The pathetic Brexit debate in the British Parliament, (blocked between three contradictory choices, and no majority support for any of the three) reminds us that situations can arise where the preferences of individuals may be rational, but the collective preferences are not.
As early as 1785, the Marquis de Condorcet had shown that a community composed of rational individuals, who are asked to choose democratically between three choices that are proposed in pairs, can reach absurd decisions: preferring A over B, B over C ; but, contrary to what would be logical, preferring C over A!
Two centuries later, in 1972, Stanford professor John K. Arrow became the youngest economist to win the Nobel Prize for demonstrating that no democratic procedure, though it respects common sense, protects against this kind of contradiction. In other words, there is no guarantee that democracy ensures that a collective choice will respect the rationality of its constituents.
That is exactly what we are witnessing in the British Parliament right now. And it is also what we witnessed recently in so many other circumstances; it is also why voters are so often disappointed with the decisions made by those they have elected.
All of this must make us cautious:
If democracy is the best form of government, because it protects the fundamental freedoms better than any other systems, it does not however guarantee with certainty the rationality of political decisions.
Moreover, it follows that referendum is undoubtedly the least suitable form for making good political decisions. First, because the Condorcet paradox is fully applicable in such cases; secondly, because, in general, we answer the person who asked the question rather than answering the question that is being asked; secondly, because the degree of voter information on the question is often uneven. Finally, because it leads to a kind of implicit collusion between strong leaders (who wish to override the intermediary bodies), and forces that believe themselves to be in the opposition, (but in fact plays into the hands of these strong leaders, in calling for direct referendums).
The referendum then unconsciously shifts the system from representative democracy to personal power, supported by plebiscites. Some might see it as progress. Others see it as another step toward the current authoritarian evolution of most regimes around the world.
Of course, there is the Swiss counterexample, which shows that an educated and politically conscious people can calmly debate great subjects without going through their parliament. But here it is: Swiss executive branch is just an anonymous reflection of a society built by the voluntary aggregation of townships; and it is not similar to other democracies, which emerged from the conquest of territories by an invader, followed by the establishment of a strong state. There is no risk that the Swiss executive would try to use the referendum to establish an individual authoritarian system. This point changes everything.
Democracy faces a thousand challenges, starting with the one that we have just highlighted, its internal coherence. To overcome this, it is probably better to look for solutions for the future, through voting mechanisms that uses what is offered by new technologies. It is crazy, especially during this period marked by artificial intelligence technology, that we would claim to want to debate about collective choices without considering what “civic technologies” (civic tech) could bring. Such technologies have proven their value in many areas in the least likely countries; for example, to continuously evaluate the satisfaction of public service users, or the conditions for their improvement; in complete transparency and perfect equality among users.
Therefore, it must be used, though without giving in to the immediacy favoured by such technology. For example, by giving a virtual vote to future generations on all matters that concern them.
In my opinion, the future of democracy is in the alliance between intermediary bodies, Parliament, what new technologies bring and consideration of the interests of future generations. This is what I would call a “positive democracy.” Who will dare?