Bamboo Cyberdream

a panda wanders the electronic landscape

First Amendment FTW!

Around the time of the inauguration, my friend Benji and I were talking about forms of government, and it got me thinking about government from a game design perspective. Many of the ideas contained here came from him. (He works on MMOs, and spends a lot more time than I do thinking about how people interact in large groups.)

If you really think about it, the Founding Fathers were, in many respects, game designers. They were creating a complex system of interactions, hoping to make the system as balanced as possible, ensuring less powerful players (states) were able to have as much fun (power) as the bigger ones, and so on. Most interestingly, they had to take human nature into account, anticipating loopholes and exploits. At the same time they wanted the system to allow for a great deal of expression and user-generated content (new laws) without the chaos that would come from everyone having a direct say. The Constitution reads like the rules of a board game — spelling out exceptions and conditions for interpretation, and very carefully constraining the problem space.

The bottom line is that when the time comes to once again create a new system of government, I think it should be a group of game designers (in particular, a group of MMO designers), rather than (or in addition to) a group of lawyers. I can imagine the following kind of discussion:

Jefferson: We want to avoid the rise of a party system in our new nation.
Game Designer: But you’ve set things up so that a simple majority is enough to do almost anything, thus encouraging a split down the middle.
Jefferson: Yes, but…
Game Designer: And you’ve given the Vice President hardly any power at all, which means there will be a movement to join the tickets and vote for a pair. That will almost certainly lead to party candidacy.
Jefferson: Why don’t you go talk to Adams for a bit?

(As a disclaimer: I love America, think the Constitution and representational democracy are brilliant, etc. This next part is more a thought experiment than anything else.)

So what if we were to throw out all notions of government as we currently know them? New governments getting set up all over the world more or less ape the American system while retaining some institutions of cultural value. There’s not much innovation in the field, but it seems clear to me that we’re merely at a local maximum.

So here’s a random clustering of ideas that would almost certainly not work together but are interesting to think about.

  • Direct voting by the people on a certain class of issues. Use modern technology to its fullest potential by creating a secure (open source, code-verified) voting system which makes this easy.
  • A legislature that requires a 60% or 75% majority to accomplish anything, which would allow for parties but keep things fluid by encouraging the formation and power of smaller ones. (Might this put too much power in the hands of obstructionists? Should “doing nothing” be the appropriate default?)
  • Word limits on the length of any new law, to keep things simple (or at least simpler), and avoid riders/earmarks. Combine with an insistence that it must be written at a 5th grade reading level to avoid the laws becoming more terse as a result.
  • Every law expires after a period of time determined by the number of times the same law has been re-enacted. So if it was the Fibonacci sequence, laws would have to be re-upped after 1 year, 2 more years, 3, 5, 8, etc. (Benji’s idea, and an intriguing one)
  • Super short term limits to prevent the same legislature from merely rubber stamping re-enactments.
  • The lower house is like jury duty, so all citizens can be called to spend a month or so making the laws. (Given how fervently people avoid jury duty, this is obviously problematic, but there are almost certainly ways to make it more convenient.)
  • Scope requirements for new bills, so that a transportation bill can’t affect civil rights or international matters. Border cases are still a problem, though — on a patent law, does technology stimulus make sense?
  • An ombudsman group that can point at any draft legislation and say “nice try, but no.” They function as a check on the legislature. How to select them is tricky, since they could become a powerful obstructionist partisan group in their own right. If they were selected like Supreme Court justices, but able to be removed from power by a direct vote of the people, that could work. The removal could be delayed by a year so that it couldn’t be used to push through a block of actions.

Granted all of these ideas aren’t quite as radical as I had hoped, since they’re still grounded in the language and systems of a three-branch republic. I wonder what wacky government systems we could make from whole cloth with no preconceptions at all.

(The title of this post come from thinking how awesome it is that I’m allowed to post this kind of stuff on the internet. In a lot of countries, I wouldn’t.)

1 archived comment Why no more comments?
  1. George C Austin wrote:

    This post reminded me of two excellent pieces by Canadian writer and game designer Robin Laws on the US primary system: Primaries Unbalanced, Playtesters Complain and RTFM. Your post might take the cake, though.

    Posted February 1, 2009 at 12:38PM