Tuesday, June 03, 2008

User-Generated Political Think Tanks...

Josh Catone wrote yesterday about a new, self-described "unofficial online campaign think-tank" called Oh Boy Obama. The idea behind the site is to allow anyone to post policy-related ideas, then let the public vote up or down whether they like the idea or not. Essentially, it's taking Digg-style social media and giving it a more narrow political focus.

The site was just launched, so it will take some time before there are any observable results. However, if a political think-tank can be based on user-generated content, then that begs the question... why not just allow Digg-style voting on actual public policy?

Political science undergraduate students are always perplexed as to why such a form of direct democracy isn't already in place, assuming the technology allows it. So here's a reminder of why citizens voting directly on public policy would be a bad idea.

American democracy is centered on the idea that the People ought to have power; but not absolute power. There are checks and balances set up to ensure that a "tyranny of the majority" cannot easily arise, and that mob rule does not substitute well-thought-out policymaking. This doesn't mean that an elite class has ultimate power over the People, but only that the temporary whims of the mob shouldn't dictate policy.

What's more, this point is embodied in our existing governance structures. Members of the House of Representatives are elected to two-year terms, which means that they need to respond to their constituents immediate demands if they want to be re-elected. However, members of the Senate are elected to six-year terms; the intention being that they can afford to be less responsive to the immediate and temporary demands of the People, and instead they can take a longer-term approach to policymaking. Their constituents might get angry that their will isn't being carried out today, but a few years down the road, the wisdom of the Senators' wait-and-see approach is often apparent.

The ethos of the Web 2.0 culture suggests, almost blindly, that the People should have the final authority in decision-making. Ultimately, that's true. However, we need to sometimes step back and realize the perils of immediacy.

A Digg-style voting-based system for generating ideas may turn out to be a wonderful source for innovation. But let's take a moment to reflect on why we wouldn't actually want to be ruled by such a system.


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