It’s Time to Reinvent Democracy

“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch” 
  – Ben Franklin

“Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” 
  – John Adams

Today, I’ll be making the same argument that the founding fathers did; that our conception of democracy is fundamentally flawed and it’s time we overhauled our political system. As we look around the world, at the gridlock in Washington, the failings of the Arab Spring, and the mixed track record of democracy in the developing world, it’s easy to see the problems inherent in democracy.

But I also intend for this discussion to be constructive, with prescriptions for how to fix the problems that currently exist. We’ll be doing so, by critically examining 3 very different forms of crowdsourcing, which have all proved to be extremely successful. Even though democracy is also a form of crowdsourcing, we can then see that the successful ones all share certain common characteristics, which are completely antithetical to our conception of democracy.

Differential Voting Power

Our first example is a company that rose from nowhere to change our world and the way we find information; Google. A brief history: There were numerous companies trying to succeed in the Search Engine marketplace. Lycos, AskJeeves, AltaVista… the list goes on. And yet, sometime in the early 2000s, they all just disappeared and everyone switched to Google. Their search engine was so great, that it simply blew the competition away. When you look into how they implemented this groundbreaking search algorithm solution, one of the main pillars was the PageRank algorithm.

I could write an entire article about the PageRank algorithm but to put it simply, it brought democracy to the internet. It gave every single website the ability to vote on any other website, through the act of linking to it. And Google for its part, crawls through the web everyday, tallies up all the ballots, and posts the winners near the top of their search results. It is in many ways very similar to democracy… with one very important twist. Every website gets a different number of votes based on how credible it is.

To give an example, suppose the Nobel Prize winner Eugene Fama decides tomorrow to start an economics blog. It’s so insightful & interesting, that NYTimes decides to link to it. Suppose that at the same time, Joe Blow, who took a community college class on Economics, also starts an economics blog… and his brother-in-law who works at the Street Sheet links to it as well. We now have 2 blogs, on the same topic, carrying the same keywords, and each having a link from a newspaper. A purely egalitarian search-engine would give them equal visibility. But Google’s knows that NYTimes is a lot more credible than Street Sheet. Hence, it gives NYTimes thousands of ballots more than Street Sheet, and this in turn gives Eugene Fama’s blog a huge well-deserved boost over Joe Blow’s.

Google’s search engine works so well, precisely because it relies on credibility-based differential voting power. Intuitively, it makes perfect sense. In our own lives, we know that some sources of information are much more valuable than others. We give much more weight to the advice of some, and ignore those of others. And yet, this notion is simply heretical in our democracy today. The idea of one-person-one-vote is so ingrained in our political system, that no one even dares to suggest an alternative to it. And yet, when you look at successful forms of crowdsourcing, they are all based on highly differential voting power. One only needs to compare the politicians we have in Congress to the quality of the search results returned by Google, in order to see which works out better.

Barriers to Contribution

We don’t have to go very far to find our next great crowdsourcing example: the world’s greatest store of information, Wikipedia. Like Google, and unlike its predecessor Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia too is built around the idea of crowdsourcing. With less than 100 employees, Wikipedia simply creates a platform on which its users can make contributions. Each user contribution may be incremental, but together, they represent the greatest & most easily accessible store of human knowledge.

Given that Wikipedia relies entirely on user contributions, one might think that users would be given the red carpet & encouraged to contribute in any way possible. In reality though, user contributions (ie, edits), are often ruthlessly re-edited or discarded completely. Anyone can give their 2 cents by hitting the edit button & typing away, but getting it to actually stay there for more than a day is not easy. In order to make any lasting contribution, users are required to research the topic and back up their opinions with supporting evidence. Poorly expressed opinions are simply discarded without even a trace.

Having such barriers to contribution does dissuade some well-informed people from making valuable contributions. However, it also filters out an even greater number of ill-informed people who would otherwise be injecting a great deal of noise. A well-informed person who cares enough about the topic to research it is less likely to be dissuaded by such hurdles, compared to a layperson who simply chances upon the discussion & feels the urge to give his 2 cents. By filtering out noise, such barriers to contribution keep the signal-to-noise ratio high.

Contrast this with our democracy, where there is universal agreement that there should never be a barrier to contribution. Our entire system is designed to make voting as easy & convenient as possible. When Joe Blow walks into the voting booth and is asked to contribute to democracy, he can vote for absolutely anything he wants in a matter of minutes, without ever having to justify his choices with research, evidence or logic. The time investment required to vote is insignificant compared to its profound & long-lasting effects. With barriers to contribution kept intentionally low, it’s hardly surprising that our political system feels much more like a noisy bar than a well oiled machine.

Specialization of Contribution

As a change of pace, I‘d like for us to consider another great crowdsourcing example that is centuries old. One that we partake in every single day: The market-based economy. How many of us know how to grow crops? Sew clothes? Build a house? Design a computer chip? Perform open-heart surgery? There isn’t a person alive who can answer yes to all of the above. And yet, we are able to enjoy the fruits of all of these & accomplish some truly miraculous feats as a society. This is only possible through division of labor. At a young age, each of us decides upon a career that we would like to pursue. We then spend a decade or more specializing in that one field. We develop great expertise in an extremely niche field, and then spend the next few decades contributing to society, through that one niche field.

More importantly, we also stay away from the other 99% of fields that we know little about. Engineers don’t go around telling doctors how to do their jobs, and doctors don’t go around offering their opinions on good accounting practices. The market based economy works so miraculously, precisely because each of us contributes to society in one very specialized area, and we allow others to do so as well without getting in their way. Can you imagine how well a BMW would run if it was designed by popular vote? And yet, this is the reality of our democracy today. When we go into the voting booth & are asked to choose between Obama & Romney, we’re expected to evaluate both candidates’ economic policies, national security policies, health care proposals, and numerous other credentials in fields that we know next to nothing about.

When we consider the vast breadth of human knowledge, we are all idiot savants. The market-economy has worked so well by funneling our efforts into those fields where we’re savants. Democracy on the other hand, forces us to make decisions precisely in the fields where we’re idiots.

Differential voting power; Barriers to contribution; Specialization of contribution. All 3 can be found in each of the examples given above. If we look at other forms of successful crowdsourcing, such as financial markets & scientific research, it’s no coincidence that these same characteristics show up there as well. It’s time we had a political system that takes a page out of these great success stories.

Let me end this article, ironically enough, by giving plaudits to democracy. It was truly a brilliant & remarkably insightful idea for the 18th century. It gave birth to the notion of decentralization of power. It created a system of government that derives its power from the people. It leveled the playing field, giving everyone equal treatment & equal opportunity. It gave birth to a political system that was open & accessible to all. It brought crowdsourcing to the field of politics. These were all brilliant ideas for their time, and any new political system we implement should surely hold on to these principles.

However, we have come a long way in the past 300 years, and the cracks in the foundation of democracy are starting to show. Certain aspects that are considered fundamental to democracy, have been shown to severely detract from it. It’s time we overhauled our political system and boldly stepped into the new millenium.

Ways to Fix Democracy:
A suggestion to reform democracy, using the Jury system as a model
Another suggestion to reform democracy, using Google’s search engine

Related links:
Leading political psychologist arguing that our brains are not equipped for democracy
The crucial difference between direct democracy & representative democracy
NYTimes: A Work Still in Progress
60% of Americans have no idea which party controls Congress
NYTimes: Democracy dumbed down
NYTimes: The problem with participatory democracy is the participants

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