The Political Architecture of Democratic Libertarian Socialism, Part 3

In this third part of my series on the political architecture of democratic libertarian socialism, I hope to articulate and resolve some practical questions. It would be impossible to nail down every question or even all the important theoretical and pragmatic questions in this short work, but addressing a few should provide enough of a sketch that my readers should glimpse an image of the final portrait.

So far I have argued that a libertarian socialist democracy would require organizing its populations into small deliberative bodies of a hundred or fewer people. These political communities would form the basic democratic units, be responsible for the legislative decision-making at all scales of politics, elect representatives to govern and report the activity of government back to them, and finally demarcate particular zones of enforcement of laws at different scales in the form of jurisdictions.

This is all well and good in theory, but how does it work in reality. Obviously, there is no way to inductively determine the best procedures on all counts. However, we may abductively suggest some procedures that would keep with our libertarian socialist ideals. The first question we must address would be, who counts? We have already determined that individuals do not count by themselves as political units and that the smallest democratic unit is the community. But the community is made up of a certain number of individuals. So, who counts as an individual? It might be tempting to say everyone, but this is misleading. Do we mean newborn children? Invalids? The insane? Criminals? “Everyone” may be an unwise policy. I think, what we want are humans of a certain age, who have not demonstrated a tendency to abuse others, and are in reasonably good mental health. But what age? What kind of abuse? What good mental health?

The concern with children is two-fold. First, at what point have they become wise enough to direct their own affairs and partially the affairs of others, and second, this being a voluntary political architecture, how do they affirm the rules they live under. As children have the prevailing tendency to become adults, so do they have the tendency to go from not counting to counting or to put it another way, from being mere persons in a jurisdiction to citizens of a community in that jurisdiction. Whatever the education process a community chooses, political education must be mandatory for the health of a democratic society. Children should be involved at every level of the deliberative process, even if they are denied a voice and a vote until a mature age. Their participation should evolve in stages. Perhaps, say, at ten they watch the younger children, and at fifteen they begin to be allowed to speak to their communities about what they think on certain matters. At age twenty, I imagine, they would become full members with all the privileges and responsibilities of citizenship.

The hegemonic aspect of any dominate political architecture would seem to overcome the voluntary nature of individual affirmation. We can’t restart the whole system every year for the sake of children’s voluntary affirmation. However, we might incorporate a revolutionary element in the laws themselves, which would allow them to require periodic reaffirmation, say once every five, ten, twenty-five, or one hundred years. Laws that are basically universally accepted would only need a reaffirmation vote every hundred years, and the vote total could be lower for affirmations. Were as lower order laws may need to be affirmed more frequently. If a law is ever not affirmed it would be considered repealed.

Criminals offer a different challenge. Having forsaken the laws of the society they are proven untrustworthy in politics. Yet they too deserve a voice. The question of how to treat criminals is also two-fold: first, punitive and second, rehabilitative. To be stripped of your voice and your vote in a truly democratic society is to be stripped of your right to self-government, and so your autonomy. You become a pawn at the whims of others, and is a strong, although not an extreme, form of punishment. It seems a fitting and sufficient punishment that lawbreakers lose their power to be lawmakers. On the other hand, the punishment must not be permanent or even long-lasting, for, without recourse to restoration, criminals would quickly become a permanent underclass of non-political citizens; such people are easily exploited and if the interests serve the majority, criminals can be easily created. This punishment is the only punishment criminals should receive. The prohibition on voting must be finite for every crime and last no longer than the rehabilitative element. Also, it should be noted that the vote of the criminal is neither cast nor counted. It would be unfair to let their community count them as though they voted.

What remains of criminal elements should be handled in a rehabilitative and restorative manner. The goal of the former is to prevent repeat offense while the goal of the latter is to restore to the victim what can be restored. Obviously, there are limits on both of these, but the goal of a criminal justice system must be the bringing back of both the criminal and the victim. This prevents turning the criminal justice system into a defacto slave system for society justified by the fact that these people are lawbreakers. Therefore the state has a vested interest in not allowing convicted criminals to work for any reason. The guaranteed income established by the principles of libertarian socialism would suffice to meet their needs, but no labor can be extracted from them voluntarily while they are under the authority of the justice system and any labor arrangement entered into involuntarily amounts to a form of slavery.

Finally, the sick and invalid present us with dangerous political waters to navigate. Be sure here, I do not mean removing voting rights from disabled persons. What I have in mind here is more or less permanently incapacitated. Anyone who can communicate in any manner is capable of casting a vote and so ought to be allowed. Surely those who cannot speak out for themselves simply won’t, but should their votes still count? Does a community have the right to count citizens who for health reasons cannot represent their own interests? I think not. The greater danger here is that of exploitation of the “votes” of the invalid would give a minority undue legislative power. Now, how a vote is counted can be determined by the community, a nod or a thumbs up or a spoken word or even blinking twice might all count. This would hopefully clamp down on the desire to have people removed from the rolls as invalids while keeping their political power for the community.

Mental health may represent the greatest hazard. The other question is what about those who are so mentally gone that they cannot think rationally. I’m disinclined to restrict their vote unless they are incapable of joining a community. This community standard, the ability to interact with others is crucial to a free and democratic society. Those who are a danger to themselves and others or simply incapable of communicating intelligibly, must not count politically. At any point, if they can join a community then obviously their vote would count the same as any other person.

After knowing who counts, we need to establish the process whereby votes determine laws in this political architecture. The basic unit of democracy is the community and not the individual. Thus, laws should be elected by the number of communities that approve them in a given jurisdiction, but we need to also understand how votes are counted. One problem our distinction between individuals who are not democratic units and communities that are is that we must determine if individual voices are being silenced by the political architecture itself. I do not mean here that voices are being silenced by other individuals in the community, but that the method of counting votes is somehow unfair, e.g. gerrymandering in current election systems.

Let us take the following example as illustrative of the potential problems that would need to be addressed: Image three communities, where community A has 100 members, community B has 50 members and community C has 40 members. Further, imagine that the municipality has split on an issue. These three communities are the deciding vote. Let’s say that A rejects the motion but B and C favor it. If we count votes by the smallest democratic unit, then the motion passes, in this case, two to one. But if we count by individuals we can see that the motion doesn’t pass, 100 to 90. How we decide to count votes then will determine the outcome in this case.

The problem with counting votes per community, as we see above, is that communities vary in size, and it would be disenfranchising to the number of individuals inside a larger community to have their votes equaled to those in a smaller community. This is similar to the problem with the electoral college in the contemporary United States. The easy solution would be to count community votes as either for or against but give them the relative strength of the total membership of the community’s individuals. In the above example, the motion would not have passed because there would have been 100 votes against but only 90 for. Inside each community, the total votes of the community would be up for grabs. If community A voted 49 for and 51 against, while community B voted 49 for and 1 against and community C voted 39 for and 1 against, the result would be 100 against and 90 for, and this despite the individual votes being 53 against and 137 for. This is because communities are the basic unit of democracy, and so they speak univocally. However, the communities strength is relative to their numbers. 

But what of those who don’t want to participate? We have incentivized them, yes, but should we force them? Well, one more addition to the political architecture will ensure their participation whether or not they are actually there: every vote of the membership is counted, whether or not you cast your vote or not. For example, let’s say a community of seventy members votes 38 for to 22 against on a measure. The measure will get seventy votes for it, even though only sixty actual votes were cast. The community has spoken and that “community” speaks with the voice of seventy people.

Requiring communities to speak with one voice will occasionally cause doubtless disenfranchising to some voters. However, this disenfranchisement does something positive for society as a whole by avoiding a particularly thorny “prisoner’s dilemma”. How do you encourage participation among everyone, which is vital to the supposedly voluntary nature of this political architecture? Those who show up to communities where the votes are determined univocally, make decisions for all in the community, but only those in the arena of community politics will get to decide for others. This action level is anarchistic. Those who choose not to participate by not attending or abstaining from voting are in reality allowing the other members of their community to cast their vote for them. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as an individual understands that that is what they are doing, and it establishes the universal affirmation of legislation required by libertarian principles.

This creates an interest in people to participate if they want their actual opinions heard. Showing up allows for the exchange of information, fosters discussion and debate, encourages seeing other perspectives, and a host of other deliberative goods. Were votes to be counted individually, as in a pure democracy, then there would be no need to deliberate with one’s political peers, and one could make all political decisions in isolation, forming idiosyncratic opinions, bereft of relationship knowledge. In short, it would be to make individuals the basic unit of democracy, which I have already argued is not possible. This point is worth hammering on. The individual is incapable of rendering a judgment about the society outside the context of their group. They simply can’t understand their own needs or the responsibilities of others, and so could not make good judgments about political issues. The community helps to spread those subjective prejudices out, force them into open dialogue, and then and only then allows a univocal decision. The univocal decision is necessary to put the individual in a place to participate. Democracies work best, indeed, they only work at all, when the overwhelming majority of the citizens participate.

That said, the disenfranchisement is a problem, however, it can be slightly mitigated in two ways. The first mitigating circumstance has already been established for other reasons previously: our political architecture does not require a mere majority vote to carry the day, it requires a supermajority significant enough to overcome most objections to ensure victory. In the above example, 55% approval would be required to pass the law, so that if the numbers were reversed and community A was for the measure while B and C were against it (assuming these three communities made up the total municipality) the measure would not pass. This is the conservative aspect of government, preserving freedom and ensuring a great deal of voluntary support at high scales.

A second mitigating circumstance is possible if we set a minimum on the number of members a community could have. I have previously suggested that the number of members in a community be capped at one hundred, but perhaps I should make a few modifications. First, let me ask if a minimum number is necessary? The real reason for the discord between the three communities in the above example is their relative sizes. This example was chosen precisely to bring out this peculiarity. The feeling that one’s vote doesn’t count comes as a reflection of the scale of the arena, so that difference between the highest and lowest possible membership reflects the number of voters whose voice can be discounted. For example, were the minimum members in a community two and the maximum one hundred, then it would be possible for a form of democratic gerrymandering where groups split to form separate communities in order to have their way. In general, there is nothing wrong with this, but its effect must be limited by creating relative equality between all communities, in other words, we need to set a minimum and maximum that are relatively close together. This should help to minimize the damage in communities, the only place where such division between univocal decisions and numeric strength is allowed. Pragmatically, I would recommend a minimum of fifty members and then change our maximum from one hundred down to ninety-nine, so that upon the addition of a hundredth member, the group splits into two separate communities of fifty. With these numbers, the largest number of individuals that could be disenfranchised at the most actionable level would be forty-nine.

Now scaling up, the only thing that changes is the required percentage of the population to pass the measure and the number of communities participating in the vote. We might ask what if no one in the whole community votes, then that community has simply abstained. Communities themselves can, of course, set quorums if they wish to abstain, so that if less than half of the community members vote, the result is abstinence. This is their right as the basic democratic unit. And there are of course other hurdles to overcome; most notably, how do we get from here to there. Whatever transition we might take, it will be chaotic and anxiety-provoking. I’m not sure there is a right answer here. But I have faith that such a thing may be managed by the numerous talented persons who make up this world.

In the next part of this series, I will go beyond the legislative and explore some of the issues of practical governance this political architecture must deal with.

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