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Most of my ideas are half-baked. This one is barely warm. But it’s fun to think about, so I thought I’d share.
Today’s thought experiment is to imagine a form of government with no employees, no elected officials, and no leaders. Imagine there are no government-owned buildings or other physical government assets either. This imaginary government exists only as software running on servers spread across multiple commercial sites, plus a bill of rights based on the American model. I’ll add one extra right: The right to affordable high-speed Internet access.
Society would agree on only three rules:
1. New laws require a 51% majority.
2. Changes to existing laws require a 67% majority (for stability).
3. Votes are weighted based on test results.
That last rule means that voters must take an online test on any topic on the ballot before voting for it. A citizen’s vote would be reduced in weight according to test scores. So if you scored only 50% on a test about the national budget, your vote on budget topics would be counted as one-half.
Your first reaction to the idea of a software based government is that it would leave too many essential services unattended. You’d have rampant crime, no one picking up trash, no business rules, no environmental standards, no schools, and so on. It would be chaos.
Or would it?
Nothing has ever surprised me more than the success of Wikipedia. Before Wikipedia, how many of us would have guessed that a crowd-maintained online encyclopedia would become a global treasure? Every instinct in my body says Wikipedia should have devolved into uselessness. I would have expected pranksters to spoil Wikipedia with false information, and I would have expected knowledgeable citizens to have better things to do with their time than donate it. I would have been very wrong.
The Wikipedia model makes me think a software-based government isn’t 100% crazy. But for this system to work, one particular global trend needs to continue along its current path: Our desire for privacy has to keep shrinking. In the imaginary government-by-software, every citizen would have legal access to anyone else’s medical, financial, employment, education or any other data. We’re already seeing a rapid and voluntary disintegration of privacy. The only reason privacy exists at all is because it is often better than the alternatives. But once the alternatives to privacy become clearly superior, future generations will make rational choices to release on it. In general, every time we give up a little privacy we gain in other ways. When the benefits are large enough, privacy will seem a quaint relic from the past.
Once the public releases on its demand for privacy, crime will disappear fairly quickly. Private entities will have security cameras with facial recognition on every corner. The Internet will track the location of every automobile and every cell phone. In this future, cash will be banned in favor of electronic transactions, so the world will also know where you are by your purchases. And I wouldn’t be surprised if someday we’re all wearing location chips.
Ninety-nine percent of crime depends on being undetected long enough to escape. If you eliminate the possibility of being undetected, you eliminate most crime, and you eliminate the need for a police department. Don’t worry that the bad guys have guns because everyone else will have one too. The bad guys will always be outgunned fifty-to-one. If someone tries to become a war lord, society can cancel their credit cards and starve them into compliance. With no privacy, no gun laws, and no untraceable cash, a life of crime will be a short one.
Ideally, an information-only government will be so healthy for the economy that potential criminals will simply get legitimate jobs.
Let’s also assume that necessary functions such as education, the fire department, garbage removal, and environmental standards are all handled by organized volunteers or private companies. Everything will get done, but society will be free to attack any problem in any way it sees fit. Citizens won’t be saddled with an antique government that was designed in pre-Internet times.
Homeland defense would be a big issue for a government made entirely of software. This imaginary government still needs a professional military run by generals. But the military could be subservient to the majority opinion in the country, just as it is now for all practical purposes. Generals could simply read the opinion poll data, add their own good judgment about timing, and act accordingly. There’s no need for a civilian government to be in the middle, so long as the top generals can be fired by popular vote.
About halfway into writing this post I realized that the topic is too enormous for a blog. I’ll just summarize by saying the existence of the Internet plus the trend toward less privacy might make it possible for citizens to self-organize without the need for a formal government. I don’t predict it will happen, but the obstacles will be ones of psychology, fear of the unknown, and lack of imagination.