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Something New Under the Sun

Part 1 in a Series of Essays on Government


Wednesday, November 28, 2012

“The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” - Oliver Wendell Holmes

The big debate in politics is, and has always been, about the appropriate size and role of government. The polarized state of today’s debate is exemplified by Fox News’s overly strident critiques of seemingly any government solutions to shared problems, and MSNBC’s apparent defense of activist government in many areas of life through their ongoing series of “lean forward” blurbs featuring their star TV personalities. These two relatively new TV channels also exemplify the growth of separate spheres of facts and opinions, or “filter bubbles,” enjoyed by those on the left and right, which is itself a major problem.

Tam Hunt

Fortunately, a new approach to this perennial debate is emerging, which marries the best of left and right. This new approach arises from the increasing power of networked and crowd-sourced solutions to many of the collective problems we face in today’s world. The rise of crowd-sourced solutions is, in turn, based on our new tech-based society, in which information is rapidly becoming free and access to that free information is rapidly becoming universal.

There is a risk in naming this new approach to political philosophy, but some have suggested “peer progressivism” or “progressive libertarianism.” I have also used the term “wiki democracy” to describe the outcome of this new philosophy and these new tech tools that are rapidly enhancing our democracies around the world.

I’m going to use the term “isocracy,” however, in this essay because it lacks the freight of the other labels mentioned. Isocracy means “rule by equals,” which pretty much sums up the gist of this new political philosophy. What to many people sound like contradictory philosophies (progressivism and libertarianism) come together under this new approach. Isocrats believe in small government, but also that we’re all in this together and we should help others where we can.

This really is a new political philosophy because it rests on truly new technological tools. As our technological tools change so should our politics and our philosophies.

The basic idea of isocracy is that a lot of things that government has often done can and should be crowd-sourced – that is, performed by the crowd, the masses, rather than by government or corporations. This is different than the historically right-wing tendency to want to privatize government, but it is nonetheless a type of privatization. Rather than privatizing by selling off government assets and responsibilities to corporations, however, crowd-sourcing looks to a broader universe of entities than just traditional corporate interests to take the place of traditional government. Crowd-sourcing generally relies on regular people like me and you, but it can include a variety of entities as part of the “crowd,” including individuals, civic groups, corporations, and government entities, all working together to find creative and efficient solutions. We are increasingly crowd-sourcing government and we should be actively looking for ways to accelerate this trend.

An innocuous but useful example: Boston pioneered the “adopt a fire hydrant” program, which allows any individual, business, or community group to adopt a fire hydrant and ensure that it remains accessible to firefighters in winter by shoveling snow after a storm. This saves firefighters the trouble of doing this themselves, on a city-wide basis. Chicago, Buenos Aires, and Honolulu (for tsunami sirens instead of hydrants) have followed suit.

A more far-reaching example: Finland recently began a website that allows anyone to propose a law to be voted on by parliament. If a proposed law gets 50,000 votes within six months, the parliament must vote up or down on the law. This is an online expansion of the long-standing initiative process pioneered by states like California.

Isocrats look at policy debates in a way that is similar to the long-standing debate about states’ rights, traditionally a conservative value – but we go a lot further. That is, rather than looking just to the dichotomy between federal and state power, we look to whether policy decisions should be made at the county or city level rather than the state or national level. Or, even more importantly, whether peer networks, crowds, can make the policy decisions without any direct government involvement.

Principles for a new philosophy

All political philosophies should begin with principles and it is timely to suggest some basic principles for the new isocracy. The following principles seem to follow naturally from the many activities already occurring under this new approach to politics:

1. The goal of life and any political system should be to enhance freedom and creativity for all people

2. All governmental power should be devolved to the lowest possible level, including the level of crowd-sourcing, but in a way that ensures other societal goals or principles can still be met

3. The fully distributed (non-centralized) peer network best represents the principle of devolution of power, even if it can’t always be achieved fully in practice

4. A devotion to facts and reason should be part of all political decisions

5. So that people can function as a nation, some responsibilities must remain at the federal level

Isocrats will, if they follow the principles outlined here, very likely be able to find common ground with left and right on various issues. Combined with the fact that an increasing number of voters are refusing to register as Democrat or Republican, it seems that there may be significant room for isocrats to enter politics at various levels of government – or stay out of government and work as part of the non-government crowd.

But what about the real world?

Applying these principles to real-world problems will always be subjective and debatable. But that’s the nature of all political philosophies. A key difference from traditional progressives that results from these principles is the dramatic devolution of power from the federal level in many situations that don’t demand a federal solution. Social issues, in particular, should remain at the state level or lower, rather than defaulting to the federal level. This means that isocrats will generally support gun control decisions, education, reproductive rights, gay rights, drug rights, and religious tolerance issues being determined at the state level.

Other issues that very likely must remain at the federal level include foreign policy (because a single actor must represent a nation, rather than each state conducting its own foreign policy), national defense, immigration, environmental protection of air and water pollution (because these issues easily cross state boundaries in a way that can’t be prevented) and possibly health care (due to the difficulty in allowing each state to determine exclusively its own path to the possible detriment of people moving between states).

Isocrats will generally differ from traditional libertarians in the degree to which various actions are considered to affect others’ metaphorical noses – as in the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote at the beginning of this essay. All thinking libertarians will acknowledge that the libertarians’ credo, which Holmes stated so well, should not be taken only in a literal sense. Swinging one’s fist through the air takes many metaphorical forms, such as shooting a gun, driving a car, making too much noise for the neighbors’ taste, and many other examples.

In particular, isocrats may disagree with traditional libertarians in the understanding that emitting environmental pollution is a way of swinging one’s fist through the air, and when pollution harms others it is tantamount to punching others on the nose – metaphorically.

Allowing safety nets to erode such that the social fabric around us also erodes, due to too many unemployed, homeless, or sick, may also warrant some kind of collective action. This doesn’t have to mean government action, but non-governmental solutions, such as relying on private churches and charities to replace traditional government roles in supplying a strong safety net must be up to the magnitude of the task.

I’ll work through one example of a contemporary political problem, in a little more detailed way, to show how peer progressives have already worked out solutions that don’t require government involvement.

New York City began a 311 phone call system for citizens to report problems or obtain information from city government. Anyone could call 311, just like you might call 911 in emergencies or 411 for a phone number. This system went online eventually, allowing people to avoid the hassle of phone calls. The next evolution came in the form of an open-source 311 software platform, called Open311, that any community may adopt to create its own community information and problem-solving system.

This idea evolved further and became SeeClickFix.com, which is a 311-type system that is open to anyone anywhere in the world and is designed to allow anyone (individual, community group, or government agency) to respond to the problems reported. And of course there is a smartphone app that allows you to report issues from anywhere. I signed up and checked my area, Santa Barbara, for reported problems. Most were graffiti but there was also a streetlight outage reported, a robbery, and a pothole. I voted to fix the street light and I’m now following that issue. Let’s see if it gets fixed in a timely manner…

Brickstarter.org, currently a prototype under development, is the next step in this progression and it combines the ability to crowd-source problem-reporting platforms like Open311 and SeeClickFix.com with crowd-funding for solutions. Or to crowd-fund ideas that don’t spring from problems per se, such as a community-scale wind turbine or a local community center run by community members.

The point of all of these new tools is that through seamless and almost-free flow of information and ideas, we can now act cooperatively in many circumstances without the intervention of government. The crowd can increasingly replace government. This will be a many decades-long process, to be sure, and I don’t envision government withering away entirely in a future anarchist/Marxist utopia. But I do see government becoming far less important in many ways. I also hope that this increasing trend toward crowd-sourcing government will enhance our natural compassion for others and not diminish it.

Stephen Johnson’s Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age is an accessible and entertaining overview of this new approach to politics and governance. A more academic and in-depth treatment may be found in Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

The next essay in this series will develop further some of the ideas introduced here.

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Tam Hunt is a lawyer and writer based in Santa Barbara. His blog, Thought, Spirit, Politik, is at tamhunt.blogspot.com

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