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

Paper by Ricardo Zapata Lopera: “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….

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)….(More)”.