X-Message-Number: 22861
From: "Aschwin de Wolf" <>
Subject: Max More on Democracy and Transhumanism
Date: Mon, 17 Nov 2003 11:38:34 -0500

Democracy and Transhumanism


By Max More

Are transhumanists democrats? Should they be committed to and defined by

Let's go back to the seventeenth century. Monarchy is the prevailing system
in the Western world. Suppose a group of progressive early humanists wanted
to associate their views about the status of human beings - views radical
for the time - with the best political orders of the time. They might
declare that "modern 17th Century humanism is a constitutional monarchist
philosophy". Such a statement would show that they reject outdated forms of
unlimited monarchy or theocracy.

We would find such a quickly-dated commitment amusing today. "What does
humanism have to do, in essence, with constitutional monarchy?" we might
ask. Humanism asserts the value of progress. Tying it to the political
system of the time - even though the system was the best of the time - would
confuse ends (human dignity, personal sovereignty, and so on) with a means.

Transhumanist organizations that declare themselves to be "democratic
transhumanists" make an even bigger mistake. Transhumanist perspectives look
further ahead, into much more drastic change to the human condition. To
identify transhumanism with any current political system must appear
short-sighted and blinkered to some. To others it may simply appear to be a
transparent attempt at posturing - like telling Americans that transhumanism
is all about "motherhood and apple pie" or telling Europeans that
transhumanism is committed to universal, government-provided health care.

A transhumanist organization should no more describe its core commitments as
"democratic" than it should describe itself as an "Internet organization"
when in practice and in aspiration the organization interacts by means of
any effective medium of communication.

What Does Democracy Mean and Why Value It?

In the broad sense, democracy means "rule of the people, by the people, for
the people".

In a second sense, democracy is used to mean an (almost) universal right to
vote on issues and/or representatives. Sometimes direct democracy is seen as
"more democratic" than representative democracy.

In a third, very common sense, democracy is taken to refer to some
combination of the voting procedures (as in the second sense) and the
particular political and legal procedures of the speaker's country. In the
case of the USA, those procedures are mainly constitutional protections of
individual freedoms embodied in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. In
the case of Great Britain, arguably such a constitutionally-limited republic
exists in a largely unwritten form (the Magna Carta being the main written

How well do any of these meanings relate to the philosophies of
transhumanism? The first and broadest sense of "democracy" is intended to
eliminate in principle the rule of "the people" by an oligarch. In practice,
many of the actual people do not get to vote (prisoners, tax-paying
permanent residents who are not citizens). Those that do may not possess
sufficient knowledge or motivation to vote. Those who do vote may not enjoy
any choices of candidate, position, or package of policies that represents
their preferences. The complicated working of real democracies - and the
vast involvement of government in commercial activities - means that a small
percentage of the people actually wields most of the influence.

The second sense has only a tenuous connection to transhumanist values of
self-determination, self-transformation, and progress. An unlimited
democracy can be tyrannize large segments of the population. It should be
remembered that Adolph Hitler was democratically elected. Universal suffrage
has little to do with freedom or other values dear to transhumanists,
especially when voting costs nothing to the voter and requires no knowledge.
As the great English jurist, Lord Acton said:

"It is bad to be oppressed by a minority, but it is worse to be oppressed by
a majority. For there is a reserve of latent power in the masses which, if
it is called into play, the minority can seldom resist. But from the
absolute will of an entire people there is no appeal, no redemption, no

Only in some instances of the third sense of the term do we find a firmer
relation to transhumanism. A constitutionally-limited republic that succeeds
in protecting liberty and responsibility upholds a legal order with two
essential features:

First, its public officials are responsible in that their official actions
are open to public scrutiny and unrestricted criticism, and their official
tenure may be terminated by those governed by manageable procedures such as
popular election or the vote of a legislative majority.

Second, its criminal law is limited to prohibiting matters of fraud, theft,
and assault. The law and public policy enhances rather than reduces the
freedom of the people.

The value of democracy in its constitutionally-limited sense lies in its
attempt to recognize the sovereignty of the individual - legitimate
government requires the consent of the governed - and in its intent to limit
the opportunities for abuse of centralized authority. Democracy is or should
be a method for running government with the aim of creating and enforcing a
system of laws that protect the liberty of citizens. Democratic arrangements
are purely a means to achieving the end of protecting individual liberty. A
benevolent despot might achieve the same end - perhaps even more effectively
and at less inconvenience - without democratic procedures. It would be
dogmatic to insist that democracy is the only way or the best way for all
societies in all places at all times to protect their individual

As Richard Taylor put it in his book, Freedom, Anarchy, and the Law:
"Democratic forms and procedures are not, as they are widely thought to be,
precious in themselves and hence an appropriate goal for every nation. On
the contrary, when established on a foundation of ignorance and illiteracy
they can be deeply pernicious. Such democratic forms are to be desired only
where they offer promise. of fostering liberty through, among other things,
the generation of criminal law according to the principle of liberty.
Otherwise they are mere forms, subject to every abuse, and no blessing to
their people at all. It is the ends or purposes of a legal order that are
important, not its form. Hence the criticism of any government that it is
undemocratic in form is by itself of little weight or significance".

It is not my purpose to set out a comprehensive framework for democratic
arrangements friendly to transhumanist goals and ideals. In terms of the
desirable purposes of democracy, then, I will simply note that we *might*
grant extensions of democratic government beyond clear and strict adherence
to the principle of liberty for only one other general purpose: Securing the
benefits from large-scale organization that cannot (at any specific period
in history) be secured without legal compulsion.

It is all too easy to abuse the power of government (special interests,
deception, corruption, hidden costs, thirst for power). Any step beyond
protection of liberty and toward promoting "the common good" is fraught with
danger. Making democracy *too* easy - direct issue voting, very frequent
elections - may only make abuses more frequent. Putting governors on the
system of power - constitutional limits to government, supermajority
requirements, and so on - limit "government by the people" in one sense
while protecting them from excessive "government of the people".

Can't We Do Better?

Transhumanists of all stripes agree in their commitment to continual and
fundamental improvements in the human condition. Those who identity
transhumanism with democracy do a disservice by tying us down to a
historically transient arrangement. Winston Churchill famously commented
that "democracy is the worst form of government except for all the other
forms that have been tried". Churchill's words expressed a healthy critical
rationalism - an attitude crucial to extropic transhumanism - in that they
emphasize that democratic arrangements have no intrinsic value; they have
value only to the extent that they enable us to achieve shared goals while
protecting our freedom. Surely, as we strive to transcend the biological
limitations of human nature, we can also improve upon monkey politics?

Consider a few of the shortcomings of existing forms of democracy:

Indirect/representative democracy introduces numerous openings for special

Corruption, and lack of fidelity in translating the values of citizens into

Citizens choose their representatives only every few years, and they must
choose from a severely limited range of options, none of which may represent
their views fully or accurately. We get to say "yes" or "no" to heavily
compound questions.

Government activities, once funded, are tremendously difficult to curtail
terminate. The logic of government is to grow.

No effective mechanism to discourage voting for undesirable, unworkable,
damaging, liberty-reducing projects and actions.

Benefits of government action are concentrated while costs are distributed,
creating an inherent tendency to expand government action while making
everyone worse off overall.

Even without trying to alter the main framework of this flawed system, it's
not hard to find suggestions for improving on democracy. Here are a some
possible (not necessarily recommended) solutions:

Return to closer adherence to constitutional limits to government - special
procedures or supermajorities required to expand powers, e.g. USA's Bill of

Fuzzy tax form - increases citizen choice in the use of their earnings.

IFMs (for an excellent speculation about future use of IFMs, see Marc
Steigler's novel Earthweb).

Sunset laws used more extensively - keeps a lid on the number of laws and
requires them to
be reaffirmed periodically.

Automated law enforcement.

Of course, transhumanists have envisioned more radical advances over our
existing political system.

Whatever any of us think about specific proposals, the point is to refrain
from shortsighted posturing as "democratic transhumanists".

Some related thoughts, regarding the connection between the popular
democratic sport of demanding rights of all kinds, and conditions conducive
to liberty over the long haul.:

"Liberty and Responsibility: Inseparable Ideals"

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