Rebooting Liberalism – part 1: Voting

Liberalism, the foundation of our current political structures, was conceptualised during the Enlightenment period in the 16th century. Philosophical and academic contributions came from many people, different parts of the world, but John Locke is widely considered the “Father of Liberalism”.

Fast forward to the 17th century and Capitalism started to emerge in Europe, much thanks to the English revolution. While liberalism and capitalism was flourishing, different forms of oligarchy was still ruling most countries.

Democracy (Greek word for “rule by the people”) has existed in some forms since the Ancient Greece. But it wasn’t until the 18th century that it started taking the shape as we know it today. In this century we had the first parliament of Great Britain forming, the Age of Liberty in Sweden with vastly expanded civil rights and the American Revolution lead to the creation of the United States Constitution.

The problem

Fast forward to the 21st century, and liberalism, capitalism and democracy is in a real crisis, with governments overstepping their boundaries, financial collapses and the rise of extreme populism. Our current political and economical structures continue to provide no answer to these major issues.

This is the first post in a series around ideas described in the book I’m currently reading called Radical Markets, by Glen Weyl and Eric Posner. These ideas do not only apply to the governance of countries, but also to the governance of smaller communities (such as software communities).

The basic argument is that liberalism needs a reboot, starting with the uprooting of capitalism and democracy as we know it.

There are largely three topics I’m going to write about:

  1. Voting mechanisms within communities or countries.
  2. Coordination of decision making within communities or countries.
  3. How significant property ownership (currency, domain names, land, housing etc.) is a form of bad monopoly and needs to be looked at from a different perspective.

Why and how governments exist

The main reason governments exist can be boiled down to this – making it more efficient to coordinate decision-making across a country’s population.

Since the birth of liberalism the most practical answer to this coordination problem was to put a central government in place to represent the governed. But as it turns out, this way of coordinating decisions is incredibly inefficient. But that’s a topic I’ll blog about later.

Simply speaking, in most countries governments are elected by majority vote. That is, each citizen gets one vote. The party with most votes gets to govern the country. There’s numerous variants of this scheme (such as the electoral system in the US). But for the sake of this post, these variants are largely irrelevant as it fundamentally comes down to 1-person-1-vote (1p1v).

Much of the above can also be applied to foundations or boards of not-for-profit communities (such as software communities).

Overall opinion vs. overall value

The problem with majority voting is that it’s not optimal. If the ruling party have 51% of the votes and gets to rule the country, there’s 49% that basically will not be represented. This mechanism responds well to the overall opinion of people, but not to what would create more overall value to society as a whole. The intensity of opinions vanish with 1-person-1-vote mechanisms and minorities are often misrepresented in these cases.

Take any minority group for example, people who wants to preserve a piece of land or legalising gay marriage. These topics might be of very high value to these minority groups, but the question might not matter at all to the majority. Therefore, surplus value would be created for society if the minorities got their say. But our traditional voting mechanisms will not respond to this.

Wouldn’t it be better if there was a way to better and more fairly express intensity and value while voting, instead of 1-person-1-vote? And something that’s more optimal than majority voting?

Besides, society already agrees that 1-person-1-vote isn’t democratic. That’s shown by the many legislations that governments are putting in place to protect minorities. These legislations are often rather arbitrary and not enough. And who decides what the minority groups are? What if there was a way for groups to protect themselves?

Quadratic voting

In the book “Radical Markets” by Weyl and Posner, the concept of Quadratic Voting (QV) is proposed as a more fair and egalitarian way of voting.

The basic idea is that each citizen, or member of a community, gets a number of “voice credits” that each person can use to vote on different topics and decisions that matter to them.

A person can decide to spend multiple votes on a single topic, but does so at exponentially increasing (quadratic) cost.

For example, I could chose to spend 1 vote at the cost of 1 credit in the parliament election, and 1 vote at the cost of 1 credit on a proposal to legalise gay marriage.

Alternatively, if gay marriage was incredibly important to me, I could choose to spend 2 votes at the (quadratic) cost of 4 credits on legalising gay marriage (or 4 votes at the quadratic cost of 16 credits etc.).

This system makes it possible to express intensity and value while voting. It makes it impossible to express extreme opinions at low costs, but at the same time allows people to express strong opinions that are of high value to them.

The system does also discourage many forms of collusion and plutocracy, by making such “attacks” very expensive.

Conclusion

The idea of Quadratic Voting falls under the general theorem of “Radical Markets”, which I will cover in more depth in future blog posts.

The term “radical” is used because it fits with the Radical Movement that started in the late 18th century with the intention to drive radical democratic reform to the electoral system.

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