Liquid democracy —a modern delegative democracy enabled by the internet— is a puzzlingly popular idea, sucking up most of the air in technopolitics so far this decade.
A failure in practice
The European Pirate Parties were perhaps the first to run with this idea & they have done extensive internal testing with thousands of participations, particularly in Germany: the Germany Pirate party has been using open-source software called Liquid Feedback for several years now (and even at the start they were wary of its limitations & appeal), a current MEP, Julia Reda, has ample experience with the tools, and another famous open-source platform, Adhocracy, is also from Germany.
But perhaps liquid democracy’s most famous political proponent is Partido de la Red (Net Party) in Argentina, which promised “Trojan” legislators bound in their votes (and new law proposals) to what party members chose through delegates in a vote-delegation platform called DemocracyOS. They contented in the 2013 elections in Buenos Aires but failed to win enough popular support to get any seats. They’ll try again in 2017. Meanwhile some of its celebrity founders (Santiago Siri & Pia Mancini, husband & wife) started YC-backed Democracy.Earth to pursue an even more fantastical techno-political dream: trying to build the next-generation of global democratic infrastructure with blockchain tech. (I love one of their slogans: “elections are surveys with strong identity-validation.”)
Most people who have tried liquid democracy in practice agree that its implementations are still severely underwhelming, uninhabited & fallow, riddled with MAJOR technological, social & design issues. Some of its proponents remain ever hopeful but a pivot is overdue for those who dream of new technological possibilities for democracy.
A failure in theory
Misgivings with liquid democracy go well beyond its now long track record as a sexy but ultimately disappointing tech: I simply don’t get how it’s a good idea even in theory. It’s based on a very naive, ultimately degrading idea of representation and voting. I don’t think and have seen no evidence that making delegation transferable in realtime makes a collective intelligence emerge. On the other hand, it harms the group & its decisions: it overworks voters by turning them into always-on delegators-of-delegators, while undercutting the responsibility & agency of representatives.
But effective, creative governance & legislation is one of the most complex challenges a person (and their team) can tackle: it’s not only a high moral calling, it is as demanding a pursuit as science, novel-writing or rocket surgery. We use majority voting to dismiss nonviolently & fast those representatives who are causing harm. That’s it, that should be the point & promise of democracy. (As usual, I’m paraphrasing that classic essay by Karl Popper on Democracy.)
Liquid democracy dissolves the personal agency of representatives, turning them into mindless, proxy puppets bound to fickle popularity chains, expecting a magic collective intelligence to emerge and take the reins of governance. I believe instead in passionate people & their teams being given the chance to try THEIR ideas & THEIR intelligence at the helm of government for a few years (until they are dismissed, or not, by a nonviolent majority vote).