Thursday, 15 September 2016

The Vote is Not Enough

Must we go along with every decision that is backed by the majority of votes cast because that is the democratic thing to do? But is it democratic if some who will be affected by that decision are denied a vote? And what if the vote is given to people who for whatever reason cannot comprehend what the vote is about and will use it arbitrarily? In any case, should the ballot be secret to prevent votes being cast under duress, or open to ensure transparency? What if only a small proportion of those eligible to vote have come forward to cast their vote? Which case should be decided on a simple majority, two/thirds majority, or unanimity? Would it make more sense in some cases to limit the vote to electing people who will then make the decisions? If so, should whoever gets the most votes in a single round wins, or would it be fairer if second/third etc. preferences be transferable in determining who would get the greatest support overall?

For anyone who thinks that ‘the majority are with me’ is a simple cast-iron licence to act, answering the above questions is just a start. There are numerous other factors that may affect the legitimacy of decision-by-voting under different conditions. For example, if a juror who refuses to pay any attention to or cannot follow the evidence presented in a trial may be disqualified, should there not be some form of independent overseeing to ensure the proceedings leading up to any vote are not derailed by ignorance, unreliable information or deception? To what extent should those with more money or other forms of power be allowed to use them to get what they want by coercing, bribing or deceiving others to vote accordingly? If formal education and the media generally are failing to help people understand how they are to vote responsibly on different occasions, should these be given a specific duty to raise citizens’ awareness about social and political issues? And where the vote is to elect a representative who will go on to take specific decisions, are we clear what the appropriate qualifications are for standing as a candidate; if there should be a limit to how many terms they can be elected for; and what arrangements should be in place for recalling them or revoking a decision they make?

To understand how these issues are to be addressed, we need to recognise there is no universal blueprint that can be applied to all individual cases. Instead, we have to comprehend what improvements democracy is meant to deliver, and hence consider in different circumstances what conditions have to be in place to maximise the likelihood for those improvements to be realised. There are three main improvements that a move towards democracy will render more likely to happen:

1. Curbing Oppression: to prevent some (a dictator, an elite group, or a large mob) from imposing their decisions on others and making them suffer without ever being held to account, democracy requires decisions to be authorised only when those affected by the decisions give their consent on an informed and un-coerced basis.
2. Correcting Errors: to stop any individual or group of individuals from claiming infallibility and making mistakes that can have undesirable consequences for themselves and others, democracy opens the way for everyone with any relevant idea or evidence to contribute to collective judgement.
3. Cooperating to Build Consensus: to resolve differences and facilitate give-and-take trade-offs without some being placed in a disadvantaged bargaining position, democracy provides a level playing field on which agreement can be reached between people through respectful deliberations.

By assessing how well any given decision-making arrangements help or hinder the three democratic objectives outlined above, we can determine how authentic they are in embodying the spirit of democracy, and what needs to be reconsidered and further revised.

So instead of proclaiming every majority vote as inviolable, or rejecting all attempts at democracy as inherently flawed, we should examine the voting arrangements put forward for local and central political decisions, elections, referenda, etc., and identify the areas where changes need to be made if the core democratic objectives are to be attained. Where voting outcomes have been arrived at as a result of one or more critical distortions, far from invoking democracy in validating those outcomes, we should stay true to our democratic commitment and question their legitimacy.

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Automation, Immigration, & Civic Remuneration

Jobs with decent pay are getting harder to come by. Some blame immigration [Note 1]. Others criticise employers for moving jobs abroad. But the underlying problem lies with the widely accepted profit-centric economic model, which considers the cutting of labour costs as inherently positive.

It follows that commercial intermediaries (they who make money as the conduit between workers and customers because they own the design, the production facilities, or the distribution outlets) will keep seeking out new ways to have fewer workers and pay less to those they have to retain. Unfortunately, as less is being paid to workers, fewer workers will have sufficient income to buy what is produced. The production surplus then threatens to drive down prices, pushes more cuts for workers, and demand falls even further. And the vicious spiral of recession is in motion.

And the most powerful factor in labour marginalisation is pervasive automation. Exponentially rising processing powers, self-improving programmes, computer-led engineering, and unprecedented access to solar energy, are combining to give us automated mechanisms for virtually every form of production and service delivery. These mechanisms are not just making things we want, they can deliver online or via drones, they take feedback and rectify problems, and they offer a calm interface in providing advice and carrying out orders.

As automated processes radically cut worker costs, it accelerates the decline of purchasing power, and brings us ever closer to a world of plenty that very few can enjoy – unless we change the economic model governing our lives. If instead of pegging pay to activities involving commercial transactions, we link remuneration to contributions valued by society, we can attain a win-win position. Once work in the outmoded sense is no longer needed to be carried out by people, we can focus on what we do value about our fellow citizens – the care, respect, responsibility, creativity, sociability, we cultivate and share with others. A guarantee for civic remuneration can be given to everyone, so people can use it to acquire products and services that can be made available with no labour costs. The more automated innovation happens, the greater the stock of utilisable value there is to be distributed through civic remuneration.

The innovators who design or organise the automation can have a larger share of civic remuneration, so long as they don’t take such a large share as to leave nothing for others. There will be some who feel that without the old profit system, they cannot be motivated to come up with any innovation. But we know that there are always people who invent things like penicillin treatment, higher yield crops, or the World Wide Web, for the common good without insisting on vast monetary rewards for themselves.

Economic systems must adapt to be of use. Before market transactions became dominant, people fed themselves on what they grew; and before that, people gathered fruit and hunted for meat to share amongst themselves. As production processes change, we should leave aside ideological dogmas, and explore how new levels of innovation can be harvested to benefit all, especially when the alternative will pit a profiteering few against the discarded majority with nothing left to live for.

Note 1: According to the Office of National Statistics, while the number of EU workers in Britain rose by 700,000 between 2013 and 2016, they were outnumbered by the extra one million Britons who went into employment in the same period. In 2016, the number of British citizens working in the UK labour force is at the near-record level of 28 million:; and Dean Hochlaf and Ben Franklin (authors of the Immigration: Encourage or Deter report) have used the Office for Budget Responsibility projections to calculate that by 2064-65, the UK’s GDP would be 11.4% (£625bn) larger with high migration than it would be with low migration: