Blockchain and Liquid Democracy – Phase 3 of the CSC Blockchain Evolution Incentive Scheme

This post by Joerg Blumtritt describes how blockchain technology supports decision making and voting mechanisms in processes called Liquid Democracy. These processes are the basis for Phase 3 of the CSC Blockchain Evolution Incentive Scheme.

Distributed consensus, realising consistency without central control, is one main achievement of the blockchain. From the beginning of the Internet revolution, there has been the discussion, whether our new forms of media and communication would lead to another revolution as well: a political one.

New forms of political participation are discussed, like Proxy-Voting or Liquid Democracy, which had been hardly conceivable without the infrastructure of the Web. However, all the digital forms of presenting, debating, and voting for policies all suffered from a serious flaw: Either there would be no secrecy of the vote, or the legitimacy of the ballot would not be accountable, due to the lack of provable uniqueness of transactions. The curse seemed to be either to vote in the open or make it impossible to decide if a person was indeed not voting multiple times.

Blockchain is built to heal this very problem, guaranteeing uniqueness of transactions even for totally anonymous participants. And Liquid Democracy, as I will discuss here, promises to deliver a versatile, efficient, and grassroots liberal form of decision making that complements the blockchain idea of consensus.

Liquid Democracy
Politics today is often set equivalent to negotiating opinions in the parliaments, committees, or council. Representatives are given the mandate from the voters to represent their interests. Not everyone can be an expert in every field. To foster adequate decision making, lobbyism has become an integral part of the parliamentary system. First, this is industry associations and interest groups (the JICs, ethnic organisations, religious and cultural associations etc.) relaying their clients’ interests to the representatives by providing arguments. Furthermore there are those groups of experts that gather around certain topics, rather loosely connected compared with the industry associations. Those think-tanks are often initiated by politicians and are much less transparent regarding statutes or goals compared to the associations.

Liquid democracy> is a conceptual alternative to pork barrel politics and lobbyism. It is designed as a method for direct democracy, where voters not only ballot at the decisions but negotiate one with each other every step of forming a political opinion and building the “volonté générale”.

Liquid democracy is a form of proxy-voting. Participants have suffrage and are at the same time eligible, can thus better be called ‘actors’ than ‘voters’. Actors can issue initiatives for projects like laws, changes in laws, budget decisions, etc.

Initiatives
To start the process of decision making, actors formulate their proposal as a so called initiative. The initiative is uploaded to the decision making platform it to be reviewed and discussed. This step can be preceded by informal discussion going on before the actual upload. During this discussion-phase, the initiative’s author can still change the initiative and react to criticism and suggestions. After a fixed time span (the same for all initiatives on one topic), the initiative’s text is frozen and can no longer be changed. In this ‘frozen’-phase, the initiative has to gather support from other actors who openly and actively register as voters for this initiative. Also, alternatives to the initiative can be added to be decided at the same ballot. For each topic, there a quorum of minimum support can be set, and only initiatives which get above this threshold make it to the ballots.

Delegation
All actors can delegate their vote to some other actor, who then may delegate her vote together with all votes delegated to her further on, thus forming chains of delegations. Delegation can be withdrawn and changed anytime until the deadline for the decision has passed.

Delegation

Secrecy of the vote
Of course, if delegation is possible to anybody, it requires accountability who gets delegated how many votes. As soon as somebody passes on my delegation, I want to be sure about the possible consequences to have the possibility to decide to withdraw and re-delegate or vote to myself. Before the blockchain, it was at least debatable if computer-based voting systems in general should require full identification of the voters to the public to prevent fraud. With liquid democracy, however, it would become mandatory to disclose the identity of most voters. With the blockchain, it is finally possible to heal this. Delegations can be provably legitimate and transparent without requiring to vote fully in the open.

Presentation instead of representation
In more then 2000 years, from the beginning of the Greek democracy and the Roman republic, the representative system prevailed, in which people delegate their interests to someone to represent them. It is not necessarily the case that representative systems are also democratic but in our contemporary understanding, all democracies are representative, that is, the decision making is done indirectly and not directly. There are obviously hardly any examples of grassroots democracy that could be called a success, apart from a few counties in Switzerland. Is the ideology of representative democracy thus without alternative? Representation, the parliament, has a long list of advantages – from “not everybody can be expert for everything” to “not everybody can join every conversation” – a discussion of which would lead to far here, as would a criticism of representative democracy as such. Here we want to focus on liquid democracy as an alternative hypothesis to representation.

Communities exist by their members’ taking tasks, fulfil duties within the community, and participate in the successes that are communally achieved. In a society, citizens delegate parts of their tasks and duties to the state’s administration. Over the course of the last two hundred years, the citizens of the so called western world have handed over more and more of their very own responsibilities to the state – caring for the sick and elderly, birth and death, provisions for retirement, education and many more.

How these delegated tasks have to be carried out is fixed by the process of representative decision making that characterizes parliamentary democracy.

Elected representatives are assigned to taking care about this for a time of multiple years. That all these jobs can be done, experts have to be paid for and equipped with the necessary means of work. To control the adequate application of these means, finally an administration is needed to oversee it. It is not clear, how the carefully balanced system of checks and controls between administration and parliament would be affected by such a radical change in delegation that liquid democracy would propose. The promise, however is to take back responsibility into the hands of the people.

Direct democracy is usually just seen as plebiscite, that is to “give the decision to the polls”. Basically, the political work in this case is still done by the elected representatives. Proxy vote or the imperative mandate goes considerably farther by tying the votes to a definitive decision behavior of the parliamentarian representing their voters. Imperative mandates are usually bound to decisions of conventions of voters. A party conventions or a citizen councils decides by majority, and the delegatee has to represent this decision in parliament. Proxy voting however allows for every single person to delegate their vote to those who would represent their opinion in the session. All three forms, plebiscite, imperative mandate or proxy voting – as in the same way then the classic “conscience-bound mandate” of the most democratic election laws – assume that there is a group of people, homogeneous enough to be abstracted into one set and then represented by their member of parliament.

In liquid democracy there is no separation of suffrage and eligibility, because everyone can contribute and vote. Everybody presents themselves – and even if they would have delegated their vote to someone else, there is no abstraction of people to groups that are represented. Liquid democracy is a system of direct, non-representative democracy.

A complete presentation of everybody for themselves show of course the marks of Max Stirner’s anarchistic egoism. And communities that are organized in such a non-representative way, like e.g. Wikipedia, in fact well appear like you would imagine Stirner’s anarchy.

A logical outcome of such a non-representative system is also, to no longer distribute governmental transfer payments, subsidies or appropriations top-down, but allow every person the same access. It is thus only consequent that Piratenpartei takes the basic income guarantee as a programmatic goal.

Liquid democracy is often compared with Wikipedia – everybody can participate, all discussions are open. And by means of delegation, if someone would not see themselves as competent for the decision or be busy during the election process, the may trust their political decision to their delegate. This process of Wikipedia-decision making faces some sound criticism: people who cannot articulate themselves very well or who would have to fear that they become “talked into something” or shouted down in the discussion, will not even begin to take part. Everyone who became victim to one of Wikipedia’s deletion-discussions knows how this feels. But still, Wikipedia stands without doubt for one of the very big successes in collective collaboration in the Net. It may appear unbelievable, what was achieved by thousands of people together, without any monetary incentive – and continuously, Wikipedia is brought further, gets enhanced, and this despite the communication culture there is after all gruff, to say it moderately. Wikipedia’s culture nevertheless is not a good example for inclusion; the horrible gender-bias alone is telling.

A concept to soften this spiral of silence is to give the actors the option to perform under a self given name and identity. Since the blockchain can guarantee that every physical person would get only one vote, this ‘autonymity’, the freedom of flexible choice of name, has the advantage, that it is possible to articulate a particular opinion without sticking this permanently to the own personality. However the disadvantages of acting under pseudonym in a system like liquid democracy stand, as discussed above.

Another criticism aims at political reliability. Continuity and predictability are obviously a necessary part of representative systems. The members of parliament represent their mandators only indirectly. For showing to their voters, that their intended politics would be dutifully represented, they have to stay constant and reliable in a few striking aspects, while their motives for most of their decisions would remain undisclosed to their voters. Whip and fidelity to the coalition are the well known consequences – not really in the very sense of our constitution that would see the the decision behavior only bound to the conscience. Since there is hardly any empirical data on Liquid Democracy, it is for now totally unclear, how stable and continuous the policies would be that the liquid decision making process would support.

Consensus instead of compromise
Liquid democracy means everyone is able to contribute, and consensus is to be build above the suggestions. Consensus does not mean majority. A majority overrules those who do not share the opinion – after the ballot, the set of voters will be regarded as homogeneous regarding the decision in question. For the daily party business this means: once a party committee has made its decision, all members have to stand behind this (at least this is expected from the party members).

In a non-representative, direct democracy, having unity behind the majority is not the point, since every opinion remains valid and cannot be overruled. Thus it is especially important to concentrate on finding consensus on the crucial topics. Consensus means to really stand behind the decision and not just be outvoted. So we could call consensus in politics as “agreement on the truth” in opposition to “deciding on opinions”.

The struggle for truth leads, as mentioned above, immediately to a rather gruff tone in the debates. Those inferior with arguments frequently take their last stand: the “Shitstorm”, usually a ranting against decisions or actions without arguments – completely convinced to be right and full of anger, not getting right. Other then the compromise which is closed between the two sides engaged – often formalized as in a coalition agreement – consensus is not fixed and not binding. Like in Wikipedia where existing texts are always open to edition, and where the authors continuously have to defend their words if they would like these to remain, the consensus in liquid democracy can always be left, and an initiative for change be placed. Frequently, so called trolls appear in the course of decision making in liquid democracy – people insisting on certain topics in a very destructive way. As inconvenient such arguing with trolls is, it still leads often to overcome differences and find a broadly based consensus. The continuous attack on established consensus stabilizes.

Liquid democracy is, when thought to its end, a radical breach with the foundations of democracy that we know and take for granted. Fully evolved, liquid democracy turns the whole process of delegation to parliaments, experts and administration around. The global crisis of the established economical and political order makes it worthwhile to think about opening a new chapter of enlightenment and really consequently accept humans as autonomous beings, that may better care for themselves as benevolent representatives ever could by governing them.

Representation (=aggregation)

  • People are regarded as elements of different sets which are represented by typical specimens, the representatives.
  • One speaks for the others
  • The representative is the only one who can be noticed of a set from the outside.
  • Works well if people are homogenous regarding their needs and preferences

Presentation

  • No two people are the same (As we clearly see now through web analytics, targeting, social media, etc.)
  • Speak with us, don’t speak for us.”Let’s listen to every voice without ironing out the differences.
  • Presentation instead of representation

Electorate

  • Participants or votershare suffrage and are at the same time eligible, can thus better be called ‘actors’ than ‘voters’. Actors can issue initiatives for projects like laws, changes in laws, budget decisions, etc.
    Initiatives
  • First step is formulating the initiative as a proposal and upload it to be reviewed and discussed. This step can be preceded by informal discussion going on before the actual upload. During this discussion-phase, the initiative’s author can still change the initiative and react to criticism and suggestions. After a fixed time span (the same for all initiatives on one topic), the initiative’s text is frozen and can no longer be changed. In this ‘frozen’-phase, the initiative has to gather support from other actors who openly and actively register as voters for this initiative. Also, alternatives to the initiative can be added to be decided at the same ballot. For each topic, there a quorum of minimum support can be set, and only initiatives which get above this threshold make it to the ballots.

Delegation
All actors can delegate their vote to some other actor, who then may delegate her vote together with all votes delegated to her further on, thus forming chains of delegations. Delegation can be withdrawn and changed anytime until the deadline for the decision has passed.