Rational Democracy: a critical analysis of digital democracy in the light of rational choice institutionalism

July 19, 2019

Abstract
This paper analyses how a theoretical approach like rational choice institutionalism (RCI) may help understand the conceptual bases and future challenges of digital  democracy (DD). It distinguishes three main characteristics of DD, in the light of RCI: the use of quantitative empirical data to measure and trace public activity to provide more perfect information to actors it assumes are rational; the creation of liquid contexts that allow permanent reconfiguration of institutional settings; and a state-skeptic heritage from techno-libertarianism. The final section elaborates a critique of the rational assumptions of DD and stresses that the governance of the technological devices it creates may still be dependent on more ‘analogous’ politics.

Since its beginnings, digital technologies have increased the enthusiasm for the realisation of political utopias about a society capable of achieving self-organisation and decentralised governance. The vision was initially brought to concrete technological developments in mid-century with the surge of cybernetics and the attempt to automatise public processes for a more efficient State, taking its most practical form with the Cybersyn Project between 1971-73. Contemporary developments of governance technologies have learned and leveraged particularly from the internet, the free software movement and the increasing micro-processing capacity to come up with more efficient solutions for collective decision-making, preserving, in most cases, the same ethos of “algorithmic regulation”. This essay examines how rational choice institutionalism has framed the scope of digital democracy, and how recent supporting technologies like blockchain have made more evident the objective of creating new institutional arrangements to overcome market failures and increasing inequality, without questioning the utility-maximisation logic. This rational logic of governance could explain the paradoxical movements towards centralisation and power concentration experienced by some of these technologies.

Digital democracy will be understood as a heterogeneous field that explores how digital tools and technologies are used in the practice of democracy (Simon, Bass & Mulgan, 2017). Its understanding needs to go in hand however with the use of supporting technologies and practices that amplify the role of the people in the public decision-making process, either by decentralisation (of public goods) or aggregation (of opinions), including blockchain, data processing (open data and big data), open government, and recent developments in civic tech (Knight Foundation, 2013). It must be noted that the use of digital democracy as a category to describe the use of these technologies to support democratic processes remains contended and requires further debate.

Dahlberg (2011) makes a useful characterisation of four common positions in digital democracy, where the ‘liberal-consumer’ and the ‘deliberative’ positions dominate mainstream thinking and practice, while other alternative positions (‘counter publics’ and ‘autonomous Marxist’) exist, but mostly in experimental or specific contexts. The liberal-consumer position conceives a self-sufficient, rational-strategic individual who acts in a competitive-aggregative democracy by “aggregating, calculating, choosing, competing, expressing, fundraising, informing, petitioning, registering, transacting, transmitting and voting” (p. 865). The deliberative subject is an inter-subjectively rational individual acting in a deliberative consensual democracy “agreeing, arguing, deliberating, disagreeing, informing, meeting, opinion forming, publicising, and reflecting” (p. 865).


Practice has been more homogeneous adopting the ‘liberal-consumer’ and ‘deliberative’ positions. Examples of the former include local and national government e-democracy initiatives; media politics sites, especially the ones providing ‘public opinion’ polling and ‘have your say’ comment systems; ‘independent’ e-democracy projects like mysociety.org; and civil society practices like Amnesty International’s digital campaigns, and online petitioning through sites like Change.org or Avaaz.org (Dahlberg, 2011, p. 858). On the other side, examples of the deliberative position include online government consultation projects (e.g. Your Priorities app and DemocracyOS.eu platform), writing and commentary of online citizen journalism in media sites; “online discussion forums of political interest groups; and the vast array of informal online debate on e-mail lists, web discussion boards, chat channels, blogs, social networking sites, and wikis” (p. 859). Recent developments not only include a mixture of both positions, but a more dynamic online-offline experience.



Freedom as a function of digital infrastructure?

The development of cybernetics in the mid-twentieth century was influenced by anarchist ideas of freed organisation and decentralisation of power (Duda, 2013). Colin Ward expressed that “anarchy is a function, not of a society's simplicity and lack of social organisation, but of its complexity and multiplicity of social organisations. Cybernetics, the science of control and communication, throws valuable light on the anarchist conception of complex self-organising systems” (1973: 50). It was during Allende´s socialist government in Chile that this idea became a reality with the development of the Cybersyn Project (Loeber, 2018). It was a primitive form of what O’Reilly (2013) defined as “algorithmic regulation”, aimed at an efficient control of state-owned industries. The project was led by Stafford Beer, an expert in management cybernetics, who had the idea of creating a liberty machine, “a system that operated in close to real time, facilitated instant decision making, and shunned bureaucracy (…) [preventing] top-down tyranny by creating a distributed network of shared information” (Loeber, 2018: 3).

The enthusiastic vision of the time has had a huge influence on the development of digital technology and governance mechanisms during the last 50 years. A paradoxical situation might be perceptible if one compares the critical perception of the present state of technology (see Colin, 2018) with the ideas that inspired it. After a historical recount of the relation between cybernetics and anarchism, Duda (2013) concludes that “the larger trajectory of transformation to a more free and just society has been disappointing” (p. 70). Freedom as a function of digital infrastructure continues to be a popular idea, but practice does not match it yet. Massive surveillance and the appearance of new unaccountable and hidden elites pose to be the biggest challenges left by the present model. And although anarchy and democracy are different concepts, the shared principle of horizontal decision-making has paved the way for the absorption of initial developments and learnings in cybernetics into digital democracy.


A light from Rational Choice Institutionalism

To shed a light on the understanding of this situation, it might be important to consider how rational choice institutionalism (RCI) explains the inherent logic of digital democracy. Rational choice institutionalism is a theoretical approach of ‘bounded rationality’, that is, it supposes rational utility-maximising actors playing in contexts constrained by institutions. According to Hall and Taylor (1996), this approach assumes rational actors to be incapable of reaching social optimal situations due to insufficient institutional configurations. The actors play strategic interactions in a configured scenario that affects “the range and sequence of alternatives on the choice-agenda or [provides] information and enforcement mechanisms that reduce uncertainty about the corresponding behaviour of others and allows ‘gains from exchange’, thereby leading actors toward particular calculations and potentially better social outcomes” (p. 945). RCI focuses on the reduction of transaction costs and the solution of the ‘principal-agent problem', where "principals can monitor and enforce compliance on their agents" (p. 943).

As we have seen, the parallels between digital democracy and RCI are quite high. For instance, open government is one recent branch of digital democracy entirely devoted to solving the principal-agent problem through the design and implementation of transparency, participation and co-creation measures (OECD, 2017). The specific field of data analytics, including open data and big data, serves two objectives: more informed decision making and much radical accountability from political agents. Derived from these, ‘algorithmic regulation’ stands as a new institution capable of executing norms without the interference of human biases. Much of the developments of the growing civic tech field aim to reduce transaction costs by improving trust between actors while providing the tools for improved collective decision making.

The most explicit form of RCI approach is found in the recent book Radical Markets by Posner & Weyl (2018). Radical Markets is an approach based on the rejection of a central regulator (i.e., the State), the adoption of power decentralisation mechanisms, and the radical need for new institutional arrangements that prevent inequality and undermining of collective action. The abolition of private property through the implementation of a self-assessed tax and the use of quadratic voting for collective decision making are its more radical proposals. "In particular, [quadratic voting] relies heavily on the notion of verifiable, separate human identities, because a community member could multiply her effective influence dramatically by misrepresenting herself as multiple individuals” (Buterin & Weyl, 2018).

We could say, then, that three general characteristics stand out of digital democracy in its relation to RCI. In the first place, the use of empirical information for building models is a key feature of digital democracy. It is highly dependent on quantitative methods. It models political and human behavior as statistical variables and draws conclusions and predictions mainly out of data. This is particularly strong when there are continuous sources of data available, and when that data corresponds to real life and real-time situations.
A second characteristic, made possible by the digital technologies, is the adoption of a ‘liquid’ context, useful for a permanent reconfiguration of institutions, norms, and algorithms. For example, Hardt and Lopes (2015) describe how a new experimental institution (a liquid democracy) was tested, where votes can be delegated, but how they are used needs to remain visible.

Finally, a third characteristic is the state-skeptic heritage much digital technology inherited from techno-libertarians and the American libertarians, highly influential schools, especially in the United States. The development of digital democracy is a response to the will of reducing the intermediation and ‘inefficient’ role States and bureaucracies have in public affairs. This trend is in line with the rise in new public management described by Hood (1991), although the contemporary developments that directly respond to it are in the related field of GovTech (Accenture & Public, 2018).

We see then how digital democracy has developed in line with RCI. In brief, it is a field of practice that aims to resolve two questions: first, how to measure and trace (public activity) to provide more perfect information to rational actors (including, governments, enterprises, and citizens); and, second, once action and information are digitised, how to build a flexible environment to easily vary and execute new institutional settings.


Challenges and questions

Digital democracy is opening possibilities to solve long-standing problems of governance, but its approach is not free of (unintended) consequences. As Hay (2004) points out, the rational choice approach is both deductive and parsimonious. It values the simplicity of the assumptions upon which it is modeled, and the deduction of predictive or explanatory inferences. Hay rejects its claims of “a universal theory of human conduct – or, indeed, a theory at all",  proposing it is "more as a set of analytical strategies for exploring the logical consequences of a given set of heuristic or imported assumptions" (p. 45). One will need to ask about the consequences of creating new political infrastructure, like digital democracy, with such bases.

The assumption behind the most collaborative approaches of digital democracy is that with the reduction of transaction costs, social actors can achieve social optimal results by themselves, without the need for the State to verify compliance and enforce punishments. This situation is problematic in a way and insufficient in another. In the first place, it supports the conception of humans as utility maximising actors and provides an institutional context to legitimise and reinforce it. However it is also insufficient because it depends on the definition of certain rules that still need to be decided politically.

Another challenge posed particularly by distributed technologies like blockchain is that it is not yet clear if this technology is taking power out of existing power structures (central banks, for example), and reconstructing the same top-down model in the digital space. The risk is that we face the tyranny of structurelessness (alluding the famous essay written by Jo Freeman in 1971 after the author’s participation in various feminist movements that called for a “leaderless, structureless (…) organisational form”), where new unaccountable and unrecognisable elites appear.

Di Filippi (2018) comments that the real decentralised government structure that we know is the free market, although, without an institution that exerts control, market failures appear. She goes on to ask: will market dynamics ensure decentralisation? Is the market mechanism more legitimate than the central institution? How we are going to govern decentralised infrastructures without relaying in market dynamics or central operator? Will the RCI approach in digital democracy find a way to bypass these challenges without questioning its most basic assumptions?


One would also have to ask, as does Duda (2013), if self-organisation impulses of the present keep coming from outside, is it then self-organisation? Given the great majority of reasons for which many Digital Democracy projects are developed, they could be serving the purpose of legitimising a participatory model and/or opening a way for a new market of democratic solutions, rather than serving the people’s will to organise.


Even if the current progress of digital democracy towards a free and self-governing society seems blurred, recognising its most problematic assumptions helps illustrate the debate. Practitioners could center their efforts in developing more ‘deliberative', ‘counter publics' and ‘autonomous Marxist' forms of digital democracy. Additionally, documenting and reflecting on past projects is a necessary endeavor, as Medina (2015) does on the lessons from the Cybersyn Project concerning the fields of open and big data.  

What might be certain is that today’s revolution will not appear if revolutionaries expect that the first step comes from the institutions and through their transformation. One lost element in RCI is the agency of human beings to transform their context, despite an adverse institutional context. If we all remain convinced that the homo œconomicus is the only political spirit in all of us, there might not even be enough impulse to organise ourselves to change the institutions.

 

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