January 31, 2011
I decided to start a new government for the United States. The current version had a good run. It was well suited for an age when the issues were simple, the masses were uneducated, and communication involved horses. Now the government is broken. It can’t even balance the budget.
Perhaps you think I’m overstating the case. After all, the budget is just one of many things a government is supposed to do. That’s true, in the same sense that making sure there is enough fuel in the airplane is just one of the things a pilot is supposed to do. If the pilot can’t keep the plane in the air, you don’t care how well the flight attendants serve beverages. The United States hasn’t crashed yet, but the fuel tank is empty and our economists are calculating a glide path to the nearest river.
Common sense tells us that any system designed in the 1770s will be suboptimal for modern times. But our common sense is thwarted when it comes to our own government because we’ve all been brainwashed as children, literally, to revere the genius of our Founding Fathers. Don’t worry. We’ll keep all of the philosophical bits that inspired Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and the gang. We’ll even strengthen the freedom part. The change will only involve the delivery system, or the gears of the machine, if you will. I think Jefferson would approve, and Franklin would have a total nerdgasm if he heard it.
The new government will be Internet based and require no actual politicians per se, except for the President. Citizens will vote for the laws they want, as often as they want, by Internet. Actually, voting is too strong a term. Think of it as a rolling opinion poll. There’s no need for elections when the preferences of the people are continuously monitored in real time.
Call it a cloud government if you must, and it will have the following functions.
1. Provide “jury nullification” for unconstitutional laws that the majority favors.
2. Manage the outsourcing of most government functions to private industry.
3. Manage the transparency of the system.
4. Educate the public about the issues, using the tools of the Internet.
5. Propose new laws and policies developed by independent experts.
6. Manage the military.
Most of the actual decision-making would be directly in the hands of the public. Social policy would be determined by simple majorities, with perhaps a two-thirds majority needed to overturn any existing laws.
We can design and operate the new government in test mode, with full transparency, without disrupting the current one. It will take a few years to work out the wrinkles in the new system. During that time, none of its laws and policies will be implemented. It will be like an emergency backup government. When the day comes that two-thirds of the country wants to move to the new system, it will be up and running over night. No revolution needed.
So what’s so great about this new system of government?
Keep in mind that we’re still in brainstorming mode here. The system I describe today might be closer to awful than awesome. It’s a collaborative process and you haven’t weighed in yet. This is just the start.
The core principle of the Founding Fathers was freedom. In simple times, that meant little more than “Don’t tell me what to do.” Suppose we convene a panel of economists, psychologists, philosophers and other experts to update our notion of freedom, and to make it more quantifiable, so it can be measured and managed by this new government.
For example, a person who is unhealthy has less freedom, in a practical sense, than a person who is not. And a person who is poor has less freedom than someone who is rich. A person with no education has less freedom of choice, again in a practical sense, than someone who is educated. I think you could quantify freedom so you can measure the impact of any new law. The calculated result wouldn’t be binding on the public, but it’s helpful to know how your decisions impact everyone’s freedom.
If you’re worried that quantifying freedom leads to socialism, assume that the algorithm understands capitalism. No one can be free if the economy chokes out with high taxes or burdensome regulations. The advantage of an algorithm is that it automatically considers all sides of every issue. In our current system, pundits and politicians are free to debate the advantages of their ideas without mentioning the costs. The freedom algorithm considers all plans in their entirety.
Almost any issue can be cast in terms of freedom. If you increase taxes to pay for more police, the taxpayers lose some freedom because they have less money to spend. But they gain freedom to walk the streets without fear. And so on.
By now you are grinding your teeth and shouting to yourself that freedom is too squishy and subjective to be quantified. Special interests would game the system. Complicated models never work. And who decides on the assumptions that feed into it? It would just be a mess! You could be right about that. Remember that we’re in the brainstorming phase.
But consider the way doctors quantify pain, on a scale of 1 to 10, as a way of determining what level of painkiller to give to patients. Some patients lie about their level of pain to get more meds. The patient’s pain level can vary by the hour, as do the effectiveness of the meds. For cultural or gender reasons, one person’s pain level of eight might be another person’s four. And yet, despite being totally subjective and generally inaccurate, the 1 to 10 pain ranking is entirely useful. I could give you a hundred examples where measurements are flawed and yet the process of measuring yields something useful. I think the same could be true of freedom. Attempting to measure the net gain or loss in society’s freedom will help to clarify any debate. Accuracy might be less important than the fact that we try to measure it at all.
After our system is up and running, we can license our cloud government’s software to other countries looking for a change. Half of the countries in the world are looking for an upgrade. Think how much easier a revolution would be if rebels could set up their new government in the cloud before they even begin to protest. Ironically, democracy is probably an obstacle to freedom in countries run by dictators. Everyone understands that when the dictator is overthrown, you have years of messy and ineffective government ahead of you to get a democratic system up and running. And then you have decades of corruption to look forward to. The government in a cloud could hasten the end to dictators because the alternative would be so clear and easy. The downside is that only the citizens who have access to the Internet can participate in the cloud government. But that’s probably an improvement over the current system because he people who use the Internet tend to be the most informed. And in time, the Internet will extend to all. That’s what the freedom algorithm will call for.