Incremental revolution

The previous post described possible ways of removing artificial scale parameters from a political system, the most important being a way to remove the representational scale dependency via “direct democracy plus scripting” (for which I still need a better name). This post will describe how one might try to achieve such a system. Besides the obvious reason for such a discussion, the transition from one system to another provides an excellent thought experiment to evaluate the merits of both current and future systems. Here are two proposed principles which encapsulate why:

  1. A good political system should be able to take over an existing inferior one from the inside out, gradually.
  2. A really good political system would be excellent at being taken over from the inside out by a better system.

The second one is supposed to sound backwards.

The first principle says that any kind of full revolution is an extreme measure, one to avoid if at all possible. Moreover, the need for revolution implies a limit on how much better the better system could be: if it was better for everyone, for example, no one would complain about the switch. Of course, this is never the case: there are always those who benefit disproportionally from the status quo. In the past (e.g., last October) violent revolutions have been necessary to overcome the resulting opposition, since the large majority of people who prefer the new system have little to no official power. However, at least in this country we have a system that at least theoretically derives all power from individuals. Overall it’s worked quite well, and the first thought in response to any problems should be whether we make progress using the existing system rather than fighting it directly.

Incidentally, Le Guin’s world of anarchists in The Dispossessed completely fails the first principle, at least according to the majority of the inhabitants, who are terrified that any interaction with the conventional capitalist parent world would destroy their society. The same applies to American fears of communism: if we really believed in the superiority of capitalism over communism, we wouldn’t have been so terrified of secret communist plots and takeovers.

The second principle says that if a system is really good, it should admit the fact that it’s highly unlikely to be the best, and should provide mechanisms for calm and efficient transition to anything better which arises without sacrificing stability. Since “better” is a wildly subject term, and will vary over place, time, issue, etc., flexibility is key.

So, how would one go about trying to get to direct democracy plus scripting? To recap the previous post, the idea is to let everyone vote directly on every issue, and recover practicality by allowing individuals to assign their votes to others, often on an issue by issue basis. The assignment mechanisms are completely open: anyone who proposes a new method for collecting and organizing votes could implement it, collect votes from those who think the new mechanism is superior, and start wielding political power. Assignment is also optional: an individual who decides to vote directly on some issue is free to do so. In practice vote assignment would be implemented by nonbinding messages from the representative to the individual (or lower level representative), so there’s no need to codify any of the particular details or mechanisms of vote assignment into the basic structure.

Trying to achieve this with anything like a constitutional amendment would be a terrible idea. First, it would fail, since it’s way too different from how government is structured currently. Second, even if it did somehow succeed, it would immediately fail, since the practical success of the scripting bit would depend on a large ecosystem of independent assignment mechanisms, small and large scale networks of friends and advisors and representatives, etc. Instead, the right approach is to start at the other end: pick a single city and a single city council seat, say, and try to elect one representative that agrees to vote exactly according to the collective will of the system. To make it easy, choose the easiest possible city and district, ideally one that’s fairly well off and has a fairly large technical population, in order to reduce the effort required to get people internet access and educate them about how it works. In the beginning the system would be very far from completely fair: not everyone would know about it, and not all that did would be able to use it. However, the fraction of people in a district who currently maintain influence over their representative is miniscule, so I doubt we’d be worse off in that regard.

The basic infrastructure, or rather the first implementation of that infrastructure, would need to be in place before this first representative is elected. Technical issues aside for the moment, part of this infrastructure is the interpersonal networks of representatives required to make the process efficient, and we need some way of bootstrapping these networks. To do this, we need a stream of hypothetical issues to vote on, which can be found either via an interested city councilperson or simply by sending people to every single city council meeting to take notes. Only once these networks are in place and functioning smoothly (gauged by asking people to vote on whether their networks are functioning smoothly) could we proceed to the next step of actually trying to elect someone.

At this point I run out of steam, since my knowledge of how politics works in practice at local levels is nonexistent. I’m not at all sure such a system really makes sense at a very small scale; for one, the issues it’s trying to tackle may be less important (more trust, less distance between voter and representative, etc.). However, I’m fairly confident that if it failed at a small scale, it would fail at a large scale, and failure is good if it highlights problems or indicates early that the entire approach is wrong.

Happily, I have at least one hiking friend who’s fairly involved in local Marin politics, and has the added benefit of being one of the rare people who seems to read this blog. Hopefully this post can at least fuel interesting conversation on an upcoming hike.

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4 Responses to “Incremental revolution”

  1. Bill Says:

    Glad to see you are giving this stuff some thought. It reminds me a bit of the town meeting approach to decision making. I agree with you about the need to guard against the “tyranny of the majority” whn time and debate can have a sobering affect. We need to hear minority voices that is one resin why the small scale setting majes most sense.

    Keep her coming. Bill

  2. Geoffrey Irving Says:

    Thanks! I’d love to hear any historical viewpoints you might have on how much is necessary to ensure minority rights are sufficiently protected. In particular, do you think that “hearing minority voices” is sufficient? Backing up, here are three general ways of protecting minority rights in a democracy: (1) codifying general principles that most people agree to abide by even if they dislike specific outcomes, (2) applying federalism at various levels, so that minorities have power over themselves, and (3) giving minorities a voice as you say, and hoping they can educate the majority over to their side.

    So, if all three of these fail, is there something else that can be done? In the past, when we made progress on civil rights, or native issues, or similar, was the progress made despite majority opinion or because minority voices caused the minority opinion to change sufficiently to let (1) and (2) do their job?

    A friend recently posted an interesting link on Facebook which raised the same question: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4Z7tl7Vy8U. Mayor Booker rails against applying majority opinion to civil rights issues, but he doesn’t discuss alternatives, and at some level (if you trace back judges’ decisions through presidential appointments to popular votes), I’m not sure there are any.

    In my hopeful optimistic view, I would love to believe that all you have to do is give each person a voice, and sufficiently easy way to collect their voices together into a unified front when one should exist, and it will be enough. Whether this is true or not is a question of fact with a lot of historical evidence presumably in both directions, so any insights you have would be wonderful. I’d also love any recommendations for related books to read.

    I like the town meeting comparison. It reminds me of a cool anecdote from the book Eaarth, about a website someone started to share information between people living in the same small neighborhood. People would post about events, or to ask for help moving, or if anyone had any canoes to borrow, and suddenly everyone knew their neighbors again. Very hopeful.

  3. weronika Says:

    Yes, this sounds workable. And I like the principles.

    Though, on the subject of The Dispossessed, I would argue there’s a difference between being taken over from the inside out, and being taken over by an outside state which happens to have a lot more money/power/everything.

    Also, I’m confused about something: “I’m not at all sure such a system really makes sense at a very small scale” implies that you think it’s more likely to work on a large scale (or did I misread that?), however you also say “I’m fairly confident that if it failed at a small scale, it would fail at a large scale,” which implies nearly the opposite. I’m probably missing something.

  4. Geoffrey Irving Says:

    I agree about that difference. In fact, much of the plot of the book centers around whether those fears are valid or not: initially Shevek thinks they’re unjustified, but by the end he probably feels differently. However, I think the important distinction is whether that power is used to silence speech, free association, etc. Relative power alone isn’t a problem as long as it’s applied only in restricted ways.

    And yes, the only logical resolution of those two statements is that I’m not sure whether the system would work. I wrote the first one based on my ignorance of how small scale local government works in practice, but then decided that it would have to work at small scales in order to be able to work at all (since most of the interactions of individuals would happen at small scales anyway). In any case, the anecdote from Eaarth about the neighborhood-oriented website makes me optimistic, since it’s an example of a successful website devoted to an extremely small scale.

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