The Five-Tier Hierarchical Parliament
This essay is a thought experiment in political theory. From reading Plato’s Republic in high school to closely following both local US politics and world politics for the past decade, I have maintained an interest in political philosophy. How best to govern? Free from all actual historical restrictions, what would an ideal political body look like? These are topics taken up by countless philosophers of both the east and west. In the spirit of Plato, I have spent the past year or so thinking through a (novel to me at least) abstract and completely hypothetical system, and finally wanted to put it to words.
This hypothetical system is a bottom-up (or small-d democratic) system, as opposed to a top-down authoritarian system. Within the political memosphere, there has been an increasing sense in some circles that the bottom-up approach has failed, or is failing. This is seen in the rise of far-right ideology, neo-nazis, and even neo-monarchists. I believe that the bottom-up approach however is fundamentally more desirable, both from a perspective of preserving human freedom, but also from the perspective of efficient governance. This essay is an attempt to think through what a ground-up reworking of a democratic republic might look like for the 21st century on a global scale.
The two classic forms of bottom-up governance are democracies and republics. In a democracy (or more specifically a “direct democracy”) power is given directly to all citizens, and each citizen has an equal say in the process of legislating. As such, each citizen directly represents their interests through their presence in voting, drafting laws, etc. In a republic the capacity for governance is mediated by representatives (here referring to a “representative democracy,” or “democratic republic”). Citizens of a republican political body elect representatives who then pass laws on their behalf, acting in the best interests of their constituents. From these definitions, it would not be controversial to propose that a democracy is best suited to smaller political bodies, and republics to larger ones. The prototypical classical examples from antiquity of these being the Athenian democracy, at the smaller level of a city-state, and the Roman Republic (though not a democratic republic), at the larger level of an empire.
We find that in the 21st century almost all western countries utilize a form of democratic republic, most often in the form of a Parliament. While many would agree that this kind of system is preferable to a top-down system of governance such as a monarchy or oligarchy, it is not without its flaws. In many cases, despite being quasi-democratic, citizens do not have equal representation. This is especially true in the United States Senate for example, where there are orders of magnitude difference between the political influence of a citizen of California compared to a citizen of North Dakota. Furthermore, there is often a disconnect between the representative and the citizens that they represent. In almost all cases, citizens have not personally met their representatives, and likewise the representatives do not even know the names of the citizens they are meant to represent, let alone their actual interests. Letting all citizens vote directly on laws, as happens with referendums has its own issues, with laws often written in purposefully obfuscative ways in order to ensure the desired outcome.
This gets to the main issue with both forms of governance: they are meant to operate at scales to which they have long since no longer been appropriately applied to. For example, there were roughly 39 million US citizens in the 1870 census, whereas today there are that many people living in California alone. It seems that a system designed for one order of magnitude of individuals should not be expected to scale to completely different ones. The global population is approaching eight billion people, and is expected to reach ten billion within this century. The question becomes: how do we enable the principles of bottom-up governance for a world which will soon have so many people living in it? It is clear that neither a direct democracy, nor a single-level system of representation is appropriate. But what if we went back to the drawing board, and simply created a system with more than one level of representation? This is the idea at the core of this thought experiment.
A Five Tier Legislature
We can start with two facts of interest. The first is that the world population is projected to reach ten billion within the century. The second is that it is projected to plateau at this point, due to the influence of global industrialization on birth rates. This is of interest because ten billion can be represented as 100⁵. As such, the proposed system starts thusly: with the population of the world being divided into spatially local units of 100 persons. With individual citizens as the basic building block, these groups of 100 citizens then form the first collective unit at which legislative decision making and governance would take place. In more rural areas it would correspond to perhaps a neighborhood. In more dense urban areas it may correspond to the residence of a single apartment complex. The essential thing is shared local proximity, and thus a basis of shared interest and more importantly, a capacity for person-to-person engagement and deliberation.
Within each group of 100 local citizens, decision making would take place via a majority rule. The laws which the group passes would concern the shared interests of the group. At this level the impact of decisions might look something like that of a home-owners association, or of an apartment co-op. They would meet regularly, and each individual would have equal political authority. In addition to passing laws, the group would also participate in electing a representative. This representative would be elected based on majority rule, and serve a fixed term. Rather than representing their group at a state or national level though, these representations would form a second-tier legislature made up of representatives from the 100 most geographical local first-tier legislatures.
At this point, each representative from a first-tier legislature would represent their 100 constituents, and each second-tier legislature would collectively represent the interests of 10,000 individuals. This second-tier legislature would again democratically pass laws based on majority rule. At this level, the representation might be at the level of a small town, or of a district within a city. As at the lower level, this collective would also elect a representative to speak for them at the next tier. At this third tier, the same system of governance would apply, except this time the legislators represent a total of 1,000,000 individuals each, and correspond to cities or large rural areas. At the fourth tier there is then a parliament of 100 individuals, each representing the collective interests of 100,000,000 millions citizens each, corresponding roughly to the state/nation level. Finally, this legislature would elect a single symbolic and ceremonial representative of the entire population of the earth: 10,000,000,000.
Benefits of this System
What does all of this additional complexity get us that current single-tier systems of representation do not? I can see at least two primary advantages, both of which enable the best of the ideals of a democracy and a republic. The first is that by having the unit of legislative decision making be 100 individuals, any given person needs to know only 198 other people. These correspond to the 99 other individuals at their own tier, and if they are a representative, the 99 individuals whom they represent at the tier below them.
This number isn’t just preferable because it is smaller than the millions of individuals comprising today’s political bodies, it has a special psychological significance as well. There is a line of cognitive science research which suggests that we as humans are capable of maintaining between 100 and 250 stable relationships. This maximum number of relationships has been called Dunbar’s Number, named after the anthropologist who first coined the term. Even if you don’t fully buy the science behind it, it should be apparent to most adults that it is possible to not only know the names of 198 other people, but to know their faces, personalities, and beliefs to a considerable extent.
By limiting the number of individuals one needs to interact with in order to make meaningful political decisions to Dunbar’s Number, we can ensure that representatives have a chance to personally know all of their constituents. Likewise, individuals at the same level of a governing body have the capacity to all know one another’s beliefs and preferences. This allows for the preservation of the democratic ideal of small, local decision making based on interpersonal relationships. The system also has the benefit of greatly reducing the likelihood that individuals who grossly misrepresent themselves to the electorate such as George Santos ever gain power, since it is much more difficult to deceive people who know you and your behavior firsthand.
The second benefit captures the republican ideal. By utilizing multiple tiers of representation, there is an increase in vetting happening at each level. In order to become a third tier representative for example, one needs the majority support of individuals who themselves have been vetted at a lower level. This system then prevents the rise of populists and demagogues who typically gain power by appealing to lowest common denominator interests of the general public. This is essential both for the preservation of good governance, but also for the ability to limit the chances of democratically elected authoritarians, as has historically been the case with the fascists and nazis of the early 20th century being the clearest example. Importantly, by having equal representation and democratic elections at each level, this system still preserves the essence of a bottom-up system of governance.
The system I describe above is certainly not without its issues. While it is meant as a thought experiment (ala Plato), it is still worth considering what it might take for it to be actually realizable, and what obstacles would present themselves. The most obvious issue being that coordinating such a system among ten billion people would be nearly impossible. Even at the most basic level, keeping track of spatially local groups of one hundred individuals would be quite difficult in the modern era where people frequently travel, move, or work remotely. Where a person lives and for how long is increasingly fluid, and will likely only become more so as time passes and greater technological developments enable easier movement. Even if an undertaking were to take place to create this system, it would likely need to rely on a large bureaucracy (and potential surveillance state), which itself can become top-down in its influence on persons.
There are then the set of typical issues which besets any democratic republic. The first is the rise of political parties which tend to reduce the multiplicity of political perspectives into a binary. This can be somewhat overcome by replacing winner-take-all voting of representatives with a rank-choice voting system, or even a score-based voting system. Even this however would likely not be able to completely counterbalance the centralizing influence that parties have in any political system. A related issue is that of gerrymandering. Given that there are so many political units to be divided up, ensuring that the process is fair and neutral would be essential. There are algorithmic approaches to attempt to ensure neutrality, and it would be of interest to see this line of work developed further.
Finally there is the question which always arises when discussing any system of world governance: the preservation of cultural, ethnic, and linguistic identity. As the system is described above, political groups would be created according to strict powers of 100. It is highly unlikely that a specific geographically bound ethnic group would likely fit neatly into one of these groups. On the one hand, this might be seen as beneficial, since it could ensure that each political unit is more diverse. On the other hand, it could lead to a kind of gerrymandering, whereby disadvantaged groups are proportionally included in larger units to the extent that they are denied significant decision making power due to a lack of majority.
The system described above is ultimately no more than a rough outline. Even if it were to be implemented, there are various specific details which would need to be resolved, which in and of themselves can have a dramatic impact on the democratic nature of the entire system. The first consideration is the nature of term lengths and term limits. It seems to me that a reasonable heuristic is that term lengths should increase as one goes up the hierarchy. The thinking here is that with larger populations to legislate for, a longer-term perspective is more valuable. Given these longer terms however, it likewise seems valuable to limit the number of terms as one goes up the hierarchy in order to prevent the entrenchment of views and power. The rough numbers I have thought of are 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 year terms as one goes up the hierarchy, and 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 numbers of possible terms for an individual to hold the same position. As you can tell from the symmetry of these numbers, they are just rough heuristics, and are less essential to the core proposal of the system.
One consideration which is more essential however is the relationship between the described system, which essentially serves as the legislature, and the executive and judicial branches of government at each tier. Keeping with the republican spirit of the system, it seems appropriate that the legislature at each level of the hierarchy would appoint executives to administer that region based on the laws the legislature passes. As such, each assembly would serve as a kind of mini-Parliament. Likewise, these parliaments would appoint judges who would then decide cases based on those laws. The appointed officials may or may not be from the assembly at a given level.
Finally, citizens within this system would only be expected to fill at most two roles: assembly member and representative. As such, an individual who is a representative at tier three would only participate in the tier two and tier 3 parliaments, and give up voting authority at the base tier. This ensures that all participants in the system need only to consider the 198 other individuals. It also prevents individuals at higher levels from having their membership at those levels put into peril by the actions of those at significantly lower levels, thus ensuring that actions which are beneficial to the larger group cannot be undone simply because they are disagreeable to one’s neighbors.
Questions for Readers
So there you have it, an outline for a totally hypothetical system of global governance that combines the benefits of small-scale democracy with hierarchical republican representation. I decided to write this blog post not only to be able to make my ideas clear to myself in writing, but also to see what others think. Are there (additional) obvious pitfalls that I simply have not foreseen? Are there potential additional benefits which I likewise might have missed? Is there some change or addition which would make the system even better? I also recognize that being an American, despite my best efforts, my political perspective remains somewhat myopic and less global than I’d like. Additional perspectives from other parts of the world would be welcomed.
My academic training is also certainly not in politics or political theory. I am sure that aspects of the ideas proposed here have been discussed before (perhaps even quite extensively) by other theorists with much broader contexts. If you are aware of these lines of research, I’d be happy to learn more about them. These ideas also seem like the kind that a science fiction author may have used in the context of some future or alien civilization. I would be curious to know of any novels or short stories which play out such a system in a more realized way.
As I mentioned in the introduction, I believe strongly in bottom-up governance. Regardless of my own proposal (and all its political impossibilities), those on the side of bottom-up political systems can benefit from more out-of-the-box thinking. In the face of the rise of neo-reactionaries around the world, it is imperative for those who believe in small-d democracy to make the case for it, and put forth affirmative visions, even if they are as outlandish as this.