It’s Not Cambridge Analytica. It’s Our System of Government
Let’s be honest: We’re set up for a democracy of rubes and that scares us
The coordinated outrage against Cambridge Analytica is brilliant strategy. What better way to neutralize your opposition in a midterm election than to create the appearance of impropriety?
All this whistleblowing is a psy-ops campaign, not a scandal.
If you’re suddenly interested in “ethics” of using big data in elections, then your timing is, well, curious. Either you have been blissfully unaware of micro-targeting practices that have been called “brilliant” and “innovative” since the Obama’s 2012 victory, or your sudden yearning for election integrity is motivated by partisan team spirit.
Never mind, though. Let’s go deeper. Because if propagandizing the masses during elections is of real concern to anyone, then maybe we’re looking at the wrong problem.
Maybe we should reconsider our system of government.
The Trouble with Democracy
Since when did we have some expectation that people are going to behave “ethically” when it comes to elections? And why is it that anyone would think that sophisticated targeting and use of social media data is somehow wrong?
Putting aside the notion that partisans are moralists (they’re not), I think the concern is more that no one wants to be governed by anyone who is susceptible to targeting. At best they’re pliant jellyfish. At worst they’re just wrong about everything.
Call them rubes.
(Let’s define rube as anyone you don’t agree with and you think you’re smarter than.)
But in thinking a bit more, we have to admit there have always been rubes. There have always been demagogues. There have always been election arms races between campaigns. For those who believe democracy is the best hope of humanity, our system of government is supposed to be “by” and “for” everyone, including rubes. If rubes are a majority you get rubocracy every time. What’s wrong with our system, then, is not that rubes exist or that there are cynical marketers out there who have every incentive to exploit them.
What’s wrong with our system is majoritarian rule itself.
There, I said it.
It’s a tug o’ war between the “fors” and “agin’s” — the Red rubes and the Blue rubes. Every issue requiring subtlety or lateral thinking gets reduced to an either/or binary to be taken up by the two tribes. Second-rate pundits and pamphleteers try to corral the rubes to their respective polling stations, mainly to prop up an illusion that the people are in control. (They’re not. And they never really have been.)
The following is a brief critique of democracy, followed by a brief set of suggestions for how we can improve.
- The chance that any given person’s vote will affect the outcome of a national election is remote. You’re more likely to be struck by lightning on the way to the voting booth. But if anyone has the tie-breaking vote, it will probably be a rube.
- Rubes are everywhere. We should no more have millions of rubes picking our leaders than having one big rube leader to make decisions on behalf of so many people.
- Society is too complex to have 300 million people vote for a single executive to make such titanic decisions, even if the executive is not a rube, or chosen by rubes.
- Representative government means leaders represent those who elected them. Or that’s the idea. If they are being faithful to their constituents, they’re honoring promises to rubes. If they are not being faithful, then they are honoring deals with special interests.
- Democracy assumes that whatever the government does is a monolith. That means, whatever gets decided gets decided for everyone. But monolithic law does account for particular circumstances and contexts. Such creates winners, losers, and “antifragile” conditions, following Taleb.
Whizbang tech like liquid democracy can’t do much to fix the above. Democracy had a good run. We need a different system altogether.
New Systems of Governance
“What do you suggest if not democracy?”
In the search for some palatable alternative, pundits like Nathan Gardels are searching in vain:
The Progressives sought to combine the direct democracy of the ballot initiative — which they introduced so citizens could make laws directly — with smart government administered by non-partisan professionals and experts.
Similarly, a key innovation of democracy today would be to proactively solicit priority concerns from the public through open platforms, empower knowledgeable officials to process those concerns into effective and consensual policy responses on a non-partisan basis, and then go back to citizens directly for approval of those proposals at the ballot box before they become law.
This sounds like referendums + faith in experts + faith that they be “non-partisan.” Throw in a dash of liquid democracy and you’ve got the latest fashion in easy-click governance. But this simply won’t do, for the reasons we enumerated above plus a healthy does of skepticism about experts. It’s just rubes with computers, or unaccountable technocrats, or both.
The Decentralization Imperative
I will offer much greater detail in my forthcoming book, The Social Singularity. Until then, please consider this tentative list.
- Subsidiarity — Governance should be handled at the most local feasible level. If you have fifty states, have fifty laboratories. Failures are more localized and there are 49 options if things go south in your state. If they can be handled at the county or individual level, so be it. If democracy or liquid democracy is the subordinate decision-making system fine. But the first order of business is to devolve power, which is Constitutional.
- Polycentrism — Establish special jurisdictions or economic zones, especially in problem areas. Similar to subsidiarity, polycentrism means you have a political or cultural system that contains many different centers of authority or control. The centers check one another in a diverse array of competing jurisdictions, which effectively lower the costs of exit from any given jurisdiction by expanding the choice set available to citizens.
- Polyarchy — Divorce much of our law from territory. This is a system in which people can choice from an array of competing governance systems, covering different domains of activity. One of the first polyarchic systems available is cryptocurrency, because these have built in governance but don’t depend on territory for their existence. People opt in or opt out as they see fit. Currency is only the beginning. Why not healthcare systems? (Zach Weinersmith, borrowing from Paul Emile du Puydt, explores polyarchy in his book.)
Some combination of the above can solve many of the problems of democracy, as these are the tools of decentralization. Of course, with any such change you can create new problems. But problems are much more easily resolved when they’re localized and affect fewer people at once.
How does one bring about any of the above?
Step One, for citizens of the U.S. anyway, is simply to demand the Constitution be respected. Subsidiarity is already built into the Constitution in Amendments 9 and 10. If you think the Constitution is dead and cannot be revived, move to Step Two.
Step Two is to work to establish special economic or cultural zones, as have many countries around the world. Polycentrism needn’t be an offshore phenomenon, as these zones could help the most vulnerable areas attract people and capital. If it has to be done abroad, though, so be it.
Step Three is to migrate into a cloud jurisdiction. Blockchain and crypto technologies allow people to experiment with new systems of peaceful interaction, which rely on either “trustless” systems, or systems of hypermediation in which members operate more as a hive mind governed by reputation, incentives, and different kinds of smart contracts.
For what it’s worth, I believe Step Three is the most promising avenue, especially when coupled with Step Two.
The Integrity of Elections
The idea that partisan or tech wizards could come along and sway an election is hard for a lot of people to swallow. But let’s be honest: The real reason people freak out about Big Data is that there is way too much at stake in any given election. America, like many countries, has become too top heavy.
And yet many people love all that power when they fancy their angels are being installed to wield it. But as soon as those angels are replaced by villains, suddenly one side is worried about the integrity of elections.
“Integrity” — Read: “Figure out how to keep rubes from turning out.”
“Ethics” — Read: “I worry my team might lose the upper hand.”
This two-step between political expedience and feigned concern for integrity is a bipartisan dance.
For the winners, the ends justify the means. For the losers, integrity is conveniently front and center. If you think I’m being cynical, just consider how the mainstream media openly advocates for candidates. Nobody seems to worry about the “ethics” of that phenomenon, unless of course they are on the losing end of it.
If the whole thing weren’t such a spectacle designed to hand power to so few over so many, we wouldn’t worry so much about the process.
It’s time to unleash the power of decentralization. Then both the rubes and the elites will have to build their own utopias.