3 Design Principles for Protopian Governance

Although I have formerly developed an attempt at a comprehensive and general theory of governance—one that would be usable to diagnose the failures of human coordination across all social units (from tribes to organizations to states and beyond)—this article focuses specifically upon “the future of governance”, what I have come to call its protopian forms.

Governance is, in many ways, the most important question of all. In societies that are well-governed, people do well (as far as that’s possible in a world full of challenges).

In this article, I skip the wider and more universal framework for analyzing and diagnosing governance, moving directly to “the vision itself”: the more desirable forms of governance that may become possible only under the best societal conditions.

Let us briefly note: I am not presenting a certain system of governance that I believe is the best for all societies, in all situations. Rather, I am presenting a certain future “attractor point” of governance that I believe is possible (and desirable) to achieve if and when other problems have been dealt with to a sufficient degree: inefficient bureaucracy, failing monopolies of violence, lacking legitimacy, fragmented collective identity, short-circuited informational feedback cycles, coerced distortions of public discourse, and so forth—all of the classical problems of governance. In my earlier attempt at a “general theory of governance” I outlined eight fundamental, but highly abstracted, social functions, and argued that the problems of governance that we see in the world, across the board, come down to imbalances between how these eight principles play out (and I am grateful to One Project for having made this work possible).

So, needless to say, the “protopian” form of governance is not to be “implemented” in Afghanistan on Tuesday. Protopian governance is to be cultivated by agents sensitive to the limitations inherent to any reform and the risks involved.

I shall thus summarize the future of governance in three design principles. By “design principle” I basically mean a feature of a governance system, but—again—not “implemented from above”; rather, a design principle is a recognizable pattern that grants a sense of direction to the larger process of cultivating new forms of governance. Basically, I hold that we are to ask ourselves for each change: “Is this particular development in line with our design principles?”

Oh, and by the way, let’s give a definition of “governance” before we proceed:

  • Governance is the capacity of humans to weave their individual streams-of-action into coordinated wholes, so that actions form chains that are coordinated across time and space, in a manner increasing the likelihood of desirable results and decreasing the likelihood of undesirable results.

And if you wish to add another layer to it:

  • Governance includes the coordination of human communicative actions that determine which results are desirable and undesirable.

My friend, the philosopher Magnus Vinding, suggests in his new book, Reasoned Politics, that “politics” has two layers: a values layer (establishing what we want and why) and an empirical layer (establishing what is true about getting where we want, so as to inform policy and action). I think that works well: governance, in a comprehensive sense, is about coordinating actions, including establishing the values from which we govern and agree to be being governed.

With that much established, let’s delve into the three design principles.

Design Principle 1:
Don’t ask how to make governance “more democratic”; ask how to increase collective intelligence

It is a common trap to focus on the question of how to make governance “more democratic”. The reasons for falling into this trap are fairly obvious: Across the world, and from a century of historical experience and data, we can see that more democratic societies generally fare better than less democratic ones—or at the very least that they abuse their citizens much less.

Given such strong correlations with greater democracy (of happiness, of health, of education, of human rights, of peace, and so forth) and given the extremely strong position of “democracy” as an ideology or discourse across the world, this is of no surprise. It simply seems logical, according to our stubborn habit to think linearly, that if democracy has been good so far, more democracy is even better.

And, in a sense, there is good reason to believe that this is the case. It’s alright to seek to deepen and increase the level of democracy in the world—not least as it has begun to decline across the world (globally speaking, it has decreased for 15 consecutive years). For certain, most of the world needs more and deeper democracy, not less.

But what happens when you get to the highest scores on the international rankings of democracy? Is your society thereby perfect? Is no further development of your forms of governance possible or desirable? Is the story of humanity fundamentally the one about, as some have said, “getting to Denmark?”

But once you do “get to Denmark” (having a stable liberal democracy, a functional market, and significant social welfare)—does further development of the systems of governance cease to be desirable, or even possible? And does further development entail “more democracy”?

If by “more democracy” we mean that “more people get a greater say in more issues”, there is indeed no reason to believe that we should seek to attain that goal. As argued in Democracy For Realists (see here for a summary), you often get worse result for everyone involved by simply expanding how many people are directly involved in decision-making.

In that sense, then, “more democracy” is often the last thing you want. What we usually mean by “more democracy in the world” is not to involve as many people as possible in as many decisions as possible, but rather the cultivation of a number of interrelated institutions that tend to remove power imbalances and the obvious misuse of power. This makes it appear as though getting more people involved in more decisions, because the less democratic societies are also the worse governed ones, but this is manifestly untrue—it’s a so-called “spurious relationship”.

The underlying principle is simply that fewer distortions of information and suppression of voices and interests tends to create more intelligent and tenable decisions.

Collective intelligence is the capacity of a group to solve shared problems. At this point, fairly little is known about it and researchers are still arguing about whether or not it’s really “one thing” or if there are indeed different dimensions of it. But on a trivial level, we can all understand that some groups (or collectives or organizations) will be better able to solve common problems than others, and that this must reasonably be the case also for societies at large—even for civilizations.

All I am saying with this design principle is that there is no reason to seek to “increase democracy” in and of itself, for its own sake. There is no “democracy god” that will punish us if we don’t. Democracy is good because it increases collective intelligence (and mitigates collective stupidity)—until it isn’t and doesn’t.

Hence, the four great strands of democratic decision making: direct democracy, representative democracy, participatory democracy, and deliberative democracy cannot be viewed as inherently practically or morally superior to one another. Rather, you need to see which types of decisions can reasonably be made by which forms of democratic governance.

To increase collective intelligence often means to move complex decisions into the realm of participatory and deliberative democracies—i.e. involving stakeholders and creating citizen councils selected by sortition (lottery) to discuss a matter before a policy is decided upon. In a way, this means that fewer people get a say which might seem “less democratic”—but at the same time, a richer and more nuanced picture can come to the fore, and this in turn means that people’s opinions on a matter can less easily be manipulated by smaller elites or interest groups.

With such developments, we move towards “less democracy”, and certainly fewer instances of voting, but hopefully towards greater collective intelligence.

Design Principle 2:
Create Meshwork Governance and Ignore the Principle of Subsidiarity

Another trap for creating the future of governance is to follow the principle of subsidiarity: that decisions should be made at the lowest possible level, thereby as closely as possible to the people affected by the decisions. For instance, there is little reason for the EU Commission to decide upon how my local municipality organizes its waste management. We’re here in this little township, and we presumably know better what works for us.

There are a number of paradoxes with this line of thinking. Let’s stay with the municipal waste management example for a moment.

  • Firstly, it is still the case that the waste produced by my municipality can and will affect people and environments beyond it. Is it truly just our decision?
  • Secondly, there may very well be a majority within my municipality who favor a cheaper and less environmentally friendly waste management system (just pile it up and burn it), and if the environmentally friendly minority cannot appeal to a higher instance, court, or national parliamentary legislation, they will simply be outnumbered. However, if the environmentally friendly people can ally across the nation and across the EU, they can exert enough influence to change many municipalities. This is just as an example—but would you say that they are wrong to push for good waste management “for the sake of subsidiarity”?
  • Thirdly, there are always issues upon which we cannot agree as to where the boundary goes between “who is affected”. Let’s say one community decides to have a very experimental and religiously fundamentalist school system—and neighboring communities now begin to fear for their lives and for civil war or acts of religiously motivated terrorism. Maybe the fears are unfounded—we’ll know within a few decades. Who has the right to sovereignty, the experimental religious community, or the larger number of neighboring communities who fear for their safety?

To be clear, I am not “against” the principle of subsidiarity. Of course, there is no reason for the state government to decide upon where my local scout club should go trekking. It’s just that it cannot alone account for much of how the future of governance can and should function.

I instead hold that a sort of “meshwork governance” is the direction of protopian development. By this I mean to say that units of governance can and should exchange influence over one another, so as to create a lattice, network, or meshwork of lateral representation. Simple example: Naturally, Denmark and Sweden are sovereign states and cannot decide upon one another’s policies. But since Denmark is very much affected by Sweden and vice versa, it makes sense to not only make some bilateral deals from time to time, but to actually exchange a bit of influence over one another. Denmark’s perspective can and should be present in many more decisions in Sweden, and vice versa. Let us thus say that Denmark and Sweden find a way to exchange 1% of their power over one another. Now, Sweden automatically takes Denmark a little more into consideration in all of its decisions and vice versa. The two harmonize a little better.

(It’s not entirely unlike the idea of double-linking in sociocracy.)

Given the above design principle of collective intelligence, which often is increased by (deliberative) council rule, such meshwork governance would often mean exchanging seats within different deliberative councils on topics which have many stakeholders. Let’s say we have a citizen policy council on reducing criminal gang activity in South Sweden, close to Denmark—it would make perfect sense to have Danish representatives, not only because these may give valuable outsider perspectives, but also because their own gang violence scene overlaps and interacts with the Swedish one and they may thereby have both their own interests to defend and hold key pieces of the puzzle. Eventually, you may find that you have enough stakeholders for your organization to be run up to 50% by others—while your organization now in turn affects decisions of its environment. You have gone from separateness and “sovereignty” to a meshwork of governance.

The direction, then, is not necessarily towards greater and greater subsidiarity, but rather towards more and more meshwork governance, where different units of power sort of yin-yang their way into greater coherence. As such, we are not establishing coherence from above through harmonizing legal systems etc. (although such moves may sometimes be warranted, too); we are instead piece by piece revealing what physicist David Bohm called an “implicate order” (in his philosophical, not his scientific, work). Things fit together, yes, but in highly complex and inherently non-obvious ways, ways that must be revealed by searching for the truth together and sharing a multitude of differing perspectives.

I have thus come to believe that the principle of subsidiarity is a very partial description of the future of governance, and that meshwork governance is the stronger attractor point. It opens up the question of who is a stakeholder and where: Are hospitals stakeholders in schools—if so, to which degree?

Design Principle 3:
Allow for Deep Feedback Cycles—Limit Fast and Shallow Ones!

This point is a more abstract nature than the two above ones—please bear with me. At the same time, it can be stated yet more concisely: We tend to overemphasize short and shallow feedback cycles while ignoring the long and deep ones. Instead, we should increase our capacity to make fundamental and structural changes, while being less sensitive to short-term trends and pressures.

A few examples might be in order.

For instance, it is very difficult to change and update institutions of governance in most countries. An example is the United States, which has been in a cycle of institutional decay for the better part of a half-century, and unable to escape its rut. Small interest groups affect policy too much, which incapacitates governance, which undermines public trust, which creates a pressure for smaller government, which makes renewed governance structures even harder to fund and achieve. As a result, American society as a whole becomes less and less efficiently governed as the decades go by (and, as stated above, the quality of governance is the number one determining factor of its thriving). Because no agent can successfully update the system of governance, it continues to decay.

At the same time, consider the fact that businesses in the US and elsewhere report results four times a year, and that these quarterly reports have huge impacts on their funding, prestige, and future. Hence, they will break and bend to present fairly narrowly defined results in these reports. They are here stuck in very short feedback cycles, ones that in many ways affect society at large and thereby shape also how policies and public discourses are played out. Even within one 4-year presidential term, feedback cycles of public opinion, how the economy is going, and so on, can lead to swift changes of course and the interruption (or at least disruption) of numerous important long-term projects and investments.

Our governance systems react too fast to too shallow feedback, and too weakly to slow feedback cycles, like those of the environment.

Hence, the governance of the future can and should have more “reboot functions” built into them. These can look in many different ways, but the key principle is that there should be specific features that allow for the governance systems themselves to be fundamentally updated periodically—i.e. systems of governance should have special functions to make sure the “rules of the game” are updated in accordance with deep, structural changes. It is not wise and advisable to run a country in the internet age with a constitution drafted at the beginning of the industrial age. And so, constitutional reform should be made more accessible with periodic intervals. In practice, at the national level, this may mean that, once every 20 years, you can change the constitution with a simple majority vote. This would mobilize “deep reformist” to concentrate on how to use the next opportunity to change the fundamental game rules of their country. On other levels of governance, it could take different forms.

At the same time, the sensitivity to short feedback cycles may actually need to be reduced. We have become accustomed to thinking that more feedback information, more documentation, and quicker iteration is always a good thing. We tend to condemn, in harsh if superficially polite words, the rigidity of those who will not be open to criticism and feedback. However, for feedback to be truly valuable, it needs to be a) generalizable across multiple situations and settings, i.e. based on multiple data points, and b) properly processed as a piece of meaningful information, i.e. the best available interpretation must come to the fore for the right corrective steps to be taken.

It should also be noted that such data processing is a costly endeavor for all parties involved. The contemporary hysteria of consumer capitalism and services of public administration that spam us with emails and even intrusive survey phone calls “wanting your opinion!” is not a mark of humility or intelligent governance. Most of this information falls flat, is based upon the wrong questions being asked, is never fully followed up on, and so forth. They also drive an unsavory trend of hyper-quantification in society, the harms of which are too complex and numerous to be discussed here.

I suppose that a more listening society should also be better at leaving us the f* alone, while focusing on slowly building bases of carefully considered information for slower and more profound changes. This will increase stability and save considerable resources while still making society more flexible.

To summarize and coordinate this last point with the first two design principles:

  • Greater collective intelligence will tend towards fewer people more deeply involved in more multi-perspectival and disinterested (because we select also neutral representatives) processes of deliberation in councils, with a greater emphasis on the quality of the communicative process. The development of new systems of governance are evaluated on the basis of collective intelligence, not “democracy” in and of itself.
  • Such councils will in turn create an increasingly complex meshwork of cross-influence, hence converging on a deeper and deeper coherence, without there being one central authority that forces them in line.
  • And such councils will be committed to serving long-term and deep transformations, while being designed to resist short-term pressures and trends. This is achieved by replacing the “collect feedback” trend with more long-term qualitative learning processes of the councils, and by creating the feature of periodic “reboot functions” through which the purposes and values of the councils can be redefined.

As such, the vision of Protopian governance is, very simply put:

  • A large set of different units of governance that are tailored to maximize the collective intelligence with which different topics are managed, which are laterally connected into a meshwork of mutual influence, and which continuously evolve by periodically updating their constitutional forms and the stated purposes they serve.

There is, of course, more to the idea of Protopian governance—but this would be the bare basics. And that’s enough to reshape the world. Remember, though—don’t build this from scratch: cultivate it with a sensitivity to the initial conditions of the societies within which you act. Protopian is the next step after Liberal Democracy, and while there may be opportunities for developing countries to cultivate it, it always builds upon transcending and including the principles of democracy. The point is that development is never linear, and so even as Protopian governance grows from the soil of liberal democracy, it looks and feels quite different from it.

Hanzi Freinacht is a political philosopher, historian, and sociologist, author of ‘The Listening Society’, ‘Nordic Ideology’ and the upcoming books ‘The 6 Hidden Patterns of History’ and ‘Outcompeting Capitalism’. Much of his time is spent alone in the Swiss Alps. You can follow Hanzi on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium, and you can speed up the process of new metamodern content reaching the world by making a donation to Hanzi here.