direct democracy

So I went to Washington D.C. for the Nuclear Engineering Student Delegation, right? And it was extremely interesting and enlightening and fun. One thing that really struck me during our private tour of the Capitol building was that the appropriations process in the USA is messed up. 30 people on the appropriations committee get together in this small room and decide the fate of over $1 trillion. That’s an unfathomable amount of money, and there’s no way, NO WAY, that those 30 people have any idea of where it’s going. The tour guide was an ex representative from New York. He said that if you think learning how a hot dog is made is bad, wait till you see how an appropriations bill is made…

appropriations room
Here's where the magic happens

Talk about a bottleneck! So I got to thinking. Say, you know when computer people first experienced a server offering a single file to way too many clients, like when a new version of Ubuntu came out or whatever? And the whole system slowed down for everybody? And then someone invented bittorrent where all the clients then serve bits and pieces of the file that they’ve already downloaded so that the more people who try to get the file, the faster everyone else gets it? This decentralization is an infinitely smarter way to distribute the workload and use everyones computer power and network bandwidth perfectly. So what’s the analogy to a congressional appropriations bill? How can we decentralize things? Then the thought occurred to me: what if the founding fathers had the internet? They’d be able to easily poll everyone in the country! They’d still want representatives to filter out all the noise, but I don’t think they would just totally forget about the internet.

Imagine a government where Congresspeople propose a bunch of programs, etc. And the IRS tells everyone how much they owe in taxes. And Congress tells people that 70% of what they owe has to go to these specific mandatory programs (like medicare, social security, portions of defense, etc.). Shouldn’t be difficult to imagine because this is basically how it goes now. But then imagine that the final 30% of what you owe can go to whatever program you choose. You just go on down to a computer at the library (or in your home) and fill in percentages in all the optional programs that you’d like to fund. Then, at the end of it, programs take a look at what they got and go forth with their allotted budget. The implications of this are huge. All the stupid mindless arguments about the few controversial issues would be much less important; if you don’t want to fund universal health care with abortion then you don’t fund the abortion part. If you don’t want more F-22 fighter jets then you fund something else instead. If you don’t want to take the time to nit pick everything, you just vote “along party lines” with a representative of your choice.

This kind of thing would engage the masses. People care about what they spend money on. When they’re told to pay up or go to jail they pay. But if they’re given a choice, I think we’d see a huge increase in attention of where it’s going to. Special interest groups leave DC and focus on joe shmoe. Representatives don’t worry about controversial topics during election year because its out of their hands. The trillion dollars would be appropriated by 300 million people instead of 30. I think it’s a cool idea.

Of course, there are problems. Not everyone has a computer, hackers can hack, this puts too much power in the rich people. But all these have solutions (give rich people smaller optional percentages, for instance. We could call it a “graduated tax”…)

Anyway. The internet and computer have changed everything. Why not apply them to the inefficient government?

The electronic direct democracy work that is done seems to focus on voting on particular representatives or particular bills. This might fall victim to old concerns listed in Madison’s Federalist 10 worrying about fads swaying government. But to set the budget this way is totally different.

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