“Two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.” “The terrible tyranny of the majority.” “The worst form of government, except for all the others.” A lot has been said about the ills of democracy, but as the last quote (commonly attributed to Winston Churchill) suggests, we are yet to come up with anything better.
But in light of myriad recent events, including Detroit’s filing for bankruptcy yesterday, I figured it was worth tinkering with a little thought experiment. What would happen if a group of people formed a new nation, not a nation under God, but a wikination driven by its own community? Where each person represents him- or herself rather than voting for a representative? What would it look like? How would it be gamed? Could it, in fact, work? And would it be any better than what we’ve got?
Answering these questions fully would require a much longer thought experiment by someone a fair bit smarter than myself, but it’s certainly a discussion worth engaging in. Surely I’m not the only one who looks around the Internet and thinks there are some principles that could be extrapolated to politics with positive effect?
Take, for example, the idea of failing fast -- certainly not exclusive to the Internet but wildly common among tech startups. This phrase doesn’t actually mean what it sounds like, in the sense of doing the “wrong” thing. It calls instead for a reframing of the concept of failure, in light of the fact that we are all dealing with imperfect and incomplete information. Therefore, it is impossible for us to make perfect, complete decisions. In the political arena, failing fast calls for a shift from, “This is the perfect decision, and if I change my mind it means I’m a flip-flopper,” to “This is the best decision I can make with the information I have, and if new information comes in I will be wise enough to update my position accordingly.” Imagine if our politicians were rewarded for admitting they have learned something new, rather than punished for not having known it in the first place?Or take the Wikipedia example, of what happens when a community cares deeply about its environment and is empowered to take care of business on its own. In 2006, Aaron Swartz -- who took his own life earlier this year in the face of monstrously unjust treatment by our democratically elected government -- described the website as follows:
People are constantly trying to vandalize Wikipedia, replacing articles with random text. It doesn’t work; their edits are undone within minutes, even seconds. But why? It’s not magic — it’s a bunch of incredibly dedicated people who sit at their computers watching every change that gets made… The vandals aren’t stopped because someone is in charge of stopping them; it was simply something people started doing. And it’s not just vandalism: a “welcoming committee” says hi to every new user, a “cleanup taskforce” goes around doing factchecking… This is so unusual, we don’t even have a word for it. It’s tempting to say “democracy”, but that’s woefully inadequate. Wikipedia doesn’t hold a vote and elect someone to be in charge of vandal-fighting… Someone simply sees that there are vandals to be fought and steps up to do the job.
I don’t think an open-source government would be perfect, anymore than Wikipedia is perfect. But maybe it would be less bad. Or, as Swartz said, “If the community wants to remain in charge, it’s going to have to fight for it… [and] this is something worth fighting for.”How would you design your perfect government?