiatives, referenda — in under which the information problems representative democracy exists to solve run riot”; “whose actual values and interests are too diverse and conflicted”; “The range of things a politician can may do and still get reelected is quite wide , and can deviate a great deal from where their constituents’ interests might lie.”; “…in the market for political careers and as much as cigarette sales…”; “help steer a person’s excellence towards ends that a community values.”; “…to resolve political questions of with extraordinarily high stakes”; “…in (rudimentary, badly flawed) online deliberative assemblies such as ‘DAOs'”; “…it would not be so difficult to take repurpose some…”

19 Responses to “Mass representative democracy”

  1. I think your argument would be stronger if you compared your proposal to a hypothetical but technologically feasible maximally reformed version of the status quo rather than the status quo. I would identify all the features of my proposal that do not rely on the community’s being online: pays legislators well, uses public funds to do so (freeing them from raising campaign money), dramatically increases the number of legislators (one per thousand), etc. Then assume they are in place and show how my proposal is still superior. To help readers effortlessly find the value added to my proposal by its online and crypto features.

  2. Glenn Sills writes:

    You lost me when you went into Crypto, which adds no value to your solution. I understand that it is the trendy venture capital idea of the moment, but honestly it does not add anything to the basic proposal.

  3. Detroit Dan writes:

    @Glenn Sills — “Crypto” is proposed as a technical method to manage online voting and document management. This is something that will need to be done if we are move beyond the archaic paper age.

    I agree that cryptocurrency has been a farce, but that doesn’t mean that other uses of blockchain (auditing) technology will not be useful in an increasingly online age.

    @Genevieve — I like your thinking. I do have trouble imagining being part of a “self-affiliated group of common interest” that met in person. Geography – physical proximity – is becoming less important in our group affiliations. So technological change probably needs to be part of the proposal for it to make any sense. But your line of thought does seem like a constructive channel to move the idea in the right direction.

  4. Kien Choong writes:

    Hi, with the US hosting its “democracy summit”, and China publishing white papers on its “whole process democracy”, your blog post is timely. Now is a good time to have a global conversation about what democracy really is.

    Here’s my “2 cents” …

    First, I like how Amartya Sen informally defines democracy as simply each person having a broadly equal say on how they are governed. This seems to be the essence of what democracy really is, and “representative democracy”, “participatory democracy”, Chinese style “whole of process democracy” are simply different institutional arrangements. We should avoid conflating the institutions that make democracy possible with what “democracy” ultimately is, which is that each person has broadly equal say on how they are governed.

    If we take this broader idea of democracy, it is clear that Western representative democracy (however admirable) does not give everyone broadly equal say on how they are governed. The capitalist elite (along with the security-defence establishment, mainstream media journalists) have more say on how a country is governed than the working class, the “bottom 50%”, certain minority groups (e.g., indigenous populations), etc.

    Western commentators seem quick to dismiss non-Western governments (like Singapore’s, China’s) as “authoritarian”. I truly regret this tendency to divide the world into “democracies” and “authoritarian”. Democracy is not a binary concept such that a country is either democratic or not. I think it is much better to think of democracy as part of a country’s development process, just like economic development, poverty elimination, etc.

    Many “authoritarian governments” have become more democratic over time, whereas many “democratic governments” have become less democratic over time. We fail to notice this if we think of democracy vs authoritarian as a binary states.

    So rather than dismiss China’s “whole of process” democracy (as many in the mainstream media are inclined to do), I would engage with the Chinese government and see how far “whole of process” democracy takes China in terms of ensuring that everyone has a broadly equal say on how their lives are governed.

    One final point. While I value representative democracy, I personally think elected representatives are overrated. Ideally, I would like the government to be made up of competent people who are motivated to consult with the general public on decision-making. And this (I argue) requires “selection”, as well as “election”.

    My ideal set of democratic institution would include a merit-based process of selecting representatives who are eligible to stand for election. These would be people with a demonstrated track record of serving the public (it would almost certainly exclude someone like Donald Trump). And it would be reinforced by a disciplinary system of “weeding out” unqualified representatives. Public service is rightly seen as a profession made up of people with integrity,, genuine competence and hard-working.

    Just my contribution to the global discussion on democracy. Democracy works best through public discussion and good reasoning!

  5. korual writes:

    The first part of the essay is convincing when you question the very notion of representation, but the second part relies very much on a merely larger sample of representation. No doubt it would be an improvement and I would definitely vote for it, but if you are going to make a sweeping and radical change, presumably in some kind of apocalyptic scenario where it is even possible, then the political principle will likely be radically different from representation altogether.

    It looks like the Chinese system of non-parliamentary political leadership will be viable in the future. Maybe we can only educate ourselves and our children to take up the mantle of leadership, in whatever form history decrees, in a wise, responsible and sustainable way?

  6. Detroit Dan writes:

    @Kien Choong– Well said! We should consider what has worked relatively well in places such as China, and stop thinking of democracy as an all or nothing affair.

    @korual Doesn’t the Chinese system involve representation at some level, at least in theory? In practice, what do Chinese people do to address issues with their political leaders?

  7. Santi writes:

    The process to select proposals would produce a lot of unintended results.

  8. Yoram Gat writes:

    Isn’t the original democratic mechanism simpler and more likely to generate desirable outcomes?

  9. korual writes:

    Hi Detroit Dan. It is doubtful that Chinese citizens have any more or less ability to address issues with their leaders than Western citizens do. Steve wrote eloquently about the redundancy of the idea of representation already. But on a functional level, when we look at the trajectory of the Chinese nation and the Western nations over the last 20 years, which would you say has been working the best?

  10. Detroit Dan writes:


    China seems to be more successful in recent years, although my understanding is that we in the West have greater freedom of speech — i.e. to do what we’re doing now. And that is important to me.

    But with regard to representation, there’s obviously a need for any government to provide ways for citizens to contact their government with questions, complaints, requests, etc. In the U.S., we have elected representatives as well as bureaucrats providing this function. My understanding is that in China the elected representatives must be members of the Communist party, and this doesn’t seem optimal. I wonder how this works in practice.

  11. Pelham writes:

    This or something much like it sounds good to me. But if we wait for some kind of top-down implementation, it’ll never happen.

    So let’s get started. Let’s organize around this form of more truly representative democracy and just go ahead and implement it nationally as a sort of shadow government. National implementation, I think, is key because it’s the kind of big idea that inspires and gives us a lot more scope fiscally.

    What purpose would this serve, being only a powerless shadow government? At the very, very least, it would serve to highlight the extreme corruption and non-representation of the real government and, at most, we could begin to create not just a shadow but a parallel government with tangible powers.

  12. Detroit Dan writes:

    Good idea Pelham. A shadow representative government at a national level, organized online. That sounds like a good project for 2022. Work with 3rd parties to get the balls rolling.

  13. Detroit Dan writes:

    Actually, I should say 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th parties to get the ball rolling. Dems and Reps are free to participate also, but the shadow government will be outside their control.

  14. abraham co writes:

    Isn’t the Chinese Communist Party near this proposed expanded legislative democracy? Instead of 250,000, they have 90 million. Instead of being elected, they are meritoriously selected . Instead of reelected, they are vetted by surveys.

  15. reason writes:

    I’m missing any discussion of a more fundamental problem – the paradox of voting. That even people are fully rational in their preferences, the sum of their preferences may produce incompatible outcomes. To put it simply if you ask people if they like taxes – NO, ask people if they like increased government provision of free services – YES, ask them if they like increased government deficits – NO. I don’t see how this is addressed. At least if you have a party system and give somebody responsibility for running the government, you can throw them out if they produce a mess, so that there is a potential learning process.

    You also don’t address at all the biggest problem of all in the US, the undemocratic nature of the Senate. It makes no difference is representatives produce representative legislation if the senate blocks everything.

  16. Kramer writes:

    Maybe we don’t have time to become experts on any of the hundreds of issues of governance, but neither would any representative. Having more representatives doesn’t solve this problem. Perhaps a real direct democracy could work. Divide the job of governance into a thousand pieces. Each piece gets its own online committee of decision makers. Any citizen can join any committee, but only one committee at a time. People are quite capable of developing incredible expertise on any subject, when they find it interesting.

  17. Karoly Negyesi writes:

    Cryptography would be required but what today is called “crypto” ie the blockchain absolutely not. Public key cryptography was invented in the 70s, it’s enough, the representatives publish a signed “yes” or “no” vote to their webpage and RSS feed, the signatures can’t be forged. There will be watchdogs enough aggregating the votes to ensure this can’t be manipulated. This all was possible in 2000, RSS became widespread in 2005. Blockchain adds absolutely nothing to this.

  18. This is fine as a thought experiment, but it seems little more than that. It will strike the electorate as outlandish. I think our thinking on what can be done with our dangerously degrading democracy should be conditioned by the search for mechanisms of obvious legitimacy and appeal that can have a predictably beneficial impact. I think greater use of representation by sampling (as in juries) fits those criteria. I can’t see how your suggestion does.

  19. Detroit Dan writes:

    Lots of interesting comments:

    @Karoly #17 — Blockchain adds an audit trail. It seems to me that this could be useful, but I’d like to see some examples.

    @abraham co — Thanks for the info re China. Obviously it’s very top down there, but the surveys provide some bottom up feedback?

    @Nicholas Gruen — Yes, we’re at the thought experiment stage here. I agree that we need something a bit more concrete before it will catch fire. But this is a starting point for discussion.

    @Kramer — I think you make an important point — getting more people involved and invested is crucial to democratic success. With so many bullshit jobs, there is a great thirst to do something meaningful for society. And, with the Internet, the tools are available for people to help.

    @reason —
    1. “The paradox of voting” — I’ve never heard it put this way before, but you are saying that people are somewhat inconsistent and irrational and therefore shouldn’t be trusted with direct democracy. That seems to be consistent with Steve’s take in the original post. We need representative democracy where credibility is king.

    2. The undemocratic nature of the Senate is the biggest problem of all — I agree that’s a big problem and should be addressed sooner or later. Rome wasn’t built in a day!