Review of Dan Larimer's Book More Equal Animals

in #book-review3 years ago

Dan Larimer recently released a new book titled, "More Equal Animals - The Subtle Art of True Democracy." This book primarily concerns the establishment of a true democracy, which is regarded as very different from the DINO (democracy in name only) that governs the US at present. Larimer draws on his experience with Bitshares, Steem, and EOS to argue that the incentive structures present in societal systems are deeply distorted and should be realigned. In general, More Equal Animals makes a pretty good case, though it does consider political outcomes as "logical inevitabilities" in a way that some might find reductive. Here's a quote illustrating that tendency:

"Our country didn’t consciously choose to be governed by the party primary processes any more than Bitcoin chose to centralize control in mining pools. The centralization of Bitcoin mining into pools is a logical inevitability given the game theory involved in Bitcoin’s incentive structures."

Comparing governance by a political party system with Bitcoin mining's centralization makes some sense, as both things are products of incentive structures within their respective systems. But it never would have occurred to me to make the comparison before reading this book. Fortunately, the bulk of the text is more accessible to laypersons and requires no mental gymnastics to make sense of. Nor is it laden with unfamiliar jargon beyond terms it clearly defines. In fact, I would say that More Equal Animals is about as approachable as it could be, given its complex, somewhat grandiose subject matter.

The Basics

There are five main ideas More Equal Animals considers:

  1. The Right of Secession
  2. Respecting the Rules of Relative Power
  3. Low Coupling and Strong Encapsulation
  4. The Political Playoff Process
  5. Title Transfer Theory of Contract

Each of these ideas is a Big Idea, warranting serious consideration. These ideas are also interdependent to a great extent, though all rely on the right of secession, which is the ability for any party to quit an agreement it does not want to participate in. This ability to quit an agreement is viewed as necessary to ensure contracts can only be entered into by consenting parties. In other words, the right of secession guarantees that cooperation happens voluntarily, rather than by coercion.

As I understand them, the rules of relative power form part of the basis for true democracy to happen at scale. Principles of low coupling and strong encapsulation form the other part of this basis. In line with these ideas, Larimer describes a corruption-resistant voting scheme that could be undertaken to choose political representation fairly. He envisions a US where taxes are only collected from individuals at the county level, though states could tax counties, and federal authorities could tax states. Such a scheme would have advantages, such as greatly simplifying the process of paying taxes for individuals.

Items of Particular Interest

More Equal Animals envisions a US where politicians are selected by a "a game of skill that optimizes for virtuous traits combined with randomized sortition to prevent stagnation." Chess is cited as an example of such a game. While a scheme like this could not possibly produce worse politicians than the current electoral process, this idea needs additional development before I would support it.

One idea in this book that I do strongly support is a basic income paid for by a 5% wealth tax. In presenting this idea, More Equal Animals made a point that I hadn't come across before, which seems relevant. Those holding serious capitol often earn well in excess of 5% just for owning their wealth. Would asking them for their first 5% in exchange for granting every member of society financial independence really be so burdensome?

The "Title Transfer Theory of Contract" presented in More Equal Animals makes about as much sense as anything I've seen. The basic idea is that promises are an extremely poor basis for contracts, in part because promises are often unenforceable. Instead, contracts should be fully collateralized with property titles, and should be written deterministically, like computer programs. The need for contracts to be fully collateralized is an overarching theme of this book, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, it makes fiscal sense. On the other, how would a poor person be able to enter into any contract ever with no collateral to put up?

Perhaps the weirdest idea I encountered in More Equal Animals is the notion that the criminal justice system should be run by insurance companies. Larimer makes a good case for this, pointing out that it would reign in overzealous prosecutors and eliminate the prosecution of victimless crimes. But I have an extremely low opinion of insurance companies and little confidence that they would run the criminal justice system more fairly than public servants do today.


Overall, I think More Equal Animals is worth reading for anyone interested in making the world a fairer and more sensible place. Larimer's experience with designing complex systems is evident throughout this work, as is his passion for empowering people with those systems. Importantly, all of the many ideas presented here work together nicely to paint a picture of what might be possible. I would love to see a work of fiction set in the world this book envisions.

This review was originally published on January 20 for Cryptowriter in association with Voice. It was written by me and I want it preserved here for posterity.


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