Intarnets law?

4 October 2009

I’ll be honest.  I don’t spend a great deal of time being thankful I’m not British.  Quite the contrary.

Witness, then, a novelty.

Voters will be given the power to rewrite laws under Tory plans to transform the way parliament works by importing a popular scheme championed by Barack Obama in last year’s US election.

[…]

Under the Tory plans, a parliamentary bill would be introduced in the way it is now. The first and main debate – the second reading stage, in which the broad principles of the proposed new laws are debated on the floor of the Commons – would be held in the normal way.

But once MPs have held this debate, the bill would be thrown open to voters before it is considered line by line at the committee stage. A website would allow voters to comment on and rewrite the broad principles of the bill, and individual clauses.

Contributors would rank comments so the most popular suggestions appear at the top. This is similar to mixedink, which allows voters to argue for and against various policies and suggest their own ideas.

I have a question for the hapless Mr Hague, who has the misfortune of floating this trial balloon: have you ever been on the Internet?

Seriously.  The difference between an actual policy debate and that which you’re likely to find through such a “popular legislative process” is like the difference between Glee and, well, an actual high school a capella group.  Don’t believe me?  Go onto the comments pages of The Guardian, or Politico, or indeed the one or two occasions somebody I don’t know has commented on this blog.  If you believed what you see on the internet not only would you not want the people to make law, you wouldn’t want them to vote for the ones who do.

I feel a little bit of indignation bubbling up in you already.  What an anti-democratic argument!  Well, maybe.  But then the internet isn’t really democratic.  In the UK, as I’ve written before, things have gotten a lot more virulent even than America, but the question still remains: why do these evil corrupt Congressmen or MPs get to make our laws?  Because we keep choosing them.  They may be unresponsive, lazy sexual predators with their snouts planted firmly in the trough, but they are ours.  Both in theory and in practice there’s nothing stopping anyone from choosing somebody different. To go further there is no excuse.

But people on the internet – by whom are they chosen?  Who decides that they are “the people,” that they speak for some unrepresented segment of the population?  Precisely no one.  They choose themselves, and the reason indeed that they are so often ignored is precisely because of a chronic inability amongst much of the blogosphere to follow basic rules of civility and reason, much less digest complex topics like the cod quota or the politics of disarmament.

But of course this follows from a misunderstanding of “the people” that the political class, in its rush to cater to the Internet Generation, has all-to-quickly developed.  There is no People, at least not in terms of some vast group of unrepresented and unserved proletariat bubbling over with untapped ideas and revolutionary passion.  In both Britain and America there used to be groups such as these.  Something was done about it.  (And by legislatures bereft of these excluded masses.  Funny that.)

Measures like this are really just a reaction to general apathy towards the political process, not the exclusion of some mysterious silent majority.  In their effect they are not only dangerously populist but dangerously anti-democratic as well, in that they threaten to transfer under the guise of enhanced popular sovereignty a law-making power that previously was enjoyed by the people only through the representatives all had the right to accept or reject.  On top of this now will be placed a class of “law-makers” no one asked for and nobody wanted.  Good intentions being what they are, you put yourself on the receiving end of a downmarket House of Lords – the Senate meets the Sun.  (This really isn’t fair.  In the House of Lords there’s at least someone to check and make sure you’re not mad.)

Of course, one might reply, anyone can participate.  Those who do cannot be held responsible for those who do not.  True perhaps, but that is to elevate the theory at the expense of the practice.  If there were such a system, in which people could alter legislation, online, at will, and assuming in Wikipedia-style fashion anyone could, who would actually do it?  Not everybody.  Not the people without access to computers and/or the internet (in the US at least 20%, according to the International Telecommunications Union; I couldn’t find UK statistics but it’s probably comparable or higher; broadband penetration is far lower).  Higher proportions – far higher – for the poor, blacks, etc.  Scratch most of those who work full-time or more.  Mothers with children are probably out, especially if they’re single parents (of either gender).  Tinkering with legislation won’t pay the mortgage.

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

YOUR NEW GOVERNMENT

So who will be left, besides these groups too “apathetic” (i.e. struggling) to care?  The wealthy, the bored, and of-course-I-know-best political obsessives who are too reserved, selfish or extreme to actually seek office for themselves.  (Read: me.)  I don’t doubt a few decent people will trickle through – but I don’t doubt they’ll trickle back out again, most of them.  The effect will be that the best-off, most-driven and frequently most-extreme people will take advantage of the opportunity to wreak havoc on the legislative process.  They will be little dictators each and every one.

The example of Wikipedia is instructive.  From its roots as an open source encyclopedia, it has gradually resolved into an organization with permanent staff, a bureaucratic structure that includes courts to resolve disputes between editors and a model heavily-dependent on a few very devoted and profligate senior editors, trusted through their experience and seniority to protect the vast store of information from the ever-present prospect of vandalism.  At least with Wikipedia I can still, if I like, go in and make productive changes.  With the law there’s no such chance: once it’s done, it’s done.  There’s no “work in progress” about it.

This is not to defame the prospect of models like open source governance.  It is promising.  But it is also young.  And this is true of the whole Internet – it moves far faster than even the most youthful and adaptable of its users (and certainly moreso than the legislators tasked with putting it to some political use), and law as an institution depends on consistency far more than adaptability or representativeness.  It’s far more important than you can count on the law than that it be modern or include you in its construction.  Most murder laws were written under an incomplete franchise.  That doesn’t make them bad laws.

This policy, like most attempts to shoehorn the internet into law-making, is trying to fit a square peg into a round hole in an attempt to figure out where your sphere went.  It is the wrong solution to the problem of disengagement and inclusion.  Want the public to get back into politics?  Empowering a few frothing obsessives is not the answer.  Try public holidays on election day – public holidays in general.  A reduction of the work week so people have more time for politics.  Or subsidized child care.  Mandatory overtime.  Compulsory voting.  All very scary and socialist ideas probably.  But at least they have the benefit of being fair and of appealing to what is, in fact, the people, rather than those of their number who are indolent, obnoxious, and bored.

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