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Friday, September 20, 2013

Correcting Democracy with Bitgov


Your eyes pop open. It’s your alarm clock. Grudgingly you roll over, turn it off, and rub your eyes. Eventually you get out of bed and stumble into the kitchen. The automatic coffee pot is just about done. So you grab your favorite mug from the cabinet and pour a cup.

As you plop yourself down at your kitchen table and check your tablet, you notice you have an alert from your city council. They want you to vote on whether to outlaw texting and driving. After a few minutes of skimming through the proposed regulation, you tap the red “Oppose” button. You also take the next 10 minutes to check the results of last week’s votes.

After some low-sodium bacon (which is the only kind you can buy now, thanks to a regulation that was approved by the majority of people in your state last fall), a shower, and a quick subway ride to work, you fire up your laptop. After scanning Facebook, you open your email to find you have another thing to vote on—this time from the Global Governance Alliance.

Does something seem a little off? Direct democracy? Global governance? Well, we may be closer than you thought. Over at Quartz, Gulay Ozkan recently profiled Bitgov, a new project she's working on.

Here's how the technology works: 

Public opinion is gauged using algorithms to find the most significant social media posts and the opinion leaders. We also provide policy makers with clear insights into the sentiments of voters. The endgame is to create a platform for global governance without borders.

While I'm not really into the “endgame” of global governance, I think the Bitgov crew is on to something. 

Elections are costly, time consuming, and fraught with corruption. The system we currently have keeps getting us the same bad outcomes, so it’s time to try something new. But if we are interested in more efficient, effective governance—as well as preserving individual freedom—competition and strict checks are more likely to get us there than any one-size-fits-all approach (even if that approach gives everyone a vote). 

Enter corrective democracy.

Back in June, Tom Bell put forward the idea of corrective democracy, where instead of voting for or against each particular measure, voters can vote to strike down “any law, regulation, ordinance, or order that offends them.” Corrective democracy has two distinct advantages: It safely allows more people to vote without the supposed downsides (children, illegal immigrants, and even convicts) and it provides a clear avenue to trim back government excess and injustice.

When I first read about corrective democracy, I loved the idea, but I thought it would be a logistical nightmare. Full-scale elections are too costly to run for every single law and regulation that gets passed. But what if we combine Ozkan’s technology to make elections faster and policy more transparent with Tom Bell's idea of corrective democracy? We might just have a winner. 

How would this affect us? Take the Syria issue, for example. Let's say Congress chooses to intervene. Given enough public outcry, the issue could be overturned before there are any boots on the ground. Furthermore, laws outlawing same-sex marriage could be struck from the books. The war on drugs could be defunded faster than you can roll one. 

Looking further into the future, if a system like this were in place around the world, finding out if the people of Syria wanted a military intervention would be easy. As Mitchell Sipus points out, even having a statistically viable sample of opinions would be a game changer. He also notes that this can probably be done via SMS, which is another possibility for enabling the public to strike down bad laws.

Why should we be worried about only striking down laws instead of wide-scale voting on them? Sure, passing everything you want with no way to strike it down is great when your people are in power. But what happens when they are not? You need a system in place (one that works better than what we currently have) to safeguard against majority-run tyranny. Democracy has the great virtue of giving voters some say in their government, but that is also democracy’s greatest vice. Corrective democracy taps into voters’ local knowledge and preferences without breaking the constraints we place on government power to protect even the smallest groups in our society.

I can't wait for someone to grab ahold of the bitgov technology and try corrective democracy out. I think it is a big leap forward from our current situation in terms of protecting individual liberty and promoting a peaceful, cooperative society.