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Wiki Worries

Pete Peterson, executive director of Common Sense California, thinks the Obama camp’s revolutionary effort to crowd-source policy (at is not all it’s cracked up to be. These problems, Peterson persuasively argues, stem from the nature of representative government. So far, although there has been much response to the site and at least one presidential briefing book, the results have been less than inspiring. Money quote:

The scope of the issues are often so broad and complex, asking the general public to send in question ideas is a bit like sending Paris Hilton in to ask questions of a brain surgeon during surgery: she might look the part in her scrubs and mask, she might even ask a couple interesting questions, but she’s not really helping the surgical team. She’s just…participating.

In fact, it turns out that the White House forum simply became the next turf for single issue interest groups like the marijuana legalization lobby. The more successful an individual group became in pushing its priorities to the top of the list, the most exposure they got for their cause, again increasing traffic.

Peterson, who is keenly interested in the possibilities of the internet for increasing civic participation, suggests a different direction for the project: either push wiki-policy efforts back to local government, where it is more plausible to have meaningful input, or vet opinion makers on forums. The idea, as I understood it, would not be to close off opposing positions, but to limit the public discussion to policy experts and other smart wonks. This, of course, is less democratic, but more in line with representative (small “r” republican) government and with coherent policy making. Peterson suggest that it might also reduce the interest group mongering, what Madison presciently termed “the mischiefs of faction” (Federalist 10).

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