‘New System’ Priorities: Diversity or Unified Vision?

A Fog Island Tavern Discussion

– Hey Bog-Hubert – got over your post-election excitement yet?
– Not exactly, Vodçek.
– Not exactly – what does that mean, exactly? Or, well, approximately, if you don’t do exactly?
– Well, right now I’m just wondering about all the blogs and sites that are oh so urgently proposing this or that ‘new system’ that should be adopted instead…
– Haven’t they been doing that for a while?
– True. Maybe I’m just starting to pay more attention.
– And?
– And I’m getting more and more confused and aggravated.
– Why is that? Well, the confusion part I understand: there’s just too much of all that floating around. But what’s aggravating you? Isn’t it encouraging that people are starting to think about these issues some more?
– Sure, if they just were the right issues.
– So you think they aren’t? Hmm. I could use some explanation…
– Okay: I know you’ve been looking at things like that too. Briefly, what are the main groups of controversies you see?
– Main groups? You mean the political parties?
– No, Vodçek. Sorry, my question wasn’t clear. I’m talking about the groups that are basically saying those parties, and the system they’re a part of, need to be replaced with something new.
– Not all of them are suggesting something new; aren’t many of them claiming to be ‘conservative’?
– Right: but they don’t mean conserving things as they are, more like going back to some mythical previous better state of affairs, aren’t they?
– I see what you mean. Even if it’s something traditional, inherited, it wouldn’t be just like that old system, but something new based on old principles? Well, I see many ‘New System’ groups calling for a more or less radical re-thinking of how society should be organized. Ditch the current ones, all parts and subsystems. I don’t see much specific detail in those, of the New Systems, that one could examine and discuss. And then there are all those groups that are doing very specific ‘alternative’ things: the commons projects, alternative currencies, sustainable agriculture or permaculture communities, alternative energy technologies, etc. Many good ideas, but hard to see how they’d fit into an overall picture.
– I agree with your impressions there. Any of those well-intentioned causes you would want to join, become a part of to create the new society, saving the human race?
– Oh man, I have enough trouble keeping my humble tavern going from day to day. But you are right. I can’t say I share the enthusiasm some of those people seem to have.
– And do you think about why that might be? Other than that some of those guys are just trying to make you feel guilty by accusing you of laziness, apathy, stinginess for not giving them money, or worse?
– Well, do you have a good explanation? You aren’t doing much of that enthusiasm-activism yourself, am I right? Other than scribbling in your little notebook there when there’s nobody else here you can shoot the breeze with?
– Touché, my friend. But hey, there are some ideas in this little notebook, some thinking about those issues, that explain why I am not out there ‘doing’ things. Well, as long as there’s nobody else keeping you distracted here, perhaps we can discuss some of it?
– Okay. Starting with why I don’t think the world is ready for THE BIG NEW SYSTEM yet? Apart from the fact that those websites and flyers mostly consist of complaints about how bad things are and how those current ‘isms’ – capitalism, industrialism, neo-liberalism, globalism etc. – need to be ditched. As I said, few convincing specifics about what the new system should look like.
– I agree, we aren’t ready for another big system. Not sure I agree with your ‘yet’ – whether we should go for one big ‘unified’ system again. The record on the few experiments we had with those grand schemes hasn’t been too encouraging, would you agree?
– I really don’t know, Bog-Hubert. Human societies today, — technology, trade, travel, politics, communications — have developed too far to really ignore the calls for some global agreements and order. We can’t really go back to a state where we fumbled around in small isolated tribes, assuming the things we do have no effect across the globe. But I don’t think we really have any good ideas yet about what a better system should be.
– ‘Yet’, yet again – we need to get back to that. For now, I agree: Even among the people who think they have the key to the design of THE NEW system, there is precious little agreement about what it should look like. So I’d say the chances for consensus about that unified vision they all call for are pretty slim. We — if you talk about humanity as a whole – still do not know and can’t agree on what that better new system should be. We don’t really know what provisions in such a system would work and what wouldn’t.
– So?
– So we should take a closer look at those alternative initiatives, experiments. Right now, I have come across estimates of such efforts already counting in the millions. No idea if it’s true, or what the bases for those numbers are. Most seem to be small, local, and struggling with limited resources. I think we can say that most of them are working in isolation, many trying to stay under the radar of ‘official’ systems that tend to see tem as subversive or worse. Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t see that they communicate well either with the outside world or among themselves. If they do, it’s mainly promotion pieces focusing on their ideas and hopes and successes, if any. Not a good basis for accumulating systematic, valid information about what works and what doesn’t.
– Don’t some of them see their main focus as the very key to making the BIG system work, and ask the entire world to awaken and accept it? And give them all more money?
– True. But okay, they are entitled to their faith. What I’m saying is that we need those experiments – many more, and as different and diverse as possible.
– I agree; that’s why I list that as a high priority. There should be a concerted effort to encourage and support those – on the condition that they are voluntary, not forcing people to participate, don’t get in each other’s or the existing systems’ ways in disruptive or aggressive manner, and most importantly that they agree to share their experiences in some coordinated and systematic fashion that allows others, the world, to learn from what they are doing.
– Hmm. Sounds good – but hey, doesn’t that already require some kind of global system?
– You are right. But that is, first off, not a BIG BROTHER governance and decision-making system, only a documentation, evaluation and discussion platform. You could say that the development of such a platform itself is an experiment. Starting small and local, but yes, aiming at involving many or all such initiatives, so global.
– The agreements of that system, or platform, as you call it, will require some decisions though. Beyond local, so: global, after all?
– Right again. But the decisions are not all-embracing whole system design decisions. Not even excluding alternative forms of communication or interaction, or replacing other institutions. So to the extent decisions – yes, ‘global’ decisions – are aimed at, they are sufficiently innocuous to serve as the basis for experiments about how to develop better decision-making modes? Because the current decision-making modes are part of the problem, aren’t they?
– Getting into treacherous territory there, Bog-Hubert.
– Perhaps. But isn’t it getting more obvious every day that Voting – the crucial element and crux of democracy — it’s more of a crutch? Simple and straightforward, sure. But I don’t think you can say it guarantees that the democratic principles of self-determination or that all concerns people may have about common plans will actually be heard nor given ‘due consideration’. Majority voting by definition permits ignoring the concerns of the minority…
– Okay, okay. So what you are saying is that thee will be a need to design such a platform, and that one of its features will have to be better decision-making methods. Well, I agree, that is an agenda that we don’t hear much about in the public media and political platforms: Can you draw a diagram of all that while I get some more coffee going?
– Sure. Got a napkin?

new-system-priorities-1a

– Ok, looks good. I see you added some issues down there — getting carried away already?
– Well, think about it. So far, we agreed that what’s needed are
• The ‘alternative’ experiments
• A forum and provisions for sharing and evaluating their experiences
• A ‘discourse’ platform for working out the global ‘road rules’ agreements
But since those agreements are not within any governance jurisdiction, wouldn’t there be a need for
• Some provisions for ensuring that those agreements are actually adhered to ?
Because they can’t be ‘enforced’ by any of the usual government policing and jurisdiction systems, they would have to be a different kind of arrangements. So that will need some innovative work. And I think that there will be a need for a better way of
• Selecting and appointing ‘leaders’ – people in positions to make decisions that can’t wait for the outcome of lengthy discussions.
And to the extent these people will wield power, won’t we have to rethink the problem of how to prevent that power from becoming addictive, leading to the temptations to abuse their power? I seriously feel that some better
• Tools for controlling power should be on the agenda. We don’t say anything about their order yet.
– Good grief, that is quite a package of work you’ve lined up there. No wonder our fearless leaders and candidates are a bit, shall we say, reluctant to even mention some of those. Hard to make meaningful campaign promises about those, eh?
– Sure. Quite controversial – which is precisely why they should be on the agenda.
– Okay, Bog-Hubert: at least there should be some meaningful discussion about those issues.
– More meaningful than their current treatment in the media, is that what you are saying? Because at least for some of the issues that are being talked about, the flood of opinions and rhetoric is already unmanageable. Almost meaningless for guiding sensible decisions.
– I agree. But…
– But — what’s bothering you?
– Well: those headings in the diagram, they are still so general that they don’t say much more than the usual complaints about problems with this and that. Calls for something to be done, but no specific details yet that one can get behind, don’t you agree? So you’d face the same kind of lack of engagement on the part of the public I think you’d want to enlist for that discussion?
– You are right. In the current form, the diagram doesn’t convey much substance yet. We’ll have to discuss some details: explaining why some new ideas and agreements are needed, sketching out what each of those components would do.
– And indicate why you think they can be made to work. We may need some help from our friends there. Let’s think about it for a while, until some of our usual suspects turn up.

– Hi guys, what’s that napkin doodle you are poring over there?
– Hello Commissioner, welcome to our little team. We are trying to figure out what the agenda really should be that you folks in government ought to be working on. Priorities…

Alternative Initiatives and Experiments

– Hmm. What’s this thing about ‘alternative experiments at the top here? Sounds subversive.
– We should have known that would look odd to you, what with all your calls for unified vision and purpose?
– Well, isn’t that what we need these days, come together to work on the urgent, common project of a more viable system to get us out of the mess we’re in, and the bigger mess we’re going to be in if we keep working at cross-purposes?
– Hear, hear, Commissioner. Yes, we need a unified vision we can all work on. It’s just what I have been saying for a long time, too.
– Hi Sophie, good morning. Amazing: you agree with our politician for a change? Well, can you tell us what that great, unified vision is going to be?
– Wrong question, Bog-Hubert: it will emerge once we get everybody to become aware of the whole system and acquire a consciousness of all of us being part of that whole together with the entire ecosystem. A new ethic…
– Oh yeah, that will take care of the economy, solve unemployment, inequality, and crime, eh?
– Whoa, Commissioner, is that a trace of sarcasm I hear, already? Suggesting a profound disagreement about the kind of unified vision we are supposed to embrace?
– Well, Bog-Hubert, it’s not the same thing. Sorry, Sophie, but that consciousness thing is just wishful thinking. Not a sound practical basis for reorganizing society. It needs negotiated compromise. Don’t hit me…
– Hey people, cool it, okay? Let’s not get into a brawl about specific Unified System Visions here. You are actually making the argument here, about why we need all those alternative experiments.
– How so? You’ll have to explain that, Vodçek.
– Okay, in principle, I’d agree: it would be great if we found that unified vision of the new and better system so many groups out there are talking about. But look at our first attempt to describe what it would be or should be like: big disagreement erupting before we even got started, about what it means and how to get there.. And I don’t’ think it’s just the two of you. Too much disagreement about it out there, all over. Doesn’t that tell us something: we – I mean humanity in general – don’t really know what that system, that vision should look like? Even if somebody really knows, too many others have different ideas about it. Too many to expect a unified consensus about the common effort we should start to get there any time soon. So… I think what Bog-Hubert is trying to say here is…
– Yes. We should just acknowledge that we don’t know. We’ve been through that before you guys came in, but it can’t be said often enough. Especially about the big, global system many think is needed. We have tried a few big systems, and so far none of them have met with universal approval, in spite of the intense propaganda from their promoters that flooded the media. Can’t we admit: we don’t really know what works and what doesn’t work for the big challenges we are facing? And spending all our chips on another big system without better evidence looks like an even worse idea than the muddling through we are doing now.
– Hmm. You’ve got a point there – and that’s why you’d let all those alternative crazies work on their separate blueprints to save the world?
– Right. I’d try to avoid the kind of name-calling though; many of those initiatives are run by very intelligent and well-intentioned people. Some of their ideas actually make a lot of sense, and I think we need to learn how they work out. The people doing that are often just working on a volunteer basis, — much cheaper and often more effective than big government contracts to big think tanks. Though to be fair, I’m sure some useful work is done there too. Most of them are small, local projects, and many are unquestionably improving matters – take the sustainability, organic and permaculture food projects – and do no harm, which can’t be said of all the big corporate activities. So they should be encouraged and supported rather than treated with suspicion and bureaucratic obstacles. The more diverse, the better. We need to learn from their experiences. But…

Sharing and evaluating experiences

– I knew it; there’s a but butting in.
– Yes, Sophie. As far as I can see, most of those initiatives and projects don’t really communicate well – not with the society and media in general, not even among themselves. So there’s little valid information available about their real experiences – what works and what does not work. Not much systematic evaluation. Much of the information they put out is just promotion — focused on the promises and whatever success they claim to have. Nothing about their obstacles and problems, other than that they really really need your donation.
– Yeah, and many of them actually are trying to sell the premises of their initiatives as THE basis for the next BIG system, for all to adopt.
– True. They should be given the opportunity to show some actual evidence for their claims, and a forum for fair but critical assessment. So the overall strategy should include encouragement and support. But on condition of sharing their experience in some organized and useful manner.
– ‘Organized’? That sounds like it will require some big system after all, Bog-Hubert? If those numbers you mentioned are real?
– Yes, that’s true. You’ll need some common format not only for compiling and documenting all that information, but also for the criteria and method for assessing the successes and failures. Big task. But there’s a significant difference: this ‘system’ can be designed and developed by those projects and initiatives themselves – not just ‘participation’ but actual decision-making, based on the interests and concerns of all the players involved.
– So there will be a ‘data base’ or documentation system for all the project information, and an ‘evaluation’ component with some common criteria and measures of performance based on what those initiatives are aiming at achieving, and a process for developing and displaying the results?
– Yes. And because that is not an all-powerful Big Brother Government system imposing its will upon all aspects of society, it will be a much less ideological and controversial process, don’t you think?
– Ah: if you are right – which remains to be seen though – it will be a good exercise project in itself – a testing ground for developing a better ‘self-governance’ system with all the aspects further down in your priority list. Sneaky.
– It was Abbé Boulah’s idea, that one, yes. He’s the sneaky one.
– So let’s look at those other parts of your list.
– Okay: which one?

Discourse platform

– The process you are talking about – developing the data base and evaluation system – already requires some common forum or platform where development ideas can be brought in, discussed, and decided upon, doesn’t it? Is that what that ‘discourse platform’ is supposed to be?
– Yes, Dexter. Glad you could join us, this gets into IT territory. And it will not just be like some of the social network platforms we know, nor a ‘knowledge base’ compilation of data, a data bank or encyclopedia-like system, but a ‘planning discourse support system’ aimed at developing, proposing and displaying, and discussing designs for the system itself, and then helping participants to make decisions based on the merit of those contributions – ideas, proposals and arguments pro and con. So that discussion must be accessible to all the participant entities.
– I see. It sounds plausible. But apart from the integration of the different programs, — feasible, but will take some work — won’t there be big practical implementation problems to do that? Just think of all the different languages all over the world, in which those contributions will be brought in. You can’t expect people will agree to one global language for that anymore – not in this post-colonial age. So there will have to be a massive translation effort to translate that discourse into all the different participant languages?
– True. And not only that. Much of the needed information will actually be in the form of scientific research, statistics, systems projects from many different disciplines? Each with their own vocabulary — disciplinary jargon, — replete with acronyms and greek letters and math equations. For a viable discussion, the content messages of those contributions must be translated into conversational language that ordinary citizens can understand. So yes, it will be a major project to coordinate that, and not an overnight process.
– And you’ll have to deal with all the problems we already know from the current scene of collaborative projects under various political systems.
– Such as?
– Well you have the ‘voter apathy’ syndrome – even in projects open to and relying on public participation. Many people just don’t participate or vote because they don’t really have the feeling that their input will count in any significant way. Then you have the ‘information overload’ problem – how can anybody digest all the information that’s flooding the media and social networks? You have the ‘trolls’ that just try to derail any meaningful discussion with irrelevant posts; personal attacks and insults and erroneous information – not even to talk about the problem of deliberately ‘false news’ – lies and distortions. And last not least the fact that the decisions — by so-called leaders or by referendum-type voting – can blatantly ignore even the most significant information and concerns of large parts of society.

New decision methods

– Yes, you are getting into the details of what’s needed to make any such planning platform work properly – in the best interest of all affected parties, in a really democratic way. So first, the system should provide some real participation incentives. And it should be organized so as to eliminate or at least reduce repetitious, irrelevant, erroneous and maliciously distractive and misleading content, and give people a good informative overview of the state of the discourse, don’t you think? Those are major design challenges – but we do have some ideas for improving things. Better decision modes for such planning systems remain a major issue.
– Hey, Bog-Hubert: all that doesn’t sound like a small local project anymore. You keep calling it a ‘planning discourse platform’ as if it were only a minor item on the agenda – but it is really a blueprint for the Big Global Discourse System, isn’t it?
– You are right in that any global governance system – as well as any local governance system if it wants to be really ‘democratic’ – will have to deal with the same issues and find acceptable solutions for them. The difference is that this is not a proposal for a ‘revolutionary’ upheaval replacing all the ‘evil’ current systems with another BIG System overnight.
– Or just a ‘get rid of the crooks’ effort that ends up just replacing the old crooks with different ones who will become just as bad and corrupted because the new systems hasn’t solved those problems you are pointing out here.
– So it looks like the ‘new decision models’ item on the priority list is really a high priority one. And that whatever the solution may be will look somewhat different from the ‘voting’ methods that are now considered as the key principle and guarantee of democracy? Can you give us some more details about what might make such methods work?
– Hey, putting a problem on the agenda doesn’t mean that we already have a solution, does it? Just that there is a problem and that we feel it is possible to fix it. But a key aspect, I think, is this: there must be a closer, more visible and recognizable connection between the merit of the information and arguments brought into the discourse, and the decision. That link is currently just a sanctimonious ideal: ‘let’s talk and then decide’.
– Sure, but a vote can, and too often does, ignore all the talk. So there’s work to do on that. But some of your Abbeboulahist ideas also justify hope – for example: if we can get a meaningful measurement tool for the merit of contributions, that measure can become a more decisive factor in the decision. And we have some ideas for that, too.

Few main ‘global’ agreements to facilitate ‘diverse’ aims

– True, Vodçek. So this system will be developed and emerge as a ‘parallel’ structure within the existing system, at first only dealing with the kinds of common agreements needed to draw useful lessons from the experiences of all those ‘local’ efforts. And aiming only at few decisions needed to facilitate the process – decisions like the ‘global, unified’ rules of the road – which side of the road to drive on to let everybody get to their ‘diverse’ destinations; or like the international rules for air or ocean traffic.
– Yeah, with all the translation and communication problems of such a global discourse, there won’t be that many decisions being agreed upon by that process, if you ask me. But I agree that some such common ‘road rule’ agreements will be needed, in this partial system as well as in the overall global system or non-system, if the Big Brother World Government is too scary a prospect.

Provisions for ensuring adherence to agreements:
‘enforcement’, sanctions?

– Hey, none of that is talking about any kind of World Government, I hope. Is it?
– Well, Sophie, think about it: Any kind of agreement or treaty or law – different names for essentially the same concept – will need some provisions for making sure that the agreement is kept, the rule is followed, and about what to do if it is violated. Deliberately or inadvertently.
– If all such agreements are reached by consensus by all the well-intentioned folks in a well-informed, spiritually conscious and aware community, and with more adequate decision procedures giving each participant’s concerns due considerations, will there still be such violations? Or at least not as many?
– Wouldn’t that be nice, Sophie. Won’t there always be people who feel that they aren’t getting as much of a benefit from a common decision as others, that they even get ‘the short end’ of it even if they couldn’t come up with sufficiently persuasive arguments to persuade the community or to justify a ‘no’ vote preventing the precious consensus decision? Peer pressure to agree resulting in a temptation to just bend the rules a little bit…? And then a little more?…
– I see where you are going here, Bog-Hubert, you cynic. You didn’t even mention all those sheer ornery or even pure evil folks. The problem isn’t just that there will still be such violations, but also that we – society – have not gotten past the traditional ways of dealing with them that we inherited from times when rules and laws were imposed by rulers who didn’t give a hoot about whether people were really adhering voluntarily to the rules because they agreed to them…
– What are you talking about, Vodçek?
– Law enforcement, of course, Sophie. The traditional approach is that laws have to be ‘enforced’ – that violators have to be punished so that they wouldn’t do it again, and to deter everybody else from even trying. And what Bog-Hubert is aiming at, — I have heard him talk about it with Abbé Boulah before – is that enforcement, prevention and application of force – requires that the enforcer must have more force, be more powerful, than any would-be violator. Otherwise, it’s not effective. So he is saying there should be different tools for ensuring that agreements and laws are adhered to – ‘sanctions’ that do not require ‘enforcement’. Am I right, Bog-Hubert?
– Couldn’t have said it better myself, Vodçek. One alternative would be something like sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violating a rule. Like the car ignition key that can sense if you are drunk and just won’t turn on if you are.
– Like that kind of thing can really fight crime and corruption. But what’s wrong with the ‘enforcement’ approach?
– Two things, Commissioner. One is escalation of enforcement tools. If criminals are getting better weapons than the police, the police must get better weapons, eh? Then the bad guys get even better gins, and so on… Not supportable, in the short or long run.
– Hmm. There oughta be a law…And the other reason?
– Power. You see it already at the local level, but it becomes critical on the level of international relations. It’s the reason people are very uncomfortable with the idea of World Government.
– I don’t get it.
– Well, you’ve heard the quip about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, haven’t you? Now if you have an enforcement agent or agency which does have better weapons, more powerful tools, than any would-be violator, what’s keeping that agent or agency from becoming tempted, ever so slightly, to bend the rules a little for itself? If the theory is true that it would take an enforcer with more power…
– Well, we have the balance of power of the different branches of government, and term limits, and impeachment rules, and so on, to constrain such power abuses, don’t we?
– True, and the claim is that they have been working adequately for quite a while. But many people are saying that those tools are getting to the limits of their effectiveness even al the local, regional and state levels. And seeing how often and how cleverly they have become ineffective, allowing power-holders to become evermore worried about the infringement of their power and their little abuses, and therefore seeking more power, and more clever, even ‘legal’ ways to circumvent their balance-of-power constraints. At the extreme, having to convince themselves that they really have the inviolate power by engaging in reckless activities – the Caligula syndrome.
– But those guys have always been brought down in the end, haven’t they? Well, most of them?
– Have they? At what cost of their own impoverished, murdered and ‘disappeared’ or otherwise oppressed citizens before they are stopped? Or that of other countries’ forces trying to bring them down? But think: if we have a World Government – one whose legitimate role is to ensure that agreements and treaties are adhered to, as we discussed – but whose tools for that are only ‘enforcement’ tools: weapons? And so-called ‘’security’ and ‘anti-terrorism’ systems that have to constrain the liberty of all citizens in order to be effective: With the kinds of weaponry we have nowadays, what could keep such a ‘government’ from falling victim to the temptations of power if there’s no more powerful agent to keep it in line?
– Right. So the concerns of people who oppose such governments are, shall we say, not entirely unfounded? And the governments who are supposed to ensure their citizens that they are not, — ‘trust me, trust me’ – in any way tempted to take some additional advantage of their power, are naturally and inevitably hesitant of divulging all the safeguards they have, so they won’t fall into the wrong hands: the secret service must be secret, after all. Mustn’t it?

Control of Power

– Okay. You’ve got us all worried, happy now? So the first conclusion is that we need some sanctions that don’t rely on enforcement, to ensure adherence to agreements. Keep it on the agenda. But what do we do about the issue of control of power itself, apart from the law enforcement aspect? Do we have any new ideas about that, or even grounds for optimism that better solutions can be found? Because I see that just the right of citizens to keep arms is not a solution, given the escalation problem and the other means of exerting power.
– No, Sophie, nobody has a brilliant solution up his or her sleeve yet. Just perhaps some different principles to bring to bear on the problem.
– Such as?
– Well, look at the concept of power itself, for starters. For the poor, the ‘disempowered’, the recurring slogan is always ‘empowerment’ – as if power were a universal human right, which we could argue is a good way of looking at it. Just like life and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness we always invoke. But we expect people to pursue, to work for, or pay for those things, not just to be ‘given’. At best, what’s ‘given’ or ‘endowed by the creator’ – or what a society agrees to grant all its members — is the right to pursue, not the right to get it without one’s own effort.
– That’s a concept that would need some discussion, my friend.
– Yes, we can discuss that, and what it means in detail. But to explore its implications here: what if we apply it to the power issue – specifically to the power to make decisions and take action on behalf of others, or that affect others in one way or the other. What if, say we’d ask people with such power to ‘pay’ for the decisions they make? Just like we expect the poorest fellows to pay for their loaf of bread they are allowed to buy at Wal-Mart to survive? By ‘paying’ we probably would need a different kind of currency than money.
– We might also look at some older forms of power control – patterns that have come to be despised lately, such as the hierarchical organization of societies.
– How did that control power? Wasn’t that the ultimate form of power abuse?
– Not always, Vodçek. See, in a hierarchy, the person at each level had a certain amount of power – the power to control and direct the activities of the subordinates, within certain limits set by their superiors. The unresolved issue was of course always the lowest and the top positions: the lowest ones had little or no power until they ‘earned it’ by whatever degrading means, and the top position had no one else to answer to – except supernatural ones in the afterlife.
– But there were some useful provisions in the form of controls by parallel boards with members from lower levels of the hierarchy, term limits and the like. They also tended to be older folks who weren’t as much tempted to certain distracting abuse as younger people. But again, the traditional controls seem to break down again and again, so the issue of meaningful and effective control for governance folks on the global level is still up for grabs. So I agree: the issue of control of power should be a high priority item.

Choosing the people for power positions

– All that sounds like you want to do away with all kinds of leadership positions. I’m not sure I can go along with that.
– You are quite right feeling uneasy about that, Sophie. But that’s not the intention at all. We do need people in positions of leadership and power.
– After all you went through show how they will be corrupted by power? I say kick the big shots out!
– Whoa, Renfroe. I understand how you can get impatient with some of their shenanigans. And how you might get the impression that with a better functioning ‘democratic’ decision-making system, we don’t need those bigwigs anymore.
– I’d say!
– But not all decisions need to run through such a process, and some can’t wait, they need a quick decision to deal with new situations. Think of a ship that finds itself suddenly on a course towards an iceberg. There has to be someone – the captain – who will have to make a quick decision: pass it on the port or starboard side? You can’t have a lengthy palaver to reach a decision: it must be done fast. And the problem is to have a process to appoint people to such positions, yes, power positions – whose expertise, skills, experience and judgment you can trust. And what safeguards have to be in place to prevent such people from getting tempted to abuse that power for purposes of his own that are contrary to the well-being of the ship and its crews and passengers.
– Okay, I see what you are saying. So do you have any trick up your sleeve for that problem? It’s what you’d call a dilemma, isn’t it? Giving a guy – or a gal – the power to make big decisions, but keeping them from making the wrong ones when they have all that power, and by definition, as you explained, no greater power to keep them in line?
– Well, can you see how that problem should have some better solutions for people in such positions in ‘global’ institutions, in world governments?
– Okay, it belongs on the list of priorities too, I agree.

Solutions?

– I still would like to know what gives you the idea that there are better solutions in sight for these problems. If a problem doesn’t have any solutions – like a genuine paradox or dilemma, why waste our time, money, and energy trying to find one?
– Good question, Commissioner. But for some of these issues, there actually seem to be some improvements in sight that should at least be explored and discussed.
– Explain that, please. I’m getting curious.
– I’ll leave it to Bog-Hubert – I think the way he drew that diagram shows how some answers to simpler questions in the list can help suggest solutions for others. Bog-Hubert?
– I’ll try to keep it simple. Take the idea we have discussed here before, of awarding contribution rewards to people who contribute ideas and arguments to the planning discourse we sketched out before. Basic credit points that simply will be an incentive for participation and providing information.
– That’s trying to get at the voter apathy issue, right?
– At least part of it. Now, the rule that only the first entry of an information item will get the credit, but not repetitions, will speed up the process. The assume we can put a process of evaluation in place, for the assessment of merit of each such entry – is it plausible, important, is there evidence or adequate support for the claims, do the arguments have weight. Then the original credits can be adjusted, upward for good merit items, downward for erroneous or unsupported, implausible claims and arguments. That will all help making better decisions, as a first effect. But in the process, participants are actually building up a ‘record’ of their contribution merit points.
– Ah, I see: and that record can be made part of the ‘qualification’ criteria for appointing people to positions of power? If they have made consistently meritorious contributions to the policy discourse for important issues, they can be considered better qualified than others whose entries have been shown to be unsupported and implausible?
– Right. Better judgment. But that’s not all. Those merit points can become a kind of alternate ‘currency’ for various purposes. One is the sanctions issue for violating agreements and ‘laws’. The penalties can be in the form of subtracting credit points from their accounts. Especially if some means can be found to identify attempts at violating agreements and laws as the attempt is started or going on, so that penalty points can be applied immediately, without having to involve heavy-duty law enforcement. So the size and extent of enforcement forces could be reduced, as well as the worry about enforcement by force and associated escalation, would you agree?
– I think that would take some fine-tuning, but yes, it’s an idea that should be explored. What about the power issue itself – didn’t you mention something about that as well?
– Yes indeed. The idea is to make people in positions of power ‘accountable’ for the decisions they make by having to ‘pay’ for each decision – again, with their merit credit points. If the decision is a flop, they lose the points – if it’s a good one, they earn them back, and perhaps more. ‘Profit’, eh?
– What about decisions that are so important, and therefore so ‘costly’, that officials can’t afford to make such decisions with their own points?
– Well, if you feel that such a decision should be made, that is, you support the leader who has to make it, how about transferring some of your own credits to his account? In that way, you are also ‘accountable’ for the decision – and perhaps less likely to let a populist loose cannon go around making disastrous decisions? If the decision is a good one, your ‘investment’ can ‘pay off’ in that you get your points back, perhaps with some ‘interest’? And if not, you lost your points just like the leader who made that dumb decision with your support…
– Oh man, you are getting way out there with these wild schemes.
– Well. It’s all up for discussion. Do you have any better ideas to deal with these challenges?

new-system-priorities-1f


A solution idea for the use of civic credit points for the control of power

In the Fog Island Tavern:

Hey Vodçek — what’s all the excitement over there about?

Hi Bog-Hubert. Some good news from Rigatopia — why don’t you go over to find out? Here’s your coffee.

Thanks. You can’t provide a quick summary? I’ll have to catch the ferry in a few minutes…

Okay. It looks like they have developed a new solution for the problem of power and accountability. You remember Abbé Boulah’s campaign for argument evaluation in policy-making?

Applying the ideas of our architect friend — to evaluate design and planning arguments — to more general policy discussions and decisions? Isn’t he developing some kind of game to get people used to the concept?

Yes. The game is a good starting point. So you know how people get points for any contributions they make to the discussion — but they get modified by everybody’s assessment of the plausibility and importance of those contributions, and by the overall quality (plausibility) of the solution they collectively work out.

I remember. So how does this get used to control power in real life?

It’s actually quite simple. People who participate in public discussions build up a credit points account based on the quality of their contributions. The participation in public discourse is of course free and open to all: the possibility to earn credits is an incentive to participate.

Yes — we have talked about how that might be used to actually get decisions made. There were some questions about how the plausibility assessments could be used to guide decisions. And about some kinds of public decisions that have to be made quickly so there’s no time to have a long discussion about them…

Right. So some people have to be appointed to positions where they are responsible for making such decisions. One part of the idea — the solution they are trying out on Rigatopia — is that a person’s credit account will play a significant part in the appointment to such positions: you have to show a certain level of creditable participation in public discourse to qualify for positions where you have the power to make decisions.

So how does that solve the problems with power in those positions? We don’t have to go through the entire litany of power addiction, temptations for corruption, etc?

No. The solution is that each decision must be ‘paid for’ — up-front — with a credit point ‘ante’. Which is lost if the decision is no good; but can be seen as an ‘investment’ to earn new points if the decision is successful. But eventually, the points are ‘used up’.

Makes sense: we often talked about how power — as ’empowerment’ to pursue your happiness — should be ‘paid for’ just like you have to pay for your food and clothes and car.

Yes — but not with the same currency. And here, the currency is credit points — something anybody can earn, but which must be earned, and which can be lost by making stupid decisions.

That finally gives some substance to the notion of ‘accountability’. I agree. What about public decisions for which there is — and should be — some thorough discussion before decisions are made?

You are asking about how we can realize the expectation that such decisions should be made on the basis of the merit of arguments, of the contributions people make to the discourse. And how to add this element of accountability to the basic idea of using some overall group measure of proposal plausibility as a guide to the collective decision.

Right. The argument evaluation approach has been worked out reasonably well to produce an individual judgment of overall proposal plausibility (as a function of argument plausibility and argument weight — that was described in the paper in the ‘Informal Logic’ journal). But we all had some reservations about how to fashion a group decision from those individual judgments, and whether traditional decision methods such as (majority) voting could easily be replaced.

Okay: here’s the answer to that. Whatever decision method is being used — say voting — will have to be assessed in relation to some such measure of collective proposal plausibility — the plausibility assessments of all the people who have contributed to the discourse and assessments. But somebody has to take some responsibility for the decision. And that must involve accountability — which brings us back to the civic credit accounts. If you wish to actually have some actual ‘say’ in such a decision, you have to commit some of your credit points — perhaps your traditional ‘vote’ or polling opinion is ‘weighted’ by the credit points you are willing to put up as ‘ante’ — and lose if your decision is flawed. Of course, if it’s a good decision, it will earn you point points back, with ‘interest’ depending on how good it is.

Makes sense. It sounds a bit complicated, but with all the new information technology we have, it shouldn’t be too difficult to implement. I assume that such decisions — if they are to apply (e.g. as ‘law’) to the entire community, city, state, or whatever entity — must be ‘announced’ in a format ‘validated’ by the credit points that are backing them up. I like the aspect that the currency for influencing decisions and making decision-makers ‘accountable’ has been shifted away from money to civic credits. But tell me: won’t there be decisions that are so important and consequential — and require vast resources such that no individual decision-maker alone can reasonably be accountable for them?

Sure. The provision for this is also quite simple: If there is such a momentous decision, requiring so much money or other resources that the responsibility for it must be shared by the community — or at least by the supporters in the community, — this can be achieved by people backing the decision transferring credit points from their own accounts to that of the ‘official’ in charge of actually ‘signing’ for the decision. If it’s a bad one, they all, including the official, will be ‘accountable’ by losing their points. If it’s successful and ‘earning’ new credits, the points will have to be paid back to the supporters — with ‘points interest’ according to the size of their respective investment.

Sounds interesting, even like a breakthrough, almost. Thanks for the summary; I guess they are still discussing quite a few of the details that must be worked out. Looking forward to hear more about it when I get back, gotta run.

Remember, you heard it here first, Bog-Hubert. Have a safe trip!


Notes on Democracy, Government Size, and Control of Power

I The problem: democracy, government size: wrong issue?

The clamor for decentralization and smaller government is becoming so insistent that one gets suspicious. Who might be so interested in this — other than the poor citizens who feel so oppressed by the heavy hand of government that they don’t even begin to question the mantra? Voices from antiquity seem forgotten: “Divide et impera…” (‘Divide and conquer”) Who might be so intent on this, to rule by dividing us?

For all the problems of big government and the current manifestations of democracy (the very superiority of which is being called onto question by people who suffer from the incessant efforts of the big ‘democracies’ who are so heavy-handedly trying to introduce it in ‘developing’ regions), is it possible that it is all a wrong question, even deliberate smokescreen?

The arguments in favor of democracy are based on the ideal concept and aim: to ensure that all concerns and worries of all the people are being duly considered and met by ‘government’ decisions that affect them all (albeit in different ways). It is hard to argue with this ideal and with the view that there is no better concept of governance than democracy to achieve this, for all its flaws. It is the flaws that arguments against democracy are focused on: its cost, its cumbersome procedures, the size of resulting governments (whether or not this is due to democracy itself), the vulnerability to temptations of corruption, the ‘tyranny of the majority’ resulting from the majority-rule decision criteria, resulting in decisions that quite often end up hurting a lot of people, the appearance of government ending up working more for its own interests than for the people, in spite of the arrangements to rein in it power.

Does the fact that all other known forms of government tend to suffer from the same flaws suggest that there may be some key issues that are being consistently missed in this discussion? If so — rather than just jumping on the ‘smaller government’ bandwagon — it may be helpful to look at the basic underlying requirements for getting closer to the ideals mentioned above: to appropriately meet the concerns of all parties affected by governmental decisions as well as other influences in society.

Some suggestions for this:

1) The forum for communication and articulation of the concerns, desires, ideas. Such a ‘forum’ (the ‘marketplace’ for public discourse) must be accessible to all to voice concerns, problems, proposals, questions, arguments. It should effectively make the contributions accessible (visible) to all, in a way that allows convenient overview and forming judgments that in the end will support decisions — even in the form of ‘learning’ that is, revising judgments from their original ‘offhand’ position to more ‘deliberated’ opinions.
The larger the scope of problems and needed decisions become, the more this framework will need to include ‘translation’ functions to ensure full understanding: translation not only from one language to another (i.e. all languages involved into each other) but also the ‘languages’ of different disciplines contributing to the discourse, (that have developed their own ‘jargon’ in analyzing problems) to become understandable to people a outside those disciplines.

2) Linking the outcome of discourse to the eventual decisions. Discussions and all the information they generate are useless (in view of the democratic ideals) if they cannot meaningfully influence the decisions made in the end.
In practical terms, this requires two things:
2a): A meaningful measurement of the merit of that information
(specifically. the merit of arguments pro / con policy proposals); and
2b): A meaningful, transparent approach to linking the measure of argument merit to the criteria used in reaching decisions.

3) Ensuring adherence to agreements and decisions: the problem of sanctions. To the extent societal decisions involve agreements (also called ‘treaties’ or ‘contracts’ for decisions involving separate sovereign entities, or ‘laws’ involving agreements that apply to identifiable classes of similar behavior or phenomena, that are agreed upon to avoid having to re-negotiate agreements for each occurrence of such incidents ) there will have to be appropriate means to ensure that agreements, treaties, contracts, laws are adhered to and honored. This is usually discussed in terms of ‘sanctions’ imposed for the violation of such agreements and laws that must be ‘enforced’ — a principle which frequently breaks down at the top of all levels of government but becomes supremely critical at the highest global levels of power because there is no greater power to ensure adherence.

4) Control of power. To the extent that implementation of actions, programs, projects agreed upon, and the enforcement of adherence to the decisions is assigned to special persons or entities in society that are thereby given the power to carry out these responsibilities, there will have to be arrangements for the control of such powers, to prevent them from abusing their power to serve their own interests rather than the common interest: the phenomenon occurring in all known forms of government known as ‘corruption’.

II Requirements for improvement

These aspects call for some explanation of their significance — and the way they apply to most if not all forms of government — and of the dilemmas and problems involved in current forms of addressing them. It is, however, my opinion that better alternative means of addressing these problems are not only very much needed but also available or within reach. They will be discussed as they apply to each of the above items.

Aspect (1): Forum for communication.

Traditional forms of democratic / republican government have relied on the tool of representation. In very small communities, representation is achieved by actual presence of the affected parties — in ‘town hall’ meetings and assemblies. For any larger forms, where time (away from regular day-to-day activities) and travel to the place of governance prohibits ordinary citizens from attending, this concern is met in approximated form through election of ‘representatives’ charged with conveying the concerns and desires of the people to the forum and decision-makers. The larger the governmental structures, the more difficult it becomes to ensure that this ‘representation’ is adequate (i.e. matching the actual concerns and views of the people represented). Especially, when representatives are ‘elected’ on the basis of their platform (determined by political parties) on the basis of majority-rule election results in which significant percentage of the population does not participate, for whatever reason. The concerns about conveying to citizens an adequate overview of the discourse, the concerns of other affected parties, and of everybody ‘learning’ from all that information also become less convincingly served.

Modern media and technology of communication could improve on these problems, but currently suffer from several serious problems: the information available quickly leads to ‘information overload’ that ordinary citizens have little chance to overcome; Current means of reporting on the discourse lack the vital aspect of condensed overview; and to the extent actual discussion is being carried on in internet fora, blogs, networks, the discussion is fragmented, beset by repetition, incompleteness (because each forum often already is aligned with one ‘side’ or the other of an issue, in addition to a certain systemic incompleteness of pro/con argumentation) and sliding into personal attacks and mudslinging removed form the actual issue at hand.

The potential of new information technology for facilitating even large scale (up to global) discourse requires introduction of adequate translation functions, as well as a structure that organizes the information, eliminates repetition and provides overview. While there is currently no single ‘platform’ that offers a good solution to this set of expectations, these needed improvements are entirely within reach with available technology and software. Suggestions for such solutions will be sketched in part III.

Aspect (2): Linking the outcome of the discourse to decisions.

In addition to the tool of electing representatives and government officials on the basis of their campaign ‘platforms’ (the description of the kinds of decisions and policies they pledge to implement) this is currently being attempted by means of public accounts of ‘voting records’ and matching decisions (e.g. legislature votes) to public polls. These tools are becoming increasingly ineffective, and do not apply to decisions that were not part of the election campaign discussions — for example, officials that were elected on the basis of their stance towards abortion or sexual preference policies cannot easily be held to account for their votes on financial systems regulation. The specific requirements for 2a and 2b must therefore be examined, almost from scratch:

2a) A measure of the merit of the information produced in the discourse. If the discourse can be somewhat better organized and structured, it is also possible to have discussion participants engage in more systematic and in-depth assessment e.g. of the pro/con arguments, resulting in measures of plausibility (as perceived by the participants) of action and policy proposals. Suggestions for such provisions have been made; the methodological basis for such solutions is articulated for discussion and can be implemented with current technology, but requires testing, fine-tuning, and education to familiarize people with the approach.

2b) Current decision procedures and criteria — at all levels — fall woefully short of meeting the expectations for truly democratic decision-making. This begins with the election of representatives on the basis of majority rule, which systematically excludes the minority from having its concerns represented. Even where proportional representation ensures that at least all parties achieving a minimum voting support level (e.g. the 5% rule) will have a voice in the legislature, the practice of making the eventual decision based on the majority voting criterion is not only a quite unsatisfactory crutch or ‘shortcut’ for the admittedly desirable concern of reaching a decision at all. It also tends to make the discussion itself a moot issue: if the majority party ‘has’ the votes, no discussion is needed, and will therefore be merely perfunctory. And of course, the interests of the minority will as easily be ignored, to the point of not even attempting to modify the proposed policy to become more acceptable to all concerned.

In response to this deficiency, it may be tempting to use any measures resulting from solutions to the problem of (2a) directly as decision measures or at least guides for decisions. This is possible but not advocated for various reasons — mainly the systemic incompleteness of discourse (it will never uncover all concerns and motivations), and the resulting measures of proposal support (plausibility) and their ranges — degree of consensus or disagreement — that can be derived from the argument assessment may also be subject to manipulation. But the availability of such measures will at least encourage negotiation towards proposal modification (compromise as well as actual creative improvement) and discourage final votes that entirely ignore valid concerns of affected parties. Some improvements may also be achieved by considering alternative responses to the following aspect (3) of sanctions to ensure adherence to agreements and laws and (4): control of power.

Aspect (3): The problem of ensuring adherence to agreed-upon governance decisions — treaties, laws, contracts — is related to that of the control of power. But it should be examined on its own because there may be remedies that are independent of the power aspect, though it has traditionally almost always been addressed by the tool of ‘enforcement’ by an agency endowed with greater power (ability to credibly threaten and if necessary impose sanctions) than any party to an agreement or contract, or any transgressor of laws. The basic idea is that of ensuring adherence by means of the threat of coercion: of inflicting pain, disadvantages, punishments greater than the advantages expected from breaching the agreement: these threats must of course be ‘enforced’ by an entity bigger and stronger that any prospective transgressor.

The very presence of such an enforcement entity is of course a problem in that it will have and pursue its own interests — interests that at times will be at odds with those of other members or segments of the community. It may then be tempted to pursue those interests simply by the explicit or unspoken hint at its own unmatched power. This can generate resentment — deserved or undeserved — that can itself grow to the attempt at resisting the enforcement power by either greater power (open rebellion) or subversive ‘guerilla’ tactics — either one usually not resulting in significant improvements overall, but often merely replacing one big enforcement power with another.

While the problem exists at even the smallest size governments, at village, county or county level, it becomes critical at the global or ‘world government’ level. For if the agreements reached by any form of governance model at the global level have to be enforced by an enforcement agency more powerful than any other institution, this agency itself will be tempted by abusing its power to further its own interests, without fearing any interference by other powers. The control of power by other means that the traditional tools then beams critical, and it requires the invention and introduction of new forms of sanctions for breaking laws, agreements and treaties — sanctions that do not require coercive enforcement by a bigger power.

The requirement calls for sanctions that are triggered ‘automatically’ by the very attempt at violation. There are technically feasible solutions at small scale for such measures — the Watts steam engine regulator being the original conceptual model. For example, the attempt to breach the contract with society in which we engage at the act of acquiring a drivers license, to not drive while intoxicated, may be less ‘punished’ than prevented by a device that senses whether a driver is intoxicated and immediately blocks the ignition of the vehicle: the contract is temporarily disabled, without the involvement of any enforcement agency. This is an example of a sanction ‘automatically triggered by the attempt at violation’. The development of such solutions for wider application and even for international / global affairs is arguably an extremely urgent necessity.

Aspect (4) The control of power has traditionally been dealt with in various ways: In ‘democracies’: time limits for officials and representatives and the necessity of re-election, the possibility of recall or impeachment, the separation and provisions for appropriate balance of powers among the governmental branches, public scrutiny, exposure and ‘shaming’ through the media. In other cultural settings, having decisions made by ‘patriarchs’ (who will listen to polite but noncommittal ‘what-if’ questions in the ‘family council’ that does not require any participant to commit themselves to a firm position before the decision). Patriarchs, at the end of their lives, are assumed to have acquired some wisdom and experience and be less concerned about personal gains and consequences of the decision (less likely to be influenced by temptations than younger people) and therefore likely to pay more attention to the common good of the community. They will make a decision that all participants can then embrace and implement (not having ‘lost face’ by being seen as the losing party like the minority voters in western democracies) and accept the responsibility. Other exempts of conflict resolution by non-coercive means are ‘divine judgments’: for example tossing a coin — though these shave often been elaborated in various dramatic and often also bloody ways.

It is becoming increasingly obvious that not only are these traditional tools for the control of power reaching the boundary of their effectiveness — not only because of the size of governments — but also because governments at any size and level are susceptible to the corrupting influence of powers outside government: corporations, religious entities, financial institutions, the media, the military, unions, and other entities that are lobbying legislators and government officials with increasing amounts of financial support. This has reached the absurd level of lobbyists actually writing laws cleverly hiding provisions favorable to their sponsors, that the legislators vote in without even reading all the details. It is therefore necessary to look for alternative and better forms of control of power, not only with regard to the specter of ‘world government’ and any larger size governmental institution — but for any entity endowed with power. A possibly fatal neglect — in honoring the principle of separating government and private business as wells religious institutions — has been that of allowing such entities to grow almost without constraints to amass power — power that has begun to illegitimately influence governments even to the point mentioned, of writing the laws favoring its interests (at the expense of others) which government then is asked to enforce on behalf of those powers.

The task to develop new and more effective forms of power controls is the most challenging one, mainly because funding for research, testing and implementation for such tools would have to be allocated by power entities that naturally are not interested in arrangements that would reduce their power. Taken together with the issue of replacing enforcement-type sanctions, it is arguably the most urgently needed, because the ‘enforcement’ tools available today to would-be global powers– the modern military weaponry — are dangerous and destructive enough to threaten human civilization on a global scale.

However, some principles can be sketched that can help point the way to better power controls.

The first is the recognition that power itself is a kind of human need — in its basic form of ’empowerment’, the condition for realizing ‘freedom’ which is considered a human right. (The issue of ‘rights’ is one also deserving re-thinking, but this is a separate topic.) ‘Freedoms’ without the resources and ability — power — to take advantage of them are nonexistent. Freedom as human right is usually thought of as the ability to pursue one’s own life survival needs and ‘happiness’ — provided they are not interfering with anyone else’s interests. But people perceive freedom both ways: a) as the ability to do or refrain from doing as they please and b) as the ability to prevent or induce others to do or refrain from doing things. Increased power to do (b) is — perhaps perversely and ‘sinfully’ — but most certainly perceived as just as much an increase in one’s ‘freedom’ as that of doing (a). This could mean that effective reduction of the power to do (b) might be achieved through the increase in more appealing opportunities for doing (a), not just constraints on (b).

A second aspect is the principle mentioned under aspect (3) above — the possibility of sanctions triggered automatically by the attempt at violation of rules and agreements, instead of coercive sanctions enforced by a bigger power. If such ‘sanctions’ to prevent power abuse were aimed less at punitive effects than at removal of the resources and authority needed to exercise and implement the necessary actions for the violation, this would obviate the need for a superior enforcement power. At the level of global treaties and agreements (laws) the availability of such sanctions would remove the objections to ‘world government’ institutions that are based on the concern of the temptations to power abuse by such a global enforcement agency.

A third consideration goes back to the view of power as a human need. While much rhetoric is aimed at the moral obligation to meet human needs most such needs will have to be ‘paid for’ — in one currency or another, by the recipient or somebody else. So this principle might be applied to the need for power as well, and thereby form a constraint on its abuse. This might require a different kind of ‘currency’ — for example, a currency consisting both of elements having to do with competency (as in competency tests for a drivers license, for example) and things like public trust that has to be ‘earned’ through service and performance in activities similar to those required for positions of power. A kind of ‘civic credit’ points currency. The credit points could then be required as up-front performance bond or ‘ante’ — that will be lost in case of power abuse or poor performance — or as the ‘release’ currency for the person in power to obtain the resources needed for a decision. While the account will be ‘used up’ with each decision and its total depletion reducing the person’s power to zero, successful decisions will ‘earn’ more points. Power points may also be transferred from supporters’ accounts to leaders (to the limit of those supporters’ accounts of credit points) to be depleted with each decision, lost for unsuccessful decisions, or regained with successful performance, and ‘repaid’ to supporters. The accounting problems for such schemes may still look prohibitively complicated but are entirely within the capability of available technology, technology familiar from credit cards, credit scows, driving violations records etc.

III Examples of solutions

Meeting the challenges sketched out above will require considerable research and development, discussion, testing, education to familiarize people with the application of solutions. Some such solutions are still entirely at the conceptual stage; for others there are existing examples of techniques that can illustrate what the solutions might look like. In the following, some such examples will be explained in more detail. The examples should be seen as offering demonstration for discussion that solutions are possible and within reach, not yet as readily applicable tools.

The first example is the idea of a discourse framework or platform for information sharing and discussion of action or policy proposals. It is based on the ‘argumentative model of planning’ proposed by Rittel [1]. It views the design and planning process as an argumentative process during which questions and ‘issues’ are thrown up, to which people adopt positions (such as ‘for’ or ‘against’ a proposal) and support / defend those positions with answers and arguments.

The information system supporting such a process will be structured not in the traditional way with ‘documents’ as the constituting elements, but according to ‘topics’ and ‘issues’. New information technology makes it possible to construct a framework organized in this manner, to which anybody can contribute questions, issues, answers and arguments, and thus become a truly ‘democratic’ tool for citizen participation in public decision-making at small or large scale.

For large scale application, a ‘translation’ service component will become increasingly important — not only to translate contributions from one natural language into all others, but also to translate the ‘scientific’ or technical jargon from various disciplines (even from various schools of thought within individual disciplines) into commonly understandable language.

Further essential components will be the following:

– The compilation of contributions — especially the pro and con arguments about plan or policy proposals — into concise, condensed displays that show the bare-bones content of contributions (without the elaborate rhetorical ballast oft accompanying discussion contributions — but each entry will be stored in a ‘verbatim’ file for reference);

– Displays of ‘maps’ — topic maps, issue maps, argument maps — linked to the various contributions, that provide a convenient visual overview of the discourse and of the relationships between the topics, issues, and arguments;

– The ‘evaluation’ component where participants can enter their assessment of the merit of questions, answers, and arguments. This component can be based on the approach developed by T. Mann [2] for the assessment of planning arguments. In contrast to common opinion polls which only gather support or opposition ‘votes’ from surveyed citizens, this approach provides much more detailed information by asking participants to evaluate individual argument premises according to their plausibility and importance. It thereby helps pinpoint much more accurately the specific aspects of concern by various participants: which features of a proposed plan are perceived as damaging or unacceptable by some, what claims are insufficiently supported by evidence, which issues require more discussion, and encourages the modification of proposals in response to voiced concerns to achieve outcomes more acceptable to most affected parties.

This component will be the critical tool providing a measure of the merit of discussion contributions, which can be linked to the decisions taken by whatever decision-making authority in the end. Various statistical measures derived from the individual evaluations can be used to guide decisions, such as the mean plausibility value for a proposal, each plausibility value calculated from the argument weights which in turn depend on the plausibilities and importance weights of individual premises; the range and variance of results as an indication of the degree of consensus or disagreement in the group of participants. (The approach does not propose to replace conventional decision criteria such as voting by designated decision-making bodies, but provides a tool matching those decisions against the evaluation results, moving the process closer to one in which decisions are appropriately based on the merit of the arguments and other information contributed by participants.)

Another tool that can support public decision-making is the approach to measuring the value of built environment developed by T. Mann [3] that can be expanded into more general ‘quality of life’ indicators of the kind that are increasingly discussed as replacements or at least complements to traditional measures of economic performance guiding government decisions — such as growth rates or Gross Domestic Product. The approach is based on assessments of the value (quality) of the occasions offered in an environment, (the occasions constituting the lives of residents) as modified by the functionality of the environment for each specific occasion, and the appropriateness (inspirational value) of the images evoked by the environment. Using such a tool, the expected ‘performance’ of a proposed plan can be assessed in terms of how well it adds to the quality and value of the occasions (e.g. occasion opportunity value) of residents’ lives, considering both ‘new’ occasions added as well as familiar occasions deleted from the basket of opportunities.

In comparison with the ‘almost ready for application’ ideas for the discourse framework and measures for merit of arguments discussed in the preceding sections, the solutions for ‘automatically triggered sanctions’ eliminating the need for enforcement agencies, as well as those for better power controls require much more research and discussion. For the sake of better understanding by means of a kind of ideal sci-fi vision, the following scenario might be considered.

Each citizen carries a device — a kind of ID card — on which the personal identification information is stored, as well as financial accounts, educational and other ‘competence’ information (that entitles the holder e.g. to operate equipment of hold decision-making positions in society. This could include ‘credit points’ earned not only through acquisition of knowledge, experience, and skills, but also by civic service entitling the holder to public ‘trust’ and holding public office. It could include medical information for use in medical emergencies. Such information will only be stored on this device, nowhere else, to prohibit misuse. The basic information to establish identity is the only part that will be stored in a public registry.

Part of this device could also be used to hold information such as the merit of contributions to public discourse (as evaluated by the entire body of participants) — information that can be used to demonstrate competence for public decision-making positions. This ‘currency’ will be used to activate the resources required for the implementation of decisions of the particular office — that will therefore be ‘used up’ with each additional decision, and only be replenished with ‘new’ credit points earned on the basis of the performance of the decisions taken.

Supporters of a political candidate or official may contribute to that candidate’s decision-making credit power by transferring some of their own credit points to that person — thereby assuming responsibility for the decisions made by that official (which can also be seen as a kind of ‘investment’ in the candidate’s policies). The points earned from the performance of the each decision will have to be ‘paid back’ to supporters. (Supporters may ‘recall’ their credit points if they perceive that their support is being used for inappropriate purposes — such as abuse of power.)

The same device of ‘credit point accounts’ required to activate resources for any kind of official action can then also be used as ‘security deposit’ for agreements and treaties among larger entities — and instantaneously ‘lost’ or ‘frozen’ upon attempts of violation, so that any implementation of violation activities will be prohibited — as in the simple example of the ignition device sensing whether a driver is inebriated, and preventing the drunk driver from starting the car.

These speculations are made in the hope of impressing upon readers both the necessity of developing these tools, and their feasibility — even if actual fine-tuning and implementation will still require much work.

IV References

[1] Kunz, W. and H. Rittel: (1970) “Issues as Elements of Information Systems.” Working Paper No. 131, Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California, Berkeley.
Also:
Rittel, H. (1972) “On the Planning Crisis: Systems Analysis of the ‘First and Second Generations’.” BedriftsØkonomen. #8, 1972.
– (1977) “Structure and Usefulness of Planning Information Systems”, Working Paper S-77-8, Institut für Grundlagen der Planung, Universität Stuttgart.
– (1980) “APIS: A Concept for an Argumentative Planning Information System’. Working Paper No. 324. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.
– (1989) “Issue-Based Information Systems for Design”. Working Paper No. 492. Berkeley: Institute of Urban and Regional Development, University of California.

[2] Mann, Thorbjoern (1977) Argument Assessment for Design Decisions, Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley.
– (2007) The Fog Island Argument, XLibris, (In German: Das Planungsargument, E-book, Ciando, 2008)
– “The Structure and Evaluation of Planning Arguments” in Informal Logic Vol. 30. No. 4, December 2010

[3]  Mann, Thorbjoern (2011):  “Value of Built Environment Based on Occasion and Image” (unpublished)


Ideas and questions for change

Going beyond just complaining…

The need for change is a continuing and arguably increasing one. It has not been satisfied, in the U.S, for example, either by the election of Obama to the presidency, nor by its partial repudiation by the midterm victory of many Republican, conservative, Tea Party or Libertarian supporters. It is affirmed every day by the complaints, rants, revelations and accusations by writers and bloggers from all sides. A serious discussion of the remedies, the tools for change, the solutions suggested would therefore seem to be in order. This discussion appears to be somewhat lacking, in comparison with the complaints. If there are actual recipes behind (implied or perceived to be implied in) the complaints — depending on the alleged or admitted camp association of the respective writer — these are often not very clearly articulated. This may be because those recipes are, from the so-called ‘left’ as much as from the so-called ‘right’ or ‘independent’ camps, mostly quite well known: tried and (not so) true but found wanting, even sometimes found to be at the very heart of the problems they are supposed to remedy. Thus, a ‘return’ to the values and principles supposedly guiding the provisions of the ‘founding fathers’ for the fledgling United States inexplicably misses the fact that over time, those provisions have demonstrably not been able to prevent the emergence of the present problems, no matter how strenuously they have been invoked by politicians and others. And the revolutionary solutions proposed by critics of this system seem to have been proven equally deficient in the places where they have been tried, at least in their ‘pure’ early incarnations.

So is there anything to be learned from these developments that can be assembled into a strategy for more promising change?

It may be useful to begin by surveying things that do not look like good ingredients for such a strategy.

First, the reliance on the current ‘democratic’ apparatus of electing representatives — ‘throw the bums out’ and electing different bums into office every four or two years, appears to have become so ineffective that it must be regarded as a mere ploy to perpetuate the stranglehold of other — real — powers over the system. Powers that have so thoroughly taken control of the democratic institutions that it does not seem to matter which party is winning elections. To be sure, the traditional provisions for democratic governance were not only well-intentioned and probably, at the time, the best available means for keeping things on course: division and balance of powers, limits on the length of time representatives and office holders are allowed to serve and remain in power, free speech, free elections decided by majority decision. All if not most of the proposed remedies for today’s problems still rely on these provisions; there are few if any really innovative ideas for strengthening, improving, or even replacing them. So does the insistence on relying on these provisions begin to look like what someone described as the definition of insanity: keeping on doing what has been proved not to work?

This does not, in my opinion, mean that the second traditional ‘remedy’ should be seriously considered: that of ‘revolutionary (wholesale) change’ — the all-out radical overthrow of the existing regime, replacing it with a different one. The alternatives to the democratic model that have been tried during the last two centuries or so have all proven fatally defective. Many different reasons have been proposed to explain this. In my opinion, again, the feature they share is a profound failure to install workable safeguards against the abuse of power — a feature that also afflicts the democratic model, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent. The difference between them is that the socialist, communist, fascist and totalitarian governance models failed to control government power, in fact banked on government power as the solution to all societal problems. This eventually led either to their collapse, or to prolonged brutal stranglehold of dictators over their constituencies, in growing misery. In contrast, the democratic model failed to apply proper safeguards against the abuse of power by the private enterprise systems. In the name of ‘freedom’ (and the pursuit of economic ‘happiness’), these systems were allowed to grow to become so big and powerful that they were able to take control of the democratic institutions of government, while overtly leaving its ‘democratic’ trappings in place, such as elections, which could easily be controlled with campaign money and subsequent corrupting temptations of the elected representatives.

A third alternative must be discussed — the radical libertarian position of ‘personal sovereignty’ that seems to advocate complete disassociation from the existing collective societal entities, be they governmental or private-enterprise in nature. This remedy looks attractive as long as one considers only individuals or family-size organization of society. It becomes more difficult to imagine workable solutions for the simple survival of these entities in today’s state of humanity: even recipes such as each family ‘growing its own food’ for survival so as to escape the slavery of big agriculture and distribution chains run into familiar problems, say, of equitable allocation of land, given its undeniable differences in quality and productivity, and a growing population that would seem to call for a continuing re-sizing and reallocation (decided and supervised by what entity?) of the land available for growing food. Or: what to do if these sovereign individuals decided to embark on collective projects with some more formal organization, where inevitably, the problem of control of power by the people ‘in charge’ will again arise? So these problems will be the same as in the other collective governance models.

So with reliance on (unmodified) traditional mechanisms on the one hand, and revolutionary change on the other, both rejected as inappropriate, and the radical individualist option apparently unrealistic or in the end identical to the others, what features of change proposals should we be looking and working for? The following are some aspects — in the form of questions for discussion, that in my opinion should guide these efforts.

• Whatever alternative model will be chosen for adoption, should its implementation be in the form of a sudden wholesale ‘revolution’ imposed from ‘above’ (which in itself implies an entity wielding enough power to effect the change and thereby being in danger of falling victim to the temptations of size and power…) or a gradual piecemeal transformation? Might it be preferable to have the transformation follow a pattern similar to that of a ‘parasite’ attached to an existing hierarchy, slowly growing until it can peacefully transform its structure? The ‘skunkworks’ model of early R&D companies which survived changing conditions by harboring unorthodox and low-cost innovation groups in their basements while working on larger scale traditional projects aboveground, until the innovations developed by the ‘skunkworks’ teams became the standards for the organization, might be a worthwhile one to adopt for the needed transformation.

• Would the ‘skunkworks’ model also permit the competitive explorative pursuit of several alternative models at the same time? It is quite unlikely that only one experimental solution woud be avalable for discussion for the transformation of governance or economic systems. Some experiments with a variety of models might be needed to find out what works and what doesn’t.

• Consistent with the notion of several experimental alternative models to be tried out at any given time, would it be useful to provide for the possibility of several systems to be operating — in any given place, region, country etc. — in parallel? This would not only offer people the freedom of choice between several ways of running their lives with respect to collective activity, but also make it possible for more gradual transition between them in the face of changing conditions and emergencies.

• Should the structure to be aimed for be a ‘monoculture’, or provide choices of several forms of organization? Should too large entities be broken up into smaller independent organizations? How might this be achieved?

• Would not both the evolution of new structures (that must be able to utilize existing infrastructure and services) and the coordination, communication and conflict resolution of several ‘competing’ but coexisting structures require a basic foundation of common agreements (e.g. negotiation of conflicting interests without coercion of any kind)? The set of such necessary agreements should be kept to a minimum. What should those common agreements be? Agreements that are intended to apply not only to a single transaction or project can be adopted as ‘laws’ but should also be open to periodic re-affirmation and / or re-negotiation. (To extend the status of ‘law’ to over 90,000 or more pages of provisions pertaining to taxation (the U.S. tax laws) seems to strain this understanding of meaningful laws…)

• The set of common agreements would arguably have to include provisions for sanctions or other forms of preventing or correcting violation of such agreements. While ‘enforcement’ of agreements and imposition of sanctions traditionally require that there be an entity capable of applying greater force than any party violating agreements (‘laws’), should there be a concerted effort to develop forms of arrangements that prevent violations rather than punish them after they occur, and sanctions that are triggered automatically by the very act of transgression, not prosecuted and enforced by the ‘bigger’ enforcement agency? (This would seem necessary to prevent the larger entity from falling victim to the temptations of power, specifically, of itself engaging in violations without fear of consequences. As long as such measures cannot be found and applied, the traditional safeguards of separation ofpowers, independent judicial branch, freedom of speech and information etc. should be strengthened and improved; both enforcement and governance entities should be kept at small scale and enabled to investigate each other.)

• Should similar ‘automatic’ regulating provisions also be developed and put in place for the growth of the size and also the profits of private and public entities? Given the fact that continued exponential growth is unsustainable in the long run, it stands to reason that curbing growth e.g. of profits before they grow to cause catastrophic breakdowns would be preferable to trying to fix the breakdowns after they occur. Curbing excessive accumulation of wealth (causing the ever-growing wealth and income disparity of capitalist societies) beforehand would seem not only more prudent but also more feasible and less controversial that the unpopular ‘redistribution’ tools of progressive taxes that are so easily decried by certain talk radio programs (who tend to hide the fact that such wealth may have been the result of very undeserved inequitable distribution in the first place…)

• Just as there is universal consensus about providing at least basic survival networks for children and elderly people, should there be a basic survival safety net for every citizen, as part of any collective enterprise? One that might be covering such essentials as food, health care, education, access to information, legal services, participation in collective activities and decision-making? Should the right to access for such basic necessities continue to be tied to either ability to pay for them with funds earned from employment, in an era where human ‘work’ in production and other services is increasingly made obsolete by automation) or involuntary collective services?

• Is there a case for rethinking the very concept of ‘work’ in the form of performing activities under the command of other people in return for less money than the value they create with their work (the larger share of the value being skimmed off by the ’employer’)? For example, should the current taken for granted pattern of rewarding the most disgusting, boring, unhealthy and unpleasant work with the lowest wages, while work in which people not only take pleasure and are provided with comfortable workplaces, responsibilities and power are als rewarded with higher salaries, be re-examined? (Perhaps the pleasure of a powerful position in pleasant surroundings should be paid for, rather than reaping the highest salaries?)

• Should arrangements be considered such as the following step towards at least a more flexible work economy: a ‘dual system’ of employment in which citizens are automatically ‘public employees’ with the option of working for collective infrastructure according to their capabilities, remunerated with ‘civic credits’ by means of which they then ‘pay’ for their allotment of basic necessities, and also working for private enterprise entities? Health insurance, taxation, social security paperwork then would no longer have to be done by employers. The ratio of ‘private enterprise’ to ‘public’ work would be sliding and voluntary. This would allow private employers to simply reduce the amount of work they ask of employees in periods of financial or economic crises (such as the recent crises) instead of having to lay off worker, losing their expertise and causing disruptions in the economy because of the forced displacement of workers, moves to other locations, foreclosures of homes, children having to disrupt their education etc. The public sector would then easily absorb the extra available work capacity of such workers (if these don’t take advantage of extra time to further their own education or start independent small businesses), producing better infrastructure and services helping the private sector overcome the crisis, among other things, using the expertise and skills of workers it already has ‘in the system’.

• Private enterprise entities may choose to become involved in public work — a means of survival in times of economic downturn — by taking on the implementation and management of public programs, but at not-for-profit conditions. For example, current private insurance companies may take on the administration of public basic insurance programs (for everybody), putting their facilities, equipment, personnel and expertise to work for those programs (again, on a not-for profit basis). Thereby making it unnecessary to create large bureaucracies to run such programs, while allowing the companies to continue to market ‘enhancement’ for profit policies to their now enlarged ‘captive’ audience of the ‘basic’ public system enrollees.

• Could the introduction of ‘civic service ‘points’ — earned by certification of skills (such as driving tests or education certificates) serve not only to grant certain rights (driver license) but also as the vehicle for sanctions and penalties as well ‘ante-up’ prerequisite for positions of power, (to be automatically forfeited upon violation of agreements and abuse)? A form of rewarding officeholders for good work while actually holding them accountable — ‘paying for’ — mistakes and mismanagement?

• Should voting be extended — and tied — to actual assessment of arguments for and against proposals and candidates, rather than mere votes influenced by mindless repetition of campaign slogans paid for by entities that then will insist on legislative votes in their favor from the elected representatives? Might voting also be extended to voting for specific percentage designation for different government tasks and programs (what percentage of my taxes for this program as opposed to that one?), whose budgets then will be set according to the voted-upon percentages and the expeced tax revenues? If revenues change up or down, budget cuts would be in the form of across-the-board percentage cuts, not by simply eliminating programs and departments that have previously been voted upon as desirable by citizens. All parts of the government just will have to do their work with the funds available, — each according to their own best judgment, not according to wholesale legislative mandates that are systemically ignorant of specific conditions in each department.

These are only a few examples of principles and ideas that might guide the development of better ways of running society. There are obviously several problems with such proposals. One prominent difficulty will be the development of ‘legal’ forms of organizations that can begin to operate as ‘skunkworks’ alongside of the current one, to experiment and gain experience for an eventual transformation of the entire system by peaceful and constructive means. Another will be to find ways to overcome the widespread opinions that people or groups harboring different ideas are irredeemable criminals that must be destroyed, defeated, or idiots that must be institutionalized (unless the respective institutions have also fallen victim to budget cuts or eliminating government ‘waste’…