Wikipedia is one of the most surprising hits to arise out of the Internet age. The proposition, when it was introduced back in 2001, sounded ludicrous. “What if, instead of having an encyclopedia compiled by a small group of experts, we open it up to millions of people and let them write it up instead?” It sounded preposterous. Letting non-experts provide and monitor the content sounded like a recipe for pure anarchy. Few restrictions were imposed. A few seeder articles were written by the in-house team, and then control was handed over to the mob. Despite trenchant criticism, it has been an incredible success. Now, 6 years later, it has 6 million articles in 250 languages, greatly overshadowing physical offerings such as Encyclopedia Brittanica and the World Book. And the thing is, somehow it works. It has evolved into a huge self-correcting, authoritative, dynamic organism. False, biased and slanderous entries do get written, but in general the work is quite accurate, and when errors do occur they can be corrected pretty quickly. One view on it is that in general it is an excellent repository of information even though many specifics might be flawed.
This idea that “mob rule” can evolve into something vibrant, self-correcting and comprehensive is intriguing to say the least. It’s a good example of the Wisdom of Crowds idea that I spoke about some time back.
So, what about applying the same rules to democracy, then?
Even though many people equate “democracy” with “freedom” and tend to think of the prevailing Western system of government as the best possible system, a debate still rages as to whether it is true democracy at all. If we go back into history (and indeed to many countries around the world today), the elites have been in power – people who have been educated, guided and born into privileged positions tended to take the reins of government when the chance arose. They often had exclusive authority over the “little people” and indeed sometimes asserted a “divine right” to rule over them. In the last 300 years or so, the populace started to demand a greater say in how things were governed, and the hard-won result is a compromise between the elites and the mob. This is parliamentary republicanism, or what many people call “democracy”.
In a republican system, the elites still rule, but us plebs can now attempt to throw them out every 4 years or so. Power is centred in the hands of a very small number of people, and that power is then tempered by the judicial system, the parliament or congress, international agreements, and the press and public opinion generally. It’s quite robust and certainly highly successful. A possible factor in its success is that change is possible in the medium term, without violence or coups d’etat, thus leading to greater stability and security. The addition of innovations such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and property rights etc have given people a lot of latitude and freedom in their personal lives.
But it’s far from being a perfect system. Legislation tends to lag the issues of the times, sometimes by many years. People who have experienced injustice often feel that no-one is listening. Corruption and cronyism persist. People with ties to the elite tend to be treated more leniently than those further down the pecking order. The same old names continue to rule over long periods. Many people feel disenfranchised, and this is evidenced in part by the decline in the number of people voting in elections all across the Western world.
So, it’s interesting, even as just a thought experiment, to imagine a world where legislation can be changed by professionals and amateurs alike, in much the same way as in Wikipedia. Normal citizens become the lawmakers, or law refiners, or critics, or whatever they choose. The public debate the issues and collaborate in the drafting of the laws of state. Where problems are found, these laws are then amended quickly, again though participatory discussion and collaboration. No one group has a monopoly on power – laws arise through the mechanisms of debate and consensus. Flawed legislation can be corrected or removed quickly. Everyone who wants to can have a say.
It seems perverse. It seems anarchic. And yet, as we are finding out with Wikipedia and its offshoots, it is possible to create something beautiful and workable by simply providing a framework and letting people get on with it.
Churchill once said “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried”. Could Wikidemocracy lead us to a less worse form of goverment perhaps?