Melting democracy

by Richard_NgoThinking Complete5 min read29th Apr 20206 comments

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Mechanism DesignWorld Optimization
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Liquid democracy, also known as delegative democracy, is a proposed hybrid between direct democracy and representative democracy. In liquid democracy, as in direct democracy, everyone is able to vote directly on every issue. Of course, in a modern society it’d be prohibitively time-consuming for everyone to research every topic well enough to cast an informed vote. In practice, most who vote would end up following the advice of someone better-informed on the topic. Liquid democracy makes this dynamic explicit by allowing any voter to delegate their vote to someone else that they trust. Their delegate can now vote on their behalf, or else delegate again to someone else.

Some implementation details of how this system would work:

  • If A delegates to B, and B delegates to C, then C now has three votes. There’s no limit to how many times votes can be delegated (except that forming a cycle returns a vote to its original owner).
  • It’s a real-time system: any delegation can be changed at any time. In practice we’d need to implement voting and delegation via a secure digital system.
  • Voting and delegation would be private for most people, but public for those who have more than a certain number of pledged votes.
  • People can also split their delegation by subject area, so they don’t need to find a delegate whose judgement they trust on every topic. For example, A could delegate their vote on economic issues to B, their vote on foreign policy to C, and their vote on everything else to D.

I have mixed feelings about liquid democracy. There are quite a few reasons why direct democracy is a bad idea, and liquid democracy only solves some of them. In particular, the role of representatives isn’t just to cast votes, but also to design, advocate, and implement good policies, which is a full-time job. Meanwhile there needs to be some way to make all those policies consistent with each other over time - otherwise voters might approve a budget constraint, and then approve individual policies expensive enough to overrun that budget constraint. Then, once the policies have been in effect for long enough to judge their success or failure, we also need to know which groups to praise or blame - since allocating responsibility on an individual basis is hard. In short, electing representatives who belong to political parties to serve multi-year terms in parliament seems like a robustly good idea.

But I also think that the core insights of liquid democracy are very important ones. People are best able to trust others around them, or public figures whose work they respect - not politicians who they mainly see during large-scale media campaigns. A hierarchical system of delegation is a natural way to scale up while maintaining trust in each link. And it’s also true that no representative can have detailed knowledge about every topic, so we should find some way of making specialist knowledge more accessible to our representatives.

So I’d like to propose a watered-down version of liquid democracy, which preserves these core insights, but without the problems of direct democracy - and which is also much easier to implement gradually. I envisage it happening in two phases.

Phase 1: Melting Democracy

We keep a party-based system of elected representatives, who serve multi-year terms. Everyone can delegate their votes as in liquid democracy, with the same implementation details as described in the previous section (except that people don’t get the opportunity to split their delegation by subject area). Those votes can then be used during parliamentary elections to choose between candidates running for election.

This may seem like only a modest change. But I think that if delegation is widely adopted, it will improve a number of important dynamics:

  1. Politicians need to run better campaigns. They can’t just use shallow large-scale media tactics, because delegates who have been pledged many votes (let’s call them superdelegates) will have more incentive to investigate platforms and policies in detail. Superdelegates would also have the opportunity to talk to candidates in person, to understand them better.
  2. Trusted figures get more involved in politics. Consider a public figure who’s demonstrated good judgement and trustworthiness in their previous work. While their endorsement might be useful for political candidates, they have no official power within the political system, which makes it more difficult for them to have a positive influence. Having a large number of pledged votes will give them leverage to push for better policies.
  3. A natural funnel into parliament. Running for parliament is difficult not just because of the costs, but also because it’s so abrupt. Candidates need to decide whether to commit to running before knowing how much voters like or trust them. How do we get the best people from other sectors of society to consider a political career? Under melting democracy, they can start gradually getting involved in politics by amassing pledged votes. And they don’t need to spend a lot of money to get started, as long as other superdelegates commit to supporting them.
  4. Easier for new parties to get traction. Right now there’s a coordination problem in supporting small parties for first-past-the-post parliamentary seats. Even if many voters prefer a challenger over the two entrenched parties, unless a large number of them switch at once, their votes will probably be wasted. Melting democracy makes this easier, because superdelegates can coordinate more easily to throw support behind small parties.

A potential problem is that we’re centralising voting power in superdelegates, which might open the door to corruption. I hope that this will not be a big problem, because anyone can be a delegate. If a politician is involved in some sort of scandal, voters have to wait several years to vote against them - and even then, if the politician is still backed by their party, there might not be any alternative candidate who’s any better. Whereas if a delegate does something morally or legally dubious, voters can immediately re-delegate to anyone else in the country. This doesn’t have any formal effect until the next election, but it does shift informal power away from them rapidly.

Meanwhile, there’s also a sense in which we’re decentralising power, because now in addition to political parties we also have a parallel system of delegates. It’s possible that delegates all end up segregating along party lines - but because the assignment of votes to delegates can be so fluid, I expect that many superdelegates will serve as independent voices who are capable of challenging entrenched parties.

Something else I particularly like about this proposal is that it could start without requiring legal changes. That is, you could initially set up an opt-in, non-binding system for delegating votes. While this first system wouldn’t provide all the benefits I outlined above, pledging a vote to someone would still be a way of giving them more influence, allowing them to push for beneficial policies more effectively, and paving the way for them to run for office later on. Then, if the system proves successful, it could gradually be integrated into the democratic process across different countries. This makes it much more realistic than proposals which would require sudden radical changes.

Phase 2: Functional Constituencies

The specific way that representatives are elected varies by country. In the UK and the US, all representatives need to win their seat in a given constituency or state, where only the votes of residents count. By contrast, New Zealand and Germany use mixed-member proportional (MMP) voting, in which each person gets to vote twice - once for their local MP, and once for a national political party. The resulting parliament is a mix of MPs who represent specific constituencies, and MPs who represent their party as a whole. I think this is an excellent system; it allows voters to select representatives who care about their local issues and are held responsible for them, while also keeping representation proportional to popularity on a national level (unlike the UK’s system).

But if we want representatives who are experts on and accountable for specific issues, then local issues aren’t the only ones which matter. Proponents of liquid democracy are correct in arguing that representatives can’t be experts in every topic they need to legislate on. So what if we added new seats for specific areas of expertise? I don’t think we’d want too many, but it seems important to have several representatives who we trust to represent us well on:

  • Economic issues
  • Social issues
  • Science and technology
  • Foreign policy

While I’ve framed this proposal in the context of MMP, variants could work in many other political systems; the core idea resembles functional constituencies in Hong Kong, and Ireland’s vocational panels. In contrast to the former, I think it’s important to keep the number of categories low, so that they don’t become de facto safe seats for special interest groups. However, if the system works well then more MPs could be added for each category, and maybe a few more domains included. In particular, I’d be excited to see dedicated seats for people with expertise in improving the governmental system itself.

In contrast to the Irish system, I think that everyone should be allowed to vote for functional representatives - because even though we’re aiming for expertise, there are also normative elements to each of these constituencies. There are several ways we might allocate votes to functional constituencies. The simplest version would be to allow everyone to vote for a representative in each area, in addition to their national and local votes. Voters could then delegate their six votes together or separately, as in liquid democracy. However, I think that’s asking for too much from voters; and it would encourage people to vote for expert representatives in areas where they can’t judge expertise. Probably it would be more reasonable to allow each person to choose only one of these constituencies in which to vote, in addition to their national and local votes.

In terms of parliamentary voting power, functional MPs probably wouldn’t have much direct sway. But they would be able to influence other MPs and work with them to create better policies. Right now experts are outsiders to the political process. The core goal of both the proposals I’ve advanced in this essay is to break down the barriers between the people whose judgement we trust in civil society, and the people to whom we’re entrusting the powers and responsibilities of government.

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