Creating a More Decentralized and Market Driven Democracy

Princeton University Press had just published a new paperback edition of my book, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Governance Through Technology.  It argues for using the tools given by our new computational technology to help democracy adapt to our accelerating rate of social change.

The basic insight of the book should be congenial to friends of the classical liberal tradition in political thought. It is to deploy decentralized mechanisms that modern technology makes possible to improve self-government. For instance, the internet greatly facilitates betting pools, called information or prediction markets, which permit people to bet on the occurrence of future events. Such markets already gauge election results more accurately than polls. If legalized and modestly subsidized, they could also foretell many policy results better than politicians or experts alone. We could then better predict the consequences of changes in educational policy on educational outcomes or a stimulus program on economic growth. In short, such markets would provide a visible hand to help guide policy results. Unfortunately, while such markets are a public good, our government now impedes them at every turn.

The internet today also encourages dispersed media like blogs to intensify confrontations about contending policy claims. Previously a less diverse mainstream media tended to settle for received wisdom. Our more competitive media culture permits the rapid recombination of innovative policy proposals no less than our more competitive scientific culture provides an incubator for new computer applications. To take maximum advantage of this new culture we need to preserve the maximum freedom for citizens independent of party to bring to bear these new views in our elections. Unfortunately, our current President has endorsed a constitutional amendment that would allow the quintessential representatives of centralized government—the legislators themselves—to regulate the diverse voices that our new technology makes possible.

Because of this ever greater computational capacity, society can also use more effective methods of social science to evaluate empirically the results of policies.   Like predictions markets and dispersed media, the turn to empiricism benefits from competitive structures. Different jurisdictions, such as states or school districts, try to gain advantages over one another by adopting better policies. With our more sophisticated empirical tools we can then assess the effect of their different policies, gauging the degree to which gun control helps prevent crime or whether longer school hours improve student learning. Unfortunately, centralized solutions, like Obamacare, are more costly than ever before, because we can learn so much from decentralized alternatives.

The plea of book is recognize that government can now become a less top-down, error-prone affair. Today, technology permits knowledge to bubble up from more dispersed sources filtered through more competitive mechanisms, sustaining a more decentralized system of social discovery.   We can acquire general expertise without being beholden to particular experts.

Democracy today needs to be right more often and more quickly, because our accelerating technology creates more rapidly developing threats abroad, like new weapons of mass destruction, and new dislocations at home, like the disruption of employment through automation.   Man is both homo faber–nature’s preeminent maker of tools to change the world– and homo sapiens–nature’s master of symbols and language to represent and understand it.   We will continue to thrive only if these capacities develop in tandem.

Reader Discussion

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on July 16, 2015 at 08:51:21 am

[…] Creating a More Decentralized and Market Driven Democracy […]

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Building the Left’s Judicial Farm Team - Freedom's Floodgates
on July 16, 2015 at 14:26:42 pm


Fair enough and in a more principled world, this could be beneficial. However,:

" Different jurisdictions, such as states or school districts, try to gain advantages over one another by adopting better policies. "

What is missing from this *aspirational* mechanism is the fact that the differing jurisdictions are a) not quite so different after all, b) are guided by an ideological / political sameness that in itself tends to work against experimentation, and c) these jurisdictions (as with all organized functionaries) tend to have an institutional AND personal bias toward their own organizational AND personal preservation.

Why give them the tools to better cement their control over (insert your favorite activity or *guvmnt service* here)________.

What you are proposing here is nothing different than "Facebooking or Amazon-ing" the political mechanisms. Look how much Facebook, etc. knows about you already.
No thanks, I'll sit and prune my roses and let the petals fall where they may!

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on July 16, 2015 at 18:29:57 pm

A point of agreement on this article, but not one that was expected: The Court is highly tied to politics.

An illustration of why I believe that is the recent ruling on same-sex marriage. One of the bottlenecks in the same-sex marriage ruling has been the computer systems. They were all programmed many years ago to assume that marriage would be opposite-sex marriage. Starting about 15-20 years ago the programs started being changed to allow same-sex couples. Today the programming changes to allow same-sex marriage are for the most part complete. Now that the programming is complete, the government can (and has), through the instrument of the Court, required that all states recognize same-sex marriage.

The coordination between the computer changes and the change in government policy is symptomatic of cooperation between the branches of government. The policy was decided first, then the technical changes were made, then the government requirement was published, in this case through a Court ruling.

One of the problems of applying computer systems as solutions to government efficiency can be seen in the example of Oregon's recent socialized health care web site debacle. Oregon tried to create its own web site in keeping with the Scotuscare rules. Oregon failed and decided to fall back and use the feds' web site.

The problem here is that Oregon has always been a basket case when it comes to computers. I worked for the state of Oregon for a year and a half supporting our Medicaid computer system. Let's just say that I regularly crushed my limited phone minutes calling up my wife a couple of time per week venting theme and variation on "You won't believe what they are doing this time!" Some states do software badly.

Before working for the state of Oregon I worked in a large company processing payroll checks. I was supporting software that had been calculating payroll checks using computers since the 1960's. In 2004 the state of Oregon still did not have similar automated payroll calculations. Oregon had a staff that manually calculated the paycheck amounts for each employee and entered the amounts into a data file to print on the paychecks. That was ridiculous!

The Scotuscare web site issue illustrates a problem. When the feds require states to implement complex policy through computer systems, the feds must also be prepared to run the computer systems since the states are often incapable of doing so. This ties the computer systems directly to the ability of the feds to implement policy. As the joke goes, when computers run the world, the world will be run by computer programmers. The joke doesn't mention the fact that the computer programmers will be working for the feds, if not directly by employement, then indirectly by legal requirements.

Since I currently work in the healthcare IT field in the private sector, I can vouch for the fact that a lot, maybe most, of what we do in my field is under the domain of federal law. HIPAA is an endless stream of costs to health care.

While there are advantages to introducing technology to solve problems there are also some issues. Technology exists to bring about improvement, that is obvious, but that doesn't mean that government can implement the technology well. The national government has more resources, which allows it to implement and apply technology better than local governments, which drives the technological solution towards centralized ownership and control by the national government. That in turn gives the national government more power over policies that require technological changes.

One of the problems in Oregon is the limited number of good computer specialists in Salem. Technological improvement depends primarily on the skill levels of the technologists. Portland pays better, so it attracts the talent away from Salem. Salem, meanwhile, has problems replacing underperforming staff because they are unionized. How does one bring more talented technical professionals to local government where they are needed?

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Scott Amorian
on July 16, 2015 at 20:44:50 pm


Very interesting! Tell us more about the previously existing SSM s/w *accommodations* - this would not surprise me in the least, BTW.

My own doctor, an MD and S/W Engineer related HIPAA issues to me - they were considerable (costs and time) and he eventually left medicine.

Your point about the "resources" of the Feds vs. the States is well taken and I agree it does tend toward greater centralization. However, as recent news reports suggest (confirm?) the Feds are not all that great when it comes to technology (have a brother-in-law who was affected by the recent data breach) and my concern is that, unlike Prof. McGinnis, I do not trust the Feds to a) make proper and constitutional use of the data and b) or to protect it.
Consider if you will the recent escapades of Lois Lerner and the IRS - are we really ready to let these government functionaries have access to this sort of data.
Goodness gracious, I could see myself getting fined for not drinking the proper beer (or in my case - TOO MUCH of the wrong kind, heh!).

Anyway, you are once again spot-on!!!!!

But seriously, tell us more about the S/W preparations for the SSM deal.

take care

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on July 17, 2015 at 13:24:08 pm

Ad Nauseam: (from me) Democracy in all these contexts is not a condition, nor a "thing." It is a process; rather it is a label for certain kinds of processes implemented in seeking varying objectives in social groupings.

Often overlooked are the possibilities (noted by scholars such as Acemoglu, Robinson and North) that the process can be captured, controlled, directed even thwarted by units (usually minorities).

Hyper-Tech can be nothing more than an additional instrument for that capture,, control, direction or thwarting of the democratic process - providing means for using it to sustain or attain objectives of units in societies - as has been the case with numerous ideologies.

Do not expect too much.

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 17, 2015 at 14:23:26 pm


Yep! It sometimes surprises me that readers of this blog, who appear to be keenly aware of the dangers posed by a *government* (meaning those functionaries comprising that vast enterprise who clearly have their own motivations) in possession of additional and powerful tools to analyze, dissect and ultimately manipulate the populace, would nevertheless gladly afford the *guvmnt* the opportunity to do so.

A case in point is the new Affirmative Affordable Fair Housing (or some such name) initiative of the Obama administration. Much of the thrust behind this is based upon precisely the type of date that can be harvested with the new information technology. In fact, there is credible evidence that the recommend changes to mortgage financing were predicated upon a desire to break the cycle of GOP dominance in certain demographic / geographical segments. Dilute the philosophical base of these areas and Voila! - you get more democrats in office.


Nope, as I said, I'll prune my roses and see where the petals fall.

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on July 17, 2015 at 15:39:19 pm

If I remember correctly, the SSM thing began with the insurance companies. They wanted to create insurance plans that supported SSM, so we needed to modify our systems to support that. The word was handed down from I/T management that we would be seeing more of this kind of thing in the future. It was all planned out many years in advance of the Court ruling.

That's how we can tell that the Courts are working with rest of the government in Wilsonian fashion. The government wants to prevent social discontent which is driven by a disruption as would happen if all the computer systems suddenly had to be changed immediately because of a change in policy. The change had to be planned and coordinated to prevent technical issues.

Likewise with other major governmental policy changes. They can't just go around making broad and sudden policy changes without creating social disruptions and political discontent. Those changes must be planned and coordinated and laid upon the public carefully so they create minimal political disruption. Many Court rulings are setups, as McGinnis discussed previously.

I would assume that SSM is part of a solution to the problem of AIDS, which was driven in large part by certain well-known behaviors, and was costing the insurance industry a lot of money. The insurance industry spoke to members of government, and they coordinated a way to reduce insurance company expenses and save lives.

I'm not saying it's all good or bad. That's just how the system works.

My understanding is that Court rulings are declaratory in that they restate what the Constitution says. They don't enact law or executive actions directly. Rather, law and actions are changed indirectly through declarations. Declarations are made in order to change something. We declare war after war has started, not to start war. By declaring war we invoke principles of international law as a side effect. We declared independence in 1776, but not to enact independence, but to say that we were already independent. The Declaration of Independence triggered certain side effects. France could lend us money for example. But it also caused other side effects. All but two colonies, New York and Maryland, had declared independence by July 4, 1776. As a consequence of the signing of the Declaration, New York and Maryland were forced to declare their own independence and were included in the new union of independent states.

Likewise, the Court's declaratory rulings affect law and action indirectly as side effects. The Court does not unwrite law. It declares that the Constitution says something and as a consequence the act of legislation cannot be valid. Similarly, The Court does not write law. It declares what the Constitution says, and notes as a consequence that a legal condition or executive action must exist by implication. These positive assertions form what some of the authors here in LLS refer to as Constitutional common law. Constitutional common laws are corollaries to Constitutional theorems.

Since the Court is in the business of writing law and requiring executive action, albeit indirectly and consequently, it has to act in a governmental manner. Therefore it must consider the governmental consequences of rulings and act responsibly.

At least, that's what I'm gathering from the many writings here.

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Scott Amorian
on July 17, 2015 at 15:55:21 pm

Let's look at robotic automobiles.

Cars and trucks (big rigs) are becoming increasingly robotic. Trials are taking place now that are proving that robotic vehicles are generally safer than human-driven vehicles. Of the robotic vehicles no robotic vehicle has ever caused an accident. But they have been in a couple of dozen accidents, all human-caused. The human driver is always at fault.

The takeaway from these studies is that humans should not be driving vehicles, robots should drive instead.

Lives and property damage are at stake. Those damages cost the insurance companies money. The insurance companies are very much in bed with government officials. Therefore you can safely assume that the government will eventually require all motor vehicles be driven by robots, with safety and efficiency as the rationale. The political debates pro and con will be partly for show, but mostly for the profit of the politicians. Its coming.

As for the use of data mining for social engineering, that's always been going on in politics anywhere. The new things are the quantity of information available and improvements in social engineering techniques. Those two things need to be watched closely and discussed publicly, so the people can make better informed decisions.

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Scott Amorian
on July 17, 2015 at 17:02:13 pm

Notably: The calculations of "disparate impacts."

But, there are also the enthusiasms for information technologies and their applications, which bear disquieting similarities to those for past (and some current) ideologies (as drivers for social management or change) that disregard the controlling factors of - INPUTS. (Savonarola, Zwingli . . .)

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R Richard Schweitzer
on July 19, 2015 at 10:00:46 am


Just in - something for Professor McGinnis to consider as he welcomes in the new information age and it's many benefits:


Wherein, the "statists", "windmill-fighters" and all around "goody-two-shoes", hellbent on eradicating any last vestige of *inequality* are collecting data on everyone with, as R. Richard comments above, a view toward identifying (ultimately suppressing) any possible disparate impact.

I just can't wait - it is so exciting - this new Information Age!!!!

Curious, however, will we learn that there is a disparate impact based upon how many folks read this blog as opposed to say the HuffPost? Hmmmm!

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on July 19, 2015 at 13:31:37 pm

I no longer find the whole left vs right thing interesting. The left proclaims its lies, damn lies and statistics while the right does the same. Each side holds up its minor virtues as exemplary examples of how great it is while downplaying the severity of its major faults, and at the same time takes the worst examples of the opposite side and holds them up as typical, while downplaying the other sides virtues. That is all propaganda.

Some technology is used in creating the lies and presenting them to the public. In the case of PJMedia and Huffington post, technology is being used to promote propaganda, exactly the way that newspapers have been doing since before America's founding. Only the speed of distribution of propaganda has changed, that and nice color photos. In the case of data collection, that's been going on as long as there has been politics. The ability to collect and work with large amounts of data has increased, but it is still being used the same way to the same ends.

What is changing for the better is the rapid and equal distribution if correct information. Today you can quickly bring up solidly researched discussions just by typing a few keywords into Google (along with a ton of propaganda).

Probably one of the best uses of technology is to publish and discuss the specific techniques of propagandizing, both in general and using specific examples. Unfortunately, publishing with quality requires money. Money comes from either commercial ads, which are themselves a type of propaganda, or from grants (such as those that fund this site), which are hard to come by and are often connected to actors who are politically charged themselves which in turn damages the credibility of the effort. That makes the use of technology for anti-propaganda purposes hard to use. I think that in terms of preserving liberty, the ongoing public education regarding propaganda techniques is the most important cause of our times.

Some of the authors of this blog tend to be reactive, fighting a defensive fight, trying to negate propaganda. I would rather see the fight taken to the other guys. That would be done by having more discussion on social engineering techniques. Articles such as Flagg Taylor's recent Though Control's Lingua Franca (on LibertyLawSite.org, July 8, 2015) stand out as an example of healthy food for a nation, starving and obese from the intellectual fast-food being sold by the propagandists.

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Scott Amorian
on July 19, 2015 at 14:39:37 pm

Fair enough!

Yes, media, from olden days were propagandists. In fact, during colonial times the media were far mire virulent and partisan than they are today.

Yes, it is not an issue of right vs. left. Both can, and do, play the game.

The issue as I see it is this:

Does one want to enable the government to a) have ready and unlimited access to the types of data that reveal far more about an individual / group than would be otherwise prohibited via a search warrant, b) then make use of this data for its own particular purposes (yes, left and right may have distinct purposes) - but still it is the purposes of government, or more accurately, the purposes and motivations of those functionaries staffing the government, with which we are here concerned.

Look at how much has been *accomplished* to date: IRS scandals, no doubt the targeting of which may have been made possible by the types of data collection that McGinnis advocates; the new mortgage *guideline* (read: restrictions) coming out of the AFFH - now, we have the data, we know where the Repubs are concentrated, so let's break up their little enclaves.

It is bad enough when Mozilla fires an otherwise fine employee (Brandon (?) Eich because Mozilla learned he donated to a traditional marriage cause, what will be the happy results when the government decides to make use of this type of data?
And then, there is California, where the proponents of SSM were able to convince a State Judge that the names of those who signed a petition against SSM were to be made public.
No good can come of this infatuation with technology's *advantages.* It is one thing for Amazon to have info regarding my reading preferences - it is quite another for the government and its functionaries to have it. After all, under the cover of binding regulations, they may see fit to find that I have committed any one of "Three Felonies a Day."
With Amazon, I simply delete their e-mail specials and pop open a nice cold bottle of Peroni Lager. With the government - not so fast!!!!!!!

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on July 20, 2015 at 15:58:49 pm

In other words, we don't want actors in government using Big Data to practice social engineering; which, I think, brings us full circle.

As far as the privacy thing goes, as computers become more prolific privacy will continue to become less. That is a river that can't be stopped. The trick is understanding how to live with that. How does one use Big Data and accelerating communication to prevent social engineering?

I'm considering whether a computer program could be written that would recognize propaganda on the Internet and flag it. It can be done, but it would take money and time.

We may be able to discuss this more, later, using this rapid and widespread computer media forum we are using right now.

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Scott Amorian
on July 20, 2015 at 21:19:24 pm


BTW: I am not in disagreement with you. I absotively love the point about making propaganda techniques and methods known to people. Flagg did a good job with his piece and it echoes some things I have said over at POMOCON over the years.

I just wish it would work. I sometimes think that folks have been so accustomed to this nonsense (propaganda) that they are unable to form clear thought patterns. It is easier to accept what everyone else believes / says - "and why bother?" is the attitude.

Do you think we could develop a "propaganda pop-up alert", on the order of the modern day college weinies *trigger warnings* that would say, "Sorry folks this is B.S." I have often wished I could do that when hearing a news-READER proclaim on some issue about which he / she knows nothing AND prefers to know nothing.

You develop it and I will break open the piggy bank and fund it - unless of course it stops me from wine and beer purchases, heh!

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