Other pioneers might be attracted to direct democracy’s practical similarities to postmodern organizational and entrepreneurial theories. Concepts of self-management, wholeness, and evolutionary purpose, as well as several other models and methods like organic or agile organization models, holacracy, sociocracy, theory U, and others, are theoretical and practical cousins of direct democracy. Direct democracy does feature more institutional formality than some of these approaches, but the idea of decentralization, every person having a voice, creativity, and self-management reflects the underpinnings of direct democracy. In addition to appealing to pioneering personality types, these similarities also mean that colonists can draw on familiar political and organizational experiences to create new Martian patterns of government.
Many Colonists, One Colony
The apparent comprehensiveness of direct democracy results from a complex mix of different institutions and political mechanisms. Direct democracy is not static; it is a laboratory of political and social hypothesis testing. Newer theories of direct democracy explicitly address democratic experimentation, creative democracy, and laboratory-federalism, which the technology community often calls “crowdsourcing.”
These concepts put nationalistic, ethnic, or other divisive concepts of identity on their heels in favor of pluralism. Swiss history offers such an example. Switzerland features four linguistic regions that speak German, French, Italian and Rhaeto-Romance languages. Switzerland has majority Catholic, Protestant, and mixed cantons, which represented a remarkable degree of religious integration during the post-Reformation period. Switzerland has urbanized city cantons as well as conservative bucolic cantons; very small cantons, and also very big cantons. Swiss cohesion amid this diversity results from direct, decentralized democracy where the government avoids coercive tools of government. Rare among parliamentary systems, Switzerland’s executive government at the federal, cantonal and community levels are multi-party bodies. Seven Federal Councilors out of four parties represent the government of Switzerland. And rarest of all, there is no single Swiss head of state.
The approach of involving and integrating all politically relevant groups tends to soften extremism and diminish the appeal of totalitarianism or clientelism. The vertical and horizontal separation of powers and decentralization of political authority balances innovation and acceptance, experimentation and stability, and inaction and reaction. Its popular buy-in makes direct democracy a political pressure control valve.
Similarly, direct democracy embeds the state in society. Popular participation collapses the spheres of the state, law, and politics into the spheres of economy, science, and civil society. Politics, democracy and community conjoin to one another as all individuals in the political system become participants in all three arenas. This inclusion reduces the appeal of one group or another trying to dominate others through state power, as the others can easily and fluidly form a majority to resist these efforts. These tendencies reflect themselves not just internally, but in Switzerland’s case, externally in the form of Switzerland’s avowed neutrality in international conflicts and the strict defensive posture of its militia-army.
Direct democracies offer measurable benefits over alternative political systems. A 2003 study established that in direct democratic entities the “Wicksellian connection” is very strong, meaning that the taxes citizens pay for public goods and services are strongly connected to the benefits the citizens obtain from them. Analyses of referenda show that public spending, revenue, and debt are significantly lower in jurisdictions governed by direct democracy, and in particular, that fiscal referenda tend to restrict the growth of the welfare and administrative states. These studies also demonstrate that direct democratic entities perform public services with greater efficiency. Citizens in a direct democracy report feeling significantly more responsible for their community, and the per-employee GDP is higher.
Citizens of a direct democracy consider themselves better off than others. A study in 2000 concluded that, “the existence of extended individual participation possibilities in the form of initiative and referenda, and of decentralised (federal) government structures raises the subjective well-being of people.” It further concluded that local autonomy is one of the diverse “transmission mechanisms” of direct democracy’s beneficial effects.
Direct democratic institutions tend to erect barriers against extensions of state power, including state power in the form of taxes and regulations. Perhaps for this reason, direct democracy in Switzerland is often narratively linked to a strong middle-class and an economy that grows due to small and medium-sized businesses but also offers a hospitable environment for global corporations and research institutions.
A wider ranging study of direct democracy concludes that direct participation leads to more information and transparency, political discussion, citizen involvement, more acceptance, integration, and identification in the community, and a more active and agile civil society. The personal, civic and political, and professional engagement of its colonists will be absolutely essential for Martian government, and is probably easier to achieve through direct democracy than by other means.
Direct Democracy on Mars: Starting the Conversation
Mars colonists and community builders will have to ask fundamental questions about cooperation, co-living, money, rights and duties, and power. Collectively and adaptably answering such essential questions will probably mean adopting some form of direct democracy. Elon Musk’s vision is of a civilization on Mars “that is not merely an outpost but which can become a planet in its own right.” That will mean answering questions about self-determination, self-government, self-administration, home rule, independence in peace, and cooperation among pioneers with many different and conflicting loyalties. Mars is a long way from Earth, and tensions will no doubt flare among representatives of Earth’s nation-states, corporations, and the unaffiliated who may have their own idealistic visions of a new society completely apart from our home planet. In such an environment, addressing these potential conflicts while maintaining peace, equality and cooperation is paramount. To achieve all these outcomes, direct democracy probably offers the highest probability of success. It upholds the values of co-determination, participation, and co-decision while enabling and balancing innovation and stability. Taken together these integrative and creative effects of a direct democracy are not just beneficial to a Mars colony. Given its distance from Earth, they are likely essential.
Urs Vögeli has a master’s degree in political science and is working on his PhD in political theory, both at University of Zurich. He directs in Switzerland his own company, Political Science Consulting, with which he primarily advises and supports members of parliament, executive members and administration at federal and cantonal level.