Deng Coy Miel, Singapore

Wiki Government

We Have the Tools for a More Direct Democracy

Friday, October 5, 2012
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What should democracy look like? There is no standard set of features that comprise a “democracy,” though literally thousands of years of debate regarding what constitutes true democracy lie behind us.

A recent effort to quantify and classify democracies and non-democracies is the The Economist magazine’s biennial Democracy Index. It’s worth perusing as there are some surprises. The United States is in tier one, a “full democracy,” but not at the top. The Scandinavian nations are perennial chart-toppers. The top four are Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden. The U.S. is 19th on the list, just below the UK and just above Costa Rica.

Tam Hunt

Iraq, a fledgling “democracy,” according to our mainstream media spin, is 112th on the list and is a “hybrid regime,” only four spots above the lowest category, “authoritarian regime.” Russia doesn’t even do that well and is categorized as an authoritarian regime, at 117, despite its trappings of democracy. China does even worse, at 141, with its one-party state. Saudi Arabia worse still, at 161, lacking even a pretense of democracy. North Korea bottoms the list at 167.

The Economist ranks countries based on five dimensions: electoral process and pluralism, functioning of government, political participation, political culture, and civil liberties. Clearly, these are not easily quantifiable and there is certainly room for debate on each dimension.

Anyway, this is just one effort among many ways to categorize democracy. This essay focuses on ways to improve even the best democracies, but also looks forward to the next few decades in terms of how even the worst countries may evolve eventually into a generally borderless and peaceful world.

We now have the tools, with the Internet, mobile computing, and many software platforms, to bring about more direct democracies in many ways – instead of the representative democracy or republic forms of government that have passed for the best type of democracy to date. The rise of “wiki government” – also known as e-democracy, wiki democracy, liquid democracy, and many other terms – is among other benefits an antidote to corruption. We can at this point in time transition to online voting for all elections, while ensuring maximum security as we do so. We can also expand the types of issues that we can vote on far beyond the traditional voting categories of voting on elected officials and, in states like California, initiatives, and occasional recalls.

Countries like Canada and Estonia are spearheading this trend. Over 80 municipalities in Canada allow some form of online voting. Estonia has allowed online voting in presidential elections since 2007. Online voting has already been shown to produce a dramatic increase in voter turnout and this is probably its major benefit, next perhaps only to the convenience of voting from one’s computer or smart phone.

More importantly, we can and should over time allow online voters to decide issues that are normally left to elected or unelected officials. By aggregating online votes, online voters could initially comprise an additional “seat” on a local planning commission or city council. Over time, all elected officials could be replaced with online voters. There will always be a need for expertise and experience, however, so I doubt that we’ll ever want to get rid of unelected staff at any level of government. But if we can vote directly and effectively on issues that are normally handled by elected officials why wouldn’t we want to do this? Representative democracy is so last century…

The benefits in terms of reducing corruption, as just one major issue with our present style of democracy, could be enormous. It’s widely acknowledged across the political spectrum that money is a terribly corrupting influence in our electoral system. “Pay to play” is a polite way of putting it. Most politicians spend large amounts of time raising money for their campaigns and the notion that money doesn’t come with strings attached is laughable.

There are other dimensions of wiki democracy. What about running local governments, and eventually state and national governments, as app platforms? Officials could put in place an online voting package that allows any Joe Blow to suggest improvements in how government does business, including suggesting or designing apps to make regular duties more efficient.

A couple examples: Design an app that allows trash pickup on any day you want to put your trash out. The app could allow customers to designate that they’re ready for pick up. Once critical mass is reached in a neighborhood (that is, it makes economic sense at that point) to do a sweep, the customer is pinged to put out the trash cans. This could work whether trash is picked up by your local government or a private company.

What about a volunteerism app that allows cities and counties to coordinate volunteers for regular beach cleanups in designated areas, neighborhood forums, or other volunteer activities?

What about Groupon for pharmaceuticals bought with Medicare or Medicaid payments?

You get the point: there are an infinite number of ideas that could dramatically improve how government operates. And creating a platform to allow this infinite ocean of ideas to be realized could be easily achieved by far-sighted governments.

The open source software movement has shown that there are legions of smart programmers who are not motivated by money. Linux, Ubuntu, Open Office, GIMP, and many other highly polished software packages are testament to this truth. Google, ESRI, the Rockefeller Foundation and others have joined forces to create Code for America, which is a non-profit platform for transforming local governments through software and similar innovative solutions. At the same time, there is no reason that for-profit companies couldn’t make this new software space their own and do very well.

Summing up, the key points of wiki democracy are 1) the increasing flow of information and the interconnectedness, in real-time, of people in various communities of choice and 2) the resulting ability to crowd-source government in ways that were never possible before.

Stephen Johnson, in his new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age, describes the people interested in the new technology-enabled libertarianism as “peer progressives.” I’m happy to be called a peer progressive and as a peer progressive I believe in maximum freedom for everyone (libertarianism) but also in using government, corporations, and increasingly “the crowd” to improve our world for all people (progressivism). Peer progressive are equally suspicious of government and corporate power and believe that it’s time to devolve these power centers more directly to the technology-enhanced masses.

What happens to traditional ideas of nation or community in this kind of super-empowered world? It’s pretty clear that not only are ideas and information becoming increasingly unfettered but so are people and goods. Free trade has downsides, to be sure, but the upsides generally outweigh the downsides. (“Fair trade” is free trade that includes environmental and labor protections.) And free movement of people has very few downsides. The European Union’s Schengen Agreement is a great example of how national borders are increasingly being reduced. Schengen, comprised of 26 nations and 400 million people, allows people from any of these countries to travel without a visa and often without even a passport.

Central America’s four-border Control Agreement (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) is another example of the increasingly borderless world. It also allows visa-less travel. Nationals from many other countries who travel to any of these four nations can also enter the area without a visa, as is the case with Schengen.

U.S. citizens may also travel to Canada or Mexico without visas.

We will likely see these kinds of agreements replicated in other parts of the world in coming years, as nations are increasingly joined through trade, travel, and cultural exchange. This is a good thing because increased interconnectedness is the best guarantee of peace. It’s funny but true that no two countries that both have a McDonald’s have fought a war. I’m no fan of McDonald’s but this is indeed a good endorsement.

Beyond the mere fact of visa-less and passport-less travel, what is truly exciting is the possibility of living wherever you want to live without concern for national borders. We are witnessing a growth in “communities of common interest” (COCI). Currently, many COCI are virtual. We can gain some companionship from online relationships, though they generally pale compared to the real deal. Many generations have experimented with the commune concept (read Voyages to Utopia for a great history), which are true COCI, but these efforts have generally failed, and sometimes spectacularly. Co-housing is a newer model, which combines the benefits of individual home ownership with the ability to enjoy a self-selected community and shared facilities.

In an increasingly borderless world, we will be able to not only travel more easily but we will eventually be able to live anywhere we want. We will then be able to enjoy physical COCI anywhere human imagination dares, with fewer of the downsides presented by the traditional commune model. Who wouldn’t want the ability to travel the world as whims strike? Or to live in Curitiba in a new COCI for a year or two? And then try out Stockholm, Tokyo, Malta, or Djibouti for a while?

Wiki democracy and a borderless and peaceful world don’t necessarily go together, but they do if we all work toward this possible future.

Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney and owner of Community Renewable Solutions LLC, a consulting and project development firm focused on community-scale renewable energy.


Independent Discussion Guidelines

Good article Tam. As I stated on another blog, totalitarian countries must really be getting nervous with the flow of information the Internet provides.

Bear in mind too that according to what I've read, Finland is the most Internet-active country on the planet.

billclausen (anonymous profile)
October 7, 2012 at 1:31 a.m. (Suggest removal)

I would like to see app voting on which of the 10000 federal tax deductions to eliminate. The primary objective is to simplify tax filing so we citizens can spend more time working or spending. Return power to the citizens instead of 550 congressmen in DC

passagerider (anonymous profile)
October 7, 2012 at 5:09 a.m. (Suggest removal)

A truly interesting article, yet wiki-government also brings up some horrifying possibilities.
You write that, "We can at this point in time transition to online voting for all elections," but many of us are not at all convinced of the security of these online transmissions. Chinese hackers recently penetrated White House security assume these internet elections would be absolutely secure, and I fear that is not the case.
You write "we can and should over time allow online voters to decide issues that are normally left to elected or unelected officials" — yet when we observe the abuse of the progressives' initiatives system (the Propositions, initiatives, issue of the day stuff) and how the voters have forced the elected legislature to deal with less and less money... I actually worry about this. Are voters qualified to judge on detailed scientific matters, Tam, on water rights and so on...?
You write as if "direct democracy" is some sort of panacea, and it isn't. In Ancient Athens, where they invented direct democracy, there are myriad examples of excess, tyranny of the (of the moment) majority, rash decisions, and it was essentially a military democracy feeding off its expanding empire...
I feel you are taking this "wisdom of crowds" things to an absurd level. You write admiringly of the "technologically enhanced masses" -- really? What about "technology" enhances the "masses"??
You wrote in summary, the good part is "1) the increasing flow of information and the interconnectedness, in real-time, of people in various communities of choice" -- those communities of choice will include (as they do now) violence nuts, racists, fascists and so on... the increasing flow of info which you seem to idealize...look, most of us can't deal with the exponentially enhanced increase of info pouring on our heads NOW, why should we reason better if the amount continues to increase and increase? The possibilities of demagoguery increase exponentially, too.
You praise "the resulting ability to crowd-source government in ways that were never possible before" -- back at the time of the Founding Fathers we can see how they feared unlimited mass democracy, look at the Electoral College and look at their early limitations on voting. Democracy is wonderful and I support it: the extreme extension you imagine would be terrible. The crowd-sourcing you write about really is a strange belief in the wisdom of crowds -- this could be termed herd psychology, and our founders would have rejected it.
Thanks for the stimulating essay, Tam.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 8, 2012 at 6:03 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Visa-less travel sounds nice, but it were actually implemented with the USA and other countries, it would almost surely be limited to first world countries. The third world would be left out completely to protect our entitlement systems.

Botany (anonymous profile)
October 8, 2012 at 6:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Dr. Dan, security issues are readily surmountable but always a threat, to be sure. Of all the experiments in online voting thus far only one has had major issues, a trial in Wash. D.C. that was hacked by outsiders due to an apparently pretty flawed security structure. Estonia's general election has been open for online voting since 2005 and they've had no security issues. In 2011, fully 25% of voters voted online.

You ask if voters are qualified to vote on detailed scientific matters and I would throw this back at you and ask if elected officials are qualified? In both cases, votes will be cast based on expert opinions and I have no reason to believe that the aggregate of online voting will be any worse than elected officials' voting. Why is it the wisdom of the markets (masses) is so readily accepted for financial matters but not for the equally important issues of democracy?

Regardless, in a wiki democracy where all or part of elected officials' responsibilities have been replaced with online voters' aggregate votes, it will still very likely be only 5-10% of eligible voters that vote on most issues. But this would be a dramatic improvement from the system we have today in which 1% of the population (or actually more like 0.01%) exert overwhelming influence through the impact of money in elections and influencing legislative and regulatory processes.

Far better to have a self-selected and transparent online "wikiterati" making decisions than the self-selected and entirely untransparent 0.01% making decisions, from my perspective. This response addresses your next two points it seems.

Last, in terms of what the Founding Fathers intended, I agree that they intended to create a republic, a system of electoral democracy where the masses would be given a very limited amount of power - and none at all if you weren't a landed male. But evidently our notions of democracy have evolved. We now believe (most of us at least) that every human being of a certain age should be able to vote and have some say in their destiny. Wiki democracy simply extends this ascent of freedom by allowing all of us to become progressively more autonomous and participants in our own governance - rather than trusting governance to the elected and unelected officials who have gotten us into the mess we're in now.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
October 9, 2012 at 12:28 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The problem with a democracy is an uninformed public voting on things that can change how we live. Our government was designed to be slow moving so rise to a power that will destroy freedom cannot happen. History has shown us that man will always try and take complete power for himself. Those eventually fail because the people rise and overtake or another country over takes. Our Founding Fathers, who were probably some of if not the smartest men who have ever walked, knew this and did their best to make sure we would never be subjects again, and Jefferson made sure we would be citizens and live like no other person has.

Muggy (anonymous profile)
October 9, 2012 at 12:57 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Muggy, a key point of my piece and the subtext here is that we are now living in a system that is far from democratic and is arguably more of a plutocracy than a democracy. Both sides of the aisle agree that money has way too much influence in politics and corruption is widespread and covert, and occasionally overt. The wiki democracy solution is to devolve power to the people directly - as much as is possible. And "as much as is possible" is far more than used to be possible due to the tools we now have available. I highly recommend the book The Future of Progress, which I discuss above briefly.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
October 9, 2012 at 3:53 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sorry, the book is called "Future Perfect," not The Future of Progress

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
October 9, 2012 at 4:34 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Muggy, amazing, we agree on something here, sort of...
Tam, you smoothly comment, "security issues are readily surmountable but always a threat" -- we are talking about our government here and you need to supply much more chapter and verse to bulwark your "readily surmountable" -- many disagree strongly and you offer zero specifics. I believe that a few years ago the State of Calif. strongly rejected online voting on the grounds they couldn't GUARANTEE security. And why would Estonia have major hacking problems? I don't imagine China would want to crack Estonia's system??
Just because we're all sick of these jokesters we have as legislators, your logic is flawed when you throw it back at me by asking, whether "elected officials are qualified?" No, likely not, but that's no reason to think pure direct democracy voters would be any better.
You also offer no support for your idea that DIRECT democracy is superior; it isn't.
Finally, you do not address your interesting and wholly unsubstantiated faith in the "wikiterati" or why you have such an idealistic view of the wisdom of crowds? You sound like Raymond Kurzweil.
When I vote it is important for me to walk to the neighboring voting place (a local church), stand outside and mix with my neighbors, enjoy my Westside neighborhood, and live out some of my precious freedoms face to face and in a 3-dimensional way.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 10, 2012 at 2:53 a.m. (Suggest removal)

DrDan, if we do $billions of online commerce each year and figure out the security risks we can do wiki democracy. I'm not a security expert so I can't give you specifics - not my department. I agree it is the biggest issue facing online voting, but it's being done many places in the world now and the record is quite good. Also, wiki democracy, when it starts to spread in the US, will start at the local level and security issues will be minimal. As we learned from experience at the local level, we can move to the state level and eventually the federal level.

As for online voters doing any better than making decisions re complex issues, even if online voters are "no better" (who decides what is better?) than elected officials, I'd be very happy with the switch to direct democracy because rather than having elected officials being elected through the impact of private and union money, controlled by a very few individuals, we would have far more widespread sharing of power - aka a far better democracy.

Re my faith in the wikiterati, it's a similar defense: I believe in freedom/autonomy as an axiomatic value. Conservatives and liberals should be able to agree on this but strangely by far the most criticism I get from my ideas on wiki democracy come from conservatives who almost uniformly state (to paraphrase): crowds are too dumb to rule themselves. I'm not sure how that meshes with freedom as an axiomatic value but I have confidence these views will change over time.

Last, I agree with you that mixing with fellow voters is an important aspect of our democracy. Unfortunately, we've already lost most of that because voters are increasingly voting by mail already, or voting early, and online voting is simply an extension of this new convenience. I think the convenience and the dramatic increase in voter turnout we've already witnessed from online voting (25% seems to be a common figure) outweigh any loss of mingling among voters. We have many venues to mix and talk about civic ideas, in person and online. My feeling is that if we do transition to an online voting wiki democracy in the coming years and decades we'll eventually arrive at a place where 10-20% of the voters are highly active in governance, and the rest observe from afar or simply ignore it. And this is a major improvement over today's system where a tiny minority wields inordinate influence over our government at every level.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2012 at 9:34 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Tam - Yes, I do agree that money plays a huge factor but wouldn't that be ruled out if politicians weren't paid and instead maybe only provided room and board? This was never meant to be a career job the way it is now. As for your democracy comment, democracies do not work. Uninformed people voting on policies they know nothing about and allowing masses of people to vote for something that can cause great damage to fellow citizens. Allowing everyone to vote for things because they want equal shares of what others have created will destroy this country especially when you have a leader who professes love for taking from rich and giving to the poor or middle class because it's "fair".

DrDan - for ONCE we sort of agree. That's a step!

Muggy (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2012 at 11:14 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Muggy, I guess we can safely agree to disagree and part ways. If you don't agree that freedom is axiomatic - and that democracy is a substantial and necessary part of freedom - then we don't have much to discuss.

TamHunt (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2012 at 12:30 p.m. (Suggest removal)

If I thought so-called "e-democracy" would reduce corruption it would be huge...but I am not convinced.
You haven't addressed why you have such faith in the "wisdom of crowds"...? You wondered, "Why is it the wisdom of the markets (masses) is so readily accepted for financial matters but not for the equally important issues of democracy?" But more and more of us deeply question "the wisdom of markets" -- you certainly (?) can't be a free market fundamentalist, and the markets are decidedly NOT wise [read L. Kahneman's FAST THINKING, SLOW THINKING on this], therefore your comparison doesn't work for me at all.
Direct democracy in ancient Athens, as I pointed out and you did not respond to, was a mess and did not last long; Aristotle hated it. Munn's THE SCHOOL OF ATHENS shows it was a military democracy dedicated to getting as much $ out of the colonies as possible: not pretty, not wise, not what we need at all.
Unlike Muggy, I AM for democracy, but the lowest common denominator approach I hear from you seems fraught with problems. Better to focus very strongly on improving our current public education system (vote for Prop 30!).
You wrote, "Wiki democracy simply extends this ascent of freedom by allowing all of us to become progressively more autonomous." Why would wiki democracy allow us to become more autonomous? "Autonomy" is a very hot word in philosophy and is liable to many an interpretation. Your statement doesn't follow, but I see your faith in it and it is good.
Thanks again for the provocative idea, Tam.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2012 at 2:51 p.m. (Suggest removal)

The Bill of Rights, gay rights, government-sanctioned torture -- I don't think that giving the crowd the "freedom" to decide on these and similar matters outweighs the risk to the freedom of those who might stand outside the crowd. Or are there things the crowd should have no right to decide, and if so, who decides what the crowd can or can't decide?

pk (anonymous profile)
October 12, 2012 at 6:12 p.m. (Suggest removal)

And how would the majority vote of people with access to computers deal with the complex balancing act required to work out a multi-trillion dollar government budget or the delicate and competing security interests that go into a nation's foreign policy?

pk (anonymous profile)
October 12, 2012 at 6:33 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"security issues are readily surmountable" could only be said by someone with no clue as to what is involved. The merit of an idea does not guarantee that it can be implemented. Not to mention that a "secure" internet, by which I mean fully reliable user identification and complete elimination of identify theft, does not guarantee that users will post only what is true.

And here's another thought: fully reliable user identification and using the internet as a voting means together comprise the full equivalent of voter identification. I am fully in support of voter identification - are you?

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
October 13, 2012 at 6:17 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Sec'y of Defense Leon Panetta stated yesterday that the threat of cyber-attack from numerous outside hackers [in Russia, China, India, plenty of other places] is severe and real, begging Congress to tighten up certain internet regulations. Whatever about that, if cyber security is this fragile on defense matters and other critical areas, why would we really be able to GUARANTEE the so-called wiki-election's results are genuine?
Hey, paper isn't always evil! And if under lock and key, public officials can count and recount them, just like Steve Pappas made us do recently.

DrDan (anonymous profile)
October 14, 2012 at 6:20 a.m. (Suggest removal)

As interesting as the article for extremely poor world historians, the part about no boarders and sharing all your stuff and talent without reciprocity and that out of 196 countries in the world, McDonalds has yet to help bring world peace; they have 80 to go, they are in 119 countries and none of them have been at war since their first international venture is a simpletons view; read between the lines, since they got a McDonalds.

Let’s start by taking down all the barbed wire across America and all the neighborhood fences. So since 1967 no country with a McDonalds has gone to war against each other. What about the wars in counties that we have veterans from that now that have gotten a McDonalds since? For that matter, all the other countries that have changed names, that went to war and the got a McDonalds latter?

Forget the War for Independence, WWI, WWII and don’t be afraid of the countries that do not separated religion from politics at all.

jw (anonymous profile)
October 14, 2012 at 4:20 p.m. (Suggest removal)

European Monarchy fell when new transportation and the industrial revolulution created a middle class.

We needed representitives in Government before the internet because we couldn't represent ourselves.

Now we have instant communication, so the idea that we need representation or online voting for representation is unnecessary.

Eventually people will vote on issues for themselves and represent themselves via the internet. Until we get there, we will be using an outdated mode of governance that will continue to hinder human progress.

With each person representing themselves we won't be captive to ignorant people who make bad decisions. We would never have gone into Iraq if the people had been able to vote on the issue. Special interests would have to bribe a majority of the public to get their way, whereas now it's realitively inexpensive to bribe a few cheap politicians.

Georgy (anonymous profile)
October 16, 2012 at 3:40 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"if you want to despair for democracy, spend 15 minutes talking to the average voter" - Winston Churchill.

We have a constitutionsl republic instead of a democracy because the average voter can't or won't understand the issues and vote intelligently.

JohnLocke (anonymous profile)
October 17, 2012 at 8:43 a.m. (Suggest removal)

There are voters who don't know Biden is VP!

Ken_Volok (anonymous profile)
October 17, 2012 at 9:56 a.m. (Suggest removal)

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