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Could we use open source tools to improve politics? (gigaom.com)
28 points by iProject 1816 days ago | hide | past | web | 13 comments | favorite

First thing we need to do is take the current process and make it much easier for the common man to track. That means laws written in plaintext formats that can be tracked. Not released as PDFs, it means keeping track of voting records etc etc. Email notifications to people when a law as passed. Let people follow their politicians in a Facebook style manner so that they can see everything they are doing and leave comments etc.

There are many sites that do some of these things already but none (as far as I know) that combine that all into one nice user interface.

When that infrastructure is there THEN we can start with the more political changes.

Crowdsourcing works for Wikipedia and open source software because there are compatible elements of unambiguous truth and scratch-your-own-itch. The areas of lawmaking where this is true are few, so this won't work.

Should a shoplifter have his hand chopped off, be caned, be jailed, get community service or not be punished at all? People are going to disagree with each other on this and most other issues and ultimately nobody is going to get the solution they feel is the best for everything. Democracy is not designed to creating optimal societies, it's designed to make sure we can still live together peacefully despite disagreeing.

No. Not in the way that this article discusses. The government is perfectly capable of being open. It doesn't want to be.

"I want to be X"

"Here's a tool that lets you be Y"

"But I still want to be X!"

When you see a convoluted, complex, or "bad" law passed, for whatever your definition of "bad" is, it's not because the legislators were somehow unable to write a better one. There are plenty of smart staffers and smart lobbyists who write laws, and they write exactly what they mean to write. They passed what they wanted to pass.

This approach solves a problem that doesn't exist ("government unable to write good laws") and fails to solve the real problem that actually exists ("government doesn't want to write good laws"). The real problem is being addressed by, e.g., http://www.rootstrikers.org/ .

This is a fundamental misapprehension of how government works. I thought Clay Shirky was smarter than this.

I don't think the distinction is that clear-cut.

One of the reasons that governments don't want to write good laws is because there is too little incentive to write good laws, and too much incentive to write bad laws. One solution might be to replace those irresponsible lawmakers, or at least augment them, with those who actually do have an incentive to write good laws.

Participatory democracy is not simply the idea that more people can write better laws. The number of participants, by itself, is meaningless. Part of the idea is that if you invite a diverse range of individuals and groups to participate in the process, at least some of them will have enough motivation, passion, and intellectual prowess to outmatch the ones who don't. Open-source software might not have any performance advantages over proprietary alternatives, but at least it will be easier for somebody to spot a backdoor.

I have a lot of respect for people who are trying their best to curb the influence of money on politics. But if the idea is that politicians will want to write good laws once the influence of money is gone, I think that's just as naive as the idea that you're criticizing. No matter how we tweak our campaign financing regulations, there will always be people who don't want to write good laws, and those kinds of people have an unfortunate tendency to want to become politicians. To ignore this crooked aspect of humanity is a fundamental misapprehension of how government works.

So, electing the right sort of people is only half the solution. The only way to ensure that those who are elected keep wanting to write good laws is to force them to write good laws or else face severe repercussions (e.g. being recalled or thrown in jail). But in order for the rest of us to detect deviations from good lawmaking and inflict appropriate repercussions on responsible parties, first we need to know what the hell is going on. So even if having more eyes does not automatically lead to better laws, at least it will make it a bit more difficult for those who write bad laws to get away with it. It's a lot more difficult to get away with a backdoor if the relevant commit was signed with your key and the whole world knows it.

"Our elected 'representatives' don't represent us in any literal sense, as if we were doing the ruling 'through them'. That is nonsense. They rule and we don't. But because we can easily deprive them of power at certain intervals, they have (at least theoretically) the incentive to rule in a way responsive to our interests." - Jean Hampton, Political Philosophy

I'm surprised that the Pirate Party wasn't mentioned here. There are a bunch of free software tools with an aim towards participatory democracy, here are a couple very interesting ones:

- Liquid feedback, http://liquidfeedback.org and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_Feedback

- Votorola, http://zelea.com/project/votorola/home.xht

Lots more at http://metagovernment.org/wiki/Active_projects

Imagine if you could propose a law, then garner support for it at a grassroots level. E.g back in 2002(?) someone proposes a law that makes it a criminal offense to declare war without the backing of the UN.

Effectively anyone can table a private members bill and then the whole country can vote on it. Most amendments would go nowhere but some would be significant enough to attract enough attention for significant majority of the population to cast a binding number of votes.

It would be a more significant moment for democracy than the Magna Carta.

What a stunning naivete. Wow.

The system incentivizes legerdemain through complexity. Laws are being written exactly in the manner that benefits those that matter the most -- legislators.

In the states, there's not even an incentive for laws to actually solve one problem at a time. There is no "test case". Instead, laws addressing various problems (or perhaps a better way of putting it would be seeking various types of votes) are lumped together and all presented as a pass-or-defeat decision for the president. In this manner a legislator can vote for "money for the troops act" or "food for starving orphans act" while actually ensuring that a dozen of the local businesses that support him gain unfair competitive advantage and that the local union will be motivated to get out the vote the next election.

Laws are what get votes. This is their only acceptance criteria. The last thing in the world that's ever going to happen is to get a legislator to give up total control over the complexity and nuances of the schlock they create.

Could we? Sure. But the thin end of the wedge -which is to have it presented in a way that lets legislators think they get an advantage out of it- has yet to be played correctly...mostly because the obvious threats to their established patterns is far more clear.

Open-source or not, I think the answer is yes. I've been working on PlainSite along these lines.


http://www.change.org is a great site that's had some real successes, albeit outside of the political arena.

http://www.govtrack.us is also quite comprehensive.

Isn't our representative democracy already open source?

By name only.

What problem is this supposed to fix?

Until lobbyists are made illegal, all the tools in the world aren't going to change much.

Industries and special interests groups should not be allowed to whisper in the ears of politicians, that's what voting is for.

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