Is the World Ready for Digg-Style Government?

Wanted: One congressional candidate for the 8th district of Massachusetts. Must be 25 years of age, a US citizen for 7 years, a resident of the 8th, and willing to sign his or her vote over to the Internet. “You must be willing to represent the will of our district, even if it conflicts with your own.”

That’s more or less the gist of the Craigslist ad being run by FreeGovernment.org, a “non-profit open source political organization.” Essentially, the organization is looking to run a candidate for the US House of Representatives in the 8th district of Massachusetts (which covers some suburbs outside of Boston), on the platform that the candidate pledges to vote based entirely on the result of web polls that any registered voter can participate in.

FreeGovernment.org says this isn’t an attempt at direct democracy, though it certainly feels that way. It’s true that the people would not be voting directly on legislation in the House, but they would be controlling the will of their representative via a direct vote. This seems like direct democracy built to scale (which has historically been a problem with the concept).

Does the Crowd Know Best?

US Representative Randy Kuhl Jr. of New York’s 29th District launched the “Fix Washington” project in May, asking people to submit ideas for bills. The submission process is now in its final week, after which time the Congressman will pick 5 ideas and let his constituents vote on which he’ll introduce to the floor of the House of Representatives. Some critics see Kuhl’s move as a cop-out, claiming that he is asking his constituents to “do his thinking for him.”

While Kuhl’s move is almost definitely a publicity stunt, the question that looms here is: does the crowd know best? Congressional approval ratings — which have hit all-time lows in recent months — might suggest that the US representative system of democracy is in need of a shake up. But trusting the “wisdom” of the crowds may not be the best fit.

FreeGoverment.org claims to have a solution to one major flaw in Kuhl’s plan (how to make sure that only people in your district are voting), but there are plenty of other potential problems.

1. The mob mentality of crowds. Crowds have a tendency to be susceptible to group think, in which a few strong voices unduly influence the outcome of the vote. FreeGovernment.org’s odd system of “advisers” and the fact that poll results are displayed while polls are open may actually exacerbate this issue.

2. Too much information. There’s so much going on in the Congress on a daily basis that it would be hard for most people to keep up and still hold down their day jobs. There’s a reason direct democracy doesn’t scale. Beside the nightmarish logistics of enabling millions of people to vote so often, there’s just too much going on for people to stay informed. Is it really a good idea to trust important legislative votes to people who don’t have time to read up on what they’re voting for? Is that really a better system than trusting that job to an elected official?

3. Too many votes. The House votes many times each day — most are just procedural votes or votes that decide to do things like send a bill back to committee. If a district’s representative was handcuffed to a system that needed to seek a majority vote from constituents before casting a vote on the House floor, he or she might have trouble participating in a lot of the lower profile congressional activities.

4. Narrow representation. Doesn’t this system skew toward representing younger, more web-savvy citizens? FreeGovernment.org says it will help those unfamiliar with the Internet to cast their vote, but I have a feeling much of the district will feel alienated by a system that forces them online to participate.

So Will it Work?

Undoubtedly, FreeGovernment.org will find someone to run on their ticket this fall — the $165,200 annual congressional salary, and lifetime benefits after 5 years (which would entail winning 3 elections given the 2 year term limits in the House) to essentially do nothing but show up and cast votes should be attractive enough to entice a gaggle of applicants. If they win, it will be interesting to see if the process works any better than the current system.

Massachusetts’ 8th district has been represented by Democrat Michael Capuano since 1999 (and held by the Democratic party since 1955).

What do you think? Is the world ready for Digg-style government? Or is this a bad idea from the start?

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  • Foy Savas

    Josh, have you read the FAQs and looked into the adviser system?

    I think you should make a fair assessment of it before you reason why we don’t call FreeGov direct democracy.

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    @Foy Savas: I have read them. It certainly isn’t a direct democracy according to the traditional definition, but the goal is ultimately the same. IMHO, FreeGovernment.org is a take on direct democracy that attempts to solve the issues of scale.

  • http://triunedesigns.com leoschmidt08

    I do think Congress is not doing a great job (too many hands in the proverbial lobbyist cookie jar perhaps). I also think that mob rule is not the way to go either. With that said, I hope it works out just to see how thing work out. A good social experiment and maybe it would keep some of the members of Congress a little more honest…perhaps, but probably not.

  • abraham

    I don’t care what anyone says, we need to institute intelligence tests. If you score anything below 120 then YOU CANNOT SERVE IN GOVERNMENT SO SORRY PLEASE MOVE ALONG. If this rule were instituted today fully 2/3s of the current government would be required to step down. Bush would have to step down twice because he’s two times as dumb.

  • http://www.antaramedia.com antaramedia-com

    I think the idea of an open source government could work and is a real alternative to a traditional capitalist government.

    Today, our governments are controlled by a relatively small number of people (the politicians and technocrats),
    who control many aspects of our lives, from taxes and government spending to regulation of the Internet and commerce. But imagine that open-source alternatives for these functions, perhaps one at a time, are created and grow in acceptance. This may be difficult to imagine, but take an example of schools.

    Currently, knowledge and the teaching of that knowledge is in the hands of a few, from elementary to highschools to higher education. But why do we need to go through the public or private school system, and why does Harvard and Stanford and
    MIT control the education of our professionals and academics?

    Homeschooling, for example, is a growing movement that allows parents to regain control of their child’s education, to move away from an authoritarian setting of mind control and towards one of learning, of questioning, of critical thinking — and that’s really what education should be. Please understand that I’m not blaming the teachers — they are good people with good intentions, but they are bound by the school system, which is really controlled by our government. The open-source concept can be applied to higher education: imagine an online school for programmers or accountants or businesspeople, where the real professionals decide the curriculum and teach the classes and give out the certificates. If this alternative grows in acceptance (and this will take a long time to happen), there is no reason why a Harvard
    business degree would be better than an open-source one, which would also be much less expensive

    Email is another example of how a government function can be co-opted, as the postal system is less necessary than before — fewer people use the postal system to write letters, and the days of getting bills in the mail may soon be a thing of the past. Perhaps not every government function can be co-opted (although it’s possible), but if enough government services become obsolete because of better alternatives, the justification of taxes becomes weaker. Open-source helping of the poor, instead of government welfare. Open-source medical help, instead of the government’s public health system. There are many possibilities.

  • http://hardy.hemmingway.info TheOriginalH

    A very interesting concept indeed. Will read more before making assessment, but it does smack of e-referendum governing through the back door on the face of it (whether that is good or bad is an essay subject!).

    Small note though…..does this not rather heavily infringe the SP “No politics” rule?!

  • http://www.allchorn.com adesignrsa

    I was about to say, and TheOriginalH beat me to it… when did Sitepoint turn political? I can understand the technology behind the site being discussed, but not the political message.

  • http://www.magain.com/ mattymcg

    does this not rather heavily infringe the SP “No politics” rule?!

    Don’t confuse our policy that applies to conversations in our discussion forums with the topics we choose to write about on our blogs.

  • tehgamecat

    Doesnt work, ends in a dictatorship as noone cba to fill all the forms in. Good film in the 60s.

  • http://www.mockriot.com/ Josh Catone

    @adesignrsa: I was actually trying to be fairly careful to avoid talking about the political message. This post is (or rather, was attempting to be) a discussion of the merits of applying theory prominent on the web and web tech (wisdom of crowds, web polls, etc.) to a new area (politics).

    Certainly it is hard to have that discussion without some discussion of the politics, but your political ideology doesn’t really matter in this. Two people on the same side of the political fence may disagree that this is a good idea, while two people diametrically opposed when it comes to political policy might think Digg-style voting on political issues is a brilliant idea. :)

  • http://hardy.hemmingway.info TheOriginalH

    @Matty – no confusion, a question (there has been no clarification to date). Having been on the forums for 8 years I’m aware of where the rule came from. Question answered though. Bloggers can write about politics….members can’t.

    @ Josh, I realise that the post is pretty much ideology free, and respect that. It’s an interesting topic that certainly warrants some debate.

  • http://hardy.hemmingway.info TheOriginalH

    To add constructively to the debate (and pertinently, naming no African nation in particular),a problem missed by Josh is that of electronic transparency. “e-votes” are potentially a damn site easier to “stuff”, manipulate or just plain lie about than real ones… any idea how they plan to combat that potential issue (and/or safeguard against it from the inside…)?

  • ncloud

    So, let me get this straight — you want to hand direct legislative control over to citizens who themselves elected the lowest approved Congress in United States history? Brilliant. Bypass checks and balances and pipe “teh stoopid” straight into law!