The Foundation of Democracy

Calls for direct democracy have recently become a lot more prevalent around the world in the context of the Arab Spring, Los Indignados and Occupy Wall Street movements. This begs the question, how direct democracy would practically work, not only on a local but also a national and international scope. Popular wisdom seems to be that electronic voting could be the silver bullet that would make this possible. However, not only is it hard to trust electronic voting whenever a secret ballot is required, but there is a lot more to making direct democracy work on that scale than simply dealing with the efficiency of counting votes.

In Switzerland, direct democracy has a long history, longer than the Swiss confederation itself, with some direct democracy roots going back over 1000 years. For the past 20 years, the Forum for Direct Democracy has been advocating the importance of preserving these aspects of the Swiss political system, and it is the only center-left movement with the objective of preventing Switzerland from joining the EEA and the EU, arguing from a direct-democratic, ecological and social perspective. Based on discussions I've had with fellow members of the Forum for Direct Democracy over the last few years, I would like to share some thoughts relating to how modern democracy in Switzerland in my opinion has yielded some additional institutional concepts, which are essential to its functioning. Extrapolating from that, I'm suggesting a direction for potential improvements to our system, which maybe should be taken into account from the beginning, when attempting to introduce more direct democracy elsewhere in the world. Consequently, what I am describing here is an entangled mixture of the current status quo and where I think we could be taking this with relatively minor effort.

Sovereignty and subsidiarity

Who makes the rules and enforces them is sovereign. Direct democracy is about the legislative decisions, the rules, being made by the people for the people.

The people that are affected by the rules should be deciding which rules need to be defined in that affected group. Rules that affect only a small group should be defined by consensus in that small group. For legislation that affects a larger group the consensus needs to be developed in that larger group. This is the essence of the Principal of Subsidiarity, which implies that authority should be with the most decentralized entity possible and more centralized entities should primarily support the decentralized ones.

Delegating authority from the most central to more decentralized entities makes subsidiarity a farce, since it implies ultimate central authority. If authority is to be with the most decentralized entity possible, as the principle of subsidiarity implies, then the authority can not be selectively delegated from a central entity. Instead it is to be delegated selectively from the most decentralized entity to more centralized entities.

In other words, the people are only free in a sovereign state, if that sovereignty is unconditionally delegated to the individual people, and the people maintain a consensus on what authority they give to the communities they belong to. The communities in turn delegate some authority to larger entities, and to the state, which as a result only exists because it is willed to exist by the people. The simple motivation for the people to provide such entities with authority is for the security one gets in return, in the form of solidarity and sustainability.

The state as a purely abstract concept

With the delegation of the sovereignty to the individuals, the state only continues to exist as an abstract concept towards the outside. The state is the entity that external powers respect as having sovereignty over a particular territory. With sovereignty delegated to the people, the state merely describes the conceptual borderline from which the sovereignty is delegated. For all practical purposes, if all the people of the world would be sovereign, there would be no state.

Free association to multiple communities

Communities are not necessarily always bound to a specific geographic territory. Multiple communities can share responsibilities or have separate responsibilities in the same territory or in overlapping territories, or even not be bound to a specific territory. In any case, all individuals should effectively be able to join any community they wish as an equal member, essentially without any preconditions.

Democracy is incompatible with centralized military power

Rules may be meaningless if they cannot be enforced, but much more importantly, the absence of a rule is just as meaningless, if it's enforcement can not be prevented. While the people may be able to delegate the enforcement of rules, the people must always be able to resist any unauthorized enforcement of rules on them. Effectively, this means that any police and military power needs to be as decentralized as the policy making. To be sovereign, the people must always have dissuasive power against any form of suppression.

Part 2: The Three Pillars of Democracy

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