[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
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
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
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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