The Political Architecture of Democratic Libertarian Socialism, Part 2

In the first part of this series, I developed the idea that a democratic libertarian socialist political architecture would be necessarily voluntary, deliberative, consist of political units of fewer than one hundred individuals, and would require representatives to scale up. At the end of part 1, I listed some potential problems with this scaling process. I break these problems into two main types: the jurisdiction problem and the representation problem. In this second part of the series, I will address these two problems.


The Jurisdiction Problem

The question of jurisdiction centers on the freedom of individuals to conduct their lives as they see fit. If all individuals have the right to live as they like and any two individuals disagree, by what process can a decision between them be made? This being a democratic libertarian socialist state, as opposed to an anarchist one, the right to retain private property is still a viable option for settling disputes, as long as the conditions of use and labor that justify exclusion are met. Private property then successfully solves the problem and given the two conditions of use and guaranteed income we avoid exploitation through it. The decision goes to the owner on principle, in fact, that is what it means to be an owner, you get to decide how and when a thing is used.

The problem persists in joint property and in public property, however. We must ask how people set rules about, for example, littering on a public street, without violating the rights of the individuals who did not explicitly agree not to litter on that street? Voluntary society seems highly susceptible to collapse into petty sovereignties. A principle of jurisdiction could solve this problem, but this must include some amount of tyranny. It is my hope that we can devise a jurisdictional principle that would mitigate the tyrannical effect to the greatest extent possible so that people would voluntarily agree to subject themselves to the rule of others out of respect for the autonomy of those others and so preserve their own autonomy in their own sphere.

Jurisdiction, as it is generally construed, concerns what relationships count as politically relevant enough that people have the right to create rules in their sphere of action with the effect of restricting the freedoms of those who enter it. At base, we need to know what makes an association of people a body politic empowered to self-govern. Is a relationship between enemies politically relevant? What about business partners? Or geographically distant close friends? The answer is that they all could be, but none necessarily are. Such categories of identity and relationships are too subjective to be useful here and should be replaced with spheres of action. As the individual must be in touch with their own interests they must be in touch with the interests of those who make up their basic democratic unit as well. Their decisions will impact that unit more than any other units. Therefore, those who have the greatest chance for proximal interaction have the greatest concern with each other’s behaviors. Alternative forms of interaction are all less effective. Interactions through media, for example, are always shaped by the media itself and thus constitute a less direct, less effective, and so less politically relevant form of relationship. Political relationships need to be local enough to present direct physical interaction, but not necessarily externally defined. A geographic feature, such as a river or a mountain range, might well divide one political area from another, but this should be because the feature genuinely affects the locality of the individuals who inhabit the body. The building of a bridge or a tunnel could effectively change the political jurisdiction. So, while it may be possible for a community to straddle opposite sides of the globe, it’s very, very unlikely; and even if it is the case, it is more unlikely still that so greatly separated peoples should remain a small scale political unity for long.

Whether a person inhabits a place or is merely visiting is an important question. Those who set down roots seem entitled to a say in that sphere of action, precisely because it is theirs, but those who are just there for a weekend, don’t. Caution must be exercised at this point in any government claiming to be a voluntary association, as a rule affects all (persons), not just those who decided upon it (citizens). If the citizens of a given area enact a biased rule that favors themselves over minorities and non-citizens, this is the worst tyranny and is easily accomplished despite a principle of equality before the law. This tyranny is simply unacceptable and must be mitigated in the name of a just society. James Madison dealt with this problem of faction by allowing larger spheres of action to supersede lower ones. We see this in the United States when the constitution makes lower laws void. A city cannot, for example, enact slavery statues because it is illegal at a larger sphere of action. Madison’s solution, however, suffers the major drawback that each sphere is governed by representatives and it becomes all too easy for wealthy and powerful factions to capture the higher spheres for themselves. Something that Madison thought would be highly improbable.

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Although locality makes up an important part of the basis for determining jurisdiction, it is also not limited to a specific externally marked domain. Political boundaries at the scale of the community are nearly fluid and correspond neatly to the areas directly inhabited by their members. This is the most voluntary form of government. It is at the municipal level that the need for defined jurisdiction covering spaces not privately owned enters the political architecture. These public and quasi-public spaces cover areas frequented by the members of several communities but not necessarily wholly bound inside their combined private property. In other words, the laws of a community apply only to the members of the community themselves, they have no jurisdiction beyond the community members and their property. The community is purely voluntary and as close to completely anarchist (at least for adults) as possible. Municipalities, on the other hand, govern several communities at once. The bounds of the municipality must somehow designate which communities are a part of the municipality for terms of voting and where the laws set down by these collective communities are applied. This is the first scale at which laws must be written down and publicly posted and where the law applies beyond the citizens of the jurisdiction. The municipality is the smallest unit of government and law and most likely sphere for tyranny. It is also the most flexible, allowing for the greatest diversity of relationships and laws, biases, and individuality. As with Madison, every scale above the municipality works similarly and each one’s laws would bind the ones below it so that a county that forbids a thing binds all municipalities in that county to forbid it as well.

Here is precisely were democratic libertarian socialist values clash with anarchist ones. For this is where voluntary agreement first begins to drift off. To see this, let’s ask the question: must all who enter a municipality be bound by the laws of the municipality, whether or not they are members of it? Let us say that the members of a municipality unanimously decide to forbid the spitting of chewing gum on the sidewalk. Let us further say that you are a visitor to this municipality who did not and would not have the opportunity to vote on this particular issue. Must you follow the rules of the municipality and not spit your gum on the sidewalk despite having never agreed to this rule? This example highlights a clash of values in libertarianism itself. Does one group, when imposing its rules on its sphere of action, have the right to impose those rules on non-members of the group in their territory? Libertarianism places a value on the voluntary agreement to rules in order to be legitimate but at the same time allows people the freedom to set their own rules. The solution to this apparent paradox is recognizing that all visitors have agreed to the rules establishing how laws get passed in each place and that inherent in that agreement is the agreement to respect the laws set down by others in their own jurisdictions. In other words, like Madison’s solution, there is an agreement at a higher scale which supersedes the lower disagreement. The problem with this solution, as with Madison’s, is that of capture which allows political tyranny. 

To prevent capture, I offer a two-part solution. First, individuals must have both a jurisdiction of their own and at the same time alternatives jurisdictions to enter should they wholly disagree with the rules they are subject to. If one is a visitor, one is free to simply not visit. However, for citizens, relocation offers less of a solution. As a citizen, one has a voice in a given jurisdiction, and could simply try to prevent laws. One might not always be able to escape the biases of a group through the vote though, and if one resides in the area, getting up and leaving, while an option, is not always economically advantageous or feasible. Fleeing a jurisdiction is easily accomplished at the community scale where it most likely would not even involve a move. But higher scales bring increasingly greater difficulties to this method of preserving one’s liberty.

This is the reason we need a second part to this solution: higher percentages of popular support must be required to establish a law at larger scales. Rather than force people to relocate to communities that are ideologically homogeneous, we could instead raise the bar for passing laws in correlation with the scale of the jurisdiction it would affect. The goal would be to equally allow groups to create laws governing conduct in their spheres of action and at the same time protect dissent. As stated above, a biased community rule is easily escapable by simply changing communities if you so strongly disagree. A higher order law, however, is more difficult and so should require greater assent to pass. And so on, with each scale up requiring more affirmation. The ability of the large jurisdictions to supersede the lower ones would still have the desired effect as Madison envisioned. However, the ability to capture the larger spheres of action would become increasingly difficult, since the percentage required to secure a decision would change in inverse proportion to the scale of its effect. 

Practically, we might imagine that at the smallest level, the community, a simple majority is all that is required to pass a rule. At the highest level, universally, we might require something extreme, like the assent of 95% of the population, to pass this entirely inescapable legislation. The scales between would be higher or lower accordingly. A municipality could require only 55% of its population to affirm a law before it passes, whereas a county may require 60%, a territory 65%, a district 70%, a nation 75%, and hemisphere of the globe 80%. This architecture will result in the majority of laws existing at the smallest scales of government and thus applying only to a few people; at the bottom, only those who voted for them. Only overwhelmingly agreed upon laws would exist at the greatest scales. This is the best that can be done for dissident without allowing minority dictatorship over the majority population.

This solution, however, presents a further challenge. What happens to a person who dissents from the social order? What happens to the minority vote? And while we’re at it, how does one become a community member? These questions are all related to the idea of who counts, which I’ll deal with later, but for right now, let me focus on what recourse persons have in a system they disagree with. The problem is more concrete if we take any social norm that is rather one-sided as an example. Genocide might be an easy one.  What would happen if you lived in a community who condoned genocide even though you reject it? Well, first you could leave the community. All individuals are political beings, and so all individuals must belong to a community. But you are free to choose your community to some extent. If you choose to leave a community, it would be necessary for you to be accepted by another. However, it can never be acceptable for a community to eject one of its members. Members may leave voluntarily or die, but they must not be removed. The ability to leave allows members who do not wish to live under certain laws the freedom to take refuge elsewhere. At the municipal level and above, this may involve physical relocation. The costs of which will have to be weighed against the strength of the individual’s beliefs. But we can very quickly see that the greater the scale, the more implausible this “freedom” becomes, and it is indubitably the case that without the actual opportunity for leaving no freedom exists.

It seems clear that any democratic libertarian socialist political architecture must be directly democratic at some point. The above assumes a directly democratic legislature, although not a directly democratic executive or judicial government. Dissent is healthy and should not be immediately suppressed, but at the same time, a large majority has a right to live how they choose and not under the anarchist tyranny of the minority veto. This compromise between our respective interests seems to offer us the best of these mutually exclusive positions.

Before we move on, I want to say a word on what a community can do to discipline its members for non-compliance. There will always be those who are disruptive and whose disruptions are either apolitical or simply criminal. For example, one may remain in a community and break the law merely to do so. Given that other avenues for dissent are available this member of the community is simply breaking the rules to break the rules. This is no less tyranny than usurping a political system to disenfranchising others or seizing power. The obvious manner for stopping such activity is to expressly forbid it by law and treat offenders in the customary manner, whatever form that takes. But if the behavior does not quite constitute a violation of the law, for example, something both disrespectful and disruptive but still within the bounds of political speech, the community must take care not to ostracize the member(s). However, they do not have to listen. A de facto excommunication may be acceptable whereas de jure excommunication is not. As long as the member is still allowed to speak and still allowed to vote and have their vote counted, a community is free to ignore them.


The Representation Problem

I want to return now to the issue of representation. In the first part of this series, I showed how the mere inclusion of representatives endangers the entire political architecture of democracy making it a de facto oligarchy or monarchy. What we need to prevent this is to devise an architecture that would not allow unauthorized power to slide into the representative’s hands. The first thing we have to do is understand exactly what the role of representatives is in a truly democratic government. So, let’s begin by recalling that the need for representatives doesn’t enter the picture until the scale of the municipality. As I said, communities are basic democratic units, anarchist in nature, and so do not require an internal representative. Thus, we only need representation to organized political bodies beyond our communities, viz. municipalities, counties, territories, districts, nations and universal. Representatives then are charged with carrying out the community’s bidding in its relations to other communities and relating the desires of other communities to the represented community.

We still face the problem of where the community may not be able to determine their own “bidding” explicitly or charge in a direct and personal manner their representative with the task of carrying it out. At the same time, the “representative” may just carry out their own bidding in the name of the community they represent. Ensuring the link between the will of the group and its representative is our task. To do this will require more–not less–political architecture. It would be instructive to revisit the separation of powers theory, represented by the branches of government, viz. the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. I argued above that it is the communities themselves, as the basic units of democracy, that should legislate directly. Let me add here that the communities should act as legislators at all scales of politics. This is important for representation because it takes away the power of the representative to volunteer their constituency’s voice or sell their vote without consent.

This locus of the legislative action in the community is essential to democracy. Legislative power cannot be delegated without changing the political architecture from democracy to something else. The representative’s role in wielding legislative power should be limited to functionary duties, e.g. preparing language, conducting votes, entering decisions, codifying laws, etc. Perhaps representatives may decide which laws to vote on and at what time, but such legislative authority should mark the utmost extreme end of their power to influence legislation. This is all that can be done to satisfy Edmund Burke’s admonition that representatives exercise their individual conscience rather than mindlessly following the uninformed opinions of their constituents. It is the legislative branch of government that belongs to the people and must remain directly with the people if the polity is to be considered democratic. 

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Edmund Burke

However, this is not true of executive and judicial power. These important roles can be delegated with particular structuring, so that a small minority may perform the function of governing, but do so without ruling. The role of representatives in government should then be largely limited to overseeing executive and judicial functions, such as the hiring and firing of administrators and judges and making of policy respecting the administration of law, but never, under any circumstances, the enactment or repeal of law itself.

Another duty of representatives is maintaining the flow of information. It is perhaps the most vital role of representatives to act as the eyes and ears of a community so that it may confront the issues of the day from an informed position. Obviously, information may come from other sources, but representatives, as they act in higher and higher scales, have access to the most direct information available. In other words, it is not just the role of the representative to serve as the voice of the represented, but as the voice of the government to the represented, empowering them with the information they need to make good decisions. They are an important pivot point between a community and all the greater scales of politics. The worst representatives will hide information from their constituents in an attempt to manipulate the situation how they think it ought to be handled. Trustworthiness will, therefore, be the most vital characteristic to consider in the election of a community’s representative. To guard against manipulation, a democratic architecture should require that all government activities be public.

How should representatives be selected at each scale? There are various schools of thought on this, but I favor election at the smallest scales. Each community should elect, with a simple majority vote, it’s representative to a municipal council. Each municipal councilor should elect, at the determination of the community they represent, their representatives to the county council. Beyond the county level, it’s hard to know who to trust. All candidates desire power as no one runs for offices who do not. However, a solution is available if we simply remove elections at this point. The territorial council and beyond could all be appointed by the drawing of lots from the pool of current county councilors in good standing.

Why introduce a chance here? Precisely because it checks overwhelming political ambition. We can still ensure that we are getting good people into office by additionally requiring that only those who have been elected to a county council more than one time are eligible for higher offices. We can also restrict the term of office to a single six-year period; along with the prohibition on being selected for more than one term at any particular appointed scale. Those representatives who are elected should be reelected frequently, say every two years, but could, of course, serve many terms up to some reasonable limit; say, a maximum of six terms. This will assure us that even if some rather bad apples get into positions of power, they needn’t be suffered indefinitely. Additionally, a list of impeachable offenses should be made into law that would allow the recall of anyone who abused their position. And any representative, even an appointed one should be recallable by their represented lower scale. Appointments would have a voluntary component, no one would be forced to serve and may resign at any time. And the vacancies could easily be filled by another round of elections or selections.

In its most abstract terms, the representatives of the communities serve as their surrogate in the daily administration of self-government.


In part three, I will attempt to flesh out the bare bones of this political architecture by exploring some of the more pragmatic considerations democratic libertarian socialism must confront.

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