Estonia is entering a new era in her democratic history. As in so many other areas, Estonia is pioneering the use of technology in its political system. Gradually, the use of e-voting is beginning to take hold and, as ever higher numbers of people cast their votes securely over the Internet, many suggest that it is the key to greater popular participation in the political process. Of course, so far, these e-votes have only been cast in order to elect their political representatives. Now, however, the question is being asked as to whether these systems could now be used more widely, to make political decisions directly.
Given the low cost and open access that Estonian voters now have to the Internet, it seems self evidently true that it will soon become very easy to create regular e-referendums; to increase dramatically the number of questions that are put to the people and to fundamentally increase the level of direct democracy in the Estonian Republic. Yet despite the great positives that such a new system offers, there are nonetheless risks and in my view this risks must be considered as we enter the new world of the Estonian e-democracy.
As with so many ideas, the ideas of the ancient Greeks concerning government repay careful study. It is to the Greeks that we owe much of our vocabulary in this sphere: the very word “politics”- the affairs of state- itself, not to mention “democracy” –the rule of the people. And here lies our first question. The fact is that the Greeks equated “democracy” with rule of the mob. They feared the rule of the people as a tyranny of the majority over the minority. In the view of Aristotle, the ideal was not a “democratic”, but a “political” system which balances different interests and which protects minorities.
What we today call “representative democracies” would certainly not be recognised by the Greeks as involving rule by the mob: they conform more closely to the political ideals of balance that Aristotle discusses. Different factions and points of view are accommodated and respected, not only within our Parliaments, but also -in citizens groups such as trade unions- outside of it too. Yet still, within our “democratic” system there lies a growing threat: the emergence of an isolated professional political class which becomes progressively more corrupt.
Classical democrats looked to the example of Cincinnatus the Roman who, once his service to his country was over, returned to his farm no different in wealth or status than when he first undertook his service to Rome. Such citizenship is still commemorated in the name of the American city of Cincinnati today. Comparatively recently President Truman was able to live a quiet life in his retirement with little or no security and the respect, rather than the adulation of his peers. However, we now live in different times and the temptations of celebrity and wealth have clearly struck many of the leaders and former leaders of modern democratic states. Thus there is a growing risk in a purely representative system that a corrupt political class fails to respond to the political will of the people and works only for its self interest.
Yet as we have seen, there are also risks in a purely democratic system. The rule of the mob is susceptible to simplistic and populist messages that can lead to the oppression of minorities and the erosion of the general freedom of a society. As an active political blogger, I notice the extraordinary vituperation of the political blogosphere. Ignorant and dangerous opinions are commonplace and the Internet allows the rapid propagation of ideas: all ideas, whether fair and reasonable ideas or not.
Libertarians dispute the value of restraints being laid upon the political system. They argue that greater participation is always a good thing, and that any attempt by some “philosopher-king” to define a notion of virtue is an unwarranted restraint on freedom. I tend to share this view in principle, yet I still believe in objective, rather than relative, views of political morality. I am therefore a Liberal, rather than a Libertarian.
Consequently I am also unhappy about the occasional- rather than central- use of referendum. Unless these concern fundamental constitutional issues, referendum is often simply a political weapon rather than a genuine attempt to divine the will of the people. Even in areas with regular democratic consultation- Switzerland and the United States- we find that popular votes are shaped by the nature of the question- that is, how the question is phrased, rather than the underlying issues. If referendum gives greater democratic legitimacy to our leaders, it also gives them more power- politicians will tend to merely include it as one in their list of political calculations. Certainly the decline of ideology has created a cadre of literally “unprincipled” political leaders across the planet.
What then is the answer? I suppose in a word it is responsibility. If politicians were more responsible, they would not give-in to the temptations of corruption. If the voters were more responsible, they would not give in to the temptations of populism. Yet of the two threats it is the threat of political corruption that is the most urgent.
The Estonian commitment to transparency is a severe brake on the level of corruption in the country, which is why the perception of corruption in Estonia is so low. Furthermore, as a relatively open and homogeneous society, the political will is not attracted to extremes. The high levels of education too are a big plus. Naturally there is also the question of size: the Athenian democracy functioned because it consisted of a relatively small number of individuals. It is certainly easier to create a balanced and stable political system when the number of different interests that need to be managed is relatively small. Meanwhile Estonian history demonstrates the value of opposition to state power, not merely against the horrors of occupation either; the example of Jaan Tõnisson’s opposition in the “years of silence” is also particularly telling. A community with a strong sense of cohesion and which is comfortable with with the technology may make an Estonian Internet-based democracy real and successful. Certainly the larger nation states look increasingly ill adapted to the wired world.
As we consider the next moves in improving Estonian democracy, it seems clear that this sense of responsibility, moderation and balance will stand the country in good stead to grasp the opportunities that a more open political system based on e-democracy can offer. It would certainly be a far more dangerous proposition without them. Perhaps then the key to the successful emergence of an e-democracy will ultimately be the values of character, cohesion and social complexity that underpin each democratic community.