Liquid Democracy? Not So Fast

“Liquid Democracy” has entered the public discourse in the past couple of years, as a possible replacement for the system of government that we have come to know. Because it is based on Blockchain, it has gained intellectual traction among some proponents of “structural change” within our society.

I don’t doubt the motives of most proponents, but I do have concerns. And at the heart of my concerns is the potential for “liquid democracy” to dilute our essential understanding of what democracy is. The risk is that over time (perhaps rapidly) we may normalize an altered version of what we currently accept as “democracy” — one that may offer certain strategic efficiencies, but does so at the expense of more fundamental democratic values.

The issue hinges initially on whether we consider voting (in some form or fashion) a right or a responsibility, or both.

Liquid democracy (explainer video found here) essentially turns one’s vote into a currency, one that can be spent within the “liquid” voting network (repeatedly on different voting issues). The motivation for doing so (in the liquid democracy paradigm) is two-fold:

(1) The belief that someone else is likely to know or understand more about an issue than you do, therefore your vote is likelier to be a wiser one if it is cast on your behalf by a presumably better qualified person (at least on that issue).

(2) Assigning your vote to someone else enables it to be leveraged (via its aggregation with other individual votes, under the control of fewer individuals — the new political “influencers”), potentially giving that vote more value than it would have otherwise had. A single dollar doesn’t have much power by itself, but pooled together with other dollars, to accomplish a specific intention, its relative value increases.

No one would argue that a more knowledgeable voter isn’t a better voter. Being educated about an issue is the ideal to be sought after. But liquid democracy doesn’t say, “Make this citizen a more knowledgeable voter.” Instead it says, “Encourage this not-so-knowledgeable voter to assign his or her voting decision to someone else who is believed to know more about an issue than he or she does.”

As a citizen, voting is clearly a right, but it’s also a responsibility. It’s one thing to argue that one’s right (to make a voting decision) is theirs to give away. But the responsibility associated with the vote that would be assigned to someone else (the legal and moral asset that this ability represents) is not one that should be easily abandoned or relegated to others.

The structure of democracy should not encourage citizens to abdicate their responsibility to both become educated on an issue and then to individually and personally weigh-in on it, along with their fellow citizens. This is the underlying point, the fundamental value, of “one person, one vote.”

Liquid democracy encourages this abdication of one’s voting responsibility, relying on (1) the false reasoning that it is not really an abdication, since the vote will eventually be cast by some more qualified person(s), and (2) the assumption that the value of one’s vote, if signed to someone else, will eventually be greater than simply casting it oneself.

The structure of democracy should not encourage citizens to abdicate their responsibility to both become educated on an issue and then to individually and personally weigh-in on it...
Richard Lang

Now let’s look at what happens in a “liquid democracy” once votes become assignable to (presumably more qualified) others. The vote ceases to be a personal mandate for a citizen to participate in the democratic process by becoming educated (at least in some degree) about an issue and then by adding their personal vote to the collective voice (the traditional democratic process on election day, as it were).

Instead, with liquid democracy, a person’s vote becomes a form of political currency, to be assigned, donated, sold, traded, accumulated, aggregated, and/or leveraged in any number of ways by those involved in the political process deeply enough to want to do so, for specific political or personal ends.

The temptation is to turn our own views (and responsibility for forming them) over to policy wonks and/or motivated political operatives. This is the “liquid” part of the liquid democracy; but its effect, as is when one adds liquid to almost any substance (in this case democracy), is to dilute the essential material.

Simply having (presumably) superior intellectual abilities, let alone having in-depth knowledge of an issue, does not necessarily mean being in agreement with others possessing the same abilities or factual knowledge. And it doesn’t necessarily confer wisdom regarding an issue. Reasonable people commonly disagree over the interpretation and/or importance of agreed upon facts or conditions.

Historically (the current implications of “fake news” notwithstanding), political or policy disagreements, based on agreement regarding underlying factual information, form the basis of differing political views, factions, even political parties. And ultimately, one’s views on almost any issue are as much formed by culture, personal history, psychological profile, and a number of other not-so-tangible elements as they are by simply evaluating the available information about an issue.

So, simply assigning one’s vote to someone else is no guarantee that the vote will in fact be an eventually “wiser” one. It only insures that the vote will be cast by someone with more self-confidence and/or more motivation, whether or not that confidence or motivation is well-founded or ultimately supports the best outcome for all concerned.

Individuals who have accumulated the votes of others are also concurrently accumulating political influence (power), on an individual level or on behalf of a political faction, likely partisan in nature. When that happens, political jockeying, deal-making, vote-trading (or vote purchasing) and the opportunity for nefarious activity increases exponentially.

Simply assigning one’s vote to someone else is no guarantee that the vote will in fact be an eventually 'wiser' one.
Richard Lang

Now, instead of having our traditional system that, while susceptible to corruption, is at least somewhat familiar, and in that sense actually more transparent when corrupted (and thus made subject to certain checks and balances), we have a new “liquid” system that is so decentralized that it becomes almost impossible to gain a comprehensive picture of where the best laid plan(s) may be going awry.

Technically, liquid democracy may be “transparent,” at least to qualified engineers, but as a decentralized gestalt in the eyes of the general public, it becomes a diluted soup of decentralized citizen engagement, without a collective coherence to define the citizenry at large.

As to the advisability of such a development in our democracy, the average citizen will need to take it on trust, something already in short supply in our current political environment. Instead of “trust us, you elected us,” it becomes “trust us, we’re engineers” or “trust us, we’re investors” or some other variation.

When considering any structural changes to our democracy, it is important to resist the temptation to toss the proverbial baby out with the bath water. Yes, our democracy is in dire need of an upgrade, but not all upgrades are created equal. Liquid democracy, while worthy of consideration, is not something so compelling and that it must be immediately named as the solution for what ails democracy, without question, simply because it has been hailed by respected voices in technology or finance.

Structural changes (in almost any application) can have deep and long-lasting implications. Oftentimes (if not usually) these implications are either not visible at the outset or their potential impact may simply be dismissed outright as unfounded skepticism by those who just don’t “get it.”

By restructuring democracy in “liquid” form, it begins to eerily resemble capitalism, complete with the opportunity for social or political entrepreneurs to use that structure to accumulate and then deploy assets (votes) for purposes which may or may not be in the best interests of all. The transparency that is touted as a key feature of liquid democracy is only there for those technically skilled enough to verify that it truly exists. And even if it is transparent, there are new risks and results that come into play, ones which are not yet being fully scrutinized.

We the People are asked to take it on faith that the “liquid” system will successfully bypass or eliminate the problems currently facing the original structure of democracy instituted at the founding of our country. Yet there is no assurance that this will actually be the case and plenty of evidence that the new “liquid” system may look more like a new form of “political capitalism” than it does democracy.

The other factor worth underscoring here, because it is so often touted as a key feature of liquid democracy (and its underlying enabling technology, Blockchain), is that of “decentralization.” While there are many scenarios where decentralization of an existing system is to be desired (or where Blockchain may change fundamental systems for the better), we should not be too quick to assume that this applies to democracy as well.

The words “E Pluribus Unum,” which appear central to our most cherished national values, translates directly to “Out of many, one.” This also happens to be the literal definition of the word “coherence” (“the quality of forming a unified whole”). One can see this value throughout the writings and documents associated with the founding of our democracy. Decentralization is the exact opposite of “forming a unified whole.” It is the breaking up of a unified whole into the most localized elements.

Perhaps a worthy outcome for certain elements of capitalism (market efficiencies?), but hardly the ethos that drove the founders of our country to create “a more perfect union.”

It should be obvious that democracy, as we have known it over the past 240+ years, is faced with challenges unlike any that the founders of our country might ever have imagined. Advances in technology (including the profound influence of the Internet) have created massive opportunity for our democracy to be derailed from its underlying goals and intent. The corrupting influence of big money in politics, “fake news,” and the manipulation of “big data” are only a few examples of the inherent risks that 21st century technology presents.

However, new technology also brings the promise of amazing solutions to theses challenges — solutions that were previously unavailable. So it is important to consider approaches like liquid democracy, and Blockchain, which may at very least provide for bullet-proof digital authentication.

At the same time, it is imperative to not simply, out of desperation, cast all our lot with the first possible solution that is well liked by technologists or capitalists.

The corrupting influence of big money in politics, 'fake news,' and the manipulation of 'big data' are only a few examples of the inherent risks that 21st century technology presents.

Proponents of Liquid Democracy posit that in our search for a better form of democracy, we citizens are forced to choose between “representative” democracy and “direct democracy,” and therefore liquid democracy is the only sensible third choice. But this is a speciously limited argument. There are in fact other alternative visions for how technology can help “upgrade” our democracy.

One of the other alternative possibilities for how technology can help support democracy is “advisory democracy” — providing our elected representatives with our individual, non-binding advisory votes and as a result, our collective advisory voice. This advisory input would be at a new, online gathering place (only one is needed) — a virtual town square (a National Town Square).

This would require no changes to our existing form of government (and therefore no approvals in order to implement). And it would immediately provide a transparent mechanism where literally hundreds of millions of us can gather on short notice to learn about issues and then inform our elected representatives of our collective desires, priorities and recommendations, on the important topics that affect us all.

This non-partisan, non-corporate and citizen-operated approach to upgrading our democracy is presented and explored in detail in my recently published book: Virtual Country: Strategy for 21st Century Democracy. In it, I talk about the historical opportunity that we are currently presented with — the opportunity to begin building non-partisan, non-corporate, non-governmental, national infrastructure for civic engagement.

We have a window of opportunity for citizens themselves to launch and operate an online National Town Square, where We the People can open individual, secure, authenticated, non-partisan “voting accounts,” and then be able to cast educated (fact-based) advisory votes on issues selected by citizens themselves. Our right to do this is guaranteed by the first amendment to our Constitution (freedom of speech and assembly).

This is an opportunity of unfathomable importance, and while it requires technology, that technology is already available. More importantly, the technology is in service to a larger structural innovation — the establishment of a new national institution for civic engagement, providing citizens with an individual vote and a collective voice, every day of the year. It is designed to bring coherence (“E Pluribus Unum”) back into an incoherent political environment.

The Virtual Country strategy is a starting point, not a shrink-wrapped solution impervious to improvement or evolution. But it’s also an important reminder that the decisions that are made today, regarding how technology will impact what we call “democracy,” are decisions that will have long-lasting impact and implications.

It is our duty as citizens (both nationally and globally) to give real thought and scrutiny to what direction(s) we allow democracy to take at the start of the 21st century. Technology is already having a measurable effect, but the most profound changes and challenges are yet to come.

I’ll take it on faith that those who have envisioned the potential of “liquid democracy” want the best for our democracy. Our challenge and responsibility as a citizenry should be to consider new ideas carefully, promote the best and the brightest ones, and subject these ideas and proposals to forethought and honest scrutiny, in order to achieve an end result that future generations will look back upon proudly.

Photo Credit: Maksim Kabakou / shutterstock.com