Epistemic status: butterfly idea

Parliaments might be great, but they suffer from a number of problems. For example, in Israel the opposition is refusing to vote for bills they almost unanimously support, in the hope it will bring down the current government.[1] Meanwhile members of all parties in all governments are often forced to vote for proposals they disagree with in order to keep their party in power.

It seems to me that it would be ideal if parliaments just dropped the whole party thing. MPs voted for proposals they like, and don't vote for proposals they don't like. That way proposals will get accepted if and only if a majority of MPs like them - no matter which MPs they are. It seems to me that getting rid of parties would get rid of most political drama in one fell swoop. Partisanship would probably sharply decrease, and we'd pretty much only end up with policies that appeal to the majority of all voters.

However even if we abolished any official concept of a party, party-like entities will probably naturally form. MPs who want their pet proposal passed will likely form informal coalitions - "I'll vote for you if you vote for me" - which eventually ends up in full blown parties. Also entities will provide valuable backing to promising candidates, in return for their continued support once elected. Such candidates will then vote as a block, and sooner or later we end up back where we started.

So how could you stop this happening?

One option would be to make all votes secret. That way MPs can vote for whatever they want, and aren't answerable to anyone.

On the other hand, they now aren't answerable to the people who voted for them either, which defeats a lot of the point of democracy in the first place!

Perhaps we could release the voting record for each MP only a week before an election, by which time most of the support an MP could get from a party has already been committed, reducing their ability to decide MPs' fates in return for votes. It also means feedback is too slow for voting coalitions to form.

It might also have some other advantages: the entire voting record is visible all at once, so it's easy to quickly skim over it and see whether your MP is voting the way you want them too or not, rather than focusing on the one or two issues you remember.

This proposal makes particular sense for first pass the post or other electoral district based voting systems. It's not obvious how proportional representation would work without political parties for example.

Anyway I'm interested in hearing your thoughts, and better ideas for how we could have parliaments without the parties.

  1. ^

    Irrelevant of whether you like the bill, it's clearly a bad reason for a bill not to pass.


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Fundamentally, politicians are going to spend more attention to the mechanisms of legislation and information that impacts re-election than most members of the populace.  They're going to be more strategic than voters about open or hidden coalitions, and more strategic about whether voters like to categorize them as party members or as independent (aka rogue) agents.

If coalitions and parties are not part of the system, it's hard to see the point in representatives at all - why not just direct voting on issues?

In the 21st century, it seems arbitrary to elect representatives by happenstance of geography.

Also, there is the problem that currently we combine a bunch of skills into one job called "politician":

  1. Raising money
  2. Hiring staff
  3. Campaigning (giving speeches, appearing in commercials)
  4. Voting (and deciding which way to vote)
  5. Drafting legislation (and understanding legislation)

And then we select who wins mostly based on 4, with a dash of 2 and 3, with 1 being a "you must be this successful to compete" barrier.

Parties help de-couple those skills, so the people who campaign can pick a Party based on 4, and focus on 3, and let the Party handle 1, 2, and 5.

I think electing representative by happenstance of geography is great, because it gives individual competent people with a strong local implantation independence from central parties organisation. We had a couple of those in the recent legislative elections in France where a lot of deputy could be reelected based on their local power base despite their party getting beaten down badly in the general presidential elections.

In some ways it seems the question "So how could you stop this happening?" is quite a bit like the jailer in the Prisoner's Dilemma story was answering. The problem was getting the prisoner's not to cooperate in their silence but rat each other out. What type of payoff matrix would be needed to induce political representatives to act in the public interests rather than party interests? Clearly you don't get that from the parties so it would need to be operationalized within some Constitutional and Congressional structure. 

Perhaps one thing that might also help in thinking through potential solutions would be trying to segregate legislation into a few different types of buckets to see if certain types of legislation (or the underlying class of problem the legislation is attempting to address) are more prone to generating such behavior. 

I had the thought occur to me (some time ago) that we are in the 21st Century and in many ways it still seems a lot like the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries.  Government is still very much an actor within society and still very much being a pain in the ass as often as it s being helpful. Could it be possible that in the 21st Century government could evolve into some general infrastructure that efficiently allows the interested people solve their own problems? Clearly that could not be all but the idea that government functioning as a tool that largely eliminated the organizational and informational cost asymmetries could allow a good number of things government now does be "delegated" to the people. I suspect certain classes of problems we currently see government's creating legislation (and playing party politics with) could fall into that type of bucket. 

If we also learned that those types of problems are actually where we see the highest incidence of the undesired political behavior....

I suspect that something like political parties are just too useful of a tool for them to not organically form in most any legislature, absent measures that would crush other important freedoms like speech/assembly/association.

Just adding that "useful" does not necessarily mean better for the voters or better for democracy, only providing an 'evolutionary advantage' -- ceteris paribus, politicians joining a party will be more successful than politicians who refuse to join a party.

I think that's probably true, but still worth brainstorming some potential solutions rather than giving up in defeat.

The biggest obstacle to your idea is, I think, the executive. In parlamentary systems the government answers to the parliament, and needs MPs support to continue - indeed, the Israeli maneuvering that you cite is related to making the government collapse, not to political parties. So as a first thing, you need a presidential system. But even then, MPs would probably organize as for or against the president - I imagine that the president's role in drafting and proposing legislation would be even higher than in present day US, as the coordination of MPs via the parties would be missing.

The second factor is the actual parties, i.e. the organisation of people that want to be politically active (in the current system these people select, support, control and in a few cases eventually become MPs, but that is only part of what the do). A lot of this activity will always be there and is important - what makes the party is members and of some political ideology, the MPs are not in principle needed. You want to separate these orgs from what happens in parliament, but it's not clear if it's possible - many candidates are always internal, people who have participated to party activity for years before running and continue to discuss their views with other members on a regular basis.

Personally, I think if we eliminated the parties we would probably be worse off, because they would be replaced by worse (less transparent) coalition building. But I would be curious to see you flesh out your ideas!

Addendum: if you want to bring legislation more in line with voters' preferences issue by issue, avoiding the distortion from coalition building, Swiss-style referenda seem to work to an acceptable degree http://www.lesswrong.com/posts/x6hpkYyzMG6Bf8T3W/swiss-political-system-more-than-you-ever-wanted-to-know-i

I read the first paragraph of this post, and before reading the rest I said to myself, "I sure hope this person has a good model for why parties exist in the first place so they can ensure that their replacement actually works." Unfortunately, the rest of the post didn't pan out.

I'm very sympathetic to your goals here, but without a better model for the behavior of political coalitions, I strongly suspect that these proposed solution will either fail or make things worse. In particular we need to consider both the intra-parliamentary function of parties (allowing representatives to coordinate with each other), but also the public, communicative function of parties to allow voters to choose a candidate and have a good model for his behavior without having to invest tons of time.

Well Australia tried not to have parties - they weren't recognized by the constitution till 1977 - but they happened anyway. Getting agreement on a piece of legislation is very much about the art compromise unless you have a direct democracy. Compromises like, if you vote for this, then I will vote for that. This builds the electoral platform that people actually vote on and naturally give rise to parties. A lot of parliament's strength come from parties - especially the opposition being effectively a shadow government and able to make a smooth transition to power. That's not to say it cant be improved on, but I doubt you can get a away from parties forming either formally or informally. Also, dont forget that in many westminister parliaments, the house debates and voting are public grandstanding, while the real work (and the important compromises) happen in select committee.

In the US, parties still aren't recognized by the Constitution.  Every election is a choice between all of the people who qualify for the ballot for each office.  Several groups of like-minded politicians quickly emerged, and over time these became our major parties.  

It's not uncommon for an American candidate to run as an independent (i.e. not affiliated with a party), although they hardly ever win. 

i dont think the US government would fit the normal definition of a modern parliament. We (NZ) have had the odd independent in parliament but extremely rare - generally an electoral MP that has fallen out with their party. Much more common in Australia but they have a different voting system (preferential in Aus, versus MMP here). As to mess in Israel, they also have MMP, but with a threshold of only 3% to get an MP into parliament. Any time last 28 years that people complain that our threshold is too low, Israel and Italy are pointed to as why lowering it would be a bad idea.

The US to my mind has power structure upside down - too much power concentrated in executive with little in way of handbrakes. Parliaments generally have president/monarch as constitutional backstop instead. A number of parliaments go further (eg UK, Canada, Australia and NZ) and have parliamentary supremacy where parliament can overrule both executive (aka backbench revolt) and the judiciary.

I think the most obvious thing is to just abolish representative democracy and replace it with direct democracy. We have more than enough technology to do this. Store votes on a blockchain, etc. Nobody can really "represent" anyone else, after all. Not everyone will want to vote on every problem, but that's a feature, not a bug: only people who care will vote, and the decision will be made by those who are actually affected by it.

Yes, I agree. Or at very least a much greater use of referendum in legislation making. 

Unfortunately, this caches out to parties as well, except now it's millions of individuals who don't have time or expertise to research individual questions deferring to the Party voting list

Oh. Yeah. That's true isn't it. D'oh.

I am not sure about other countries, but I think in US, the low-hanging fruit is to require all [non-emergency] legislation to be published in its final form well before the vote (say, a week or two). Currently we have way too much stuff being "snuck in" at the last moment, and for important legislation there is not enough time for the public to influence the text (while lobbyists are successful sneaking things in at the last moment).

I like your idea too - perhaps having a 1 month "cool off" period before votes become public would be enough to reduce the power of parties a bit.

But at least in US the first-past-the-post system is what keeps the two parties in power the most - introducing any sort of run-off system would probably be the lowest hanging fruit for that problem.

P.S. For my prepublication proposal - emergency legislation would need to still be allowed, but something like requiring a high (e.g. 2/3) votes threshold and automatic 6 months sunset on emergency legislation would prevent most abuse.

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