“That government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth”

It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity for a nation’s citizenry. After being a net energy importer for its entire existence, dependent on receiving gas from its often hostile neighbors, heaven smiles down on that country as huge offshore natural gas fields are discovered. The people have reason to hope, finally, for both energy stability and lowered cost of living thanks to minimized home energy costs and a significant reduction in the cost of bringing locally-produced goods to market.

So what actually happens? The largest gas field remains undeveloped to provide the developers with ammunition against further government regulation, and the monopoly enjoyed by the companies running the operational gas field means no improvement in prices.

This is the situation right now in Israel, where Leviathan, the largest offshore natural gas discovery in the world in the past decade, looks to sit untapped for a full nine years after it was discovered. The government is scrambling to gain public support for a new plan for how to manage the natural gas market, after previous attempts to negotiate in secret with Noble and Delek, the primary developers for the site, led to widespread public protest and opposition from within the ruling coalition itself.

It’s enough to drive you crazy. Why is it so hard for government to find the means of turning great opportunities like this one into tangible benefits for its people? It makes you wonder whether government just isn’t the right decision-maker. Regulators can often be short-sighted in deciding what to allow and what to block. Politicians are inherently corruptible, or at least redirectable, and great opportunities like this one can turn either into an opportunity for personal enrichment or a means of gaining support necessary to staying in power. And let’s not forget: this is a legitimately complicated scenario, where a positive outcome requires involving companies with the technical and financial means needed (in this case, to develop a site 5100m (17000ft) below sea-level) while at the same time keeping potential monopolies in check in order to actually benefit the people.

What if it turns out that government isn’t actually the best means of managing a complex market like this one? What if the people as a whole, using their collective wisdom, could do a better job? Maybe President Abraham Lincoln’s famous charge at the conclusion of his Gettysburg Address – “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” – could be the guiding principle here. If you want to make sure governmental decisions are truly “for the people” – meaning doing as much as possible to advance the interests of the citizenry as a whole – maybe the best way to do that is letting the decisions be made “by the people.”

The July 5th Greek referendum on their collapsing economy is one interesting test of this idea.

Last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision offers an additional case study. Not the gay marriage or health care decisions that have dominated the news, but the decision about redistricting that you probably paid no attention to. State legislatures generally are the ones deciding how to create the borders of the districts electing members of the House of Representatives in Washington. In recent years, there’s been a lot of gerrymandering, meaning redrawing the district lines in often bizarre-looking ways designed to give candidates from one party (the one doing the gerrymandering) a much better chance of getting elected. A second, more fundamental objection is that gerrymandering leaves most districts with such a clear ideological majority in one direction or another that people’s vote no longer matters.

A number of states, Arizona among them, decided to stop this practice of partisan redistricting. Instead, the people as a whole voted to take the power to set district borders away from the legislators and give it to an independent commission. The Arizona legislators sued, and that’s the case heard by the Supreme Court, Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission.

The Court ruled that when the Constitution gave the power to draw district borders to the “legislature,” there’s no reason that has to mean the elected representatives. It means legislative power, the power to make the laws. That power is ultimately in the hands of the people, and they can choose who they want to exercise it on their behalf. In this case, they chose a nonpartisan commission.

Whether the people of Arizona’s decision to create this commission actually improved the quality of their democracy and their lives or not, the Court decision in effect acknowledges the point that there can be collective wisdom, even in governance. In effect, collective wisdom can even extend to deciding who should decide – the government or the people.

In order to make the decisions that are actually the best “for the people,” sometimes what you need isn’t government by the government, what you need is government “by the people.”

Mike SchultzJuly 3, 2015

Mike Schultz

I am a contributing author who writes about crowd wisdom. I love reading broadly and synthesizing diverse sources of wisdom, but it's so cool when you realize the crowd itself does that even better.