Ever since the government shutdown I have been thinking long and hard about the very nature of government. Are we doomed to become slaves to an increasingly bureaucratic centralized state? The complexity of our society suggests to me that we cannot have no government at all. Although I consider myself a libertarian, I like well-maintained roads and since I live on a river and derive my water source from a well I value clean air and water. Does this mean that I have to give up my freedom to some bureaucrat hundreds or even thousands of miles away?
I have started reading up on the Swiss. One doesn’t hear much about them unless you are in the banking business or are a World War 2 historian, but the more I learn about their government, the more I like. The Swiss pride themselves on having a weak central government with most power residing at the local level. The Swiss also directly participate more in government than any other people. But as the Greeks discovered, direct democracy has limits when government becomes so large and complex that citizens would spend all their time managing the affairs of state and doing nothing else.
As an IT geek it’s easy for me to imagine a technical solution for this situation.
Software vote proxies.
Imagine: Each citizen fills out a questionnaire, quizzing him or her about their attitudes towards topics of the day. The survey would be amendable at any time, and surveys would expire every four years. These surveys would act to create a rules-based engine that would act on behalf of the citizen on existing legislation. Legislation could be proposed by the citizen at any time, and would have to garner support from other proxies before being considered by the entire group. Once reaching that threshold, the legislation would be put to all voters, and the proxies would vote on it based on the rules built from the questionnaire answered by the citizen it represents.
Legislation would have to be simplified. There would be no ““But we have to pass the [health care] bill so that you can find out what’s in it…” excuses from Nancy Pelosi. Legislation would have to be simplified and formatted in a way that would help the proxies act on it.
Algorithms already control 73% of trading volume in the US. This means that software is making the vast majority of the day-t0-day decisions that impact the health of your company and your 401k. One could argue – and many do – that computers already control Wall Street and therefore our economic lives, so why shouldn’t we trust them to manage our political lives? The difference is that each one of us would have our own algorithm – making split-second decisions in favor of us, not Goldman Sachs or a hedge fund.
Would there be problems? Of course, just as there are with using algorithms to manage our economic destiny. Yet these problems haven’t curbed their uses by banks and other financial firms. Additionally it will be much harder for lobbyists to influence policy. Instead of treating a congressman to an all-expenses paid “fact-finding” junket to Aruba, the firm would have to try to sway thousands, tens of thousands, or even millions. It wouldn’t be feasible for all but the largest interest groups to pull off.
Judicial oversight would remain, and perhaps judges could develop their own proxies eventually.
The biggest problem with this system isn’t technological or even political; it’s social. We have outsourced our political responsibilities to a ruling class, one that we believed was more intelligent and savvy than we are. The problem with this is that this class now acts in its own best interests and not in the interests of those who elected it. By doing away with this ruling class each citizen would have an increased responsibility to become more knowledgeable and aware of the world around him or her. That’s a lot to expect at a time when “sheeple” has entered the lexicon of public discourse to describe the supporters of one’s opponents, and when Americans are shown to be statistically as dumb as a box of blocks compared to the citizens of other nations. And it’s also ironic, I suppose to be discussing a software solution to a problem at the same time the government can’t design software to enroll people in health insurance.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. If Americans aren’t willing to pay attention to what’s happening around them in their communities, then we deserve to lose our freedom. Software vote proxies are the means to gain it back.