The case for compulsory public service

It occurred to me recently that as citizens we seldom discuss the requirements of a healthy social fabric which is essential for a democracy. We somehow expect miracles from our governments while the most we expect from ourselves as citizens is to vote every four years and pay our taxes.The working assumption is that improving a democracy is either impossible or the job of politicians. Everybody else can just chill back and watch Netflix videos. I’m not sure this can continue.

Perhaps it’s unfair to use the term ‘everybody’. After all a significant fraction of the US and UK population volunteer in some form at least once month. However, this fraction is still smaller than 30% in both the UK and USA. What if less than 30% of the population paid taxes?

At this point, you might wonder what difference can volunteering make? I’ll get to that point but first allow me to share an observation I’ve made while visiting many small towns around Britain.

In each town I would talk to people of all ages including elderly British people who would invariably complain about how the internet has changed their community. A particularly pernicious consequence of the internet culture is that it has allowed society to become transactional to the detriment of important social bonds. Where in the pre-internet era there might have been lively conversations between shopkeepers and customers, today people might get whatever they need on Amazon or have their supermarket goods home-delivered.

This results in social fragmentation which makes the notion of ‘shared values’ farcical. As a result, the populations of Europe and the USA are not only socially stratified in the present, but their future expectations of society are that socioeconomic divisions will deepen. Now, I believe that community service can offer an important partial solution to this problem. In particular, I believe that weekly community service should be a precondition for citizenship.

Personally, I’ve been helping kids learn programming for free at Prewired on a weekly basis but that’s just one way of building a sense of community that isn’t socially stratified in its outlook. I think a lot more needs to be done and the only way for a sense of community to be restored within cities is if every citizen acknowledged the importance of volunteering once a week within their community.

I understand that a lot of people will try to resist this idea. Many will complain that they are too busy. People will try to find all sorts of excuses and argue that there are bigger issues. It’s my fear that people will look for excuses until Western democracies become polarised beyond repair.

Note: I have a lot of respect for the DiEM25 movement led by Yanis Varoufakis and it’s my belief that community service is a necessary complement for this ambitious agenda.

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Democracy 2.0

September 11 was a global disaster by any measure. While it cost Al Qaeda half a million dollars to plan and execute this mission, the combined response of the US military and Homeland security exceeded 3 trillion dollars. That 6 million to 1 cost-benefit ratio captures the asymmetric nature of the Western ‘war on terror’ very well.

However, the profound psychological impact of terrorism is much more clearly reflected by the growing populist movements in Western Europe and the USA which have chosen muslim immigrants as the perfect scapegoat. As much as I would like to understand the real problems faced by those backing Le Pen and Trump it’s clear that the populist ‘solution’ will only increase the probability of homegrown terrorism. Hereon, my intention is to analyse these problems and present a solution.

The underlying problems:

First, I must say that war is probably the dumbest possible solution to a very complex problem. Second, the current efforts to monitor homegrown terrorism won’t solve the underlying problem which is that the social fabric in Western countries is broken both socially and economically. While a democracy needs a strong middle class and citizens that have shared values, in Western countries both of these pillars are in peril today.

A foolish resistance:

In the USA, the symptoms of a broken social fabric can’t be made clearer by a ‘Resist’ movement, led by well-off intellectuals and businessmen, which defines itself by vilifying Trump supporters. No doubt globalisation and technological unemployment are playing an important role in this socioeconomic divide and it’s only by addressing these underlying problems that we shall find a solution. Amplifying deep socioeconomic divisions via virulent rhetoric, as practised by the ‘Resistance’, will only lead to greater social unrest.

DIY weapons of mass destruction:

Meanwhile, the risks posed by important social unrest are growing as the development of DIY bioweapons becomes easier with each passing year. In 2016 alone, France had more than 10 terrorist attacks. Most of these involved knives but what if biological weapons were used instead? Furthermore, if we consider the number of mass shootings in the USA every year, it’s clear that the threat isn’t strictly Islamist in nature.

As technology becomes more powerful it also leaves a smaller margin for human error. While a knife might allow a person to harm a few others, a bioweapon can potentially allow a few people to eliminate an entire ethnic group, effectively committing genocide. Moreover, due to the dual-use nature of these technologies we can’t ban their development and for this reason we must work seriously towards greater social cohesion. We don’t have another option.

Democracy 2.0:

After thinking carefully about these problems, I propose the following:

  1. Negative income tax: this would address the problem of economic inequality posed by technological unemployment.
  2. Compulsory public service: this would address the problem of a decaying social fabric.

The first solution might seem self-explanatory but the second solution occurred to me empirically, while visiting small towns around Britain. In each town I would talk to shopkeepers who would invariably complain about how the internet had a negative effect on their business. However, a more pernicious consequence of the internet culture is that it has allowed society to become transactional to the detriment of important social bonds. Where in the pre-internet era there might have been lively conversations between shopkeepers and customers, today people might get whatever they need on Amazon or have their supermarket goods home-delivered.

While we expect miracles from our governments the most we expect from ourselves as citizens is to vote every four years and pay our taxes. Clearly, this can’t continue. If everybody volunteered an hour or two every week for community service, we could rebuild an important sense of community, and therein lies the solution. Personally, I’ve been helping kids learn programming at Prewired on a weekly basis but that’s just one way of building a sense of community that isn’t socially stratified in its outlook.

Conclusion:

Finally, I’d like to emphasise that it’s definitely within our ability as humans to solve these problems and I believe that these challenges will ultimately drive us to build stronger communities and become better people.

Note 1: If you consider my message important, please share it with your friends and colleagues, either by sharing my post or your version of it.

Note 2: I think that in order to address these issues we’ll have to work collectively, as humans, to address these considerable challenges in an intelligent manner.

The probability that democracy works

We are told that a large number of people opting for a certain choice(ex. a candidate in an election) represents near-certainty that this choice meets necessary and sufficient criteria. No particular person needs to understand how a country works if a lot of people who understand different functions of a country cast a vote on the matter…the aggregate decision represents the closest thing to a complete picture. 

Let’s make the following assumptions:
1. The ideal candidate must satisfy  n equally important criteria and we assume that this candidate is present among the existing candidates. 

2. There are  N voters where  N \gg n and each voter has partial knowledge of the  n necessary criteria. In particular, we assume that each voter is aware of at least one criterion and their knowledge of these criteria is given by a uniform distribution.

From the above assumptions it follows that the probability that the correct candidate is chosen is approximately 1-\sum_{k=1}^{n-1} {n \choose k} (\frac{k}{n})^N .  In theory this is good. However, there are some problems with our theory. 

The first problem is that ‘choice’ of criteria is highly correlated within social groups. Second, the definition of equally-important criteria is problematic. Some criteria like the role of government in tech innovation are more complex than others which means that knowledge of criteria is probably given by a gamma distribution rather than a uniform distribution. Finally, the appropriate candidate might not exist among the set of available candidates.

Now, I think the only way for society to move closer to a system where voting works is to change the current education system. Using uniform grading requirements, students are taught to attain knowledge by consensus which merely encourages groupthink. The necessary alternative is to encourage inquiry-driven learning.

This could come in the form of open-ended competitions, like the Harvard Soft Robotics competition that I’m participating in, or working on projects within Fab Labs/Hacker Spaces. In any case, society will have to shift from skill-based employment to innovation-driven employment due to the growing number of tasks that can be automated. People will be paid for their imagination rather than their time and I believe that in 15 years time sheets will all but disappear. 

If we want a democracy that works and not merely the theatrical nonsense that passes for democracy today, radical changes to the education system will be required at all levels. 

Note 1: The probability calculation can be much more complicated depending upon your assumptions.

Note 2: For the reader that’s interested in my opinion on Hacker Spaces, you may read more here