TOC Amending the US Constitution (part 1/3)
or Democracy in the Information Age
Your Turn

March 9, 2010

William Galston read in an american survey "78 per cent [of the respondents] believed the governement to be run by a few big interests, not for the benefit of the people" (*). Since the US government is elected by the people, this exposes such elections as an empty ritual and confirms the United States to be, rather than a democracy, what I call a pronaocracy, The government of the people by the lobbyists for the corporate interests.

Democracy is not alone in being found out to be pure Newspeak. According to Steve Lohr, "policy and privacy experts agree that the relentless rise of Internet data harvesting has overrun the old approach of using lengthy written notices to safeguard privacy" (**). Actually so-called privacy policies have never been but fig leaves, a pronaocratic sop to pacify the citizenry.

It is comforting to learn credible experts, among them Edward Felten (1), are trying to do something about it. "The browser [...] needs to be less promiscuous about the information collected". In fact, it doesn't have to be promiscuous at all. Online data collection is not an economic imperative. The issue is that it is in the interest of pronaocracy to avoid finding out personalization and privacy can be achieved without trading one for the other.

Similarly we saluted Lawrence Lessig when he decided to devote himself full time to fighting pronaocracy. He wrote recently about how he has felt let down by President Obama (2). He had been fairly warned though and may have only expressed his disappointment to a more naive public the better to convey a sad but predictable reality. Never mind his will, in this regard, the US President does not have the necessary power.

If the President cannot act, since the Congress cannot be expected to vote itself out of a job, knowing the Supreme Court feels only constrained by the original words of the Constitution, Lawrence Lessig has come out in favor of a constitutional amendment as the best way to "get our democracy back" (3). He has logic for him, even if such "a profound endeavor" may look to many like trying to reach the unreachable star.

He has also the good sense to acknowledge such an amendment cannot be drafted "by a single person or in a single week" (4). Why not then share my thoughts on what the amendment should achieved? Sieys I am not (5). But I contend our Information Age has woven many common threads between democracy and eprivacy, a domain in which I dare claim some competence.

We must start from the goal pursued by Lawrence Lessig. To give back their legitimacy to elected representatives, free them from the need to raise ever increasing amount of campaign money, a practice which inevitably arouses a suspicion of corruption. There are only three ways to go about it. Provide campaign money to all, starve all from campaign money or make campaign money irrelevant.

The first two approaches are in fact one and the same. Indeed it is meaningless to forbid private sources without providing some level of public support. But, being a competition, an election depends on campaign money less in absolute than in relative terms. Therefore, unless outrageously generous, public financing in itself will be ineffectual without some lid on private sources. There's the rub.

Can Democracy countenance depriving anyone of the right to spend one's legally acquired fortune in expressing one's opinions? More pragmatically, can one control how cash flows to campaign coffers through all channels, including the myriads of opaque, indirect byways lawyers are paid to invent? Turning an act into a crime only discourages honest people. To deter the rest, it is best to render the act fruitless even when unpunished.

To investigate the third solution then, making campaign money irrelevant, one should begin by asking what major roles this money plays today. There are three of them. It selects candidates. It pays to enable candidates to reach out to the voters and gather personal information about them.

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If not rich enough to fund their campaign with their fortune, today's candidates are those most proficient at money raising. Eliminate the influence of money and let everyone eligible to run at will? "People might find more and more choice to actually be debilitating" cautions business professor Sheena Iyengar in Alina Tugend's article, next to a picture of a supermarket aisle crammed with dozens of neatly packaged lettuce (***) (6).

If voters are not to be bedeviled, we must find some way to pick worthy candidates from a potential crowd. Google and Apple know of course how to make such recommendations. Never mind, relying on either a centralized recommendation system, especially if it lacks transparency, or, particularly if mercurial, a single recommender may start making the current system look desirable. Democracy is about decentralizing power.

Why not then select the most popular candidates? There is madness in this logic though. As the only unbiased way to measure popularity is to hold a regular election, it quickly dawns on one this leads to the kind of infinite recursion Jacques Derrida (7) would have appreciated.

In the United States, so-called party primaries cut this recursion short after one step by entrusting initial candidate selection to two parties and their registered voters. Unfortunately, once provisions have been added to allow for independent candidates and unaffiliated citizens, the resulting process in a foreigner's opinion at least makes Google's algorithms appear to be a model of fairness and simplicity.

French presidential elections propose another selection system for which a set of local elected representatives act as recommenders. Clear rules of endorsement put a ceiling on the number of candidates as well as a floor under their geographical appeal. The potential recommenders are small enough in number and have enough political savvy that would-be candidates could if need be sollicit every one of them at minimum expense. Yet their set is large and decentralized enough to support a diversity of opinions open to the lesser known.

Saying its current implementation is perfect would make Pangloss (8) proud. But it demonstrates how a recommendation system can simultaneously deliver an effective selection, severely limit the role of money and give a fair chance to any candidate whose program is worth a public hearing.

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Next week we will examine the relationships between the newly selected candidates and their public at large. By now though our readers should already agree that Democracy and eprivacy have in common how to express private opinions and share public recommendations.

Pronaocracy tends on the contrary to make what ought to remain private opinions public and turn private what should be public recommendations.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ..... In government America must trust, by William Galston (Financial Times)- March 4, 2010
  • (**) ... Redrawing The Route To Online Privacy, by Steve Lohr (New York Times) - February 28, 2010
  • (***) . Too Many Choices: A Problem That Can Paralyze, by Alina Tugend (New York Times) - February 27, 2010
  • (1) for more details, see Edward Felten in the wikipedia
  • (2) see How to Get Our Democracy Back, by Lawrence Lessig (The Nation) - February 22, 2010
  • (3) see Why Im Calling for a Constitutional Amendment, by Lawrence Lessig (FixCongressFirst.org) - January 27, 2010
  • (4) see Two Questions about the Path to a Constitutional Amendment, by Lawrence Lessig (FixCongressFirst.org) - January 28, 2010
  • (5) Sieys had a hand, though not necessarily the last word, in the French Constitutions for both the Directory and the Consulate (see the French wikipedia)
  • (6) French candidates are said to be there "pour vendre leur salade", rather than husbands and jams, the other "products" mentioned by Alina Tugend
  • (7) Obituary: The Infinite Search, by Alex Callinicos, November 2004
  • (8) see Pangloss in the wikipedia
March 2010
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