Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Government through Technology

Princeton University Press, Forthcoming

Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 13-03

12 Pages Posted: 26 Jan 2013

Date Written: January 24, 2013


Accelerating Democracy shows how the increasing power of computation can transform government. Government has always depended on information to choose policies that have good results. But today information technology driven by increasing computational power is providing new tools to help predict the results of future policies even before they are implemented. These tools can help solve a problem as old as democracy itself: how society can unlock information dispersed among individuals so that we can make better decisions collectively. Or to put it as the ancients did, how does Athens know what Athenians know?

For instance, information markets — markets that permit all citizens to bet on the future events over the internet — predicted the vote shares of Obama and Romney better than the consensus forecast of polls. They could likely help foretell policy results just as they have foretold election results. We could then better predict the consequences of changes in educational policy on educational outcomes or a stimulus program on economic growth. In short, such markets would provide a visible hand to guide policy results. While we sometimes need government to regulate markets, we also need to devise markets to discipline government.

Because of ever greater computational capacity, researchers can also look at huge amounts of data about past policy and better determine what works and what does not. With our more sophisticated empirical tools, we can then assess the effect of their distinctive policies, gauging the degree to which gun control helps prevent crime or whether longer school hours improve student learning. These analyses in turn help us simulate the effects of future policies.

Thus, society contains within itself the dynamo for better policy making but only if we permit the computational revolution to wash through our democracy. Congress must eliminate laws against internet gambling that make for-profit prediction markets unworkable in the United States and put online proposed laws so that they can be evaluated before passage. The government must also create decentralized structures that help create and use big data. For instance, a signal advantage of charter schools is that they set individual policies which differ from one another. Even if some schools do not wholly succeed, their experiments provide data from which better policy can be made. And political reforms like ending gerrymandering and earmarking would force politicians to pay more attention to new information because they could no longer ride into office on the basis of party labels and pork barrel legislation. Accelerating Democracy also shows why a more information-rich politics is an urgent necessity. The same technological acceleration that provides new mechanisms for creating social knowledge also generates a wide range of innovations-- from nanotechnology to biotechnology to artificial intelligence. While some of these technologies may offer unparalleled benefits to mankind, they also may create catastrophic risks, such as rapid environmental degradation and new weapons of mass destruction. Only a democracy capable of assimilating facts will be able to navigate the policy rapids ahead. A society’s capacity for learning must match its capacity for change.

Keywords: information technology, predictions markets, empiricism, media, voting, public choice, political bias, campaign finance, decentralization, federalism

JEL Classification: K10, K19

Suggested Citation

McGinnis, John, Accelerating Democracy: Transforming Government through Technology (January 24, 2013). Princeton University Press, Forthcoming, Northwestern Law & Econ Research Paper No. 13-03, Available at SSRN:

John McGinnis (Contact Author)

Northwestern University - Pritzker School of Law ( email )

375 E. Chicago Ave
Chicago, IL 60611
United States
312-503-3235 (Phone)

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