Constitution Review: John Brown’s Provisional Constitution

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave, but his provisional constitution is available online.

John Brown is best known for fighting to end American slavery. Born in 1800 and raised around abolitionists, ending slavery was a religious conviction for Brown, who came to believe that he was “an instrument of God” put on earth for this very purpose. From the 1820s on Brown was seriously involved in the Underground Railroad, but in the 1840s he became frustrated by their lack of progress, and formed his own, more militant version of the Underground Railroad, the Subterranean Pass Way. By 1856, Brown and his sons were out in Kansas, killing pro-slavery border ruffians as part of Bleeding Kansas.

This all culminated in a daring raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in 1859. Brown’s plan was to take the armory and use the captured weapons to arm former slaves, carrying out future raids deeper and deeper into the South, freeing and arming more slaves every time. The plan originally called for 4,500 men to lead the attack, but on the day of the raid, Brown found himself with only 21. He went ahead with the plan anyway. 

The raid went well at first, but eventually the US Marines showed up (under the command of Robert E. Lee, of all people!) and took back the armory. John Brown was captured, tried, and hanged. He became a martyr to the abolitionist cause, and in the Civil War a few years later, Union soldiers marched to the new song John Brown’s Body, which eventually mutated into such forms as the Battle Hymn of the Republic — or if you are a schoolchild, The Burning of the School.

But before his untimely end, he put together a provisional constitution. 

It’s not really clear what the provisional constitution was for. Even at the time, people weren’t sure what to make of it. Brown’s lawyer introduced the provisional constitution at his trial as evidence that Brown must be insane, calling the provisional constitution “ridiculous nonsense–a wild, chimerical production” that “could only be produced by men of unsound minds.” Naturally, Brown disagreed.

Some people have suggested that it was intended to be the constitution of a new anti-slavery state in the Appalachian Mountains, where West Virginia ended up being. But the provisional constitution itself makes it pretty clear that it is intended for, or at least open to admitting, all citizens of the United States. 

It might be a constitution for Brown’s new, more hardcore Underground Railroad, his Subterranean Pass Way. By some accounts it was written while Brown was a guest of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York (the two men had been uneasy friends for more than a decade). In May 1858 he met with Railroad leaders, including Harriet Tubman, in Chatham, Ontario, and it was there that he held a constitutional convention. But the provisional constitution describes the rules for a government, not a secret society. 

Most likely, the provisional constitution was meant as a stopgap solution to a major point of contention among abolitionists. Brown and other abolitionists were fervent, one might even say crazed patriots, and they loved America. But hating slavery and loving America had a problem, and that problem was the US Constitution. In the eyes of many abolitionists, at least, the US Constitution sanctioned slavery, and that was unacceptable.

Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took the most extreme position — he called the US Constitution “the most bloody and heaven-daring arrangement ever made by men for the continuance and protection of a system of the most atrocious villainy ever exhibited on earth” and promoted a philosophy sometimes called “no-governmentism”, which is about what it sounds like. This led to a schism in the abolitionist movement, between people who accepted the US Constitution mostly as it was, and people who thought it was a covenant with death. 

This may seem a little hysterical to modern ears, but it makes sense given what was going on at the time. In 1857, the Supreme Court made a decision in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, ruling quite explicitly that, because of the way the US Constitution was constructed, the descendents of slaves could not be US citizens. “A free negro of the African race,” reads the transcript, “whose ancestors were brought to this country and sold as slaves, is not a ‘citizen’ within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States. … The change in public opinion and feeling in relation to the African race, which has taken place since the adoption of the Constitution, cannot change its construction and meaning, and it must be construct and administered now according to its true meaning and intention when it was formed and adopted.” 

The majority opinion in the case said:  

The question is simply this: Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all of the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guarantied [sic] by that instrument to the citizen? … they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States.

The two dissenting justices made strong cases that this argument was ahistorical and not, in fact, in line with constitutional law. But coming on the heels of this decision, it’s easy to see why many abolitionists couldn’t get behind the US Constitution. 

So one possibility is that Brown got up his provisional constitution in an effort to bypass this schism, or because Garrison had convinced him that the US Constitution had to go. Garrison was firmly anti-violence, so the two men did not exactly see eye to eye; though Garrison sort of came around to Brown’s position in the end. And Thoreau wrote of Brown that, “I should say that he was an old-fashioned man in his respect for the Constitution, and his faith in the permanence of this Union.” The hope might have been that even if the abolitionists could not all agree on the US Constitution, they could agree on a provisional one in the meantime, and put off the decision of whether or not to replace the US Constitution until after slavery was defeated.  

(We think Thomas Jefferson would approve, he wanted the Constitution — and indeed, all laws — to automatically expire every 19 years.)

In any case, Brown’s provisional constitution gives us a glimpse into his thinking and what kind of political philosopher he was, so it’s worth taking a look. (Brown himself would like this — “I wish you would give that paper close attention,” he said of his provisional constitution during the questioning after his capture.)

Tip My Hat to the New Constitution

The provisional constitution is made up of a short preamble and 48 articles. The preamble starts by condemning slavery and ends in the second paragraph by declaring, “we, citizens of the United States, and the oppressed people who, by a recent decision of the Supreme Court, are declared to have no rights which the white man is bound to respect, together with all other people degraded by the laws thereof, do, for the time being, ordain and establish for ourselves the following Provisional Constitu­tion and Ordinances, the better to protect our persons, property, lives, and liberties, and to govern our actions.”

The first few articles concern the design for a system of government, with the expected executive, judicial, and legislative branches. Compared to the US federal government, though, it seems quite small. Only one chamber of Congress, and that composed only of “not less than five nor more than ten members.” A Supreme Court of only five justices, chosen by direct election to three-year terms, just like the President and Vice-President. 

Articles 13 to 15 provide brief and explicit instructions for how to try and impeach any member of government, including Supreme Court justices. Perhaps Brown was thinking of the Dred Scott case.

It’s easy to see how the provisional constitution could be construed as treasonous, since it does provide for an entirely new form of government. But John Brown eventually gets around to addressing this explicitly in the third-to-last article:


These articles not for the overthrow of government.

The foregoing articles shall not be construed so as in any way to encourage the overthrow of any State government, or of the general government of the United States, and look to no dissolution of the Union, but simply to amendment and repeal. And our flag shall be the same that our fathers fought under in the Revolution.

On the other hand, the provisional constitution does mention “the limits secured by this organization”, suggesting that the organization would be taking territory from someone. And the provisional constitution does seem written with warfare against slavery particularly in mind. Several articles are devoted to the organization, rules, and duties of the military, including what to do with prisoners and with “all money, plate, watches, or jewelry captured by honorable war­fare, found, taken, or confiscated, belonging to the enemy.” There are also these articles: 



All persons who may come forward, and shall voluntarily deliver up their slaves, and have their names registered on the books of the organization, shall, so long as they continue at peace, be entitled to the fullest protection of person and property, though not connected with this organization, and shall be treated as friends and not merely as persons neutral.



The persons and property of all non-slaveholders, who shall remain absolutely neutral, shall be respected so far as the circumstances can allow of it, but they shall not be entitled to any active protection.

At times, Brown gets a little bogged down in the weeds, especially on religious issues. He gets into it enough to devote several whole articles to forbidding behaviors which, we imagine, he must personally have had strong feelings about, the sorts of things not normally included in a constitution: 


Special duties.

It shall be the duty of Congress to provide for the instant removal of any civil officer or policeman, who becomes habitually intoxicated, or who is addicted to other immoral conduct, or to any neglect or unfaithfulness in the discharge of his official duties.


No needless waste.

The needless waste or destruction of any useful property or article by fire, throwing open of fences, fields, buildings, or needless killing of animals, or injury of either, shall not be tolerated at any time or place, but shall be promptly and properly punished.



Profane swearing, filthy conversation, indecent behavior, or indecent exposure of the person, or intoxication or quarreling, shall not be allowed or tolerated, neither unlawful intercourse of the sexes.


The marriage relation, schools, the Sabbath.

The marriage relation shall be at all times respected, and families kept together, as far as possible; and broken families encouraged to reunite, and intelligence offices established for that purpose. Schools and churches established, as soon as may be, for the purpose of reli­gious and other instructions; for the first day of the week, regarded as a day of rest, and appropriated to moral and religious instruction and improvement, relief of the suffering, instruction of the young and ignorant, and the encouragement of personal cleanliness; nor shall any persons be required on that day to perform ordinary manual labor, unless in extremely urgent cases.

That said, sometimes getting into the weeds on specific issues is all right. Section 41, on “crimes”, actually lists only one crime, but it’s a strong choice. The entire text of the Section 41 is: 

Persons convicted of the forcible violation of any female prisoner shall be put to death.

Brown’s reputation as a “.44 caliber abolitionist” seems pretty well-deserved in the light of the last few articles, where he encourages open carry for everyone, men and women alike:


Carry arms openly.

All persons known to be of good character and of sound mind and suitable age, who are connected with this organization, whether male or female, shall be encouraged to carry arms openly.

It’s especially interesting, though, that he stresses the open part of open carry. Concealed weapons were to be the exclusive domain of policemen, officers of the army, and… mail carriers:


No person to carry concealed weapons.

No person within the limits of the conquered territory, except regularly appointed policemen, express officers of the army, mail carriers, or other fully accredited messengers of the Congress, President, Vice President, members of the Supreme Court, or commissioned officers of the army-and those only under peculiar circumstances-shall be allowed at any time to carry concealed weapons; and any person not specially authorized so to do, who shall be found so doing, shall be deemed a suspicious person, and may at once be arrested by any officer, soldier, or citizen, without the formality of a complaint or warrant, and may at once be subjected to thorough search, and shall have his or her case thoroughly investigated, and be dealt with as circumstances on proof shall require.

On its own merits, the provisional constitution is not so radical, not even all that nutty. It provides for a normal state, with the normal branches of government, and most of the articles have to do with basic stuff like how people get elected and who is allowed to sign what treaties. The religious bent is a tad unusual, the violent abolition angle is pretty exciting/terrifying, but paragraph to paragraph it reads like any other constitution.

But in another way, the provisional constitution is affirming one of the deepest and most radical privileges inherent to being an American. Being an American entitles you to be an amateur political scientist, to speculate on strange new forms of government, and if needs be, to write your own damn constitution in defense of new forms of freedom, just like they did in 1776. 

Introducing The People’s Bill


In a recent speculative post about tricameral legislatures, we explored a couple different ways you could elect members of a legislative body. 

The clear winner was electing representatives by lottery, drawing them randomly from the pool of all adult citizens or all voters, for a fixed term (formally known as sortition). Since election is by random selection, as long as the chamber has enough members, it’s guaranteed to be largely representative in terms of gender, race, religion, age, profession, and so on. Representatives would be ordinary people, instead of career politicians.

Now, while it’s very fun to sit in our armchairs and speculate about political science, the truth is that we don’t have much influence on how the branches of government are organized. The United States will not be switching to a Tricameral system or electing representatives by sortition any time soon. Neither will any other country in the world, is our guess. Despite centuries of research on various voting systems, lots of countries are still using first-past-the-post voting. It’s hard to imagine this will be much different.

We don’t have the power to make this happen. But we do have the power to set up a website. 


So today we’d like to introduce a little idea we call The People’s Bill. Why do we trust politicians, lowest of the low, to write our laws for us? We’re Americans, by God. We can write our own laws.

The idea is pretty simple. We could set up a website, with a text form that anyone could edit, and the People could write whatever bill they want. 

If you’re concerned that only Americans should be able to write American laws, then we could limit editing privileges to IP addresses from within the US. But there are ways around this, of course, and why not take good ideas from the rest of the world? 

To keep it getting obscenely long, as bills often do, we would set up a character limit. As a red-blooded American I obviously want to set the limit to 1,776 characters, but that’s probably not long enough (by this parenthetical, this post has already passed 1,776 characters). Setting it up to be 100 tweets long would also be amusing, but that’s only 2,800 characters. But we notice that the Declaration of Independence is about 8,000 characters long, depending on version, so let’s go with that.

People would have a month to debate and draft as much as they want, within those limits. Then, at the end of every month, the bill would be finalized, and closed to editing. A permanent snapshot would be taken, and automatically emailed to all 100 senators and 435 representatives, with instructions that this is the Will of the People et cetera et cetera. 

If you have any experience with online assignments, you know that closing an assignment at midnight can get pretty crazy. To help prevent a furious final dash to make edits at 11:59 PM the night before, we wouldn’t take the final snapshot at midnight. Instead, we would randomly select a time on the day in question, keep that random deadline a secret, and take the final snapshot then. 

With this system, there’s no question what bills people want passed. Every member of Congress gets an email about it every month, containing a bill that the People wrote and that contains a curated list of what they want passed into law. It may not end up being the bill the country needs. But it’s hard to imagine it won’t end up being the bill we deserve.


You may be feeling skeptical that people can coordinate on the internet, let along coordinate to produce anything of value. But we think there’s reason to believe that this isn’t such a problem.

First of all, open-source software is an unqualified success. Linux was started by one Finn at the tender age of 21, and thanks to decades of collaborative writing from the community, now contains several million lines of code. Apache is free, open-source, and serves about 25% of all websites. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance your browser is one of these success stories — Firefox is fully open-source and the open-source Chromium project forms the base for both Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge. 

Of course, all of these had some kind of central leadership. Linus Torvalds coordinated the development of Linux at some level, even if he didn’t write all the code himself.

But people are perfectly capable of coordinating themselves, given the chance. Consider Reddit’s 2017 April Fools’ Day project, called Place. This project started with a canvas 1000 pixels wide by 1000 pixels tall, for a cool one million pixels total. For 72 hours, Reddit users could place a new pixel every 5-20 minutes, in any of sixteen different colors. Despite there being no top-down organization or authority, the redditors soon organized themselves and the canvas into stunning displays of coordination. The final canvas included dozens of national flags, logos, memes, a rainbow road, a Windows 95 taskbar, a recreation of the Mona Lisa (though she appears to be flipping us the bird), and a complete rendition of The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise, courtesy of r/prequelmemes. You can see the final canvas in all its maddening glory here, a timelapse of its evolution here, and the Wikipedia page for the project here.  

Of course, Wikipedia itself may be the greatest of all crowdsourced endeavors. It is the largest encyclopedia in the world, and probably the best. In high school, our teachers told us not to cite Wikipedia as a source, as it was too unreliable. Today, media giants like Facebook and YouTube use Wikipedia entries in the fight against fake news. All courtesy of any random yahoo with an internet connection. 

All right, so ordinary people can make open-source software, collaborate to create giant pixel-art renditions of copypastas and Renaissance masterpieces, and can even create the largest encyclopedia in all of history. Can ordinary people really write laws, though? Laws aren’t like pixel art, or even encyclopedia pages, right?

Indeed they’re not. First of all, making good pixel art is really hard, probably harder than writing laws. Second, history shows us that normal people can write perfectly good laws — you don’t need to be a lawyer or career politician. Why would you?

On our tricameralism post, one commenter mentioned Ezra Klein’s interview of Hélène Landemore (NYT,, a political scientist. We’ll have to resist quoting it at length here; seriously, give it a read or a listen. 

Particularly interesting were the stories she told about ordinary citizens writing laws for themselves. Here’s one:

Iceland decided to rewrite its constitution in 2010. And they decided to use a very innovative, inclusive, participatory method. They started with a national forum of 950 randomly-selected citizens that were tasked with coming up with the main values and ideas that they wanted to see entrenched in the new document.

And then they had an election to choose 25 constitution drafters, if you will, among a pool of nonprofessional politicians, because they had been convinced, after the 2008 crisis, that they were all corrupt. So by law, they were excluded from participating in this election. And those 25 decided to work with the larger public by publishing their drafts at regular intervals, putting them online and collecting some feedback through a crowdsourced sort of process. And then they put the resulting proposal to a nationwide referendum. Two-thirds of the voting population approved, and then parliament killed it and never turned it into a bill.


Will the People’s Bill fix our current political system? Honestly, we doubt it. Like the constitution drafters in Iceland, we fully expect Congress will kill the People’s Bill every time it comes around. Most months it will probably never get proposed; if it ever is proposed, most of the ideas in the bill will probably never make it into law. 

There are reasons to try this idea anyways. First of all, if Congress ignores the suggestions of the People, this will be another way of making it clear where their priorities lie (as if you needed any more convincing, but still).

Second, writing our own bill every month, even if it never becomes law, gets people involved in democracy. It’s a chance for people to discover they can write laws that are just as good as the laws written in Albany, Austin, Tallahassee, Denver, and Washington. Will the People’s Bill be messier than bills written by politicians? Yes, but it will also be more original, and more creative. Will the People’s Bill contain allusions to The Tragedy of Darth Plagueis The Wise? Almost certainly.  

Laws on the books are unclear and poorly written; perhaps at times intentionally so. If you have no experience writing laws yourself, you might be tempted to assume the problem is with you. But if you’ve written parts of the People’s Bill for three years running, maybe you’ll look at a piece of federal legislation and say, “You call this a law? My grandmother could write a better law than this!” And maybe you’d be right, because maybe she helps write the People’s Bill too. 

If we’re lucky, this new and well-deserved confidence will inspire more ordinary people to run for office, question the legal status quo, and so on. It lowers the barriers to entry, and encourages people to open their minds to new approaches to governance.

Third, it will help loosen the grip of the laws on our mind. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that laws were written by morons just like you and me, but it’s a whole other thing to actually be one of the morons writing the law. The US legal code wasn’t handed down on Mount Sinai. People wrote those laws, and sometimes they will be flawed, backwards, or just plain stupid. Americans used to have a much healthier disrespect for the law, and it’s time we brought that back.  

Fourth, and finally, there are a lot of great policy ideas out there, but as a country we tend to discuss the same few ideas over and over again — like an otter chasing its tail, only much less cute. The People’s Bill would be an opportunity to discuss great policy ideas that aren’t even on the radar right now. To discover good ideas that are considered normal in other places and times, but that aren’t on the docket here. Some of them will sound crazy, and some of them might even be crazy. But some ideas that sound crazy right now will end up being policy twenty years from now. Whatever else you might think of the idea, it seems like a safe bet that randos on the internet can beat United States Senators at coming up with out-of-the-box ideas.


We haven’t set up the website for The People’s Bill yet, because in the true democratic spirit of the project, we want to get suggestions about how to set it up; how the website should be structured, what software we should consider, and so on. Below are a few of our thoughts, but we’re sure you will have other suggestions, and we really want to hear your ideas.

A very straightforward option would be to set this up using MediaWiki. Wikis have talk pages, edit histories, and make it relatively simple to manage users and permissions. Every month we could set up a new page for that month’s bill, and lock the page at the end of the month. This would probably be the easiest way to set up the site.

However, a wiki wouldn’t allow people to draft different bills in parallel, and wouldn’t make it easy to compare different drafts of the same bill. There wouldn’t be any way to figure out which version of the bill has the most popular support — whoever edited the wiki most recently would always have the final say. So another option would be to use something like a forum. Different bills could be in different threads, and users could vote on which bills they like. At the end of the month, the top thread would be sent to Congress, and the rest would be locked, starting the cycle all over again. You could literally just use a subreddit for this, or you could build some kind of custom forum setup.

We could dream up more esoteric options too, though they would probably require more effort. You could link up Git to some kind of forum interface, allowing people to both vote on and branch bills as they saw fit, with all branches appearing as their own posts on the forum, complete with comments, vote tallies, and so on.

Some of these systems are more chaotic than others. A single wiki page, for example, would be sort of maddening. Anyone could wander in at any time and change the entire bill. Anyone could wander in at any time and revert the bill to a previous version. In contrast, a more forum-like approach might force the bill into reasonable sections and subsections, which could be clearly debated. This has obvious benefits, but this country already has a method for writing bills in the normal way — it’s called Congress.

We might even want to make The People’s Bill as chaotic as possible. Some months the bill might end up being the first 8,000 characters of the script of Bee Movie, but that’s a risk we’re willing to take. Just imagine Ted Cruz getting that bill in his email. 

Whatever we use, we want to make sure that it’s easily accessible. It should be easy to use and easy to join — we literally want your grandma to help draft these bills. Anyone with an internet connection should be able to join up, without too much trouble. So while esoteric systems might have some nice features, we have to balance that against wide engagement. It’s only democratic.

Thanks to Taylor Hadden and Casey Jamieson for giving feedback on a draft of this post. 

Tricameral Legislatures


In a recent post, we argued that the US Senate is actually a pretty liberal institution, even when it happens to be controlled by conservatives, because it helps safeguard minority opinions against the majority.

That said, there’s a lot to dislike about Congress. The big sticking point in our book is gridlock. If a bill is popular in the House and the Senate doesn’t like it, that bill is never making it to graduation. The same is true for a bill popular in the Senate that the House can’t stand. There are too many opportunities for individual officials to obstruct the process. If the Speaker of the House or the Senate Majority Leader decides to stomp on a bill that everyone else likes, there’s not much anyone can do about it.

Right now, every legislature in the world is either unicameral — a single group of legislators make all the laws — or bicameral — two groups or chambers of legislators each write and pass laws and then duke it out. 

Unicameral legislatures are pretty straightforward, but they have a number of drawbacks. There are many ways to elect legislators, but you’ll probably have reason to regret your decision, whatever you choose. If your legislators are all noblemen (as was once the case in countries like the UK) most of your population doesn’t have representation. If your legislators are elected proportionally, based on population (as is the case in the US House of Representatives), you end up with a populist system that makes it easy for the majority to abuse any minority. Regardless of how you determine who gets to be a legislator, if you only have one chamber, there’s always the chance that something will go wrong in that chamber, and they’ll pass some really stupid laws. 

Having two chambers mitigates these issues, especially when the chambers are elected in different ways. A populist chamber that tries to pass anti-minority laws can be blocked by a chamber that better represents minorities. A chamber of elites that tries to pass a discriminatory law can be blocked by a populist chamber. This system of checks and balances has obvious benefits compared to letting a single chamber run everything, and this is a large part of why many legislatures are bicameral. Unfortunately, this leads to political gridlock.


So why stop at two?

One chamber is tyranny. A second chamber introduces checks and balances, but leads to political gridlock. A third chamber can introduce further checks and balances, and break the deadlock to boot.

In the two-chamber system, a bill can be introduced by either chamber, but it needs the approval of both chambers to be sent to the executive branch to be signed into law. This creates a bottleneck. 

In a three-chamber system, we can relax that requirement. Any of the three chambers can propose a bill, and if they can get one of the other chambers to approve it, then it goes to the executive. If we have three chambers, A, B, and C, a law can be passed by A & B, B & C, or A & C working together. That way if one of the chambers is deadlocked on an issue, or one powerful legislator is trying to keep a bill from being passed, the other two chambers of congress can just work around it. 

Currently in the US government, a presidential veto can only be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in both the House and the Senate. In a three-chamber system, there could be more than one option. A veto could be overridden by a 2/3 majority vote in the two chambers that originally approved it, or by a simple majority vote in all three chambers.

You could extend these principles to a system with 5, 7, or even more chambers, but three is complicated enough.

This isn’t an entirely new idea — tricameralism has been tried a few times before. But the most recent major attempt was apertheid-era South Africa, so it seems like a fair bet that we can do better.


The main distinction between the three chambers would be in how they are elected.

Let’s imagine how this could play out in an ideal scenario. One of the chambers should have proportional representation, like in the US House of Representatives. We also think it’s a good idea for one of the chambers to have intentionally disproportionate representation, like the US Senate, though it doesn’t necessarily need to be by state. 

How should the third chamber be organized? We have some ideas.


As we argued in our earlier piece on the Senate, disproportionate representation can be good because it can protect minority groups from the whims of the majority. This doesn’t make all that much sense when the representation is by state — residents of North Dakota are not what we normally mean by “minority” — but maybe we can take this and run with it.  

When we talk about minorities, we usually mean ethnic or religious minorities. So one thing we could do is make a chamber where every ethnic group or every religious group gets equal representation. For example, in a religious legislature, there might be 10 seats for Christians, 10 seats for Muslims, 10 seats for Sikhs, 10 seats for atheists, and so on. This would mean that even if, for example, the majority of a country were atheists, religious minorities would still have a stake in writing the laws of the country. 

This may sound outlandish to Americans, but this is pretty much how Lebanon’s legislative branch is set up. As an extremely diverse country with a history of sectarian violence, Lebanon’s parliament was designed so that there will always be 64 Christian and 64 Muslim (plus Druze) representatives.

This approach protects minorities in a very structural way, which is great. There are a couple reasons to dislike this idea, however. First of all, the boundaries between different ethnic groups and different religions are pretty unclear. Do Catholics and Protestants count as “the same religion” for the purposes of allocating seats in this new chamber? How about Mormons? Do atheists and agnostics get separate representation? What if someone invents a new religion? How many representatives go to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster? Will the chamber be taken over by Satanists?

Second, building a legislative body around something like race or religion puts the power to decide these questions in the hands of the government. We like government pretty ok, but we don’t think it should be deciding which religions “count” as separate religions.

Third, we think that dividing people up this way supports ideas like racial essentialism, which are basically a form of racist pseudoscience.

Ultimately it seems that this is a system that might work in some places (including Lebanon), but is politically dicey overall.

Native Americans

If there’s one group in America that really deserves more representation, it’s Native Americans. 

This chamber would be really simple. There are 574 federally recognized tribal governments in the United States, and each government would get a seat, electing their representative however they wanted to. 

We do notice that 231 of these tribes are located in Alaska, however. Many of them seem to have populations of only a couple hundred people, which seems a little bit disproportionate even by the standards of disproportionate representation. Probably the thing to do would be to give each of the twelve Alaska Native Regional Corporations the same level of representation. 

Native American tribes are, at least nominally, sovereign nations, and maybe it sounds weird to give a sovereign government a say in writing our laws. Well…

Foreigner-Only Chamber

There’s an old joke that the President is mayor of the United States and Dictator of the World. The President has little more than advisory power at home, but can more or less rule the globe with an iron fist. This seems unfair. 

There’s another old joke about making Israel the 51st state, which is that they would object on the grounds that they’d only get 2 votes in the Senate. Good idea, why not.

America should take its role as a superpower more seriously. American laws influence the whole world, so maybe we should give the rest of the world some say in our laws. They already get ambassadors, so why not representatives. What’s more, America is home to millions of immigrants, who can’t vote and don’t get any representation.

In this chamber, each of the 195 or so countries of the world would send one representative, who would vote on laws just like any normal member of Congress. Naturally, the USA would get one representative in this chamber as well, and it would probably make sense to have that representative serve as the president of that chamber, as the Vice President does for the Senate.

This may seem like handing over the reins to foreign powers, but this chamber can’t pass any laws on its own. To pass a law, it would have to work with either the House or the Senate, so everything still has to be approved by an all-American body. And anyways, the President can still veto any law they want.

In addition, this chamber gives us a surprisingly strong carrot & stick for international relations. Any country would jump at the chance to have a say in setting American policy. Offering a seat, or threatening to take it away, is something that foreign powers would take seriously. If we threatened to kick Russia out, they would pay attention, and it’s interesting to think what North Korea might agree to if we hinted we might give them a seat in Congress. If this chamber existed today, I would say we should kick Myanmar out right away.

This system does seem like it might be a little hackable. After all, what’s to stop a country from breaking up into many smaller countries to get more votes? On reflection, however, if other world governments want to balkanize themselves to get more representatives, that’s ok with us, especially since plenty of regions already want to do this.

Age Bracket

A problem with most governments is that they are the tyranny of the old over the young. This is perverse because young people will live to see the full consequences of the laws passed today, while old people may not. Old men declare war, but it’s young men who have to fight and die. Again, this seems pretty unfair.

It’s true that (in the US) young people can vote and run for many offices once they turn 18 (though maybe it should be even younger). But it’s also true that the average age of congress is 58 years old, and about 40% of them are over 65. Only one member of congress is under 30, the 25-year-old Madison Cawthorn (R-NC), but he doesn’t seem particularly representative of his age bracket.

I’ve heard that taxation without representation is bad, and while we could in theory be doing better, the fact of the matter is Americans ages 18-29 have only one representative in the House and no representation at all in the Senate. 

In our third chamber, representation could be by age bracket. Decades seems like the natural breakdown here, so we might assign 10 seats to people in their 20’s, 10 seats to people in their 30’s, and so on. Representatives would be elected for 2-year terms, and the main qualification would be that you would need to be in the proper age bracket on election day. If I ran as a 29-year-old and won, I would serve out my term as a representative for 20-somethings. Once my term was up I could run for the same chamber, but because I would then be 31, I would have to run as a representative for 30-somethings.

It’s not clear how far we should take this — the elderly deserve representation too, but we probably don’t want to mandate a voting block of representatives in their 90’s. Because other chambers tend to skew old, maybe it would make sense to have a cutoff at retirement age. Let’s imagine we raise the retirement age to 70 (possibly a good idea on its own), and so the final bracket in this chamber would be 70+. If an 80-year old ran for a seat in this chamber, she would be running to represent everyone age 70 and up.

Legal scholar @tinybaby, proposes a similar system, saying, “each state should have an allocation of 100 years of age for their senators. you can send two 50 year olds but if you want dianne feinstein in the senate you gotta send a 13 year old too”. All we can say is that this is an even more creative solution.


With some of these systems, it’s hard to know how to slice and dice the population for representation. This is how we end up with things like gerrymandering, which no one likes except politicians.

A solution to this is to use metrics that are easy to measure and hard to fake. For example, we could have a chamber composed entirely of the 100 tallest people in the country. Wait, that’s just basketball players. Ok, why not the NBA (& WNBA) winning teams for that year? At least we’ll know that these representatives are good at something. 

People already complain about politicians spending too much time dunking on each other, and not enough time on policy. If this is going to happen anyways, let’s at least make the dunking literal.

Party-Breaking Chamber

America seems to have a problem passing laws, even when they’re laws that most Americans approve of. Most Americans support some form of single-payer healthcare. Two-thirds of Americans, including 55% of Republicans, support legalizing marijuana. 93% of Democrats and 82% of Republicans support background checks on firearm sales at gun shows. Support for expanded background checks is high even among members of the NRA. And of course, more than 80% of Americans want stimulus checks in response to the pandemic. Or you know, any kind of stimulus at all, please. Despite this, none of these policies have become law, and none of them seem to be coming any time soon.

One explanation for this standstill is the constant partisan bickering. According to this explanation, our representatives are too busy dunking on each other (see above) and scoring points for their parties to actually do their jobs. 

If this is the case, one solution would be a chamber that forces the two parties to work together.  This chamber would look a lot like the Senate — each state would elect and send two representatives. The twist is that every state would have to send both a Republican and a Democrat, so the chamber would always be 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans.

We’ll take another page out of Lebanon’s playbook here. In Lebanon, all elections are by universal suffrage, so a Christian candidate needs to court votes from Muslim voters in their district, and vice-versa. The same would happen for this chamber — representatives would be elected in a general election, not a primary, so they would benefit from getting votes from members of the other party. Like every state, Massachusetts would have to send one Republican, and the Republican they chose would undoubtedly be the one who best figured out how to appeal to liberal voters.

This precludes all the usual fights over who controls what branch of government, at least for this chamber. In this chamber, no party is ever in control — it’s always 50/50.

If the votes in this chamber were by simple majority, then because both parties have 50 seats, either party would be able to pass any law they wanted to. That’s not what we want, so in this chamber, laws can only be passed by a two-thirds majority. As a result, you literally cannot pass a law in this chamber unless it’s strongly supported by both parties.

No more fighting over the most controversial issues of the nation. Leave that to the House and the Senate. In this chamber, there’s no point trying to pass a law unless you think it has a chance at broad appeal — and the hope is, this would encourage them to aim for the policies that most Americans already want.


There are lots of humans in America, but there are even more animals. They deserve representation too, from the greatest moose to the lowliest grasshopper. They deserve some kind of… animal house. That’s the whole joke, sorry.


There’s another old problem with democracy, which is that you can only elect people who are running for office. These people are naturally power-hungry; you can tell because they’re running for office. Who would want to vote for that guy? As Douglas Adams put it: 

“The major problem — one of the major problems, for there are several — one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them. To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it. To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

The problem with elections is you’re electing someone who decided to run. They want power, and that means you can’t trust them.

There are also many people who we like and trust, but who wouldn’t want to run for Senate or wouldn’t do a good job if they did, people like (depending on your political views) Adam Savage, John Oliver, Oprah (or Oprah for men, Joe Rogan), Cory Doctorow, or Ursula K. Le Guin’s ghost. Not all of these people are living American citizens, but you get the idea. I don’t know if many of these people would make good legislators. I think most of them would even turn down the job. But there’s some political savvy there that we’re letting go to waste.

So let’s cut the Gordian knot on this one by combining these two issues into a solution. We want to find people who would be good at governing but who would never think of running, and we want to take advantage of the political savvy of people who wouldn’t make good legislators or wouldn’t even take the job in the first place. 

So what we do is we elect clever people as nominators, and let them nominate people they think would be good for the job. In this chamber, you can’t run for a position. What you can do is run to nominate people to this chamber. If you win, you get to nominate people for a few — let’s say three — positions. Assuming they accept the nomination, the people you choose serve out a normal term in congress. 

To keep this from being politics-as-usual, there would need to be some limits on who could run as a nominator and who could be nominated. The whole benefit of this system is to bring in genius from outside the normal political world, people who would normally be too humble to run. We can’t have this system filled up with career politicians, because the whole point is that constantly bringing in new people is a good way to flush out the swamp. 

To begin with, nominators can’t have been elected to any state or federal position. If they win, and nominate people to this chamber, they are barred from politics, and can’t run for any position or hold any office in the future. This keeps them from being consistent kingmakers.

Similarly, we want the members of this chamber to be intelligent outsiders, so nominees can’t have been previously elected to any federal position. We think state and lower elected positions might be all right, as this would be a good way to elevate someone gifted from local politics to the national stage. Unlike nominators, however, nominees should be able to run for office in the future. They can’t be nominated to this chamber again, but if they do a really great job and everyone agrees they’re a wonderful politician, it’s clear they would be able to do well in the the House or Senate, and they should be allowed to run for other offices.

This does sound a little strange, but many of our most important federal officials are already appointed. In fact, one of the main powers of the president is appointing officials like ambassadors, cabinet positions, federal judges, and many others. In some ways, the president is really just a super-nominator position. This chamber is simply taking the good idea of appointing officials, making it more democratic, and extending it to Congress.

Normal People

One of our favorite things about the idea of nomination is that it’s a way to get normal people, who can’t or wouldn’t run for office, involved in government directly. We liked this so much that it got us thinking about other ways you might be able to get normal people involved in government.

Originally we played around with different ideas about how to find normal people who could be elevated to office. A chamber composed of the most viral tiktokers that year? A chamber of the mods of the 20 subreddits with the most subscribers? A chamber of the best dolphin trainers? These are very democratic ideas, but we couldn’t find a way to make them work. All these ideas would be immediately captured by people seeking to gain office, which defeats the porpoise, and reddit would be in charge of our electoral security, which seems like a big ask. There’s also surprisingly strong circumstantial evidence that Ghislaine Maxwell was the moderator of several major subreddits, so maybe this isn’t such a great idea after all.

These people are more normal than Ted Cruz politicians, but reddit mods and twitch streamers are not exactly normal either. They’re regular people, but they’re not all that representative.

True Lottery

So instead, why not a chamber elected by lottery? In this chamber, representatives are randomly drawn from the population of all adult citizens, or maybe all registered voters.

Most of these people would have no experience in government. To account for this, each member of this chamber would be elected for terms of 6 years, but with the terms staggered, so that every two years only one-third of the members would be replaced by lottery. (This is exactly how the Senate does it.) This means that while every one of these representatives was randomly drawn from the population, at any given time one-third of them would have at least four years of experience, one-third of them would have at least two years of experience, and one-third of them would be incoming freshmen.

A member could theoretically be elected to this chamber more than once, but because election is by lottery, the chances of this happening are pretty damn slim (though given how weird the world is, it would probably still happen at some point). However, like the nomination idea above, these randomly-elected legislators might do such a good job that they would go on to be directly elected to other branches of government.

While you might be concerned about a chamber filled with randomly selected Americans, this chamber still can’t pass laws without the help of either the House or the Senate. It’s true their views will probably be more diverse than the views held in the House and the Senate, but you say that like it’s a bad thing. 

In some ways, this encompasses many of the other ideas we described above, and does a better job of it. A chamber elected by true lottery will not only be balanced in terms of demographics, it will actually be representative. The distribution of gender, age, race, education, religion, profession, and so on in this chamber will all be nearly identical to the United States in general. Gerrymandering literally can’t affect it, since it’s a random sample. It’s hard to imagine a better way of getting diverse voices in politics.

The US is currently paralyzed by partisan bickering, but most Americans are less partisan than their representatives are, and might be more interested in getting things done for the country than scoring points for their party. 

The US currently has a hard time passing laws that 70% of Americans approve of. Maybe a chamber of normal Americans would help these popular ideas finally become law.

It May Surprise You to Learn the Senate is a Beacon of Liberal Politics

The Senate gets a lot of grief these days. Vox wants you to know that the Senate is a much bigger problem than the Electoral College. GQ makes the case for abolishing the Senate. Someone at the New Yorker tries to answer the question “how broken is the Senate?“, but in our opinion spends far more time than is necessary comparing the senators to various zoo animals. We can accept that Senator John Thune bears a certain resemblance to a gazelle, but Senator Jim Bunning really doesn’t look anything like a “maddened grizzly”.

The basic argument against the Senate is that it’s undemocratic. Senators aren’t elected proportionally, and so some senators represent more people than others. If democracy is all about giving a voice to the people, it seems pretty perverse to give more of a voice to some people than to others. 

But it turns out that disproportionate representation isn’t just compatible with democracy, it’s one of the most important safeguards of a liberal society.

It’s not just that every person deserves a vote. Liberalism also says that every way of life deserves to exist, as long as it doesn’t infringe on someone else’s way of life (e.g. no cannibals). After all, America isn’t a melting pot, it’s more of a patchwork quilt. I’m not into Lutheranism, extreme body modification, or small yappy dogs, but I think that people who are into these things deserve to be able to live how they want and celebrate these aspects of their lifestyle.

The basic argument against Democracy is the old saying that democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner (no, it wasn’t Benjamin Franklin). With 1/3 of the vote, the sheep always gets eaten. In a country with 49 sheep and 51 wolves, as long as we have strict proportional representation, all the sheep still get eaten. If the vice president is a wolf, even a 50/50 split isn’t safe.

If the sheep all live in Sheepsylvania, however, they have a better chance to stand up for themselves. They may be outnumbered, but they still get two votes in the Senate. If they also have friends in Elkowa, Beavermont, and Llamassouri, that provides even more protection. It may not be enough to save them, but they will still do a lot better than they would with proportional representation. Disproportionate representation allows them to protect themselves even when they are enormously outnumbered.

States don’t correspond perfectly to different ways of life, and this is a fair criticism of the system. Disproportionate representation might work even better if we explicitly tied representation to specific minority groups. But states do have some correspondence to different ways of life. 

Most people these days think about disproportionate representation in terms of liberal versus conservative. But really, the differences in disproportionate representation today are urban versus rural. It happens to be that most rural states are also conservative, but population density comes with being a rural area, not from voting Republican. There are plenty of rural voters who are very liberal but still prefer to live in the woods. 

It’s not hard to imagine that urban voters — who are already more privileged in terms of wealth and education — might accidentally or even intentionally pass laws that would destroy a rural way of life for millions of people. For just one example, consider how decisions made in major cities can impact rural schooling. It’s important to have a political system that allows minorities to protect themselves.

Your state doesn’t even have to be all that rural to begin with. The Senate benefits the interests of pretty much anyone not living in California (11.9% of the population), Texas (8.7%), Florida (6.5%), or New York (5.8%). If you’re from Virginia, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, etc., and you don’t want California and Texas telling you how to live your life, then the Senate is acting in your favor.

We’d like to take this opportunity to remind you of Bernie Sanders. 

The state of Vermont has a very unusual but, we think, excellent way of life. Anarcho-socialist-libertarian-progressivism isn’t a way of life shared by most Americans, but it has a lot going for it. If representation were proportionate, we could maybe send Bernie, as an independent, to the house of representatives, where he would be just one voice among 435. But with disproportionate representation, we’ve sent Bernie to the US Senate, where we can punch above our weight. Bernie can work to protect our way of life, and he can help to bring our values (flannel, maple syrup, and Ben & Jerry’s) to the rest of the country. You’re welcome, America.

Film Concept: Gangsters, Thugs, and Local Government


People who are decently well-off usually don’t appreciate how thin the line between “organized crime” and “local government” can be for the very poor.

In the Great Depression, notorious mobster Al Capone organized soup kitchens in Chicago. More recently, Brazilian gangs, in response to government failure to take action against the pandemic, declared a unilateral quarantine order in Rio de Janeiro, saying “If the government won’t do the right thing, organized crime will”. In some parts of Japan, the yakuza really are the de facto local government, and in the wake of natural disasters like earthquakes, they’re often faster to provide aid than the Japanese government is.

When you’re poor, the sad truth is that the de jure government probably doesn’t care about you much. There probably aren’t a lot of legitimate jobs in your area; you can’t afford to move away; even if you’re very talented, someone with better connections or a fancier-sounding degree will probably beat you out when competing for the few good jobs available.

This is especially true for marginalized groups, in particular when they’re targeted by law enforcement. In a legal system like ours, there are so many pointless and mutually contradictory laws that everyone is guilty of something. If the police watch you for long enough, they will eventually find something that they can arrest you for. (Obviously it’s even worse if they’re willing to lie or plant evidence, but the point is that it can happen even without this.) 

Even if they only put you away for a few weeks, a criminal record will probably kill your chances of getting a legitimate job in the future. If you want to serve your community, or even just put food on the table, your only choice may be an illegal job. 

But “criminal” doesn’t mean “evil”. Modern governments criminalize lots of things they really shouldn’t. If I couldn’t get a legal job, I would be pretty happy selling weed. I don’t think weed should be illegal, and there would be plenty of satisfied customers, so I would be open to sticking my thumb in the government’s eye over this issue if I didn’t have any other option. A similar argument can be made for other drugs, prescription medications, etc. — even giving medical care without a license. If none of these work for you, then remember that during prohibition, the government criminalized alcohol. Ask yourself how guilty you would feel selling booze in the 1920’s, if you had no other job prospects.

Since criminal activity is often the only way for the very poor to make their way in the world, criminal organizations are often the only local institutions around. And because the official government doesn’t really care about these neighborhoods (they may even be actively antagonistic), criminal organizations often end up being the only thing protecting the poor.

The affluent have a hard time understanding all of this, and for many people, a reasoned argument can’t shake the scary image of the criminal or gang member as an uncultured, unreasoning thug.

The good news is that this is what art is for. Fiction can give us, even if only distantly, the sense of what life is like for people who are different from us.


So let’s imagine what a movie to flip this script would look like. Our hero is a young black man who grew up in a poor but respectable suburb of a major American city. He’s talented, but there aren’t many opportunities in his hometown. Like many young men with few options, he joins the Army. He’s quickly recognized as a crack shot and natural leader, gets recruited to the Green Berets, and receives multiple commendations. He also makes some very close friends. Once he returns to civilian life, one of his best friends from the Army runs for mayor, wins, and the protagonist spends the next few years helping his friend try to make things better in their city. He makes some money, starts dating a woman from a well-respected family, and begins thinking of settling down.

But when war is declared in the Middle East, his friend the mayor returns to military service to serve his country, and our hero joins him. They’re shipped overseas, and see a few years of intense combat. His friend the mayor goes missing in battle, presumed captured; our hero is injured and, after recuperating, is honorably discharged from service.

He’s sent home, only to find that things are worse than ever. The new mayor neglects social services in favor of pursuing a “tough on crime” agenda popular with the middle class. The police are encouraged to make lots of high-profile arrests, and they quickly grow fat on civil forfeiture. Constant harassment by the police leads anyone with the means to try to leave the poor parts of town. As money flows out of the neighborhood, so do most businesses, taking with them the last few legitimate jobs.

Soon, almost no one can make a living without turning to some kind of crime. Often this is only opening a hairdresser’s without a license, or running a restaurant in your living room, but the cops crack down on these businesses just the same — and legally, they’re in the right.

The first thing our hero sees when he gets home is the police arresting a kid who tried to steal food from a gas station. He steps in to try to help, but the cops pull their guns on him. With his Special Forces training, he’s able to disarm the cops, free the kid, and make his escape, all without hurting anyone. What he doesn’t know is that he’s made a powerful enemy. One of the cops he embarrassed was the new sheriff, a close ally of the corrupt mayor, who recognizes him. The sheriff puts out an APB, and soon our hero finds that cops are crawling all over the city looking for him, and no one will take him in.

He eventually finds shelter with a preacher at a local church, who has seen enough of police brutality. He had shut down the church and begun to turn to drinking, but seeing someone stand up to the cops and get away with it has given him new hope for the future. 

It’s not just the preacher who takes note. Our hero starts attracting followers. First it’s his young cousin, a flashy dresser and accomplished boxer, hot-headed but idealistic. Next it’s a real beast of a man, a former bouncer who’s out of work and goes by “Lil’ Jon” or something, who impresses our hero by first beating him in a fight, and then throwing him off a bridge and into the river. Soon, more than a dozen people are hanging out in the basement of the abandoned church. 

Our hero can’t get legal work — in the eyes of the law, he’s a wanted criminal, who assisted the escape of a thief, resisted arrest, and assaulted officers. For one reason or another, neither can any of his followers. Even if he turned himself in, now that he knows he personally embarrassed the sheriff, he’s not confident he would survive to make it to trial.

But just because he can’t get legal work doesn’t mean he can’t make a difference for his community. The cops have been stealing property, cars, even cash from anyone they want, so he decides to steal it back. Under cover of night, the new band of friends break into the impound lot and take as many cars as they can drive away, leaving the guards hogtied but otherwise unharmed. 

With this success under their belt, the group grows bolder. They find the location of a multi-millionaire CEO’s summer home up in the hills, break in, and take everything of value. Next they knock over an armored car on its way to a bank, taking everything and even recruiting the driver to join their cause. With so much money on hand, the preacher helps them launder it, distributing the money to those in need and making it appear to come from the church.

Their fame, or maybe infamy, grows. When the cops try to arrest people on trumped-up charges, our hero intervenes, and many of the people he saves (now considered criminals, whether they like it or not) decide to join him. His fiancée escapes from her controlling parents and finds him hiding in the urban jungle. When bounty hunters are sent to track him down, more often than not, they end up being convinced by his cause and joining him instead. Even some of the cops on the force throw away their badges and turn outlaw. The sheriff and the mayor stop calling him a “violent wanted criminal” and start calling him a “notorious gang leader”.

The rest of the movie is dedicated to all of the tricks they pull. They place a call on an anonymous tip line, “revealing” that the gang headquarters is in an abandoned mall. Half of the cop cars in the city converge on the mall, leaving the gang to heist a shipment of insulin, which they distribute for free to the needy. Our hero disguises himself and poses as a bounty hunter, joining the hunt for his own gang. He crashes a fundraiser at the mayor’s house and tells the rich what he really thinks of them. He gets captured and the rest of the gang has to break him out of jail. Eventually, his friend the mayor is released in a prisoner-of-war exchange, comes back, wins election once again, and pardons them all. The wicked mayor and the sheriff are exposed for their crimes and held accountable, and our hero finally marries his sweetheart. And of course, you’d call it Hood Robin.

(This idea isn’t even quite as out there as it sounds.)