This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece I wrote about using the Internet to improve the user interface for our government, so citizens would be better informed. Readers of this blog will recognize some of the ideas. That's not the interesting part. Check out the comments if you want to lose all faith in humanity.

Some commenters say the Founders of the country intentionally designed the government to be inefficient and perpetually near gridlock so it can't easily become a gaping black hole for the nation's wealth. I agree. But how's that working out so far?

Other commenters believe that smart people cause all of the big problems in the world and therefore the solution is to have decisions made by people who don't even understand the question.

Some commenters believe that the Constitution shouldn't be changed because it was designed perfectly. (Coincidentally, these commenters are all white males who own property.)

And some people misunderstood my article entirely and thought I was suggesting changing the republic to a direct democracy. What I actually suggested is that government could help citizens become better informed.

After reading the comments to my article, I think this would be a good time to trot out my catch phrase: "And then they voted."
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Nov 10, 2011
One could argue that given the state of things, the smart people and the dummies are one and the same who have already made the decisions that put us all where we all are .

Nov 9, 2011
Dear Mr. Adams,

I appreciated your remarks in the WSJ, and they were so close to a project I'm a part of, I thought I had to let you know. I'm the CTO for a website called ElectNext.com, which is dedicated to helping voters find candidates who best represent them. We are building a candidate profile database, so we can pin down where candidates stand, and people can make decisions based on principle, rather than things like party or looks or money.

We make this data easy to access by operating like a dating site. You tell us what you believe, and we match you with the best politicians. On other sites, you have to research each candidate separately; on ElectNext, you input your preferences once, and then you can see who is closest. From there you can dip deeper if you like, but now you know where to start. This means your vote, your volunteering hours, and your donations are more targeted and hence more valuable. It also means politicians are more accountable to their actions, because people have greater ability to respond.

Our site also includes discussion of all the issues, with people submitting Pro and Con arguments. Although we are in talks with various organizations to get "experts" to contribute these arguments, we allow anyone to write them, and the best are chosen by our users. Sites like Quora and StackOverflow have shown that crowd-sourced moderation can be successful, if the incentives are set up correctly. We're trying to do the same with politics.

Many of your readers have said they don't want a Fourth Branch of government. I agree. ElectNext is not a government entity, but a company of citizens interested in helping fellow citizens more actively engage their government and hold it accountable. We're much more likely than a government bureaucracy to be "smallish and economical, operating independently."

I don't know if you read these comments, but if you do, I encourage you to check out ElectNext.com. We're a DreamIt company based in Philadelphia. We're small, but our site is live, and we're starting to acquire users. We had an article in TechCrunch on Monday and have received interest from several other sources. Please take a look.

Like you, we want people not just to vote, but to vote well.

Paul Jungwirth
Founder & CTO, ElectNext.com
-2 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 8, 2011
wotcha mr funny-man, love yer work, had no idea you'd taken to the internet like a duck to an oil-spill, shows how behind the times i am as a geek, huh?

someone else mentioned a slashdot article. i'd post you what i wrote, if i were an egomaniac, but after a few days of slashdot self-rule self-moderation, the cream or perhaps the scum has had time to percolate to the surface, and the lead balloons have sunk and left no further ripples.

this comment is, therefore, particularly relevant (included below its url). in effect, you're an intelligent and funny guy who has expected great things of your fellow citizens - that "social networking" shall, by definition, result also in "great things".

so i read - and fully understood - the implications of what you're recommending. the problem is: once you factor in "Da Inturnet" which wasn't really around 20 years ago, it's actually very similar to the fundamental principles of Governance that were recommended by the Natural Law Party, back in ooo 1994 or so. utilise actual experts to like... y'know... verify things? y'ken? i mean, for anyone with any sense, that just seems so blindingly obvious.

the trouble is: the present systems are very close to tyranny mob-rule. cream rises to the top, but so does scum....


"Just because you use the latest buzz-phrases in an attempt to reframe it doesn't change the picture: it's still what Jefferson and others described as the tyranny of the majority and went to considerable lengths to restrain when they devised our form of government. A rose is still a rose by any other name and all that. There are certain things that should be inalienable rights, that not even a majority should be able to take away from minorities with a vote. Your "crowd-sourced democracy" would allow that to happen.

Read up on tyranny of the majority, and then you'll understand why your re-branded crowd-sourced democracy is the same thing and just as un-egalitarian."

Nov 8, 2011
Scott - I think a key question about your proposal is this: how do you ensure that the appointment process and subsequent operations of the "fourth branch" are not corrupted by exactly the same forces which have undermined the proper functioning of the other branches? If you reduce the scope for corporate influence over, say, congress, surely you will just find the focus of advertising and media manipulation will turn to the fourth branch? How do you prevent the same network of rich and powerful pals from gaming the appointment process?

Have you read Plato's republic? In some respects you are talking about one of his proposals, which is rule by philosopher kings who prize knowledge and justice above corrupting influences.
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Nov 8, 2011
Scott, first thank you for being a patriot and a good citizen and trying to open us all up to new ideas.

I feel like the problems we are feeling are systemic ones as you do. A way in which we do business with the people, but a large part of rests on the interconnected nature of it all and the natural complexity we find our selves in. It's a lot to take in.

Growing up, things were simple. I went to school, I got good grades, and I was promised a life away from my parents working on my own. Today, the reality is much different. I live in california and I may have to work 5-10 years to save enough just to make the down payment on a house. ( IE actually a condo in a not awesome neighborhood ).

I find myself working my ass off at my job, and hardly having the time to make an informed decision. I find that it's not only hard to understand it all, but hard to trust the sources. We have created a spin culture and it just seems like things are just to big to handle.

I'd love to see a government that focused on making life simpler. Why should we reform the tax code, well because it would make us feel better? Why should government get involved in healthcare, because it needs to be simpler. Why hasn't it gotten simpler? It's probably the same reason that enterprise software remains complicated, and that's because the licensee can always afford the cost of learning it, meaning that insurance companies like it to be hard to understand so that you need them more.

I just feel like the government needs to represent us better. What percentage of the government is comprised of lawyers? If you think of a lawyer as a legal engineer, think of an engineer designing how your family should run. Think of an engineer designing how you interact with the people around you. We are facing this world today with lawyers writing legal code that manages how we receive medical care and how we make purchases, and how we are able to manage credit on those purchases.

The problem however comes back to complexity. It comes back to the limited resources that those legal engineers have to make those design choices, and on top of that, those choices, each and everyone of them needs to be sold to the public.

Imagine if Apple had to sell each change without the packaging of a final product.

So the problem comes back to how do we come up with a variety legal products and discover how each one of these perform? In the software world we have a compiler that lets you know if there are any critical miss thoughts in a software program. Think of it like a grammer check or a spell checker in word, but it goes deeper and tells you sometimes if there are critical logic errors. In the legal world we have no such device, or software that helps us understand the impacts of changes to our legal code. We also have so much legal code it's hard to understand how it's all connected. In the software world we have a design principal that separates components so that the interaction between them can be easily tested. How would we do this in our government.

When I keep coming back to it. It seems like many of the principles of good software, could lead to good government. And if our government law was simulatable, we might be able to have a sort of open source government, that was 'forkable' ( a copy, paste, and change ) mechanism that software engineers use.
Nov 8, 2011

You are talking about the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

I can see not all of the WSJ commenters suffer, but the force of Dunning-Kruger does appear strong enough amongst those there to be quite worrying. There seems a worrying propensity to see the US Constitution as a reflection of whatever you think is the most shining light. (I don't have a horse in the race and am not well enough informed or motivated to know what opinion is correct, however I think it might be very dangerous to regard anything as sacrosanct).
Nov 8, 2011
Don' feel too bad, because after all comments are for and from the general public. I never take comments from any article I read seriously because who knows who is at the keyboard writing and spinning his opinion and where that person got said opinion. As far as the readers of the WSJ being "the smart ones" I have to give an exasperated shout of derision. I reiterate, no one knows who is at the keyboard. Assumptions are a useless tool in reasoning. I enjoyed the article and I also believe Madison should have his own coin. Thank you for writing the article.
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Nov 8, 2011
I read the article and a few of the comments. I can't read them all, after all I'm supposed to do some work as well. I found a lot of them to be supportive to your case.
You're probably irritated because as a self-acclaimed watchamecallit*), somebody who thinks government should be minimized to law-making and executing, commenters now accuse you of wanting to extend the government. Src*w them.

*) libertarian
+16 Rank Up Rank Down
Nov 8, 2011
Your politicians are quite competent. It's just that they're practically bought by corporations, and their competence is directed at staying where they are which doesnt need to be whats good for the country, and improving things for said corporations. It's important to remember that what's good for an international company can be diametrically opposed to whats good for the nation they're currently acting in. They act on the behalf of their profit, not the well being of said nation.

Seriously, the way things are set up right now the US has downright legislated corruption. How can you not see this.
Nov 7, 2011
Here's where, IMHO, your "solution" goes off the rails: it ignores why the Constitution exists.

The Constitution does not exist to give the federal government a vague sense of purpose to guide it in what it should be doing. It exists for two reasons alone: to limit the power of the federal government and to guarantee that certain rights of the people will never be abridged.

Our federal government is out of control. It now controls roughly 30% of the GDP (state and local governments control another 10%), and it has exceeded its constitutional authority across the board. It has virtually limitless spending power; what it doesn't take from the people, it borrows from other countries. Our national debt is now at 100% of our GDP, and growing. President Obama and the Democrats want to spend trillions more.

The Supreme Court is soon going to decide something that should be obvious to anyone who believes in a limited government, to wit: can the government make it a requirement of being a US citizen to have to buy something? If ever there should be a nine-zero decision in the court saying, "Of course not!" then this is it. But the likelihood is that it will be a five-four decision that strikes down the insurance mandate of Obamacare.

This should scare the pants off of everyone in the country, yet most people just say, "ho, hum." If the decision goes the other way, then Scott, you don't need to worry about rewriting the Constitution; it isn't going to matter. The federal government will be able to do anything it wants, and take away your money to do it.

The reason the founders wrote the Constitution in the first place was because they knew that governments tend to grow in power and become tyrannical and confiscatory. What we need is not a new Constitution; we need to reduce the power (read, "money") that government has, and ask them to kindly get out of our lives.

Thomas Jefferson wanted the Constitution to be rewritten every ten years, as he did not want the people of the future to be burdened by the ideas of the past. But as he saw how contentious the discussions became, he changed his opinion, realizing that it would be too easy to undermine the intent of freedom and liberty if the rules of government were constantly changing. He also believed that the worst crime a government could commit was intergenerational theft. Boy, I'll bet he's upset now.

You should read (or re-read) Benjamin Franklin's written plea to the Constitutional Convention supporting ratification of the Constitution. Put it in context of today, and think about what he had to say. It's well worth your time to look it up.

Our benevolent, soft-dictatorship government just does what they want, all for our own good, of course. It's so important that we throw billions of taxpayer dollars down the so-called renewable energy rat hole, because it feels so good to save the planet. Which it doesn't, of course, but hey, the mantra of the liberal has always been symbolism over substance.

Why else would they tell us, on the one hand, that evil evil mercury can no longer be used in our thermometers, but then mandate that we put it in our light bulbs? Does that make any sense? Should we strangle our economy with ridiculous, pointless cap-and-trade schemes that, even if global warming were real, wouldn't do anything to stop it?

It has become too easy for the government to control our lives and take our money. The 2012 election (once again, I thank God that Scott doesn't vote) is going to be a turning point; a chance that will never come again to keep us from going down the road of Greece, Italy, France and the EU. We're out of money, and we're out of control.

The words attributed to various people including Andrew Tytler and Alexis de Tocqueville, are something to think about as we approach the 2012 election:

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.

Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage."

Think, folks. 2012 may be our last chance to stop the bus from running off the cliff. It's time to think of the nation's well-being, not just our own pocketbooks.

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Nov 7, 2011
> I agree. But how's that working out so far?

Did it occur to you that problems we're facing are the result of previous government action (slowly built up over 200 years), and not a failure to enact further quick action?

>What I actually suggested is that government could help citizens become better informed.

This is laughable. This would come from the same CBO that predicts budget deficits?
Nov 7, 2011
"Some commenters say the Founders of the country intentionally designed the government to be inefficient and perpetually near gridlock so it can't easily become a gaping black hole for the nation's wealth. I agree. But how's that working out so far? "

The purpose of separation of powers was to prevent one person or body to become all powerful. Unfortunately, the invented political parties to get around that little problem. Maybe we need to tweak the constitution so one political party can't control all 3 branches.

People also forget, we had just separated from a tyrannical overreaching government and the constitution was created to prevent that from happening here. But then again, according to Bismark, people will accept tyranny so long as the tyrants give them small handouts. When the constitution was written, it was envisioned that the federal government be limited in size (IE no huge amount of debt like we have and no perpetual deficits). Back then, the states were more important... a trend which lasted until the south abused the system.

You could argue that the current government set up is nothing like what the constitution requires and hence we have problems like these. The founding fathers wouldn't approved of a trillion dollar bailout to a bunch of companies that made loans to people who couldn't have paid them back. Of course back then, bankers had common sense so they wouldn't have needed a bail out.
Nov 7, 2011
Scott, I think you are advancing the conversation. The biggest speed bump I see is that "who gets to bell the cat", in determining who is an expert and who is not. Thomas Kuhn's <i>Structure of Scientific Revolutions</i> shows us the history of "expert thought" and it can actually make things darker, not clearer, such as his brief history of Copernicus, Einstein, Schrodinger. I agree that our voter pool is pretty mediocre, and what literacy has been gained has been offset by a sense of entitlement and a bigger, lazier ass. But I am unsure that leveraged bet on experts will yield much better results--primarily because of reduced accountability. Lord Acton was right when he said that power corrupts. Like John Adams believed, every democracy eventually commits suicide. To quote Will Ferrell's Chazz Reingold: with every death comes rebirth; it's the circle of life!
Nov 7, 2011
So why don't you start a campaign against morons voting?
You're already used to creating controversy... and don't have anything to lose. :)
I suggest some simple tests in the voting cabin done by a computer.
After taking the test the computer prints the ballot for the voter with a barcode and he/she votes normally.
Before counting the votes, another machine would discard the voters that suck at the test (morons), and then people can count the votes normally.
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Nov 7, 2011
Here's why your system wouldn't work either: no one has an incentive to put in the effort to become better informed, whatever the interface. See another idea below.


“Imagine buying cars the way we buy governments. Ten thousand people would get together and agree to vote, each for the car he preferred. Whichever car won, each of the ten thousand would have to buy it. It would not pay any of us to make any serious effort to find out which car was best; whatever I decide, my car is being picked for me by other members of the group. Under such institutions, the quality of cars would quickly decline.”
--David D. Friedman, The Machinery of Freedom (1995), p.132

The idea of competitive government is to allow constituents to use exit rather than voice as a check on concentrated power. In markets, consumer sovereignty puts firms under constant pressure to improve efficiency and tune their offerings to the wishes of individuals.

In markets, firms with unsuccessful product offerings go out of business. Voice works very poorly at shutting down unsuccessful government programs. No individual has an incentive to fight to end an obsolete or ineffective program. In fact, people whose incomes depend on the program are likely to lobby to keep it.

Market behavior shows that consumers value variety. People prefer different foods, different cars, and different forms of entertainment. In fact, offerings in music, television, and Internet show an expanding universe of niche demands. If there were a competitive market for packages of government services, regulations, and taxes, one would expect a lot of variety to emerge.
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Nov 7, 2011
A couple of Winston Churchill quotes on the topic of democracy and voters:

"The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter."

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried."

And one on America that I hope continues to prove out:

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else."
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Nov 7, 2011
I read the WSJ piece and the five pages of comments. I think you are exaggerating the negative response to your article. Most responses were positive.

On the substance of the proposal: Just do it already. If you think it's a great idea, just create the site already. No need for a constitutional convention.
Nov 7, 2011
If Dudley Moore and George Carlin popped back to life today they'd have loved your piece and written very funny and supportive comments.

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Nov 7, 2011
Yes Scott, I think you'll have to be using that phrase more often. I also noticed that your post was marked as a -1. I don't understand how there's anything to downvote in your short post. You wrote an article, people misunderstood the simple point, started commenting their ignorant opinions, and you become a super-villain once again.

Nov 7, 2011
hey scott, big fan. just to let you know, you are pretty close to prescient. there is already a site that allows for introduction of a "third party" to the ballot box for national elections. i can see it only being a matter of time until we get data charts on stances and arguments. then its easy to add wiki-links and expert opinions on the matter from both sides.
the site is http://www.americanselect.org/about

i cant vouch for the site, as i havent played with it yet. but its there
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