Voting for Utilitarians

I. If you want to travel alone, go fast; if you want to travel together, go far.

Society is very, very far from the gleaming land of happiness, solidarity, and foresight envisioned by utilitarians. Instead we slosh through the muck somewhere in the swamps beyond the mountains from the gleaming land, so that those of us with passionate utilitarian calculations burning in our bosoms must wish to climb a great sycamore, point the unifying way for the mired bickering masses, and raise the cry, “Hold on now! Let’s not be too hasty!”. There’s far to go, millions in our traveling company, and countless goods from our past that mustn’t be lost along our way.

“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence, it is force; like fire, a troublesome servant and a fearful master.” — possibly Mary Baker Eddy channeling George Washington

I’ve previously suggested that Yellows, by design and desire politically utilitarian, might be enamored of libertarian-communism for its ideals about solving coordination problems. However, on the political spectrum from revolutionary to evolutionary, libcoms traditionally fall solidly into the Travel Fast camp despite the immense distance to their promised land. If you’ve sat in any coffee shops with anarchist collectives lately, you may have noticed a distinct lack of either revolutionary or evolutionary accomplishment. Oh, yes, back in the day the anarchists had some proud and short-lived territories. Yet it’s no secret that they were crushed by the militaries of the other sort of communist: the ones with governments. The thing to remember about governments is that they often have a lot of guns and an inordinate fondness for using them. As long as we expect there to be war, it might be helpful to have a war machine available. From my perspective, that expectation will last pretty much as long as humans last, so I’m resigned to learning to control the fire rather than extinguish it. Perhaps, if we permit wanton optimism, fire may even turn out to be of some positive use.


Scott Alexander has pointed out that, by gradually shifting the Overton Window, we’ve implemented much of the platform of the Communist Party USA from a century ago, and to modern ears and eyes seem eminently sensible. Granted, vastly more of the Republican and Democratic platforms have been implemented, but it’s still an impressive feat for evolutionary politics. Meanwhile, the USSR is, well, you know. And China is, well, you know. Cuba looks to be well-you-know soon, too. It’s undoubtedly evidence for a lot of things, but it might also be evidence that revolution, even if you ignore the horrifying mass slaughter, may involve some systemic risk. Much farther to the political left of the U.S., we have everyone’s favorite examples of happy semi-socialism, the Nordic countries, who achieved their present bliss via gradual democratic policy shift and dumb luck. The micronation San Marino was the first country to democratically elect a communist government, and while it may not have ever achieved the worker’s paradise, within twelve years the party did manage to unify the people to peacefully kick it out of office by the same electoral process.

In short, while libertarian-communism presents a beautiful ideal that we might rightly direct our thoughts to often as a standard of measurement for our present political position and momentum, reformism seems to be necessary and sufficient for stably achieving the same things that libertarian-communists achieved unstably via revolution.

Our patience will achieve more than our force. — Edmund Burke in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)

How then might we control our fire?

II. If you do something yourself, you’ll want it done right.

The nearest a government could approach the libcom ideal for self-government is obviously a direct democracy that assigns tasks to delegates and can recall the delegates at any time. The only restraint that prevents such a government from qualifying as part of libertarian-communism is that secession by individuals and groups need not be granted.

One of the more lib-com-like territories in the world recently has been the city of El Alto in Bolivia, an unofficial city known for its radical leftist anti-government tendencies and for being run by neighborhood councils. Even with such a favorable cultural climate, many of the community actions and meetings are enforced by fines. In a city with minimal modern infrastructure and open schedules, the demands of public meetings to make the decisions are apparently too heavy for many individuals. I don’t know how to reconcile this with the anarchist argument that this is a non-problem that does not occur in revolutionary territories. My suspicion is that, absent recent revolutionary fervor and literal war for survival going on, we could expect a best-case situation of public involvement more like El Alto than like the short-lived Paris Commune or the free communes during the Spanish Civil War. I lack the faith needed to endorse the Anarchist FAQ’s conclusion that “Whether or not we reach such a self-managed society depends on whether we desire to be free or not”, not because I doubt people want to be free, not because I want people to optimize for more than mere freedom, but because many people would rather work on their own goals than spend time managing sewage, streets, power lines, health inspections, building code, insurance regulations, and a seven-billionth of the rest of society in general.


While it should be sufficient to point out that many people do not want a self-managed society if that means they have to put in their part of the work of management, there’s an additional question of whether they even could if they wanted to. The more infrastructure we put in place, the more complicated plans for using and maintaining it all must get. The more science and technology is developed, the more knowledge is required to understand appropriate policy choices. The more diverse our society becomes, the more complicated negotiations get and the less the interests of the different groups can be harmonized. If common sense recognized that managing the Paris Commune was a task for adults and not children, then for a sufficiently large and complex society, the same common sense should recognize that managing it is a task for experts and not average adults. Morally we recognize that adults mustn’t ignore the interests of children in managing society; that much is thoroughly bred into us. Our political representatives, tasked with expertly pursuing our political interests, are somewhat less devoted to the moral principle of not ignoring our interests. This is not for lack of moral sentiment, though! It could be simply a matter of badly structured institutions which promote conflict rather than harmony.

Local revolutionary councils suffer a serious institutional problem that is unaddressed in the FAQ: as usually proposed, they are extremely unrepresentative. At the local level, rules are made by some size of majority. (If unanimity is required, then either the rules fail to get made at all or social pressure is wielded to prevent dissenters from blocking popular rules.) The minorities do not get proportional influence. And because each council chooses delegates to send to the councils of larger regions, the higher layers of councils get progressively less representative. Decisions of any layer after the first might actually be opposed by a majority. With sufficient nesting of councils, an arbitrarily large majority of the population can be shut out of representation entirely.

In short, while utilitarians emphatically approve of the communist ideal of structuring society for the good of everyone, the self-managing structure of society proposed by libcoms ceases to represent all the people when it is extended to peaceful societies, complex societies, or non-local societies.

The reformer is always right about what is wrong. He is generally wrong about what is right. — G.K. Chesterton in the Illustrated London News, 1922 October 28th.

A utilitarian might therefore endorse representative government, except that voting is a waste of time.

III. Every vote counts very little

The expected value of voting in a large election might be positive or negative depending on your values, but if there’s one value for which you definitely shouldn’t be voting, it’s the chance of winning an election. The chance of a large election being perfectly balanced so that your vote is the deciding vote is vanishingly small. It’s much more likely that you’ll be killed by an asteroid on the way to the polls. Furthermore, if a large election was that close, there would be such massive incentives for hijinks in the recount, legal maneuvering, and judgment calls on the validity of reserve ballots that the likelihood of casting a decisive vote would be reduced to zero. An election even in a country without corruption is only decided by the votes when the votes greatly overdetermine the result. You voting or not voting will not change the result of a large election.

I consider it completely unimportant who in the party will vote, or how; but what is extraordinarily important is this—who will count the votes, and how. — Joseph Stalin, 1923, according to Boris Bazhanov

But worse, regardless of which candidate wins or by how much, only a plurality of the electorate advanced their interests collectively. Nearly half of the electorate, and sometimes more, will not have gained any representation either collectively or individually. For individual members of minority voting blocs, then, voting is even more firmly a waste of their time. Furthermore and worse yet, the majority voting bloc in a district may not have actually gained any utility, either, if the candidate they elected is a minority member of the governing body or a majority member without sufficient seniority in the party to push his constituents’ agenda. And finally, the problem that completely disgraces our electoral system: even if the candidate elected is a senior member of the majority party, he may be forced by the structure of our institutions to mind the partisan political struggle much more than his constituents’ interests.


My contention, here, is that all of the problems mentioned in, hinted at by, or relevant to the above can be solved by institutions with better design. A well-designed system of representation can make all voters, even weakly informed ones, who vote in elections effective at achieving their goals by doing voting, and so well worth the time for a large number of people. Better design of electoral institions can select representatives that accurately reflect the population locally and at large, and can incentivize representatives to expertly pursue the public interest rather than partisan struggle.

Here is one such design. It may not be as ideal as direct democracy, nor as rule by a magically corruption-resistant monarch, nor as CUA or CEV implemented by a superintelligent friendly artificial intelligence. But hey, it’s a reform that our present society could manage without missing a beat, and for which there is a convenient reformist pathway to its achievement.

IV. A Proportionally Influential, Futarchic Legislature

What a mouthful. The system needs a name. I’ll call it Tricameralism, version 1 (T1).

Under T1, people would vote for members of the lower house (i.e. national or state House of Representatives, or the equivalent that doesn’t exist yet for cities and corporations) by a slight variation of PAL Representation. Check out that link for a beautiful explanation of PAL Representation! The key features of PAL Representation are first, the simple ballot for voters, second, the fact that every voter in every district gets a local representative from her preferred party whom she helped elect, and third, that the set of representatives elected is proportional to the votes of the electorate. The slight variation is that each elected candidate receives a number of votes equal to the number of voters whom he represents who helped elect him.

The people would vote for members of the upper house (i.e. national or state Senate, or the equivalent that doesn’t exist yet for cities and corporations) using the same slight variation in PAL Representation as for the lower house, although it will have a different effect.

Tricameralism has a middle house also (a national, state, municipal, or coroporate Assembly of a sort that doesn’t yet exist). The people would vote for members of the middle house using another slight variation in PAL Representation. The slight variation is that the length of the elected candidate’s term is six years times the percent of votes he received. At a regular election, the number of candidates to be elected to the Assembly would be the number of vacated seats.

The people would vote for the President (i.e. nationally, or governor, mayor, or CEO) using a slight variation on SODA voting. SODA is the single-winner version of PAL. The slight variation is similar to the one for the Assembly: the length of the President’s term is eight years times the percent of votes he received. The Vice President would be the runner-up candidate (usually from a different party!) and would serve any remaining time after the President’s term until the next election. Thus the presidency would roughly approximate proportional representation and proportional influence sequentially, though it would generally give much more representation and influence to the majority.

There are other types of voting which are better in some ways, but none which satisfy the criteria of the previous section. In particular, Range voting and its variants are excellent when we assume people are expertly informed about all the candidates. With weakly-informed voters, Range can do badly. SODA and PAL still do exceptionally well even if voters only take the time to identify their favorite candidate. This is an excellent feature for a utilitarians! Under SODA and PAL, people need not incur the cost of gaining expertise in order to pursue their political interests expertly. Furthermore, SODA and PAL are almost unique among voting systems in outright eliminating the need for dishonest votes (such as ranking or rating a candidate higher or lower than you genuinely feel). PAL even guarantees that your vote can successfully elect a candidate who shares your values. This guarantee ensures that there is virtually no reason for political conflict among voters, though plenty of reason for them to engage in persuasive discussion and cooperation. The guarantee plus the slight variations mentioned above for PAL and SODA ensure that every voter has real effect on the running of the country. I call this the “effective vote” trait of T1, and it is the first piece that makes voting sensible for citizens on utilitarian grounds.

But the institutional improvements don’t stop there. T1 replaces our traditional bicameral legislature with a tricameral futarchy, or a futarchic legislature. A futarchic legislature would be a form of futarchy with no formal role for the betting market. (See the original article for details on futarchy.) The upper and lower houses of the legislature would each govern by one aspect of futarchy: the Senators would “bet on beliefs” and the Representatives (Housers? Yes, this is a fun term.) would “vote on values”. A third “middle” house would be responsible for crafting the laws, but not voting or betting. Genuine monetary betting markets could and likely would be used to inform the votes of the Senators, but the votes would be retained directly by the Senators and indirectly by the people. The intent behind this design is to better guarantee that those voting for policies share the common sense of the people. First, an exceptionally efficient betting market, or worse an AI, may optimize policies so literally that human experts could not design a safe utility function. Second, even if perverse optimizations were excluded, an AI or a betting market would have the incentive to choose policies that steer greater power away from the elected representatives and toward themselves. The libertarian-communists understood one big thing about power: the only way to keep power among the people is to keep it among the people. The Senators would attempt the same power grab, but since they would be to a greater degree than the markets still accountable to the people, and to an even greater degree accountable to the lower and middle houses of the legislature, such power grabs would be more difficult, less dangerous to the public, and more easily reversible.

But let’s return to the lower house. As stated above, the Housers come into office with a set number of votes, delegated from those of their constituents with similar values. They can distribute these votes among various political goals as they please. Housers are only responsible for voting for goals based on their values, not for choosing policies or writing laws. Any Houser can propose any goal at any time, and unlike policy bills, all goals automatically pass. The importance of a goal is weighted by the number of votes it receives. This is the “proportional influence” trait, ensuring that all parties get fair outcomes from representation, not merely fair input. Thus, much like in the general election, there is virtually no reason for Housers to engage in political conflict of the sort we are familiar with, though plenty of reason for them to engage in persuasive discussion and cooperation. Though Housers would share values with their constituents, unlike their constituents the Housers specialize in political work and so would have the opportunity to carefully examine their options and expertly distribute their votes to current political goals in prudent proportion to their values. Each goal must be dated to expire within two years and phrased in a way that it can be said to have been Met or Unmet by its due date. The goals can refer to just about any desired event or measurement except those constitutionally prohibited, such as goals that distinguish between people by race or religion. A new constitutional prohibition to separate “voting on values” from “betting on beliefs” would strike down any goals that refer to changes in law. Housers are also responsible for evaluating how well their goals were met. When the due date of a goal arrives, the Housers who gave votes to it (or if they are no longer in office, their chosen successors in office) declare those votes for Met or for Unmet, and the proportion of Met votes is considered the degree to which the goal was met. This method allows for adoption of goals that are subjective or intuitively important but very difficult to define or measure. It also keeps power in the hands of the people’s representatives rather than unelected bureaucrats or obscure statisticians.

The middle house, perhaps called the Assembly and its members Assemblers, is responsible for writing or collecting bills and sending them to the Senate. Assemblers do not vote or bet on anything. Their role is much the same as that of lobbyists in our current system. It might appear they are redundant as the same role could be played by lobbyists again. Here the intent behind this design is the same as the reason betting markets are given no formal role: to keep more of the power directly with elected representatives and indirectly with the people. Each Assembler may sponsor as many bills to the Senate as she wishes. Sponsorship is a legal oath that primary authorship of the bill came from the sponsoring Assembler or her constituents. Assemblers may also cosponsor bills that others have sponsored. Cosponsorship is a legal oath that authorship of some part of the bill came from the consponsoring Assembler or her constituents. False sponsorship and cosponsorship are constitutional crimes. Of course Assemblers have intrinsic incentive to produce bills they prefer, and because the full range of society is represented in the Assembly, they would produce bills from all perspectives, not, as now, only the perspective of lobbyists. Assemblers are ranked and honored according to the expected value (as determined by the House and the Senate) of their sponsored bills multiplied by half the number of their cosponsors, plus the expected value of their consponsored bills. The ranks and honors give Assemblers of all political persuasions extrinsic incentive to cosponsor as many bills as possible and also to have as many cosponsors as possible on their bills. In other words, Assemblers are incentivized to cooperate to produce many alternative bills from their unique perspectives and that also include compromises to satisfy all groups. Our current vicious wrangling by elites over what kinds of laws to write would become a cooperative and creative endeavor over which everyone has influence.

As stated above, the Senators like the Housers come into office with a set number of votes, delegated from those of their constituents. These votes are the “currency” the Senators use in their version of the betting market. Two contracts with two options each are set up for each bill for each goal currently in effect: one contract that the goal will be Met / Unmet if the bill is passed; one that the goal will be Met / Unmet if the bill is not passed (i.e. if the status quo is kept). Each senator bids on one option of each contract. This affects the price of each option of the contract in the usual way for betting markets. The expected value of a bill or a status quo is calculated using the contract prices and the values (votes) given to the goals by the Housers. If the expected value of a bill is higher than the status quo, it passes; otherwise it doesn’t pass and the status quo stays in effect. If multiple bills affect the same laws, then they are considered as alternatives to each other, and the bill with the highest expected value passes if that is higher than the status quo. When a goal’s due date arrives, the bets regarding it pay off. The bets do not necessarily pay off in an all-or-nothing fashion, though; the Housers who determine whether the goal was Met or Unmet may disagree among themselves and so return a degree to which the goal passed between 0 and 1. If this happens, the “Met”-options pay off to the degree the goal was Met and the “Unmet”-options pay off to the degree the goal was Unmet. Of course Senators have intrinsic incentive to bid up bills they prefer, and they may have quite different beliefs about what bills will best achieve the goals. Because the Senators represent the full range of society, the beliefs of every group are taken into account. But unlike their constituents, Senators are professionals who have gained experience with making good bets based on their beliefs. Senators are ranked and honored according to their increase (or decrease) in votes post election. The ranks and honors give Senators of all political persuasions extrinsic incentive to correct mispriced contracts before some other Senator can do so. Unlike the House and Assembly, the Senate is almost purely competitive, but their competition is incentivized to encourage using all of society’s wisdom and foresight rather than to pursue partisan struggles.

The design of the three houses helps ensure that right belief and creative compromise inform law just as much as our wishes. This is the “effective law” trait of T1.

The President would not have a veto. That majoritarian safeguard would make the chief executive position unnecessarily political. Widespread social support for the laws is ensured via the House and, to a lesser extent, the Assembly. Instead, the President should be purely an executive position involving the carrying out of the laws. Majoritarianism is sensible for choosing an executive who will be responsible for setting priorities and for selecting judges to interpret the law; it is sensible not because it is a guarantee of good priorities and interpretations, but because majority agreement on priorities and interpretations is stable and majority disagreement is a recipe for rebellion.

When people vote for House, Assembly, Senate, or Presidential candidates, they serve their own interests well by voting for a candidate who they know to have similar values and beliefs. Additionally, the rankings and honors given to the Assemblers and Senators should by law and custom redound upon the constituencies that elected them, and so incentivize voters to choose candidates that are also competent at their jobs. With the effective vote and effective law traits of T1, the people’s every vote would count a great deal. A utilitarian interested in the conduct of wider society would have good reason to vote.

V. If it ain’t broke, it’s easier to fix

Tricameralism version 1, as described above, would make an awesomely fair and responsive government. But our government is awesomely unfair and unresponsive. Getting from here to there will be much harder than it ought to be. It’s important to point out, therefore, that there are alternatives any utilitarian should consider.

a.) The least-alternative alternative is to form a shadow government operating on these principles. There are no entrenched interests opposing this, after all! In the best case, the real government would see the benefit and eventually adopt the principles. In the most radical case, people would support the shadow government to a much greater extent than the real government, and the shadow government would usurp officialness. In a much more likely case, the real government would poach the occasional good piece of legislation suggested by the shadow government.

b.) The escapist alternative is to form a seastead, negotiate an independent city with an established government, form a corporate town, or form a commune, and then apply T1 as much as possible within those boundaries.

c.) Any real libertarian-communist will point out that direct action is an option.

d.) The DemocracyOS platform lacks most of the advantages of T1 but has some similarities that may make it usable toward a similar end.

But if we desire to implement T1 where it would be most effective, in the large existing governments, then we need a reformist pathway. One way of doing that is as follows, with suitable time and preparation between each stage.

1.) Make all these changes first in private organizations and public benefit corporations. Then make the changes in cities. Then move on to states/provinces. Then do national changes last. Perhaps, eventually, the UN could adopt some similarities on an international scale.
2.) Implement SODA for the President.
3.) Implement PAL for the Senate and House.
4.) Strip the Senate of their usual powers and convert them it to T1 style. Give the House additional responsibility to choose goals, while retaining their normal powers.
5.) Establish the Assembly.
6.) Eliminate the Presidential veto; change election of Vice President.
7.) Implement T1’s tweaks to SODA and PAL.
8.) Strip the House of their old role.

We don’t need a revolution, it turns out.


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