I was reading Joi Ito's essay on the subject of Democracy, which (oversimplifying, inevitably) argues that we need the world to be more democratic, and that the Internet (in particular through the emergent blog ecosystem) provides a higher-quality vehicle for discussion and education. I kind of believe the second half of the argument.

The world contains a lot of different implementations of the basic democratic idea (republican, parliamentary, cantonal, and so on), and I haven't observed that any of these systems produces systematically better government than the others. Also, I've always been impressed that the classic-period Athenians, who invented many of the basic ideas, often filled key positions by lot, and did quite well.

I don't believe, at the end of the day, that the population at large has a better understanding of policy than the professionals; when Nobel-prize-winning economists are generally unable to agree how to affect the inflation rate, how can we expect the broader populace, for which politics and economics are a part-time occupation at best, to discern the right set of policies?

I've long thought that the reason democracy works better than the alternatives is that the populace, whatever their level of policy insight, has historically been keenly aware when they are being badly governed. The virtue of democracy, then, is that you can toss out a bad government without having to set up a guillotine, storm the Winter Palace, or conduct a Long March.

I am unconvinced that any electoral mechanism is going to serve as a useful forum for policy debate, and in fact we might do just as well, once we've decided to give the incumbents the heave-ho, to choose the next candidates by lot from a pool of candidates who've passed some basic test for well-informedness and commitment. As long as we reserve the right to throw them out if and when we stop liking the results.

As to Ito's second point, I really hope he's right, because public discourse on policy, which inevitably is conducted in large part by professionals, is (in North America at least) appallingly shallow and very, very thin on plain-spoken truth. Maybe the Internet in general and the emergent collective noise of daily online voices will help.

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February 23, 2003
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