Direct Democracy and Implications for Research

Direct democracy can be broadly interpreted to mean the control of the allocation of common resources by the people who pooled in.

One common resource is tax money.

In most countries, those who pay taxes only have a say in whom they can elect to power.

Those who pay taxes rarely have a say in how the tax money is spent.

There is a middleman (someone who works in government) who decides how the tax money is spent.

The problem with having a middleman decide the allocation of common resources, is that the resources could end up being allocated very inefficiently due to man-in-the-middle corruption.

Here is an article about man-in-the-middle corruption:

The way out is to let the people who contributed to the common pool decide on how the resources are allocated.

Control Mechanisms

Tool 1: Apportioning

One way to do this is to embed direct democracy mechanisms into the contribution mechanism.

For example, tax-payers could be given the ability to tie a portion of their tax contribution to expenditure categories.

They could be given the right to apportion, out of every $100 that they have paid in taxes, a certain amount to each of the following major categories: education, healthcare, social security, infrastructure and defence (leaving a certain percentage to the finance minister’s discretion).

It could also be left to the tax-payers to specify how much money the government may borrow on their behalf.

This direct control could very likely have prevented the debt crises of Greece and Ireland (and especially in countries where people are averse to taking on debt), and might also have given people in the USA some control over their government’s borrowings.

Tool 2: Referendum

Another mechanism is the referendum.  It is already being used in all democratic countries, but mainly for the selection of the middleman.

Fortunately, things seem to be moving well beyond that stage.  In India, baby steps are being taken towards bringing about a direct democratic model of government.

A new political party came to power in Delhi on an anti-corruption platform.  The first thing they did was conduct an informal referendum to ask the people of Delhi if they should form a minority government.

So, referendums are one of the mechanisms of direct democracy.

This mechanism can also be used to prevent or reduce man-in-the-middle corruption.

Take the example of a road that needs to be surfaced.  Normally, a government official would have issued contracts based on the bribes paid to him by the contending contractors (rendering a selection on the basis of quality very unlikely).

If instead, the people living on the street that needed to be surfaced had been given all the relevant information needed to make a good choice and asked to select the best contractor for themselves instead, the middle-man would have been eliminated and the quality driven up instead of down.

Now, I am going to talk about some problems that I think affect research funding in the USA (and other countries with government-funded research).  Most research funding in the USA comes from government bodies like the NSF, the NRO and DARPA.

Now the following is only my personal opinion, but I think that research efforts in some fields in those countries might be distorted to some extent by the needs of these funding bodies.

Well, I can only speak for the research areas in which Aiaioo Labs is active.  We focus on a narrow research space – predominantly on text analytics and natural language processing.

In this space, I see a lot of low-hanging fruit that nobody in the USA or Europe ever picks.  And that’s quite inexplicable as these are often problems with very obvious applications to the software products space.  And yet I see no papers from California on them.

There are topics on which all the papers I see are from India (often by students who don’t even publish them in international conferences) and sometimes by researchers from Singapore – completely ignored by the main research community.

At other times, I’ve noticed areas of research that DARPA had spent much money on in the 1970s and that researchers had pursued very enthusiastically in that decade.  I’ve seen those lines of research being abandoned in the 90s (possibly once the funding priorities changed) and not being revived again, though product firms are working on those technologies again in California in 2013.

I find it hard to explain why these areas of research are being ignored, except by the remote possibility that they have passed under the radar of the guys in the Naval Research Office which makes it unlikely that grants will be provided for them.

That is again, if my conjecture is right, a man-in-the-middle problem.  The agenda for research is possibly not being driven by the research community or by the market (the needs of start-ups in California) but by people guessing at what sort of proposals might get funded (and that might be encouraging people to stay with what government knows).

So, I shall propose another direct democracy tool to solve this problem as well:

Tool 3:  Suggestions + Referendum

Here, each of the participants (researchers) bidding for the grants would put in suggestions about what the next important thing to focus on as a research community might be.  Then they could all vote on the suggestions.  The allocation of research grants could then be guided by the suggestions and the votes received by each suggestion.

Controls as Rights

In a sense, you can think of these three control mechanisms as three rights that people who contribute toward a common pool of resources will have in a direct democracy:

1)  The right to apportion

2)  The right to be consulted

3)  The right to suggest

There is a nice article on Wikipedia on direct democracy.  The article talks of two of the control mechanisms proposed in this article – referendum and initiative (which corresponds somewhat to suggestions) – and proposes one that I hadn’t mentioned – the right to recall.  It doesn’t talk about apportioning.

Here is an interesting video of a Mohalla Sabha (it’s an interesting participation mechanism that a political organization is experimenting with in Delhi).

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One thought on “Direct Democracy and Implications for Research

  1. Thanks for the nice post!

    Being able to vote for what to vote about is indeed just as important as being able to vote (cf the ancient expression “choosing between Scylla and Charybdis”). Equally important is that each individual in the pool get’s allocated its fair share of “voting power”. The question of course is what is “fair”? Simply giving everybody an equal share of “resources” just doesn’t seem right if some people give back more to society than others. Perhaps what is “fair” should also be decided by referendum?

    Lately, I’ve been wondering whether the technology used in cryptocurrencies could be of help here, specifically the fact that it is the majority of the entire community that has to agree about individual ownership of resources (coins), and there is no other way (see bitcoin.org/bitcoin.pdf). The resource being allocated does not need to be a currency however, it could just as well represent voting power.

    Any thoughts?

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