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I'm interested in the topic of ideal governance: what kind of governance system should you set up, if you're starting from scratch and can do it however you want?

Here "you" could be a company, a nonprofit, an informal association, or a country. And "governance system" means a Constitution, charter, and/or bylaws answering questions like: "Who has the authority to make decisions (Congress, board of directors, etc.), and how are they selected, and what rules do they have to follow, and what's the process for changing those rules?"

I think this is a very different topic from something like "How does the US's Presidential system compare to the Parliamentary systems common in Europe?" The idea is not to look at today's most common systems and compare them, but rather to generate options for setting up systems radically different from what's common today.

I don't currently know of much literature on this topic (aside from the literature on social choice theory and especially voting methods, which covers only part of the topic). This post describes the general topic and why I care, partly in the hopes that people can point me to any literature I've missed. Whether or not I end up finding any, I'm likely to write more on this topic in the future.

Outline of the rest of the piece:

  • I'll outline some common governance structures for countries and major organizations today, and highlight how much room there is to try different things that don't seem to be in wide use today. More
  • I'll discuss why I care about this question. I have a few very different reasons:
    • A short-term, tangible need: over the last several years, I've spoken with several (more than 3) organizations that feel no traditional corporate governance structure is satisfactory, because the stakes of their business are too great and society-wide for shareholder control to make sense, yet they are too early-stage and niche (and in need of nimbleness) to be structured like a traditional government. An example would be an artificial intelligence company that could end up with a normal commercial product, or could end up bringing about the most important century of all time for humanity. I wish I could point them to someone who was like: "I've read all of, and written much of, the literature on what your options are. I can walk you through the pros and cons and help you pick a governance system that balances them for your needs."
    • A small probability of a big future win. The world today has lots of governments, but they seem to mostly follow a very small number of basic governance templates. At some point, there will be new states with new Constitutions - maybe via space settlements, maybe via collapse of existing states, etc. - but I expect these moments to be few and far between. A significant literature and set of experts on "ideal governance" could lead to a radically different kind of state government, potentially with radically different policies that the rest of the world could learn from.
    • A weird, out-of-left-field application. Some of my interest in this topic actually comes via my interest in moral uncertainty: the question of what it's ethical to do when one is struggling between more than one theory of ethics, with radically different implications. This is hard to explain, but I try below.
  • I'll describe a bit more what I think literature on this question could look like (and what already exists that I know of), partly to guide readers who might be able to help me find more.

Common governance structures today

All of these are simplified; I'm trying to illustrate the basic idea of what questions "ideal governance" is asking.

  • A standard (e.g., public) corporation works like this: it has shareholders, assigned one vote per share (not per person), who elect a board of directors that governs by majority. The board generally appoints a CEO that it entrusts with day-to-day decisions. There is a "constitution" of sorts (the Articles of Incorporation and bylaws) and a lot more wrinkles in terms of how directors are selected, but that's the basic idea.
  • A standard nonprofit is like a corporation, but entirely lacking the shareholder layer - it's governed directly by the board of directors. (I find something weird about a structure this simple - a simple board majority can do literally anything, even though the board of directors is often a somewhat random assortment of donors, advisors, etc.)
  • The US federal government is a lot more complex. It splits authority between the House of Representatives, the Senate, the Presidency and the Supreme Court, all of which have specific appointment procedures, term limits, etc. and are meta-governed by a Constitution that requires special measures to change. There are lots of specific choices that were made in designing things this way, and lots of things that could've been set up differently in the 18th century that would probably still matter today.
  • Other democracies tend to have governments that differ in a lot of ways (e.g.), while being based on broadly similar principles: voters elect representatives to more than one branch of government, which then divide up (and often can veto each other on) laws, expenditures, etc.
  • When I was 13, the lunch table I sat at established a Constitution with some really strange properties that I can't remember. I think there was a near-dictatorial authority who rotated daily, with others able to veto their decisions by assembling supermajorities or maybe singing silly songs or something.

In addition to the design choices shown in the diagrams, there are a lot of others:

  • Who votes, how often, and what voting system is used?
  • How many representatives are there in each representative body? How are they divided up (one representative per geographic area, or party-list proportional representation, or something else)?
  • What term limits exist for the different entities?
  • Do particular kinds of decisions require supermajorities?
  • Which restrictions are enshrined in a hard-to-change Constitution (and how hard is it to change), vs. being left to the people in power at the moment?

One way of thinking about the "ideal governance" question is: what kinds of designs could exist that aren't common today? And how should a new organization/country/etc. think about what design is going to be best for its purposes, beyond "doing what's usually done"?

For any new institution, it seems like the stakes are potentially high - in some important sense, picking a governance system is a "one-time thing" (any further changes have to be made using the rules of the existing system1).

Perhaps because of this, there doesn't seem to be much use of innovative governance designs in high-stakes settings. For example, here are a number of ideas I've seen floating around that seem cool and interesting, and ought to be considered if someone could set up a governance system however they wanted:

  • Sortition, or choosing people randomly to have certain powers and responsibilities. An extreme version could be: "Instead of everyone voting for President, randomly select 1000 Americans; give them several months to consider their choice, perhaps paid so they can do so full-time; then have them vote."
    • The idea is to pick a subset of people who are both (a) representative of the larger population (hence the randomness); (b) will have a stronger case for putting serious time and thought into their decisions (hence the small number).
    • It's solving a similar problem that "representative democracy" (voters elect representatives) is trying to solve, but in a different way.
  • Proportional decision-making. Currently, if Congress is deciding how to spend $1 trillion, a coalition controlling 51% of the votes can control all $1 trillion, whereas a coalition controlling 49% of the votes controls $0. Proportional decision-making could be implemented as "Each representative controls an equal proportion of the spending," so a coalition with 20% of the votes controls 20% of the budget. It's less clear how to apply this idea to other sorts of bills (e.g., illegalizing an activity rather than spending money), but there are plenty of possibilities.2
  • Quadratic voting, in which people vote on multiple things at once, and can cast more votes for things they care about more (with a "quadratic pricing rule" intended to make the number of votes an "honest signal" of how much someone cares).
  • Reset/Jubilee: maybe it would be good for some organizations to periodically redo their governance mostly from scratch, subject only to the most basic principles. Constitutions could contain a provision like "Every N years, there shall be a new Constitution selected. The 10 candidate Constitutions with the most signatures shall be presented on a ballot; the Constitution receiving the most votes is the new Constitution, except that it may not contradict or nullify this provision. This provision can be prevented from occurring by [supermajority provision], and removed entirely by [stronger supermajority]."
  • More examples in a footnote.3

If we were starting a country or company from scratch, which of the above ideas should we integrate with more traditional structures, and how, and what else should we have in our toolbox? That's the question of ideal governance.

Why do I care?

I have one "short-term, tangible need" reason; one "small probability of a big future win" reason; and one "weird, out-of-left-field" reason.

A short-term, tangible need: companies developing AI, or otherwise aiming to be working with huge stakes. Say you're starting a new company for developing AI systems, and you believe that you could end up building AI with the potential to change the world forever.

  • The standard governance setup for a corporation would hand power over all the decisions you're going to make to your shareholders, and by default most of your shares are going to end up held by people and firms that invested money in your company. Hopefully it's clear why this doesn't seem like the ideal setup for a company whose decisions could be world-changing. A number of AI companies have acknowledged the basic point that "Our ultimate mission should NOT just be: make money for shareholders," and that seems like a good thing.
  • One alternative would be to set up like a nonprofit instead, with all power vested in a board of directors (no shareholder control). Some issues are that (a) this cuts shareholders out of the loop completely, which could make it pretty hard to raise money; (b) according to me at least, this is just a weird system of governance, for reasons that are not super easy to articulate concisely but I'll take a shot in a footnote4 (and possibly write more in the future).
  • Another alternative is a setup that is somewhat common among tech companies: 1-2 founders hold enough shares to keep control forever, so you end up with essentially a dictatorship. This also ... leaves something to be desired.
  • Or maybe a company like this should just set up more like a government from the get-go, offering everyone in the world a vote via some complex system of representation, checks and balances. But this seems poorly suited to at least the relatively early days of a company, when it's small and its work is not widely known or understood. But then, how does the company handle the transition from the latter to the former? And should the former be done exactly in the standard way, or is there room for innovation there?

Over the last several years, I've spoken with heads of several (more than 3) organizations that struggle between options like the above, and have at least strongly considered unusual governance setups. I wish I could point them to someone who was like: "I've read all of, and written much of, the literature on what your options are. I can walk you through the pros and cons and help you pick a governance system that balances them for your needs."

But right now, I can't, and I've seen a fair amount of this instead: "Let's just throw together the best system we can, based mostly on what's already common but with a few wrinkles, and hope that we figure this all out later." I think this is the right solution given how things stand, but I think it really does get continually harder to redesign one's governance as time goes on and more stakeholders enter the picture, so it makes me nervous.

Similar issues could apply to mega-corporations (e.g., FAANG) that are arguably more powerful than what the standard shareholder-centric company setup was designed for. Are there governance systems they could adopt that would make them more broadly accountable, without copying over all the pros and cons of full-blown representative democracy as implemented by countries like the US?

A small probability of a big future win: future new states. The world today has lots of governments, but they seem to mostly follow a very small number of basic governance templates (e.g., I believe you see almost none of the things I listed above), and probably relatedly, there seems to be remarkably little variety and experimentation with policy. Policies that many believe could be huge wins - such as dramatically expanded immigration, land value taxation, "consumer reports"-style medical approvals,5 drug decriminalization, and charter cities - don't seem to have gotten much of a trial anywhere in the world.

At some point, there will be new states with new Constitutions - maybe via space settlements, maybe via collapse of existing states, etc. - but I expect these moments to be few and far between.

By default I expect future Constitutions to resemble present ones an awful lot. But maybe, at some future date, there will be a large "ideal governance" literature and some points of expert consensus on innovative governance designs that somebody really ought to try. That could lead to a radically different kind of state government, potentially with radically different policies that the rest of the world could learn from.

An out-of-left-field application for "ideal governance." This is going to veer off the rails, so remember to skip to the next section if I lose you.

Some of my interest in this topic actually comes via my interest in moral uncertainty: the question of what it's ethical to do when one is struggling between more than one theory of ethics, with radically different implications.

For example, there are arguments that our ethical decisions should be dominated by concern for ensuring that as many people as possible will someday get to exist. I really go back and forth on how much I buy these arguments, but I'm definitely somewhere between 10% convinced and 50% convinced. So ... say I'm "20% convinced" of some view that says preventing human extinction6 is the overwhelmingly most important consideration for at least some dimensions of ethics (like where to donate), and "80% convinced" of some more common-sense view that says I should focus on some cause unrelated to human extinction.7 How do I put those two together and decide what this means for actual choices I'm making?

The closest thing I've seen to a reasonable-seeming answer is the idea of a moral parliament: I should act as though I'm run by a Parliament with 80 members who believe in "common-sense" ethics, and 20 members who believe in the "preventing extinction is overwhelmingly important" idea. But with default Parliament rules, this would just mean the 80 members can run the whole show, without any compromise with the 20.

And so, a paper on the "moral parliament" idea tries to make it work by ... introducing a completely new governance mechanism that I can't find any other sign of someone else ever talking about, "proportional chances voting" (spelled out in a footnote).8 I think this mechanism has its own issues,9 but it's an attempt to ensure something like "A coalition controlling 20% of the votes has 20% of the effective power, and has to be compromised with, instead of being subject to the tyranny of the majority."

My own view (which I expect to write more about in the future) is that governance is roughly the right metaphor for "moral uncertainty": I am torn by multiple different sides of myself, with different takes on what it means to be a good person, and the problem of getting these different sides of myself to reach a decision together is like the problem of getting different citizens (or shareholders) to reach a decision together. The more we can say about what ideal governance looks like, the more we can say about how this ought to work - and the better I expect this "moral parliament"-type idea to end up looking, compared to alternatives.10

The literature I'm looking for

Ideal governance seems like the sort of topic for which there should be a "field" of "experts," studying it. What would such study look like? Three major categories come to mind:

Brainstorming ideas such as those I listed above - innovative potential ways of solving classic challenges of governance, such as reconciling "We want to represent all the voters" with "We want decisions to be grounded in expertise and high engagement, and voters are often non-expert and not engaged."

I've come across various assorted ideas in this category, including quadratic voting, futarchy, and proportional chances voting, without seeing much sign that these sit within a broader field that I can skim through to find all the ideas that are out there.

Economics-style theory in which one asks questions like: "If we make particular assumptions about who's voting, what information they have and lack, how much they suffer from bounded rationality, and how we define 'serving their interests' (see below), what kind of governance structure gets the best outcome?"

Social choice theory, including on voting methods, tackles the "how we define 'serving their interests'" part of this. But I'm not aware of people using similar approaches to ask questions like "Under what conditions would we want 1 chamber of Congress vs. 2, or 10? 100 Senators vs. 500, or 15? A constitution that can be modified by simple majority, vs. 2/3 majority vs. consensus? Term limits? Etc. etc. etc."

Empirical research (probably qualitative): Are there systematic reviews of unusual governance structures tried out by companies, and what the results have been? Of smaller-scale experiments at co-ops, group houses and lunch tables?

To be clear, I think the most useful version of this sort of research would probably be very qualitative - collecting reports of what problems did and didn't come up - rather than asking questions like "How does a particular board structure element affect company profits?"

One of the things I expect to be tricky about this sort of research is that I think a lot of governance comes down to things like "What sorts of people are in charge?" and "What are the culture, expectations, norms and habits?" A setup that is "officially" supposed to work one way could evolve into something quite different via informal practices and "soft power." However, I think the formal setup (including things like "what the constitution says about the principles each governance body is supposed to be upholding") can have big effects on how the "soft power" works.

If you know where to find research or experts along the lines of the above, please share them in the comments or using this form if you don't want them to be public.

I'll likely write about what I come across, and if I don't find anything new, I'll likely ramble some more about ideal governance. So either way, there will be more on this topic!



  1. Barring violent revolution in the case of countries. 

  2. An example would be the "proportional chances voting" idea described here

    • Proxying/liquid democracy, or allowing voters to transfer their votes to other voters. (This is common for corporations, but not for governments.) This could be an alternative or complement to electing representatives, solving a similar problem (we want lightly-engaged voters to be represented, but we also want decisions ultimately made using heavy engagement and expertise). At first glance it may seem to pose a risk that people will be able to "buy votes," but I don't actually think this is necessarily an issue (proxying could be done anonymously and on set schedules, like other votes).
    • Soft term limits: the more terms someone has served, the greater a supermajority they need to be re-elected. This could be used to strike a balance between the advantages of term limits (avoiding "effectively unaccountable" incumbents) and no-term-limits (allowing great representatives to keep serving).
    • Formal technocracy/meritocracy: Using hard structures (rather than soft norms) to assign authority to people with particular expertise and qualifications. An extreme example would be futarchy, in which prediction markets directly control decisions. A simpler example would be structurally rewarding representatives (via more votes or other powers) based on assessments of their track records (of predictions or decisions), or factual understanding of a subject. This seems like a tough road to go down by default, as any mechanism for evaluating "track records" and "understanding" can itself be politicized, but there's a wide space of possible designs.  
  3. Most systems of government have a sort of funnel from "least engaged in day to day decisions, but most ultimately legitimate representatives of whom the institution is supposed to serve" (shareholders, voters) to "most engaged in day to day decisions, but ultimately accountable to someone else" (chief executive). A nonprofit structure is a very short funnel, and the board of directors tends to be a somewhat random assortment of funders, advisors, people who the founders just thought were cool, etc. I think they often end up not very accountable (to anyone) or engaged in what's going on, such that they have a hard time acting when they ought to, and the actions they do take are often kind of random.

    I'm not saying there is a clearly better structure available for this purpose - I think the weirdness comes from the fact that it's so unclear who should go in the box normally reserved for "Shareholders" or "Voters." It's probably the best common structure for its purpose, but I think there's a lot of room for improvement, and the stakes seem high for certain organizations. 

  4. Context in this Marginal Revolution post, which links to this 2005 piece on a "consumer reports" model for the FDA

  5. Or "existential catastrophe" - something that drastically curtails humanity's future, even if it doesn't drive us extinct. 

  6. This isn't actually where I'm at, because I think the leading existential risks are a big enough deal that I would want to focus on them even if I completely ignored the philosophical argument that the future is overwhelmingly important. 

  7. Let's say that 70% of the Parliament members vote for bill X, and 30% vote against. "Proportional chance voting" literally uses a weighted lottery to pass bill X with 70% probability, and reject it with 30% probability (you can think of this like rolling a 10-sided die, and passing the bill if it's 7 or under).

    A key part of this is that the members are supposed to negotiate before voting and holding the lottery. For example, maybe 10 of the 30 members who are against bill X offer to switch to supporting it if some change is made. The nice property here is that rather than having a "tyranny of the majority" where the minority has no bargaining power, we have a situation where the 70-member coalition would still love to make a deal with folks in the minority, to further increase the probability that they get their way.

    Quote from the paper that I am interpreting: "Under proportional chances voting, each delegate receives a single vote on each motion. Before they vote, there is a period during which delegates may negotiate: this could include trading votes on one motion for votes on another, introducing novel options for consideration within a given motion, or forming deals with others to vote for a compromise option that both consider to be acceptable. The delegates then cast their ballots for one particular option in each motion, just as they might in a plurality voting system. But rather than determining the winning option to be the one with the most votes, each option is given a chance of winning proportional to its share of the votes." 

  8. What stops someone who lost the randomized draw from just asking to hold the same vote again? Or asking to hold a highly similar/related vote that would get back a lot of what they lost? How does that affect the negotiated equilibrium? 

  9. Such as "maximize expected choice-worthiness," which I am not a fan of for reasons I'll get to in the future. 

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Some other stuff to look into:

  • Governance of Church. This may not seem like a big deal today, but in early medieval Europe, church probably had more capacity than states, so it mattered a lot. Also, catholic governance structures are quite different from protestant, from the structures in Judaism etc.
  • IETF has a pretty weird governance. The assumption is that anyone can join (or leave) at any moment, so the boundaries of the body politic are quite fuzzy. Thus, no voting, the stress on decision making by consensus, running code etc. Also, limited lifetime of the working groups seems to be designed to prevent concentration of power and bureacratizaton.
  • Open source governance models overall, from BDFL to Debian. Nadya Eghbal wrote a nice paper not 100% focused on the governance, but close.
  • Governance of common pool resources. Elinor Ostrom's work is interesting here. Book review.
  • Governance structures in the organized crime.
  • Vast anthropological literature on the governance in traditional societies. (Clans, age groups etc.)
  • Swiss political system breaks the typical state governance patterns. Known mostly for direct democracy - but the real meat is: Any randomly assembled group of actors can get immediate political power by threatening to launch a binding, all-overriding referendum. Such groups are trpically consulted with and appeased.
  • Governance of international bodies.

Lee Kuan Yew wrote about how he went looking for a governance system for his party, the PAP (which now rules Singapore) after the party nearly was captured by the communists in the 50s. He looked at the Catholic Church as an inspiring example of a system that had survived for a long time, and he eventually settled on a system based on the Church's system for electing cardinals and the Pope.

That’s fascinating, have you got a source?

This is from his memoir The Singapore Story, from right after he finished studying in the UK. (Don't have a precise reference, just a text file with some notes.)

Fictional example: In The Chosen by Ricardo Pinto, the Emperor is elected by the entire body of nobles descended from a semi-legendary ancestor, but the number of votes is determined by a calculated blood quantum representing the percent of your total ancestry from that person. (In the book, the exceptionally pure-blooded dowager empress casts something like a quarter million votes by herself, but she is nonetheless outvoted by a coalition of most of the rest of the nobles.)

One could imagine something similar for the US where voting rights are apportioned according to your ancestry from the Mayflower or the like.

Or: all citizens are granted a single vote upon reaching the age of majority, but they are free to permanently sell that vote. Current vote holders are recorded in a public registry. There is a large and thriving vote-trading market. Savvy players will buy up large numbers of votes before an election that they care about, then sell them off before elections of lesser importance.


You don't even need fiction for that one. Look into the old Sila kingdom (3 kingdoms period of Korea) bone rank system.

why permanently selling vs selling per election?

It seems much harder to track sales-per-election, and it seems to involve a lot more overhead. Specifically, before every election, you have to remember to put your vote up for sale, and this is likely to involve enough effort that most people won't do it, which means that available votes will be scarce before niche elections.

There is a growing academic field of "governance" that exists that would variously be described as a branch of political science, public administration, or policy studies. It is a relatively small field, but has several academic journals where that fit the description of the literature you're looking for. The best of these journals, in my opinion, is Perspectives on Public Management & Governance (although it has a focus on public governance structures to a fault of ignoring corporate governance structures).

In addition to this, there is a 50 chapter OUP AI Governance Handbook that I've co-edited with leading scholars from Economics, Political Science, International Affairs, and other fields of social science that are interested in these exact ideal governance questions as you describe them. 10 of the chapters are currently available, but I also have complete copies of essentially every chapter that I would be happy to share directly with you or anyone else that comments here and is interested. Here's the Table of Contents. I'm certainly biased, but I think this book contains the cutting edge dialogue around both how ideal governance may be applied to controlling AI and how the development of increasingly powerful AI presents new opportunities and challenges for ideal governance.

I have contributed to these questions both from trying to understand what might be the elements of ideal governance structures and processes for Social Insurance programs, AI systems, and Space settlement ideal governance and to understand what are the concerns of integrating autonomous and intelligent decision making systems into our current governance structures and processes.

I think there are some helpful insights into how to make governance adaptive (reset/jubilee as you described it) and for defining the elements of the hierarchy (various levels) of the governance structure. The governance literature looks at micro/meso/macro levels of governance structures to help illustrate how some governance elements are best described and understand at different levels of emergence or description. Another useful construct from governance scholars is that of discretion or breadth of choice set given to an agent carrying out the required decision making of the various governance entities, this is where much of my own interest lies, which you can see in work I have with colleagues on topics including discretion, evolution of bureaucratic form, artificial discretion, administrative evil, and artificial bureaucrats. This work builds on the notion of bounded rational actors and how they execute decisions in response to constitutional rule and insertional structures. Here & here in the AI Governance Handbook, with colleagues we look at how Herbert Simon and Max Weber's classic answers to these ideal governance questions hold in a world with machine intelligence, and we examine what new governance tools, structures, and processes may be needed now. I've also done some very initial work here on the Lesswrong forum looking at how Weber's ideal bureaucratic structure might be helpful for considering how to control intelligent machine agents

In brief recap, there is a relatively small interdisciplinary field/community of scholars looking at these questions, it is a community that has done some brainstorming, some empirical work, and used some economics-style thinking to address some of these ideal governance questions. There are also some classic works that touch on these topics as well around thinkers such as Max Weber, Herbert Simon, and Elinor Ostrom.

I hope this is helpful. I'm sure I've focused too much on my own work here, but I hope the Handbook in particular gives you some sense of some of the work out there. I would be happy to connect you with other writers and thinkers who I believe are taking these questions of ideal governance seriously. I find these to be among the most interesting and important questions for our moment in time.

You may find inspiration in papers like Modular Politics, which spawned Metagov, an online research community I'm a part of attempting to experiment with and understand digital governance. Although their focus is largely online platforms, there are a number of scholars adjacent to the community who study non-digital governance. (Related is the excellent 80,000 hours interview with Audrey Tang where she talks about Taiwan's governance experiments with Polis.)

The best older/non-digital literature I know of is from Elinor Ostrom — Governing the Commons is particularly good and provides a meta-ethnography of different long-lasting governance structures (ranging from villages in Yamanashi prefecture deciding how to harvest grain to Zanjera irrigation communities in the Phillipines). David Levi-Faur points out in the Oxford Handbook of Governance that 'governance'  (the systematic study of how people can/should make rules for each other) is somewhat recent (~1980s), and as far as I can tell, there isn't a deep governance literature that's comparable to, say, game theory. The work of social/political anthropologists like E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes, who used case studies of the Nuer people in Ethiopia may also be a next good bet. 

I think governance is very important, and have tried to collect the most important questions in the space, which has involved a very brief and broad literature review. I've also been collecting digital constitutions and documenting the processes that spawned them. I consider the topic of governance both very rich and highly underexplored.

There is also some attempt to generalise and further develop Ostrom's ideas:

Ostrom is great, obviously. In fact, I forgot how thoroughly I summarized a good bit of that literature in a 2001 piece:


Your "select 1,000 voters at random, give them time to do research. Only they vote" system made me think of how Venice used to elect a doge. It was madness! Basically they introduced N layers of "this group of people appoint a larger group, that is stripped back by lot. They then appoint the next group..." [1]. The fact that this kind of system did exist, but doesn't any longer, perhaps reflects badly on it.

As a separate point, the official system, "constitution", is always actually beholden to whatever the "real" system is, which can drift quite far. In a charity I helped out at the directors, in theory, told the CEO what to do, but in practice it was just a lot of directors saying "oh great CEO, you have been here for more time than me and therefore you are more wise. What would you recommend?". The director turnover was high, and it takes time for someone to learn how to use the reins of power even when they have them in hand. The TV program "Yes minister" made a similar claim about the UK government. Its not hard to imagine a situation where a  jury are officially in charge. but are actually commanded by a judge.


[1] To quote wiki: Thirty members of the Great Council, chosen by lot, were reduced by lot to nine; the nine chose forty and the forty were reduced by lot to twelve, who chose twenty-five. The twenty-five were reduced by lot to nine, and the nine elected forty-five. These forty-five were once more reduced by lot to eleven, and the eleven finally chose the forty-one who elected the doge.  (,were%20republics%20and%20elected%20doges.)

Curated. I think we spent very little thinking about the topic of governance despite it being a very big deal. It's extremely hard to change existing structures and even when you're setting up something new, it's scary to pick something very different from what's typically tried. I'd be excited for people to make progress on the questions described in this post.

I'm surprised that this whole conversation has happened with no mention of the minor but growing trend towards self-management organizational structures, teal organizations, Holacracy, or Sociocracy.

I have some experience with Holacracy, and while I would never call it a cure-all, I feel strongly about the relevance of its driving principles to the question of what an ideal governance system would look like -- eg. a structure of nested units/teams with high levels of local autonomy, a unique method of making governance decisions on how to change said structure, mechanisms that privilege "moving forward" over "inaction due to conflictual gridlock", fluid process for defining and appointing power-holding "roles" to individuals, etc.

One thing to consider, in terms of finding a better way of striking a balance between deferring to experts and having voters invested, is epistocracy. Jason Brennan talks about why, compared to just having a stronger voice for experts in government, epistocracy might be less susceptible to capture by special interests,

Some other literature OTOH:

I recently stumbled across a sociology classic of sorts: Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell, "The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields" (American Sociological Review, 1983).

"We ask...why there is such startling homogeneity of organizational forms and practices." 

The main answer: "We identify three mechanisms through which institutional isomorphic change occurs...: 1) coercive isomorphism that stems from political influence and the problem of legitimacy; 2) mimetic isomorphism resulting from standard responses to uncertainty; and 3) normative isomorphism, associated with professionalization." 

Curtis Yarvin might be intresting. There are two post I would recommend mainly general theory of collaboration and one about Monarchism. He gives an interesting perspective.

What kinds of designs could exist that aren't common today? 

There are at least three, very successful, democratic designs, though TINA shields us from their baneful influence: Switzerland, China, and Singapore.

If we measure their implementation of six components of democracy–formal, elective, popular, procedural, operational and substantive–we find none of the three follows (slave state) Athens' model. 

Each implements 'of the people, by the people, for the people' uniquely.

The Swiss invest unimaginable time and energy voting for almost everything,: call it 'input legitimacy'.  A 37-year-old Zuricher has had the opportunity to take part in 548 referenda, 181 of them federal, 176 cantonal, and 191 municipal. Average turnout is 45% so he has voted in about 246 referenda. 

Second place goes to China, both in its citizens' estimation and in decades of surveys by Gallup, Harvard, YouGov, and Edelman. The PRC uses heavy opinion polling to guide policy formation, and amateur politicians to provide democratic oversight. It's 90% cheaper than Swiss democracy but still runs it a close second.

Singapore's third-place model blends Confucian officialdom and British parliamentarianism and depends upon outcome legitimacy: the ruling/founding party has always been in power because it so consistently produces good outcomes that nobody seriously considers chancing alternatives.

More on this from Daniel Bell's The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy and China's New Confucianism: Politics and Everyday Life in a Changing Society.

For a more comprehensive explanation of China's success read Why China Leads the World: Talent at the Top, Data in the Middle, Democracy at the Bottom, by me.



You describe three systems (Switzerland, Singapore and China) as "very successful" I was wondering if you could elaborate a little on what metrics you believe are marks of success. You offer 6 categories, but I have trouble seeing how you might connect them to outcomes.

Specifically, for me at least PRC feels like an odd include on a list of "very successful, democratic designs", as (1) it is not widely described as democratic, and (2 - more relevantly) by most of the metrics I would reach for (eg. GDP per capita, global happiness index, press freedom index, corruption index) PRC is also not really successful. For example, taking corruption (maybe this goes in your procedural category), then according to (, Singapore is the 4th least corrupt country on Earth, Switzerland 7th, and China 66th.

So what features do you associate with success?

Fourth, seventh, and 66th out of ~200 is quite good? I agree that there are aspects of all of these nations which are objectionable, particularly China, but corruption seems like an odd example. I think there's a fair argument that the PRC has been extremely successful in many metrics given the position of the nation in 1945 - that China was in extreme poverty and I wouldn't have expected it to improve so quickly. China is undemocratic in many ways in practice, particularly press freedom and freedom of speech, but on a gears level, the system of local and regional governance is a relatively effective democracy.


I agree 66th of of 200 is pretty good. My general point is that to talk about "success" you need to already know what winning looks like.  Low corruption is certainly not the #1 thing, and probably not in the top 10 for most people. But it probably makes it into the top 100. Maybe GDP per capita is a in the top 10. These discussions (what is good) are sort of needed to ground any kind of discussion about whether a particular system produces good outcomes. I singled out China simply because the other two on this list would (by the kinds of metrics I would reach for) be world-leading (A/A+), while China would not be.

For example, when you say that China has improved quickly since 1945 you are presumably using an economic metric (GDP)? The problem with going all the way back to 1945 is that systems change. In my weird and unscientific "how efficient do I feel different governments are" I can give the 2022 Chinese government a fair score, but I would score the 1950's and 60's Chinese governments very, very low.

Many of the references and communities I might have suggested have already been listed (e.g. Metagov) so I won't repeat them (and I've also discovered some helpful new ones!). 

One I didn't see mentioned is the the work of Claudia Chwalisz and her team at the OECD, which I've found immensely valuable—not only their excellent reports, summaries, etc. but an Airtable documenting hundreds of real-world governance experiments around the world (and I'm happy to connect folks into the community of practitioners implementing these new approaches to support significant policy decisions). 

I have also personally been exploring many these questions at Harvard, focused primarily on governance of FAAMG companies given their impact on our 'collective cognitive capacity' to address all global challenges (and particularly catastrophic risks) and their concentration of AI capabilities (and bolstered by their capacity to change quickly and the incredible pressure on them to change). 

In particular, you might find this working paper interesting as a sort of advocacy for applying sortition to FAAMG (building on significant empirical literature from others; cited in the paper). 

Caveat:  The the audience I'm writing for there is somewhat different from you, even though my personal motivations appear to be similar to yours (my current published work is focused on those who have influence over those organizations; in fact I was actually directed to this post by someone who with significant power in FAAMG org who suggested that I comment.). It does not engage with many of the difficult questions around actual operationalization of sortition at a global scale for overall restructuring of governance (part of my current work). That said, it was meant to lead to (initially private) pilots by FAAMG-like corporations and it is directly doing that. It is one step on the road from that to much more significant governance changes.

This might be also be interesting re. brainstorm: Building Wise Systems: Combining Competence, Alignment, and Robustness—a (work in progress) framework re. thinking about ~governance systems.

I have also dug deep into systems like Polis (e.g. ),  its variants in the private sector, and other relatively novel elicitation/deliberation systems.  There is a lot to learn from those and to build upon but also huge amounts of ground that has not been covered (IMHO due to lack of effective messaging and investment for a long time). Language models will also change the possibility space.

Finally, Engineering a Safer World (open access) is interesting on this, and I particularly appreciate this diagram which explores the role of governance in managing a complex system:

I recommend Paul Tucker's work on independent agencies. His book "Unelected Power" goes not only into the practical application of central bank governance structures but also the philosophical underpinnings of governance design in general. His follow-up book (which looks at the governance of international organizations) "Global Discord" is out this fall. Central banks in general may be worth investigating as there is a decent amount of variation (across and within countries) within the last 100 years. 

It has been a while since this post was made, but the issue remains important! A new development I recently found out about that I think is super interesting is this paper on a new voting method called 'Maximum Partial Consensus'. 

Springer Nature 2021
Fair group decisions via non-deterministic proportional consensus
Jobst Heitzig, Forest W. Simmons and Sara M. Constantino 

(Contains a few mention of extreme circumstances to make thought experiment points. That is not the primary focus, and can be avoided by skipping 10 and 12. Also, 7 gets political as an example of how a particular variation of liquid democracy might allow for a kind of check and balance. The numbers are otherwise not necessarily a good division. 11 just suggests that a 'law' or decision can have a term limit, and that this might affect 'equilibriums', echoing some stuff in the post talking about 'moral parliament/s'.)


an informal association

I noticed that this didn't get any graphs. (Yes countries are complicated, and 'government' alone involves different levels and that wasn't fully covered either, even with one example.)


I'll outline some common governance structures for countries and major organizations today, and highlight how much room there is to try different things that don't seem to be in wide use today. More

So the link broke when I copied it to here, but...

The original is actually broken. (I did not check all the links.)

Currently the link is

instead of, say:

Huh, that's this post linking to itself (from it being in a different place).


he world today has lots of governments, but they seem to mostly follow a very small number of basic governance templates.

So, if you're looking for stuff that's structured very differently, maybe stuff that isn't governments? Smaller groups, informal groups,..I don't know a lot about co-ops*, or activist groups**, but there is some literature about dealing with internal problems between members, in stuff like the second one. There's also stuff around communities/roommates (resources, allocating tasks, getting everything done, dealing with conflicts, etc.).

*Like a company but run/owned differently.

**Not necessarily concerned with politics, but also sometimes solving a problem.


When I was 13, the lunch table I sat at established a Constitution with some really strange properties that I can't remember.

Informal groups experimenting might be interesting as well. Like, different groups might exist at different time scales:

What term limits exist for the different entities?

so like, not necessarily something involving term limits, but the group itself, existing and handling things in a period of time. And maybe that informally happens again (with similar set of people), and/or eventually becomes more formal.


Which restrictions are enshrined in a hard-to-change Constitution (and how hard is it to change), vs. being left to the people in power at the moment?

How able are people to walk out? Can they just walk to a different table?


Barring violent revolution in the case of countries.

There are ways things can be less permanent if people are willing to leave/quit/etc. This is easier to see for 'a lunch table' than a country, but it seems like 'organizations' (perhaps in a different sense) can do this more. I mention this because 'the stakes are high, and you only get one choice' seems like a weak point.

Reset/Jubilee: maybe it would be good for some organizations to periodically redo their governance mostly from scratch, subject only to the most basic principles.

And here I was imagining change (probably) being less extreme (most of the time - perhaps earlier on, or in response to larger changes in conditions, or more info, there might be larger changes).

the Constitution receiving the most votes

(looks like majority voting again)


More examples in a footnote.3
At first glance it may seem to pose a risk that people will be able to "buy votes,"

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Imagine a vote where people who care more/are affected more, are able to vote with more weight. Also, differences around 'government' versus 'corporate' might mean people are just like 'why is that a problem'?

Soft term limits

You could also have less power. (Or, with the proxy thing, term limits might not exist (on a fixed schedule, or at least have early termination whenever desired.))

Also, you could have multiple voting rounds around the proxy thing. One option is sort of like, if the proxies didn't work/there's major breaks with them, then the round gets re-done (without proxies).

Formal technocracy/meritocracy

This might be compared with proxies. One option - which might be tricky - would be to label things differently. Like 'I trust (doctor) John Doe' and will delegate this vote (for the first round) to him for votes involving (medical stuff)', or a specific type. By having two rounds, and the first round, the proxies are treated as a faster approximation to the direct vote, maybe it works a lot of the time. (And some times a difference is found, and things get shaken up a little - the tentative decision, the rules people have created around their proxy delegation.)

I'm kind of thinking something like a proxy guesses for you, as opposed to, 'is given power' also seems like it might be useful sometimes. For instance, I'm going to use a (made up) political example here:

Someone is generally against vaccination requirements (and any proxy they make will reflect that). However, during a serious pandemic, on the second vote they change that. It is a specific override, not a general one, but it is a different situation. (As opposed to, 'epidemiologists are given more power during a pandemic' or chosen or elected, or (given power) around (handling) 'this might be a problem can we head this off' and they choose to close borders for like a week as a situation evolves. Or that is a measure in place that automatically triggers once certain circumstances are met. And then, there's more time for deliberation (or confirmation or revision), and making decision around how things will be handled going forward.)


Footnote 4:

Most systems of government have a sort of funnel from "least engaged in day to day decisions, but most ultimately legitimate representatives of whom the institution is supposed to serve" (shareholders, voters) to "most engaged in day to day decisions, but ultimately accountable to someone else" (chief executive). A nonprofit structure is a very short funnel, and the board of directors tends to be a somewhat random assortment of funders, advisors, people who the founders just thought were cool, etc. I think they often end up not very accountable (to anyone) or engaged in what's going on, such that they have a hard time acting when they ought to, and the actions they do take are often kind of random.

This was good. It explained a structure, a design and why it used. I could comment on that one and how people might try to do it better but this post is about looking for other ways that are more different, and I don't have a lot more to say - I've heard about a specific attempt, and why it was done that way, but don't think it turned out 'well'.


Here's an unusual setup: open source. (Completely.) (I don't know a lot about DAOs, and experiments around that. though do watch out for things that are like this:

Another alternative is a setup that is somewhat common among tech companies: 1-2 founders hold enough shares to keep control forever, so you end up with essentially a dictatorship. This also ... leaves something to be desired.

which mean there are shares! (but that doesn't matter.))


For example, there are arguments that our ethical decisions should be dominated by concern for ensuring that as many people as possible will someday get to exist. I really go back and forth on how much I buy these arguments, but I'm definitely somewhere between 10% convinced and 50% convinced. So ... say I'm "20% convinced" of some view that says preventing human extinction6 is the overwhelmingly most important consideration for at least some dimensions of ethics (like where to donate), and "80% convinced" of some more common-sense view that says I should focus on some cause unrelated to human extinction.7 How do I put those two together and decide what this means for actual choices I'm making?

So. I won't say that extinction is the only thing that matters. But if say, my happiness matters and a meteor hits the earth (or a powerful solar storm) and everyone dies quickly or slowly - well, I'm not going to be happy about that.

There's a certain amount of 'other things don't matter if we die first'. For instance, if I found out (somehow) that 20 years from now I'm going to get cancer and die, but I'll be fine for the next 15 years, that would worry me. But if I was on a plane and something went wrong involving the plane that would worry me more.


What stops someone who lost the randomized draw from just asking to hold the same vote again? Or asking to hold a highly similar/related vote that would get back a lot of what they lost? How does that affect the negotiated equilibrium?

What if people vote on doing things one way for a period of time, and then voting again? (Not a change from a past vote, but building it in?)


and the better I expect this "moral parliament"-type idea to end up looking, compared to alternatives.10

An important factor in decision making is value of information, or 'as you get more information, you can make better decisions'. Not everything is about (conflicting) values, and stuff all getting decided in advance. For instance, if I like banana splits, and then a banana company invades a country...maybe it's hard to get bananas if I don't buy with* them, but I clearly know that is more important to me than how much I enjoy banana splits.

*I meant to write with, but if a credit card company invaded another country, I might stop using them.

I think you'd like my post, Building Blocks of Politics: An Overview of Selectorate Theory. Selectorate Theory is a framework that can be used for evaluating government structures, and my post gives a thorough overview of it. 

I've been interested in this topic in the past, especially from the economics / game theoretic perspective. There's one journal I know of that explores this topic that might be worth looking into:

The Journal of Mechanism and Institution Design

Mechanism design in this context being the kind of inverse of game theory that starts with a desired outcome and designs a system that produces that outcome, as opposed to the traditional approach of game theory where you start with a system and figuring out the outcome. More info:

I also think this topic of ideal governance & mechanism design has a lot of overlap with the field of cryptoeconomics, or the economic analysis of how cryptocurrencies work / enforce behaviors via incentives:

If you're curious about cryptoeconomics more in depth, Tim Roughgarden out of Columbia has an excellent lecture series on the topic:

Some more general literature that might be of interest to you:

The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics

The Logic of Political Survival

Both these books are by the same author(s) and provide a solid intro to the Selectorate Theory of politics ( which also provides a framework for answering some of the questions you posed regarding things like the ideal number of representatives.

Hope this helps!

You might find Origins Of Political Order interesting. Emphasis on how the principle agent problem is one of the central issues of governance and how without strong mechanisms systems tend to descend into corruption

The r/achipelago subreddit is quite small but exists for hobbyists to share designs for alternative political systems and to consider the effects the alternatives would have. Most of what's there right now is about electoral systems rather than full institutional structures. Some posts include links to resources, such as one of my favorites, The Electoral System Design Handbook, which describes case studies of several countries and the typical good and bad effects of different design decisions.

"Ideal governance" depends on what ideals you're aiming for, of course. There have been proposed improvements to futarchy such as this one, which picks utilitarianism as its explicit ideal.  An explicitly virtue theorist option could be to modernize Plato's Republic instead. Granted, these are extreme examples. For more sober-minded investigation into ideal governance, you'd of course want to start with criteria that are well-defined and pragmatic, rather than broad philosophical or ideological traditions.


For economic view literature you might find the the general "theory of the firm" space of interest. Also Oi (I believe that's his last name but cannot recall his first name and searching on that proved rather unrewarding...) as well as Oliver Williamson.

Perhaps an odd suggesting but looking farther back perhaps Hobbes' Leviathan and both Confucius' Analytics as well as some of the writing (e.g., Rituals of Zhou) might produce some insights. The thought struck me a while back that in someways Analytics and Leviathan were very similar in they both seems to be pointing at the idea that structures be put in place to produce a good society but somehow be a bit immune to the failings of humans (or put perhaps a bit different lead us to pursue our higher virtues than our baser interests.)

Albert Hirshmann is another author you might like reading a bit as well.

Last, I am not sure if you're looking for a general theory that can apply to all forms of governance but am of the mind that different settings or group goals (social/political generalized goal governance will be different than corporate/production narrow goal governance) will require different forms to achieve something you might call ideal. I think even being able to make some good boundaries between the two scope (and perhaps more than that broad separating into 2 groups) would be very valuable.

I am reading Hirshmann's Exit, Voice and Loyalty right now and it's great. But it's not about governance per se. Which book did you have in mind?


I agree that Hirshmann is going to lay out any plan towards some ideal government but I do think he gets to some of the problems confronting good governance and so shed light on areas that need consideration. (As and aside I am far from hold the view that "ideal" governance is possible -- it's always going to be contextual in both time and place due to the dynamic nature of social life).

If you've not already put his "The Passions and the Interests" you might also find it interesting. In the case of ideal governance it may have some pointers to Constitutional structures that are better at aligning interests (if they can be well enough defined) of the government agents with the societal principles while working to mitigate the passions of the agents.

I've not read it but looking at the title "Shifting Involvements: Private Interests and Public Action" may also be relevant to thinking things though.

Jason Brennan's work defending Epistocracy is worth checking out, particularly some of the mechanisms he talks about, like government by simulated oracale. His book Against Democracy is a good place to start.

"Constitutional design" may be a useful keyword. (Though it's obviously focused at the state-actor level, not governance generally.)

A small point but I wonder if it’s worth considering governance arrangements over time as well as at a point in time. For instance, a ‘well-functioning’ democratic government over time may be a step closer to your idea of proportional decision-making in that power switches back and forth according, so a given coalition may have disproportionate power at any given time but something more like proportionate power over time (albeit very imperfectly and in complex ways).

[This article]( may interest you.

If you want a system that is both fast and dynamic and also takes care to account for all interests from all stakeholder groups, not just shareholders

Then the obvious idea to me seems to be a "forecastocracy" rule by the best forecasters. The best person at forecasting all stakeholders' interests is most capable of taking them into account while being a dynamic decision-maker.

It shouldn't be too hard to implement. Just hold a score voting election every X years where all stakeholders score a set of candidates for forecastocratic governance, but also appended to that vote they predict what the final score  for each candidate will, then rather than a standard score voting election where each vote has equal weight, each vote would be weighted by its predictive accuracy. 

You could do futarchy and have the prediction markets in charge, but that seems like it'd lack the dynamism required, and has the difficulty getting traders on the market.

Here's an interesting example of a fairly unique governance arrangement:

Others have mentioned Jason Brennan's work, but I wanted to specifically add this comment he made about practical initial trials of a first step towards epistocracy in his effective altruism AMA.


Dan Hooley8mo 14

Are there any small-scale, experiments with Epistocracy you think that countries or other jurisdictions should try as a first stab at testing this form of government? What would you like to see and where?


[-]Jason Brennan8mo


I'd like to try enlightened preference voting in Denmark or New Hampshire.

How it works:
1. Everyone votes for their preferred thing (whatever is being voted on).
2. Everyone somehow registers their demographic data.
3. Everyone takes a 30-question quiz on basic political information.

With 1-3, we then estimate what a demographically identical public would have voted for if it had gotten a perfect score on the quiz. We do that instead of what the majority/plurality actually voted for. 

There are lots of details here I'm not getting into, but that's what I'd want to try. No one's done it to actually decide policy, but researchers have been doing this in labs for a long time with good results. 




Are you worried about governments using the quizzes to favour certain groups regardless of political knowledge? Kind of like gerrymandering. Who will decide what answers are correct? Or do you expect that this would only be abused if they were going to do far worse anyway?

Also, maybe demographic data should include stuff like health conditions and personality, although intellectual disabilities may prevent people from scoring well in the first place, and intelligence/knowledge may correlate with actual interests, i.e. what would be good for a person. Has there been much written about this? I guess we'd hope the more informed would look after the less informed? We're already hoping for this now with representative democracy.




Epistocracy as described by Jason Brennan is similar to things I've been thinking about. Also sortition, which is related but different. Here are some of my thoughts:

If we have a system of 'extrapolating volition' of segments of the population by taking representative samples of people and paying them generously to learn and think and debate on a key issue for a couple of weeks, then give their best full answer as to what should be done... And then also quiz them on their factual understanding of relevant systems, and register their predictions about outcomes... I think this is in some sense a more 'fair' look at what that segment of the population would think if given plenty of time to think. 

Then from there we can make a model which lets us average these opinions and extrapolate (compensate for biases in the predictions, etc.), but in order to check that we've 'extrapolated well' we should check our extrapolations with different members of that population segment. This process can be repeated several times until we get good agreement on the extrapolation. I think extrapolating is a good idea, but I worry it would be vulnerable to abuse if you didn't then have the step of the people who are being extrapolated for approving of the extrapolation.

Also, I have some thoughts along the same lines of Jason Brennan's criticism of democracy as being 'a system of pushing around the minority.' Growing up in the liberal Quaker tradition, I've spent a lot of time in groups of people trying to do decision making via consensus. The quaker consensus process allows for some small portion of the group to 'stand aside' to allow a decision to go through that they disagree with, but this is uncommon. When it does happen, it's usually less that 5% of the group. It occurs more often in groups of over >200 people than in the more typical consensus-seeking groups of 20-100 people.

I feel like the insights from this process for me are that it doesn't scale well, and takes a lot of effort per-decision even when it works, but does have some really nice properties of finding better agreements. Often, the time taken to hear everyone's point of view and share evidence thoroughly means that better solutions are found than anyone even came to the meeting with in the first place. So, this consensus process could inform our governance process indirectly, through finding related techniques which work with larger groups (for instance the Polis Process for crowd-sourcing consensus mentioned by Audrey Tang on the 80k hrs podcast  ) or by selecting small representative-population-sample committees of 50-100 people and having them go through a consensus process to draft a statement of group opinion on a topic. I think this is valuable in addition to the 'individual opinion sample' mentioned above, because my experience is that people who talk face-to-face with each other on a contentious issue in the context of consensus process tend to come up with better (more win-win) and more empathetic compromises through understanding each others' points of view and deeply felt emotions. It could also be a useful process for a small decision-making group like a board of trustees.

So the hardest part about any model of governance is that so often planning for "good governance" is not just about governmental structure, it's about competition and the composition of the people involved in that competition. Perhaps understanding the benefits and drawbacks of different types of government doesn't matter as much as understanding the culture/environment in which and through which a particular organization operates. You have to weigh internal personalities and external factors and plan from there. It's all so humanly variable. 

This is, in short, to say that there's no "one size fits all" approach to government. I'm sure I'm not saying anything unexpected there, but the age-old debate of democracy vs. oligarchic technocracy vs. autocracy will rage on forever because it ultimately comes down to the net competency of particular sets of individuals living in a particular place and time. That's true across each of the public, private, and voluntary sectors. I'd say experimentation is key.

Try these specific Wikipedia series if you're looking to deep dive into the topics you're asking about:
(Governance) (Electoral Systems) (Forms of Government)

I'd also like to point out that there is a slight distinction between government and governance. The former generally refers to the structure and the latter generally refers to the process.

In the moral parliament, I would constantly move that I am appointed dictator forever. Eventually, I will win the lottery. Except of course that everyone else will do the same, so the odds are that someone else will win before I will. I say this to point out that the interesting parts of the moral parliament end up being the constrains on the mechanism, rather than the mechanism itself. The paper, in fact, handles these constraints by abandoning the mechanism! It says that we'll assume everyone acts as if there will be a lottery, but we'll actually just use straight plurality voting.

Two very small contributions:

  1. In most jurisdictions, companies can have classes of shares with unequal voting power. If one of your concerns is to enable a veto, share classifications can get  you there pretty flexibly. Also, if outright vetoes are not on the table, you could also embrace the mandatory delay. The class B shares can't say don't do it, but they can say don't do it yet.
  2. A spin on Leninist organizations is to have the top of the organization pick the new members at the lowest levels, and the organization has levels that each select the next level up, to the very top. So, you could have 1,000 members selected by the top 10 committee; with the top 10 committee selected by the top 100 council, who are selected by the membership. Within the "selection," you can have any variety of mechanisms -- proportional representation, districts, whatever. But the organization will tend to maintain its identity over time because the people at the top decide who the right people to bring in are.

So, if you are looking for a way to organize a set of class B votes that can only veto and not participate in the economic benefits of ownership, the Leninist spin organization could give you the members who vote the class B shares.

I think it's interesting that you put companies, nonprofits, and government bodies into the same group. The goals of these different bodies are quite different, and it seems that their “governance” would thus be different. My point is that we can’t apply the government style of a for-profit company to a state. The reasons are the different goals and responsibilities of either entity.

The goal of a company that is run by shareholders is very simple and one-dimensional. It is for-profit. The goal of the shareholders is to put people in power who will make them money. It is simple, and for that reason, there is a simple style of governing the company.  A nation/state is much more complicated in its goals. In truth, I don’t even know what it is. Is it the well-being of its population? The wealth of its policymakers? The occupation of the most resources? The domination of the world market? It seems that a nation has a difficult time knowing exactly what it wants, and this goal tends to change with who is in power or the cultural mood at the time. Therefore, it seems that the government style has to reflect and allow for this flexibility.  As you mentioned, changes in a government “have to be made using the rules of the existing system.” The government of a nation has to reflect a president who wants to promote social reform and another who wants to focus on war-making. TL;DR The government of a nation has to be flexible to accommodate changes in goals, whereas a company's goals usually don't change that much. This is why I am interested in your choice to combine the two in an analysis of government.


Secondly, I think it is interesting to point out the epistemic environment in which this all takes place. In any ideal government, the people who are making decisions have to have the most knowledge possible in order to make the best decision. For students of philosophy that may be a polarizing statement, but I will rely on some decision theory to support me. I think the dominance principle applies quite well here. If you wish to make the best decision (vote for the best option) you need to choose the best option for all states of the world. The more information you have, the more you can know about the states of the world. That justification may be futile (and just an excuse to bring it into the conversation), but I think the overall point is intuitive enough. 

I guess I don’t really have a point, just that it's an interesting connection. If there is any point it is that any ideal government should be built with the epistemic environment in mind.


So, of tangetial relevance, but something I've been thinking about recently is... well the governance structure of a small company (dictatorship of one person over 3-8 people, who all have the option to leave), vs the same company several years/scale increases later.  (A company of millions of people which effectively acts as a large piece of infrastructure in the country it lives in, yet is still goverened by private interests)

It kind of feels like different governance structures are warrented... and should be legally mandated.
Like... I want small start ups to do what they want. 
I want Amazon to slow morph into a democratically run piece of infrastructure, as opposed to a monopoly, as it gets bigger.  I want medium sized companies to have a sort of semi-democracy, where the CEO/board steer the ship, but the staff are INVOLVED in the decision making. 

How do we do this?
Can a company set itself up with a governance structure which is explicitly designed to change with scale. Should the government say "You have more than a million staff. You are actually a government department now"? Or, like... maybe we don't trust governments? (I do, but I live in a country with high trust, not everyone has that, so whatever).

Cryptocurrencies and specifically DAOs provide some interesting reading about governance. Most of the writing is in the form of blog posts, twitter threads and the like. In my opinion, the "small probability of a future big win" reason to care also applies to cryptocurrencies since they, with the right scaling solutions and legal status, possibly could replace fiat or at least live along side it. That future would require great governance structures for the projects. The current ones of computing power = voting power in the case of proof of work or wealth = voting power in the case of proof of stake are two examples of governance structures from that space. Another interesting aspect is that miners need to accept the changes to the protocol suggested by the developers which in a sense acts as a control function. The possibility to fork is also very interesting from a governance standpoint. 

The DAO (Decentralized Autonomous Organization, basically organizations with voting rights connected to some kind of token) provides a great opportunity to experiment with governance structures since the governance can be programmed into smart contracts and isn't required to look a certain way due to some law. That is of course subject to change in a potential future where DAOs play some important role and governments start regulating. I've seen models where governance power is tied to reputation systems, your voting power essentially increases as you contribute more (See dxDAO for an example). I've also seen alternative voting schemes that use prediction markets to facilitate rapid decision making (See Holographic consensus for an example). 

To my knowledge there is some scientific litterature on the subject, a quick search on google scholar using the keywords bitcoin, governance, cryptocurrency, DAO reveals some litterature. 

I think your point on "What are the culture, expectations, norms and habits?" is possibly crucial. While there are others here in the comments with much more experience than me, I am just reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and I think it is important to keep in mind that a society (the "object" you want to look at governing in different ways) is a fictional creation and hence trust is essential. This means there is large value in doing things the way they have (to some degree) worked in the past (just look at some people's fear of letting in immigrants out of a deep rooted fear of collapse). On a related note, and perhaps I overlooked this in your article, one can look at alternative societies around the world. One example that comes to mind is Auroville in India where I think governance is somewhat creative. Perhaps there are other experimental societies out there who have organized in even more radical ways like using computer science to set up distribution systems that circumvents the need for money and demand and supply (like some sort of Soviet style economy but made more efficient by the use of IT)?

Yeah I'm very frustrated about the way governments are structured in general. Couldn't we buy some land somewhere from some country to found our own country? Perhaps some place in (say) Canada with an area of (say) Tokyo, where almost nobody lives and we could just raise towns the way we like? Does anyone know if sth like this is possible?

(I mean, we have some money and maybe could get other billionares (or other people who would like to live there) to support the project. Being able to write the rules ourselves and design cities from the start opens up so many nice opportunities. We could build a such awesome place to live in and offer many people or companies benefits, so it might actually be a great financial investment. (Though I admit I'm not being very concrete and perhaps a bit overly optimistic, but I do think much would be possible.) We could almost live like in dath ilan (except that earth people wouldn't think in such nice ways as dath ilanis). (I'm aware that I'm probably just dreaming up an alternate optimistic reality, but I think it's at least worth checking if it is possible, and if so to seriously consider it, though it would take a lot of time and it's not clear if it would be worth it, given that AGI may come relatively soon.))


For what it's worth there was an old libertarian attempt at creating such an outcome. Never seems to have realized its goal that I am aware of. Buying an island somewhere or creating a floating city were the two main approaches I am aware of having been placed on the table.

That's been tried a few times with some mixed successes and some outright failures. Something that hasn't been thoroughly tried (to my knowledge) is actually making a distributed governance system within / on-top-of existing governments. We can't subtract laws or taxes or currencies, but we can add them. What if we tried making a distributed government with its own currency and governance system and some additional laws. It's a way to test out some theories in a low-risk, low-startup-cost scenario, and could be fun. If the government starts out with a small budget per member, and limited responsibilities, it could be pretty low-pressure to get right on the first try.

Put one person in charge.  Every project I've ever worked on that succeeded (as opposed to 'succeeded') had one real boss that everyone was under.

One option for a country or company (not useful for single brain ethics, though) is rule by committee. Specifically, a small (5-7) number of individuals who are selected by different methods to represent different interests, who then talk amongst themselves and decide on policy.

For a company, that could be:

  1. The Founder, who serves until they chose to retire, and select someone else to take thier place
  2. A Fiduciary, elected by stockholders in a one stock=one vote system, reaffirmed annually
  3. The Union rep, selected by the employees, with or without a formal Labor Union, seven until voluntary retirement or a vote of no confidence by the employees
  4. An Outsider, where an NGO devoted to Ethics selects representatives for many different companies, and explicitly represent humanity as a whole/all living things
  5. The CEO, hired by the other members for a fixed length contract.

This may not be news, but I think that any investigation of optimal governance needs to at least privately acknowledge the rational ignorance argument (e.g., as popularized by Bryan Caplan) and its uncomfortable/dicey implications for "democratic" design features: as the number of voters increases, the likelihood of one individual vote affecting a policy outcome diminishes, and thus so does the incentive to care about figuring out the optimal policy (ceteris paribus). This can potentially be partially offset with social and psychological norms to care about making good decisions, but systems such as social media (including e.g., echo chamber algorithms) increase the reward for social conformity rather than critical thinking. The social/psychological norm strategy also can run into problems if the community norm becomes "Critically examine your options and support policies/politicians which seem to be socially beneficial", yet the complexity of decisions increases to the extent that the socially-optimal strategy should simply be "delegate your evaluations to political/policy experts that make voting recommendations and whom you sample-test for credibility rather than trying to directly evaluate optimal policies/politicians." Such a calculating strategy might lack the warm social/moral appeal needed to propagate as a norm.

I'm not saying there is a clearly better structure available for this purpose - I think the weirdness comes from the fact that it's so unclear who should go in the box normally reserved for "Shareholders" or "Voters."

Isn't the obvious answer for nonprofits "Donors"? (Yes, it's not immediately obvious how amount or recency of donations should translate into power to ultimately direct the organization, but this at least tells you who should go in the box.)

That's not to say that this is how nonprofits are run (it seems not to be) but that it would be the obvious translation of the ways that for-profit companies and governments are run.

To HoldenKarnofsky. You write widely about basic problems of our civilization. You try to write down, to formulate the basic principles and rules for some hypothetical future society. I will comment only one aspect. E.O.Wilson in his books On Human Nature and Sociobiology (pdf- s are available, I will send if You are interested) wrote that we have created the societies, the contemporary life that doesn't correspond to our biological nature. I propose to place this thought at the base for creation all laws and values You try to formulate. More about these laws in my homepage Since many years I have been thinking about the 'right', the best laws, states and governments, but I can start a discussion only if we can agree on basic principles. Just read the first paragraph Home in my blog. If You can accept this first principle, the discussion will follow. Your's Imants Vilks

This is a Moldbug argument, but:

Markets aren't totally efficient, but they are the most adequate part of our civilization. For-profit corporations usually follow the same general structure, so the best form of governance looks like a joint-stock company.

More like a statement, rather than an argument. 


While I don't fully agree with the claim here (the comment or in the book) the best argument along these lines is probably David Friedman and "The Machinery of Freedom".


Efficient at what? There's no such thing as just being have to optimise something.

Well, I don't agree with the underlying argument, but to try to steelman it I'd say something like: Markets are pretty efficient at causing economic growth, causing us to 'grow the pie' (more total absolute wealth for everyone, as opposed to 'sharing the pie' which refers to distributing wealth more evenly), and moving resources around to where they are most needed to allow large complex profit-seeking systems to function. All those little decisions made by selfish semi-rational actors add up to much better decision-making about profitable uses of resources than top-down relatively-small-number-of-decision-maker relatively-coarse-grained decisions seen in, for example, socialism. 

Of course, some translation of the things being exchanged/optimized must be made to apply this directly to the governance sphere. There we are instead talking about how to set the underlying social rules which guide the game. So instead of moves in the economic game itself, we are talking about how we could make the rule system itself be made up of a messy compromise of many self-interested semi-rational limited-knowledge actors opting for or against rules. I haven't heard of any complete translation of this, but some limited ones include libertarian philosophy (skirt around the problem of effective rule-setting by minimizing the rules and letting the economy work it out), quadratic voting (including arguments for how to directly make a fair-ish sort of vote-buying work), and some ideas of my own that I haven't heard elsewhere...

For instance, if we believe that libertarian governance is good for some segment of the population (consenting adults wanting to engage in minimally regulated economic exchange), then perhaps we could set aside certain jurisdictions (similar to how we have certain geophysical locations where gambling is less regulated) where libertarian governance would hold sway. There would be guards on the entrances (it could simply be a secured building in each major city) who ensured that only adults who could demonstrate being of sound mind and judgement could enter. This would limit the sort of contracts and exchanges which could be made there, and there would be tricky questions about moving wealth across the 'border' in regards to tax evasion and such, but it might still allow for some interesting interactions which otherwise couldn't occur in most modern societies.  I don't endorse a literal implementation of this libertarian-enclave as a viable experiment since I haven't gone looking for dangerous loopholes (and I'm sure there are some), but I think the general area of consideration has some potential worthy of exploration. Details of things like this need to be worked out in more detail before an actual experiment could be proposed.

Overall, I don't think this is particularly relevant to what Holden was talking about, since I don't see how it would be helpful to either ethical decision making or governance of corporations which might hit ludicrous windfalls and need to share more wealth/power after doing so. This is just my attempt to steelman what the above comments were pointing at. 


I wasn't replying to Holden.

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