The rise of quadratic voting and liquid democracy
A growing number of people are disillusioned with democracy. Although perhaps the issue isn’t democracy, but rather the emptiness of our electoral system and the decreasing value (or relevance) of voting.
The paradox of this disillusionment is that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. Democracy has always been relatively fragile, flawed, and subject to loss of confidence. In theory when that confidence is lost, we turn to elections to restore confidence, but is that possible under our present system?
Looking at elections, and in particular voting, as a problem that needs to be fixed, is a convenient way to avoid the larger discussion of democracy and power.
Democracy remains something that people aspire to, that as a metaphor embraces rights, freedoms, and responsibilities. Voting not so much. There’s little enthusiasm for elections when people recognize the reality that their votes have little impact.
Would improving the value of a vote, or upgrading the way votes are cast reinvigorate democracy and reinforce our collective belief in it?
What if democracy was translated from an idealized metaphor into a technical tool that made voting and decision making easier? In translating democracy into a technology are we making it more accessible and applicable?
That is the hope of democracy.earth, an organization, philosophy, and suite of (blockchain based) software. They claim to be building a new model (for democracy) that makes the existing model obsolete (or reinforces that existing obsolescence by providing a clear alternative).
Their inspiration is the Internet, and their goal is to “make transnational borderless permissionless networks the default setting of our political and financial configuration rather than the ancient institutions of the past.”
By using the concept of “liquid democracy” they believe they can get the best possible decision, with the greatest amount of legitimacy.
Liquid democracy combines direct democracy (via voting) with representative democracy. It enables voters to transfer their votes to any other voter they trust. This enables the voter to cast their votes on issues they care about, or give those votes to people they trust who can then use those votes for issues they care about.
This ability to transfer your votes to any other voter radically opens up the ability to select representatives, and significantly disrupts how existing political parties are formed.
The hope of liquid democracy enthusiasts is that this will empower the most knowledgeable participants to become trusted representatives. (I think there’s good reason to be skeptical of this claim, and hopefully it can be tested).
One of the primary developers of democracy.earth is Santiago Siri, a self-described hacktivist based in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He ran for public office in Argentina in 2013 as part of a political party he co-founded that supported liquid democracy, and while they were unsuccessful electorally, they received quite a bit of attention.
Building upon this momentum the democracy.earth foundation was formed, with the goal of developing software to make liquid democracy accessible and easy to use.
In particular they embraced the language and culture of Silicon Valley, (in no small part due to their 2015 participation in a Y Combinator cohort), especially the “moonshot” approach: “Let’s build something that is 10x better than nation-state governments.”
In democracy.earth, they are using blockchain technology to build what they believe can be the infrastructure for trust without borders, in particular when it applies to identity, voting, and representation.
Identity that is peer to peer rather than controlled by governments. Voting that is transparent and can be audited by any voter. And representation that is emergent, delegated, and enables dynamic participation.
The Social Smart Contract is the foundation for the democracy.earth software and the philosophy that powers it.
It’s rather long, and rich in assumptions, let’s take a quick look at the abstract:
In a world that has succeeded in the globalization of financial assets while keeping political rights enclosed to territories, we need to build new models of democratic governance that enable humanity to collaborate and address pressing global issues. Democracy Earth Foundation is building free, open source software for incorruptible blockchain-based decision-making (voting) within institutions of all sizes, from the most local involving two people to the most global involving all of us. Uneven distribution of opportunity around the globe due to the perpetual confrontation between national governments has led to accelerated climate change, rising inequality, terrorism and forced migrations. Democracy Earth Foundation considers that the technology stack that includes Bitcoin as programmable money without Central Banks, and Ethereum enabling smart contracts without the need of Judiciary Courts, requires a new layer that signals incorruptible votes beyond the territorial boundaries of Nation-States.
There’s a lot of faith here being put into technology. Certainly Bitcoin is far from being viable as money. A great concept sure, but not effectively equipped to handle the scale of global transactions. Similarly Ethereum lacks proof that it does not need Judiciary Courts.
This transnational network will act in accordance with the personal sovereignty of its members and protect their human rights with encryption.
It’s also laughable to believe that human rights can be protected with encryption. Some rights maybe, but encryption is a tool, not a magic wand that will protect you from bullies, bullets, or tyrants. History suggests we need a whole lot more than encryption.
In our Initial Rights Offering we offer a token called vote that will grant participation rights to every human with decision-making as its main function. Our proposal introduces cryptographically induced equality: as long as any person is able to validate his or her self-sovereign identity, they will receive a corresponding share of votes that is equal to the share of every active participant in the network. We define a Proof of Identity process that avoids central authority by introducing the concept of attention mining which incentivizes participants to strengthen the trust of votes by performing simple tests aimed at detecting replicants. Finally votes get dripped to valid participants under a Universal Basic Income mechanism with a goal of finding a proper equilibrium in the historical tension between money and politics. We seek nothing less than true democratic governance for the Internet age, one of the foundational building blocks of an achievable global peace and prosperity arising from an arc of technological innovations that will change what it means to be human on Earth.
These are some bold claims.
Although it is not unusual for software developers to promote their software by describing what it will do and not what it is already able to do.
So how does this software work?
The primary focus of the software is voting. Although not in the traditional sense of secret ballots and single votes. Votes are transparent, and they’re transferable, which means they have a kind of value. You also have lots of votes, as if they were a currency you can spend.
Oh, and another thing, democracy.earth is a DAO.
If you’re a regular reader of this newsletter than you may already know what a Distributed Autonomous Organization is. (At least I hope you do, or are starting to, as that’s the point of writing a newsletter, that I can share advanced topics with you and then build upon that knowledge).
Specifically, democracy.earth uses Moloch DAO, which is a set of software designed to enable a DAO running on the Ethereum blockhain. Of course Moloch is not just software, it is an automated organization, controlled by its shareholders, with the goal of funding projects that support Ethereum and the larger DAO ecosystem:
As a DAO, the whole point of democracy.earth is voting. (Which is the point of any DAO: that it allows shareholders to vote on how the distributed organization carries out the decisions that have been automated).
This focus of democracy as an expression of voting derives from radical market theory, and the concept of quadratic voting, as championed by Glen Weyl:
What is quadratic voting? This Bloomberg article suggesting that it makes zealotry expensive provides a smart summary:
The tool is called quadratic voting, and it’s just as nerdy as it sounds. The concept is that each voter is given a certain number of tokens—say, 100—to spend as he or she sees fit on votes for a variety of candidates or issues. Casting one vote for one candidate or issue costs one token, but two votes cost four tokens, three votes cost nine tokens, and so on up to 10 votes costing all 100 of your tokens. In other words, if you really care about one candidate or issue, you can cast up to 10 votes for him, her, or it, but it’s going to cost you all your tokens.
Quadratic voting was invented not by political scientists but by economists and others, including Glen Weyl, an economist and principal researcher at Microsoft Corp. The purpose of quadratic voting is to determine “whether the intense preferences of the minority outweigh the weak preferences of the majority,” Weyl and Eric Posner, a University of Chicago Law School professor, wrote last year in an important book called Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society.
This spring, quadratic voting was used in a successful experiment by the Democratic caucus of the Colorado House of Representatives. The lawmakers used it to decide on their legislative priorities for the coming two years among 107 possible bills. (Wired magazine wrote about it here.)
This experiment they mentioned was done using democracy.earth software:
There is considerable overlap and collaboration between the democracy.earth foundation/project and the RadicalxChange Foundation which was founded and is Chaired by Glen Weyl.
The RadicalxChange foundation has local chapters around the world, and they’re actively promoting the concept of quadratic voting, as well as the tools that could make the concept more accessible and easier to use.
Similarly the democracy.earth foundation has been receiving support to continue developing their platform.
While I think there is ample reason to be skeptical of democracy.earth and RadicalxChange, their collective work is important and worth following.
I chose to write this issue of the “Future Tools” series as what is interesting about this initiative is how it regards democracy through the lens of a tool.
In general the Internet has avoided questions of governance and decision making. Too often we abdicate our responsibility or disqualify ourselves because we think we don’t have the expertise or worse assume the owners should decide.
What is great about democracy.earth is their production of a decision making tool that can be used by anyone! The rise of such software will make it harder for organizations and tyrants to deny people the ability to participate in the decision making process. Especially when it becomes so easy for anyone to create a process by which many people can transparently make decisions.
The larger question however, is whether technology is enough.
Certainly I can’t help but wonder if these systems can be hacked? Or manipulated, gamed, and abused? I suspect only real world testing can truly explore that. Hopefully such testing can take place before the claims put forward are accepted as truth.
Thankfully there are some ethical debates that attempt to anticipate these issues.
What may be most interesting and relevant about the ideas presented in the video above is the argument that “In the presence of inequalities of wealth, any vote buying mechanism, including quadratic voting, will have a difficult time meeting a democratic legitimacy requirement.”
Given the significant and increasing income inequality in our society this may be the biggest blind spot or variable for a system like democracy.earth.
Thankfully they’re not the only option being developed. We are happy to mention that democracy.earth is not the only model of digital democracy out there. Our friends in Barcelona and more broadly in Europe are developing their own tools:
Though that will have to be part of a future issue of #metaviews.
What do think about democracy.earth and quadratic voting? Is this something you’d like to try? Are there organizations in your life or situations that you experience that you think would be better if there were opportunities to vote or express your perspective?
Perhaps we take for granted today how almost any content allows for comments either directly or relatively nearby. Will the same thing happen with decision making? Any decision made anywhere can be challenged by anyone else?