Direct democracy

Direct democracy has several advantages and has existed in many forms and contexts. Direct democracy can work in small communities and groups, but has never worked effectively in larger organisations or been feasible at higher levels because it requires everyone to get involved in all issues and vote on everything. The result is unnecessary bureaucracy, multiple intermediaries and slow processes.

One of the earliest examples of direct democracy comes from Sparta. There, direct-democratic decisions were made by acclamation, i.e. all those for and against a proposal had to shout on two separate occasions. Some judges who could not see the crowd sat in a nearby house and listened and decided which proposal won.

This way of making decisions may seem primitive, but an interesting feature of the method is that it allows everyone to express how much they like or dislike a decision by shouting at different levels. A really upset minority that would be hit hard by a decision can shout louder than the majority and get its way, at least as long as the minority is not too small. The system did run the risk of people shouting strategically to win even if the outcome didn't matter much to them. But since all the shouting was done in public, repeated such behavior would risk causing other participants to view whoever shouted their loudest all the time as dishonest, which may have increased everyone's incentive to be honest.

Painting illustrating direct democracy in Athens, 276 BC.

The advantages of a direct-democratic system like Sparta are:

  • Direct accountability. There are no intermediaries voting for someone else who can compromise away what the voters want. Everyone is accountable directly to the people.
  • Decisions that maximize the benefit to the vast majority. The majority can't run over minorities anyway. By shouting differently, the strength of the people's preferences can be aggregated, thus guaranteeing decisions that maximize the welfare of the vast majority.

Disadvantages of direct democracy are:

  • Participants do not have the time and energy to get involved or vote on all issues, especially when they become more complicated.
    Participants do not have expertise in all the issues being voted on.
  • It is difficult for everyone to know whether the consequences will be negative in the short or long term; the results of votes are rarely the consequences that voters actually want.
  • The system is not scalable. The larger the organisation or society, the more difficult it is to try to run everything directly democratically. This results in great inefficiency.

So direct democracy has some advantages but overall is not a good system for governing large groups, organisations or countries. So what about representative democracy? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this system?

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The Digital Democracy Association is a non-profit association that is religiously and politically independent. It aims to support and promote effective democratic organisation of people at all levels: from small networks and organisations at grassroots level to large companies, political parties and organisations at national and international level.

Its ultimate goal is a world in which everyone's influence and participation is maximised in a way that is compatible with high flexibility, efficiency and power to act in human co-operation and organisations. The Association's sub-goals are to (i) develop innovative open-source tools for digital democratic organisation (ii) disseminate knowledge and stimulate interest in effective democratic decision-making and organisational practices (iii) support organisations and companies to improve their internal democracy.