Liberalism, part 1

November 02, 2017

Liberalism is the major political philosophy of American civic technology projects. Here, by liberalism, I mean the beliefs that individual citizens know best their own interests; government must have the consent of the people to be legitimate; and that government should impinge upon the freedom of individuals as little as possible. So, liberalism as in the Bill of Rights not as in NPR listener.

Beyond it dominance in American society, liberalism is particularly prominent within civic technology because of particular role that information plays in liberal diagnoses of the problems of governments

Democratically elected governments sometimes act foolishly and indecently and wreak great harm. A potential explanation of this fact is that electorate is composed of people who are foolish, indecent, and who want to wreak great harm. This is not an explanation that liberalism can accept.

Liberals have always accepted that certain categories of people do not have the capacity for the moral judgment required to be full citizens. Currently, in the United States, these classes include children, noncitizens, and in some states, the “mentally incompetent,” and people convicted of felonies. Historically, of course, American liberalism also countenanced the disenfranchisement of women and non-whites.

However, while the boundaries of who counts as a full citizen has changed greatly, within the magic circle, there is no appetite to grade who is wise and foolish, moral or wicked. Under liberalism, the competence and legitimacy of fellow citizens is taken for granted. This is a very nice thing about liberalism.

However, if the electorate is more or less good, then how do understand when our government does things that are bad. One venerable solution is to identify an enemy, foreign or domestic, that is conspiring to subvert the will of the electorate. Richard J. Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” is the article to read about that.

The other major explanation is that the electorate hasn’t been able to get all the facts. If voters vote for bad governments, it’s because they don’t know they are bad. People just need the right information.

If your job is in information technology, this diagnoses is particularly beguiling. The problems of our democracy are precisely those that you are have been trained to address. Here’s the theory: if you make it easier for voters to be informed, good things will be sure to happen.

Here are some projects that I admire or was a part which tested that theory.

There are lots of others in this vein.

In my experience, some of these projects are very useful. But the ones that I know intimately were not useful in way I hoped. Making information about campaign finance or the activities of legislators much easier to access has had very little direct influence on Chicago voters and through them on capacity to govern ourselves well. These sites have found uses and users but those users have not been the “the public,” at least not directly.

Okay, I think that’s enough for this installment.

Subscribe to get Slow-News as an email newsletter.