We Have the Tools for a More Direct Democracy
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.
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.