Beyond Voting
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Beyond Voting

Toward American Decentralization: How our bright future reflects our past

(Part 2 of: Decentralization is America’s Superpower. And we’re losing it)

[This is essay 4 of 7 of The Tech Progressive Writing Challenge. Join the conversation in the build_ Discord.]

In part 1, I said the United States could leverage its decentralized past to break its downward trend to renew the vibrancy of our democracy. If you haven’t read part 1, I suggest you at least scan it so that you understand the problem that these decentralized solutions will address.

We are the blue line, and we need to go up and to the right. Graph from Ray Dalio

To briefly recap, before the US peaked, we were largely decentralized. Since around 1960 we have moved from a decentralized model, to a more hierarchical model, what I’m calling a mega-state. Before 1960, most problems were solved at the state and local level, after 1960 the federal government usurped more and more money and power, even as it made the country perform worse on most metrics.

The mega-state works for the state. The Decentralized state works for the individual.This is not so that the individual can retreat from society, but quite the opposite. It’s so that the individual is empowered to freely associate.

One example of that comes to mind can be found in the popular book The Devil in the White City. This book tells the true story of the Chicago’s World’s Fair. In 1893 a group of Chicago’s prominent local businessmen took it upon themselves to build what was effectively an operational small city on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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The exposition covered 690 acres, featuring nearly 200 new (but deliberately temporary) buildings of predominantly neoclassical architecture, canals and lagoons.. More than 27 million people attended the exposition during its six-month run. Its scale and grandeur far exceeded the other world’s fairs, and it became a symbol of the emerging American Exceptionalism

These private citizens planned, funded, designed (they hired the designing giant Frederick Law Olmsted, of New York’s Central Park) and constructed this mammoth project in just over three years. It was a stage for many firsts, including the first Ferris Wheel. If you remember the graphs from part one, this was a time of tiny federal government and low regulation. Yet, Americans were able to come together to achieve great things.

Below are three things I believe will help us reclaim decentralization and the freedoms and prosperity that historically went with it. Bitcoin, DAOs, Platform Democracy.

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Bitcoin

Bitcoin fosters decentralization in at least two key ways, by restraining the state, and empowering the individual. It restrains the size of the state by forcing its leaders to only spend money which they are able to collect. They cannot print bitcoin to get what they want like they do US Dollars. Remember from yesterday’s paper, as soon as our government was able to print money at will, its ability to govern responsibly began to decline rapidly, and irreversibly.

Secondly, Bitcoin puts control of money back into the hands of the individual. It can be made impossible for the government to censor and confiscate bitcoin. The individual doesn’t need the permission of the government to receive or allocate resources. It can’t be overstated how much power is shifted back toward the citizenry when they have full control over their own money.

DAOs

DAOs in their most basic form have been described as message boards with a shared bank account. But a shared bank account, which the members need to coordinate to allocate, is a powerful thing. Just as our government has become overly hierarchical so too have our business organizations. DAOs are a corrective in that they utilize technology to be much more democratic and bottom-up.

This need to collectively decide on real issues will stimulate new forms of collaboration. Participants learn how to assemble around a shared purpose, set goals, sense-make, track progress, allocate resources, measure success, and in some cases disband once they reach their goal. In other words, people are learning to solve problems without existing institutions. DAOs also tend to use cryptocurrencies, so when it’s time to dispense their funds, they are censorship resistant and follow a monetary policy designed by the community.

Dows are deeply decentralized in nature. Members live anywhere in the world. They don’t gate keep based on credentials. They trust agreed upon protocols rather than executives. Many users are anonymous and are judged by their contributions. And they can assemble and amass large influence at the drop of a hat. Constitution DAO, which formed to raise money in an attempt to buy a physical copy of the constitution, went from crazy idea to raising $40mm from interested participants in a week. It wasn’t able to win the bid, and chose to return donated funds.

DAOs may very well be a resurgence of the traditional American readiness to form groups to achieve goals, as captured by Alexis de Toqueville:

“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds… The Americans make associations to give entertainments.. to build inns, to construct churches.. they found hospitals, prisons, and schools.. Wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.”

DAOs have already collected and dispensed (and in some cases lost!) hundreds of millions of dollars. It is still very early days for them, and they have a long way to go. But the concept of people getting together around a shared purpose to get stuff done using cryptocurrency (or Bitcoin) is here to stay.

Platform Democracy

My third suggestion is the least well established but compliments the other two, and is an indispensable step toward decentralization. It is to implement the use of a platform with which to operate democracy. Think of an operating system, but for democratic government.

Americas decentralized past was spent without modern transportation or communication. That means that the social ties we previously relied on to share information, sense-make, and make collective decisions are long gone and won’t be coming back. We will simply never function socially the way we did before modern communication technology. That means if we want to collaborate well again, technology has to play a role.

The basic functions of a democracy can be represented easily on a digital platform. Sourcing talent for representatives, deciding on shared goals and objectives, measuring progress, assigning tasks to participants, allocating funds, voting, giving feedback. All of these things we already do online. The day will come when we will do all of them online as communities to properly manage our governing systems.

Utilizing these simple technologies will create an extreme evolution in our democracy. For example when we can open up political offices to real talent pools we will never again be subject to the low quality of presidential candidates we’ve seen in recent years. Indeed they will be seen as a historic example of how broken our current system is. I predict our children’s history books will say something to the effect of “before they knew how to adapt technology to their democracy, this is who their two parties forced them to choose between.” And the children will reply with shock and disdain “this is who they wanted to lead the most powerful country in the world?!”

Technology platforms will disintermediate the political process, so that our options for representation will be chosen from the bottom up, transparently. Data tracking and reporting to keep our elected representatives on track.

While Bitcoin guarantees decentralization, and DAOs largely elevate it, Platform Democracy is not guaranteed to be decentralized. Think Web 2 platforms like Twitter or Facebook. They let you “give feedback” and “share your opinion,” while censoring you at will, and without truly offering any power. For democracy platforms, this needs to be avoided at all costs. Web 3 will hopefully provide a superior model of shared ownership and transparency on top of which to develop Platform Democracy.

All of these proposals can help put power back in the hands of Americans, return the government to its proper role as referee, and put the country back on a sustainable trajectory. But what’s more exciting is that they’re all borderless. Innovations in any one of them can theoretically produce benefits in all democracies world wide.

This list is far from exhaustive, and I would like to add to it sometime. These three solutions are are digital, which is in the spirit of this essay writing challenge. But to become decentralized will also take in-person human connections, and collaboration in our local communities. Linking the digital and the in-person is one of the difficulties of the current model, but it is on the horizon. And when it starts to emerge, I’ll be sure to write about it.

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