“The voting system is a straitjacket that throws out information,” wrote authors E. Glen Weyl and Eric A. Posner, an economist and a law professor, respectively, in their book Radical Markets. “A vote can tell you only whether a person prefers one outcome to another, but not how much that person prefers the outcome.” The book, which Princeton University Press published last year, argues that the way democractic societies vote does not reflect the population’s conflicting preferences in the way that, say, markets do.
The flaws in the current system, they say, are outcomes that don’t match interests. It’s an idea that is deeply familiar here in the U.S., where nearly half of all voting-eligible citizens sit out Election Days; most young people are disillusioned about the process, the options, and the representation. There are protections for minority opinions built in our democracy: Checks and balances, the electoral college, and the requirement of certain “supermajorities” to amend the Constitution or to ratify a treaty, for example. But you don’t have to go back to history class to understand that they’re not always effective.
News stories, scientific surveys, and entire university courses detail the ways in which the voting system is broken. Radical x Change, a growing global movement of people who are experimenting with the Radical Markets concepts to achieve new levels of social equality, says they have a way to fix it.
Vote Better, Vote Often
Many of the ideas of Radical x Change hinge upon a belief that the ideal open, free, and competitive market is an auction, in which the person who wants something the most is willing to pay the highest price for it. (All property could be owned this way, they argue, and personal data too.)
While the concepts in the book are theoretical, the community sees technology—particularly blockchain technology—as a way to animate them and, ideally, to operationalize them. Virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier is a fan, having nominated Weyl, who chairs Radical x Change, as a WIRED next-generation trailblazer. Weyl has also authored a paper, Liberation Through Radical Decentralization, with Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin. In both of these articles, and others, the Radical x Change idea that comes to the fore—and that has applications for government as well as for business—is their rethink of voting.
Though money does not change hands on Election Day, voting is a market—one that determines what we, as individuals receive, in terms of security, sanitation, education, and so many other public goods, as well as how we as a society prioritize those things in relation to, well, everything else. Our differing values and shifting opinions are key to democracy, and also what makes its function so challenging. Which brings us back to the auction.
The Radical x Change belief is that voting would be more effective if the people who care the most about an issue—whether it’s pollution or abortion, health care or education—could prioritize it by spending more votes on it. But there is a price for the louder voice: the value that someone else on the opposing side would receive if their outcome was achieved.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a group of economists, in a series of papers, determined that the price of a louder voice is equal not to its influence, but to the square of its influence. So, essentially, if you wanted to vote twice in favor of an emissions tax, it should cost you twice as much to do so.
Weyl and Posner—and now, Radical x Change—call this concept quadratic voting, and in brief, this is how it works: Instead of approaching an election with one vote to spend on each person or issue, you have a pile of votes (or “voice credits”) to assign however you choose. Four voice credits would buy you two votes for the issue most important to you. Nine voice credits will buy you three votes.
“It [gives] you what I think is a felicitous option to not express yourself about things that you don’t know about or care about,” says Radical x Change president Matt Prewitt. “It opens up the possibility of deeper engagement with our shared institutions.”
Thinking Outside the Booth
Earlier this year, the Democratic caucus of the Colorado State House of Representatives used quadratic voting to agree on which bills were most important to fund this session. But it has applications beyond politics. In Liberation Through Radical Decentralization, Weyl and Buterin argue that quadratic voting can also help address issues of governance in blockchain-based communities. Companies such as Eximchain, a blockchain-based global supply network, are building it into their protocol. “There is a big number of startups and companies experimenting and implementing these ideas in their companies or in their models and products,” says Radical x Change CEO Jennifer Morone.
This past June, quadratic voting was used in Taiwan’s Presidential Hackathon to determine the best open source social innovation. “Since casting a larger number of votes for the same proposal will require a lot more points, the winning proposal is bound to be the most eagerly anticipated one,” wrote the country’s first digital minister, Audrey Tang, in an article about the hackathon.
Both Morone and Prewitt say that Radical x Change’s focus is on mainstreaming quadratic voting and other concepts, while also underscoring the fact these theories are also, in Prewitt’s words, a “vector for thinking about deeper issues.”
“When people see how these kinds of mechanisms can be put to use in terms of improving decision processes in terms of organizations, asset allocations,” he continues, “it’s going to prompt a much wider discussion.”