Berlin, 2012-07-07

One of the great failures of the German Green movement was the day when it had to admit its approach to direct democracy had failed. After over ten years of practice and even taking it into the Bundestag, the Green Party is now among the most vehement advocates of representative democracy. What happened? What went wrong? Continuous direct democracy had led to the 'dictatorship of the active ones,' or as some people in the Occupy movement put it, the 'domination of the extroverts.' Let me discuss the problem and the solution. This doesn't just affect political parties, it's about any kind of association of humans.

Stop the Activerts!

Each time a new organization is formed, the ideal expectation is that everyone can participate. So it starts out doing things differently than others by having everyone participate freely. Unfortunately there is so much debate to be made and decisions to be taken, that people just can't be there all the time. Quickly the ones that have the time or the priority to participate the most, start dominating the debate and the decisions. This works for a while, and the ones taking part in decision-making hardly feel being unfair to anyone - after all everybody could have been there as the decision was taken, right? Soon this leads to decisions being taken that the majority actually wouldn't have chosen and big tensions arise between the "politicians" and the "general public." Wait a minute. Wasn't this just what we wanted to avoid?

Stop the Politicants!

To ensure that also the opinions of people absent are taken into account, politics has invented representative democracy. You choose a delegate that is most likely to defend your point of view. For practical reasons a whole group of people must choose a common representative and give them a mandate over a certain amount of time. This model has worked okay for a while, but delegates, let's call them "politicians," tend to do whatever suits them best and you can't do much but complain until the next election day when they will say anything to regain your trust. Wait a minute. Wasn't this just what we wanted to avoid?

Here come the Liquids!

So here comes the change. To avoid the dominance of random active folks but also the dictatorship of the elected politicians we introduce a mixed form of democracy called Liquid Democracy. It allows you to choose a delegate among all the people around you, it allows you to change the delegate anytime. It allows the delegate to vote with a double vote or transitively forward both of your votes to yet another person. But it also allows you to drop in and participate directly whenever you like to. If you're reading this you probably heard of it before. It usually takes software to organize this, like Liquid Feedback. But the story doesn't end here..

The fact that some participants in a Liquid Democracy system may get more delegational trust than others has raised a new worry that a new kind of power concentration — the Delegation King* — may disrupt the equality of democracy once more. Wait a minute. Wasn't this just what we wanted to avoid?

Long live the Delegation King!

No! To have our opinions properly represented even when we can't participate, we empower certain folks that do a good job and give them more democratic weight than other people that just happen to have the time and be there. So we achieved exactly what we wanted: We disempowered the extrovert activists that would have otherwise dominated the debate. Instead we entrusted certain people in certain matters of expertise, without also having to give them executional, administrational or other political power whatsoever. In all the Liquid Feedback installations I have seen it's the meek and temperate people who are leading the political debate while completely different folks are taking care of administration or talking to the media. And in no case have I ever seen a single person being powerful enough to decide a vote all by themselves.

Update 2017, this is how Marina Weisband puts it:

[Transitive delegations:] this is a goal we have in liquid democracy. And superdelegates as well, they are not all-powerful beings, as was always discussed in the Pirate Party. They lose their votes the moment they do something bad or something against your worldview. What I always try to explain to my students is that the delegation process creates a network that is always a changing, adapting network, much like our neurons in the brain create a network. And neurons are inherently stupid, all they know is to be on or off. Only through that connection into a neural network they create things like love, mathematics and doubts about the future. This process is what makes a group of people more intelligent than the sum of the people, and [explains] why direct democracy is a pretty stupid tool, why is good that my vote can travel on, can build that complex network, because only that mirrors a possibility to society to make that decision.

So I conclude that Liquid Democracy is a huge improvement over your average townhall meeting or delegational commission group. Get over it. Open up to a better way to do democracy. We have had enough of the old, it has led us to where we are now and just because you are in power doesn't mean you won't be making the same mistakes millions of politicians have made before you.


*) The Spiegel article isn't up to date: Since Prof. Haase recently chose some less popular position many have revoked their delegation to him. So currently the German LQFB has no unusually strong Delegation Kings. Still he's a great mind and deserves your delegation. ;-)

See also my post from November 2011 for some details (numbers) on the actual political impact of so-called 'delegation kings.'

If you like Europe, support the project for deploying a European Liquid Feedback platform. Thank you.

Last Change: 2018-01-15

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