Comments on What’s wrong with Liquid Democracy?

(Comments on the original text in Italics).

Leadership without Elected Leaders

Using Liquid Democracy as a principle for inner organisation of political parties or any other kind of social structure of humans allows to avoid the traditional approach of representative leadership. Both Partito Pirata and Lista Partecipata work with such a method of online decision-making and replaced the traditional board by a series of control organs and special appointees.

First, we need to address the scope of our critique. One possible scope can be a critique of LQDM vis-à-vis existing systems of representative democracy. Another can be a critique of LQDM in its own right (i.e. what might be its problems?). I think it is the latter that is most fruitful (assuming that LQDM is indeed generally better than traditional forms of representative democracy).

Improving the Transparency of Trust Relationships

It is quite problematic in Representative Democracy that trust towards a representative is an intransitive relationship. Liquid Democracy makes this aspect openly visible, teaching the delegating person to choose a better person to delegate to, whenever the previous one has been acting in a dissatisfactoring way.

But: we need to be clear in what way transparency is provided: namely only in terms of either trusting (delegating vote) or non-trusting. This has two implications: (1) trust becomes a binary relationship and (2) the why of trusting remains obscure.

In particular Liquid Democracy allows to change the trust delegation at any time, without having to wait for the next round of elections and without needing to coordinate with other participants. That alone makes liquid delegations fundamentally different from representative elections.

Secret Vote is an Instrument of Lobbyism

It is generally assumed, that secret vote serves the purpose to protect the parliamentary from being coerced to vote in ways against their will. Research has shown instead, that secret vote is a much more powerful instrument of corruption. If the parliamentary wants to do a favour to a lobbyist they need a secret vote in order to be able to deny any influence. Research at Berkeley University questions the usefulness of secret voting:


We found that the imposition of the secret ballot always increases the scope of vote buying — more people vote insincerely under the secret ballot than under the open ballot. We also found circumstances where, paradoxically, the imposition of the secret ballot makes it easier for interest groups to wield influence. In particular, for close elections where the bulk of the supporters of an interest group’s desired policy are lukewarm, it is cheaper for that interest group to buy the election under the secret ballot than under the open ballot. Taken together, this suggests that the common intuition about the effectiveness of the secret ballot as a robust deterrent to electoral corruption needs to be revisited.

I don’t know this particular research, but a crucial question would be what scale of democratic participation this was applied to. Intuitively, I think the conclusions make more sense for smaller groups (e.g. voting within the Eurogroup, where transparency is a virtue) than for larger groups (e.g. voting within a large federal stage, where transparency might be problematic).

With its history of mafia, subversion and corruption it is quite surprising that the people of Sicily would choose Liquid Feedback as a tool to collaboratively develop their election program in full transparency, with profile photos and names and surnames.

The motherland of the mafia is sick of its social cancer. It has understood that standing up in masses makes them immune, using transparency as a weapon. When hundreds or thousands take the right decisions together, what is the mafia politician to do? How can the lobbyist wield influence?

As it does not work to manipulate opinions within Liquid Democracy, it was the only option for the spin doctors to damage the acceptance of the instrument itself. In Germany this has been quite successful, although none of the criticism is founded on facts.

I don’t see how opinions cannot be manipulated in LQDM, and this might be a severe weakness. I see two types of LQDM: with one layer (one person delegates her/his vote to one other person – end of the line) or hierarchical (one person delegates another person, who delegates another person, ad infinitum). The latter form, which seems most viable for larger groups, does seem to have the weakness of “opinion manipulation”. Because “layers” in this hierarchy can become corrupt, they can build trust in the layer below on the basis of persuasion and control trust to their super delegate above through coercion (if you don’t support x, we (the layer) won’t delegate our vote). In other words, undesirable coordination seems possible in large systems of LQDM. You could answer that the problem is information (if the lower layer would realise they would be persuaded on bad grounds, they would revoke their delegations), but this is exactly the problem of opinion manipulation itself – to which LQDM does not offer a direct solution.

Improving Participation with Liquid Democracy

In the year 2010, with the introduction of Liquid Feedback as a nationwide survey tool for the German Pirates, the tool saw a staggering participation of over ten thousand people. That is roughly a third of the size of the entire party at the time. Usually active participation in political parties is below ten percent, yet Liquid Democracy mobilised over a third! The only reason the number of participants quickly collapsed was because the tool didn’t get properly integrated into the party statutes. The results of the surveys were ignored by the activerts that dominated the physical general assemblies, so the Piraten killed the tool that could have made them make a difference. With such a large chunk of population regularly participating in Liquid Feedback, such an electronic parliament could very well be the path for better citizen participation in any democracy, being not only more efficient than paper referendums, but also wiser.

Yes, but: a “party” is a group with a certain size, portraying a certain homogeneity in terms of preferences and “reasons for action”. This will be a problem later on.

As late as March 2015, researchers of the Mainz and Cologne universities published a paper called Voting Behaviour and Power in Online Democracy: A Study of LiquidFeedback in Germany’s Pirate Party describing how democratising a liquid democratic platform can be. How the so-called “super delegates” stabilise the democratic will, protecting effectively against demagogy and manipulation.

How Important is the Inactive Majority?

Just because in most countries a majority of citizen doesn’t actually want to be involved with everyday politics, even a minority of a percent, if representative of its population and equipped with a corruption- and lobby-resistant technology such as Liquid Feedback, can make political choices that are more in the interest of the general population than any few hundred elected parliamentarians possibly could.

The question I asked myself is how to get the grandmother who lives two doors down to use the computer, or how to get the mother of 5 children two floors down to do the same.

Is this really the right question to ask, David Bovill?

Yes, this is a perfect legitimate question to ask, when considering the scale of a country or a large federation; and less so when considering a political party such as the Pirates. In the former case, generalised participation is very important because if politics get usurped by a small minority that happens to be willing and able to use a certain means of communication, democracy is negated even if the people within that group act democratically amongst themselves.

If, in a choice of suboptimal variations of democracy, you focus on collecting everybody’s opinion rather than working towards consensus, you will run into the many problems of direct democracy and once again re-enforce the rule of representation.

This indeed is an undesirable alternative. But we shouldn’t frame this as a binary choice (i.e. either LQDM or direct democracy, in its vulgar sense).

In February 2017, a research study was published that found out how aggregated knowledge from a small number of debates outperforms the wisdom of large crowds.

This is interesting research, but: “wisdom” is identified here as accuracy. You can be more accurate with a group of people solving a puzzle than one person on her or his own, but can the same be said about political decisions? Sometimes, this seems to be a false assumption because group opinion can be manipulated, whereas the aims of a puzzle usually are beyond dispute.

So a couple of roundtables of average Brits could have made a wiser choice than the BREXIT referendum.

This is not proven by the abovementioned study, for reasons given above.

What if these roundtables weren’t actually limited in size of participation? That is essentially what a correct use of liquid democracy enables — maximizing on the ability of humans to make better decisions when doing so in a collaborative way rather then summing up everybody’s prejudices and indoctrinations.

But: I do see how LQDM on a large scale could lead to a “hierarchy of trust” that is actually very rigid and based on prejudices and indoctrinations. How would this be an impossibility?

Considering the depressing condition of our worldwide representative democracies, it would be a quantum leap into a brighter future if all the ones who care about what is going on, finally get to have a say. And we’ve seen in our deployment in Italy that, as soon as we agreed to take decisions on the platform, all the pensioners (who traditionally are the spinal column of Italian politics) quickly figured out how to have their say on it.

It was merely a question of not offering any alternative, which is one of the preconditions for successful deployment listed in the “Principles of Liquid Feedback” book. If the extroverts can bypass the platform and impose their will in a physical assembly, the platform will no longer be of interest.

Whereas, whenever somebody has a brilliant idea to contribute (if we are working towards consensus, then it’s the ideas, facts and perspectives that count, not the opinions), the German Pirates experienced that a competent person in their social surroundings would help them have it contributed to the platform. No important contribution gets lost.

This idea of text based, deliberative democracy, is fundamentally elitist hacker culture.

No, certainly not. Parliaments aren’t hackerspaces.

But the question is whether parliament is the right level of comparison, our a country’s population as a whole? This leads us back to David’s earlier comment.

All political will needs to be fixated in written words or the next speaker will turn it around to mean the opposite.

Indeed, decisions need to be fixated in written words, but decision-making (i.e. the process) need not be.

Therefore written text is an absolute inevitable necessity for any legal transaction, including taking decisions for large common goods like a city, a nation, a continent or our finite planet. Again, anyone can express a new perspective on a political problem in form of a speech or video, but then, in order to work with it, somebody needs to care sufficiently to put it in written form.

What you describe is a perfect medium for a certain type of human – it is ideal democracy for hacker culture.

Liquid Feedback and similarly advanced platforms reflect the complexity of a parliamentary system. Everyone who tries to do something super-intuitive will first start out with something far too simplistic and then in the process of improving and fixing the problems, end up re-inventing existing tools with their need to learn the concepts behind collective rationality and debate. The idea that this can be simple is a fallacy, and hackers need just about the same amount of time to understand liquid democracy as anybody else.

I don’t really get this point. Yes, decision-making is complex, but what does this entail for LQDM?

We should recognise that there is a real danger of hackers / coders becoming the new lawyers, bankers, politicians and high priests of our age.

Yes, but that is because technology has been left in an unregulated condition for several decades now, allowing the market to never put the necessary amount of attention into computer security. But that is a debate we are discussing elsewhere.

We need to recognise that people who see things this way are not “rational” while other people are “irrational”. They are just different.

Individual Cartesian Rationality has failed. It has succumbed under the weight of psychological biases. That’s why further below in this document we discuss Collective Rationality.

But this doesn’t answer the question of the place of irrationality, which can be displayed at the level of the individual and the collective?

For those reasons we need physical meetings, we need face-to-face discussions, we need art, and documentary, and anthropological techniques in our politics and our political systems.

It is wonderful to have face-to-face exchanges of ideas, but when it comes down to structuring consensus, real-life encounters fail blatantly.

How to substantiate this claim? I feel that real-life encounters are great for consensus building and structuring, how can we decide upon whom is right or wrong here?

Don’t try to replace liquid democracy with them, as they have demonstrated for thousands of years to be inadequate.

Who is to Bear the Responsibility of Consequences?

For each successful proposal in Liquid Democracy there are authors whose heads can roll. Wherever there is no elected board, there must be a coordinating group to guide the implementation of the collective decisions. In fact, the responsibility usually lies with the taxpayer who has to finance the good and the bad choices of the politicians. By bringing decision-making power back to the collectivity, we are bringing it back to the ones who already bear the financial consequences.

Those cantons of Switzerland that make their finance planning using direct democratic decision-making have been shown to be much more reasonable in the use of financial resources than their representative counterparts. Representative politics motivates its actors to make themselves be seen for re-election, whereby money plays a secondary role. Again, Liquid Democracy is a tool for more reasonable politics also regarding finances and expenses.

Before, you criticised direct democracy. How is direct democracy in these cantons different and how does it relate to LQDM?

And there it was, unexpectedly: the Collective Intelligence

Only few installations of Liquid Feedback had such a large number of participants to show the impressive effects of collective intelligence that the Piraten experienced in those early years. Whenever several smart people would work on the proposals together, the quality would rise to impressive levels. No way that somebody would be able to slip in a non-scientific statement, nor a special interest earmark. No way a demagogic initiative would arrive to the voting phase without getting unmasked first. There were always enough people paying attention. It would take a massive public relations effort to convince an entire parliament, be it physical or virtual, to agree on a false information. Even then, liquid democracy is better suited to dismantle a falsehood than a traditional representative parliament.

But here, again, the specific task is very important to consider. Consider these differences: arguably, (1) a group of people is better in solving a puzzle, (2) a group of people is better at setting up an engineering project for a new bridge, (3) a group of people is better at developing and maintaining a large software project, BUT (4) an individual programmer is better at coming up with a revolutionary proof of concept, (5) an individual writer is better at writing a ground-breaking novel than a group of writers and (6) an individual thinker can better construct a coherent framework of thought and (7) an individual poet can better write a single piece of poetry.

What is “wisdom” here, how does it come about and how does it play a role in decision-making? “Politics”, here, is a hybrid “craftsmanship” that includes many of the above.

Liquid Democracy needs to be accompanied by a Methods of Collective Rationality

While methods of Direct Democracy can trigger demagogic effects of collective satisfaction which are not based on facts, this is quite different with the Liquid Democracy procedures. Only rationally convincing argumentations can produce the necessary consensus. The Dunning-Kruger effect, for example, by which the incompetent isn’t aware of their own incompetence, is dampened in Liquid Feedback, as both the above research papers illustrate. This is the case for several psychological biases which would otherwise come to play in Direct or Representative Democracy. The delegations also serve a purpose of compensating for the deficiencies of individual psychology and rationality.

That’s it!

Frequently people tend to expect Liquid Democracy to fulfil some wondersome ideal of political perfection. That kind of rhetoric distracts from the fact that it is a great step forward from the broken status quo of Representation. Liquid democracy is the new least worse form of governance, nothing more and nothing less.

Indeed, this is what we agree with! But this does not disqualify critique, as indicated in the introduction.



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