Isn’t it time to imagine a new world?
Perhaps it is impossible to write an article about politics without evoking strong – and maybe quite emotional – thoughts and responses. One particular all-too-human reaction to a novel concept or idea about which we have a strong "gut feeling" (good or bad) is to construct logically-sounding reasons to justify our initial emotions. For this reason, I would like to ask readers who would like to comment on this article to sleep one night over their reply before they post it.
Politics is all about defining the legal environment that guides society. It is this framework that defines to a large extent what is illegal and what is not, what is profitable and what is not – hence what sort of economic activities will be pursued. Evidently, political decisions therefore have a major impact on how well societies manage their natural resources. Some would even claim that sustainability is exclusively a question of politics. While I personally would not subscribe to this idea, there have been a number of people who became professional politicians out of a strong inner desire to move their respective societies away from their suicidal paths. Across the globe, some quite prominent politicians invested a lot of personal energy into this – often to ultimately fail in resignation. One might think, for example, of the German politician Herbert Gruhl, originally a member of the conservative party, who, cancelling his membership due to irreconcilable differences on environmental issues, became one of the founders of the German Green Party. In 1992, the year before he died, he published a sequel to his 1975 best-seller (whose title would translate as "Plundered Planet"), which roughly would translate as: "Ascension to Nothingness – the Plundered Planet at its End". In the U.S., Jay Hanson seems to have played a similar role. Resignation clearly speaks out of the last lines of his article ‘requiem’:
A hundred thousand years from now – once the background radiation levels drop below lethality – a new Homo mutilus will crawl out of the caves to elect a leader. Although we have no idea what mutilus might look like, evolutionary theory can still tell us who will win the election. He will be the best liar running on a platform to end hunger by controlling nature.
How could it be otherwise? – Dieoff.org
Maybe both Gruhl and Hanson are right. My contention, however, is that they might have mistaken some of the (in particular, unspoken, implicit) rules of the political game for natural laws cast in stone.
When considering the role of politics, it is very important here not to get distracted by both widely-accepted-yet-never-questioned beliefs as well as overly seductive ideas. The first and most important observation about First World democracies is that there is a big and actually quite visible discrepancy between what politics claims to be and what it actually is. On the one hand, we believe that in democracies, all power comes from the people. Yet, there are numerous examples of political decisions (legislative or not) for which there very clearly never has been a mandate by the people. Taking Germany’s recent past as an example, one might for example think of the introduction of college fees, the introduction of a reduced VAT rate for hotel businesses, biometric passports, the attempt to replace paper ballot with electronic voting, new surveillance legislation and numerous other issues. In theory, what keeps our representative democracies running despite the problem that transgressions occasionally do occur is that if these became too serious, representatives would be punished in the next election – and as they know this, they will act with diligence. But does this actually work? Reality seems to teach us otherwise. At times the degree of ignorance with which feedback from the people is treated by their representatives is quite amazing, as was the case with a recent petition to the German parliament, which collected more signatures than any other (more than 134,000) – just to be completely ignored. Despite protest, the German parliament passed a law to introduce internet censorship infrastructure.
But does it have to be like this? Where do these problems come from? Can we do better – and if so, how? With questions like these, it is just as important to ask them as it is to exert great caution whenever someone claims to have found the ultimate solution (as some all too readily do). One key problem seems to be that the choice the voter has at the ballot box is to vote for one or another "universal ideology", i.e. for one particular system of belief that has its own special recipe to handle every single issue society has to deal with. Taking as an example a hypothetical German voter who sees an urgent need for politics taking environmental issues much more seriously, but considers, say, Green Party education politics as dangerously misguided. What should he do? Quite evidently, there is a problem – essentially one of massive loss of detailed information through the voting process. Also, it is fairly evident that such problems are indeed quite relevant as election outcomes do make a big difference to how specific issues get handled. The key question is: does it all have to be like this, or are the rules of the game open to be re-shaped by design? Quite likely so. As getting this done right appears tricky, we may have to resort to experimentation and close monitoring of how such experiments go.
One experiment that seems worth watching starts from a very basic question: What is the rationale for having representative democracies in the first place? Direct democracy, while it may sound appealing, faces two immediate problems: First, one of manageability. This may have been an issue in the past, but perhaps not anymore due to the high degree of communication connectivity available today, particularly in industrialized nations (which control the flows of most of the world’s non-renewable resources). With appropriate protocols and software design, secure, secret voting via phone or the web seems quite achievable. Second, there is the problem that not everyone is an expert on every issue. Hence, being able to delegate one’s vote to an expert of one’s choice seems quite a reasonable idea. But wouldn’t the most natural thing then be to choose these delegates as freely as one chooses, say, bakeries? If there are two or three bakeries in a village, no one is surprised if individual villagers buy different products from different bakeries – cakes from one, but rolls from another? Some people would certainly choose to bake their own cakes (and maybe also those for close relatives), and buy rolls and bread, but from different bakeries. If there is an issue with products from one bakery, one can (and usually will) readily switch to another. Wouldn’t it be great if the delegation of votes to experts were as simple and effortless as making choices where to get baked goods from? Can we imagine a "direct democracy with effortless delegation" where any one particular individual can make fine-grained choices such as to be represented by the Green Party, except on education politics, where one wants to be represented by Libertarians, and on agriculture, where one wants to be represented by the Permaculture Research Institute instead (not even a political party), but on seed legislation in particular one would choose Dr. Mollison as one’s representative, while on invasive species legislation, one would like to be represented by Dr. Flannery. Furthermore, on energy politics, one would like to be represented by one’s neighbour, who knows a lot about these things, but specifically on Uranium mining, one would like to cast one’s own vote directly (incidentally also representing one’s brother who delegated his vote on these issues). Quite likely, the Permaculture Research Institute would handle voting on agricultural issues in such a way that it re-delegated the votes delegated to it to its own expert, say Geoff Lawton. And no one would have to wait till the next election to change who one’s vote is delegated to on some specific issue.
This, in essence, is the idea behind the concept of "Liquid Democracy". There are a number of organizations who at present experiment with it for their internal decisions. In Germany a curious small new party, with an even more curious name and history, recently introduced "Liquid Democracy" internally: the "Pirates". An overview news article (very slightly flawed though) can be found here; the software that is used to implement this kind of voting is available under a free license and can be appropriated by any organization. This is at present a German project looking for translators (hint hint).
The "Liquid Democracy" approach is certainly an exciting – some would say outrageous – idea. It might (maybe after some tweaking) ultimately turn out to be the antidote to the most serious flaws of representative democracies – or maybe not. The only way to know is to do the experiment, it seems.