An idea: A Wikipedia-like site for collaborative law drafting

Let me explain the idea first. I’ll get into why I love this idea further down.

I envision a public forum for the drafting of laws. “Crowd-sourced” is another way to describe it. The goal is to create turnkey legal text that can be incorporated into city, state, or federal law.

Basically a wiki… but a simple wiki isn’t sufficient. To be successful, structure is needed. Rules. Guidelines. A semi-rigid framework. A community where contributors can earn reputation and respect. These qualities have made Wikipedia and The Stack Exchange Network successful. The process and the people are the critical factors.

The main landing page would be a list of possible laws. Contributors would add a page for each law they want to draft, with each page divided into a few standard sections:

  • Goal – A sentence describing the desired outcome of the law in plain language.
  • Research – A list of research related to the law. Ideally from respectable independent sources. Contributors could provide commentary about the research, highlight potential flaws, dubious funding sources, etc. This commentary opens the door for misinformation and incivility, so an effective moderation system is vital. This section would also allow contributors to brainstorm ideas for future research that could be useful.
  • Existing examples – Similar laws might already exist, either at other levels of government or in other municipalities (including in other countries). It’s useful to reference them, discuss similarities and differences, and discuss research on their effects.
  • Full text – The full text of the law. An ability to annotate the text would be useful to allow contributors to provide additional context, pose questions, or make suggestions. Google Docs sidebar comments and suggestions are examples of similar functionality.

Why I love this idea

Why should legislators be the only ones drafting laws? Why shouldn’t ordinary citizens do it, too? We can certainly hope our elected representatives will do the work to enact the best laws for their constituents, but also their time is finite. It stands to reason that reducing their burden would allow them to accomplish more. If we want a law to be enacted then we should do what we can to help. We should do the research, draft the law, get feedback, iterate, and hand it off to legislators as a nice little ready-to-go package. Related: A description of how federal laws are created currently.

There’s nothing stopping people from drafting their own laws now, of course. As an example, Marion Hammer is a lobbyist in Florida for the NRA who writes laws and basically hands them off to state legislators to be voted on: “Hammer is not an elected official, but she can create policy, see it through to passage, and use government resources to achieve her aims.” That quote is from an article in The New Yorker. But there’s no framework for people to follow, no guide, no examples. And that’s a large barrier.

I have a tendency to think about this being used for federal laws, but the potential benefit at the state and local levels is greater. City council members are less likely to be career politicians and may not have much experience themselves. And local municipalities have fewer resources to lean on. Think of all the duplicate effort drafting, discussing, and revising similar laws in every city and state across the nation. I also would hope that having a central repository for laws would result in less variation across municipalities.

An advantage of a crowd-sourced approach is that it brings into the open a process that has tended to happen behind closed doors. I would hope that discussing issues in the open with a wide audience would encourage the creation of laws with broader appeal. And that less sound laws are identified and improved earlier in the process. And that making these improvements and having these discussions earlier in the process would streamline the final revising and voting.

Impediments to success

Lack of interest/uptake/momentum/critical mass

Making laws is hard and people don’t want to do it in their free time, that’s why we pay our representatives to do it. Would there really be people willing to spend time doing this? How do you spread the word about this and get people interested?

Joshua Tauberer, the creator of GovTrack wrote a thoughtful blog post warning people about thinking they can “fix” democracy. He even lists “have Americans draft legislation” as an example idea that won’t work. I think he makes valid points, but there’s a comment on that post that I like a lot: “It’s good, IMHO, to dream big about changing the world … It’s even possible that someday those big dreams could become reality. But not if you don’t dream them in the first place.”

And so I recognize that this might only be appealing to a very small number of people, and I think that’s ok.

Disagreements over what the law should be

This is a hard one. People have different opinions about what laws should and should not exist. Some people are in favor of the government paying unemployment benefits and some people are against it. Even two people who are both in favor of unemployment benefits might disagree on amounts, durations, eligibility, etc. I don’t have a solution for this. My only two suggestions are: people should try to use data to justify their beliefs, and people should focus their efforts on common ground (e.g. work on less contentious laws and leave the contentious ones to elected representatives).

Incivility

It’s easy to get emotional about politics. It can be hard to come to terms with other people’s opinions. It’s important for contributors to be civil, find common ground, and avoid polarizing issues.

Legalese is hard. Can we really expect average people to do a good job?

I’m not worried about this. Worst case the laws on the website would need more work before they’re ready. That isn’t any worse than what we have today. But I think people would learn over time how to write good laws. I think the community could create guidelines to help. And I think people with legal expertise could chip in.

What’s next?

I’d love to hear feedback about this! Does such a thing already exist? Are there reasons it would never work? I have very little insight into the legislative process, government, politics, etc… what things am I overlooking? I think it would work best as a non-profit. Is anyone aware of an existing non-profit where this would be a good fit?

I’ve thought about this idea for years and I love it, but I also currently have no intention of doing anything about it. So, uh, if you think this needs to happen then share this with your friends and talk people (and me) into working on it.

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