I’m watching friends develop ulcers and crack under the strain of anxiety related to the election today. The huge amount of time and money spent to manipulate voters to cast their vote for candidates and ballot measures, with most of the propaganda oversimplifying or outright lying to gin up outrage or hatred of others, is one of the least productive activities in our lives. Two sides at war in a not-quite-literal sense, not devasting cities and killing people, but dividing and coarsening the people’s understanding of what it is realistically possible for a good government to do and denigrating the good faith of the opposition.
There are better ways, enabled by the new zero-cost, high-bandwidth communications of the Internet.
Athenian-style direct democracy lives on in the New England town meeting. Ideally, direct democracy means a community comes together in one hall and decides important issues by discussing and voting on them directly, as in ancient Athens. But even small communities had trouble handling all of the complex issues that might come up and eventually had to elect representatives, allowing citizens to delegate their votes to one person they trusted to act in their stead. Direct democracy was not scalable, and democracy itself could be dangerous since majority rule needed to be restrained by individual rights. A majority could otherwise vote itself benefits and loot the treasury or persecute individuals.
The last chapter of P. J. O’Rourke’s Parliament of Whores colorfully describes the problem of today’s New England town meeting form of government. A developer has proposed a golf course and condo complex, and town residents are voting on a sewer issue that can prevent it. The future residents, of course, have no say in the vote:
It was at this moment, in the middle of the Blatherboro sewer debate, that I achieved enlightenment about government, I had a dominion epiphany, I reached regime satori. The whole town meeting was suddenly illuminated by the pure, strong radiance of truth (a considerable improvement over the fluorescent tubes).
It wasn’t mere disillusionment that I experienced. Government isn’t a good way to solve problems; I already knew that. And I’d been to Washington and seen for myself that government is concerned mostly with self-perpetuation and is subject to fantastic ideas about its own capabilities, I understood that government is wasteful of the nation’s resources, immune to common sense and subject to pressure from every half-organized bouquet of assholes, I had observed, in person, government solemnity in debate of ridiculous issues and frivolity in execution of serious duties. I was fully aware that government is distrustful of and disrespectful toward average Americans while being easily gulled by Americans with money, influence or fame. What I hadn’t realized was government is morally wrong.
The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it. And here, in small-town New Hampshire, in this veritable world’s capital of probity, we were about to commit just such a theft. If we could collect sufficient votes in favor of special town meetings about sewers, we could make a golf course and condominium complex disappear for free. We were going to use our suffrage to steal a fellow citizen’s property rights. We weren’t even going to take the manly risk of holding him up at gunpoint.
Not that there’s anything wrong with our limiting growth. If we Blatherboro residents don’t want a golf course and condominium complex, we can go buy that land and not build them. Of course, to buy the land, we’d have to borrow money from the bank, and to pay the bank loan, we’d have to do something profitable with the land, something like — build a golf course and condominium complex. Well, at least that would be constructive.
We would be adding something — if only golf — to the sum of civilization’s accomplishments. Better to build a golf course right through the middle of Redwood National Park and condominiums on top of the Lincoln Memorial than to sit in council gorging on the liberties of others, gobbling their material substance, eating freedom.
What we were trying to do with our legislation in the Blatherboro Town Meeting was wanton, cheap and greedy — a sluttish thing. This should come as no surprise. Authority has always attracted the lowest elements in the human race. All through history mankind has been bullied by scum. Those who lord it over their fellows and toss commands in every direction and would boss the grass in the meadow about which way to bend in the wind are the most depraved kind of prostitutes. They will submit to any indignity, perform any vile act, do anything to achieve power. The worst offsloughings of the planet are the ingredients of sovereignty. Every government is a parliament of whores.
The trouble is, in a democracy the whores are us.
Now we have C-SPAN, and in theory we could all be watching the legislative debates and voting on the laws directly. We’re kidding ourselves if we think most of our legislators understand in detail the bills they vote on — see Nancy Pelosi’s “We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what’s in it….” comment about the ACA. But even if we had the time to make ourselves expert and the bills weren’t abominations of complexity and special-interest obfuscation, literally no citizen could follow all issues and vote on all bills in an informed way. This cannot work unless the law is shrunk to a reasonable size, and it would do little to rein in the Administrative State (the agencies that now legislate by issuing ever-increasing volumes of regulations and enforce them nearly free of Congressional and court oversight), which is now beyond the control even of well-meaning executive appointees.
One problem is our House Representatives and how we elect them. Their districts now have an average of over 700,000 residents, and no one can campaign personally enough to give each citizen a direct sense of them. So TV and advertising became critical, which required big money, which requires a coalition of party and big donors to have a chance of unseating an incumbent — which is why so few are unseated. The Senate is even worse, with a big state like California having 30 million people to sway. Since the 17th Amendment (which changed election to the Senate from a state legislative vote to a popular vote), senators have ceased to represent their state’s government and now have a nearly independent power base, which makes a sitting senator even harder to dislodge.
In parliamentary-style systems, the legislature selects the executive from among the members — so parties form to support a large enough majority to select the executive and pass the legislation the government desires. The government often chooses when an election will be held, and the timetable is usually short. Since it’s the members of parliament that choose the executive, the question of who that will be is not directly on the ballot, so the party takes responsibility for choosing the member that will lead them most effectively. Until recently this did not make a large difference, but it has become more noticeable lately that the US government, with its more complex structure and greater division of powers, is less able to actively do anything — including reforming the administrative state, which has taken on a life of its own that threatens to strangle freedom and economic growth. In the US, a party that controls the presidency, the House, and the Senate still finds senators and House committee leaders that have veto power over changes, and the senate filibuster makes a law written to resist change, like the ACA, almost impossible to roll back when it proves problematic — a minority of senators or the president can block repeal. If the election of 2010 had taken place in a parliamentary system, the Republicans would have taken control of the executive branch and been able to repeal the ACA before major damage had been done.
There have been proposals to return to a modified form of direct democracy which would have elements of representative government, notably “liquid democracy.” In my future-history Substrate Wars series, the student rebels who had invented quantum superweapons and forced the world’s governments to cede control of security to them discussed how they might implement liquid democracy:
“So to get back to the central discussion. Who makes the law for our judges and AIs? How do the people control their universal government, which might start with the people in this room, but grow to include ten billion people over a thousand planets?”
“What we have now seems to work well,” Prof. Wilson observed drily.
“Because,” Ben said, “we all agree on most things, and we want the same outcomes, and we’re too busy to worry about someone else’s job. But that won’t last, and we’ll have major disagreements, where one faction wants one thing while another thinks the opposite is better. And we need a way to efficiently decide such disputes. Back on Earth, democracies elected representatives who traveled to large halls to discuss and vote on laws. We will have the universal Net, which can guarantee who you are and what your authority is, and a way of including anyone interested in the debates on any law. You can participate and vote on the Net.”
“So we were talking about ‘liquid democracy’…” Justin said, raising his eyebrows.
“Liquid democracy, also called delegative democracy. This is the new type of democratic-republican system we are looking at. The basic idea is that every citizen has a vote on every law or issue, but for practical reasons they delegate their vote to a representative, who bundles together all the votes delegated to him or her and casts them as they think best. The key difference between this and republican systems we are used to is that there is no fixed term for a representative, and citizens can take their proxy back at any time to give to another representative, or to vote themselves directly. Thus ‘liquid’ — citizens can react to what their representative is doing, even down to revoking their proxy during a speech on the issue that sways them. Citizens who want to participate in every issue can; most people will give their proxy to a representative they trust and only occasionally consider switching. Participation in debate and the writing of legislation would have to be limited to a practical number of representatives who hold the most proxies, but a citizen would be free to watch the process and communicate ideas to their representative.
“Proxies can be limited or full. For example, I might delegate my vote on defense matters to Samantha, who is hard-headed enough to impress me as a wise choice for that, while giving my proxy for research funding to Steve, because he’ll always be better at that. There’s no pre-election period where a government can suck up to voters and spend money unwisely to get elected, then act as they wish for years after. The people can intervene quickly if they don’t like the way things are going.”
“Who chooses the executive, and what about those bureaucracies?” Prof. Wilson asked.
“The executive would be elected by the representatives, and have to work to keep their confidence, as in a Parliamentary system. We are intending the powers of the executive be limited this time — in the unlikely event of a war with an outside power, there would of course be emergency needs. But the huge bureaucracies for defense, agriculture, education, tax collection, and all that would all be unnecessary. A dispersed, connected, and footloose people with replicators won’t need assistance surviving, and no external enemies exist that we know of. The executive government may never need to be more than a few dozen people.”
No one has yet implemented a true liquid democracy for a real government. The Wikipedia entry on delegative democracy further describes the idea:
￼Crucial to the understanding of delegate democracy is the theory’s view of the meaning of “representative democracy.” Representative democracy is seen as a form of governance whereby a single winner is determined for a predefined jurisdiction, with a change of delegation only occurring after the preset term length (or in some instances by a forced recall election if popular support warrants it). The possibility usually exists within representation that the “recalled” candidate can win the subsequent electoral challenge.
This is contrasted with most forms of governance referred to as “delegative.” Delegates may not, but usually do, have specific limits on their ‘term’ as delegates, nor do they represent specific jurisdictions. Some key differences include:
• Optionality of term lengths.
• Possibility for direct participation.
• The delegate’s power is decided in some measure by the voluntary association of members rather than an electoral victory in a predefined jurisdiction. (See also: Single Transferable Vote.)
• Delegates remain re-callable at any time and in any proportion.
• Often, the voters have the authority to refuse observance of a policy by way of popular referendum overriding delegate decisions or through nonobservance from the concerned members. This is not usually the case in representative democracy.
• Possibility exists for differentiation between delegates in terms of what form of voting the member has delegated to them. For example: “you are my delegate on matters of national security and farm subsidies.”
Google has ongoing research into the topic, since their Hangouts have much of the technology needed to make this work — secure identity with encrypted communication and group meeting capabilities. Google did an experiment using as an example the critically important decision of what should be on the lunch menu. They have also issued a good video lecture on the concepts:
More interesting discussion of liquid democracy can be found in this Marginal Revolution post.
Here’s an open-source software project for implenting similar systems: LiquidFeedback. The German Pirate Party has been experimenting with the system to bring together its large membership to discuss and decide its policies, a form of direct feedback that has helped ithe party to grow rapidly to become an electoral force.
Here’s another discussion of the technologies needed to make this work safely in an environment of state-supported hackers: Liquid Democracy and Emerging Governance Models. At the very least, the identity and secure communications issues have to be solved, and a citizen’s view of their proxy status always available, yet secure from others. These are soluble problems, but not by the government programming mentality that brought us current voting machines.
One day we may be able to both vote on and help write legislation in areas we are expert in, while ceding most decisions to trusted representatives whose proxy to vote on our behalf is revocable at any time. No more gigantic omnibus spending bills that ensure spending never gets cut. No more election campaigns, lowest-common-denominator party hacks, or trickery designed to sway your vote past that one golden moment when you could have said no….
And that still does not solve the issue of who selects the judges who might determine when a new law infringes basic constitutional rights. The Supreme Courts which have deferred to Congress and agency regulation, rarely turning back the overreaches that have become increasingly common (see again the ACA!) are a big part of today’s problem with expanding government.
[Death by HR: How Affirmative Action Cripples Organizations, available now in Kindle and trade paperback.]
The first review is in: by Elmer T. Jones, author of The Employment Game.
Corporate HR Scrambles to Halt Publication of “Death by HR”
Nobody gets a job through HR. The purpose of HR is to protect their parent organization against lawsuits for running afoul of the government’s diversity extortion bureaus. HR kills companies by blanketing industry with onerous gender and race labor compliance rules and forcing companies to hire useless HR staff to process the associated paperwork… a tour de force… carefully explains to CEOs how HR poisons their companies and what steps they may take to marginalize this threat… It is time to turn the tide against this madness, and Death by HR is an important research tool… All CEOs should read this book. If you are a mere worker drone but care about your company, you should forward an anonymous copy to him.
For more reading goodness:
Death by HR: Biased HR Degree Programs Create Biased HR Bureaucracies
Death by HR: Pink Collar Ghettos, Publishing and HR
Death by HR: Who Staffs HR Departments? Mostly Women…
Death by HR: The Great Enrichment to the Great Slackening
Death by HR: Good-Enough Cogs vs Best Employees
Death by HR: EEOC Incompetence and the Coming Idiocracy
The Justice is Too Damn High! – Gawker, the High Cost of Litigation, and the Weapon Shops of Isher
Regulation Strangling Innovation: Planes, Trains, and Hyperloop
Captain America and Progressive Infantilization
The Great Progressive Stagnation vs. Dynamism
FDA Wants More Lung Cancer
Corrupt Feedback Loops: Public Employee Unions
Unrealistic Expectations: Liberal Arts Woman and Amazon Men
Stable is Boring? “Psychology Today” Article on Bad Boyfriends
Gaming and Science Fiction: Social Justice Warriors Strike Again