Given the ferocity with which he opposed it, the Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke is not often accused of radicalism. Yet here he is, writing in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790):
Society is indeed a contract… a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.
Though it might not look it, this is a profoundly radical thought. We already have a device with which to represent the wishes of past generations. Constitutions, the voices of our history, do not chain us to the past, for they can always be outvoted, but they do have a powerful influence on what our societies do now. We lack any such mechanism for considering the interests of future generations. And this is a trickier problem than might at first be obvious. Indeed, the very structure of reality seems to conspire against us.
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While we might feel a sense of solidarity with past and future generations alike, time’s arrow means that we must relate to each other as members of a relay race team. This means that citizens downstream from us in time are doubly disadvantaged compared with the upstream generations. Our predecessors have imposed – unilaterally – the consequences of their political negotiations upon us: their economic regime, immigration policies, the national borders that they drew up. But they were also able to explain themselves to us, giving us not only the bare outcome of the US Constitution, for example, but also the records of the debates about the principles behind it, such as the Federalist Papers (1787-88). Such commentaries are a substantial source of our respect for our ancestors’ achievements, beyond their status as a fait accompli.
By contrast, future generations must accept whatever we choose to bequeath them, and they have no way of informing us of their values. In this, they are even more helpless than foreigners, on whom our political decisions about pollution, trade, war and so on are similarly imposed without consent. Disenfranchised as they are, such foreigners can at least petition their own governments to tell ours off, or engage with us directly by writing articles in our newspapers about the justice of their cause. The citizens of the future lack even this recourse.
The asymmetry between past and future is more than unfair. Our ancestors are beyond harm; they cannot know if we disappoint them. Yet the political decisions we make today will do more than just determine the burdens of citizenship for our grandchildren. They also concern existential dangers such as the likelihood of pandemics and environmental collapse. Without a presence in our political system, the plight of future citizens who might suffer or gain from our present political decisions cannot be properly weighed. We need to give them a voice.
How could we do that? After all, they can’t actually speak to us. Yet even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example). Interests are much easier than wishes, and quite suitable for representation by proxies.
So perhaps we should simply encourage current citizens to take up the Burkean perspective and think of their civic duty in a more extended way when casting votes. Could this work? People certainly do take up political causes remote from their own immediate interests from time to time, for example when they vote in solidarity with those poorer than themselves. But this ideal solution founders on the manifest short-termism of most actual voters. In reality, we have limited empathetic and cognitive capacities. We are only human.
Let’s look at those limitations for a moment, in the hope that doing so will suggest a solution to our problem. Firstly, the range of our empathy is both narrow and short. We might cast votes for the future in a restricted sense when we consider our children or grandchildren, but this is not the same as voting as temporary stewards of the whole of society. We should not limit our concern to the welfare of our own family members. Furthermore, even when we are voting as parents, we often struggle to consider our own children’s long-term future. For example, while we do elect politicians who promise to invest in education, we seem rather less enthusiastic about reforming the economy to help young people build a prosperous life with dignity, because that comes into conflict with our interests in our own economic security. We fall short of the demands of even our narrowest loyalties.
If current citizens can’t help but be short-sighted, perhaps we should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way
Our second limitation is intellectual. It is difficult for us, as individuals, to analyse the full cumulative effects of our political decisions for future generations. It is hard enough to tell whether entering the euro or invading Afghanistan is the right thing for our country to do, even though we know at the time that these are big decisions and their major consequences will be clear within a few years, not decades. The cognitive challenge is far greater when we try to calculate the full intergenerational cost of keeping the retirement age at 65, or the optimal carbon policy to mitigate global warming. Human voters just aren’t equal to the task.
The outlines of a solution to our problem begin to come into view. If current citizens can’t help but be short-sighted, perhaps we should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way. They would need to be credibly motivated to defend the basic interests of future generations as a whole, rather than certain favoured subsets, and they would require the expertise to calculate the long-term actuarial implications of government policies. Such voters would have to be more than human. I am thinking of civic organisations, such as charitable foundations, environmentalist advocacy groups or non-partisan think tanks. To ensure that these voters have some political weight – but not too much – we might award eligible non-governmental organisations (NGOs) equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 per cent of the electorate.
The moral and legal status of such voters would be as trustees of the generations to come. Trusteeship is a mature legal concept with well-established professional codes of conduct and systems of external accountability. It is specifically designed for situations in which one person must exercise his or her best judgment to the benefit of others’ interests without considering their wishes.
Trusteeship has played a political role before – indeed it is the very model for the role of elected legislators that Burke himself advocated, as did the British political economist John Stuart Mill a century later. All the same, we would certainly need to introduce some new rules and legal instruments to ensure the success of this novel kind of political trusteeship by organisations, and especially to protect them from improper ‘presentist’ influence by partisan or commercial interests. To ensure their independence, these organisations might have to demonstrate popular support (say 50,000 unique citizen members), be non-profit-making, comply with electoral campaign financing legislation and so forth. But rather than discuss those specific practicalities, let me turn to the principal advantages of this new electoral device.
As 10 per cent of the electorate, these NGOs would constitute a significant constituency, but not an all-important or completely homogenous one. That should be enough. As the Austrian political economist Joseph Schumpeter put it, the democratic method is ‘that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote’. It is in the nature of democracy that, wherever there are votes, you will find politicians. All the mainstream political parties will make a play for this new constituency, making their policy platforms relevant to its various concerns, just as they do for other single-issue constituencies, such as retirees and nativists.
At least to some degree, the myopia built into the institutions of democracy would be overcome
This, incidentally, seems like a better result than we could expect if we simply appointed such trustees directly to our upper legislatures. The 26 Church of England bishops who sit in the UK House of Lords are trustee legislators in this sense: they are charged with acting in the interests of God. However, while they have a small degree of direct influence over legislation, they have no clout at all on the electoral battlefield where the ideas and principles behind the legislative agenda are developed.
In contrast, the presence of trustee voters has the potential to benefit democratic deliberation in general. They would make sustainability an unavoidable political topic, one that politicians have to treat in a way that is credible to these cognitively sophisticated agents. The improved quality of politicians’ attention to the future would also help the merely human voters who struggle to turn their moral concern for the future into effective political choices. At least to some degree, the myopia built into the institutions of democracy would be overcome.
As a matter of justice, the interests of future people deserve to be taken into consideration in our decisions now. The choices we make about decarbonising the economy, guaranteeing pension entitlements or funding research into vaccines will have an enormous impact on the lives of those who will be sitting where we are in just a few decades. We care about these people – they are our fellow citizens after all, and our children and grandchildren besides. Even if they haven’t been born yet, they have a claim on our attention and consideration at the political level. Our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election cycle. However we do it, we need to find a way to make our political system take the future – and everyone who inhabits it – into account.
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is a philosopher based in Rotterdam in the Netherlands. He edits the Erasmus Journal for Philosophy and Economics and blogs at The Philosopher’s Beard.
Recapping The OSCON O’Reilly Radar Conversation
A couple of weeks ago I presented at OSCON and during the conference had an opportunity to sit down with Mac Slocum, Managing Editor for the O’Reilly Radar. We had about a half an hour conversation, for which we covered ~20 minutes of it on camera. You can find it here if you want to watch me jaw. But perhaps simpler below, I’ve listened to the tape, and captured the essence of my answers to Mac’s questions about what the Foundation is about and working on and the like. I promised Matt Douglass, our Public Relations Director I’d get this up for interested followers; apologize it took me a couple of weeks.
So, here it is; again not an official transcript, but a compilation of my answers after watching and listening to the video interview about a dozen times (so you don’t have to) combined with my recollection as close as I recall my remarks – expressed and intended.
O’Reilly: How are voting systems in the U.S. currently handled? In other words, where do they come from; procurement process; who decides/buys; etc.?
Miller: Voting systems are currently developed and delivered by proprietary systems vendors, and procured by local election jurisdictions such counties and townships. The States’ role is to approve specific products for procurement, often requiring products to have completed a Federal certification process overseen by the EAC. However, the counties and local elections jurisdictions make the vast majority of elections equipment acquisition decisions across the country.
O’Reilly: So how many vendors are there? Or maybe more to the point, what’s the state of the industry; who are the players; and what’s the innovation opportunity, etc.?
Miller: Most of the U.S. market is currently served by just 3 vendors. You know, as we sit here today, just two vendors control some 88% of America’s voting systems infrastructure, and one of them has a white-knuckled grip on 75% of that. Election Systems and Services is the largest, after having acquired Premier Systems from its parent company, Diebold. The DoJ interceded on that acquisition under a mandatory Hart-Scott-Rodino Act review to consider potential anti-trust issues. In their settlement with ES&S, the Company dealt off a portion of their technology (and presumably customers) to the Canadian firm Dominion Systems. Dominion was a small player in the U.S. until recently when it acquired those technology assets of Premier (as part of the DoJ acquisition, and acquired the other fomer market force, Sequoia. And that resulted in consolidating approximately 12% of the U.S. market. Most of the remaining U.S. market is served by Hart-Intercivic Systems.
On the one hand, I’d argued that the voting systems marketplace is so dysfunctional and malformed that there is no incentive to innovate, and at worst, there is a perverse disincentive to innovate and therefore really not much opportunity. At least that’s what we really believed when we started the Foundation in November 2006. Seriously, for the most part any discussion about innovation in this market today amounts to a discussion of ensuring spare parts for what’s out there. But really what catalyzed us was the belief that we could inject a new level of opportunity… a new infusion of innovation. So, we believe part of the innovation opportunity is demonstrated by the demise of Premier and Sequoia and now the U.S. elections market is not large or uniform enough to support a healthy eco-system of competition and innovation. So the innovation opportunity is to abandon the proprietary product model, develop new election technology in a public benefits project, and work directly with election officials to determine their actual needs.
O’Reilly: So what is the TrustTheVote Project, and how does that relates to the Foundation?
Miller: The Open Source Digital Voting Foundation is the enabling 501.c.3 public benefits corporation that funds and manages projects to develop innovative, publicly owned open source elections and voting technology. The TrustTheVote Project is the flagship effort of the Foundation to design and develop an entirely new ballot eco-system.
What we’re making is an elections technology framework built on breakthrough innovations in elections administration and management and ballot casting and counting that can restore trust in how America votes. Our design goal is to truly deliver on the four legs of integrity in elections: accuracy, transparency, trust, and security.
The reason we’re doing this is simple: this is the stuff of critical democracy infrastructure – something far too much of a public asset to privatize. We need to deliver what the market has so far failed to deliver. And we want to re-invent that industry – based on a new category of entrants – systems integrators who can take the open source framework, integrate it with qualified commodity hardware, and stand it up for counties and elections jurisdictions across the country.
We’re doing this with a small full time team of very senior technologists and technology business executives, as well as contractors, academia, and volunteer developers.
We’re 4 years into an 8 year undertaking – we believe the full framework will be complete and should be achieving widespread adoption, adaptation, and deployment by the close of 2016 – done right it can impact the national election cycle that year. That said, we’re under some real pressure to expedite this because turns out that a large number of jurisdiction will be looking to replace their current proprietary systems over the next 4 years as well.
O’Reilly: How can open source really improve the voting system?
Miller: Well, open source is not a panacea, but we think it’s an important enabler to any solution for the problems of innovation, transparency, and cost that burden today’s elections. Innovation is enabled by the departure from the proprietary product model, including the use of open-source licensing of software developed in a public benefits project. Transparency, or open-government features and capabilities of voting systems are largely absent and require innovation that the current market does not support. Cost reduction can be enabled by an open-source-based delivery model in which procurements allow system integrators to compete for delivery license-free voting systems, coupled with technical support that lacks the vendor lock-in of current procurements. Open source software doesn’t guarantee any of these benefits, but it does enable them.
I should point out too, that one of our deepest commitments is to elections verification and auditability (sic). And our framework, based on an open standards common data format utilizing a markup language extension to XML called EML is the foundation on which we can deliver that. Likewise, I should point out our framework is predicated on a durable paper ballot of record… although we haven’t talked about the pieces of the framework yet.
O’Reilly: Well our time is limited, but you must know I can’t resist this last question, which is probably controversial but our audience is really curious about. Will online voting ever be viable?
Miller: Well, to be intellectually honest, there are two parts to that loaded question. Let me leave my personal opinion and the position of the Foundation out of it at first, so I just address the question in a sterile light.
First, online voting is already viable in other countries that have these 3 policy features:  a national ID system,  uniform standards for nationwide elections, and  have previously encouraged remote voting by mail rather than in-person voting. These countries also fund the sophisticated centralized IT infrastructure required for online voting, and have accepted the risks of malware and other Internet threats as acceptable parts of nationwide online voting. For a similar approach to be viable in the U.S., those same 3 policy features would likely require some huge political innovations, at the 50-plus state level, if not the Federal level. There really isn’t the political stomach for any of that and particularly national ID although arguably we already have it, or creating national elections and voting standards, let alone building a national elections system infrastructure. In fact, the National Association of State Secretaries recently passed – actually re-upped an earlier resolution to work to sunset the Federal Elections Assistance Commission. In other words, there is a real Federalist sense about elections. So, on this first point of socio-political requirements alone I don’t see it viable any time soon.
But letting our opinion slip into this, the Foundation believes there is a more important barrier from a technical standpoint. There are flat out technical barriers that have to be cleared involving critical security and privacy issues on the edge and at the core of a packet-switched based solution. Furthermore, to build the kind of hardened data center required to transact voting data is far beyond the financial reach of the vast majority of jurisdictions in the country. Another really important point is that online elections are difficult if not impossible to audit or verify. And finally, there is a current lack of sophisticated IT resources in most of the thousands of local elections offices that run elections in the U.S.
So, while elections remain a fundamentally local operation for the foreseeable future, and while funding for elections remains at current levels, and until the technical problems of security and privacy are resolved, nationwide online voting seems unlikely in the U.S.
That said, we should be mindful that the Internet cloud has darkened the doorstep of nearly every aspect of society as we’ve moved from the 2nd age of industrialism to the 3rd age of digitalism. And it seems a bit foolish to assume that the Internet will not impact the conduct of elections in years to come. We know there is a generation out there now who is maturing having never known any way to communicate, find information, shop, or anything other than online. Their phones exist in an always-on society and they expect to be able to do everything they need to interact with their government online. Whether that’s a reasonable expectation I don’t think is the issue.
But I think it will be important for someone to figure out what’s possible in the future – we can’t run and hide from it, but I believe we’re no where near being able to securely and verifiably use the Net for elections. There is some very limited use in military and overseas settings, but it needs to be restricted to venues like that until the integrity issues can be ironed out.
So, we’re not supporters of widespread use of the Internet for voting and we don’t believe it will be viable in the near future on a widespread basis. And honestly, we have too much to do in just improving upon ballot casting and counting devices in a polling place setting to spend too many cycles thinking about how to do this across the Internet.