Let’s Include Everyone: A Global, Liquid Democracy on a Blockchain

The following entry was submitted to the Global Challenges Foundation’s New Shape Prize competition in September, 2017, on behalf of One Global Democracy and our partner organization, the Democracy.Earth Foundation.  The competition offers $5 million in prize money for proposals on how best to restructure global governance. The competition winners will be announced in May, 2018.

Although this entry was written to conform to the competition’s rules and format, the discussion it contains is relevant more broadly.  (This version is lightly updated from the original submission, to reflect changes in facts since the original submission, and with added hyperlinks, which were limited in the original by the competition’s rules.)

1. Abstract

Humanity’s greatest challenges today are global, not limited by national boundaries. Examples include stopping climate change, reversing inequality, eliminating the risk of war, and unlocking economic opportunity for everyone.  Yet our global governance system is failing to solve these problems, primarily because it is comprised of separate countries, whose defining attribute is an absence of accountability beyond their borders.

This archaic system of separate countries no longer works, and it’s no longer necessary.

Today, for the first time in human history, we have a better option.  Using blockchain technology and a new model called liquid democracy, we can now enable everyone on Earth to participate directly, if they so choose, in a global democracy.  

Blockchains are the secure, distributed ledger technology that powers Bitcoin and Ethereum, and is being rapidly adopted by major institutions today.  

Liquid democracy is a new model of voting logic, enabling everyone either to vote directly on issues, or to assign transferable proxies to someone they trust to vote on their behalf.  Each person can revoke their proxies at will, and reassign them or vote directly.

Initially, we can introduce a new global governance layer as an umbrella over today’s countries, with its mandate limited at first to certain matters that can only be handled at the global level, such as climate change.  Critically, the global layer must not depend on countries for its authority; rather, countries must grant the necessary authority to it at the outset, by treaty; otherwise the structure is no different from what we have today.

Over time, with the global layer in place, people will come to see that more and more issues either can be handled locally or require global cooperation.  The mandates of the global layer and of localities will grow, and more authority will shift to them. Gradually, countries will lose relevance and fade from the picture.

Even as the new global democracy takes root, most issues can be handled locally.  Applying the principle of subsidiarity, every issue will be handled at the most local level capable of addressing it.  The global layer will handle only those issues that can not be resolved more locally.

As in any democracy, there must be checks on the power of the majority.  A global constitution will guarantee fundamental human rights for everyone.

Our global democracy will have the power to protect these rights, and to enforce laws and policies enacted globally, through armed force, just as national governments exercise similar authority within their borders today.

Yet those who fear “big government” should bear in mind that increased citizen participation through the global liquid democracy will naturally limit the scope of enforcement discretion, thus constraining the growth of executive power.

A global democracy is undeniably an audacious goal.  “Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals” (BHAGs), are widely recognized as effective tools to generate enthusiasm and commitment to a shared purpose.  They can unlock humanity’s potential for tremendous progress, as when the US rose to President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to put a person on the moon.  BHAGs also stimulate valuable advances along the way: the original moonshot has been credited with spurring the development of computer technology and the internet.  In our case, setting the goal of a global democracy within our lifetimes will not only make its achievement more likely; it will also put today’s countries on notice that the global public demands greater international cooperation, now, on urgent threats such as climate change.

Of course, a goal requires a strategy.  Our strategy is two-fold.

First, we can support and help drive the adoption of secure, blockchain-based voting, beginning in low-stakes elections and leveling up over time.  As people develop comfort with blockchain-based voting, and as the technology proves itself, we can level up to apply blockchain voting in larger and more consequential settings, such as city, state/province, and national elections.  We can gradually introduce the liquid democracy logic, and also pair it with deliberative fora so that people can generate their own policy proposals, discuss them, and vote on them in a set of closely linked, official platforms.

Within the foreseeable future, we can use these tools to enable whole populations to participate in transnational deliberation and voting on policy matters such as international trade agreements, crowd-sourcing the text and ratifying the agreements directly.  From there, the last step, to a global democracy handling all global matters, will be a far shorter one than it is today.

Second, we must build a movement calling for a global democracy, generating a public conversation about its feasibility and benefits, and telling a new, uplifting story of the brighter future we can create together.

To its great credit, the Global Challenges Foundation has launched the present competition to stimulate this vital conversation on how we can best restructure global governance.  

Many more contributions are also needed to advance this movement, such as the production of films and other popular media exploring the idea of a global democracy, along with collateral materials such as discussion guides and curricula, and the convening of meetings and informal gatherings to discuss this topic.  

This is an opportune moment. In the face of increasingly clear global threats, numerous prominent leaders have called for increased global cooperation in one form or another.  So, although our central idea of a global democracy remains outside the mainstream for now, we have a wealth of material from credible sources to draw on.

Times are dark, but people have woken up to the dangers we face.  We now have a chance to chart a new, more hopeful, and audacious course to our shared future: a global, liquid democracy on a blockchain.  An equal voice for everyone.

The time for this bold idea has come.

 

2. Description of the Model

“Perhaps, above all, we must reimagine our connection to one another as members of one human race… The irreducible worth of every person, the insistence that every life is precious, the radical and necessary notion that we are part of a single human family — that is the story that we all must tell.”Former US President Barack Obama at Hiroshima, May 27, 2016

Separate Countries are Failing Us

The world today is falling apart in the face of escalating crises including climate change, inequality, refugee migration, and the resurgent threat of nuclear war.  We are also failing to maximize economic opportunity for everyone.

Our collective failure to address each of these global challenges results directly from the artificial and archaic division of humanity into separate countries.  

The defining attribute of a country is accountability to nobody beyond its own borders.  Today, it is painfully clear that our continued reliance on the broken model of separate countries threatens human survival.

Separate countries have been the basic building blocks of international order since the treaty of Westphalia in 1648.  At that time, they were the best we could do to limit warfare and establish peace and stability. But the world has changed a great deal since then, through advances such as Newton’s articulation of the laws of physics, domesticated electricity, motorized transportation, telecommunications & the internet, and now blockchains.  It’s now both absurd and tragic that our governance systems remain stuck 350 years in the past, as we face urgent needs for global cooperation.

Here’s a brief review of how separate countries are structurally central to our failure to resolve the five major issues cited above.

1. Climate change: Every day brings fresh news of this rapidly intensifying threat to human survival: hurricanes, wildfires, ice caps and permafrost melting, coral reefs dying, tropical diseases spreading, droughts impacting food supplies, thereby driving waves of refugees and wars.  Obviously, climate change is a global problem: carbon emissions do not respect borders. So we can only solve it together, as a global community. If any major country or bloc of countries opts out, the whole world is cooked.

2. Economic inequality: In addition to gross international disparities in wealth, domestic economic inequality is shredding the social fabric within countries everywhere, leading to the election of despotic strongmen such as Trump, fomenting mistrust of global cooperation by elites, and driving the dissolution of our our most promising international institutions in cases such as “Brexit”.  Economic inequality, too, is an inescapably global problem, though less obviously so than climate change:

As leaders including former German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, former Pope Benedict, and Thomas Piketty have pointed out, the only way truly to address inequality is via a global tax system.  Otherwise, ultra-wealthy individuals will continue to hide money in Panama, the Cayman Islands, etc., while the most prosperous corporations locate fictitious “headquarters” in low-tax countries such as Ireland, to shirk their fair share of redistributive taxation. 

3. Refugee migration: Huge waves of refugees are being driven from their homes by economic and political desperation, resulting both from droughts and lack of food, i.e. climate change, and from inequality under corrupt national governments.  They’re destabilizing other countries, leading to disintegrating pressures on the EU, and contributing to the rise of reactionary, right-wing politicians everywhere.

Refugee migration highlights the need for a global system that includes and protects everyone. Many political refugees could stay home if human rights were truly guaranteed globally.  Economic migration would just be called “relocating” if borders were open and people could move freely, as we all may do within our home countries today.

4. Nuclear war is suddenly a real risk again, as North Korea flaunts its developing missile and nuclear capabilities, while the US president threatens North Korea with annihilation.  Nuclear-armed China implicitly stands behind North Korea, while also making plays for regional military dominance and global economic primacy, which the US frames as a threat.  And longstanding tensions between the US and Russia, between India and Pakistan, and in the Middle East simmer on as ever. Here again, the link to separate countries is obvious. Our present structure threatens everyone’s survival.

5. Economic opportunity: We are also sacrificing a major economic upside for the sake of separate countries, equal to the entire world’s current output.  Billions of smart, capable people are stuck in countries where they can not make full use of their intelligence and talents. For example, think of a would-be physicist in Bangladesh.  Economists affiliated with the Cato Institute have calculated that if we open all the world’s borders and let people move freely to wherever they can earn the most, the resulting economic growth would double the world’s GDP.  That’s tens of trillions of dollars in foregone prosperity, which would make a vast difference toward eliminating poverty.

These are just five of the biggest ways separate countries are failing us.  There are many more: human trafficking (victims lose their rights when whisked across borders, contributing to their captivity); disease response (poor international coordination has been blamed for 10,000 Ebola deaths); the list goes on.

We Need a Global Democracy

We urgently need a new global system including everyone, with an equal voice, and global guarantees of human rights, including the freedom to relocate anywhere.  

In short, we need a global democracy.  

What would this mean?  Let’s begin from first principles, and design the best system we can envision.

We propose these core principles:

  • Everyone, everywhere, is included.
  • Everyone has a direct voice in handling the global issues that affect us all.
  • Every person’s vote counts equally.
  • We are all accountable to each other; separate national sovereignty is phased out.
  • Fundamental human rights are constitutionally guaranteed.  These include freedoms of speech, assembly, movement, religion, privacy, and freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, rights to public information, due process of law, and a livable environment, and additional rights identified in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (discussed below under Argumentation / Core Values).

Although this set of principles may seem naively utopian at first glance, in fact it’s surprisingly achievable, as we’ll describe below.

We can do it within 10 to 20 years if we pull together.

How is this Possible?  Through Two New Technologies

New technology is now making it possible (1) for everyone, worldwide to vote securely online, and (2) for every person to have a direct voice on policy, or, optionally, to delegate their vote to someone they trust.

The keys are: (1) blockchains and (2) liquid democracy.

Blockchains for Security

Blockchains are the technology that powers Bitcoin, Ethereum, and a rapidly growing number of other platforms and services.  Blockchain applications are proliferating, and dominating investment markets today, because of their security and immutability.

A blockchain is a massive, distributed electronic ledger that records transactions in a single, cumulative sequence, each transaction verifiable by anyone who cares to look.  This provides an unprecedented level of security for electronic transactions. It eliminates the risk of hacking. (Although hacks often compromise the accounts of individual holders of Bitcoin etc., it is the individual account credentials, and not the core ledger, that are vulnerable to attack.  The core ledger is immutable.)

Major financial institutions, and international organizations such as the UN, are adopting blockchains to leverage these benefits.  So far, most are focused on financial transactions, but blockchains can also be applied to any purpose where reliability is essential, such as voting.

Blockchain transactions are based on transferring unique digital cryptographic keys.  In blockchain voting, each voter has a unique digital key to assign for each vote she chooses to cast, like a ballot.  After voting, the voter can see her unique key, along with her voting choice, in the blockchain, to verify that her vote was properly recorded.  And everyone can see the entire ledger of votes, collectively monitoring against hacking and ensuring the overall integrity of the system.

Critical Success Factors: Voter Anonymity, Unique Identity, Closing the Digital Divide, and Scaling

Voter anonymity, also known as the secret ballot, is a cornerstone of modern democracy. 

On a blockchain, voter anonymity is protected because, in fact, the keys described above are paired.  Each pair consists of both a public key and a private key.  The public key will tell anyone who looks at the blockchain that, for example “voter number 2,967,349,509,681 voted at X time.”  The private key, known only to the individual voter, tells her she is voter number 2,967,349,509,681. The rest of the transaction record, or block, indicates that this vote was cast for outcome Y.  The resulting anonymity is of paramount importance, to prevent coercion.

Yet it’s important to acknowledge that no voting system can ever perfectly protect the values of voter anonymity, vote verifiability, and election system integrity all at once; tradeoffs are inevitable.  For example, the most secure low-tech alternative, a paper ballot, is vulnerable to theft and destruction; reliable hand-counts are unlikely to scale globally: there are simply too many opportunities for human malfeasance.  

It’s also important to consider whether we gain anything at a systemic level if we insist on perfect anonymity at the expense of verifiability and system integrity.  Election results can be — and have been — called into question, and without an immutable record such as a blockchain, a voter has no way to know if her vote was properly counted.

Although there have been cases where the anonymity of blockchain private keys has been compromised, cracking them is resource intensive, especially at scale.  In addition, anonymity protection is an active frontier of blockchain development, led by platforms such as Zcash, which claim to fully protect user anonymity.

Robust anonymity, though imperfect, is at the core of blockchain design.  With ongoing development, and considering the tradeoffs, we believe it’s strong enough to rely on.

Unique identity is also critical to any voting system, akin to voter registration, or a driver’s license or passport, to ensure that each person has exactly one voting account.  This too is an active focus of development, led by platforms such as Blockstack.

There is a design challenge in how best to ensure that new identities are authentic and unique.  Here too, no system is perfect — witness forgeries of passports and other paper-based identification systems.  

A promising design is for each new person to digitally record a short facial video self-portrait, label it with her claimed identity, e.g. “Jane P. Smith, born July 18, 1999 in Stockton, CA, USA”, and upload it to a blockchain, where other people who know her (and whose identities are already blockchain-verified) confirm, “Yes, this is Jane P. Smith”.  This leverages crowdsourcing for authentication, in a way that finer-grained biometrics such as retinal scanning, DNA testing or fingerprinting can not, because those measures are not easily readable to most people, while faces certainly are. In addition, moving video offers added security against spoofing, in comparison to still portraits.

Scaling, or ensuring adequate computational power to record votes by billions of people on a blockchain, is a non-trivial challenge.  This too is an ongoing, active development frontier. And as Moore’s Law notes, computing power tends to double every two years.  Quantum computing will help. (Although limits to Moore’s law have recently been predicted, so far technology has always continued to advance.)

Digital divide: A democracy is only global if everyone on Earth can access it.  We must close the digital divide. While there’s a long way to go, major technology companies are investing heavily in the race to connect the world’s population to the internet.  Measured geographically, the divide is closing steadily, even before these investments bear fruit. Demographic statistics showing that internet usage correlates with youth also suggest that the inexorable transition of generations will help close the digital divide.

Considering all of this, it seems likely that the digital divide will be essentially closed within 10 to 20 years, perhaps sooner.

In summary, blockchains can now provide the necessary technological platform to securely support a global democracy.  As the digital divide closes, our system can be ready to include everyone.

Design

The ability to conduct democratic voting securely online on a blockchain opens up an exciting new opportunity: to redesign our voting system in whatever way best captures the opinions and engagement of the world’s population.

Technology frees us from the geographic constraints that led to the representative model, which isn’t working (as discussed under “Argumentation / Decision-Making Capacity”).

We’re also no longer limited by the analog capabilities of paper ballots.

Instead, we can completely re-imagine both the overall architecture and the user experience of our entire democratic system.

Liquid Democracy

Liquid democracy is an innovative voting model that’s been tested at Google and elsewhere, but is still unknown to most people.  

It’s far more flexible and responsive than the representative model.  

Liquid democracy enables each person to vote directly on policy whenever she chooses, while also leveraging the expertise and judgment of trusted friends and leaders to shift the burden of decision-making away from those who don’t want it.

Liquid democracy is most easily understood by watching this short video. 

In essence, it’s a system of revocable proxies, assignable by issue area, and transferable, subject always to the will of the individual voter.  

Imagine that our voter, Jane P. Smith, finds climate policy too complex to follow personally.  So she grants her proxy for all votes pertaining to climate to someone she chooses, such as Al Gore.  Similarly, if she’s confused by banking policy, she may select Elizabeth Warren as her proxy on banking issues.  Let’s say Jane is a teacher, and chooses to vote for herself on education matters. In the event that Al Gore’s votes on climate questions begin to disappoint her, Jane can revoke her proxy at will, and grant it instead to someone else she trusts, such as Bill McKibben.  

Proxies are transferable.  Jane’s friend Walter may entrust some or all of his proxies to Jane (or to anyone else he chooses); Jane can then assign both Walter’s proxies and her own, however she chooses, or vote directly, both on her own behalf and his.

With liquid democracy, billions of individuals like Jane and Walter can vote directly on policy whenever they choose; or, they can rely on trusted proxies whenever they prefer.

When anyone accepts another person’s proxy, the votes cast by the proxy holder are made transparent to the proxy grantor(s).  This information is revealed “downward”, only to those who granted the proxies, not to anyone else (unless by choice of the grantor or grantee).  Anyone who accepts a proxy agrees to this limitation on the secrecy of their vote. Individuals who receive only a few proxies may still keep their votes secret from everyone else, while public figures may campaign for influence by revealing their voting records to everyone.

Voters, knowing how votes are cast on their behalf, can now revoke and/or reassign their proxies at any time.  Technology enables this to happen instantly and frequently; the resulting dynamic flow of proxies gives “liquid democracy” its name.

An optional design feature is vote reversibility.  If adopted, it offers several benefits: if Jane finds that her proxy has voted unfaithfully, or if she simply disagrees, or if she changes her mind, she can reverse her vote up until the prescribed deadline for the given question.  This also provides additional protection against coercion in the event that her anonymity is compromised.

With technology, votes can be cast and tallied instantly, enabling quick responsiveness to emergent needs.  Votes can be publicized in advance and held open for a number of days, weeks, or months, to enable widespread awareness and participation.

Liquid democracy can scale to any size, while responding to current needs far more efficiently than our present system, and also reflecting people’s priorities more faithfully.

Liquid democracy on a blockchain is no longer theoretical.  It is currently being built.

Deliberation

As liquid democracy opens the doors to much greater citizen engagement with issues, many voters will want to discuss and deliberate on these issues.  Blockchain-based liquid democracy platforms being developed today will support close integration of deliberative fora with the voting interface.

Although related, deliberation is distinct from voting to approve or disapprove a proposal; this separation allows room for experiments to identify the best logic for inclusive deliberation.  Already, there are promising models, such as Loomio.

The Right to Information

A robust democracy can not exist in a vacuum.  It requires an informed citizenry.

Our core principles include a constitutional right to public information.

This must be provided and safeguarded in at least two ways:

First, education.  Every citizen, worldwide, must be educated to a basic standard.  Details of curriculum are beyond the scope of this paper, but the need is clear.  Thoughtful proposals for efficiently providing education to everyone globally, including those with the least access, have been developed elsewhere.

Second, news.  Since the dawn of democracy, news has been used repeatedly to sway election outcomes.  The impact of Russian “fake news” on the 2016 US presidential election is just the latest example.  

A healthy democracy depends on the voting public receiving balanced and accurate information on matters of public importance.  The US Supreme Court has recognized this, saying unanimously that the First Amendment in the US Constitution includes a public right to balanced information.  This principle must be revived and expanded, to guarantee a right to balanced and accurate information for everyone, worldwide, on public matters.

Subsidiarity: Localizing Decisions Whenever Possible

Of course, not every decision should be made at the global level.  Zoning laws, for example, are a local matter. Applying the principle of subsidiarity, every decision should be made at the most local, least centralized level possible, so long as all stakeholders are included.  Our new global layer will handle only those issues that can not be resolved more locally.

In order to gain acceptance, our global democracy must be phased in (as we will describe below under “Phasing In”), rather than implemented all at once.  As a result of the phase-in, existing national, state/province, county, and municipal boundaries will continue to exist, at least initially. These provide readily available jurisdictions for localized decision-making.

Yet these existing lines, which are often arbitrary (e.g., straight, regardless of topography or cultural history), are likely to become less relevant over time, as liquid democracy takes hold, removing the geographic constraint of representation, and as national sovereignty is phased out in favor of global democracy.  Instead of our current lines, we may see more organic subsidiary territories emerge, such as greater metropolitan areas, transportation corridors, or watersheds.

One challenge is how to define the minimum competent jurisdictions for any type of decision.  This is a complex task, but it can be sorted out through appropriate self-selection.

For example, people could self-identify as having an interest in a given issue, such as rights to water from the Colorado River.  Substantial numbers of people throughout the southwestern US and northwestern Mexico would likely claim an interest; people on other continents likely would not.  A threshold, such as “at least 20% of people in any postal code claiming an interest”, can be set to determine initial boundaries for votes on this issue; these boundaries can be adjusted any time people in a geography of any size organize enough interest to claim, or disclaim, interest in a given matter.

Who Frames the Questions?

A key question is, who frames and poses the questions on which everyone votes?

This is one of just three areas where elections of individuals (as opposed to voting on policy) may still play a role (the other two being: who judges constitutional questions, and who enforces, both described under separate headings below).  We can elect people to pose the questions fairly.

The proposing of questions can also be crowdsourced, through online fora that support up-voting of new questions, including suggested language, so that elected questioners can not obstruct popular responses to emergent issues.  With technology-enabled voting, elected questioners can also be rapidly recalled, and quickly replaced from a stable of deputies (just as today a president can be quickly replaced by a vice president, or jurors by alternates).

Language Barriers

To address the variety of languages spoken worldwide, automated translation can go a long way.  Yet human nuance is likely to remain indispensable, because the subtleties of language can have a huge impact in a global legislative context.  This too can be handled through the election of trusted questioner-translators, similarly subject to rapid recall and replacement.

Constitutional Guarantees to Protect Rights

To prevent everyone, including minority groups, from tyranny-of-the-majority and ensure basic human dignity for all, certain constitutional rights must be guaranteed, even in the face of popular opinion.  

A detailed articulation of a bill of rights is beyond the scope of this essay, but, as noted above, essential rights include freedoms of speech, assembly, movement, religion, and privacy, freedom from unreasonable search and seizure, and rights to public information, due process of law, and a livable environment.  

Additional rights include those enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as adopted by the UN in 1948, except with a few edits to indicate that human rights supersede those of countries (as specified below under “Argumentation / Core Values”).  

Because these rights are fundamental, they must be adopted worldwide by treaty among countries, and take effect on or before the start date of our global democracy.  

Although this may seem a tall order, the way can be paved through widespread but non-binding use of the tools described above, by the whole world population, discussing and provisionally approving these rights, to demonstrate popular support.  (The path to widespread participation in online deliberation and decision-making is discussed below, under “Realistically, How Can We Get There?”)

As in conventional, representative democracies, constitutional rights may be amended by supermajority vote, at a threshold such as 2/3, 3/4, or 4/5 of the world population, once our global democracy takes effect.

Constitutional Court

Also as in conventional democracies, conformity of all policies and actions with these fundamental rights will be adjudicated by a global constitutional court.  

The members of the global court will initially be nominated from among the most respected international jurists around the world.  A slate of global constitutional judges will be appended to the initial treaty enacting the global democracy. These initial judges will then be subject to a ratifying election, by simple majority vote, in three equal cohorts, staggered 2, 4, and 6 years after the global democracy begins.  

Thereafter, all judges will serve until they opt to retire, except that any judge may be recalled at any time by a supermajority vote (such as 2/3, 3/4, or 4/5) of the world’s people via liquid democracy.  

New judges may be nominated either by current judges or by popular, online deliberation and liquid democracy, and will be elected to office by popular vote via liquid democracy.

In this structure, we seek to balance public input (through elections and recall) with insulation from political pressure (through lifetime appointments), to avoid the breakdown of democracy that arises when judges are not accountable.

Enforcement

Enforcement of laws is necessary, of course.  Our model under a global democracy will be essentially the same as in individual countries today: an armed force will ensure the rule of law.  

Enforcement authorities will be elected, directly, at various defined levels of jurisdiction: global, as well as levels that might correspond to today’s continents (or otherwise defined regions), countries, states/provinces, counties, and municipalities.  

Notable differences from today’s enforcement structures include, first, the addition of a global layer, with subordination of smaller jurisdictions to it.

Second, robust citizen participation in our liquid democracy will limit the scope of executive/enforcement power, compared to countries like the US today.  In today’s representative democracies, legislators preoccupied with reelection strive to avoid taking stands, so the legislative process fails. Executive power has expanded to fill the void, with little accountability.  But with liquid democracy, many more decisions can be made by the people. This limits the grey areas left to the discretion of enforcement officials. Those who fear “big government” should find this comforting.

The enforcement authority, like the other elected positions described above, is subject to recall and swift replacement by deputies at any time.

Enforcement actions, like policy decisions, are subject to review by constitutional courts.

Phasing In

Our new global democracy will be phased in gradually, in order to help gain acceptance from today’s countries.

As a first phase, we can create a global democratic layer, operating as an umbrella above all countries, to grapple with the many issues countries can’t handle separately.  Countries must grant authority over these matters to this global layer up front, by treaty. Otherwise the situation will be no different from what we have today (as discussed under “Argumentation / Effectiveness”).

Global matters requiring global solutions include climate change, taxation & redistribution of wealth, human rights including free movement of people, nuclear disarmament & demilitarization, extending education worldwide, and disease response.

Although this is a major political hurdle, it is both possible (as described in the next section below, “Can We Really Unify Separate Countries?”), and necessary.

Concurrently, complementing the global layer, the present-day trend of localities exercising an increasing share of power within ineffective countries will continue.  A de facto system of subsidiarity will continue to emerge organically, with localities handling everything they can, the global democratic layer handling global matters, and countries initially retaining some power in between.

Over time, as the new global layer proves itself effective and the role of localities continues to grow, countries will lose relevance.  Citizens who want problems solved will support shifting more power both upward to the global layer and downward to localities. Countries will gradually accede to growing public demand.

Eventually, countries will amount to little more than lines drawn on maps.  Ultimately, these too will be erased in favor of self-determining clusters of people based either on authentic geography (rather than arbitrary straight lines) such as watersheds, or on shared interest groups, such as teachers, farm workers, technologists, or bicycle enthusiasts.

Although distinct cultures will survive, countries as political actors will fade from the picture, as humanity works together across the borders that divide us today, creating a better world for everyone.

Can We Really Unify Separate Countries?

Yes.

We have been here before.  The United States of America were originally 13 separate, sovereign entities, linked only loosely together under the Articles of Confederation.  

Yet when Americans saw that these separate states could not adequately respond to existential threats, they left this failing structure behind, sacrificing separate sovereignty in favor of a new, unified, more inclusive government with adequate powers to ensure their survival.

The birth of the current US Constitution was not a gradual progression of incremental measures, tinkering and making do with the old system.  Rather, the failing structure was jettisoned, and a whole new one put in place, in a single stroke.

Worldwide Public Opinion

Remarkably, worldwide public opinion polling already shows broad support for a shift in this direction.

According to Global Challenges Foundation polling of adults in eight major countries: 

  • 75% of adults “consider themselves global citizens.”
  • 71% “think that a new supranational organisation needs to be created to respond to global risks.”
  • 59%  “say they would be willing for their country to give up some of its sovereignty if that could help respond to global risks.”

Further data supports these findings as well.  A 2016 BBC poll found that among 18 countries:

  • 51 percent of people see themselves more as global citizens than national citizens.”

Realistically, How Can We Get There?

Still, we must acknowledge that the idea of creating a global democracy is barely on the general public’s radar.  Despite the support indicated by the polling above, very few people are aware of the idea.

We’re a long way from readiness to begin phasing in a global democracy.  Getting there will require significant shifts.

Two key vectors will drive the necessary change in public readiness.

First, adoption of blockchain-based voting.  As user-friendly blockchain voting tools become publicly available in the coming months, we can actively support their adoption.  We can begin with testing in low-stakes elections, such as for undergraduate student government and university alumni boards, and in various volunteer groups.  Highlighting the cost advantages and security benefits, we can encourage small municipalities to try blockchain-based elections. As the technology proves itself, we can level up to hold larger city, state/province, and national elections on blockchains.  

These initial blockchain-based elections need not have a liquid design to serve our strategic purpose.  Conventional, binary or multiple-choice votes will be a more palatable entry point. Then, as people become comfortable conducting elections (along with an increasing share of other business) securely on blockchains, it will be easier to introduce the new voting logic of liquid democracy.  

Blockchain voting will also make it easier to extend the vote across borders:

International trade agreements present a game-changing opportunity to prove this concept, through a grand bargain between business and public interests.

Recently, proposed trade agreements have been blocked by opposition across the political spectrum, despite their potential to bring humanity together, facilitate peaceful allocation of resources, and provide businesses with stability and predictability needed for cross-border investment.  This is because they’re typically negotiated in secret, among insiders, and consequently loaded with provisions that benefit only narrow interests, such as pharmaceutical companies, at the expense of public interests including robust health, safety, labor and environmental standards. This triggers widespread opposition.

However, once national populations are accustomed to blockchain voting and deliberation, we can use these tools both to crowdsource the text of new draft agreements and to include whole populations in ratifying them.  The likely outcome will be agreements that both provide the predictability that businesses need and that elevate, rather than undermine, public-interest health, labor, and environmental standards. These crowd-sourced agreements will pass, and everyone will be better off.

That will be a sea-change moment, proving the feasibility of trans-border democracy.

More and more crowd-sourced, popularly ratified international agreements will follow.

Eventually, once we build enough momentum and public support, similarly generated agreements will call for and enact a global democracy.

Second, we must build a new social-change movement with a global democracy as its stated goal.

Social change movements have accomplished remarkable results throughout history, even when things looked impossible at first.  In the US, we’ve ended slavery, extended voting rights to women, and recently turned marriage equality from a fringe issue into law-of-the-land in just 15 years.  Former colonies throughout the world have won their independence from imperial powers. South Africa abolished apartheid. The Berlin Wall fell.

All of these huge shifts began as ideas, which generated conversations, then blossomed into movements, and ultimately overcame opposition to win monumental changes.

We will do the same thing here.  

We’ll begin by telling a new story of how humanity can transcend the artificial borders that divide us.  This uplifting story will bring a much-needed ray of hope to today’s public dialogue, in bright contrast to the prevailing gloom-and-doom narrative.  

We’ll set the audacious goal of achieving a global democracy within our lifetimes, providing a positive rallying point for people everywhere who know we can do better, but have grown demoralized and afraid.

To advance the conversation, we’ll create media, such as films, articles, discussion guides, and classroom curricula, and organize gatherings, examining the feasibility and benefits of a global democracy.  We’ll draw connections to current news stories, and highlight the numerous leading public figures who have responded to recent darkness with calls for various forms of improved global cooperation.

The present competition launched by the Global Challenges Foundation is an important contribution to this conversation.  We are grateful for its existence and honored to participate.

Combined with advances in blockchain voting, our conscious movement-building strategy will begin to create the conditions for enactment of a global democracy, positioning us to leverage future opportunities for advancement as they arise.

Our world community faces ominous threats on many fronts.  Fortunately, people have woken up, and are ready to aim higher, together.  

The time for the bold idea of a global democracy has come.

 

3. Argumentation demonstrating how the model meets the assessment criteria

A. Core Values

A global democracy may be the purest possible structure advancing the best interests of humanity and reflecting the equal value of all people, structurally neutral in all respects.

Our core principles are introduced under “We Need a Global Democracy” above.  

As discussed under “Constitutional Guarantees to Protect Rights” above, additional global constitutional rights will include those enumerated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), except with the following edits to indicate that human rights supersede those of countries, to protect marriage equality across genders, and to provide for liquid democracy:

  • Article 8: strike “national”;
  • Article 13(1): strike “within the borders of each state”;
  • Article 13(2): add “enter or” before “leave any country”;
  • Article 14(1): strike “in other countries”;
  • Article 15 becomes irrelevant, but need not be stricken;
  • Article 16: add “, gender” after “nationality”, in Article 16;
  • Article 21: replace “of his country” with “of his or her locality and of the world”; add “or proxies” after “representatives”.

(Since the UDHR is a well-known, public document, we refer to it here without including its full text.)

B. Decision-Making Capacity

In contrast to the current, failing system, our global liquid democracy on a blockchain, with subsidiarity, is designed to enable proactive decision-making and timely response to challenges.   

Using technology, votes can be cast and tallied instantly, enabling quick responsiveness to emergent needs.  

Our liquid democracy model is closer to a unicameral model than a bicameral one, thereby averting delays that typically arise in “upper” legislative chambers such as the US Senate, EU Council of Ministers, UK House of Lords, etc.   

Constitutional review by our global constitutional court stands as the one potential source of delay or obstruction when necessary.

In assessing the effectiveness of our liquid model, we suggest a comparison with the representative model which prevails today.  Its failures are numerous.

Failures of the Representative Model

Sadly, representative models prevent popular participation and discourage engagement.  Only a tiny percentage of citizens, the elected representatives, can vote most of the time; the rest of us are restricted to voting only once every few years, and, typically, to voting only for candidates or parties.  (In some places, such as California, policy questions also appear on the ballot, but these issues pale in both number and frequency compared to those considered by legislatures.)

The representative model also invites corruption, due to both to the enormous ratio between a single elected representative and their many constituents, and also the role of money in electoral campaigns.

In the United States today, the average elected member of the House of Representatives has 700,000 constituents.  It is impossible for any individual truly to know this many people’s hearts and minds, so lobbying groups spring up to bridge the gap.  Yet most lobbying groups are funded by private businesses and wealthy individuals; because of financial constraints, public-interest lobbying groups are the rare exception.  This skews our policies away from the public interest, typically preventing necessary reforms.

In addition, in the US, there are no limits on the amount of money that may be spent on electoral campaigns.

These two factors combine to privilege the voices of the wealthy few over those of regular people, who have effectively zero real influence over policy.  Nor is the problem limited to the US: according to Transparency International, “Sixty-eight per cent of countries worldwide have a serious corruption problem. Half of the G20 are among them.”

C. Effectiveness

As noted above, our global democracy requires a grant of authority from national governments at the outset, initially limited to certain issues such as climate change that can only be handled globally.

We have described the necessary role for enforcement, to ensure implementation of decisions, under its own heading above.

Since a global democracy is such an ambitious goal, it’s worth considering carefully whether a more incremental approach could work.  

A great deal of evidence suggests that it does not and will not:

A Brief Review of Incremental Approaches to Global Governance

A clear-eyed look at three of the most ambitious incremental steps toward global governance in the world today reveals that all three are failing because of their inadequate inclusiveness and their continued reliance on separate countries as the ultimate loci of power.

First, the European Union.  With its multinational governance structure, the open internal borders of the Schengen area, and a common currency, the EU has stood for decades as a beacon of progress beyond the nation-state model.  Yet today the EU is unraveling, in part due to pressure from the outside: immigration is stressing the Schengen area’s open borders and its politics, while ISIS-driven terrorism and Russian territorial aggression and election interference threaten Europe’s safety and civil liberties.

In addition, the EU is beset with an ongoing governance crisis due to its incomplete economic integration: its common currency and central bank are not paired with fiscal union, with the result that economic shocks lead to considerable human pain and consequent political instability.  The EU’s hybrid model, with countries at least equal in power to the popularly elected European Parliament, is failing, as is Europe’s attempt to maintain borders excluding everyone outside

Second, the United Nations.  Our most legitimate and inclusive supra-national body to date is sadly unable to solve our most pressing global problems, because its power rests entirely on that of countries, especially the five permanent members of the Security Council.  With separate sovereignty, countries pursue divergent interests, most often in competition with one another, and consequently fail to act together where global coordination is most urgently needed.

The current proposal for a UN Parliamentary Assembly is a step in the right direction, but even if created, it would still be paired with the General Assembly and the Security Council, enabling countries still to torpedo progress as surely as they do today.

Third, trade agreements.  Business naturally flows across borders, and companies need predictability and stability to enable trans-border investment.  The best way to guarantee this stability would be through open, democratic, inclusive negotiations, which could also lead to a global rise in labor, health, and environmental standards, rather than the prevailing race-to-the-bottom.  But instead, as noted above, draft agreements like the recently proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership are negotiated in secret and loaded with provisions that narrowly benefit certain interests, and include enforcement mechanisms that undermine, rather than elevate, global standards.  As a result, these lopsided draft agreements arouse public and official opposition, blocking their enactment. A previous agreement, the North American Free Trade Agreement, famously provoked the armed Zapatista rebellion — the polar opposite of stability — in Mexico.

The EU, the UN, and various trade agreements are the strongest measures in play today to transcend the limitations of national governments.  Yet all three are hobbled because their power depends on that of separate countries. People’s direct voice is limited in the EU, and nonexistent in the UN and in trade agreements to date.  So the supra-national entities respond to the demands of national governments, but not of people, and therefore fail to meet people’s needs. The EU, like all individual countries, is also insufficiently inclusive.

The division of our world into separate countries is the common point of failure across all these incremental approaches.  It is also at the root of each of our biggest crises.

So, to create a global system that works, we must change this model fundamentally, by introducing a global democracy.

D. Resources and Financing

Liquid democracy channels a great deal of human energy into civic decision-making, on a volunteer (unpaid) basis.  This human civic energy is mostly untapped today, used only for commentary most of the time. Bringing it to bear on important matters unlocks a new resource at essentially no cost.

One great strength of a global democracy is its ability to raise revenue on a global basis, because the sovereign borders that enable tax havens are eliminated.  At least $21 trillion currently hidden in such places will come newly within reach of taxation, both to fund government operations and programs such as education, and for redistribution to reduce inequality.

Taxes can be structured in various ways, some of them socially beneficial, such as a tax on carbon emissions (to mitigate climate change), and a tax on securities trades (to discourage excess financial speculation).

One key resource that must be funded is the distributed computational power to support all the voting on a blockchain.  This will be incentivized through a “mining” system, as with Bitcoin and Ethereum today, supported as necessary by tax revenues.

Vast resources are saved by eliminating nearly all military forces, which will no longer be needed once our global democracy phases in and counties phase out.

E. Trust and Insight

A great virtue of blockchains is the transparency at their core.  As described above, everyone can see the ledger of every action recorded in the blockchain.  Aside from voter anonymity, there are no secrets.

For this reason, blockchains are often called “trustless”, because they eliminate the need for trust between strangers.  Everything is recorded transparently, for all to see. Until now, proposals for online democracy have run up against well-founded concerns over online security.  Electronic voting machines are notoriously vulnerable to hacking; votes cast over the conventional internet can be hacked in transmission; and if the overall vote count is stored on a server, the count is hackable.  Such risks are unacceptable in democratic decision-making, particularly since margins of popular approval or disapproval may at times be thin. Blockchains solve these problems.

F. Flexibility

Flexibility is the hallmark of our liquid democracy framework, as described extensively above (under the heading “Liquid Democracy”).

Just as in conventional, representative democracy, simple majorities can approve and enact, or repeal and abolish, many structures (such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in the US).

Also as in conventional, representative democracy, core rules of the system can be adjusted via constitutional amendment, at a supermajority threshold such as 2/3, 3/4, or 4/5.

Definition of jurisdictions at the sub-global level is also flexible in a way that supports any assertion of geographic identities that people may choose (as described under “Subsidiarity: Localizing Decisions Whenever Possible”, above).

The technological environment, unlike analog paper, enables experimentation with further options, such as the possibility of each voter having multiple vote “tokens” that she may assign in varying amounts to different questions, enabling the vote to reflect intensity of opinion, not just breadth.

G. Protection against the Abuse of Power

As noted above, our global democracy requires a grant of authority from countries at the outset, by treaty, to handle matters that can only be addressed globally.  These include climate change, taxation & redistribution of wealth, human rights including free movement of people, nuclear disarmament & demilitarization, extending education worldwide, and disease response.  

This is a broad mandate.  It may at times come into conflict with the desires of national or local powers; when it does, we all must understand that the global layer must prevail if it is to accomplish its mandate.  

A helpful historical analogy with respect to conflicts between different layers of power is the racial desegregation of US schools beginning in the 1950s.  To enforce a constitutional decision by the US Supreme Court, President Eisenhower deployed the US military to assert federal authority over the defiant governor of the state of Arkansas.

Nonetheless, our principle of subsidiarity dictates that every decision must be made at the most local level capable of addressing it.  Under this principle, many decisions will be properly left in national, state/province, or local hands.

Our primary mechanism to prevent the abuse of power is the global constitutional court.  Its role is to upholding global constitutional rights in the face of potential threats from majority voting, or from overreach by global enforcement authorities, or from actors within any country.

All our global elected officials, including constitutional judges, enforcement officers, and question framers (including translators) are subject to recall by popular supermajority vote.

Today, countries have the option of initiating war in response to grievances (or otherwise).  We are phasing out war, for the betterment of all humanity.

One final form of power that may be abused is often called “star power”: the ability of famous individuals to command attention.  Consider a scenario in which a celebrity exploits their fame to call for liquid democracy proxies, then uses those proxies to vote in ways that undermine the public interest.  

We have plenty of recourse in this situation.  First, proxies can be revoked and reassigned instantly, as voters see the celebrity voting against their interests.  As noted above, depending on a design choice, voters may also be able to directly reverse votes cast by the celebrity proxy.  

Most importantly, the entire citizenry is highly empowered, through liquid democracy, to participate directly in formulating and approving policy.  Nobody is shut out. This will help counterbalance the power of celebrities.

H. Accountability

National borders are among today’s greatest barriers to accountability; removing them is one of the most powerful steps we can take to expand it.  Our global democracy dramatically expands accountability for every person, by phasing out the shield separate national sovereignty provides today for all sorts of malfeasance.  

Our first principle that everyone, everywhere, is included does not mean carte blanche.  All manner of criminals, including dictators and terrorists, must be held accountable to the law.

A high level of accountability on proxies (who will have a large role in decision-making) is inherent in the liquid democracy model: proxy power can be revoked, and reclaimed or re-assigned, at will and instantaneously, by every voter.  Depending on design choice, voters may also have the option to reverse their votes.

Every elected position, whether as a constitutional judge, a law enforcement official, or a framer of questions (including translators), is subject to immediate recall and replacement by pre-elected deputies.

Although it’s difficult to foresee where corruption might arise in this system, experience suggests that it’s always a danger.  Effective deterrence will require substantial penalties, much higher than those we see officials face in most countries today. (The prevalence of corruption today is prima facie evidence that penalties are too weak, especially when diluted by the low probability of prosecution and conviction.)

Finally, our global court system will enable criminal and civil cases to be tried, along with the adjudication of constitutional questions.


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2 responses

  1. Hi Ted:

    I am increasinglly impressed by Peter Schurman. Please read his words below and let me know what you think.

    Thanks – chat Sunday.

    Cheers,

    Jim

  2. Thanks for using the blockchain voting method I suggested. I have more on the subject, like the implementation of consent servers. Great article.

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