New Political Paradigm?

Micah Sifry

Is there a new political philosophy emerging from how we are doing things like open source software, Wikipedia, Kickstarter, peer-to-peer networking, sharing more and consuming less? Can "peer progressivism" get us past the stale debate between "big government" and "small government"? Should we replace the "welfare state" with the "partner state"?

Those are the sort of ideas we're looking forward to kicking around and perhaps refining during the session that Cara Pike and I are going to lead at Web of Change. With this post, I'm going to try to set the table and whet your appetite a bit.

For starters, here's a little quiz:

1. What do you think about funding for the arts?

a) I believe there should be no government funding for the arts;

b) I believe the board of the National Endowment for the Arts does a good job deciding who to give taxpayer money to;

c) I believe taxpayers should be given an "arts voucher" to use to support creative projects of their own choosing, a la Kickstarter.

2. Complete this sentence: Public works should be…

a) eliminated as much as possible; people should take care of themselves;

b) supported by taxes and chosen by experts and public officials to ensure that the money is spent wisely;

c) co-created by collaboration between public officials and the public, and paid for by a mix of taxes and crowdfunding. 

3. On education reform, do you support:

a) keeping public education the way it is now;

b) instituting performance-based pay, so the best teachers get rewarded for results;

c) turning schools into employee-owned businesses that share the awards of good results.

4. What do you think of government data?

a) I believe the government should collect as little data as possible on citizens or other entities like corporations;

b) I believe that only responsible government authorities like the police or other regulatory agencies with oversight responsibilities should have access to data collected on citizens and other entities like corporations;

c) I believe that data collected by government should be shared with the public as much as possible, without violating personal privacy or reasonable security considerations.

5. Imagine you're the mayor of a mid-sized city, and you want to enhance your downtown. Do you:

a) Fund big public works projects;

b) Give big tax-breaks to private developers;

c) Invite local teams of citizens to submit project ideas and hold participatory budgeting meetings to decide on what to build.

If you answered c) on one or more of these questions, you might be a "peer progressive," writer Steven Johnson's new term for people who believe in the power of open, collaborative peer-to-peer networking to achieve real social progress. You're wary of centralized control, whether that's in the hands of Big Government or Big Corporations or Big Labor, but you're not a free-market libertarian either. You think the way the Internet itself works--nobody owns it, everyone can connect to it, anyone can improve on it--might offer a model for solving other problems. And you're struck by how voluntary associations that are organized non-hierarchically for non-financial goals like love, or social solidarity, or a shared passion (like Wikipedia) can scale to the size of millions of participants.

Our questions for this workshop are first, does this resonate for you? And then second, can and should we try to frame more of our political choices around these kinds of questions, even build a movement for more "peer progressive" politics?

Right now in the US we have a bipolar political conversation that ranges from defense of government social programs to take care of the weakest among us, to the pursuit of a shrunken government where individuals are left to fend for themselves. Progressives are mostly playing defense: "Defend Social Security" "Defend Medicare," etc. Even if these are indeed vital social programs that alleviate poverty and suffering, the paradigm we're defending is "Pay More Taxes into Big Government, Get More Benefits (from Government Bureaucrats)."

Is that sufficient?

Most people actually don't want "big government" or "small government" but smarter and more effective government. Government that is on their side, not on their backs. Or, as theorist Michel Bauwens has phrased it, "A really thriving commons-based society requires a Partner State: a network of democratically-run for-benefit institutions that protect the common good on a territorial scale."

Some further reading:

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