Atanu Dey On India's Development

ICT, Choice and Democracy 2.0

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Upstream and Downstream Choices

It is fairly well understood that information and communications technologies (ICT) tools expand choice. We all have access to a very large set of information and have the freedom to choose what we want to read, watch, listen to, etc., etc. ICT expands our “downstream” choice. What is not as well understood is that it expands our “upstream” choice also. It is a two-way medium, unlike say broadcast and print media which only allows us downstream choice: using ICT we send back information indicating our choice and thus guiding what comes downstream.

In other words, ICT expands the menu of options we have and also gives us the ability to change that menu. Options that are not exercised fall off the menu and this leads to more efficient outcomes since resources are not wasted on things that people don’t value. All this is trivially true and one can be guilty of stating the obvious except for the fact that we have yet to make full use of the power of upstream choice that ICT affords in scores of areas which would make economic and political freedom more meaningful.

Democracy 1.0

Democracy is often advertised as a system which allows political freedom wherein citizens have choice in electing public officials who then make public policy choices. That was a reasonable system in the sense that it was efficient. (Note the “was.”) It was neither expected nor possible for everyone to express their preferences on every matter on every occasion and have these preferences aggregated to arrive at the appropriate policy decisions on various matters. What was possible was to have occasional elections in which the public officials would be elected who would have the authority to determine public policy as they saw fit. If the elected chose an unpopular set of policies, they would be replaced in the next election cycle.

The actual implementation of democracy is constrained by the available technology. For instance, when the rules were framed for political institutions of the newly independent American states in the 1770s, the communications and transportation systems were primitive. You could not have instant voting on specific matters as and when the need arose: you could only have period voting in general.

If people value a democratic form of political organization, it must be because they value choice and the freedom they have in exercising choice. If democracy is good, it seems reasonable then that more democracy is better, and a way to achieve that is for people have the freedom to exercise more choices.

ICT gives us the means to implement an improved version of democracy by increasing our ability to express our preferences over a wider set of choices and drive policy more efficiently. This is, if you would pardon the construct, Democracy 2.0 as opposed to the previous version that we are still using. If Democracy 1.0 was an improvement on dictatorship, totalitarianism, feudalism, aristocracy, or whatever, then Democracy 2.0 is an improvement on the version 1.0.

Democracy 2.0

I will only give an operational definition of Democracy 2.0. Let’s start with an analogy. We know what Media 2.0 is and understand how it differs from Media 1.0. Blog posts are M 2.0 while newspaper columns are M 1.0; newspapers are M 1.0, whereas news aggregators are M 2.0; radio stations are M 1.0, while podcasts are M 2.0. The essential distinction is the choice you have and the freedom you have in exercising those choices. You decide what you want to read, watch or hear. More importantly, you decide if you wish to add your own two bits to the ever expanding choice set by writing on blogs, podcasting or YouTube-ing. You not only decide what but how much you consume and produce. You are the king and you through your choices determine what happens. M 2.0 is brought to you by the power of the web and the internet, the same two things that have the power to bring you D 2.0.

So let’s examine a hypothetical example of what D 2.0 could make possible. Under D 1.0, the prime minister decides that University of Cambridge would be given £3.2 million for the “Jawaharlal Nehru Professorship of Indian Business and Enterprise.” He, presumably under instructions from his boss, made that decision. It was not his own money, neither was it from his boss’s considerable fortunes – it was the money from average taxpayers like you and me. He transferred funds to a rich foreign university with money that was not given freely by me and, I presume, you. I had no choice in the matter even though part of that money was mine. The money he gifted away to Cambridge could have been used to fund the entire education of tens of thousands of poor Indians and given them a fair shot at a decent existence.

Under D 2.0, here’s how it would work. The government sets up a website for the specific purpose of funding a chair at University Cambridge, and publicises it. Then I – like millions of others – decide how much I am willing to contribute to it. It is my money and I choose how much of it I want to give away to UCambridge, not the prime minister or his boss. The technology is there for directly expressing my choice on this matter, which we must remember is a discretionary matter.

Routine Abuse

Unfortunately the government routinely spends taxpayers’ money on discretionary matters. I suppose most of us would agree that the state has no business in meddling with religious matters. The Indian government does. It, for example, provides a subsidy for Muslims to go on haj. Haj is a matter between Muslims and their maker, and the government of India has no cause to interfere in it. I believe that the haj subsidy should be abolished.

Or more specifically, the government funding of haj must be abolished. If I feel like subsidizing the haj, I can bloody well send in a check to a fund specifically created for sending people to Saudi Arabia. Better yet, I can do it from the comfort of my home by filling in a form with my credit card information on a “Haj Subsidy Website.” My involuntary contributions to haj through the coercion implicit in the taxes the government imposes on me is merely disguised jaziya, a tax that non-Muslims pay to their Muslim overlords. This is immoral, unethical, regressive and economically inefficient.

Here’s one more example: the funding of terrorism in foreign nations. See this post on funding Pakistani jihadis. In a follow up post in June last year, I had proposed a disintermediation mechanism:

. . . the government of India should bypass the government of Pakistan and the ISI and directly send the funds to the terrorists.

But then another thought occurred to me. The money eventually comes from Indian taxpayers. The chain is Tax-payers to Govt of India to Govt of Pakistan to the ISI to the terrorists. Why not just have a bank account for the terrorists in some Indian bank into which all of us taxpayers can simply deposit part of our earnings, and from which the terrorists could withdraw what they need at will?

Seriously, though, we have to make some systemic changes. ICT reduces transaction costs. In the past, there was no inexpensive way to ask people to contribute directly to various discretionary causes and no way to cheaply aggregate their contributions. Now all you need is internet access and a credit card or bank account.

Will it Happen

In the next part on this, I will explore whether the power of ICT to release Democracy 2.0 will be used or not. Any structural change necessarily changes the power structure and that means that there will be gainer and losers. If the required change threatens the power of the powerful in the existing order, they will block the change if it is within their power to do so. Let’s explore that next.

Update: Thanks to reader Ramakrishna Upadrasta for pointing out that the links were not working. I have fixed them.

  • eanbazhagan

    Interesting coinage of D 2.0! I understand its potential. But before we could operationalize it, isn’t it a mammoth task to ensure access to web for ALL? I hope that D 1.0, at least in case of voting, ensures access to everybody. I also wonder if there are examples of D 2.0 style functioning in developed countries.

    -Anbu-

  • Kumar_N

    Eanbazhagan,

    I feel the California Proposition is an early example of D 2.0.I am not sure how effective it is because I read some rumblings about how almost 70% of State budget is being voted through referenda.

    If we are talking about internet voting, I believe Estonia tried it recently.Even Switzerland allows voting via the Internet.

    But what Atanu is proposing here is not just voting, but taking away the power of dicretionary spend by the Govt because now that the technology is available, the Govt need not take decisions on behalf of the people in such cases (of discretionary spending).

    To me it appears that the political class in India will block any changes that empower the people, because it is not in their (politicians) interest.Will it change ever? Atanu sounds hopeful when he says:Let us explore that next.

    But I am not hopeful.It goes against human nature to act against one’s welfare.