Bart van Lieshout

Democracy 2.0

June 2011

In a democracy you rarely get what you want. You are ruled by compromise or parties you didn’t vote for. Time for a new democratic system.

In the Netherlands we live in a democracy. We have about eleven political parties to choose from when voting in national elections. Since no party ever gains and absolute majority, our government consists of a coalition between two, three or even four parties, meaning compromising is the name of the game. Since a compromise is no ones direct wish, but a practical necessity to cooperate, the political parties that form the government can only achieve part of their promises at best. The political agenda for our governments is therefore not a direct wish from the voters, but the result of a process that takes place in the dealing rooms of politics during the formation of a new cabinet. Because our ruling parties usually only account for little over half of the voters, the wishes from almost half the Dutch democratic electorate are not conceded in the government policies.

So the result of our democratic process is a government that partly represents over half of the voters via compromises. Little over half the electorate is represented via compromises, the large minority is not represented at all. No wonder most people feel detached from national politics.

So could we do better? It is well understood that democracy is not ideal, but usually this statement is followed by ‘but it’s the best we have’. But maybe it is not. Maybe we could do better, or organize our political systems differently to cater the wishes of a larger part of the electorate.

Agree to not agree

Let’s face the fact that there are many things political parties will never be able to agree upon. Most dissimilarity of political parties lies in how they want to tax the society and how to spend that money. Based on how they think the society should be organized, the different parties draw up a program that we can vote for. In general there are a lot of things all parties agree upon. Here in the Netherlands – and I think in most countries – there are many things that never seem to be a point of discussion. If it came to it, politicians could agree on a large part of the governments businesses without much discussion. There would be no argument about whether we need embassies, infrastructure, traffic regulating laws, criminal law, a police force and all those things that enable a country to run smoothly. Sure they can find some details to bicker about, but nothing substantial.

Most differences between political programs are not in how to run a country, but mostly in how to deal with the ‘social’ issues and the distribution of wealth. Do we all pay 35% income tax or do we pay a larger percentage over the top of our income if we earn more? Or should we all pay a limited fixed sum? And if we are not employed, how much support should we get from the government and for how long? Do we pay for child support as a society or do parents pay it themselves? The answers to these sort of questions are are different for the main political movements. The main divisions between liberal and socialist solutions divide the political landscape, but so does the axis that runs from conservative to progressive. Hence the eleven political packages we can choose from when fulfilling our democratic duty on the ballot.
So lets assume we can divide the spending of tax money in two groups: the group of expenses that is easily agreed upon and the group of expenses that are subject of ideological political debate.

Basic package

In the first group we will place the basic costs of running the country. All expenses in this group should be those we all agree upon, or let’s say 80% of the electorate (there will always be small radical movements that want to close all the roads or dismiss all police personnel or have other extreme ideas that would destabilize the society). I understand that even when it comes to matters in this category there will be a occasional need for political decisions, but we leave those details for now.
Everyone living in the Netherlands will have to pay equally for the basic package: the costs of running the Netherlands. These cost might be different from the basic costs of running France, India or Peru per head of the population, but would still be equal for every person living in that country.

Ideological package

The rest of the government tasks and expenses will be in the ideological package: social structure, distribution of wealth, public health care, labor market regulation and all other issues not part of the basic package. This package will be different for every political party because of the differences in social ideology between left, right, progressive, conservative and all those other labels in use on the news channels. This ideological package would strongly vary in content and size depending on the political party. The package for the social democratic movements would contain other measures and tax systems than the package of the liberal movement, the green movement or the Christian democrats.

The liberal package could be cheaper per person, but you would get less social security and more individual responsibility, whilst a communist would require you to hand in your entire salary in return for a completely organized life. And with a green package you will get your energy from renewable energy sources via a green network and you can run the public transport for free. Different ideology packages will provide different facilities, much in the same way different ideologies nowadays provide different schools. Next to the Christian school you can find a Montessori school. They both deliver education for our children, but in various forms. The differences will result in different prices for the different packages. But as a twenty-century consumer we can deal with different products for different prices. So all these ideological packages can coexist as supplementary to the basic package.

Coexistence and individual choice

As mentioned in the first paragraph of this article, in democracies no one really gets what he voted for. The aim of the division of the government expenses into two separate packages is to create a system where you can get what you voted for. Not what the majority of your neighbours voted for, what you voted for as an individual.
The reason democracy can not serve the needs of all, is because contemporary structures of government formulate one single solution that we all have to live in.
Coexisting solutions in the form of the ideological packages will result in a system in which you will more likely get what you want. Even if you are a green minded person living in a conservative liberal society. Because next to the basic package for the country you live in, you can choose your own supplementary package. And it can be different than the package your neighbour has!

Every month you will pay taxes for the basic package that will provide infrastructure, keep the polders dry and pay for the maintenance of the dykes. In addition to the basic package, you will pay for an ideology package, but the choices will be as free and individual as if it was an insurance product. With the crucial difference that these ideological packages will not be provide by companies that need huge annual profits to secure their existence.
The packages will be competing products. Much like politicians want your vote for their party, the organizations providing the packages will want you as their member. The big difference will be that in this system they will have to live up to their promises. There is no coalition process or blocking opposition to blame, if you don’t deliver, people will shop elsewhere! So these organizations will have to deliver and they will have to do it for the price they set. Imagine you would be promised better education at a lower cost and you would actually get it!

Democracy 2.0

In this improved democratic system you could live anywhere you like. Ideologies are no national items, so the organizations providing the packages could be European organizations, or even go global. Imagine you can live in Italy with the social security, education and health care you now enjoy in Germany or the Netherlands. Supplementary to the package ‘Italy basic’ you would subscribe to a premium package from the European Social Democrats, the Progressive Liberals or any other party with an attractive package to cater your needs.
The institutions providing the packages will serve products at different levels, enabling them to meet the standards of Germany as well as the standards of Greece. In the beginning the availability and price of the packages will vary based on the presence of local facilities. The Dutch liberal package (premium product) might be slightly more expensive if you would be living in Greece, but it will be a matter of time before you could acquire any package anywhere in Europe for the same price.

So then you could really have the freedom to organize your life the way you want it in the place you want to live it. That sounds to me as an improvement over our current democracy.

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