Better Policy Through Better Information

Berin Szoka’s essay asks the right question – Can Internet activism work? – and wisely reaches out to political theory for an answer. It is the lack of such a realistic theory that leads to ungrounded optimism or pessimism about the new medium. Mr. Szoka’s analysis turns on Mancur Olson’s insight that concentrated interest groups have lower information and organization costs than diffuse ones. As a result, concentrated groups pursuing narrow and selfish interests can gain benefits from the state at the expense of more diffuse groups pursuing broader goals, like economic growth or good education for children.

Mr. Szoka is importantly correct that the Internet can help redress the balance between special and more encompassing interests by reducing the cost of accessing information. Such reduction redounds to the advantage of diffuse groups more than concentrated groups because reduced costs can temper the former groups’ larger problems of coordination. The potential of better information technologies to empower the relatively powerless can be best gauged by the reaction of the powerful, like authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian leaders together with their band of supporters themselves constitute a potent special interest group that lives off the state. Fearing that more information may enable citizens to better organize to attack their privileges, they have tried to restrict emerging technologies of free communication as long as these technologies have been around. Today, Iran and Syria shut down the internet when they are threatened. Years ago, many nations refused to license the printing press.

In a democratic state like ours, the primary interest groups are not authoritarian cliques, but private actors, like public sector unions and trade associations, which have the leverage to pressure politicians to use public power on their behalf. And, like authoritarian leaders, such groups are desperate to avoid transparency to retain their benefits. A case in point is the opposition of teachers’ unions to publishing evaluations of schools and teachers on the Internet. And many interest groups have tried to prevent laws requiring Internet disclosure of campaign contributions.

But the Internet does more to help diffuse groups than merely to improve access to information. Along with other new technologies of the digital age, it improves the quality of information—a development that also benefits the pursuit of encompassing interests. We know already that many individuals act not only in their narrow self-interest, but also for common goals, like faster growth and better education. Thus, political scientists have consistently found that most people vote based on mixture of what they think is good for the country and what they think is good for themselves.

Yet the results of policies are contestable. And it is often hard for citizens who are distracted by many enterprises more interesting than politics to find good information about policies’ likely outcomes. Most people also have a better intuitive sense of how policies will affect their short-term interests than the long-term interests of society, even if the long-term effects may be of great personal as well as social benefit. Thus, citizens are less likely to organize and vote for encompassing interests when they are unsure of the policy instruments to achieve them. But the more easily citizens can discover policies that likely work, the more likely are they to organize and vote for such common goals.

The Internet provides an important mechanism of such social discovery. Because of the greater space and interconnections that the Internet makes available, web-based media, like blogs, can be dispersed and specialized and yet connected with the wider world. As a result of this more decentralized and competitive media, the web generates both more innovative policy ideas and better explanations of policy than were available when mainstream media dominated the flow of political discussion. Specialized blogs can address policy issues with a level of sophistication and depth that the mainstream media never could achieve. In my own field of law, the web hosts scores of widely read blogs, often with a quite particular focus, from tax law to contracts, from empirical studies to law and economics.

Such specialized media improve our knowledge of the policy world by energizing and disciplining those who believe they have knowledge. First, specialized media deepen substantive knowledge. Experts participating in specialized media that are closely followed by their peers gain greater incentives to explain policy effects carefully and with nuance. It is not that experts will all agree, but they will try to avoid obvious mistakes and respond to counterarguments. In this world of intense scrutiny, scholars will suffer blows to their reputation if they fail to engage in careful self-monitoring.

Second, as Glenn Reynolds has noted, more mainstream media then takes up the best of the blogs. For instance, Economix, the economics blog of the New York Times, regularly reports on economic ideas from academics and other experts—ideas often at odds with its editorial page. The reporter’s beat is as much the online world as the physical world. Thus, the Internet has become a vast funnel of information that allows specialized but politically salient ideas to course through the wider world in a form in which they can be more readily understood.

The very nature of the Internet’s interconnections encourages a grounding of argument in facts. The reporter links to the academic article he cites, just as the academic may link to the data set on which she relies. More generally, when one side makes factual claims that are crucial to its argument, the other side has incentives to show that those claims are not true. Hyperlinks nest policy in the facts that support them.

Importantly, the same computational revolution that has created the Internet is creating other information technologies that are force multipliers for the Internet’s capacity to increase political knowledge. Exponentially increasing computer power is rapidly improving empiricism—the careful statistical analysis of policies consequences. The Internet also makes possible prediction markets—markets where people can trade on the outcomes of policy decisions. Prediction markets incentivize those who know to bet on the contestable outcomes of policies like tax cuts or stimulus programs. The results pool the information of the dispersed citizenry and helps America know what Americans know.

Along with the Internet, these other information technologies can greatly improve our assessment of policy instruments to achieve common goals. But for the new digital information revolution to achieve its potential, government has to act to let the new technologies wash through our politics. For instance, Congress needs to remove the laws that make domestic prediction markets largely illegal. The President should encourage agencies to conduct randomized trials to allow empiricists to test what policies work. The Supreme Court should make sure that laws protecting journalists do not discriminate against bloggers and should relax campaign finance restrictions to help information technologies deliver political information at the time citizens most pay attention—during election campaigns.

The synergy of information technologies made possible by the ongoing computational revolution can transform politics today, just as the printing press did in its day. Empiricism helps us understand the consequences of past policies. Prediction markets then combine this empirical expertise with information dispersed throughout society, translating that compound into numbers that can command attention when publicized on the Internet. The combination of such technologies can also slowly shift social and political culture. Empiricists become more valuable than theorists at universities. Politicians gain more support for being driven by data rather than grandiloquent claims.

In short, over time the Internet and allied aspects of the computational revolution can create more focused and more accurate knowledge about the consequences of social policies. This knowledge in turn can help more citizens focus more on what they have in common—their shared goals and policies that may achieve them—rather than on the unsupported intuitions or personal circumstances that may divide them. Of course, some citizens will remain ideologues, impervious to updating on the facts. But democracy moves by changing the middle, not the extremes. Like other mechanisms that increase common knowledge, the Internet can give wing to the better angels of our nature.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Berin Szoka surveys recent developments in Internet activism. The 2009 Green Revolution in Iran may have failed, but activists in the United States defeated SOPA, a bill that would have imposed significant restrictions on the Internet. Szoka concludes that the Internet helps solve a significant problem in activism: It makes it easier for like-minded people to provide reputational feedback about corporations and governments. Still, we must pay close attention to the fact that governments can and do manipulate the Internet to repress their populations.

Response Essays

  • Jason Benlevi argues that digital activism rarely gets the kind of results that real-world activism can. In any conflict, reality usually beats virtuality. Though he is no Luddite — and though he has a career record to prove it — Benlevi argues that online activism is often a hostage to the medium that carries it. That medium, in turn, exists in the real world, where it is controlled by corporations and governments. Social media activism is at its strongest when it does what the medium was designed to do — provide consumer feedback on corporate products. It’s not so effective at challenging oppressive governments.

  • Rebecca MacKinnon urges a close attention to the particularities of time and place. Protest movements are more and more using social media, but they may stand or fall based on other factors. Laws and Internet architectures may vary, rendering the medium more or less conducive to citizen activism. It becomes increasingly important to pay attention to what makes for good or bad Internet law, because the results in this area may prompt virtuous or vicious cycles throughout society.

  • John O. McGinnis argues that the Internet and associated technologies can and will change the terrain on which policy choices are made. Not only does it become easier for dispersed interests to aggregate, but information technology can also shift the focus of our political culture. Empiricism and evidence will become relatively more important as facts become easier to check; ideology and unsupported intuition will lose a good deal of power. For these reasons, McGinnis is an optimist.