Sunday, May 3, 2009

Democratic Development

I am now living in Seattle, Washington, one of the most democratic places (in terms of politics and its urban planning process) that exists, and a hallmark of why Democratic Development often fails.

As some of you may know, democratic development, the process by which the citizens decide upon the future path of their city or state, is something I have studied extensively. Lately, I have come to believe that, without some major changes, democratic development is in face one of the least fair and least efficient options available.

The lack of participation is the most serious problem. For the process to work, a large, approximately representative cross-section of the community would have to vote; however, this is not what usually happens. Perhaps 20%-30% of voters may turn out in a special election, and those that do are often either directly affected (say, to vote against a bridge being built beside their house) or are the activist voters. This body also is often not fully aware of the total costs of the project, which can lead them to choose a project on principle rather than based on whaty is feasible. They also fail to account for the opportunity cost of such actions, such as higher taxes or lower funding for other services.

The lack of participation overall obscures another serious issue, the bias against poor and minority citizens whose rates of participation in special elections are even lower. This bias can lead the government to institute plans that fail to provide the maximum utility overall, favoring instead the actual participants who, as I mentioned above, are a very select, specific group. Such failures to account for needs of all people across the board can lead to higher inequality and disenchantment with local government.

Another issue I have with the process of democratic development, most specifically referendums, is they are redundant. We elect leaders based on their platforms so that they can make decisions on projects in a way that accounts for the needs of each of their districts. Voting on a referendum wastes time and money since we already elect people to make the same decisions.

In cities like Seattle, the process of building or improving infrastructure, for example, can take years. Several years ago there was a vote on two options for a project and both were voted down. In the end, the project chosen was the most expensive, and was effectively decided upon by "voters" who actually were largely made up of those who benefitted the most from the most expensive option. Another example is the tendency for cities to favor rail projects (which benefit suburban, wealthier people) over inner-city or bus transportation projects (which favor the poor) when these options are presented to voters because, simply put, the rich vote more.

Unless participation is significantly expanded, democratic development will continue to poorly allocate scarce resources to projects. Expanded participation campaigns and voter education campaigns should both be undertaken in earnest in order to improve the process to the point where it is viable. In the absence of such participation, largely independent, scientific commissions charged with properly accounting for the advantages, disadvantages, and alternatives for projects would be preferable.

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