[EM] Free Associations (was: Trees and single-winner methods)

Abd ul-Rahman Lomax abd at lomaxdesign.com
Fri Mar 23 21:28:34 PDT 2007

At 01:31 PM 3/23/2007, Juho wrote:

>Are you saying that FAs would not succumb to the old hazards?


>  I think
>it is probable that many FAs would drift towards more formal
>structures, strict leadership and rules (especially if the ideology
>that they promote makes that has a positive attitude towards such

I'm considering an FA to be an organization that has formal rules 
that prohibit the association from developing precisely those things. 
These are not a restriction on the freedom of members; there is 
really almost nothing invested in the FA; whenever members want to 
create a formal structure that is not an FA, they simply will. The FA 
continues in parallel. The members who wanted the power structure may 
stop participating, most of them. But they only have to leave one 
behind as a proxy to the FA to still be represented in it.

The fact is that it worked for Alcoholics Anonymous. It has worked a 
little less well for some of the other imitators, precisely because 
the AA Traditions have sometimes not been understood. The habits of 
central control are strong, we have lots of excuses for them (and 
legitimate reasons as well, but the FA stays clear of power precisely 
to delegitimate these habits with respect to the FA structure.

The FA structure is created and maintained from the ground up, that 
is what DP does. AA did not use DP, but AA meetings are autonomous, 
and it was established clearly that AA, as a whole, did not fund 
meetings. Not funding them, AA has no control over them. And the 
central service organization, AA World Services Inc., was given clear 
guidance to avoid the accumulation of resources, deliberately to keep 
it continuously dependent upon the meetings. The New York office 
could disappear and it would have very little effect on AA, only on 
relatively peripheral services. Local intergroups at various times in 
the past published their own literature, and they could revert to that.

To repeat, there will be those within the FA who will want to create 
power structures, and some of them will attempt to do it with the FA. 
However, as long as a few who *don't* want this, who recognize the 
danger, continue to function as an FA, the FA still exists. An FA 
does not depend on any formal structure for its communication. It 
uses formal structures, but all the actual participants can 
independently contact each other. For example, if this mailing list 
were the mailing list of an FA, any of us could reconstitute it 
within days, because we have the email address of everyone who has 
written to it, those of us who keep archives. That is even without DP.

With DP, we presume that every proxy has contact information for 
every client. Thus a proxy does not depend on the FA for 
communication with his or her natural caucus. So suppose that the 
owner of the FA domain decides to become a little tyrant -- or simply 
to go with the majority as it appears on something that will take the 
organization out of the FA territory. The proxies and other active 
members who don't agree with this can simply recreate the FA with an 
altered name. And they could simultaneously retain whatever influence 
they wish to maintain within the altered FA, simply by leaving behind a proxy.

The FA traditions are a vast protection, even without DP. With DP, I 
strongly expect, the structure becomes extremely robust and extremely 
difficult to corrupt.

>I don't exactly know if you propose the FA structure to be adopted as
>the main working method or if you only want to keep the formal rules
>(of the political machinery) such that FAs are allowed to operate.

To prohibit FAs would be to prohibit free association itself. You 
have to leave democracy pretty far behind to do it. So far behind 
that I expect the society involved would become heavily crippled and 
unable to compete, should competition be relevant (if it was a 
one-world-government it might get pretty bad).

What we need is world communication, coordination, and cooperation. 
One World Government is really a bad idea, if taken literally and 
thoroughly. Some kind of body to create and enforce international law 
makes sense, though. Present structures are pretty inadequate.

I'm not proposing FAs as the "main working method," i.e., the main 
method of carrying out the business of government. FAs are thoroughly 
libertarian, an FA "government" would pretty much be an oxymoron. But 
large FAs would essentially be able to keep governments in check. It 
could be pretty interesting.

FAs don't directly have power. But they advise, and the advice is 
trustworthy and trusted by design. Once you have a central power 
structure controlling what was an FA, that design fades. All this can 
happen without DP, but DP should make it far more effective and efficient.

>You used "FA" to name the method but maybe you didn't intend to ban
>the use of more formal associations too. Or maybe the intention is
>just to establish a structure that is parallel (or "sequential") to
>the traditional political decision making process.

I've been quite explicit. It is not proposed that FA or FA/DP are 
idea for all kinds of organizations. FA/DP is ideal, in general, for 
peer associations which have the purpose of attracting broad 
participation and developing broad consensus. As I've indicated again 
and again, an FA can't be a control structure. I've said that FAs are 
thoroughly libertarian, but I've also said that I'm not a 
Libertarian. I'm not claiming that the elimination of government is 
idea or practical.

I'm also not claiming that such elimination is impossible, but I'm 
quite clear that we don't know how to do it yet. Give us a century of 
experience with FA/DP, we might be able to pull it off.

In a sense, FA/DP creates such a non-government government simply by 
existing. But it does not automatically push aside existing 
structures. Those structures may change, but I expect such change to 
be gradual.

The big mistake made by so many revolutions has been the idea that 
the world would be improved by destroying the old institutions. 
Coupled with blaming the problems of society on some rejected class, 
this has done nothing but impoverish societies, not to mention the 
horrific excesses that some revolutions developed.

FA/DP can exist in parallel with existing structures. Consider, for 
example, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation. It's a 
traditional, top-down hierarchy. The top chooses each level down, and 
then the bottom reports back through the hierarchy.

Okay, suppose the employees of the FBI form an FA/DP organization. 
What this means essentially is that each employee chooses a proxy, 
someone who agrees to communicate with them and whom they trust. No 
proxy takes on too many direct clients such that such communication 
becomes an excessive burden. Loops are identified and voluntarily 
resolved. (High-level loops are to be expected unless there is a superproxy.)

That's it. The proxy assignments, with loop identification and 
resolution, create a network that connects all employees and that 
will, I expect, resolve to a relatively small number of proxies who 
collectively represent all employees.

Now, suppose that 9/11 is approaching. You are an ordinary FBI agent 
and you become aware of a student at a commercial jet flight school 
who seems to be disinterested in learning how to land or take off the 
airplane, only in how to fly it. The student is from Saudi Arabia, 
which, unfortunately, is relevant. You put two and two  together and 
realize that the sum is four. You file a report. Your report goes 
into an inbox somewhere. Who knows what happens to it? If you had the 
ear of your supervisor, something more might happen, but you did not 
choose your supervisor and for all I know the two of you are not on 
speaking terms....

Ah, but you have a proxy. You call up your proxy and tell him or her 
what you found, and why you think it is important. The proxy agrees, 
and calls his or her proxy.

Within a day, there are high-level proxies aware of the situation, 
and they have the ear of the Director of the FBI.

You have bypassed the top-down hierarchy, and you were able to do it 
rapidly because of the relatively small number of direct links in the 
FA/DP organization, which is designed for that kind of communication. 
Peer to peer, with, generally, some rapport established.

Suppose that something goes awry, your proxy pooh-poohs your 
concerns, yet is unable to convince you that the concerns are 
misplaced. Who knows, maybe he's having a bad day. What to do? 
Simple. You can contact *any* other agent you know who has a 
different proxy. If you can convince that agent, it will get passed on.

>I think the goal of keeping the political structure responsive to the
>needs of the citizens and keeping the discussion process productive
>is a good goal (I think this is what you are looking for). There is
>always space to improve the methods that we use to govern ourselves.
>There are people claiming that the system they have or promote is the
>ultimate best system, but probably the ideal system has not been
>developed yet, and possibly never will be.

One of the demonstration projects that has not advanced more than 
making a few noises has been the Cummington Free Association. 
Cummington is the small town I lived in until last year. The purpose 
of the CFA is to facilitate communication between the citizens of the 
town and the town government. Essentially, it is to advise the town 
government, in the one direction, and to advise the citizens, in the 
other. Cummington, like nearly all small towns around here, is a Town 
Meeting town. That means that nominally it is a direct democracy. 
However, it is rare that more than five or ten percent of eligible 
voters show up at Town Meeting, and one result is a skew between the 
meeting and the voters, many more of whom do show up on Election Day. 
Two years or so ago there was a tax override presented to the voters, 
which by Massachusetts law must be approved by secret ballot. The 
Town Meeting had approved this, the Board of Selectmen (which handles 
town business between Town Meetings) had approved it. The voters 
rejected it. Why?

Good question, don't you think?

An FA/DP organization would know the answer; indeed, if the 
organization were in place and functioning, that scenario simply 
would not occur. The town would know in advance if it was going to 
pass or not, because of the proxy structure. Votes are not *required* 
to vote as their proxy recommends, but I expect that they will do so 
often enough that the votes of proxies as expanded by the proxy list 
will match pretty well how the voters will vote directly. The proxies 
would have explained the town proposal to the voters and why they 
should vote for it (or not vote for it, as the case might have been 
as well). At the same time, the proxies would have represented all 
these absent voters to the Town Meeting.

Town Meeting could not, by Massachusetts law, recognize the proxies 
as such, that is, as voting at the meeting for those absent. (I have 
not researched the question of whether or not this could be changed, 
I consider that premature in any case.) But they don't have to have 
actual voting power. It is enough if they are there, and that it is 
known how many absent voters they represent. You want to waste your 
time and money? Ignore a proxy who represents a third of the town's 
voters, or a collection of proxies who collectively represent most of them.

But nobody is forced to do anything in this vision. It is about 
communication, advice, cooperation. I participated in a hearing on 
some Open Space proposals. There were certain aspects of these 
proposals -- which were very good -- which were a but difficult to 
grasp immediately, and some aspects which perhaps needed to be worked 
on more. Using an FA/DP structure to integrate town opinion on this 
would have drastically speeded up the process. My guess is that there 
are a lot of people in the town who would have had something to say, 
or who  would have wanted to know more, but who couldn't make it to a meeting.

One of the big problems with direct democracy is what happens to the 
single mom.... Town Meeting is at night, and sometimes if there is 
much to be discussed it can go on late.

>The FA model (and DP) sets some positive targets and may have some
>positive impact but I'm not sure it would work so well that it would
>automatically lead us to a better future. There are many risks, like
>getting infiltrated with "the old politicians" as soon as it gets
>some power. Maybe there will be trials and fine-tuning of the theory.

I just don't see how those "old politicians" would manage the trick. 
They might not even try.

Remember, the FA/DP organization never "gets some power." There is no 
center to grab and corrupt. Sure, you could go after some high-level 
proxies, but suddenly what they are advising their own clients 
doesn't make sense-- and their clients are themselves relatively 
high-level proxies. The client asks questions and gets a runaround. 
The advice is ineffective, and maybe the client chooses another proxy.

You try to corrupt it, you break the links that you grabbed, and the 
elements that were connected to them reattach elsewhere. Colossal 
waste of effort, I'd say.

Okay, let's try another approach. You create an army of sock puppets 
who join and name some among "themselves" as proxies, ultimately 
devolving upon you as the leader of this unnatural caucus.

You are able to shift the outcome of votes, it would seem. However, 
what do these votes do? They exist to advise members with regard to 
fact and action. How are they used?

Anyone who wants to know uses them. And how do they use them? They 
take the vote and a proxy list and expand it. They are not limited to 
that, though. They could also use such information as date of joining 
the organization. They could use lists of validated members, 
validated by some means that they trust. They would notice the gaping 
hole in the validation and they would simply discount that vote 
expansion. They would notice other anomalies, including the lack of 
participation history for a whole caucus. With patience, a 
puppet-master could overcome some of these problems, but overcoming 
all of them would be quite difficult. And it would all be for 
nothing, most likely.

Action is not taken by the FA, it is taken by caucuses in favor of 
the action. They want to see that there is sufficient consensus that 
they won't be wasting their time. If you do the math, it is far 
easier to get something done if people are largely united behind it. 
Politically, if half the people want to go left and half the people 
want to go right, and they both try to act, you get a lot of huffing 
and puffing and a lot of exhausted people to little effect. But if 
you wait to act until you have broad agreement, it is easy. That's 
why you want to see the vote results, and why you want to expand them 
with proxy lists.

At some point, even if a puppet master managed to really appear as 
representing a large number of members, frustrated leaders of 
caucuses, not being able to make sense of what he was doing, would 
eventually decide to call his bluff. They would go ahead with action. 
What resources could the puppet master call upon? The legitimate 
proxies hold a public meeting, thousands show up. The puppet master 
doesn't hold a meeting, he wouldn't dare.

A suspicious member attempts to name the puppet master as a proxy. He 
immediately accepts. *This is highly suspicious.* A high-level proxy 
will not normally have time for more clients. Okay, the puppet master 
replies, "Sorry, I'm too busy." This is also suspicious, because a 
proxy who is too busy will ordinarily recommend someone else, perhaps 
one of his clients. Or someone further down the tree. And if the 
puppet master does recommend a client, it better be a real one! Or 
the member will be unable to reach the suggested proxy.

Proxies, I expect, in an active FA/DP organization, will ordinarily 
have a mailing list to keep contact with their clients, it will save 
the proxy quite a bit of effort. This list would contain the traffic 
of the proxies direct clients, and it might reach down some level 
more than that. A puppet master would have a huge task to simulate 
this. Unless, of course, he's got a lot of helpers! In which case, 
why does he need so many sock puppets? Sooner or later it will become 
apparent that his real numbers are less than what the lists claim.

There are people working on software to provide centralized delegable 
proxy services. I'm generally considering this mostly unnecessary, 
and possibly dangerous. At the very least, the raw data used to 
generate vote expansions should be available, and centralized 
presentation of results shouldn't be too easily trusted. It's too 
easy to corrupt. Indeed, there may be centralized services, but they 
should be of a nature that they can readily be checked by anyone 
suspicious of the presented results.

And because votes are really only informational, for the most part, 
worrying about majorities and the validation of voters and all that 
becomes optional.

By the way, consider this: if you attempt to corrupt an FA/DP 
organization, you must believe that people, communicating freely and 
thoroughly, will disagree with you. Most present politicians wouldn't 
think this way. They may well believe that people are ignorant and 
easily led astray, but they will expect that informed and intelligent 
people will generally be on their side. I don't really expect much 
effort to corrupt or destroy FA/DP organizations.

And, indeed, these organizations, by design, won't be anyone's enemy. 
*The people* might be an enemy of someone, to be sure. But you 
wouldn't change that by trying to destroy the FA/DP organization, and 
you might make it worse.

I expect to see FA/DP arise in some societies with relatively 
repressive central governments. China is a possibility. The 
organizations wouldn't make the mistakes of Tiananmen Square or Falun 
Gong. For one thing, they would be formed to generally *support* the 
government. For example, in implementing environmental policy. (China 
has quite a few green policies, but has difficulty getting them 
implemented on a local level.)

But the medium is the message. An FA/DP organization formed for one 
purpose could rapidly be used for another, because it consists of 
personal links, relationships of trust.

(Technically, an FA shouldn't "support" something that might be 
controversial, but let's put it this way: in a highly centralized 
society, supporting the central government is not, supposedly, controversial.)

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