Liquid democracy


The 1-bit problem

In our current system, every issue that comes up is discussed, argued, and analyzed many times over in countless small groups of acquaintences across the country. However, almost none of this thought is put to use, because when it comes times for these citizens to cast their votes, they generally are only asked one question: Republican or Democrat? By which I mean, most of the ways in which a citizen's vote influences the political system is through electing representatives, and usually there are at most two representatives who have any chance of winning, one from each party. The political system is based on inputs (votes) from citizens, however, all of a citizen's opinions and knowledge must be filtered into that 1 bit of information (perhaps I am being too harsh; sometimes you also get to vote in a party primary, adding another two or three bits).

Besides being a waste of thought, the 1-bit problem also wastes an opportunity to get people to care about the political system, because many people care about issues, not about politicans.

The black hole effect

In addition to voting, you can contact your representatives and give your opinion. You can email or call their office, and sometimes you will get something back from an intern indicating that the intern has received and processed your communication. Sometimes you may even get a noncommittal reply from the representative. The problem is that there is almost never any way to know whether or not your communication had an influence. It's like putting a suggestion into a suggestion box at a fast-food establishment; maybe someone's mind was changed; probably not; but you'll never know either way. This is called the black hole effect, because from your point of view, it's as if your advice was thrown into a black hole.

Imperfect solution: tell everyone to become an activist

You can do more; you can become an activist; you can get involved. And then maybe you'll see the difference that you're making. But most people have other priorities. They are happy to think about and discuss politics for an hour every now and then; they are happy to sign a petition; but that's all the time they can spare. If you are one of these people, you can see the (negligable) effect that your vote had, but you are only allowed to vote on one question. You can give advice on any other question, but you won't know if it had any effect. These two combine to discourage people from thinking about, or at least caring about, politics, because they feel that they can't (verifiably) make a difference.

Now, you may say, tough. Of course you can't become an activist just by spending an hour here and there; getting involved in politics, just like most everything else, demands a minimal amount of time. Most other fields of endeavor are the same way. You can't, for example, learn to play a musical instrument and join a band without dedicating some serious time. Same with martial arts. Same with higher mathematics. What's the problem? The problem is that, it seems like in a democracy, it is kinda necessary for a large part of the electorate to know what's going on, and to care, in order for the system to work well. While it may be nice for more people to play a musical instrument, to know martial arts, or higher mathematics, it seems much more crucial for more people to understand and to interact with the political system. It's not just for the individual's sake that we want to make it easier to interact with politics; it's for the sake of the political system, as well.

Imperfect solution: every citizen votes on every bill

The most obvious form of direct democracy would be for every citizen to vote on every bill. This isn't a good solution because people don't have time to learn about all the bills.

Solution: Transitive proxy voting

The idea of "transitive proxy voting" is also sometimes called "liquid democracy" or "delegable proxy".

The idea is that you can vote on any individual bill that you want, but for the rest of them, you can delegate your vote to any other voter. You can delegate votes to anyone, including friends and family. The delegations may be per topical area; so you can delegate science policy to one person, and foreign policy to another. The people who receive your delegated votes can re-delegate them. So, for example, you can delegate your science policy vote to your sister, who likes science, who can delegate it to a friend of hers, who is a student, who can delegate it to a professor that she respects, who can delegate it to a science policy expert.

This provides a procedure for citizens to cast votes on every measure , but it doesn't provide a procedure for citizens to draft measures in the first place. Existing initiative/referendum processes do that in theory, but in fact, using these processes is so difficult and expensive that most ordinary citizens can't participate in the drafting stage; furthermore, these processes are geared towards drafting by small groups, not by a massive collaboration of the entire electorate -- for example, there is no way for the electorate to amend the initial proposal -- only to vote yes or no. Transitive proxy can be combined with a better initiative referendum process (here's my proposal for that) to produce a mass legislature.