Article Governance

Liquid Democracy and the Future of Governance

Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world. — Archimedes

Beyond Nations

I care about the future of governance. Should you care too? With headlines all around us describing the global retreat of democracy, it might be time to radically rethink the future of our global political system.

You don’t have to major in political science or have a long history of activism and canvassing to be engaged in this discussion. I came to care through my studies in civil engineering and brief professional experiences. Whether through my interaction with the public sector through my work, or feeling of community and belonging in the cities that I’ve lived, I desired a more comprehensive picture of how public sector decisions are made.

I wanted to know how to use levers of policy and finance to create lasting change. A few books, city budget meetings, utility company hearings (yes, you read that right), and resident engagement sessions later, you could say I was hooked on exploring more systemic solutions. What is the invisible system that shapes infrastructure? It is governance, culture, and, as a result of the two, policy. Policies, as noted by Dan Hill, “shape the conditions in which society and culture unfold.”

I was drawn to infrastructure because I view it as the system that shapes our lives, and therefore the human condition. What we build, and how we shape our physical world, are outward expressions of our inward disposition. Our cities are monuments to our collective values, ambitions, and aspirations—they are the physical evidence of our species being greater than the sum of its parts. Government is the mechanism informing how we decide to sum these parts into a whole. If the governments we create reflect our deepest-held ideals for our individual and collective success, then there is no greater challenge than good governance.

The Tools of Future Governance

Just as cities are a collective monument to our aspirations, I see government as the human race coming together to achieve more than the sum of our parts. Just as effective transit systems, renewable energy sources, and safe housing allow us access and opportunity, good governance sets the stage for a good society that allows each citizen to pursue his or her own dream. Systems of governance, at their best, allow us all the freedom to discover our own truths and provide a platform for our own discovery and curiosity.

In the 20th century, government used siloed and analog systems to advance inequality and unfair opportunity. Think, for example, about the large mid-century government housing programs that built wealth for many Americans but excluded minority populations. We are now on the precipice of a transition to more equitable networked and digital systems, and we have new tools to re-imagine governance.

Civic techtechnology that enables engagement, participation, or enhances the relationship between the people and governmenthas become a field unto its own, and digital governance initiatives such as United States Digital Service, Government Digital Service, and 18F, which seek to improve government services through digital transformation, are growing. Prominent academics are calling for “A New City O/S.” Technology alone won’t save us, but used as a means to a new end, it can be powerful force for good.

Our ability to use digital tools to create dramatically different governance structures is a revolution 400 years in the making. Our current global governance structure, conceived in 1648, was built on the Westphalian Sovereignty principle that “every state, no matter how large or small, has an equal right to sovereignty,” which is a foundational principle of the United Nations. This definition has been modified recently by Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, which demands states protect all populations from mass atrocity crimes and human rights violations. Richard Haas says we should shift the definition of sovereignty altogether, away from sovereignty as responsibility and toward sovereign obligation.

Westphalian Sovereignty was created to end the Thirty Years’ War, but is it adaptable enough to underpin our current geopolitical system? It might be time for an update. One novel idea is currently championed by Democracy Earth. The organization is developing an open-source distributed governance system to power the next big ideas in democracy. How we relate to each other through governance systems could look very different in the near future.

Currently, Democracy Earth is building Sovereign, a decentralized democratic governance protocol for any kind of organization, built on three premises: liquid democracy, ‘own your data,’ and borderless government.

Image result for liquid democracy
Liquid democracy graphic from Luke Duncan

Of all three premises, liquid democracy seems most popular, and plenty has been written about it. In short, the goal is a mix of direct and representative democracy. You can either vote on an issue you care about directly or delegate your vote for topics you know or care less about to another.

Built using blockchain, Democracy Earth is shifting the current borders and structures of government toward a decentralized networked structure. A “global village” if you will. But will networked governance make our governments more effective? Ideally, our governments are great problem solvers, and problems are better solved when the “solver” is closer to the problem and its context. Are our centralized governments nimble and empathetic enough to address the day-to-day problems of their residents?

In an attempt to improve, some governments around the world are going through processes of devolution, pushing political and financial power to the local level. Why is “local” important? Taiye Selasi addresses this beautifully in her TED Talk about our human condition being “multi-local” not multinational.

To me, a country—this thing that could be born, die, expand, contract—hardly seemed the basis for understanding a human being… History was real, cultures were real, but countries were invented. — Taiye Selasi

How might we reinvent governance that mirrors our human condition?

The Veil of Global Governance

A just society is a society that if you knew everything about it, you’d be willing to enter it in a random place. — John Rawls

I am lucky. By chance, I was born well-off in the United States, vaulting me to the top of the global food chain. In this country, we speak about the choice to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps while ignoring the fact that the chance of our nationality defines an innumerable amount of the choices we have. Where we are born among the system of nation-states is our biggest “chance,” in many ways defining the equality and liberty we receive. The idea of national citizenship holds a tension; its is in many ways egalitarian, but by definition it is exclusive. A new definition of sovereignty that restructures our global political system may be able to better achieve equality and liberty worldwide. Look below; the most precious commodity we each have, our very lives, can be cut short 20 years by the chance of birthplace.

From: World Health Organization

John Rawls’s veil of ignorance asks us to act and make decisions as if “no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor… his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.” If we put on Rawls’ veil of ignorance, would we build the system of global governance that we have today? Or is there a better system—one that gives back the agency that Westphalian models take?

A Borderless Nation

What does a nation look like built on shared values, 21st-century technology, and inherent inclusivity? Can we create a system of global governance not built on ideals from 1648, but reinvented for the 21st century?

One such idea is launching—the Good Country. At its core, it is a virtual nation not defined by borders but by relationships and values. This way of thinking might just accomplish more effectively the liberal ideals of freedom and equality.

The Good Country is digital and is open to residents regardless of what country they are a citizen of. Individuals who may be interested are likely:

  • People who think of themselves as members of the human race first, and citizens of their own country second;
  • People who would like governments to focus more on collaborating and less on competing;
  • People who don’t mistrust or dislike other people just because they come from a different background; and
  • People who see a great future for humanity if only we could learn to work as one.

The Good Country is hoping to enroll 200,000 people, with an ultimate goal of 760 million. The Good Country exists to prove that if countries learn to work together, then we can start making real progress against the grand challenges of poverty and inequality, climate change and conflict, migration and pandemics.

How will people feel about voting online? Will the Good Country be able to achieve recognition from the international community? Is it possible to build an inclusive community of people who share similar values but otherwise have vastly different life experiences? These are all important questions that new digital projects in the civic tech space will have to contend with.

Others projects, such as Estonia’s e-Residency program, are also testing the boundaries of the typical nation-state by allowing individuals from around the world to access services within Estonia and start a European Union company online. Friend groups are becoming more and more global, and lines on a map seem more arbitrary every day. Tim Berners-Lee idealized the World Wide Web as a global electronic network that would unite humanity beyond all the differences of analog geography. The dream of a unified world is moving forward through the creation of civic tech like the Good Country.

Building our Shared Future

The vision of Westphalian Sovereignty in 1648 wasn’t fully realized until 1945 with the founding of the United Nations. If we start redefining sovereignty now, who knows when our new vision will ultimately take root. But if our goals can be accomplished in our lifetime, then maybe our goals aren’t bold enough? We share the responsibility to shape ourselves and our future. How we decide to self-govern is the grandest expression of our collective desire to create a good universe.