July 11, 2017
Originally posted on Medium
This is a thought experiment I’ve been playing with in my head for the last couple of months, around how our existing political systems could make deliberate fundamental changes (as opposed to meandering towards whatever cliff happens to look shiny at the time…). I’m particularly thinking about radical changes, like direct democracy, that are suddenly potentially viable with modern technology, but seem impossible to implement without, say, a coup. Which would be bad.
It’s hard to make fundamental changes to our political system for a simple reason: it would be really bad if we could. There are two basic thoughts underlying this:
If it’s easy to change the political system, it’s easy to change it into something that’s hard to change. And there’s a good chance that we might not like where it ends up. This is also known as ‘Oh noes corruption!’
Things that look like good ideas often turn out to be terrible when implemented. Usually, when you change something as important as, say, how we vote, you want to test it first, to see if there’s any unintended consequences. There’s a good chance that something you haven’t thought of will make it terrible, and you should really try it out and iterate on it before subjecting the real world to it… except the only way to test a lot of these properly is to subject the real world to it. This is also known as ‘Can I have another universe plz?’ (or ‘let Scandinavia try it first’)
So let’s say you want to implement some form of direct democracy because you think it’s the bees knees, and you’re not arrogant enough to think that you can work out all the kinks in post. What approach would you take to do this?
I’ve seen some new parties in Australia working on direct democracy systems for senate seats that they’re hoping to (somehow) get elected. I’m really dubious of this approach — assuming they find themselves getting a seat, they’re then going to suddenly hit all the big issues with direct democracy all at once (is voting compulsory? How do you avoid double voting? How do you educate voters on each piece of legislation? and so on…). In addition, direct democracy with 1 senator is completely different to a whole country run by that system, and so any fixes to the approach they take will likely create ill effects if the party succeeds on a larger scale.
Basically, they’re spending all their time campaigning for how good this system will be, rather than actually finding and fixing the many kinks it will surely have. And that makes me incredibly nervous.
My alternative approach isn’t a political party. At least, it isn’t at first.
At first, it’s a non-profit. We’ll call it Government 2.0.
Government 2.0 is an organisation that simulates a Government under a set of principles to be tested. The government has a membership (it’s citizens) who pay membership fees (taxes) for public goods. Government 2.0 is allowed to spend its money on anything it likes — it’s goal is to fill gaps that the current Government doesn’t, based on the will of its citizens (I mean, you could make a dictatorial Government 2.0 if you like — I‘d hope that it’d fail miserably? Like it really should, right?). The mechanism by which it chooses what it does is whatever political system you want to test.
Most Government 2.0’s will fail, but that’s the point: they’ll hit some sort of snag, whether it be corruption or confusion or poor governance, and their citizens will leave. Hopefully, their founders will learn from that experience, and try again (and people will let them — which is, yeah, asking a lot…). The ones that succeed will have to deal with scaling their systems, and at some point reach a size where they’re big enough to start running for actual government. If they continue to succeed, they can then actually take over because they’ve built a community along the way.
There are many issues that need to be resolved if you take this approach (cost to run is a big one), but that’s the point: it front-loads the real problems that a new governmental system has to deal with. It also adds some extra scalability issues, but that also allows you to learn about potential pitfalls one at a time, rather than all at once.
So, there you have it: Government 2.0. If anyone’s crazy enough to want to actually try this, or even just start thinking through how you’d run it (you’d want some underlying structure that’s somewhat protected from the chaos that’s likely to occur), get in touch. Or, you know, just start discussing it in the comments.