Towards a liquid democracy.

Or why political parties don’t make sense anymore.

I have to recognize that the first time I heard the question “Why do we have political parties?” I started babbling “bec… bec… because it has always been like that” (this is almost invariably a stupid answer). After reading and asking people, I now know that it is because “citizens cannot know all the politicians, but they know the ideas of the political parties, thus it is a way to simplify the voting process by giving them a brand to identify the candidates”.

However the first representative democracies were not intended to be partisan. Political parties emerged from the differences between people around single issues. In the UK, it was the difference between Catholics and Protestant in the late 17th century that gave rise to the establishment of Whigs and Tories as political parties. In the US, it was differences over the extent of power of the Federal (vs State) government in the late 18th century that gave rise to the Federalist and the Democratic-Republican parties.

Following the early examples of the UK and US, all modern Western countries later formed representative democracies. In representative democracies, people elect officials, who in turn vote in all matters. Moreover, almost all representative democracies are partisan (i.e. there are political parties). However, political parties are a strange concept. The people who rise to power are people “from within the party”, not necessarily the most qualified. As a consequence, politicians are many times seen as Elites with different interests than citizens. Furthermore, many representative systems favor a two-party system, which are prone to corruption, polarize society and make people feel power-less (do you vote for Kang or Kodos?).

Despite the drawbacks, representative, partisan democracies were for a long time the only viable option. Communications were too slow for the citizens to know the candidates, making political parties a useful concept. Direct democracies (where people vote for all legislation) were also unfeasible, since it was only possible to ask everybody in the country their opinion every few years. However we now live in a connected world where it is safe and feasible to vote online. Of course, we cannot rely on citizens voting for every minor legislation, but we should not rely on officials being nice enough to vote what they said they would. This is why I believe that it is time to take the power back.

Liquid democracy

I believe in a system where we elect delegates among the most prepared, not among political parties. The function of these officials is solely to prepare legislation and present it to the public. Given that the officials are not tied to anybody but the people, they would discuss clearly the pros and cons of the laws. Once it is discussed, people can vote electronically. Importantly, people can transfer their vote to any person in the country in which they trust (most likely the delegates). They should even be able to transfer their vote to different persons for different topics. I believe most people would transfer their vote for non-crucial matters, allowing the officials to be able to pass low-level legislation quickly, while still reliably representing the opinion of the people. Furthermore, individuals can always reclaim their vote or transfer it to another representative. This system is called liquid (or delegative) democracy, and it is a mix of representative and direct democracies.

The advantages of the system are clear. People would be able to vote for the most prepared candidates, instead of individuals that rise from within parties. The representatives would always vote according to the public’s opinion, since their power depends on the votes transferred to them. The system allows for efficient ruling by a small number of people while representing the citizens perfectly, like in a direct democracy.

The main disadvantage is that it is not clear whether citizens can vote responsibly. However, I believe that in a system where the representatives depend on the people’s opinion we would have rich debates, and people would vote responsibly. In any case, it is worth trying. This autumn Iceland will probably elect the Pirate Party, a party advocating for direct democracy through delegates. A first step towards a liquid democracy.

Looking for images I came across this excellent article on liquid democracy:

Thanks Ben for the comments ;)

Data Juggler. Computational Scientist.

Data Juggler. Computational Scientist.