What Comes Next?
Something to know—Two humans, Cameron and Rayla, run this blog—you can read more about us if you are interested, but for the meantime, we just want to say this particular post is written from Cameron’s point of view, but we do our writing together, and it is a reflection of both of us.
What Comes Next?
Soon after the midterm elections I joined a protest in Seattle. I got to Cal Anderson Park just in time to see the protest march flood the streets. I watched in awe as thousands of protestors streamed past me until a friendly lady told me to jump in and join the crowd. I did so with a smile on my face.
Protest marches are very good at giving a group of similarly minded people a very real reason to believe they are not alone. It is difficult to find solidarity when you see that two thousand people shared the same article as you on facebook; our human brains don’t convert that number into something very meaningful. On the other hand, seeing two thousand people in the streets for the exact same reason as you is likely to cause goosebumps and an adrenaline rush.
The whole marching portion of the protest lasted about thirty minutes. It got everybody pumped up and ready to change the world. Then we got to the Federal building in downtown where the organizers were setting up a stage and sound equipment for the rally portion of the protest.
After ten or fifteen minutes of standing around in the cold November air, the MC of the event got up and addressed the crowd. He thanked us for coming out and read a statement from the group that organized the protests nationwide. Several different speakers, including the mayor of Seattle, came up and spoke.
At the end, they reminded us not to lose this revolutionary energy; to keep going to protests and keep fighting for what we believe in. They asked us to remember to vote and call our Senators. And then the rally was over. Everybody packed up and left.
As you might guess, this was more than a little disappointing, and I talked to quite a few people who felt similarly disappointed. Many of us came out because we believe that the system is broken and want to change it, and yet, the best advice that the organizers had to offer us about how to change the system, was to participate in the system. I don’t really think any of us would have come to the protest had we thought that simply participating in the system could change it effectively.
From a Hedonist perspective, the purpose of government is mainly to help provide a context where pleasure is easily attainable. Therefore, any government’s legitimacy is directly proportional to its devotion to the pleasure of the governed. From that perspective, the American government is and always has been illegitimate for the masses.
Here is the part of any article discussing how our government might better serve us, where someone says that “it is better to live in America than any other country,” and I should stop being so ungrateful. Alas, it seems pretty un-hedonistic to not try to make your life better just because it could be worse.
I would like to move forward in this article without really discussing the good or terrible aspects of the American government or its history. Although very important, that conversation is better saved for another time. This article is more so for discussing how poorly our government is at serving the will of the people and imagining how a government that is good at doing so might work.
This System is Broken
For everybody who is not a lobbyist or part of the legislature, being active in government has been distilled down to a multiple choice test. The vote, that symbol of collective will, of democracy, is effectively a list of yes or no questions. This is particularly problematic because many people feel frustrated by the way that initiatives on the ballot are written. Yes, you might agree with the essence of a new proposal to tax pollution or to legalize marijuana, but the actual legislation includes too many caveats to feel like the positive change that it should be.
People are regularly forced to pick the lesser of two evils. It makes many wonder if voting is meaningful in the first place. Rayla and I both vote in every election we have the chance to, and yet, it's hard for us to believe that something styled after a multiple choice test is an adequate way to participate in our government.
Neither of us, nor the vast majority of our friends and family have the time to lobby regularly about the issues we care about, and since voting day really only happens about once a year, it often feels like our government is happening to us rather than working for us. It feels pretty un-democratic.
We are living under a system where the voice of the individual is seldom heard. We think that a big part of that problem is the ‘representative’ part of our democracy.
In the early days of the American government, representative democracy made a whole lot of sense. Most of the (few) people who were eligible to vote worked in factories or on farms. They knew little about running local government and nothing about how government worked on the large scale. More importantly, these people tended to live in relatively small communities and share fairly similar values within each community. It was not so difficult for them to vote for a representative of their community and have that person go to the state level of government and represent their interests relatively well.
Nowadays, you will find politicians representing hundreds of thousands of people where they once would have represented hundreds. Furthermore, representatives are so far removed from their constituents that there is very little potential for accountability.
This system was necessary to make democracy possible back then because there was no easy way to count votes or collect information about the will of the people. The only way to communicate with a large number of people at once was to be a speaker in a room with a silent audience. The fastest form of long distance communication was a written note delivered by messenger on horseback. On account of the information mediums of the day, representatives were the only viable way to collect and enact the will of the people.
Technologically speaking, our reality is fundamentally different from the world of 1776. No one is likely to argue with that statement. In the last 242 years we have gained the ability to travel anywhere in the world in less than a day, we created a worldwide network of computers, we’ve gone to the moon, lived in space, and it is common for everyone to carry a tiny supercomputer on their body at all times. With all that advancement, our government has stayed mostly the same.
All things must adapt or die; this is a fundamental law of evolution. And let’s be real, our current government isn’t going to create paradise on earth. It is time to envision what we want the government of the 21st century to look like.
We should openly consider all sorts of possibilities, but we don’t have to let go of our democratic ideals to find something that might suit us better. There are experiments happening right now that shine light on what the future of democracy might look like.
Liquid Democracy is one of the more promising possibilities. It is a sort of merger between representative democracy and direct democracy, where we can get the positive qualities from both without having to deal with the major negatives of either.
When Direct Democracy is brought up in modern conversations, most people scoff. Direct Democracy only really works when the vast majority of the electorate participates in every collective decision. At small scales, this works pretty well. If I live in a house with four other people and we decide to have a conversation and vote on any issue that affects all of us (dishes, sweeping, laundry, etc.), the system is effective. Everybody is informed and it is easy for all of us to get together to find consensus and vote.
If we scale this system up to hundreds of thousands of people, with decisions like how to write immigration laws, economic policies, and how to best allocate tax funds, the system quickly breaks down. In an age where we vote maybe twice a year, and voter participation is quite low, it's hard to imagine the electorate coming together to vote on big and small issues on a weekly basis.
Furthermore, for most of American history, our population was too big and our lands too vast for it to be reasonable to take a vote on anything but the largest issues. There was just no way to collect all the votes. The internet does not directly solve the other problems with scaling direct democracy, but the particular problem of literally collecting all the votes is no longer relevant. Most people in America have access to the internet, and modern encryption techniques, not to mention blockchain technologies, make large scale, anonymous voting technically feasible.
Of course, people tend to bring up direct democracy specifically when they are feeling frustrated with representative democracy. In our current system, as regular citizens, we get a chance to vote only every once in a while, and we have very little choice regarding what is on the ballot. We have nearly no way to propose new initiatives, and once we vote on a representative, we are stuck with them until the term is over. Big money buys most of these representatives and there is no good way to make sure that they stay accountable to what they said they would do in their campaign. The people have little to no say in how they are governed.
If we are to decide between these two systems, we are deciding between an overly cumbersome, every-voter-gets-a-new-full-time-job system, and a system that is a mockery of democracy.
Alternatively, Liquid Democracy starts with the same premise as Direct Democracy: every voter has the option to suggest and vote on legislation. They have every right to participate in every collective decision. The ability to delegate your vote to another person is where Liquid Democracy differs. For any decision where voter A feels that they are uninformed, don’t care, or are simply too busy to participate directly, they are able to give their vote to another person. Person B’s vote then becomes worth two votes. This allows us to keep the principles of Direct Democracy while creating a system that scales.
This sort of system is beneficial from a Hedonist perspective because it allows each of us to make our voice heard on every issue that we feel affects our pleasure. Liquid Democracy gives us the potential to consent to our government in ways that are currently not possible. It may not be the perfect solution to the incompatibilities between Hedonism and the current American government, but it shows that we need not feel stuck with our current system. Something may be better.
Looking to the Future
If we distill away the awful parts of early America, we are left with a truly audacious, revolutionary spirit. The founding fathers, perhaps the first to do so on a large scale in all of history, decided to take a solid step away from the old governing structures and design something entirely new. They decided to turn away from the old so that they could find and create something that actually suited their needs and desires.
As I walk in a protest march, I can’t help but think that this is what it must have been like at the beginning of the American Revolution. When I listen to the musical Hamilton, I am not inspired by the specific battles or the specific policies they enacted; I am inspired by the belief that they could create a system that was radically better suited to their needs. If there is anything worthwhile about the american experiment, it is this spirit of change.
The gift of the founding fathers was not the constitution; it was the spirit of revolution.
Liquid Democracy might be a terrible failure. The point of this article isn’t to say that we have found the solution to our political problems, but to suggest that clinging to our old systems will get in the way of finding new solutions. We need a radically different type of government to deal with the problems of this century, and we won’t be able to even consider alternatives if we cling to solutions that are over 200 years old.
The legitimacy of a government is directly proportional to its devotion to the pleasure of the governed. As of now, our government simply isn’t designed to be devoted to all of its people. It isn’t designed to be legitimate.
It is time to create the government that can help us create paradise on earth. It is time to be curious about what comes next.