Sunday, August 19, 2012

Liquid Feedback with Random Sampling

The Problem:

Liquid Feedback uses a system of direct democracy that allows voters to transfer their votes to other voters whom they trust. While I support the arguments in favour of vote delegation made in this blog (and comment), I would like to raise two argument why I have come to the conclusion why voting is the wrong approach in the first place.

This blog correctly identifies the problem with direct democracy: it violates the return on investment instinct of the rational voter. This means, some people do not have time or do not feel competent to engage in every discussion. Delegating the vote seems to be the most logical solution but has two important disadvantages:

One: Animal Farm Revisited:
The crisis in our current democratic system emerged from a well intended system of representation (i.e. parliament) that has lost its legitimacy because the representatives have been captured by narrow interests (i.e. most often the 1% top wealthy). This tiny group is controlling the 99% not illegally but through systems of influence they can afford: lobbying, election contributions, etc.
If we build a system that relies on direct democracy, the number one rule of crowdsourcing will kick into action: the 1:9:90 rule. Applied to political issues, this would mean, 1% of the people is willing to propose legislation and discuss it, 9% of the people is willing to vote and 90% of the people will remain inactive.
Can you imagine how easy it would be for the current powerful elite to take over such a system. It is not very different from the current system of representation. They only have to provide resources to the opinion they support and their view will win every vote.
Direct democracy will have to defy the 1:9:90 rule. This can only be done by moving away from general voting and opting for random sampling.

Two: Dumb down the Masses:
The second reason why vote delegation cannot be allowed in a direct democracy is to activate the public. The current system and elite have managed to dumb down the voter. They have done so consciously. Reversing the trend needs an active intervention because “dumbing” is a self-reinforcing process. Research shows that “rather than motivating an increased search for information, a lack of knowledge about a specific socio-political issue will (a) foster feelings of dependence on the government, which will (b) increase system justification and government trust, which will (c) increase desires to avoid learning about the relevant issue when information is negative or when information valence is unknown.” So once people are ignorant, they want to become even more ignorant. If you do not have time to read the academic paper, you can watch the short version 30 seconds.  Or the dumb down long version.
To reverse the trend, we will have to force those who have a strong interest in an issue to try to explain their position on the issue to people. That is very different from “please let me vote for you because I am attractive and you will probably not understand what this is about”.
Even the most complex issue can be explained in a way that the average grownup can understand. Climate change explained by Al Gore is a good example. It takes a bit of effort, but the alternative is just not acceptable.

The Solution:

But how do we deal with the problem that not every citizen can become a full time politician? We allow the 1% to express their opinion on a subject to ALL citizens. Then we select a random sample of citizens (or party members or whatever the voting group is). For this small group voting is mandatory and they can review all the arguments made by the 1%. The result of this vote is the same as if the whole population would have voted. (That is the beauty of statistics.) If this system would be applied at European level, a voter would probably have to vote on 1 out of every 1 million decisions. In Belgium the number would be slightly higher: every citizen would have to vote on 1 out of every 40’000 decisions. That sounds undemocratic, but it isn’t. 

The Transition:

Liquid Feedback is the ideal place to test the random sampling system. Initially, there will only be few members and thus the statistics force many people to vote. But as numbers of members grow, the percentage of those who have to vote will go down and we can focus on being part of the 1% on those issues that are very close to our heart.