Every year our phones get smarter, our cars safer, and our medical treatments more advanced. Inventors and entrepreneurs are constantly pushing back the limits of possibility to improve technology and make our lives better. But there is one important technology which is falling behind: government. The last major breakthrough was in 1787, and we’ve seen only slow, irregular progress since. Things improve in some areas, decline in others, and generally drift along without any noticeable trend.
It may seem strange to talk about government as a technology, but it helps us get a handle on the problem. Technologies are just ways of doing things. The technology of the car uses exploding gas to turn wheels and get us around faster; the technology of democracy uses the dispersed knowledge of citizens to reach collective decisions. To see why progress is so slow in government and find ways of accelerating it, we need to think about how technologies develop.
Technologies are driven by the ideas of smart people, but these ideas must be tested against reality. We never know for sure what will work ahead of time and must experiment to find the answers. In 1977, the head of DEC confidently stated that “there is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” He was spectacularly wrong, but his statement reflected the views of many at the time. If the development of computing had been centrally planned rather than progressing through decentralized experimentation, you would not be reading this now.
Decentralized experimentation revealed the many reasons to want a computer in your home and produced the technical means to make it a reality. Startups like Apple tested many ideas and those which proved successful were copied and refined by market leaders like IBM. Ideas coming from many sources produced a very innovative industry.
Political institutions are different from other technologies, of course. If the system of government in the United States changed from one day to the next — liberal democracy on Monday, communism on Tuesday — until we stumbled upon the right answer, life would not be very pleasant. The stakes are simply too high to make this sort of experimentation worthwhile. The fundamental difference between technological and political experimentation as we currently experience them is the level of risk. Failed technological experiments can be abandoned relatively easily; failed political experiments linger and can cause very serious problems.
If we could somehow unleash the entrepreneurial spirit upon government in a low-stakes environment, we would see progress without unacceptable levels of risk. Rules would constantly evolve in order to better meet citizens’ needs and respond to new knowledge and new opportunities.
Surely the advances of the last two centuries have enabled new forms of government. America’s founders were brilliant, but they didn’t have access to the discoveries we’ve made in the social sciences and could not have designed a political system based around the Internet. Expecting them to have designed the best political system for the 21st century is like expecting Alexander Graham Bell to have invented the iPhone.
In the past, frontiers have provided an outlet for institutional entrepreneurs — a place where they could test new ideas without overthrowing the old system or spilling blood. Pioneers such as the founding fathers took the lessons of the old world and built upon them in the new world. Good ideas — the compound republic, religious tolerance, and universal suffrage — were incorporated in European governments. Experimentation on the frontier produced progress.