Sunday, December 25, 2022

Democracy according to Elon Musk

The era of the petulant olygarch, in the words of Paul Krugman, has brought us an illustration of the dangers of fake democracy.

Some days ago, the new owner of Twitter, a platform that should be a global public utility and that he recently purchased, Elon Musk, disguised himself as a democrat and asked this to the Twitter community:

“Should I step down as head of Twitter? I will abide by the results of this poll”

He did not specify whether "head" meant owner or chief executive, or both. Currently, he is both.

The possible answers were yes or no and the yes vote won by 57% to 43% (meaning that Musk had lost the vote). Many of us voted and others took him even seriously.

Hours after the poll being closed, Musk announced that he would continue ruling Twitter until he found someone “foolish enough” to take the job.

He will still be the owner, though, even if he delegates into someone who cannot be now someone of high calibre, since we already know that it must be someone foolish enough. And if he finds someone, Musk will retain the power to fire him at any time.

Capitalism and Democracy have different rules. In a true democracy, people vote under the rule of law, and it is in that context that one person has one vote, and the votes are aggregated with one of a variety of possible (none of them perfect) voting rules. When people vote, the consequences of the referendum should be clear to everybody (a criterion that the Brexit referendum did not satisfy). In a capitalist firm, there are also rules, but these give the residual control rights to the owners of capital, who are usually a tiny minority of the people involved in a corporation. That is why there are limits to unrestricted private ownership, as there are limits to markets, to protect the rest of us from owners who impose unwanted costs on the rest of society.

The Venice Commission guidelines on the holding of referendums, which sets the standards for this type of votes, establish that plebiscites must take place under clear rules and under neutral authorities, among other rules. Of course, none of these guidelines were observed by Mr. Musk, who most probably doesn’t even know about them.

But referendums are one of the preferred tools of national populists and autocrats. They obviously prefer to win them, but they will play with the result if they lose. Even when they are called under good intentions, like the referendum on the peace agreement in Colombia in 2016 (the same year as Brexit), they are used by demagogs and opportunists to erode democratic institutions.

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