Friday, 24 June 2011

Falling Crime

Britain and American crime rates have been falling for decades, according to MoneyWeek, reaching 30 and 40 year lows, respectively. But why? The magazine notes that the trend runs contrary to the common wisdom that they are correlated to the economy and posits several alternative theories, including this: "Some commentators have argued that poor black and Latino males (the section of society most likely to see themselves as alienated, powerless outsiders, and who commit a disproportionate number of crimes) feel more connected to America because it has a non-white president for the first time...".
I don't believe that statement to encompass the whole truth, but does a feeling of belonging, of citizenship, reduce crime? Low crime rates in Switzerland, which operates direct democracy, may suggest so.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Moral Roots: Lib Con

This diverse talk by Jonathan Haidt explores the evolutionary benefits of morality and compares liberal moral roots of harm and fairness with conservative ones of harm, fairness, purity, in-group loyalty and authority. I think his insight is an argument for creating a democratic system that enhances the quality of debate in order to achieve moral diversity and counter group think. Interactive Democracy could do this.
"If you want the truth to stand clear before you, never be for or against. The struggle between 'for' and 'against' is the mind's worst disease."
Sant-tsian, c700CE.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Mob Mentality

One concern about giving citizens more direct power in a democracy may be a worry about mob mentality. Since the aristocrat LeBon wrote 'The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind' in 1896 there have been theories from many academics including Jung and Freud. Although many different types of crowd have been identified there are three broad theories of crowd behaviour:
  1. Contagion Theory - Contagious joy, fear, anger or other emotion can be passed among a crowd in which individuals feel anonymous and uninhibited.
  2. Convergence Theory - People with similar ideas and temperaments come together to form crowds which then give them the confidence to act in ways they wouldn't alone. Group think can reinforce their beliefs.
  3. Emergent Norm Theory - Crowds, composed of people with mixed interests and motives, can evolve norms of behaviour. These norms may change depending on the behaviour of leaders or first movers.
So, how does Interactive Democracy discourage mob mentality?
Firstly, when people are given a meaningful route to contribute to democracy there may be far fewer protest marches, maybe even fewer strikes. But what of the development of other groups, perhaps coming together on the Internet?
In the ID system people are not anonymous, they can always be held to account, thus dissuading errant behaviour. (The Internet itself may provide a parallel and anonymous forum, depending how privacy laws develop there.) The ID system allows alternative views to be linked to any one's Initiative, proposal or comment, encouraging a balanced debate and discouraging group think. Abusive language, lies and misinformation can result in charges or a ban from the system, encouraging people to take care in what they write and reducing the emotionality of debates. This is policed by other users, who can complain to the authorities, and by automated systems that can prevent certain words. The rules of behaviour on the ID system are set by MPs: they establish the norms. Finally, the ID system is about debate and decisions not the violent action that is associated with mobs.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Agents of Political Socialization

Like most people I like to think that my thoughts are my own and my conclusions are reached by a rational approach, but we may all be effected by "agents of political socialization" as Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton put it. According to them the cultural agents that build our political outlook include the following:
  • The family
  • Schools
  • Religious institutions
  • Peer groups
  • Social class and gender
  • Mass media
  • Interest groups
  • Political parties
  • Direct contact with governmental structures
It may be that the Swiss culture, with its language diversity, its harsh terrain, its mix of Christian churches, its diversity of newspapers, its local government and evolved federalism, its national service and the peculiarities of its history create the culture that allows direct democracy to flourish. But it may equally be the case that direct democracy enables much of the above. The question that springs to my mind is, do we have the right culture for Interactive Democracy?

Monday, 13 June 2011


In "Comparative Politics Today" Almond, Powell, Strom and Dalton wrote "When people trust others they will be more willing to work together for political goals, and group leaders may be more willing to form coalitions.... The opposite of trust is hostility, which can destroy inter group and interpersonal relations."
The degree of trust that British citizens have in politicians is undermined by each successive scandal and broken promise, and, behind the smiles and warm words, there may be a common distrust among politicians of the good sense and abilities of voters.
All forms of direct democracy force politicians to take their electorate seriously yet the electorate must take responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions, reducing the emergence of a blame game. This may be one reason why, according to Fossedal, the Swiss like and respect their political class and are proud of their political system.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Life's a Game

This TED talk by Seth Priebatsch introduces some concepts in game design that motivate people to play. It's interesting to note that "appointment dynamics", "status dynamics", "progression dynamics" and "communal discovery" may all be found in Interactive Democracy.

More game dynamics can be found here.

Friday, 10 June 2011

True Tweets?

Blogs and tweets aren't necessarily true. Robin Lustig, of Radio 4's 'The World Tonight', writes in his newsletter about the difficulties of verifying blog reports coming out of Syria and, in particular, the abduction of the author of 'A Gay Girl in Damascus'. Now he's not even sure if she existed. Robin wrote "Does it matter if one blog among millions turns out to be a fake? Unfortunately, it does, especially in an environment where independent reporting is impossible, so that blogs and other online media become the only available substitute."
Can you or I, or any other average citizen, tell the difference between truth and fiction? Doesn't this cause a problem for Interactive Democracy? It's far easier to pressure our media institutions into telling the truth but far harder to do the same for Ms Anonymous self-publishing fiction online.

Friday, 3 June 2011

Subject or Participant?

Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, according to Wikipedia, outlined three pure types of political culture:
  • Parochial - Where citizens are only remotely aware of the presence of central government, and live their lives near enough regardless of the decisions taken by the state. Distant and unaware of political phenomena. He has neither knowledge or interest in politics. In general congruent with a traditional political structure.
  • Subject - Where citizens are aware of central government, and are heavily subjected to its decisions with little scope for dissent. The individual is aware of politics, its actors and institutions. It is effectively oriented towards politics, yet he is on the "downward flow" side of the politics. In general congruent with a centralized authoritarian structure.
  • Participant - Citizens are able to influence the government in various ways and they are affected by it. The individual is oriented toward the system as a whole, to both the political and administrative structures and processes (to both the input and output aspects). In general congruent with a democratic political structure.
I wonder if many voters in the UK feel to be subjects of the political system? I wonder if they feel that their votes have any meaningful power to choose policy or just to change the "rulers"? Interactive Democracy is far more participative.
(Thanks to wikipedia.)

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Comparing Cultures

Geert Hofstede, of Maastricht University, compared cultures across many IBM subsidiaries in different countries. The results may provide some insight into the applicability of Swiss Direct Democracy to the UK. He used 5 criteria (only 4 for Switzerland):
  1. Power Distance, a measurement of inequality as perceived from lower levels in the organisation, rated 35 in the UK and 34 in Switzerland. Pretty much the same.
  2. Individualism was scored higher in the UK, 89, than in Switzerland, 68.
  3. Masculinity rated the UK, 66, slightly less than Switzerland, 70.
  4. Switzerland (58) rated higher than the UK (35) in Uncertainty Avoidance.
  5. Finally, the UK (25) had a short term outlook but Switzerland wasn't measured.
Before seeing these results I would have expected Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance to have been much lower in Switzerland. I imagine that Direct Democracy would flourish with a higher degree of equality and lower Power Distance score. Similarly, I would have assumed that frequent referendums would lead to greater uncertainty. However, we should be careful about using these results as they may be more associated with the local corporate culture than that exhibited in the general populace.

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Marx on Switzerland?

Does anyone know if Karl Marx wrote about direct democracy and capitalism in Switzerland?
Though Switzerland is perceived as a conservative country with many wealthy capitalists it's political system is rooted in the communes. The Swiss have the highest per capita income anywhere in Europe, low taxes and low unemployment. Their currency is strong. They are ethnically and linguistically diverse, which doesn't seem to hinder them. If Marx were alive today, with the modern example Switzerland offers, would he have commented on how voter power (direct democracy style) can counter balance the ills of capitalism; and, looking at other countries, would he comment on how capital can corrupt representative democracy?
Perhaps he would have compared the money economy with the vote economy. On the one hand there is an unequal distribution of capital that flows where the owner decides, accumulating with a few, and on the other an equal distribution of votes, readily available to be cast in favour of fairness.
(Since writing these questions I've discovered this by Engels about the Swiss civil war: he rants bloodthirstily for centralisation.)