What if our constitution was a Wikipedia page that any of us could edit, and trusted editors could then incorporate those edits as it made sense?

That was the idea behind “WikiCity,” a project proposed as the future of Singaporean government. Its creators imagined a world “where there is no editor and thus no central power, but it is most-critically self-activating and self-correcting by its own user community—its Citizens.”

Interestingly, Singapore might be more like that than any other country. After all, WikiCity was a response to their own question: “How should Singapore be governed in 10 years?” and it is one of many the country has crowdsourced from their citizens in order to “engage Singaporeans in reflecting on the different dimensions of governance and to work toward a future they desire.” 

This kind of crowdsourced government is known as “direct democracy.” Instead of electing leaders who are supposed to “represent” what we want, we provide direct feedback on what we want all the time everywhere and educated leaders take that into account as part of their planning. In his book Technocracy in America, Parag Khanna uses Singapore and Switzerland as examples of direct democracy in practice. 

In a representative democracy, for instance, if you want better public transportation you have to vote for a leader who is making transportation her priority and hope she can pass those plans through congress once in office. But in a direct democracy you would provide your feedback directly to the transportation board, which has the autonomy and expertise to take that data into account as they make improvements in real time.

In Switzerland and Singapore that crowdsourcing comes, not just from what the citizens say they want, but also from data that shows what will achieve their goals. A US citizen may want fair and just trials, for example, but that doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable enough to know which judges should be voted into office. Those in the judicial branch do—they can see the track record of various judges and can monitor where they have been impartial or not. Feedback from the public as well as data on their cases helps qualified experts make good decisions.

This is the argument made in Garett Jones’ book 10% Less Democracy. The tax code shouldn’t be written by everyday citizens, he says, it’s already a mess letting elected officials do it. And elected treasurers just don’t do as good a job at managing the country’s money as those who were qualified for and thus hired to do the job. Even if a direct democracy allows individuals to have more say in their everyday lives, it also gives trusted officials more authority to make those lives better.

As Khanna says, “It is better to have a system focused on delivery without democracy than a system that is too democratic at the expense of delivery.”

That’s not to say that direct democracy shouldn’t be democratic—it should. It’s just that the goal isn’t for the country to be more democratic, it’s for it to be more good. “Everyday people don’t measure [the success of their country] by how ‘democratic’ their state is,” Khanna says, “but whether they feel safe in their cities, can afford their homes, have stability in their work, have a plan for growing old, and can remain connected to friends and family.”

Democracy is crucial to achieving that, but representative democracy might be the least democratic way to achieve it. We, as citizens, should directly impact how our government is run, providing feedback on everything from housing and healthcare to transportation and quality of life, rather than hoping that one person lines up with all of the hundreds of millions of things that we want and then can put them into practice in office.

Why should we have to vote the same way on abortion as we do on taxation? Why should we have to vote the same way on taxation as we do about immigration? The two party system, and the politicians who represent each party, have created a binary belief system where we can only have one set of beliefs all the way down the line, rather than varying feedback throughout.

And because politicians must become mega-celebrities capable of raising gigantic super pacs to run, it more readily represents corporate interests and wealth than its citizens. Also, because elections are won or lost in gerrymandered districts of swing states, politicians cater their campaigns to a niche group of blue-collar workers who have the most say. That’s why, in the US, our elections are influenced by millionaires but catered toward auto workers in Detroit—even though most of the country is neither a millionaire (only 7% of the country are millionaires) nor a factory worker (only 4% of the country works a manufacturing job).

In other words: a very small sliver of our population is actually being “represented” by our representative democracy. 

But in a direct democracy, everyone is. 

And in a wikiocracy, maybe even more so.

In his book Governable Spaces, Nathan Schneider extols the democratic principles of Wikipedia, which is edited and run by a set of trusted volunteers. “Any user, in principle, can ascend the ranks of influence and position—holding such roles as ‘administrator,’ ‘steward,’ and ‘bureaucrat,’” he says. “Users are elected to these roles by their peers.”

Wikipedia, the company, is even run that way, with employees editing company policy as they go. “Most of the platform’s governance occurs on the editable pages of Wikipedia itself, formatted according to certain norms. It is a remarkable instance of ‘eating your own dog food’—an organization using its product in the process of making that same product.”

You might think this would result in chaos—that if citizens in the US tried to collaboratively write a page about immigration, for example, it would quickly become a divisive exercise. But that doesn’t happen on Wikipedia where the entire world can edit pages however they’d like. 

On Wikipedia, a page is initially written by an independent collaborator or group of collaborators, and they decide back and forth between themselves what the initial post will look like. A page defining immigration policy in the US, for example, might initially be written by our country’s immigration experts. If approved by Wikipedia editors (in this case the government) it would then be published where it opens up to everyone for contribution. 

Even when Wikipedia pages open up to the public, editing rarely results in an all-out brawl. Wikipedia editor Annie Rauwerda explained it this way: “Although it’s open to everybody, very few readers actually edit Wikipedia, which is interesting. Since there are lots of rules and guidelines, when you’re starting out it’s hard to get the hang of things. You have to be really determined if you want to be successful. So although it’s officially open to everyone, in reality it selects people that are extremely meticulous, diligent, hardworking, and hellbent on doing the thing.”

Those most knowledgeable and engaged with immigration might be the most motivated to contribute to the immigration page of our constitution. Those most knowledgeable about healthcare might more readily contribute to the healthcare pages of our constitution. There is a barrier to entry (time, motivation, knowledge, trustedness) that would ensure that was the case.

And everyday writers and thinkers like me and you could foster civic engagement merely by discussing them online. For example, Rauwerda runs the famous Twitter account Depths of Wikipedia where she unearths Wikipedia pages people might not usually see or edit. “A researcher from the London School of Economics did a study showing that after I post a Wikipedia page on Twitter, views and edits on that article go way up,” she says, “and many people who contribute there for the first time go on to make more edits that are helpful and constructive.”

I could write an essay proposing that top salaries at a company shouldn’t be more than 10x bottom salaries at a company, and if you happened to be knowledgeable about that topic you could head right to that Wikipedia page and propose edits. Others could upvote or downvote those edits and have further discussions about them before trusted editors could incorporate them. 

In Singapore and Switzerland it kind of works like that: everyone has a say in everything, there is still a leader or team of leaders who has the final say, and they have editable constitutions where anyone can provide feedback and trusted leaders can incorporate that feedback as we go. That’s a direct democracy.

In a wikiocracy, maybe we’d take it a step further and those leaders would be all of us, with our most expert editors naturally rising through the ranks as they become more trusted in their tasks, elected by us to incorporate edits to our constitution as needed.


 

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I like the idea, and the spirit of trying new ideas and forms of government.

That being said, Wikipedia isn't without its own issues. The editorial hierarchy, like every bureaucracy, becomes rigid, brittle, and ossified over time. The predominant viewpoint becomes entrenched. And so on.

I very much believe that our representative democracy has grave flaws, and that a wiki-based form of direct democracy answers some of them. But how would you keep the system from being games? At some point, someone has to have the power to approve the edits, and the politicking to be that person becomes fiercer the higher the stakes involved.